Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith
Part 7: Abraham and Isaac – Faith and the art of surrender
By I Gordon
Last time in the ‘heroes of the faith series’ we explored the faith of Sarah. We saw that her life, from her first mention in scripture, to the last, revolved around her barrenness. Despite her efforts, pleading and prayers, her life had this stamp of ‘barren’ over it. It was a stamp of shame, discouragement and great daily disappointment to Sarah. And yet her head was lifted up and her shame was turned to joy when, at the young spritely age of 90, she gave birth to her first and only child, Isaac... just as God had promised!
We spoke briefly how this miraculous birth pointed to a far greater miraculous birth that was still to come in 2000 years time. This theme of Isaac as the promised son being a type of the greater Promised Son (Jesus) comes out very strongly in the passage before us today. We are in Genesis 22 today and being a well known passage I won’t insult your intelligence (this time at least!) by suggesting that it is something new to you. But when it comes to the Word, it may not be new, but it certainly is true... and if we would but chew, revelation comes through. But enough of this preview! (And definitely speaking in rhyme... all the time. My rhymes are a flop and I just need to stop.)
The next act of faith that is mentioned in Hebrews 11 concerns the sacrifice of Isaac. Hebrews 11:17 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…’
So it is that act that we will look at today. We’ll look at what it meant for Abraham and Isaac. We’ll look at what it meant for the Lord Jesus. And we’ll look at what it means for us. So let’s have a look in Genesis 22. Let’s read the whole passage and then dig a little deeper...
When God asks a lot...
Genesis 22:1-14, Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. (2) 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." (3) 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. (4) On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. (5) 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." (6) 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, (7) 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?" (8) Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together. (9) 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. (10) Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. (11) But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. (12) 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." (13) 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. (14) 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."
So this is an amazing passage. It contains a seemingly unbelievable test as a prophetic preview of what was still to come. The first five verses contain at least three ‘first mentions’ in the Bible. I’ll let you ponder what the ‘first mentions’ in this passage are for a moment... Alright, ponder over. Let’s begin.
Genesis 22:1, Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied.
The first ‘first mention’ occurs in the very first verse. Can
you guess what it is? It is the word ‘tested’. This is the first mention of God
‘testing’ someone. It won’t be the last. And what a test it
is. Abraham has had to walk through many trials already but none like this. Ray
Stedman says it is ‘Abraham's greatest trial.
This is the deepest thrust of the cross of Christ into his life.’ Various other writers in the Bible
would also talk about the tests of the Lord:
Jer 20:12 O Lord of hosts, You who test the righteous, And see the mind and heart...
1 Timothy 3:8-10 Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, (9) holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. (10) But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless.
James 1:12-13 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (13) When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
God never tempts, but he does test. And Abraham was being tested here. God’s tests are not to tear down though but ultimately to strengthen. As an illustration, when you get a new cricket bat (which I’m sure you all do quite regularly), you don’t just buy it from the shop on the Friday night and play with it out in the middle Saturday afternoon. If you did that it would get damaged. It isn’t used to the life of knocks and whacks out in the middle. You have to knock it in. One website said this: “Knocking in is the process by which the grains & fibres in the bat are compressed & strengthened to prepare it for use. This process is vital for all English willow bats and must be performed with patience & care. To do this you will need to spend anywhere up to 16 hours 'knocking in' the bat.” The bat has to be knocked in so that the grains are strengthened and prepared for use. Whether we like it or not, the same goes for us. Before God uses someone they are prepared for use. They are tested. They are knocked in. Do you feel like you’re being knocked in? Just think of it as a strengthening process so that you can handle the cricket balls of life that are flung at you, without cracking. God’s testing process often makes one weaker in themself but stronger in the Lord. Now Abraham’s test was coming... and it is a biggy!
Genesis 22:2 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."
