What Is Your Isaac?

Hebrews 11:17-19

August 27, 2008 | Ray Pritchard

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Certain Bible stories need no introduction. They are so well known that even people outside the church who may never actually read the Bible have heard them.

Adam and Eve.
Noah and the ark.
Moses at the Red Sea.
Joshua and the walls of Jericho.
David and Goliath.
Daniel in the lions’ den.

And while you are making that list, which could be much longer, don’t forget to add this one:

Abraham and Isaac.

A father and a son.
Abraham ready to do what God commanded.
Isaac carrying the wood.
Abraham building the altar.
Isaac climbing on the altar.
Abraham tying his son with ropes.
Isaac waiting for the knife to fall.
Abraham raising the knife.

And then . . . And then . . .

No wonder the writer of Hebrews focuses on this scene. Hebrews 11:17-19 shows us three aspects of Abraham’s amazing faith in the greatest trial he would ever face.

I. Abraham’s Test

“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” (v. 17).

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.

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 son, there is an unconscious tendency to read this story backwards.  That is, we start with the fact that Abraham ended up not having to put his own son to death. 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. Whatever else  we may say, it is unquestionably true that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.

Genesis 22:1-2 tells us what was at stake:

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.”

It would have been enough if God had simply said, “Take your son.”  But he said 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  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. If you stop to argue, that in itself is a form of disobedience.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

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.

II. Abraham’s Trust

“Even though God had said to him, ’It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned’” (v. 18).

At this point the writer wants us to think about what was at stake. We naturally focus on the unimaginable sorrow of losing a child. To any parent that alone would be an unspeakable tragedy. Nothing in all the world seems more unnatural than for parents to bury their children. The death of a child is like a period before the end of a sentence. And in this case God told Abraham to offer his own son, and Abraham was fully prepared to do it, so prepared, in fact, that Hebrews 11:17 actually says that Abraham “offered” Isaac as a sacrifice, meaning that when he laid his son on the altar and raised the knife, he fully intended to put him to death. Naturally our minds focus on that aspect because it is so poignant and personal.

But the writer wants us to think of something else. God had already promised to make Abraham the head of a great nation, and through that nation to bring great blessing to the world (Genesis 12:1-3). And God had said that he would bring forth that nation from Isaac’s descendants. But that couldn’t happen if Isaac (who was only a teenager) was dead. Here we are faced with what seems to be an enormous contradiction.

Faith believes and leaves the “how” in the hands of Almighty God. </h6 class=”pullquote”>

God commanded him to offer his son Isaac.
God promised to bring forth offspring through Isaac.

The promise and the command seem to flatly contradict each other. If Abraham obeys the command, does that not cancel the promise since Isaac will be dead? If he disobeys the command, what happens to the promise? Here is the shining, amazing, beyond-this-world character of Abraham’s faith.

He didn’t know how God would do it.
He just knew God would do it somehow.

Herein lies a lesson for all of us. When God makes a promise, it is folly and disbelief to wonder how he will keep his word. Faith does not reckon with “how.” Faith believes and leaves the “how” in the hands of Almighty God. If we spend too much time trying to figure out “how” God will take care of us, we are likely to talk ourselves into a corner.

As you ponder this amazing story, remember that Abraham no idea—none!—of what was about to happen when he and Isaac started on the three-day journey to Moriah. That is, he set out to obey God, knowing the One who had called him to offer his beloved son would solve the “how” question in his own way.

There are times in life—many times—when our only job is to take the next step. We aren’t called to figure out the big picture or to explain where it will lead.

God say, “Go” and we go.
He says, “Stop” and we stop.
He says, “Give me your dearest possession,” and we offer it to him.

This is the true life of faith.

III. Abraham’s Triumph

“Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (v. 19).

In this verse we learn something that is only hinted at in Genesis 22
. Twice in that chapter Abraham intimates that he expects that somehow, some way, God was going to work things out so that Isaac would live. When he saw Moriah in the distance, he gave this instruction 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” (Genesis 22: 5).

Did you get that? “We” will come to you. Not “I” will come back, but “we” will come back. Abraham believed that he and his son would somehow return together. Then as the two of them walked along, with Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice, the son asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (v. 7). Abraham’s reply has become a synonym for the man of faith speaking faith into what is a humanly hopeless situation. “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8).

