Pilgrims from Paradise:
Today we come to the last passage of Scripture that we will be analyzing in our discussion of Abraham. We have been following the patriarch’s story, discovering what his experience with God has to teach us about the relationship between our faith, imputed righteousness, obedience, and the promise of salvation in Christ. We have learned that Abraham’s faithful embracing of God’s promise to him, that he would be the father of many nations, opens the door for God to impute righteousness to him. That means, as we discussed early on in this series, that God reckons Abraham a participant in God’s own righteous life.
God does the same for those of us who, by faith, accept the salvation God offers in Jesus Christ. He takes our profession of faith as an invitation to begin the process of joining our beings to His, in an intimate, interactive, eternal dance of love. As we have said many times, salvation is nothing more, and nothing less, than this living union with God. But while faith opens the door to this relationship, it is obedience that walks through it. Abraham has taught us well that to participate in God’s life requires more than just believing in His promises, more than just faith alone. We must actually live His life with Him.
God makes this possible for us believers in Christ by giving us His own Spirit. Still, it remains for us to allow the Spirit to have His way in us. Doing that requires that we obey God’s instructions, following His lead into the beautiful joy of the dance. So faith opens our eyes to God and His desires for us, but it is by obedience that we come to know Him.
Last time, we learned that the more difficult the obedience, the greater our opportunity for experiencing God, and the deeper the resulting intimacy with Him. At the end of this road waits the promise that Jesus prayed for in John 17:21-23: Perfect oneness with God—the same kind of oneness that Jesus shares with the Father.
Today we come to the end of Abraham’s path to his promise. There he faces the greatest test of obedience imaginable. God requires him to sacrifice the promise, itself:
Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Take now your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. ” 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.
Then on the third day, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. 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.” 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.
But Isaac spoke to Abraham, his father, and said, “My father,” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”
So the two of them went together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order, and he bound Isaac, his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” So he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there, behind him, was a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went, and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering, instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, “The Lord will provide,” as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord, it shall be provided.”
Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven and said, “By Myself I have sworn,” says the Lord, “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is on the seashore, and your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies. In your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba. [Genesis 22:1-19]
This is such a rich passage. There are all sorts of lessons to be learned from it, relating to all kinds of topics. But our focus here is on Abraham’s journey to the fulfillment of the promise God made him so many years before. That moment, when Abraham demonstrated faith in God, and God imputed righteousness to him, is at this point, a long ago event. Ever since then, the story has been about Abraham either listening, or not listening, to God. It has been about his difficult choices and sacrifices.
Commonly, Christian teachers refer to these pivotal movements in Abraham’s life as tests of faith. Certainly, they can be described as that. But let’s not forget. How does a person, be it Abraham, or anyone else, pass a test of faith? Do you just have to exert more faith, more belief? No. The answer to a test of faith is an act of obedience. Here in chapter 22 of Genesis, Abraham faces an obedience so horrifying and hideous, that refusing to do it would seem like the only right thing to do, even if it is God commanding it.
I am a father. I have reflected on this passage many times, asking myself what I would do if God were to ask me to kill my son. That would sicken me to the point of death. I am afraid that I would offer considerable resistance. That would be especially true if God were to put the command to me the same way He does to Abraham. The Lord sounds almost as if He is mercilessly toying with His servant. “Take now your son,” he says to Abraham, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering.” I would expect Abraham to respond with something like, “No! How can you ask me to do this, Lord? And why are you rubbing it in my face, reminding me how much I love Isaac? Are you trying to drive a knife through my heart, as well as through his?”
Abraham has reacted in a questioning fashion to God’s commands before, you remember. When God made the promise to Sarah that she would bear Isaac, and that he would be the child of the promise, Abraham responded, “Lord, why can’t it just be Ishmael?” But now, curiously, Abraham doesn’t reply at all. He makes no protest. He gets up the very next morning, packs up his son, and heads off to carry out God’s command to kill his own child. Abraham has three days to think about this on the road. The mountain of sacrifice comes in sight while they are still far off, the scripture says. He fixes his gaze on that mountaintop and moves resolutely toward it. In his mind he surely contemplates what is going to happen when he and Isaac arrive there. But he never falters. How is that possible?
Hebrews 11 prophetically gives us some insight into Abraham’s attitude here. Abraham places Isaac on the sacrificial altar and raises his hand with the firm intention of slaying him, all the while knowing, as verse 19 of that chapter tells us, that God is able to raise him up, even from the dead. Where does Abraham get the confidence that even the death of the child of promise will not keep God from keeping His promise? Assurance of this depth and magnitude does not come from faith alone. It only comes from intimate experience with God, and intimate experience with God comes through obedient participation in His life.
Through the long years of his sojourn in this foreign land, Abraham has not been sitting back just waiting for his faith to be rewarded. Instead, he has been dancing with God, and through untold acts of obedience, acts both great and small, Abraham has been joined to the Divine Life. Abraham has learned that when we obey God, He becomes alive in us. His heart becomes our heart. His will becomes our will. By a long path of obedience, Abraham has at last reached that pinnacle which is the human being’s highest calling. He has come to that holy place where to deny God would be to deny himself. To violate God’s commands would be to violate his own being. To not do God’s will would be to erase his whole existence. Abraham has come to oneness with God. He stands on Mount Moriah, dancing with the Lord he loves and the angels who watch cannot tell them apart.
Once again, after God has spared Isaac and acknowledged the loyalty of His blessed servant, God repeats the promise He has made before. The last time Abraham heard it, it was presented to him as part of a covenant with God. At that time, God had made the fulfillment of the promise conditional upon Abraham’s careful observance of his role in the agreement. But now, God proclaims the promise with finality. It is clear that nothing more need be done. The Lord says to Abraham, “Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is on the seashore.”
But why will the Lord do this? Is it just because Abraham had faith that He would? No. Verse 16 tells us it is because Abraham has done this thing. The old patriarch has willingly offered the life of his beloved son. “Because you have obeyed My voice,” God declares to Abraham in verse 18, “I will fulfill My promise to you.”
To entrust Abraham with this great calling, to make him the father of many nations, and indeed, the spiritual father of all those who live by faith, God needed Abraham to love Him, to be one with Him. Through the nurture and development that comes through obedience, God has created His own heart within the chest of his child, Abraham. On Mount Moriah, Abraham reveals this transformation, this oneness with God, in the most poignant way possible. For the heavenly father, who will one day give up to death His only begotten son for love’s sake, finds in His old, devoted servant, that very same willingness.
Next time, we will conclude this series on the relationship between faith, imputed righteousness, obedience, and the fulfillment of God’s promises. We will draw together the lessons we have learned and look at the challenge they present to us. But until then, I sincerely invite you, my listeners, to spend time this week doing what I have done this past week&mdash: Letting your hearts be touched by the holy and beautiful life of our father, Abraham—a life divinely transformed through faith and obedience. Let us fervently pray that we truly may inherit his legacy.