Here is the test - Abraham is asked to kill his own son. Opponents of the Bible read a passage such as this and say ‘what loving God would ask such a thing? What kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice their son?’ And they are correct in the sense that human sacrifice is an abomination. It is strictly forbidden in the Bible and God hates it. And yet we read here of a test where God asks that very thing of Abraham. Why? There are several reasons, but one is to do with a title Abraham had that connects him with God. It is a title used three times in scripture. It is the ‘friend of God’. Abraham was someone that was close to God. They were friends. Now you often tell your close buddies things that you don’t often tell others. When God was going to do something big, like we saw with Sodom and Gomorrah, God came and told Abraham about it. So in this chapter God is, on the one hand, testing Abraham’s faith, while on the other, he is allowing Abraham to enter in to taste and see a small glimpse of what God Himself would experience. Abraham, as father of the Israelite nation, would be asked to sacrifice his beloved son, so that he could experience just a fraction of a day coming when God the Father would give His only beloved Son to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. Opponents of the Bible unfortunately have only a very limited shallow understanding of the Bible and cannot see that there is something profoundly deep and prophetic going on here.
The second ‘first mention’ is also in this verse. Any takers? It is ‘love’. This is the first time that love, which scripture says is greater than even hope and faith, is mentioned. And what a place to introduce this concept! It took 22 chapters before love is mentioned and at first glance we would say “why so long?” “Love’s important! It’s critical. Surely love should have been mentioned somewhere before now!” But then we think of why it is here. In its context it speaks of the love of a father towards his son. I’m not a father and I didn’t have that type of bond with my father but many of you will understand this love. But at the deeper level this speaks of the love that existed even before the foundation of the world between God the Father and His Son Jesus. Yet God the Father’s love wasn’t exclusively towards His Son so that others didn’t matter. No, they mattered. Damaged sinful humanity mattered. It was a love so great for the whole world that He, because of love, gave His Only begotten Son to be offered up for our sins. That is the love pictured here.
So Abraham is asked to sacrifice His son Isaac, but note that he had to do it at a particular place. He had to travel to the region of Moriah (which is incidentally the first mention of Moriah in the Bible but then there is only one other!) So is this place Moriah significant? What if I said it just happens to be one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate on planet earth today? You probably know it by another name – the Temple Mount. It is also known as Mount Zion in the Bible. It is where the Muslin Dome of the Rock now stands but long before that it was land purchased by David for the Jewish temple, and its sacrifices, which David’s son Solomon would build:
2 Chronicles 3:1 Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David.
Obedience prevailing through perplexity
22:3-4 So Abraham rose early in the
morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and
Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went
to the place of which God had told him.
(4) Then on the third day Abraham
lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off.
You can imagine Abraham listening to God
hearing ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love...’ Yes. Sure. ‘And
go to the region of Moriah...” Yes, ok. “And sacrifice him there as a burnt
offering...” Sac... argh, sorry, wait a sec! For a moment there I thought you said
sacrifice Isaac!?! “Sacrifice your son at Moriah.” This is the promised son. This
is the one they had waited decades for. This is the one whom God Himself had
promised would be the one through whom the fulfilment of the covenant promises
were to come to have descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea shore and
like the stars in heaven. Yes, THAT son! Sacrifice him. Yet it says that early
the next morning Abraham got up and got ready. Do you think Abraham slept? Whatever
confusion Abraham had it certainly didn’t stop him obeying straight away. The
Genesis account doesn’t go into what he was thinking, but the author of Hebrews
does shed a little bit of light on this:
Hebrews 11:17-19 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, (18) of whom it was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called," (19) concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.
So you can see Abraham’s thought process here as it goes over and over in his mind during the night. On the one hand he knows God’s promise that this great nation will come through his promised son Isaac. And yet, on the other hand, God is now asking him to kill Isaac as a sacrifice. As Abraham puzzles over this, with the promise of God and the command of God is seemingly opposition, there was only one conclusion he could come to... ‘Somehow, my boy will come back to life. God is good. I don’t understand it all. But I can trust Him.’ Resurrection! It has never been done before at this stage. No one had ever come back from death. Yet that is the only conclusion that makes sense to Abraham as he reconciles the previous promise of God with the current command of God. God can be trusted! What remarkable faith! Oh that we would come to such conclusions when faced with a death experience.
