Today we come to one of the greatest pieces of ancient literature. It’s beautifully written and intensely moving. As part of my preparations, I listened to a sermon on this passage. Before the sermon, the person who read the Scripture did so with tears. It’s almost impossible to read this passage without getting caught in the emotional intensity of what’s happening.
But it’s also one of the most disturbing passages in all of Scripture. It’s puzzling and its infuriating, and throughout the ages all kinds of people have wrestled with it. A friend of mine preached on this passage recently, and he said, “If we aren’t a bit undone by the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, I wonder how carefully we’ve read it.” This is a story that really does undo us.
It’s almost impossible to imagine how God could ask Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. It’s unfathomable. It’s also mind-boggling to understand how Abraham could respond in obedience. Thinkers like Kierkegaard think that the killing of Isaac would have been ethically wrong but religiously right. He wrote, “When I have to think about Abraham, I am as though annihilated.” That’s the effect that this story has on us. It tears us apart.
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel argues that God was wrong for asking, and that Abraham was wrong for agreeing. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have cried in outrage to this “supposedly divine voice” that commanded the “butchering and burning of his son.” Leonard Sweet argues that Abraham failed the relationship test. He says that Abraham should have gone to the mountain as God commanded, but he should have pleaded and argued with God every step of the way.
This passage brings us to a crisis. How can God ask for such a thing? What exactly is this passage trying to teach us? How can what God asked for in this passage be considered moral? A number of people have said that we’re not meant to read Scripture as much as Scripture is supposed to read us, and I don’t know many passages that do a better job of reading us and really confronting us at the deepest possible level with all kinds of important questions.
And so today I want to look at two dimensions of the story. I want to ask first what this passage teaches us about ourselves, and secondly, what it teaches us about God. So the first question I want to ask is what this passage teaches us about ourselves.
On the human level, this passage presents us with a test or an evaluation. It’s hard not to see that this an important part of what’s happening in this passage. The writer even signals this to us in verse 1: “Some time later God tested Abraham.” This means that the real question in this story is not what is going to happen to Isaac; the real question is what is going to happen with Abraham. The real question, on a human level, is how Abraham is going to respond to this test, and by extension, how we will respond to the same test as well.
Now Abraham had already passed a test. God had already asked Abraham to leave his country, people, and father’s household (Genesis 12:1), and Abraham left without questioning. But now Abraham faced an even greater test. God had promised that Abraham would have a son, and that through this son Abraham would become the father of kings and nations. And at the age of 100, this son was born. He was more than a son. He was also the embodiment of all of God’s promises to Abraham. He was everything.
This makes God’s command unthinkable. In Genesis 22:2 God says to Abraham, “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.”
This is beyond comprehension. Isaac is the son that had been promised by God. He’s also Abraham’s only son, the son, God says, that Abraham loves. And God now asks Abraham, against all reason, to destroy with his own hands the promise that had been fulfilled. They go on a three day journey. I can’t picture what it would have been like. Did Abraham tell Sarah before he left? What did he think every night of that journey as he lay down to sleep? “No more fiery crucible for faith can be imagined” (Edmund Clowney). The command of God and the promise of God came into conflict, and it was impossible to make sense of God’s request.
It’s important to pause here and highlight a few things that are easy to miss. Sometimes people think that this is a passage that reflects the primitive nature of people at this time. What’s easy to miss is that this command would have been as unthinkable and shocking to Abraham and to the people of the Old Testament as it is to us. It’s shocking to us, and you have to know that it would have been even more shocking to Abraham who faced this request.
You also need to understand something else. Kierkegaard saw this as a divine command to commit murder. It certainly looks like this to us. But it’s called a burnt offering, and it’s the firstborn. Edmund Clowney writes, “God was not commanding Abraham to commit a crime but to execute a judgment that was justly due.”
Burnt offerings involved cutting up and burning the whole animal on the altar. This type of offering had two ideas: first, offering oneself completely to God with nothing held back; and secondly, that the sacrifice in some way atones for sin. So this sacrifice means that Abraham is holding nothing back from God, but is giving God everything; and that sin demands justice. Sin demands justice. If anything, this passage reminds us of the horror of sin.
Isaac is also the firstborn. The Bible teaches that the firstborn uniquely belongs to God. God said in Exodus 13:2, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.” God said, later, “You must give me the firstborn of your sons” (Exodus 22:29). So Isaac belonged to God, and God alone had the right to decide what to do with him. God has every right to condemn sinners to death. God alone has this right.
