The Ultimate Test
June 30, 1996
Several times in this sermon series I have pointed out that a particular portion of Abraham’s story is well-known to the people of the world. For instance, many people know about Abraham and Sarah leaving Ur of the Chaldees at the ages of 75 and 65 respectively, not knowing where they were going. The story of the miraculous birth of Isaac is likewise well-known as is the tragic story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This stories transcend religion and become a part of the larger culture because they touch on universal themes of adventure, birth, death, judgment, personal choice, and sexual morality.
However, there is one story in the record of Abraham’s life that towers above all the rest. Nothing else can be compared with it. I speak of Abraham offering his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. If you are a parent, this story cannot fail to grip your heart. F. B. Meyer wrote,
So long as men are in the world, they will turn to this story with unwaning interest. This is only one scene in history by which it is surpassed: that where the Great Father gave His Isaac to a death from which there ws no deliverance. (F. B. Meyer, Abraham: The Obedience of Faith, p. 167, cited in Boice, pp. 217-218)
Problems With This Story
In reading this story we face several problems. The first and largest deals with the issue of God’s character. How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only Son? Some critics have dismissed the story on the grounds that it presents a grotesque caricature of the God of the Bible. Perhaps the only adequate reply is the obvious one—that we humans are hardly in a position to criticize Almighty God on any grounds whatsoever.
How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only Son?
There is a second problem that is more or less related to the first. Because we all feel the problem of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his, there is an unconscious tendency to read this story backwards. That is, we start with the fact that Abraham didn’t have to sacrifice Isaac even though God asked him to, and we say, “See, God never wanted Isaac to die in the first place.” Although that statement is true on one level, we risk missing the meaning of the text if we go too far down that road. Because whatever else might be true, it is unquestionably true that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘‘Abraham!” Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, ‘‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (vv. 1-2)
It would have been enough if God has simply said, “Take your son.” But he qualified that phrase three ways.
Your only son—not forgetting Ishmael who was also his son, but meaning that Isaac was the promised son.
Isaac—the son for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for 25 long years.
Whom you love—which might seem as if God were mocking him, but these words were meant to reassure him that God knew what he was asking. By saying it this way, Abraham would know that God understood what it would cost him to obey.
Either you obey or you don’t.
Let us be clear about what God was asking at this point. He wanted Abraham to travel with his son to Moriah (which today is called Jerusalem) and build an altar of stones on one of the mountains. He would then make a platform of wood on the stones. Then Abraham was to ask Isaac to lie down on the wood. Then he would take a knife and slit Isaac’s throat in the same way that a sacrificial lamb was slain. Finally, he would light the wood, burning his son’s body as an offering to God.
This is what God told Abraham to do. At that point the man of faith only has two options. Either you obey or you don’t. If you stop to argue, that in itself is a form of disobedience. If you try to talk God out of it, that too is disobedience. If you offer an alternate plan, that is also disobedience.
“We Will Come Back toYou”
God asked Abraham to put his own son to death. And Abraham agreed to do it.
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, ‘‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (vv. 3-5)
Here we encounter several important points. First, Abraham’s obedience is immediate. Second, it is unquestioning. Third, it is filled with faith.
Was it merely wishful thinking that made Abraham tell the servants that “we” will come back to you? Nowhere had God promised to spare his son. Yet somehow Abraham understood enough of God’s character that he was willing to do what God required in the faith that somehow God would work out the details and spare his son.
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘‘Father?” ‘‘Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. ‘‘The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, ‘‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, ‘‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (vv. 6-8)
Across the centuries Christians have seen in these words a prefiguring of the death of Christ on the cross. There is Abraham (representing God) placing the wood (representing the Cross) upon Isaac (representing Jesus Christ). It is the father offering his son freely and without complaint, just as God the Father offered Jesus for the sins of the whole world.
God Will Provide the Lamb
Somehow Abraham understood something of the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. When he said, “God himself will provide the lamb,” he was pointing not simply toward the altar on Mount Moriah, but to a greater sacrifice to be offered at the very same location almost 2000 years later when God provided the Ultimate Lamb—Jesus Christ—for the sin of the world.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, ‘‘Abraham! Abraham!” ‘‘Here I am,” he replied. ‘‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. ‘‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘‘On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (vv. 9-14)
Did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Yes. Was it a legitimate request? Yes. Did Abraham know in advance how the story would end? No. Specifically, did he know about the ram in the thicket? No. Well, then, what was it that Abraham knew? He knew what God had asked him to do and he knew that God had promised to give him a son through whom he would bless the world. What he didn’t know was how God was going to reconcile his promise (to bless the world through Isaac) and his command (to offer Isaac as a sacrifice).