Briefly, before moving on, notice how all this happens ‘on the third day’. Abraham would, figuratively speaking, receive Isaac back from the dead on the third day. Have you noticed how interesting things happen throughout scripture on the third day? It is often associated with resurrection and new life, as a pointer to Christ when He came forth from the dead. God was forever trying to teach those that had a heart to know Him, while at the same time keeping it hidden from those who clearly know better than to believe in, or seek for, God.
What is worship?
Genesis 22:5-6 And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you." (6) So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together.
This verse has another ‘first’ in it with the first mention of ‘worship’ in scripture. Now I’ve read it a few times but try as I might I can’t see anything about guitars or rock bands! Not even a mention of singing... not even a ribbon dancer... just a setting with an altar and a knife. The Hebrew word for ‘worship’ is a verb meaning ‘to bow down, to fall down, to humbly beseech, to do reverence’. It is used in the earthly context of a subject bowing before a king. Yet it isn’t just a physical thing. It is more a matter of the heart. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, said Matthew 15:8-9 ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (9) They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' It is your life not your lips that count. Worship begins in the heart and involves laying our lives on the altar. That’s why Paul tell us in Romans ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.’ (Romans 12:1)
The context of this first ever mention of worship points us in the right direction because it points to the greatest act of worship, when the Lord Jesus said ‘not my will but yours be done’ (bowing down in his heart) and offering himself as a blood sacrifice according to the will of God. That was worship. He declared the worth of His Father by saying that the Father’s will, and not His own, came first and was more important. Are we worshiping God in that manner?
Carrying the cross
Genesis 22:6-8 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, (7) 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?" (8) Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.
As the journey continues, the wood for the offering upon which he was to die was placed upon Isaac to carry. Why? Because Jesus, the real promised Son, would carry the cross to the place where He would offer Himself. And we read twice in this passage that the two of them, Abraham and Isaac, went on together. Again it is a picture. As Christ set His face towards Golgotha, he was seemingly alone for His disciples had fled in fear and the crowds were mocking and baying for blood. Yet He wasn’t alone. His Father was with Him. The two walked on together. It was only at the end when Abraham bound Isaac to the altar and drew his knife that Isaac would have felt separated and unsure of what his father was doing. And it wasn’t until the darkness covered the land and the sins of the world were laid upon Jesus that He was unsure and cried out ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ For the first time in all eternity the two could no longer walk on together. Again, it’s deep. One day we will truly understand it. Remember also that we are called to carry our cross. It’s not for Isaac or Jesus alone.
Getting back to this story, Isaac wants to know where the lamb is. He doesn’t at this stage understand. But Abraham says ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb!’ Arnold Fructenbaum says that the Hebrew reads ‘yireh-lo’ and allows for two equally valid options here. It can mean that ‘God will provide for Himself’ an offering or it can be also mean ‘God will provide Himself’ as an offering. Both would be true. In the short term He would provide a ram as an offering. In the long term He provided Himself. That’s why when a very godly man dressed in camel’s hair, first set eyes on Jesus, the first words out of his mouth were these: ‘Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.’ God had provided Himself as an offering. Do your best to never get used to that thought!
Genesis 22:9-10 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. (10) Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
We often think of Isaac as being a small boy when this occurred. The Bible doesn’t give an age but he wasn’t a boy. Most seem to believe that he was a teenager to early 20’s. The first century Jewish historian Josephus says that he was 25. He could obviously carry all the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice so he wasn’t a child. Why bring this up? Well, there is no struggle mentioned. It seems that he was old enough to resist an elderly Abraham had he wanted but there is no mention of that. He seems to have given himself over to his father’s will just as his father had given himself over to his heavenly Father’s will. Again, it is another wonderful picture of Christ even through the actions of Isaac. But there is also a challenge here for us. This whole test involves letting go. We like to be in control. It’s hard to let go. When we are young especially we have these visions and dreams of how our life will go, but it often doesn’t turn out that way. We fight to hold on and control all that we can as we see things slipping instead of handing them over to God... even if it costs us.
