We’re continuing now our reflections on worship in spirit and in truth. This is number six in the series, and it has to do with the Patriarch Abraham in the book of Genesis. As I said already and will continue to do this, we need to reflect on worship and sacrifice and offering to God in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets in order to understand, deeply and accurately, what we are doing in the new covenant in Christ in the worship in spirit and in truth in the Church of Christ, in the final covenanted community. I said already and I will repeat this many times that if we would understand the Scriptures, if we would have the scriptural mind, if we would see reality and humanity and God’s activity and God himself through the spectrum of the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, if we would know the Scriptures, we wouldn’t need study groups on the meaning of the Divine Liturgy. The meaning of the Divine Liturgy, the experience of doing the Liturgy—and Liturgy is something that we do, not something that we simply attend or hear or listen to or watch; we do it—it would be evident; it would be self-evident. Our problem is the ignorance of the holy Scripture.
St. John Chrysostom said the ignorance of the holy Scripture is the cause of every heresy and division in the Christian Church. Certainly our worship degenerates, and our worship even ceases to be worship, not to speak of worship in spirit and in truth that God desires, when we lose the biblical mind, the biblical view, the understanding of Scripture. Here we’ve said many times and we’ll say it again: Everything is prefigured in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and then are fulfilled and perfected in the person of Christ. When we know Christ and when we read the gospels, when we believe in Christ, crucified and glorified, then he opens our minds to understand the Scriptures, the deeper meaning of the Scripture, what the holy Fathers called the spiritual meaning, or in Latin they would call it the sensus plenior, the deepest, the deeper meaning, and the two go together. The old prefigures the new, and the new illumines and fulfills the old. That’s what we really need to do.
So we’re going to get to the commentary of the Liturgy itself, word by word, line by line, act by act, rite by rite, and we’re going to comment on that in some great detail, but we have to lay the foundation for that. Today we’re going to lay the foundation by reflecting on the story of Abraham. When I was a schoolboy, one of my teachers said, unforgettably, that in the whole biblical narrative about Abraham, from his calling to leave his country in Haran and to go down to the land of Canaan, where God had promised him, which begins in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, through Abraham’s relationship with Sarah and giving birth to Isaac and the sacrificial offering of Isaac and all the events that take place between the calling of Abram and Abraham’s death, which in the Scripture takes place in the 25th chapter of Genesis—Abraham takes another wife after Sarah—well, actually it’s in the 26th, 25th-26th chapters—then you have the death of Abraham.
In all those events in Abraham’s life are all, my teacher said, they contain a prefiguration and a typos, a type, of literally every aspect of the New Testament. Every aspect of Christianity is prefigured in the Abraham story. What we want to see now is how that is the case, and what we want to see know specifically, very especially, is how this relates to worship. So this is what it is.
In Genesis 12, we have the calling of Abraham. He’s 75 years old already; he’s an old man. God calls Abraham, and we would say, our understanding of this would be, that God knew whom he was calling; he knew that there was a man who would listen to him, who would listen to him, who would trust him. With the call of Abraham begins the whole holy history, what the Germans called Heilsgeschichte, the holy history of salvation. It begins with Abraham. The Hebrews, the Israelite, the Judahites—it all begins with Abraham. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes, Moses, and then, of course, David and Samuel, and then [Solomon], and then the prophets—all of this begins with Abraham.
So what we have is that God knows whom he’s calling, and he calls him because this man is willing and able to respond positively, and he does. So it says: “The Lord said to Abram”—and he’s called “Abram”; his name is not yet “Abraham”; he’s called “Abram”—God says to him:
Go from your country, your kindred, your father’s house, to the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse. By you all the families, all the nations of the earth (it says in the RSV:) shall bless themselves; (but the alternate reading is:) in you all the families, all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed.
