A Tested FaithErwin W. Lutzer | November 13, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
How much do you love God? How much do you trust God?
God wants our whole heart. This is plain in Genesis 22 when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham obediently gathered what he needed and headed to Mount Moriah, believing that God will not back out on His promise that Isaac was the heir. And even though there had not been a resurrection before this, Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. But there was no need. God stayed Abraham’s hand.
Through this story we see how much Abraham’s faith grew over the years, and we see the foretelling of Calvary where God did not stay His hand. There was a rescue for Isaac, but not one for Jesus. Jesus went the whole way, dying for the ungodly — dying for us. And the resurrection that Abraham hoped for, that happened too, when Jesus rose from the dead three days later.
The question before us is this: how much is a man willing to give to God? To what extent is he willing to be obedient no matter what God asks him to do? And what are the rewards of that kind of obedience? The story is the 22nd chapter of the book of Genesis and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. It’s a chapter that’s been a problem for some people. I suppose all of us at one time have wondered how God could ask a man to do that.
Soren Kierkegaard, the melancholic Dane of another century, wrote a book about the struggle he had with Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard concluded that sometimes God asks us to do the absurd. Kierkegaard, I think, understood the problem of the passage but he came up with the wrong solution.
You can’t understand this passage unless you realize that it took place in the flow of redemptive history. Therefore, the whole issue of the seed which has plagued Abraham for years comes into focus. This happens to be the tenth and last message in this series that we’ve done on Abraham. We must also realize that at this time the Ten Commandments had not been given. Child sacrifice was common among the pagans. God would not violate a command after He had given it. So when Abraham heard the voice of God he heard it correctly, believed he had heard it correctly, and acted on it.
But the most important part of the story is to realize that God did not allow him to sacrifice his son. That’s not the kind of God that we serve. God wanted to come up with an analogy. He wanted to come up with a “type,” as the word is sometimes used, of the relationship between Himself and His own Son. This is the only way He could do it, come to think of it, then to give us this awesome, dramatic story. It is the most dramatic story in all the Bible with the exception of the crucifixion.
So with that background we are going to begin in Genesis chapter 22. The outline that I am using may have come from my predecessor, Pastor Wiersbe. Years ago I heard him speak on this and I took down his outline and perhaps this is his. I’m not sure, but it is possible.
But what we’d like to do is to look at this story as if we were watching a videoNow you know that I believe in heaven we are going to watch videos. But not from Blockbuster, I can assure you. They may be watched somewhere else but not in heaven.
In heaven I think we are going to see the dramatic stories that we read about in the Bible, the crossing of the Red Sea and the sacrifice, the willingness of a man to sacrifice his own son for God. I’d like to be able to see it someday. And so what we are going to do is to move through the passage looking at the various aspects of it and considering this dramatic, heartfelt story.
First of all, this is the greatest test. God comes to Abraham and he says, “Here I am.” God says, “‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’” Wow! “Take your son whom you love.” “Lord, I have two sons, I’ve got Ishmael!” “I don’t want Ishmael, I want Isaac, the one you love, take him. Take your most precious son.”
The Bible says in verse one the God did test Abraham. It was first of all a test of love because the question that had to be resolved was this: did Abraham love God more than he loved Isaac? Could it be that this boy, who was the child of promise who was given to Sarah at an old age, could it be that this boy had so embedded himself into the old man’s soul that this boy meant more to Abraham than God? Was that possible? That’s what the test was going to show, whether that happened or not. It was a test of love. When God says, “Take the one that you love,” it was as if God was taking a knife and putting it into Abraham’s heart and then giving it a half turn. “The one you love, take him.”
It was a test of love but also a test of trust. “God, after all, You are the One who gave him to me. He is the child of promise. He’s the one we have waited years to have. If he is dead how are you going to raise seed and fulfill your promises?” Do you think Abraham was tempted to disobey? I’m sure he was tempted to disobey. “God, how are You going to fulfill Your promises if he is dead?”
Furthermore, “Why did You give him to me in the first place and then take him away?” Hundreds of parents listening to this message have asked that question of God many times. “Why even bother giving me this little boy who dies after a month?” “Why give us this child if you know the child is going to have some disabilities and that the child is not going to live? Why give and then take away?” That’s the dagger that was in Abraham’s heart.
Yes, Abraham was tempted to disobey. There are two questions that always come up in the trials that God gives us. Number one, “How much do you love Me?” And number two, “How much do you trust Me?” Those are the two questions. We will never be asked to do what Abraham was asked to do. Today if you hear a voice telling you to kill your child you know it is the voice of the devil. It is never, never, never the voice of God. This was a situation, I already explained, that was very unique. And of course the murder, if that’s what we call it, never happened.
