testing, Abraham, True Faith
One of the most cherished blessings of life is children. It is an incredible thing to realize that you have helped give life to another. Most of us love being a part of our children’s lives. We root for them, we hurt for them and we rejoice to be with them.
I believe one of the most devastating tragedies in life may be having to bury your children. What mother or father would not rather suffer themselves than watch their children suffer? Which of us would not quickly give our own life if it meant we could save the life of our child? And this is why Genesis 22 is such a riveting passage of scripture. What Abraham is asked to do is something most of us would find nearly impossible to do.
Our text tells us that “Some time later” God tested Abraham. We don’t know how much later. If you remember, at the end of chapter 21 Isaac was two or three years old. In my reading this week I read suggestions that Isaac was in his mid to late teens to the suggestion that he was 33 years old (the age Jesus was when he died). From the text it seems to me that all we know is this: Isaac was strong enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice and that he was old enough to understand that having a sacrifice without a lamb didn’t work.
The test is devastating.
- It involves his beloved son. Isaac was the long-awaited child. He was the joy of his parents heart. They had waited all their life for him and all the blessings were to be through him. And now God asks for this son.
- It is three days away. On the one hand this is devastating because there is little preparation time. On the other hand there is too much. During the walk to the mountain Abraham must have thought long and hard about what he was going to do. I would have thought that with each step I would have become less willing to obey.
- It was a sacrifice from his own hand. It is awful to think of losing a child. But it is almost unbearable to consider that the child died as a result of your own hand. What would he tell Sarah? How could he sleep at night?
The text baffles us with its simplicity: “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.” God asks Abraham to do this great thing and Abraham does it!
It seems to me that there are two questions we need to ask, first, “Why Does God Test Abraham ( And Us)?” and second, “How can we develop a faith like Abraham’s?”
WHY THE TEST?
Why would God “test” Abraham? It seems that if anyone had a good “track record” it was Abraham. He believed God regarding the promise of a son. He obeyed God’s command for everyone to be circumcised. He even sent Hagar and Ishmael away when God commanded him to do it. Hadn’t Abraham proved his faithfulness? It is “yes!” to everyone of these questions. But are some reasons God tested Abraham. . . and why He sometimes tests us.
To Combat Half-Heartedness
I don’t know if Abraham was ever half-hearted in his faith, but we certainly are at times. Like the student who is concerned to get an assignment done in the quickest way possible (rather than to do the best job possible), so we tend to look for the minimum requirements necessary for discipleship. We hear talk about grace (like we mentioned last week) and conclude that we just need to say a prayer or something and our eternal destiny is determined.
To think this way is to misunderstand what God asks of us. Salvation cannot be earned . . . it is a gift. God tells us that we must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved. But belief is not something that you do ONCE. To believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is to rely on Him, trust Him, and build your life on Him. It is a new orientation for life!
In the book, THE ALMOST CHRISTIAN REDISCOVERED, Puritan Matthew Mead imagines God asking us some simple questions:
If my commands are not holy, just, and good, then why do you proclaim them as such? And if they are holy, just, and good why don’t you obey them? If Jesus Christ is not worth having, why do you profess Him? If He is worth having, then why don’t you hold Him tight and draw as close as you can to Him? If the means that I have appointed to convert and save souls (worship, prayer, study, the sacraments) are not effective, why do you sit under them and rest in the performance of them? And if they are effective, then why don’t you submit to the power in them? If religion is not good, why do you profess it? If religion is good, why do you not practice it? [p. 160 my paraphrase]
God is calling us to a REAL decision. The church in Laodoceia was condemned because they were lukewarm. They “believed” but were half-hearted in their belief. Half-heartedness is worse than turning away entirely. Both lead to hell but the one is worse because it leads us to hell while thinking we are headed to Heaven!
In the time of Moses God told the children of Israel that God wants them to “love the Lord their God with ALL their heart, soul, and strength.” (Deut 6:5) This was the creed that every good Jew memorized. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus responded by repeating this creed and adding the word “mind”. In Matthew 6 Jesus told His disciples to “seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things [food, clothing, beauty] will be added to you.” [emphasis mine. see Matthew 6:33]
Again to paraphrase Mead,
True union makes a true Christian. Many come to Christ but it is upon their own terms. They take and own Him but not as God offers Him. The terms upon which God in the gospel offers Christ are that we shall accept a broken Christ with a broken heart, and a whole Christ with the whole heart – A broken Christ refers to His suffering for sin, a broken heart refers to our sense of sin. When we talk about a whole Christ we mean all that He is as Prophet, Priest and King, and a whole heart means that we give Him everything we have. So the gospel calls us to receive the Christ that was sacrificed with the humble realization that he was sacrificed on our account. And it means to recognize Him as Lord and Master and to follow Him with all we have and are. [Mead, ALMOST CHRISTIAN p. 129]
God sends sends tests our way to force us to “get off the fence”. They are sent to make our faith real.