Here you have this fundamental promise to Abraham, which is very important in the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament, very important in the New Testament itself, that Jesus is seen to be the son of Abraham, the son of David. St. Paul will even say that Jesus alone is the one seed of Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. In the letter to [the] Galatians, St. Paul says that the promise made to Abraham’s seed—sperma, semen—is singular, and it refers to Christ; that’s the letter to [the] Galatians. Of course, some scholars will say your seed can mean all of your children, all of your posterity, and in that sense that is the truth, but that whole posterity is reduced to one person, and we Orthodox Christians, ancient Christians, believe that all of humanity is reduced to one person, the New Adam, Jesus, and all Israel is reduced to one person, Yahweh’s suffering servant of God, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.
So you have this promise, right from the beginning, and the Scriptures are going to insist that God made a promise, he has sworn, and he will not change his mind. In the letter to the Hebrews, it says when God had no one else by whom to swear, he swore by himself, that he made this promise and he will keep it.
When Abram is called, he obeys. He goes with Lot, his kinsman Lot, and they take their children; they take everyone. He’s 75 years old. Abram takes Sarai—her name was “wife”—and Lot, his brother’s son, and they take all their possessions and they go to the land of Canaan.
When they pass through the land of the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh, at that time the Canaanites were in the land, and the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.”
And then it says—and here you have it, very important for worship: “So there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” So God appears to Abraham—Abram—and Abram builds an altar; he worships him. Remember how Noah built an altar after the ark. This is not just sacrifices here and there on little stone heaps or something. There’s actually an altar. An altar always means worship, and the center of worship for Christians will always be an altar. It will be a place of sacrifice. So that’s what he does, and he offers a sacrifice, obviously, to erect the altar; it means he makes a sacrifice.
Then he moves to Bethel, which means “the house of God.” He pitches a tent there, and he builds another altar to the Lord. And he calls on the name of the Lord. So we have Abram worshiping, calling on the Lord’s name and offering sacrifice from the beginning.
Then Abram goes down to Egypt because there’s plagues and he needs to have money. He takes his wife there. You have the story with him lying about his wife, that [she’s] his sister. But this going into Egypt and coming out of Egypt is a very important biblical typos. Abram goes to Egypt; he comes out. Moses goes into Egypt; he comes out. Jesus Christ, as a child, is taken by Joseph into Egypt, and then he comes out, fulfilling the prophecy, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.” So you have this important prefiguration in the life of Abraham, where he goes into Egypt and then he comes out.
When he comes out, he goes back into Negeb and to the land of Canaan, Bethel, and again it remarks specifically: “to the place where he had made an altar at the first.” And there again Abram called upon the name of the Lord. So you have this worship, calling on the name of the Lord right from the beginning.
And then you have Abram and Lot separating from each other. They’re given their particular places. God makes his promises. Then again at the end of the 13th chapter, you have God again saying to Abram, “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.” Then he shows where he is giving him.
What happens when they’re in the land of Canaan, they are having warfare with the kings who are in the land, and there are many kings in the land. They’re all listed in the 14th chapter, how many kings: the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of all these places. Then Abram enters into a battle with them, as is very often the case. It says:
When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive by these kings, he led forth his trained men, born in his house…
It’s interesting: there are 318 of them, it says. That’s interesting because in the—how can you say—the fulfillment literature of the Christian Church, the claim is going to be that there were 318 bishops at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, 318 that are pre-symbolized in the 318 that fought for Abraham against the kings of the land. So then he goes into the land and he defeats the kings. Then he returns after the defeat of the kings, the kings of Sodom in the valley of Shaveh, the King’s Valley.
Then here you have a very, very, very important event for worship in spirit and truth, and that is the event that, when he comes back from defeating the kings in Canaan, it says a certain Melchizedek comes to him, and it says that Melchizedek was the king of Salem. “Salem” means “peace.” “-zedek, -zedakah” means “righteousness. So it could be the king of righteousness who is the king of peace. Then it says that this Melchizedek, that no one knows where he came from; no one knows what his genealogy was. He just kind of appears suddenly. It says, “He brought out bread and wine.” It says specifically, “He was priest of God Most High.” Then it says this priest, Melchizedek, blesses Abram and says:
Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hands.
