Abraham is sometimes called the Father of the faithful. This is not because Abraham was perfect. The Bible records several bonehead decisions by Abraham. I, for one, am glad that Abraham was not perfect. It gives me hope that even though I have also made bonehead decisions I can yet walk in faith like he did; like God calls all of us to do.
When we look at examples of great faith it is easy to become discouraged by the lack of this kind of faith in our own lives. It is easy to feel like a failure before we even spread the wings of faith to fly. It is important to remember that we are looking at the high points of Abraham’s life. He was much more like we are than we realize.
Last week we looked at the first part of Abraham’s story. We saw that he listened to God and obeyed Him even when it meant uprooting his family and heading to a strange land. When it came to having a child in his old age, Abraham trusted God enough to believe that He could and would do the impossible. Finally, we were reminded that faith and patience go together.
We will see many of these same principles underscored over and over . . . which means we should pay attention. This morning, we look at the pivotal moment in Abraham’s life. We read about it in Hebrews 11:17-19
17 It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, 18 even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” 19 Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.
God told Abraham that the son that was born to him at 100 years old; the son he had been promised; the only son of his wife Sarah; the son through whom God was supposed to bring blessing to the entire world; was to be offered to God as a sacrifice. You find the whole story in Genesis 22. This morning we ask a simple question: What do we learn about faith from this incredible story?
Faith Means Hanging on to the Lord in Times of Testing
Aren’t you a little surprised that we are told that it was God who was testing Abraham? That troubles us because it seems like God is provoking Abraham or is trying to trip him up. However, a test is really just a growth opportunity. It can reveal where we are and shows us what we yet need to do or be.
We see various tests in the Bible. When the children of Israel were given manna to eat every day God told them to only take what they could eat that day and trust God for manna to be there the next day. God said it was a test to see if they would obey. Those who did not obey found maggots in their manna the next day. In Deuteronomy (13:3) God said he allowed some false teachers who did counterfeit signs as a test for His people to see if they would exercise discernment. In the book of Judges God said he left some of the pagan people in Israel as a test to His people. In the book of Malachi God challenges the people to test Him by trying to out give Him. Jesus was tempted (or tested) by the Devil. The disciples faced various tests.
Tests are tools. They help us grow and they alert us to areas of weakness. People can give tests for two different reasons. Some people give tests to show you what’s wrong with you. They give tests to humble you (to remind you that you are not as smart as you think you are) and to weed people out of programs. The goal of these tests is to destroy.
However, others tests are given to show what you have learned and to reveal what concepts have to be looked at more fully. These tests are designed to stimulate growth. They help both the learner and the teacher.
Satan tests like the first group: wanting to make us stumble. The tests of Satan are temptations (to do evil). God tests the second way: He wants to help us grow.
The person of faith understands that the one administering the test is NOT trying to destroy them. The Lord wants us to grow stronger so he sends or allows times of testing to come into our lives. Abraham did not know why God was giving this test but He trusted the heart of the Lord. . . and that is faith.
We see this faith in the book of Job. All kinds of bad things happened to Job . . . really bad things (his crops burned up, his livestock was stolen, his workers were killed, and his ten children were killed because the house they were in was destroyed by a tornado). And all of this happened in the same day!
But that was not all. Shortly thereafter Job suffered physically. He was afflicted with boils that itched so bad it drove him crazy. His wife encouraged him by saying, “Why don’t you curse God and just die already!” (She seems like a real gem, doesn’t she?) Then Job’s friends showed up, and they argued that these bad things were happening to Job because God didn’t like him and was punishing Him.
Throughout this horrible ordeal Job was faithful. In Job 23:10-12 Job says,
“But he (God) knows where I am going.
And when he tests me, I will come out as pure as gold.
11 For I have stayed on God’s paths;
I have followed his ways and not turned aside.
12 I have not departed from his commands,
but have treasured his words more than daily food.
Those are the words of faith. Job was hurting. He was confused. But, he was not going to turn away from the Lord. Job was determined that he was going to prove faithful even in the time of testing.
By experience we know that some of the most mature saints are the ones that have suffered deeply. They have learned to hold on to the Lord no matter what the test. It is easy to talk about faith when things are going well. Real faith kicks in when things get difficult.
And that is the thing that stands out with Abraham. There is no record of Abraham arguing with God. God told him to sacrifice his son and he packed up the firewood and headed to the mountain. Every step had to be very heavy and difficult but Abraham kept putting one foot in front of the other. And that is what faith looks like. Sometimes it is one simple decision followed by another. The person of faith doesn’t freak out when the tests come. They continue trust the heart and purpose of the Father.
Tests give us the opportunity to show our love and devotion to the Lord. Rather than grumble about them, we should thank God for the opportunity.
Faith Loves the Lord More Than Anything Else
There is a second lesson from this test: we learn that faith means loving the Lord more than ANYTHING else. What makes this test so excruciating is that God was asking Abraham to sacrifice not only his son; it is the son God had promised would bless the world. He was therefore instructing Abraham to give up the one who Abraham believed was his future.
There were lots of different kinds of sacrifices in the Old Testament. In many of them, part of the sacrifice would be given to the Lord and part would be consumed by the worshipper. That was not the case with a burnt offering. In a burnt offering the sacrifice was burnt up entirely. It represented the giving of yourself, all you have, and all you are, to God without reserve or remainder.
This is the kind of sacrifice Abraham was to give. This test, in other words was to remind Abraham not to let His son become more important than his relationship with the Lord.