To Keep us From Getting Distracted
The second reason for God’s times of testing is to keep us focused. Even the best of us forget where we are going. I think that was the danger with Abraham. He was so satisfied with Isaac and the sweetness of knowing God’s promise fulfilled, that he forgot that the real goal was not Isaac, but the Lord.
How common this is in our lives. We experience the blessing of the Lord and become satisfied in the blessing instead of in the one who is doing the blessing. When times are good we often find that our spiritual life grows stale. Our prayer loses intensity, our Bible study becomes sporadic, our worship become optional, our giving becomes superficial. The times of testing wake us up from our spiritual coma. God wants us to continue to strive for holiness. He wants us to hunger for a relationship with Him and not just for the blessings He gives. He wants us to seek His “Well Done” rather than the applause of men. He wants us to seek holiness, not just comfort. He wants us to pursue joy and not just a good time. God is not satisfied to have our gratitude . . . He wants our love. So times of testing often come to get us back on track.
I’m ashamed to say that my most intense and focused prayer is often on Saturday night. We see life’s values most clearly in the difficult times. We search for the Lord most intensely when trouble looms. It shouldn’t have to be that way . . . but most often it is.
To Make us Deeper and More Productive
In James we are told that the testing of our faith ” produces endurance, and endurance must finish it’s work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4 ) Paul tells us that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5) Jesus tells us that every branch (or believer) that bears fruit “he prunes so that it may be more fruitful”.
A nail would certainly question the value of a hammer. To the nail, the hammer is a cruel instrument. But what it doesn’t see is that each blow forces the nail to bite deeper and hold more effectively. Without the hammer the nail would not be effective. If metal had feelings it probably would question the file and the furnace. The rough scraping of the file would seem tortuous but it is necessary to fit the metal for its part. The furnace would be met with screams and dread, but the furnace is necessary to purify and strengthen the metal. Chuck Swindoll has some great words on this issue,
Heartaches and disappointments are like the hammer, the file, and the furnace. They come in all shapes and sizes: unfulfilled romance, a lingering illness, and untimely death, an unachieved goal in life, a broken home or marriage, a severed friendship, a wayward and rebellious child, a personal medical report that advised :immediate surgery,” a falling grade at school, a depression that simply won’t go away, a habit you can’t seem to break. Sometimes heartaches come suddenly . . . other times they appear over the passing of many months, slowly as the erosion of earth.
Do I write to a “nail” that has begun to resent the blows of the hammer? Are you at the brink of despair, thinking that you cannot bear another day of heartache? Is that what’s gotten you down?
As difficult as it may be for you to believe this today, the Master knows what He’s doing. Your Savior knows your breaking point. The bruising and the crushing and melting process is designed to reshape you, not ruin you. Your value is increasing the longer he lingers over you. [Encourage Me p. 36]
Abraham certainly wondered “why”. Perhaps he felt like a nail being attacked by a hammer. But Abraham also understood that the nail and the hammer were both held by the hand of the Lord. He knew that God knew what He was doing and so he trusted him.
Keys to Abraham’s Faith
The second question want to ask is this: How was Abraham able to show such remarkable faith? Or, “how can I develop a faith like that of Abraham?”
He obeyed Immediately
To me the most remarkable thing about Abraham’s faith is that there is no record of a debate. There is no record that Abraham asked “why?” He doesn’t argue his case . . . He just obeys. In Genesis 12 God tells Abraham to leave Ur so he packs his bags and heads out in the morning. In chapter 17 God tells Abraham to circumcise the males of his household. He gathers the males and they are circumcised. In chapter 21 God tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away and the next morning he sends them off. And we see the same thing here. God tells Abraham that he wants him to sacrifice his one and only son. The son he loves. The son of the promise. And the next morning Abraham heads off.
If we are real honest with ourselves and with each other we will admit that we spend a good deal of time studying God’s commands looking for loopholes! We are masters at the sin of rationalization. We are constantly justifying our lack of obedience.
Does that seem overly harsh? Perhaps you’re thinking: “I would obey God immediately also if He spoke to me like He spoke to Abraham.” But isn’t God speaking with equal clarity in His Word?
- He tells us not to marry an unbeliever
- He tells us to forgive an offense
- He tells us to tell the truth
- He tells us to love even our enemies
- He tells us not to spend what we don’t have
- He tells us to build up rather than tear down
- He tells us to leave judging others to Him
- He tells us to pray without ceasing
- He tells us to give rather than hoard
- He tells us to invest in heaven instead of putting all our efforts into impressing each other.
God’s direction today is just as clear as it was then. The difference is not in the message or the messenger . . . it is in the one who is receiving the message. If we want to be great champions of faith and know the great power and blessing of God . . . we have to do what He tells us to do. This is something we must resolve and discipline ourselves to do. When we come across a command in the Bible that is addressed to us we need to obey immediately. And the only way we can do this is to remember that the one who is commanding us is doing so out of perfect wisdom and staggering love.
As the player has to learn to trust his coach, so we must learn to trust the Lord. When the Lord says jump we should jump. We can talk about whether it was high enough later.
He separated from those who would keep him from doing what was right.