This is very important for many reasons. First of all, the name, “king of peace, king of righteousness,” that’s going to be the names for Jesus. Secondly, he comes as a priest of the God Most High, and Jesus is going to be called a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. We’re going to see that. What it says of why God is blessed by Abram is because God has delivered his enemies into his hand. It’s directed to Abram: “Blessed be God Most High who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
So here you have already the victory motif, of victory over enemies. Abraham is victorious over enemies. And the whole Old Testament is going to be filled with God fighting, through and in his people, over the enemies who are enemies of God—why? because they worship idols. They worship agricultural gods—the Ba’alim, the Ashteroth—they worship gods that their own hands have made. In the Old Testament, as we’ve mentioned in other podcasts, these battles are between gods. It’s the one, true, and living God, the Lord, Yahweh, the Most High God, the God Most High, El Shaddai, he’s called in Scripture, or El Elyon, Most High God, and these other gods are going to have to be destroyed.
The great, great, great fear is that the people that God calls, the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, that they’re going to worship other gods. We’re going to see that the first commandment is: “I am the Lord your God; you have no other gods. You shall not make graven images. I alone am God.” That’s going to be the theme of the whole Old Testament. There’s many gods, many lords, secondary gods, powers, forces, elemental forces, agricultural powers, the sun, the light, whatever, fire, and the gods in the waters and so on, but only God is God! Only the Lord is God; only Yahweh is God, the Most High God. And that’s going to continue all the way through.
Then, of course, by the time you get to Jesus in that dialogue with the Samaritan woman, this one God is seeking people to worship him in spirit and in truth, and he’s to be worshiped as the Father of Jesus. The Most High God will be the Father of Jesus. We will see this again and again.
But what we see here now is that there’s a victory over enemies already, and the ultimate meaning of the Divine Liturgy and the Christian covenanted community, the Christian Church, will be a victory celebration. We’re going to make the point again and again that the Divine Liturgy has all the elements of a victory celebration: the proclamation of the glad tidings of the victory and then an entering into the kingship of the victor, who will be Christ, crucified, raised, and glorified in the kingdom of God that has no end. That’s what the Divine Liturgy is and that’s what we’re going to explain later on, step by step, as being for us. That’s what it is for Christians.
Now, getting back to Abram in this 14th chapter, Abram offers a tithe to this Melchizedek, and that’s a funny thing. Abraham offers a tithe to Melchizedek.
Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons and take the goods yourself,” but Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth: I will not take a thread or a sandal or anything that is yours, lest you think you are the one who made me (Abram) rich. Only God does this.”
In this Melchizedek, it’s very important to know that in the letter to the Hebrews, this event is considered very, very important, extremely important. Here I’ve got to read to you what the letter to the Hebrews says—Hebrews 7:
Melchizedek, king of Salem, prince of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him. And to him Abraham apportioned a tithe, a tenth part of everything.
Then about Melchizedek, the letter to the Hebrews says:
He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness. Then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy. He has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.
So he’s not a Canaanite, he’s not a Jebusite, he’s not a Perizzite, he’s not a Hittite, he’s not a child of Abraham; he’s this person without genealogy, without father, without mother, without place, without anything. And then he continues a priest forever. Then it says:
See how great he is! Abraham the patriarch gave him a tithe of the spoils of the battles, and those descendents of Levi who received a priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brethren, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who has not their genealogy, received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promise, the promises of God.
So what happens is, it says that [Levi] offered tithes to Melchizedek [through Abraham], to those who were still in the loins of his ancestor, when Melchizedek met him. So the levitical priesthood, the children of Abraham who are within Abraham’s loins, the seed, are already offering their worship—that ten percent was a worship offering; it was a way of worship; we’ll see that later on, too, these offerings that are an essential part of worship—they’re already given to Melchizedek.