The writer of Hebrews tells us why Abraham could talk like that. He believed that God could raise the dead.

Didn’t know how.
Had never seen it happen.

Abraham believed that he and his son would somehow return together.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

He reasoned from what he knew about God to what he knew about the situation. And the only thing he could come up with was, “I’m going to put my own son to death, and then God will raise him from the dead.” That’s pretty fantastic if you think about it, especially since no one in history had ever been raised from the dead, and this happened 2000 years before Christ.

It turns out that he was partly right about it. God can raise the dead, a fact proved at the empty tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem. That part was 100% correct. But he was wrong about Isaac dying that day. He didn’t literally die because at the very last second, Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket, a ram placed there by God, and he offered the ram in the place of his son. Thus figuratively he did receive Isaac back from the dead.

Faith at its Highest Point

Now we can stand back and see the story in clear perspective. 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).

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. 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.

And for 2000 years Christians have seen in this story a picture of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. 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.

Abraham offered his son.
The Father offered his Son.

Isaac carried the wood.
Jesus carried the cross.

Isaac was laid on the altar.
Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Abraham was willing to put his son to death.
The Father willed that his Son should die.

The ram was offered in the place of Isaac.
Christ was offered in the place of sinners.

Abraham received his son back “figuratively.”
Jesus literally rose from the dead.

What are we supposed to take away from the story of Abraham and Isaac? When I read Genesis 22, I was struck by something God said to Abraham after the great trial was over, the ram sacrificed, Isaac spared, the promise reaffirmed. It comes as part of the happy ending to a very great trial. God commends Abraham by saying, “You have not withheld  from me your son, your only son” (v. 12; see also verse 16).

“You did not withhold from me.”
God says, “I asked for your most precious possession and you gave it to me.”

Not a Mite Would I Withhold

As I read that, I started singing to myself these familiar words from a hymn written by Frances Havergal:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

Seen in this light, the text is simple to explain but it takes a lifetime to learn
.  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.

An idol is anything good that becomes too important to you.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

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.” “No, we can’t  It’s too hard to put them down.” “But I am the one who gave them to you in the first place.” “O God, what you have asked is too hard. Please don’t ask us to put these things aside.” And God answers quietly, “You must.”

God made me face this truth the hard way many years ago when a friend came and said, “Pastor Ray, you’re hold on too tight.” I knew then exactly what my friend meant, and the words were true, they cut deep, and I didn’t want to admit it. So I continued to hold on to “that thing” that had become so dear to me.

We Love Our Idols

In one of her books Elizabeth Elliot makes the point that the process of Christian growth is one in which God breaks the idols of our life one by one by one. Oh, how painful it is because by definition, we love our idols. We protect them because they give us strength and hope and meaning.

Here’s the tricky part. Most of our idols are perfectly good things. That thing I was holding on to so tightly wasn’t anything bad or evil or wrong. It was something good that had become too important to me. Pause to consider this sentence:

An idol is anything good that becomes too important to you.

We tend to associate idols with those heathen statues made of gold, silver, wood or stone. And if that’s all an idol is, we’re in the clear because we don’t bow down before those weird statues and offer pig blood or chicken entrails. Why would we do something like that? But an idol doesn’t need to be a statue. An idol can be anything good—our children, for instance—or our fame, our athletic prowess, our reputation, our money, our home, our position, our education, our cars, the people we know, the degrees we earned, the money we made, the deals we closed, the classes we taught, the friends we cultivated in high places, the buildings we built, the organizations we managed, the budgets we balanced, the books we wrote, the songs we sang, the records we made, the trips we took, the portfolios we built, the fortunes we amassed, our name in the lights, all those things that make us feel comfortable and safe and give us status in the world.

Could your spouse be an idol? Yes.
Could your family be an idol? Yes.
Could your children be an idol? Yes.
Could your money be an idol? Yes.
Could your ministry be an idol? Yes.
Could your career be an idol? Yes.

Anything wrong with being married, having a family, raising your children, making some money, having a career, getting an education, having a ministry, making your way in the world, and even having something to show for it?

Anything wrong with that? No. It’s all good.
And anything good can become an idol.