Why didn’t Abraham bring the servants up the mountain with him? I think Abraham told the servants, “stay here while I offer the sacrifice” because he knew the servants would try to stop him. They would have kept him from placing his son on the altar. They would have concluded that he had lost his mind and surely tried to subdue him “for his own good.”
We must show the same wisdom. The friends that keep us from the Lord are no real friends. The things that turn us from the Lord should be eliminated from our lives. If we want to be faithful followers (do we?) then we must be diligent in removing every obstacle. Think about what this means for
- the amusements we engage in
- the television we watch
- the hobbies we pursue
- the organizations we join
- the priorities of our “To Do” list
- the appetites we indulge
- the way we respond to situations
Sometimes effective discipleship begins with subtraction. Sometimes we must eliminate things before we can do the things that lead to holy living. We must constantly be evaluating our lives and our habits for those things which lead us in the wrong direction.
He trusted God’s Faithfulness
The final truth about Abraham’s character is that he trusted God’s faithfulness. Abraham told the servants, “WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.” Was Abraham just trying to keep the men from asking questions? I don’t think so. I think Abraham really expected to come back down that mountain with Isaac.
When Isaac asked about the lamb, Abraham replied, “God will provide”. He didn’t know how God would provide . . . but he knew he would.
You see, Abraham had complete confidence in God’s promise. He knew that God had promised to bring him descendants through Isaac. So . . . somehow, God would fulfill his promise . . . even though it seemed that what God was asking would make that an impossibility.
The book of Hebrews tells us that Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham was so confident of God’s power and promise that he believed that even if he sacrificed his son, God would somehow still bring descendants from his son. The most logical way to do so would be to raise him from the dead.
Abraham had learned that in those times when he did not understand the situation, he had to trust the one who had promised to guide and direct Him. Even when he didn’t understand the “why?” he trusted the “Who?”.
There was a fire in a certain house. The child stood in a window but she couldn’t see a thing. The voice of her father called “jump, I will catch you.” “But, Father, I can’t see you!” she said. “That’s O.K.” said the Father, “I can see you.” She jumped not because she could see . . . she jumped because she trusted the voice of the one who told her to jump.
And this was the key to Abraham’s faith: He believed God. He trusted the one who called to Him. And friend, that’s where faith begins. You may not understand His call. You may not understand the circumstances you find yourself in. But faith is not about understanding . . . it is about trust. Do you trust God?
There are two things I conclude with. First, we cannot leave this passage without stopping to see the picture behind the picture. The details are too striking to be coincidental.
Abraham was directed to Mount Moriah for this great test of faith. In 2 Chronicles 3:1 we are told that Mount Moriah was where the temple stood. Jerusalem sits on Mount Moriah. The cross of Christ was erected on Mount Moriah.
- The place where Abraham was told to sacrifice His son is the very place where God sacrificed His own Son, Jesus, for our sin.
- The same place where God provided a ram as a substitute for Abraham’s son, God provided a substitute for us in the person of Christ.
- The same place where Abraham was given his son back was the place where God gave His Son up on our behalf.
As astounding as the faith of Abraham was . . . . the love of God is greater.
Friend, you and I are asked to place our life in the hands of this God. We are asked to receive His gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of Christ and to follow Him with our lives. It is a big request. It is a life-changing decision. And it is the most reasonable thing you could ever do. What could be more sensible than entrusting our lives to one who loves like this? If you have never turned to Jesus Christ as Savior. If you have not come to the broken Christ with a broken heart and the whole Christ with your whole heart . . . . why not do so today?
And I point to one more thing this morning. He has been lurking in the shadows. We have mentioned Isaac several times but we haven’t really noticed him at all. Have you asked yourself that difficult question? How was Abraham able to tie up his son to lay him on the altar? Surely Isaac was quicker than his dad. He may have been much stronger than his father. So, how did it happen that Isaac ended up on the altar.
I can only conclude that Isaac went willingly. How could this be? I suggest that it was because Abraham had taught his son that obedience to the Lord was always the right way. He taught him that God was faithful. He taught him well.
On this Father’s day we cannot forget this lesson. The greatest gift we can give to our children has no financial price tag. It is not the clothes we buy, the food we furnish, or the schools we send them to. It is the gift of a true faith, and a consistent example of that faith in our own lives.
Abraham was asked to give up his son. He was asked to put God first above family, possessions, community expectations and his own desires. And Abraham did so. It would have been a terribly difficult thing for a father to do. But the irony is this: until Abraham was willing to give up even his son to the Lord . . . he could not be the Father his son needed him to be.
We pray the prayer of A.W. Tozer,
- Father, I want to know You, but my coward heart fears to give up its toys. I cannot part with them without inward bleeding, and I do not try to hide from You the terror of the parting. I come trembling, but I do come. Please root from my heart all those things which I have cherished so long and which have become a very part of my living self, so that You my enter and dwell there without a rival. Then you will make the place of Your feet glorious. Then my heart will have no need of the sun to shine in it, for You will be the light of it, and there shall be no night there. In Jesus’ Name, Amen. [Pursuit of God p. 31]