Then, of course, we cannot but remember that the most quoted psalm in the Old Testament in the New Testament is Psalm 110: “The Lord says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.” And that’s the line that Jesus used when he was in debate with the people, leaders of the people, about who the Christ was. When he asked, “Who do you say I am?” and they said, “You are the Christ,” then he asked the leaders of the people, “When the Christ comes, whose son is he going to be?” and they said, “David’s son.” Then Jesus says, “But why, then, does (Psalm 110) David, inspired by the Spirit, say, “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool?” Jesus asks, “Why does the psalmist (David) call him Lord if he is David’s son?” And then it says in the New Testament gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—they didn’t ask him any more questions; they just decided to kill him.
In that very psalm—it’s actually the most-quoted psalm in the New Testament Scripture—you have this line, which is used in our Orthodox Church on Christmas, on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ: “Out of the womb before the morning star have I begotten thee.” That’s the Septuagint translation version of that line. “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.” He made a promise. He has borne and begotten his Son, and he has made a promise, that in him all the families will be blessed. Then it says:
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind. You are a priest forever according to the order of (not Levi, but) Melchizedek, a new priesthood. The Lord is at your right hand. He will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations.
So what happens is: “You are a priest forever,” this one who was begotten by God, but “according to the order of Melchizedek.” And that line is actually used at the Christmas Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, that God begets Jesus Christ and makes him the priest according to [the order of] Melchizedek. This Melchizedek belongs to no earthly tribe. He’s without genealogy. In that sense, the Logos, who is born of Mary, is also without human genealogy, but then he takes on a human genealogy as being the seed of Abraham, down through the generations until he is born, coming from Joseph as his legal father, and from Mary as well. So that’s why the New Testament, the gospels of Luke and Matthew have genealogies. Theologically, the Son of God is without genealogy, and then he has a human genealogy. Jesus Christ is both God and human, but he is also the Melchizedek. He’s the king of righteousness and the king of peace.
What is his offering that he makes? Well, here you have it: bread and wine. In the new and final covenant, the offering of Christians will be bread and wine, like Melchizedek. It won’t be animals and blood and cows and heifers, and it won’t be pigeons and doves, it won’t be burnt-offerings of any kind, whether they’re grain or whether they’re animal. It will be Jesus offering himself as the Lamb of God for the life of the world, as the priest according to [the order of] Melchizedek, and the offering will be bread and wine.
And that bread and wine will be the antitypes, as it says in St. Basil’s Liturgy, the prefigurations, the types, the forms, of Jesus Christ himself, of Jesus Christ’s body and Jesus Christ’s blood, and blood means his life. It will be the symbol in the technical, patristic meaning: that by which Jesus’ own body and blood is revealed and manifested to us, shown to us. And that bread and wine will be consecrated by the Holy Spirit and given to us as the body and blood of Christ in the worship in spirit and truth of the New Testament. That’s already prefigured and typified in the life of Abraham. Isn’t that amazing? It’s already there in Abraham.
After this happens, Genesis 15 has God making the covenant with Abraham. God says, “Fear not, Abram. I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.” But Abram says, “O Lord God”—and that’s Yahweh Elohim, so it’s already both Yahwist language, the Lord—“What will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eleazar of Damascus?” That’s the son of one of his relatives or his concubines. He said, “I have no offspring. A slave born in my house from my slave will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to Abram: “This man shall not be your heir. Your own son shall be your heir.” And then through him… He said, “Look at the heavens and see the stars. You won’t be able to number them. So shall your descendants be.”
And then you have this oh so incredibly important prefiguration, prefigurative sentence of Abram: And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Now, that’s going to be a huge, huge central teaching of the Christian faith, that the righteous live by faith, and by faith a person is reckoned righteous. That’s the whole pathos of Christianity. We’re saved by God’s grace through faith in what God is doing, not in what we are doing: what God is promising, what God is fulfilling. Our task is to receive it and believe it, to believe it and to trust God that it is true. Here Abram, he’s already a really old guy. He’s 75 years old when he’s called, and God is telling him he’s still going to have a child, and Abram believes him, and that’s considered to him to be the act of his righteousness.
