8. Abraham's Test
Abraham’s Growing Faith
Warm-up Question: Did you have a pop culture idol while you were growing up?
Alternative Warm-up Question: Share the moment you first heard you were going to have a baby.
One of the greatest moments of my life was when we heard that my wife Sandy was pregnant with our first child, Anna. We heard the news while we were living in Jerusalem, Israel, from an Arab doctor in Bethlehem. I remember the joy that flooded our hearts as we walked out of the doctor's office that morning as if it were yesterday. God filled our hearts with laughter! We felt like we were walking on air as we made our way home from the doctor’s office.
Imagine how it must have been for Sarah to tell Abraham he was going to have a son at one hundred years of age! How would Sarah have known she was pregnant? In Sarah’s day, there were no doctor’s offices for a pregnancy test. The mind boggles at the thought of a ninety-year-old woman today, going into a doctor’s office or a drug store asking for a pregnancy test kit! We know she was past the age of childbearing and undoubtedly way past menopause. Surely there was a shock at the first kick of the baby inside her womb. Imagine wide-eyed Abraham as he heard the news for the first time from Sarah. How stunning would have been the revelation that God keeps His promises precisely on time—even when it is an utterly impossible situation. Praise must have filled his heart when he held Isaac in his arms for the first time.
It seemed like forever that Abraham had waited on this promise that he would be the father of many nations, and here at one hundred years of age the promise was fulfilled. It is easy to imagine the three of them together in the tent with Isaac cradled in the middle and Abraham and Sarah laughing together as they started saying his name, “Laughter,” as they giggled for joy at the miraculous power of God!
1Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 2Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” 3Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5He 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.” 6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife (Genesis 22:1-6).
When Isaac was weaned from his mother's milk, Abraham threw a big party (Genesis 21:8). I'm sure people came from far and wide to see the miraculous boy birthed by a ninety-year-old woman to a hundred-year-old man. Don't you think Abraham enjoyed giving testimony to the power of God to provide miraculous answers to prayer? Do not underestimate the power of sharing your testimony of what God has done in you and through you. Every morning he saw his son and Sarah, he witnessed a remarkable miracle of God. Faith grows when one trusts in God's Word and sees answers to faith. Imagine how Abraham would have doted on his promised son God had miraculously given him. The fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham had undoubtedly considerably boosted his faith.
Abraham's test came several years after Isaac was born with no significant challenges to his faith. Verses five and twelve tell us that Isaac was now a "boy." How old we do not know, but Isaac was now walking and talking. When one’s spiritual life plateaus, and there is no upward climb or increase to faith, the Lord often comes to us like the divine Vinedresser pruning His vine for greater fruitfulness: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit (John 15:1-2). The Lord uses trials or tests so that His people will enjoy a new growth spurt in their faith.
God designs each test to shape our character enabling us to get off the plateau so that we may grow in grace again. Think of the testing the apostle Peter went through when he had become too sure of himself. He thought that he had it all together and was able to stand in the midst of whatever came at him. When Jesus told the disciples that the Shepherd would be struck and the sheep scattered, Peter's response was, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death" (Luke 22:33). The Lord allowed a test to come to Peter. He was asked three times if he had been with Jesus, and each time he denied ever knowing Christ. Jesus had told Peter that Satan had asked to sift the disciple: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). The Lord allowed the test to grow his faith.
How did Peter's test strengthen his faith? When he was restored to Christ, he was much more reliant on the Spirit's power than his ability and strength of resolve. Tests of our faith can also come after spiritual victories. After Elijah won the victory in a spiritual duel over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, when he called down fire from heaven, he experienced great spiritual oppression and depression. Jezebel’s words laid him low to the point where she convinced him that he would not live another day (1 Kings 19:2). Godly leaders often experience bouts of oppression and depression in their work of pushing back the powers of darkness. C.H. Spurgeon, the great English prince of preachers, was often given to bouts of severe depression. It is not uncommon for Christian leaders to experience times of great darkness and spiritual opposition to their work of making Christ known.
What do you think God was seeking to accomplish in Abraham’s character with this test?