Faith at its Highest Point
It is at this point that we see Abraham’s faith at its highest and best. Even though the command made no sense from a human point of view, Abraham intended to obey it anyway. Looking back on this incident some twenty centuries later, the writer of Hebrews explains it this way:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. (11:17-19)
Abraham planned to kill his own son! He meant to obey God’s command even though it meant killing God’s promise. How could a man do such a thing? Because he believed that God could raise the dead.
The picture is now complete. Abraham offers his son in death, placing upon his innocent shoulders the wood that will consume him with fire. He did it believing that God could raise the dead. Even so, our Heavenly Father offered his Son in death, placing upon him the weight of the sin of the world. He allowed his Son to die, knowing that he would raise him up on the third day.
First the Test, Then the Blessing
The chapter contains one final scene:
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘‘I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. (vv. 15-19)
Now it all begins to come clear. God intended to bless Abraham from the very beginning. But he could not do so without putting him to the ultimate test. In this case, that meant asking Abraham to sacrifice the most precious thing in his life. In a sense, you might say it this way: God needed to know something and Abraham needed to know something.
–God needed to know if Abraham would put his son ahead of his God
–Abraham needed to know if God could be trusted completely
When I say “God needed to know,” I don’t mean that literally because God already knew what Abraham would do. Yet the angel of the Lord said, “Now I know that you fear God” (v. 12). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrated the unquestioning obedience that God desired. Now God knows, Abraham knows, Isaac knows, and thousands of years later, we know that Abraham fears God and wants to please him.
Seen in this light, the text is simple to explain but it takes a lifetime to apply this truth. In fact, I dare say that God leads most of us again and again up Mount Moriah where we are asked to sacrifice the dearest and best in life.
“Pastor Ray, You’ve Got to Let Go”
In one of his books Watchman Nee said that we approach God like little children with open hands, begging for gifts. Because he is a good God, he fills our hands with good things—life, health, friends, money, success, recognition, challenge, marriage, children, a nice home, a good job, all the things that we count at Thanksgiving when we count our blessings. And so like children, we rejoice in what we have received and run around comparing what we have with each other. When our hands are finally full, God says, “My child, I long to have fellowship with you. Reach out your hand and take my hand. But we can’t do it because our hands are full. “God, we can’t,” we cry. “Put those things aside and take my hand,” he replied. “No, we can’t. It’s too hard to put them down.” “But I am the one who gave them too you in the first place.” “O God, what you have asked for is too hard. Please don’t ask us to put these things aside.” And God answers quietly, “You must.”
I learned this truth the hard way almost 10 years ago. It happened in another time and another place when I thought I was on top of the world. Everything looked so good to me. One day a friend dropped by to see me. “Do you have a few minutes to talk, Pastor Ray?” “Of course,” I replied, “Come in.” After a few minutes of conversation, she came to her point. “Pastor Ray, you have to let go. You’re holding on too tightly.”
How a Good Thing Becomes an Idol
It was one of those moments where from the first word of that sentence I knew exactly what she was going to say. And I knew she was right. Deep in my heart, I had known it for a long time but didn’t want to face the truth. I was holding on to something so tightly that it had become an idol to me, something dearer than life itself. Before you ask, let me say simply that the thing was not evil or bad. In fact, it was a good thing that had become an idol that I dared not give up. (An idol is anything good that becomes too important in your life.)
One year passed and things in my little world began to fall apart. Through a long string of circumstances I found myself facing a tragedy. Looking back I can see clearly that God was prying my fingers off that “thing” one by one. But he got down to the thumb, I fought back. I didn’t want to give it up. But God is stronger than any man and eventually he pulled my thumb off. I gave my idol back to him, but when I gave it back, I saw clearly that it was no pagan idol, but something good that had become too important in my life. In the end God took back that which had always belonged to him in the first place.
One Sunday afternoon during this personal crisis I took a long walk and began to meditate on a passage of Scripture in 1 Peter that says, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (4:19). The little phrase “according to God’s will” caught my attention. I realized that it had been many years since I had been concerned about doing God’s will. Once that had been a consuming passion; now I hardly ever thought about it.
And I remembered my friend’s admonition: “Ray, you need to let go.” As I walked, I held out an open palm and began to let go. Little by little, I released the things in my life that I had been holding onto so tightly. As I did, I felt an enormous sense of relief, as if God were saying, “It’s about time.”