Then what happens is, in that 15th chapter, a covenant is made between God and Abram, and it’s done by worship. They take a [three-year-old] heifer, three-year-old she-goat; they take a ram; they take a turtle-dove; they take a pigeon. They cut them all in half. They put them on a burnt-offering. They offer them to God, and the flame of God comes and passes in between these two halves of the sacrificed animals and birds. Then God, on that day, it says, he made a covenant with Abram. The Lord Yahweh made a covenant to Abram, and he said to him:
Your descendants I give this land, [the land of] the river of Egypt [to the great river], the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.
All of this is promised to give to him. But then it continues. But Sarai, Abram’s wife, has no child. She has no children. Then Abram goes into Hagar. She gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah is jealous of her, wants to get rid of her. Hagar and Ishmael are cast into the desert. God protects them and keeps them alive, and from them come the Arab people, according to tradition. All Muslims, Mohammedeans, who follow Mohammed, say that they are the children of Abram through Ishmael, where Christians and Jews are children of Abram through Isaac, and that’s a very important point between these two peoples, which we cannot discuss now.
But what happens is, when Abram now gets to be 99 years old; and here we’re in the 17th chapter, he’s now 99 years old, God appears to him, they have this covenant, and God changes Abram’s name. He said, “I am God Almighty”—the El Shaddai God—“walk before me, be blameless. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” Then Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram”—which means, translated into English, “exalted father”—but your name shall be Abraham”—which means “the father of a multitude”—“for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful. I will make nations of you and kings shall come forth from you, and I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed, your descendants, after you, throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant”—forever!—“to be God to you and to your descendants after you, forever,” it says. “And I will give these lands to you, and this is my covenant.”
Then the sign of the covenant is circumcision. So when Abram is 99 years old, he gets circumcised in the flesh, and then all the children of Abram have to be circumcised, showing that they are members of the covenant. What we’re going to see later on is that circumcision is part of the Law, and what we’re going to see later on also is that the faith of Abraham precedes the circumcision. That’s what St. Paul is going to argue. He is made perfect by faith, and then circumcision is the sign. Then St. Paul will say: But circumcision is supposed to be circumcision of the heart, according to the prophets, not the flesh. Jesus, the righteous one, gets circumcised in the flesh, who is the messianic King, and then the sign of faith in God through Jesus in the worship of the new covenant, is baptism; not circumcision any more, but baptism.
And then all those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, and here there’s neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but everyone becomes one in Christ. Not only free Jewish males, but female Gentile slaves. Everyone enters into the final covenant in Christ through baptism. And then, being baptized and sealed by the Holy Spirit, they do Christian worship in spirit, in truth, by celebrating the Divine Liturgy, by celebrating the holy Eucharist, by hearing the Word preached, and through the Word entering into the altar, the table, there to enter into Christ’s sacrifice of himself in his body and blood to God the Father. That’s what’s going to happen at the end, you see, but right now you have the prefiguration in the act of circumcision.
Then God promises that he’ll be the father of twelve princes, and that means the twelve tribes of Israel, and that will be completed in the twelve apostles of Christ and the twelve gates of the Revelation and the twelve stones in Jordan River and the twelve… everything twelve in the Apocalypse, very important. Then Sarai gets her name changed to… she’s now called Sarah, which means “princess, the princess.” And all this comes from Abraham and now Sarah. They’re Abraham and Sarah now.
In the 18th chapter, you have another extremely important prefiguration in the life of Abraham for the Christian faith and for Christian worship. And that is the very famous and celebrated visit to Abraham, the appearance of God the Lord to Abraham in the figure of three men, or three messengers, or three angels, that are sent to him. Three appear to Abraham. Abraham bows down and worships them and calls them, “My Lord,” in the singular. “If I have found favor in your sight, do not pass your servant.” So then they wash the feet of the three messengers, and they have a meal together. Sarah bakes bread, and they eat together with the three messengers, the three angels, and Abraham.
Then these messengers, the three angels that are called “the Lord” in singular, say that Sarah’s going to have a baby. Sarah laughs, and then the Lord says to Abram, “Why is Sarah laughing?” “Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?” she says. And then it says, “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” And then the Lord says, through the three men, “At the appointed time, I will return to you in the spring, and Sarah will have a son.” And then they name the son “Isaac,” which means “laughter.” And then the Lord again renews the covenant with Abraham.