Idolatry is not just bowing before stone and wood gods. Idolatry is when even something good or beautiful usurps the position that belongs to God alone. When our obedience to the Lord becomes contingent on something else, that something else has become an idol; it has become a false God.
And let’s face it, we can easily make our children or our family our idol. Think about it . . .what would you do if God asked you to surrender your child to Him? (And you only have to go to a hospital like St. Jude’s to see that this test continues for many families).
I am afraid I would balk. I would tell God to take me, but not them. I would question, I might argue, and I would really drag my feet. I realize that as I say that I confess that my faith needs to grow more. These kinds of tests show that there is an area of my (our) life that does not fully belong to Him. That means I am flirting with (or engaging in) idolatry.
If we want to be people of faith (and since it is the only way to please God, this is certainly what we should desire) we must address those areas that stand between us and full devotion to Him.
Faith Trusts the Character of the Lord Over our Ability to Understand
Along this same line I see a third principle of faith. Faith trusts the character of the Lord over our ability to understand.
This test made no sense to Abraham. God had promised that Isaac would be the one through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled. God was the one who made all of this possible. Now he told Abraham to put Isaac to death!
Abraham wrestled with this and that’s why we read that Abraham concluded that if God wanted Him to sacrifice Isaac, then God must be planning to bring him back from the dead so he could fulfill the promise. Abraham did not understand the why . . .but he knew the character of the Who. He knew that no matter what the circumstance, God was going to be faithful to His Word and His promise.
Perhaps you are going through one of those times now. Life seems to be falling apart. You don’t know what God is doing. You feel that He has turned His back on you. This is when we need to take a lesson from Abraham. He anchored his heart and mind to the promise and character of God.
You may feel alone but you know that if you belong to Christ you are never alone. You may feel that you “can’t take one more thing” but you know God has promised to strengthen you. You may feel God hates you but you can remind yourself that Jesus came for the weary and heavily burdened and wants to give us rest. You may have prayed for healing, but it doesn’t seem to be coming.
It may feel like you are in an impossible situation. However, God is faithful. We don’t always understand His ways but what we do know is that God is in Control, He loves us, and He never ever makes a mistake. What God promises; He delivers. If we have rightly understood His promise we need not fear. . . only trust.
Faith Sees Beyond the Present
There is one more thing here. In verses 20-22 we read this quick summary of the descendants of Abraham.
20 It was by faith that Isaac promised blessings for the future to his sons, Jacob and Esau.
21 It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.
22 It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left.
The person of faith understands that God’s story extends over many generations. It is a story that was begun thousands of years ago and may very well continue for many years or even generations after we have gone.
What we see in the text is Isaac (the son of Abraham), Jacob (the son of Isaac) and Joseph (the son of Jacob) each passing the promise on to the next generation. Each of these men did their part in the work of God’s kingdom. Each was blessed. And each realized that they had not yet arrived at the full blessing God had promised.
I think we would stress a lot less if we realized that we were actually bit players is God’s story. We have but a few lines in this drama of redemption. We are only in one scene of the story.
It must be interesting to be an actor in a movie. Especially if don’t have a very big part. You film your part but you really aren’t sure how it is all going to fit together. Then one day you are invited to the screening of the movie. That is when you see it in context. You see how it all fits together.
That is how it is with us. We don’t understand the part we are playing until the story is completed. When we see the finished product we will rejoice and nod at the brilliance of the Lord.
God has a plan. His timing is perfect. If we don’t see all the fulfillment of God’s promises in our lifetime it doesn’t mean we will never see them. God’s view of blessing and healing are not as immediate and shallow as our understanding. God is doing something deep; something lasting. God is faithful. Our job is to faithfully serve Him and pass the baton to the next generation of believers. One of these generations will be the last one. It could be our generation . . . but then again it may not be. Our motivation should be to “run our leg of the race” the best we can and to prepare those who come after us to run faithfully as well.
From the story of Abraham we have learned a number of things about faith. We saw:
- Faith means listening to God and doing what He says
- Faith is believing God can do what the world says is impossible
- Faith is patient; trusting God’s character
This week we have added some more lessons:
- Faith means trusting God in the time of testing . . .it means seeing tests as opportunities from God to declare our love and devotion to Him rather than to see them as attempts to destroy us by the Devil. God is working to strengthen us in the times of testing. We should embrace than rather than freak out because of them.
- Faith means loving the Lord more than we love anything (or any one) that is in the world . . . and that includes our children, our job, our comfort, our toys, our hobbies, our security, or our retirement funds.
- Faith means trusting God’s character and promise even when we don’t understand. We have to continually remind ourselves that we have trouble seeing clearly because our perspective is so limited. God can be trusted even when we don’t understand what He is doing.
- Faith sees the big picture. Faith understands that we are only in one scene of His story of redemption. Our job is to do what we are asked to do and then prepare those who come after us to do the same.
I hope you are beginning to get a picture of faith that has flesh and bones. Faith is not just a feeling we muster inside of us. Faith is deep. It is anchored to the character of God. It is active and practical. It involves taking the doctrines we have in our heads and translating them into the way we live our lives every day.
Hebrews tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. The reason is now easy to see. God can’t save us, He can’t bless us, He can’t lead us, and He cannot give us true and deep life, unless we trust Him. And that trust must be a greater trust than we have for anything else this life has to offer.
Faith makes sense. But, with our sinful nature, it certainly isn’t easy. Abraham provides some principles to help us. Now it is time to put one foot in front of the other and begin the journey.
 Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).