Over the past couple of months, we’ve been looking at Genesis – which means the beginning. So, we are at the beginning of the story of God. And like any good story, the beginning sets up the end.
When you get to the end of a good story, you should be able to go back to the beginning and say, “Ah, I get it, that makes sense.” So, as we’re headed toward the Advent season, which ushers in the New Testament, we should be able to go back to the Old Testament and say, “Ah, I get it, that makes sense.”
Genesis has two primary themes
- Chapters 1 through 11 is about creation and we spent some time exploring it.
- Chapter 12 through 50 is about covenant
- And tying these two themes together is a man named Abraham who we’ve been exploring over the past few weeks and whose story we will continue to follow up until Advent.
Let’s recap his story before we jump in . . . It had been years since anyone had heard from God. But he shows up and speaks to a man named Abram . . . who was 75 years old and should be kicked back in his recliner and enjoying retirement and He tells him to uproot his entire life.
And in return, God promised to make Abram a great nation, to give him a great name, and to bring a great blessing upon the earth which is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus. So, Abram, along with his barren wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot, head out on this journey of faith.
A lot of stuff happens on this journey which tests Abram’s faith but 25 years later, their son was born; which means that Abraham is 100 years old and his wife Sarah is 90 when their life finally seems to be coming together.
They named their child, Isaac which means “he laughs” because when Sarai overheard three angels of God renew the promise that she and Abram were to conceive a child, she laughed. Although, when God asked her about it later, she denied it.
As we pick up the story today, we find that Abram, whose name has now become Abraham, has set up shop in a place he named, Beersheba, which means “the well where an oath was made”. He named it Beersheba after he made a peace treaty with Abimelech, a rich and powerful ruler whom Abraham had a dispute with.
After making this treaty, Abraham plants a tree. In other words, he finally gets settle down. He’s finally home. When his son grows up, he can play in that tree. When his grandkids come over, they can build a fort in that tree. This is home.
After all the drama and trauma and struggle in his life . . . finally, good times; house, wife, servants, business is going well, everything is going great and he’s got his son, Isaac. Oh, how he loved that Boy
He had waited his whole life to get this boy; He wrestled and played ball with this boy. He went fishing and camping with this boy. He read to him and tucked him in at night. He sang and prayed with him. He raised this boy and He loved this boy.
But then it happened . . . in the middle of this calm and peace God shows up again and he asks Abraham to do something that is unthinkable; sacrifice his Son, Isaac.
Now, the text gives us a clue that this is going to be a test, but Abraham doesn’t know that it’s going to be a test. God says, “Take your son, Isaac, your only son whom you love and go to the region of Mariah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
A burnt offering is an atonement sacrificed for sin. It was a brutal sacrifice. Typically, an animal would be slaughtered and dismembered, a huge fire would be built, and the body parts thrown on the fire so they would be consumed and reduced to ashes.
I can’t think of anything more horrifying than being asked to do this to your own son. Honestly, this seems absolutely out of character for God.
But the question is . . . how will Abraham respond?
He’s been asked to choose between his two deepest loves; his son and future generations or his God who promised him those future generations. It’s interesting because whichever love he chooses . . . that’s actually his God . . . unbelievable decision he must make.
The story continues, Abraham gets up early in the morning and saddles his donkey; doesn’t talk to his wife, Sarah who is never mentioned in this whole narrative. He takes 2 servants and his son, Isaac and enough wood for the burnt offering and he sets out to the place God had told him about.
No questioning, no arguing, not talking back, no delaying, not saying a word, just trusting God. And on the 3rd day – this was about a 50-mile journey – he looked up, and he saw the place.
Can you imagine what this trip must have been like?
- He spent three days and three nights with Isaac . . . riding side by side, father and son; talking, visiting, enjoying one another’s company, being together
- At night they would stop and set up camp. They would build a fire. They’d cook dinner. They’d sit around and visit, talk.
I know I’m speculating but I can’t help but think that at some point Abraham was looking at his son and thinking, “Should I turn back?”, “Can I really go through with this?” But we don’t know, it doesn’t say.
When they reached the place, God had told him about, he told his servants to stay with the donkey while he and Isaac go to worship and when they were finished, they will come back.
Now, Abraham is old and it’s a long way up the mountain and so Isaac, who is young and strong, is the one who must haul the wood up the mountain.
Abraham carried the fire and the knife and as the two of them went up the mountain Isaac spoke. This is the only recorded conversation between Abraham and Isaac in the bible, so it’s very important.
He says, “Dad, the fire is here, and the wood is here but where’s the lamb for the offering?”
It’s interesting that Isaac knows that there must be a lamb. You’re going to find out today that they don’t get a lamb. The lamb won’t come till much later and we get a clue to this in Abraham’s response.
Abrahams says, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering”
Abraham knows that God is the God who provides and he trusts that somehow God will provide through his son, Isaac and so they continued their journey up the mountain and when they reached the place, he built and altar and arranged the wood on it, and bound his son, Isaac.
