I can still remember being a child and listening to talks and sermons on this chapter from the book of Genesis. It’s a very vivid story and the account of how Abraham was stopped in the nick of time from sacrificing his son is truly memorable. As a child I thought it was a thrilling story and perhaps there are some here today who can remember being captivated by this story from a very early age. Well, when I was at secondary school, doing my A Levels, we studied a number of what are called Medieval Miracle Plays as part of my English Literature course. And I remember one of the Miracle Plays was based on the story of Abraham and Isaac. And that play — which my old English teacher made us read — gave me a new perspective on this chapter. I began to notice how chapter 22 is written to move us emotionally. There a poignancy about this passage, as Abraham takes his beloved son up the mountain. Look at verse 2, for instance. God called to Abraham and said to him:
Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.
Do you see? God was saying:
Take your one and only son, who is so very dear to you, and offer him up to me. Take your precious son.
Think of how this command must have caused Abraham so much distress and anguish, because he loved his son, but he also loved the Lord and wanted to do his will.
Then we have verse 7 where Isaac speaks and says:
Those two words speak of the affection between the boy and his father. There’s absolute trust there. And there’s love. And Isaac asks his father about the animals to be used for the sacrifice and Abraham replies in verse 8 that God will provide the lamb, my son. Again, there’s that affection and closeness between an elderly father and his beloved son.
In verse 9 we read how Abraham bound his son and laid him on the altar. And the action really slows down now. If this were a movie, this part might be in slow motion so that every single movement is emphasised. Abraham built the altar. Then he arranged the wood. They he bound his son. Then he placed his son on the altar. Then he reached out his hand and he took the knife in his hand and he raised his hand and got ready to slay his son. It all slows down. And with every movement Abraham makes, it must have been as if a knife was piercing his own heart as he looked down on his beloved son, lying there, all tied up beneath him, helpless.
But then — finally — the voice from heaven comes:
Don’t lay a hand on the boy!
And so, my English teacher showed us how moving this story is and how it’s written to move us so that we feel something of Abraham’s sadness and distress and the pain he was experiencing because of his obedience to God’s command.
Outrageous and unsettling
So this is a thrilling and memorable story. And it’s a very moving story. But this is also a story which many, many people think is outrageous. To many it’s outrageous that God for to demand that Abraham should slaughter his son. You know:
What kind of God is he that he should ask a father to kill his child? It’s outrageous.
And so, for many people this is not a thrilling story, or a moving story, but an outrageous story.
And for others, it’s a deeply unsettling story. What if God were to ask me to do something like this? What if God were to make a similar kind of demand on me? And then people wonder why God asked Abraham to do this; and they wonder:
Was it because Abraham loved his child too much?
I’ve heard sermons and talks that suggested this. God wanted to see whether Abraham loved God more than he loved his son. And so God was testing Abraham to see if he’d made an idol of Isaac, loving him more than he loved God. And so it unsettles us. What if God wanted to test me like that? What would he ask me to give up? Who would I have to give up to prove my devotion to God?
But here’s the thing. If you find this an unsettling passage, ask yourself this question: How does God reveal his will to his people today? In Abraham’s day, it was easy. God spoke to Abraham. Look at verse 1:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham, Abraham’.
Do you see? God just spoke to Abraham. Or turn back to chapter 18 and there we see how God actually visited Abraham. God and two angels came to Abraham’s tent and they ate a meal and they spoke together. Or back in chapter 15, we’re told that God spoke to Abraham in a vision. So there you are. In Abraham’s day, God revealed his will through visions and through personal appearances and through speaking directly to Abraham. Is that how God reveals his will today? Well no. Not ordinarily. God reveals his will to us today through the Bible. The Bible is God’s word to us. It’s God-breathed, said the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy. And it’s useful — said Paul — for teaching us and rebuking us and for correcting us and for training us in righteousness. It’s useful for teaching us — among other things — about God’s will. So if we want to know what God’s will is for us, we should turn to our Bibles and we see there what he wants us to believe about himself and what he wants us to do as his people. In the Bible, he reveals the gospel to us, so that we might believe it and have eternal life. And in the Bible, he reveals his laws to us, so that we know what it is he commands us to do and what he forbids us from doing. This is how God speaks to us today. He reveals his will to us through the written word of God, the Bible.
So, what has he revealed to us in his written word about our children? What does the Bible say to us about how we should treat our children? Well, in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, fathers are commanded not to exasperate their children, but to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. In Paul’s letter to the Colossions, fathers are commanded not to embitter their children or they will become discouraged. God says to us in his word:
Don’t exasperate your children. Don’t discourage them.