Len Hoppe and the Open Palm
Now let’s run the film ahead by almost five years. We’re in another time and place, life has moved to a new chapter. It’s the dead of winter and a group of us have headed to Snow Camp at Honey Rock in northern Wisconsin. Not far from the camp we stopped at a pizza joint. There were are—about 25 of us, mostly very loud teenagers and children, along with a handful of adults. Len and Roberta Hoppe and Marlene and I slid into a booth together. It was during the time when Len’s business was beginning to go badly and he felt enormous pressure from many sides. As I listened to Len talk so earnestly about how bad things were and how hard he was working to save his company, I remembered once again what had happened to me five years earlier. I told him the story and then held out my palm in a fist and said, “Len, you’ve got to let go.”
I remember that Len balled up his hand into a fist and then began prying his fingers loose one by one. He did that several times as we talked, each time ending up with an open palm.
That turned out to be a turning point in his own walk with the Lord. Over the next four years I heard him mention more than once how important that illustration of God prying his fingers loose had been in his life. He often used it to help other people.
From Trial to Blessing
For Len, the road was a rough one for awhile as he lost his business, was threatened by hired thugs, and then made a new start in Memphis. As we all now know, even though he wasn’t there two years, God used him in a powerful way to touch hundreds of people.
It all went back to that moment when he said, “Oh God, I don’t want to give this up, but if you want it, I’ll give it back to you.” God did want it back, he took it back, and once Len’s hands were empty, he filled them with spiritual blessings Len had never known.
God owns everything. We own nothing.
And now Len is gone, cut down by cancer at the age of 42. Those of us who knew him well feel like saying, “Lord, how could you take him from us? We loved him. His family needed him. How could you do this?” I have no real answer for that question. But I do know this: God owns everything. We own nothing. Even our life itself is a gift from God. Everything we have is on loan from him, and he has the right to take back that which belongs to him at any moment.
Nothing Left But God
To say it that way raises a question about our text that I can’t clearly answer. Had Isaac become too important to Abraham? Was this child of the promise loved too much? Had he begun to take God’s place in Abraham’s thinking? We have no way to know whether this is so or not, but we may be sure that such things do happen for all of us.
I personally believe that God orchestrates the affairs of life—both the good and the bad—to bring us to the place where our faith will be in God alone. Slowly but surely as we go through life, he weans us away from the things of the world. At first the process touches only our possessions (which we can replace), but eventually it touches our relationships (which may not be replaced), then it touches our loved ones (who cannot be replaced), finally it touches life itself (which is never replaced). Then there is nothing left but us and God.
Through all this process our Heavenly Father leads us along the pathway of complete trust in him. Slowly but surely we discover that the things we thought we couldn’t live without don’t matter as much as we thought they did. Even the dearest and sweetest things of life take second place to the pleasure of knowing God. In the end we discover that he has emptied our hands of everything and then filled them with himself.
Hold Lightly What God Has Given You
In writing these words I am keenly aware that I only dimly understand their full meaning. At this point in my life I still have many things in my hands—my wife, my three boys, my friends, my career, my health, my dreams, my plans for the future. But the process of growing older is nothing more than this—learning to hold lightly the things God has given you, knowing that you can’t keep them forever anyway. At any moment, he can take them away—one by one, two at a time, or all of them together. Or he could take back the life he gave me 44 years ago.
If I have any advice for you, it is this. Learn to hold lightly what God has given you. You can’t keep it forever and you can’t take it with you.
Some of you who read these words are in the midst of a great struggle in your life. You feel pressured about something and you don’t want to give it up. But you must … and you will. I can’t spare you the pain of yielding your dearest treasures to God, but I promise you the joy will far outweigh the pain you feel right now.
How Much Does God Love You?
I close by reminding you that in this story we see a beautiful pageant of God’s love. In Genesis 22 we see what a man would do for the love of God. But at Calvary we see what God would do for the love of man. Abraham was only asked to sacrifice Isaac; God actually sacrificed his only Son. More than that, Jesus endured physical death and spiritual death to obtain redemption for sinners. When God’s hand was raised at Calvary, there was no one to cry out, “Stop. Do not harm the child.” There was no ram in the thicket to offer in his place. So God’s hand fell in judgment on his own Son, and Jesus died for you and me.
This is what God did for you and for me. How much does God love us? Look to the bloody Cross and there you will find your answer.