The Lord says: Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him? No, I have chosen him—(he’s the chosen one)—that he may charge his children and his household after me to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.
So what do we have here? Well, anyone familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy and ancient Christianity knows that the Christians saw in these three figures the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They become the prefiguration of the Holy Trinity, which is the very center of Christian worship. We worship one God, together with his Son and the Spirit, one in essence and undivided. And then there’s the famous fresco of the Philoxenia Avraamou, the Hospitality of Abraham, where the three angels are there, and Abraham and the oak of Mamre.
And then in the New Testament particularly in the famous icon of St. Andrew Rublev in Russia, this image of the three angels become a prefigurative icon of the Holy Trinity. It’s even used among Orthodox Christians, particularly Russian Orthodox Christians, as the very image of the Holy Trinity itself. We could get into a very long detailed description of that icon of St. Andrew Rublev of the three angels, of how they are seated at the table, how the Father is at the head of the table, the Son and the Spirit in the other two figures are reclining toward him; the middle figure who is clearly Jesus is blessing the chalice in the middle of the table; the oak of Mamre is behind him, which stands for the cross; the chalice in the middle stands for Christ offering his own body and blood.
You have here everything that’s going to be fulfilled in the New Testament already prefigured very clearly, at least to those with scriptural eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to understand, all that’s going to be fulfilled in Jesus. It’s prefigured in Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus. So already we have the Melchizedek priesthood, the offering of bread and wine. We have the righteousness by faith. We have the victory over the enemies. We have Melchizedek prefiguring Jesus. We have the three angels prefiguring the Holy Trinity. We have the meals prefiguring the holy Eucharist. We have the covenant and circumcision prefiguring the final covenant in the flesh of Christ through his body, which was circumcised, actually, literally, on earth, and then is offered and then the blood is shed through him and given. All of this is a prefiguration.
And then you have still to come perhaps the ultimate prefiguration story of all. After the angels come and go, the three figures called “the Lord,” and the covenant is renewed, you have the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. “Are there a hundred in the city? Are there fifty righteous in the city? Are there thirty? Are there twenty? Are there ten? O, let not the Lord be angry!” So this point of intercession on the part of Abraham is also prefigurative, because Moses will also intercede on behalf of the sinful people, but the ultimate intercessor and mediator on behalf of sinners will be the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And he will actually take on the sins and endure the wrath of God for the sake of their salvation when he hangs upon the Christ.
And all of this is shown that in the Old Testament God does save Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah, and then the cities are destroyed, but when Jesus comes and he’s preaching in the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum and the people don’t receive him and the apostles say, “Shall we call down fire like on Sodom and Gomorrah?” Jesus says no. And he says, “On the day of judgment, it’ll be easier for Sodom and Gormorrah before God than it will be for these three cities who did not accept (him) as the messiah.”
The point is that Christ comes to save the Sodomites and the Gomorrahites. He comes to save all the sinners: of the Hebrews, of the Israelites, and of the nations, and of the Egyptians, and of everybody. He comes to raise up all the dead and forgive all the sins, as the ultimate mediator between God and man, the one man Jesus Christ, as the New Testament letter to Timothy says. This is also prefigured in the Abraham story, but then comes…
And by the way, we should again point out that Lot, after being saved in Sodom and Gomorrah, goes out into the desert and has incest with his daughters and produces the Moabites and the Ammonites and shows that you’re never safe. As the Orthodox monks used to say, Lot was saved in the city and the city was Sodom, but then he perished by sin in the desert in Zoar, the place of refuge.