What’s he saying? He’s saying:
Take care of your children. Love them. Encourage them. Be gentle with them … and bring them up to adulthood, teaching them to love and trust the Lord.
And, of course, we have the Lord Jesus’s own example. Remember how his disciples were shooing away the parents who wanted to bring their children to Jesus And Jesus stopped his disciples and said:
Let the little children come to me.
And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and he blessed them.
If we turn to God’s word today and ask ‘What is God’s will for me with regard to my children?’, then the Bible is clear that God’s will for us is that we cherish our children and love them dearly and bring them up to know the Lord.
So, what does that tell us about Genesis 22 and God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son? It tells us, surely, that Genesis 22 is a special case. The events of Genesis 22 are unique. What God asked Abraham to do is something that he does not ask of anyone else. And so those who are unsettled by this story should understand that what we have here is a special case, because God’s will for us is to love our children and to care for them.
And the fact that this is a special case should help those who are outraged by this story, because this special case is recorded for a special purpose. And the fact that Isaac was set free in the end teaches us that it was never, never God’s intention for Isaac to die. God wants us to cherish our children. He wants us to love our children. And so this special case is for a special purpose.
So what is this special purpose? What was God trying to do by asking Abraham to sacrifice his child? Well, look at verse 1. It tells us that some time later — that is, some time later after Isaac’s birth — God tested Abraham. This was a test. It was a trial. God was trying to uncover something about Abraham.
So what was it about Abraham that he wanted to test? Well, one possible suggestion is that God wanted to test what the apostle Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’. That is, God was testing whether or not Abraham trusted God enough in order to obey his word. Would Abraham obey God’s command to sacrifice his child by trusting that God knew what he was doing? God gives this very strange and very demanding command:
Take your son and sacrifice him.
And Abraham could think:
Well, this seems very strange. I have no idea why God wants me to do this. I haven’t a clue how this is going to work out. But I trust God implicitly and I know that he knows what he’s doing and that his purposes are always good and pleasing and perfect. So I’ll do it.
Now, we have an example of this, way back in Genesis 12. Do you remember? God commanded Abraham to leave his father’s home and to go to the land that God was going to show him. And Abraham went. Now, it may have seemed a strange commandment. And a demanding one. He didn’t know where he was going. But he went, because he was trusting in God and in God’s promise to make him into a great nation and to give him the land and to bring blessing on all the nations of the world through his descendant. Because he believed God’s promised, Abraham obeyed God’s command.
So is that what we have in Genesis 22? That Abraham obeyed God’s command, because he believed God’s promise and trusted in God? Well, there are certainly verses in the passage that emphasise Abraham’s obedience and his faith. Look, for instance, at verse 3. God had given Abraham the command, and early the next morning Abraham got everything ready and he set off. In other words, verse 3 emphasises Abraham’s obedience. Then look at verse 5. They’re getting close to the mountain. So Abraham told his servants to stop and wait. And they’re to stop and wait for what? For Abraham and the boy to return. Abraham was expressing his faith. He believed that somehow, he and his son would both survive what was going to happen and they would return to the servants and all would be well. After all, hadn’t God promised Abraham that a nation would come from Isaac? Hadn’t God promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring? Well, Abraham believed God’s promise. So, even though God was now commanding him to kill his son, he believed that somehow his son would survive, because God had promised that a nation would come from Isaac.
So verse 3 is about Abraham’s obedience and verse 5 is about his faith. He’s able to obey God’s command, because he believed God’s promises. And then we have verse 6 which is about his obedience. He takes the wood, the fire, his knife and his son and he continues on to the mountain. So, that’s his obedience again. And verse 8 reveals his faith again: He believed that somehow God will provide what was needed for the sacrifice.
And then in verse 9 we see his obedience again: he arrived at the mountain and built the altar and he arranged the wood, and he bound up his son and he took the knife. And he was prepared to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. And he was prepared to obey God, because he trusted God and he trusted in God’s promises concerning his son. This passage shows us that faith and obedience go together. Those who believe God and trust in his promises are able to obey him.
And that’s important. You see, Abraham is known throughout the Bible for his faith. He’s presented to us as an example of one who believed all of God’s promises to him. He’s the spiritual father of all believers, and we’re all meant to share his faith in the Lord Jesus. However, as the Reformers used to say, though we are justified through faith alone, though we are pardoned by God and accepted by God through faith alone, true faith is never alone. True faith always lead to obedience. The true believer not only believes, but he also obeys. And a person’s obedience, or a person’s good deeds, are the fruit and the evidence of a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.