That’s the real challenge of this story. Abraham had to come to the place where he willingly gave back to God what was always God’s in the first place. In my own case, when God began to pry my fingers off that thing I valued so much, when he got down to the thumb, I fought back. But as the wise man said, Your arms are too short to box with God. He’s going to win every time. Eventually he pried my thumb off, and then he took back that thing that had always belonged to me in the first place.

Hold Lightly What You Value Greatly

Whenever I tell that story, I always make this point. Hold lightly what you value greatly because it doesn’t belong to you anyway. Every time I say that, heads nod because everyone knows it’s true.

We come into this life with nothing.
We leave with nothing.

In between, God fills our hands with good things. And then he asks us to give them back to him so that we can walk in fellowship with him. Oh, how painful that process is. I have found in my life—and in talking with many people—that the process of letting go is the work of a lifetime. For most of us, there isn’t simply one crisis moment, but rather a continual letting go. When I have the courage to open my hand and let go in the evening, I get up the next morning and try to grab it back again.

It seems to be a lesson we all have to learn over and over again. And God in his kindness keeps bringing us back to Moriah, back to the place of sacrifice, back to the place where we offer up to God our dearest and our best and say, “Lord, it all belongs to you.”

It is God’s kindness that is on display in this story. </h6 class=”pullquote”>

Note that I said, “God in his kindness.” It is the kindness of God that led Abraham to Moriah, and it is God’s kindness that leads us back to the place of sacrifice where we yield up to him our dreams, our desires, our plans, our hopes, the things we own, our dearest friends, our loved ones, and finally we give to him the life he gave us in the beginning.

It is God’s kindness that is on display in this story. When we are struggling with God and trying so desperately to hold on to those things we value so much, it may not feel like God’s kindness but it is. He knows better than we do that as long as we hold on, good things become idols to us, and any idol—especially the “good” ones, those things that are not wrong in themselves, the gifts God has given us that become too important to us—comes between us and the God who loves us supremely and wants only the best for us.

When we finally have the courage to let go . . .
When we stop trying desperately to hold on . . .
When we open our hands to God . . .
When we hold lightly what we value greatly . . .
When we give back to God what was always his anyway . . .

Then and only then are we truly free. I started to type the word “happy” but that wouldn’t be quite right, would it? The yielding up is often very painful and we don’t feel very good about it, and sometimes we don’t feel good even when it is all over. So “happy” isn’t the right word.

Free is the right word.
Only then are we truly free.

How wonderful to enter into the liberty of saying, “Lord, I have no idea how all this will work out. All I know is, all of this belongs to you. Do with it as you will.” And the Lord says, “Bring your dearest and best to the altar and leave it all in my hands.”

God orchestrates the affairs of life, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, to bring us to the place where our faith will be in him 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.

Letting Go

Through all of this 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.

I admit that as I write these words, I am only dimly aware of what they mean. It happens that I am writing this on the morning of our 34th wedding anniversary. Later today Marlene and I plan to drive to Birmingham where we will spend the night in a hotel, have a nice meal, see our son Nick, and celebrate God’s goodness to us. All of our children are doing well. I am 55 years old and in good health. Marlene’s health is good. We have learned in the last few years to take nothing for granted because there are no guarantees about the future. We are learning to keep an open hand, holding lightly what we value greatly because it all belongs to God anyway.

Some 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.

We’ve gained so much that we don’t dare let go lest we lose the whole world. And somewhere in the process, we lost our own soul. </h6 class=”pullquote”>

Let’s wrap up with just one line from that hymn by Frances Havergal: “Not a mite would I withhold.” A mite is a tiny thing, a little bit of money, like having a penny in your hand. It’s not how much you have that matters to God. It’s what you do with what you have.

Will you hold on to what you own?
Or will you say, “Lord, it all belongs to you anyway”?

It was Christ himself who asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36 NLT). Maybe that’s our real problem. We’ve gained so much that we don’t dare let go lest we lose the whole world. And somewhere in the process, we lost our own soul.

So here’s the deal.

You can keep the world for the moment, but you’ll have to give it up in the end.
Or you can keep your soul by letting go of the things that were never yours anyway.

What is your Isaac?
Are you willing to lay it down for Jesus’ sake?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?