But now we come to the ultimate story, and that’s the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. When Isaac is finally born and the child of the promise is on earth and that child Isaac is circumcised on the eighth day and when Abraham is 100 years old when Isaac is born to him… St. Macarius of Egypt, by the way, points out that when God makes promises, it sometimes takes him an awful long time to complete them. He promises it to Abraham when he’s 75, and it doesn’t happen until he’s 100. He had to be 100 years old before the promises that God had in mind for him were fulfilled. What is time? How long do we have to wait? That’s an important teaching for us to meditate on, especially when we’re asking God for stuff and it seems like it’s not happening. Well, God has his own time-table.
But let’s get to the point here, which is incredibly important for the Christian faith. Through Isaac, all the descendants are to be named. Through Isaac, he is the one offspring, the one seed through whose seed the one seed, Jesus, will come. It’s not Hagar and Ishmael; it’s Sarah and Isaac. But God still saves Hagar and Ishmael, and from them come, as we know, the Arabic people, according to tradition, the desert people.
But then what happens? The 22nd chapter is crucial. It begins when the covenant is renewed with Abraham in Beersheba, and Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, again, the Lord, everlasting God, again, he’s called. And he stays there. Then God tests Abraham with the ultimate test of any person who claims to believe in God. “Abraham,” God says to him. Abraham says, “Here I am.” The Lord says, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love. Go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” In the holy Scripture Abraham doesn’t even hesitate. Can you imagine? He’s waited all these years for the son of the promise, the son is finally born in his old age, he’s even named “laughter” because of Sarah’s laughter, they finally have this boy—and by this time it seems pretty clear that he’s already a young man; he’s not a baby; we’ll see because he talks and he carries things and so on—and God tells him, “Okay, you’ve got him now, so I want you to kill him.”
Now, there was child sacrifice all over the place in Canaan. In fact, there [were] child sacrifices all over the whole world. We mentioned last time Mircea Eliade and René Girard and these other people who study sacrifice, who study religion. You find it among all kinds of cultures—in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America—where you had immolation of children offered to God, immolation of members of the tribe, immolation of people captured. The human sacrifice was a very, very ugly part of primitive human culture in all parts of the earth.
Here you have God commanding Abraham to do this, with the very son of the promise. And here the claim is that Abraham really did trust God. He trusted the righteousness of God. He trusted that he was the king of righteousness and the king of peace, and Abraham trusted God absolutely without condition, that God knew what he was doing, and if God tells him to sacrifice his son, Abraham doesn’t even hesitate. It’s unbelievable.
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, took his two young men with him, and his son Isaac, cut wood for the burnt-offering, arose and went to the place which God had told him (Moriah). On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place far off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass (the donkey). I and the lad will go yonder and worship.”
“We will go yonder and we will worship.” This is an act of worship. So worship has to be an unconditional obedience to God. It has to be an unconditional sacrifice and offering of whatever it is that God asks. Here God asks of Abraham something more terrifying than his own self. Probably Abraham would have been very happy to offer himself. God didn’t say, “Offer yourself.” He said, “Offer your only son, your only-begotten, firstborn son. Offer the heir. Offer the one through whom all the promises will be given. Offer the one who is the son of promise.” That’s just mind-blowing. You can’t even process what that is. No one can process this. The writer Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote a book, Fear and Trembling, he said, “No one could process this.” He even said that Abraham didn’t even tell Sarah what he was doing, because she never would have [understood] that all of a sudden he’s going to kill the boy! This is unbelievable—and that God wants him to do it? It’s just outrageous.
But Abraham does it. He takes the wood for the burnt-offering and he places on it his son Isaac. And he takes in his hand the fire and the knife, and they went both of them together. Then Isaac speaks to his father Abraham.
He says, “My father,” and he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” So they both of them went together.
It’s a fantastic image, the father and the son, walking together to an altar of sacrifice where the father is going to kill his beloved, chosen, elected, only-begotten, firstborn son. It’s amazing. Father and son together, and trusting that God would provide and that he knew what he was doing.
So when the come to the place which God had told him, Abraham builds the altar there. Again, building the altar. He puts the wood upon it. He’s going to start the fire. He ties up Isaac; Isaac is bound, tied up. And then he is offered as a sacrifice. But then: Abraham put forth his hand, took the knife to slay his son, but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” He said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God.”