This doctrine is clearly seen in the life of Abraham, because not only did he believe God’s promises, but he was willing to obey God’s commands. Because he believed what God has promised him about Isaac, he was therefore willing and able to obey God’s commmand concerning Isaac. Because he believed God when God said that a great nation would come from Isaac, he therefore was prepared to obey the Lord and offer his son as a sacrifice. We’re justified through faith alone, but true faith is never alone. Abraham not only believed, but he also obeyed; and his obedience demonstrated that he really believed.
And that’s so important, because one of the perennial problems in the church is the idea that the law plays no part in the Christian life and we needn’t worry about obeying God, now that Christ has died for us. People say that, since God is a God of grace, and since we’re justified — pardoned and accepted — by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone, then we can live as we like, and do as we please, because we’re no longer under the law. And it sounds so attractive, doesn’t it?
I can do as I like, and it will make no difference to my standing before God! So, I can sin and sin and sin again, and God will pardon me.
And whenever a faithful believer dares to suggest to such a person that instead we should try to obey God’s law, that believer is accused of being a legalist.
But, of course, those who think like this are quite wrong. A legalist is someone who thinks we’re justified before God by keeping the law. But the true believer doesn’t believe that, and the Bible doesn’t teach that. The Bible teaches we’re justified by grace and through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by keeping the law. So, the true believer is not a legalist.
However, the true believer also understands that once we’ve been justified by grace alone and through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, once we’ve been pardoned by God, and accepted into his family, then we must go on to seek to obey the Lord and to do his will and to keep his commandments. Through faith, we’re adopted into God’s family, and as God’s children, we’ll want to obey him. And since, through faith, we’re united to Christ, then we receive from him the help we need to resist sin more and more and to obey him more and more.
And we see this here in the life of Abraham. Abraham believed God’s promises. He was a believer and was therefore justified — pardoned and accepted — by grace alone through faith alone. But he was a believer who wanted to obey the Lord and to do his will. And when the Lord revealed that his will for Abraham was for Abraham to sacrifice his son, then he was prepared to do it.
So, what about you? God will never ask you to sacrifice your children. But in his word, he has given us his laws to guide us in how to live our life. He says to us:
This is the way I want you to live. This is what I want you to do. This is my will for you.
And if we say ‘no’ to him, and if we only live to please ourselves, then people will look at us and will say of us:
Although that person professes to believe, I don’t see any evidence of it in his life. What he says he believes and what he does, they don’t match.
But then there’s another person, who professes to believe. But this person, as well as claiming to believe, also endeavours to do God’s will, and she tries to obey God’s laws. She doesn’t do it perfectly, but her desire is to obey the Lord and she wants — more than anything — to do her Father’s will. And people will look at her, and the life she lives, and they will say:
What she says she believes and what she does, they match. I can see by the way she lives that she really does love the Lord.
Do you see? That willingness to obey, that desire to do God’s will, is the fruit and the evidence of a true and living faith. So, we see in the life of Abraham how faith and obedience go together.
However, while we learn something in this passage about faith and obedience, or the obedience of faith, that’s not what the test was about. God wanted to test Abraham, but he wasn’t testing his faith and obedience. What do I mean? Well, if that was what God was testing, then the story could have ended at verse 11. By verse 11 it was clear that Abraham was prepared to obey God’s commandment to kill his son and he was able to obey, because he trusted in God. That’s all clear by verse 11. So God could have stopped him, right there and told him to go home with the boy. He’d passed the test. However, the story doesn’t end at verse 11. In verse 13 God showed Abraham the ram and Abraham took the ram and completed the sacrifice. Why?
And then look at verse 12. What did the angel of the Lord say? He said to Abraham:
Now I know that you fear God.
You see, that’s the test. The test wasn’t about Abraham’s faith and obedience. The test was whether or not Abraham feared God. Did he understand that God is a holy God whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil? Did he understand that God is perfectly pure and holy and that no one who is sinful can enter into his presence without first offering up a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath? Did he understand that?
So God set him a test. He said in verse 2:
Bring me a burnt offering.
Now, a burnt offering was presented to God in order to make atonement for sin. It was offered to God in order to reconcile guilty sinners to a righteous and holy God. God would accept the sacrifice as payment for our sins and therefore pardon the sinner. So God says to Abraham:
Bring me a burnt offering. I’m a holy God and you’re a sinner. And my eyes are too pure to look upon sin. Sinners cannot live in my presence. So bring me a burnt offering, so that my righteous wrath will be appeased and we can be reconciled and live in peace with one another.