Abraham was willing and poised to use the knife. This was a massive test. I’m not saying that you will be faced with something as crazy as this. But whatever it is that we are battling with, whatever it is that we are fighting in our hearts over, we need to learn to let go and die. Someone once said “don’t faint, die.” Don’t faint in the face of trouble because you will just come around and still have to face it. Die. Die to your ability to control it and trust in the ability of your heavenly Father who cares for you.
is watching, closer than you think!
Genesis 22:11-14 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. (12) 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." (13) 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. (14) 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."
The Angel of the Lord is watching on. Who is this? He is the seed of the woman that would be bruised by the serpent. He is the Passover lamb that would be killed for the sins of the nation. He is the rock that Moses would strike so that the water could come forth. He is the serpent tied high on a pole that the Israelites would look to, to be healed. He is the promised One that would be cut off from the land of the living according to Daniel’s prophecy. He would be the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who would be pierced for our transgressions according to Isaiah’s prophecy. He is the grain of wheat that would fall into the ground and die so that much fruit may come forth.
Oh you can bet that the Angel of the Lord, the Messiah, was watching on. He is always watching on. But in this case especially He watched for He knew what this meant. He knew Abraham’s thoughts, Abraham’s confusion... the conflict going on it his heart in this moment. But He also saw Abraham’s determination to press on with the will of God despite the difficulty of the hour. Yes, He knew what this meant. He knew what this meant for the greater fulfilment of this event would be His to face alone. So He cries out ‘Abraham, Abraham, do not lay a hand on the boy’ and a substitute to be sacrificed for Isaac is found. Isaac can go free while another, an innocent ram, takes his place. Someone once rightly said that "God spared Abraham's heart a pang He would not spare His own."
Conclusion and Lessons
To conclude, what shall we take away from this for ourselves?
Finally I saw a ‘daily bread’ reading the other day which mentioned this event with Abraham and Isaac. It said:
‘Abraham had totally surrendered his all to the Lord. And his son Isaac was returned to him. This idea of total submission is illustrated in the animal world. When two wolves fight over a territorial boundary, the conflict ends in an unusual way. When one animal realizes he can’t win, he indicates surrender by exposing the underside of his neck to the teeth of his adversary. For some unexplainable reason, the victor does not kill him. Instead, he allows the conquered to go free.
We must be willing to give to Christ what is most precious to us. He wants more than our spare time and leftover possessions; He wants to be Lord of everything in our lives. Only when we are willing to let go of what we love the most can we experience the freedom that comes by yielding to Him. Surrender is the secret to life at its best!
“Let God have your life; He can do more with it than you can!” ‘
 Bible teachers talk about a ‘law of first mention’ which basically means that it is often useful to look at how key words and thoughts are first mentioned in the Bible. Often it can be quite instructive to see how it is used.
 And that’s now three mentions of ‘first’ in my first sentence, so
that is a first! And hopefully a last!
 Now tests can bring up some bad thoughts for some of us. I had eight 3 hour exams almost in a row at the end of my first year of University. Nightmare! It was basically get up, do the test, come home and study for the next day’s test. I was exhausted. I can see that you really feel for me! But God’s tests aren’t about knowledge. His tests aren’t Mastermind. There’s no ‘Iain your specialist topic is beasts of Revelation and your time starts now... How many heads does the beast coming out of the sea have? ‘Argh, forty?’...No I’ll have to stop you there, it’s seven. You have scored no points.’ Thankfully God tests the heart. He tests your obedience, not your brains. He tests who comes first. And as we will see in this case, He can test whether that which He gives us is more important than He is Himself.
 I read an illustration of this that spoke to me. It was of a well know Pastor and preacher, William Sangster (not gangster!). He visited a young girl in the hospital at a time when doctors were struggling in vain to keep her from becoming blind. With sadness she said to him, “God is going to take away my sight.” After thinking silently for a moment he answered compassionately, “Don’t let Him take it from you Jessie. Give it to Him.” “I don’t understand,” she responded. So he explained, “Try to pray this prayer: ‘Father, if I must lose my sight, help me to give it to You.'”