How many times in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy are we going to use that expression: “fear of God,” “in the fear of God,” “Stand aright; let us stand with fear,” “in the fear of God, in faith and love, draw near”? I personally will say, later on, I don’t like when this is translated awe. It’s a softening of the word. Yeah, it’s awesome, but it’s fearful, it’s terrifying, and that meaning should be preserved. “Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear.” When you worship God, you fear God, and fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
So he says, “Here I am.” “Don’t be afraid. Fear not.” The angel of the Lord says, “Do not lay your hand on him. I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked and beheld: behind him was a ram—a ram, an animal—caught in the thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering in place of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place “the Lord will provide—Moriah” as it is called to this day, on the mount that the Lord has provided.
Then the angel of the Lord says to Abraham the second time, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord.” And that’s where the letter to the Hebrews says when he had no one else to swear by, God swore by himself. “By myself I have sworn, my son, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, and so I will indeed bless you and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, the sands on the seashore, and your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies.” There you have it again. God protects and saves from the enemies. “And by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed and saved from their enemies, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham dwelt in Beersheba. Then it has the story of Sarah’s death, Abraham’s death, and it goes on.
In this particular story, the holy Fathers and the Christian Liturgy and the New Testament and St. Paul and [the] letter to the Hebrews, they all see that this is the ultimate, you might say, prefiguration of the New Testament in the Old and in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, because here you have Abraham, a creature, offering his only son to God, completely and totally. Then God doesn’t accept that, but puts a ram in its place. All the holy Fathers say the ram on that mountain that is sacrificed instead of Isaac is Jesus Christ himself, the Lamb of God. When God Almighty sacrifices his Son on the cross for us and for our salvation, he gets killed.
No angel comes. The sun hides its rays. The moon can’t look. The earth trembles. Everything is shaken—because God Almighty is sacrificing his only-begotten Son, Light from Light, true God from true God, in human flesh as Israel’s Messiah, the Seed of Abraham, the Child of David, on the Cross! So that sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus by God Almighty himself, his Father. The Father and the Son go together to the Cross. In the letter to the Hebrews, it will even say that God offers his Son to us and the Son offers himself to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one through whom this eternal Son offers himself to the Father.
What we’re going to see in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is that it is God’s sacrificing his Son for us and we sacrificing ourselves together with God’s Son to him. And in the Liturgy, the prayer’s going to say about Jesus that he is the one who offers, he is the one who is offered, he is the one who receives the offering, and he is the very offering itself that is broken, shed, and distributed to us. It’s his body and his blood that is offered and sacrificed. In death he dies; by his own death he destroys death. He tramples down death by death. So what you have here is that God is doing himself what he doesn’t ask his greatest, most faithful believer, the father of all the believers, Abraham, to do. And that’s the center of Christian worship.
The center of Christian worship is God offering to himself in sacrifice his only-begotten Son, and we, in the only-begotten Son, offering our body and our blood to be sacrificed together with the body and blood of Christ on the Cross, on the altar table, to God the Father. That’s Christian worship in spirit and in truth. All of that is prefigured in Abraham. So it’s all prefigured in Abraham. All prefigured: the victory over enemies, righteousness by faith, worship of the Trinity, the Melchizedek priesthood, the bread and wine offering, and the sacrifice of the Son of God in the imagery of Abraham and Isaac.
It’s all there in nuce. It’s like the whole oak tree is in the little acorn-nut. Well, that’s how the holy Fathers speak about the Old Testament. It’s all there in figures; it’s all there in shadows; it’s all there in a pedagogical preparation. Those stories prepare us to understand the Gospel, and therefore to understand evangelical worship in spirit and in truth, and thereby to understand the Divine Liturgy.
This is what’s given to us in Abraham in the book of Genesis. Without this, we could never understand the Gospel and we could never understand Christian worship in spirit and in truth. So we will continue reflecting on how the New Testamental, final worship in spirit and truth is prefigured in the holy Scriptures. And so we will move next time from Abraham to Moses and the Passover Exodus.