Well, what should Abraham offer? What can he give to make up for all his sins and his disobedience? What can he give to appease God?
Well, bring the most precious thing that you have. Bring me your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love. Bring me your most precious son and offer him to me.
That’s the test. And Abraham passed the test. He understood that God is a holy God and that we cannot enter into his presence without a sacrifice. And so Abraham brought the sacrifice and laid him out on the altar and was ready to offer up to God the most precious thing he had. But God stopped him. And God stopped him, because Isaac wasn’t enough. Isaac was the most precious thing that Abraham had. He was his son, his only son, whom he loved. But the most precious thing that Abraham had wasn’t enough to cover over all of Abraham’s sin and guilt and shame. He wasn’t enough. And we can think of the most precious thing we have. The thing that’s most dear to us. The person who is most precious to us. And whatever it is, it’s not enough to reconcile us to God. Our sin is so great, our guilt is so deep, our disobedience is so offensive to Almighty God, that the most precious thing we have is not enough to cover over our guilt and to pay for our sins. There’s nothing we can offer God. Nothing at all.
But we keep trying, don’t we? We offer him our good deeds. We offer him our devotion. We offer him our commitment. We offer him our zeal and dedication. ‘Look what I’ve done for you’, we say to him.
Look at all that I’ve done in your name. Surely that must make you pleased with me?
But it’s never enough.
Well, maybe someone wants to object and say:
Sure look. In the end, all Abraham had to offer was a ram. That’s all.
But no. The ram was only to fill in. The blood of bulls and goats and rams and lambs is not able to cover over our sin. All of the sacrifices we read about in the Old Testament were only to fill in until the time came when another beloved Son climbed a hill, carrying wood on his back. Jesus Christ climbed up to Calvary, carrying his cross on his back, and there he was killed, as a sacrifice to pay for all our sins and to reconcile us to God. Nothing else was enough. Nothing else was sufficient. Only the death of God’s one and only Son is sufficient to bring us to God.
And so at the cross we see the depth and the reality and the seriousness of our guilt, for there was nothing else that was sufficient to cover over our sin and guilt apart for the death of Christ. Nothing else would do to satisfy God’s perfect and righteous justice and holiness. And at the cross we see the greatness and the glory and the wonder of God’s love, for at the cross God the Father took his Son, his only Son, Jesus, whom he loved, and gave him up for us. And so now, for the sake of Jesus Christ his Son, God promises to forgive us all that we have ever done wrong, and he promises to bring us into his family, and to guard us and to keep us and to bring us at last to be with him for ever and ever. He promises all of this to us. And in order to receive this salvation, he doesn’t require anything from us, nothing at all, because, instead of doing something in order to get it, instead of having to offer him something in order to pay for it, all we need to do in order to receive it, is to believe in his Son, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
So, Genesis 22 teaches us that we’re justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith alone in Jesus Christ, who gave himself as the once-for-all, never-to-be repeated, perfect sacrifice for our sins. There is nothing we can offer to God in order to be saved. And instead we must rely on Jesus Christ, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice.
But then, in his chapter, we’re taught that faith and obedience go together. Because Abraham believed God’s promises, he was willing and able to obey God’s commands, because obedience to God’s law is the fruit and evidence of a true and living faith.
Well, Abraham was taught that there was nothing he could offer to God to make up for his sins. But, here’s a final question: Is there anything we can offer to God now? While we can’t offer him anything to make up for our sins, nevertheless is there anything we can offer to God in order to show him our love and gratitude?
Well, we’re studying the book of Romans on Wednesday evenings. And it’s going to be a while before we get to Romans 12. But Romans 12 begins with Paul saying that we’re to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. In other words, instead of offering to God a dead sacrifice, we’re to give him ourselves, to love him and to serve him every day.
If you go around some old churches, you’ll see signs on various bits of furniture, saying: ‘Dedicated to God’s glory’. You know, this piano, dedicated to God’s glory. This window, dedicated to God’s glory. This clock, dedicated to God’s glory. Well, there ought to be a sign on us, printed on our head, saying:
Dedicated to God’s glory.
We’re to dedicate ourselves, our life, to God’s glory. That’s the kind of offering we’re to make to God now. And the reason we want to dedicate our lives to God’s glory, is because we’re so grateful to God, and we love him so much, because he gave up his one and only, his precious son, so that we might live.