Now think about this for a minute . . . Abraham is somewhere between 115-130 years of age which means that Isaac is somewhere between 15-30 years of age. Abraham could have easily been outwrestled or outrun by Isaac but what Isaac does is to fully yield himself to his father.
I’m sure that Isaac had a terrified look on his face, but he knows that he can trust his father.
Then Abraham takes his knife in his hand, cocks his shoulder . . . hoping his son will die with just one fatal blow, and I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that at this point they are both weeping.
Hebrews 11:17-19 sheds some light on this event. It says that Abraham believed that even if he killed his son that God would resurrect him and bring him back to life.
This is a man who has grown in faith to where he trusts God with that which he cherishes most. I don’t think I have that kind of faith.
Knife raised ready to descend on his son’s body and the angel of the Lord calls out from heaven, “Do not lay a hand on that boy, 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 the thicket he saw a ram caught by the horns.”
Isaac was right, there needs to be a lamb but instead there’s a ram. He went over, and he took the ram and he sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Theologically we call this substitutionary atonement. It’s a big word but it’s very important. At the heart of Christian theology is the answer to two questions.
- Who is Jesus and what did he do on the cross?
- The answer to these questions is at the heart of our faith.
In this story, a ram is being slaughtered instead of the son. In the same way, Jesus becomes a man. He lives a life without sin, and he goes to the cross as a substitute for us. We give him our sin and he gives us righteousness.
This is so incredibly important because without this understanding, we don’t have the gospel, we have no good news, we have no salvation, and we have no need for Jesus. All of that is shown here with the ram being sacrificed as a burnt offering.
“So, Abraham called this place, Jehovah-Jireh – the Lord provides.”
Then the story ends with the angel of the Lord once again reminding Abraham of the covenant between he and God, “because you have done this and have not withheld your son, I will bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore . . . and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’”
What he is saying is that through your son and your grandson and your great grandson will eventually come Jesus who will be your offspring, your descendant, and he will be a blessing to all nations.
So, what’s hanging in the balance here is the coming of Jesus.
The question persists, however, and I’m sure that some of you are wrestling with this. Why would God do this to Abraham?
How many of you, at first glance think that this is just exceedingly cruel? Take a three-day journey, build an altar, surround it with wood, take the knife, and then right before you slaughter your son God says to you, “Ah, never mind . . . I just wanted to see if you would do it”
- This seems like a cruel God, no different from any other God during that time which expected a child sacrifice to be appeased.
- This doesn’t sound like the God whom scripture describes as, “slow to anger, abounding in love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness.”
- It doesn’t seem like he’s wonderfully gracious and compassionate . . . it seems like he’s mean spirited and cruel
Why would God do this to Abraham?
The beginning of this story gave us a clue . . . do you remember what it was? It’s a test
God was proving the faith of Abraham, but he wasn’t proving it for God because God knows all things, and he wasn’t proving it for Abraham because Abraham had already been called righteous by God.
So, who is God proving for? I believe that all of this is for Isaac. Think through this with me for a minute:
At this point, God is the God of Abraham, but He needs to become the God of Abraham and Isaac, and then Isaac’s going to give birth to a son named Jacob, and then this’ll be the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
Abraham is a man, who has faith, but Isaac can’t just borrow the faith of his father; he needs to have his own faith. Just like all kids, they can’t just borrow faith from their parents. At some point they pass into their own relationship with God, and they need to have their own faith.
And I believe that’s exactly what God is doing here, and it’s amazing to me because Abraham is showing an unbelievable depth of his faith to his son.
Often, when things are happening in your life that are hard, difficult, and tragic it may not mean that God is picking on you. It may be God pushing your faith out of you so that it might be seen by others so that they too might come to love and trust your God.
But sometimes we are so obsessed with our own feelings, thoughts, hurts and needs, so narcissistic in our hardship that when tough times come, we don’t act in faith but instead we curse God, turn away from God or simply give up on God.
Somehow, Abraham is able to understand, “My son is watching, and how I act is enormously important because if I curse God or disobey God, I will raise a faithless son who does not know the Lord.”
In the middle of all of this, Abraham maintains his faith in God knowing that his son is watching.
When you find yourself in difficult circumstances, assume that God is for you, not against you. Assume that God is good and not bad. And assume that God is giving you an opportunity to live out your faith so that others who are around you might have their faith birthed or built.
For all of us who are Christ followers . . . there are people watching our lives – family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and they want to see when hard times come is faith real, or is it just something that grows away when times get tough?
That’s exactly what is going on here and because of Abraham’s faith, here’s what’s going to happen.
Through Abraham comes Isaac. Isaac worships God and will raise his son to worship God, who will raise his son to worship God, who will raise his son to worship God and eventually, we’ll get to the seed of Abraham, Jesus, his offspring so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and so this line of faith needs to continue through this covenant family because the lamb is on the way.