So we see that God was just in making this request; that God owns the firstborn and can do as he pleases. We also know how things turned out. But none of these can save us from confronting a horrible and terrifying question. Nothing can keep us from facing the same test that Abraham faced, a test that stretches us to the point of breaking. Are you prepared to love God completely and unconditionally? Do you have any emotional attachments that are off the table? Does God have access to what you love most? Is there anyone or anything that you love, that if God asked you for, you would say “No”?
The issue is really one of idolatry. If we love anyone or anything more than God, we’re idolators. Our problem is that we make good things – our marriages, our children, our jobs – into ultimate things. They become idols in our lives. This leads to all kinds of problems: we end up trying to find our ultimate hope and fulfillment outside of God. We put a weight on these things that they cannot bear. As one of my friends says:
Nothing will destroy children quite like turning them into idols…If Abraham had not been willing to destroy Isaac, he would have destroyed Isaac. In losing his son, he found him. . . Had not Abraham placed Isaac on Yahweh’s altar, he would have killed him on Abraham’s altar. (Chris Brauns)
It’s really important to see this. Abraham would not have saved Isaac’s life by sparing him. Whatever we love more than God we turn into an idol, and whatever we turn into an idol destroys us, and we often destroy the idol as well. As Tim Keller writes:
If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming to you.
If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.
And so on. We can make idols of our work and career, money and possessions, pleasure, relationships, approval – even religion and morality. Jesus said that if we love anything – including our children, including life itself – more than we love him, we’re not fit to be his disciples (Luke 14:26)
The test for us this morning is a test that will also push you to the point of breaking if you answer it honestly. Who or what do you love God most? What do you withhold from God? Whatever that is is your idol. “Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us” (Keller).
This is the test that we faced. Abraham faced the test, and he passed. Hebrews tells us that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham knew that everything belonged to God, and that therefore he could hold nothing back. He must give all that God asks. And he trusted that God would somehow provide what he needed.
Do you think that if you love God more than what you love most, you’ll lose it? C.S. Lewis said:
When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.
When we love God first, our enjoyment of secondary things actually increases. But if we love secondary things more than God, we lose both God and the secondary thing. This is the test Abraham faced with Isaac, and it’s the test that you and I face this morning as well.
But if we stopped here, we’d see only one dimension of the story, the horizontal dimension. We’d miss the vertical dimension. In fact, we’d miss not only the main message of this passage, but the main message of Christianity.
Provision at Mount Moriah
When Isaac said to Abraham, “The fire and wood are here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7-8). And when Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God provided a ram as a substitute. Verse 14 says, “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.'”
It’s here that we discover the real heart of the story. This isn’t just a story about who Abraham loves most. This is a story that teaches us something about God. What can this possibly teach us about God?
If you look at verse 2, you discover that these events took place on the mountains of Moriah. Where are the mountains of Moriah? 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us, “Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.” The place where God provided a ram for a burnt offering was Jerusalem, where the temple would later be built.
So when verse 14 says, “To this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided,” it is telling us about far more than Abraham. It is telling us that God provides the sacrifice necessary to atone for sin. Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” is the age-old question. Where is the sacrifice that can atone for our sins?
God did not summon Abraham to Mount Moriah only to test him. He was also showing Abraham what it cost God when he sent his own Son up that same mountain for our sakes. Jesus said in John 8 that Abraham “rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
Edmund Clowney says:
Abraham was shown Christ’s day; he was taken to the very area where the Temple would later stand, to the very mount where the cross of Calvary would be erected…The Heavenly Father led His Beloved up the hill to Golgotha. When the Son, who was always pleasing to the Father, cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the Father paid the price in His silence. (The Unfolding Mystery)
The Apostle Paul ties the stories of Abraham and Isaac to the Father and Son at Calvary when he wrote, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
Why do we have this story? Tim Keller said, “We have this story…so that we have some true human understanding of what the Father did with the Son.”
The angel said to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12). As we look at Calvary, we can say to the Father, “Now we know that you love us, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
How do we know God loves us? How can we be free from turning good things into ultimate things, from worshiping and being enslaved by secondary things? How can you know he loves you like that?
By seeing that Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain is a picture of the price that the Father paid at Calvary. When we see it and really get it, then we’ll understand the Father’s love for us, and we’ll be changed through the power of the Spirit to pass the test along with Abraham.
Father, thank you for this amazing story. It’s impossible not to be moved as we read it. For those of us who cling tightly to the people and things we love, use this story to show us our idols, so that we can loosen our grip and worship you alone.
But thank you that this is not just a story about our idols. Thank you that through Abraham and Isaac we see the price you paid to save us. You led your beloved Son up the same hill as Abraham, and you placed your Son on the wood. But while Isaac was spared, your son was not. There was nobody to take his place.
May this story give us a human understanding of the face that you did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all. And then may we say, “Now we know you love us!” And may this love change us through the power of the Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.