It is likely that when Ishmael, his son by Hagar, had to leave his household, that Abraham’s attention had become even more focused on his son Isaac. When we are extremely fond of people or things, we tend to lose focus on God who loves us and wants to enjoy relationship with us. It is likely that Abraham thought more about Isaac than the God who gave the boy. After all, Isaac was the child of promise! It is understandable to think how Abraham's attention and affections were so focused on the boy. If we are to be servants of the Lord, we are to be consecrated to Him. To be consecrated is to have open and empty hands toward the Lord. When we grip things or people too tightly, the Lord uses tests and trials to release our grip from whatever it is we are focused. Even the gifts that God gives us can become more important to us than God Himself. When the Lord pries them from our grip, we experience spiritual growth.
Have you ever felt something or someone became so important to you that nothing else mattered? Was this a good thing, or did it become a challenge to your faith? Has the Lord ever asked you to give something up?
Many years ago as a young Christian I had a good-sized garden where I grew potatoes, strawberries, and other vegetables. My pride and joy, though, was my tomato plants. I was working at the time as a commercial fisherman, but when I would get home, I would dash outside to see how the tomato plants were doing. One particular day when I was inspecting them after work, the thought came to my mind, “you are focused too much on your tomato plants." It hit me that I had become obsessed with the tomatoes! I did not want to get carried away to the point where I was always thinking of these plants. I felt challenged by the Holy Spirit about it. I cut the tomato plants down after that. Another time when I saw myself loving things more than the Lord was when I worked my father's fishing boat at nighttime and working completely alone. When my dad would get in from a day’s fishing, I would go back out and work the boat alone. One particular night, I went to an area where our fishing rivals normally went to and caught so many fish and made so much money that greed started to replace my love for God. I saw it manifested in how much thought I gave to how I could maximize my fishing time to get the most fish. I lost much sleep after I got back to harbor thinking about how I could be more successful in my work. It wasn’t long after that that God called me from my father’s fishing nets to work with Him. Where do your thoughts go to in your spare time? “A man’s life is what his thoughts make it,” Marcus Aurelius said. "Whoever or whatever is prompting your predominant thought will govern your immediate action. Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny."
We serve a God that has a special love for His people. He said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness (Jeremiah 31:3). We are only at our happiest when our hearts are focused on Him. The Lord made us in such a way that, without Him, there is a God-shaped hole in our lives. Jesus said to those that were following Him:
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37).
When Jesus restored Peter after his three-time denial, He asked Peter as to how much he loved Him. The first time it was, “Do you love me more than these?” Then it was, “Do you truly love me?” and finally, “Do you love me?” We are to love Him with all our souls, mind and strength (Mark 12:33). Our possessions and things have a way of causing us to grip them too tightly. It is likely that Abraham’s test was designed by God to pry open Abraham’s fingers from an unbalanced love of Isaac. Perhaps you also have something or someone in your life that you hold too tightly. You might not even be aware that you are in a test. When Abraham reached the place called Moriah, he was obedient:
As the two of them went on together, 7Isaac 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?” 8Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. 9When 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. 10Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11But 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.” 13Abraham 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. 14So 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” (Genesis 22:6-14).
When God told him to take his son, his only son, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering, he did not know this was a test, and he did not see the outcome. Only we have the benefit of hindsight.
The Walk to Moriah
What would have been on Abraham’s mind as he traveled the three days to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering?
He got up early the next morning (Genesis 22:3) and saddled his donkey. He cut up the wood ahead of time and made sure he had a sharp knife with him as he got two servants and his son together. I am sure he did not tell Sarah what the Lord had told him to do. It is way too easy to find reasons as to why a person should not obey God. Abraham needed no distractions to hinder him from doing what God told him to do. The Lord made it clear which son he was to sacrifice. It was not to be Ishmael—this had to be the promised son—the one in whom were all the promises, the son he loved so dearly (v. 2). Think of the illogical nature of it all. The wait for this boy had been so long, and now he was to kill him—how crazy an idea must that have seemed? How this man of faith would have drawn back at the thought of doing this to his beloved son! How would he explain it to Sarah when he came home with Isaac’s blood all over his clothes? How would he tell this to those he invited to the party he had held to rejoice upon the weaning of Isaac?
Abraham knew what it was like to offer a burnt offering. God had brought him from Ur of the Chaldees, a pagan city that performed child sacrifices. Abraham may have witnessed this type of sacrifice. To offer a sacrifice in Abraham's day meant that the offering's throat was slit, dismembered, and the pieces burnt upon the altar. This word from God went against his natural senses! The very thought of cutting up his son upon an altar was repulsive to him. The three-day journey to Mount Moriah speaks of the same route the Lamb of God took from the cross to the resurrection in being the sacrifice for all men. Jesus Himself said He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40). I'm sure Abraham enacted the whole scene in his mind over and over again while journeying the three days from Beersheba to Mount Moriah, the very site where Solomon's Temple was built (2 Chronicles 3:1). When he arrived at Moriah, he had two servants watching everything from a distance, far enough away for them not to intervene. The worst part for Abraham was that he saw no reason for sacrificing his son.
Why was the timing of the angel’s intervention significant? Have you ever wondered about God’s timing? Why did God wait until the last moment before He intervened?
17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Abraham had fully come to a place in his heart and mind where he had confidence in God’s abilities to fulfill his Word. Abraham told the two servants that he and Isaac would go on to worship and then they would both be back. He had full faith that Isaac would come back with him.
Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together (Genesis 22:7-8 KJV).
The writer of the letter to Hebrews writes that even in this bleak situation, Abraham trusted that God would somehow act righteously on his behalf and keep His promise to him: “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (Genesis 21:12). The writer to the Hebrews writes: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
What similarities can you see in the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac and the Father offering His Son on the cross?
Abraham was the forerunner of all those who follow the way of entering into a relationship with God through the substitutionary work of God’s Son on the cross. Abraham knew nothing at the time of what God would do in the future near Mount Moriah, but God wanted him to understand and even feel the pain of what sin would cost the Father in giving His only Son, the Lord Jesus, as the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God. The more a man can enter into seeing the pain of what it cost God to offer Christ, the more he will choose to abandon everything that brought Christ there in the first place. Hatred for sin is the result of seeing the cost to God for taking the place of Isaac and each of us at Moriah. One of the reasons I like to arrange and lead tours of pilgrimage to Israel is that people are more easily able to enter into the depths of God's love when they walk the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross.
In one of Billy Graham’s evangelistic films, Shiokari Pass, a young Christian became a hero. He was working with a railroad company, far away from his fiancée. He worked hard every day and finally the time came to go back to his fiancée and marry her. On the way back home, just before the peak of a steep hill, the train suddenly shook hard and stopped. When the young man went to the front of the passenger car on which he was riding, he found that it had disconnected from the rest of the train. It then began to roll backward down the steep slope. Since he had worked on the railroad, he knew that there was a sharp curve behind them that the passenger car could not handle. It would be thrown off the tracks, killing the passengers. He tried to stop the car with the handbrake, but he failed. Our hero then remembered his favorite verse in the Bible: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." Although this man had everything to live for, he jumped on the train tracks and stopped the passenger car with his body. He laid down his life to save the lives of many.
God has done something similar for us. The lamb that Abraham saw caught in the thicket is a picture of what God would do in the future for all those who will enter into the sacrifice of God Himself as the Messiah (Christ). For those of us reading and studying today, it was two thousand years ago that the once-for-all-time sacrifice bled and died. His blood paid our debt of sin. Moses' (the writer of the book of Genesis) words reach today to each of us when he wrote of what God would do at Moriah in Jerusalem:
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” (Genesis 22:14).
Just as Isaac was substituted by a lamb, the provision of God is for us to know God through a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. The plan and provision of God on the mountain of the Lord help us to believe that God keeps His Word. He has made a covenant, and He will not fail to keep His Word with us. When we trust Him, the Lord stretches our faith to new dimensions, so we can "give our Isaacs" to God. God will never require you to do anything that He will not give you the grace and ability to do. He is genuinely Jehovah Jireh, our provider. His grace is sufficient.
Prayer: Thank you, Father, for providing your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be my substitute for sin. Please help me to understand what it cost you to see your Son hanging on the cross in full payment of my debt of sin. Amen!