But God does ask us this question: “Do I mean more to you than your relatives, than your friends, than your children?” Jesus says, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” God says, “I two.” It’s the greatest test.
Well, let’s move on to the greatest trust. It says in verse three, “Abraham arose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, took his two young men with him and his son Isaac, he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place that God had told him about.” He was on his way to Mount Moriah, about 50 miles from Mount Beersheba.
Some of us have been to Mount Moriah. Mount Moriah is actually the place where Solomon built his temple, it says in 2 Chronicles chapter three, verse one. And that’s where the Dome of the Rock is today. I’ve been in the Dome of the Rock a number of different times. You see that big, hewn rock—and of course souvenir hunters have chiseled out parts of it—that, I believe, is the place where Abraham offered up Isaac. Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, Mount Moriah in 2 Chronicles chapter three, verse one.
Fifty miles they now travel together in three days. The Scripture says, “Abraham rose early.” What a gift of obedience God had implanted in his heart! Do you think he told Sarah? I doubt it! He knew that this was something that he was going to have to do alone. He takes Isaac and two young men and together they walk, and even though father and son are walking together they are separated by a dreaded secret. Together they walk, and every step that Abraham takes, another string breaks in his heart. They are on their way to that fateful journey.
And then they get to the base of the mountain. They journey together alone from this point on because Abraham says to the young men, “I want you to stay here and the lad and I are going to go yonder and worship and then we are going to return to you.”
Why did the two young men that accompanied them have to stay at the base of the hill? Remember, God wanted a picture of the relationship between Himself and His Son. This is really a picture of Calvary. And when Jesus went and died on Calvary what happened there was between Him and His Father, a secret there between the two of them that you and I can only ponder and think about but we can never understand. We can never get our minds around what happened on Calvary.
That’s why I believe that darkness covered the whole land because the transaction was being worked out, when the Son who was perfect was suddenly declared to be the most wicked, evil, criminal of the universe. He became legally guilty of murder, adultery, legally guilty of injustice, of cruelty of the worst possible sort. He became sin for us, the One who knew no sin. And what was going on there on Calvary was a secret between the Father and the Son, and no one could enter into it.
So Abraham says to the boys, “You stay here. The lad and I will go yonder and worship.” And who carried the wood? It is Isaac, because Isaac represents Jesus, who carries His own cross. But notice the text: who is it that carries the knife and the fire? It’s Abraham, that’s what it says. Verse six, “Then Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. And so they went both of them together.”
Who killed Jesus? The Bible says in the book of Acts, “Wicked hands crucified Him.” But God had a part in it. It was part of the plan of God. That’s why we read that Jesus was, “Smitten of God and afflicted. The Lord has put Him to grief, and it pleased the Lord to bruise Him.” The father carries the fire and the knife and the son carries the wood, and together they march to the top of the mountain.
Isaac asks a question in verse seven. He says, “Father?” And the father says, “Yes, here I am.” He says, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” It’s the question that is asked from the book of Genesis to the end of the book of Malachi in the Old Testament: “Where is the lamb?” Every time the Israelites brought an animal to be sacrificed the real question was, “Where’s the real lamb? We’ve got all of these lambs here, we’ve got all of these sheep, we’ve got all of these goats that are being sacrificed, and turtledoves, but where is the lamb?”
And centuries later John the Baptist stands on the banks of the Jordan River and says as Jesus is coming to him, “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world.” And Abraham says, “God will supply for Himself a lamb.” And isn’t that what happened on Calvary? God supplied for Himself a Lamb so that you and I could be redeemed.
And so finally we get to the top of the mountain and the old man begins to build an altar, it says in verse nine. Here of course we have to use our imaginations. He begins by taking rocks that are furthest away because he is trying to stall for time. He begins to build that crude altar, stone upon stone. He builds it and then finally he has to reveal to Isaac, “Isaac, you are the lamb.”
Did Abraham weep? Of course he wept. This was the son that he loved, remember? Could Isaac have run away? Absolutely! Scholars debate how old he was, but somewhere between fifteen and twenty, easily. He could have outrun the old man who was now more than one hundred years old, so he could have outrun him. He could have fought him but he apparently becomes a willing victim.
We’re reminded of the words of Jesus, “No man takes my life from Me but I lay it down. I have power to lay it down and I have power to bring it to life again, but I’m dying voluntarily, here. I’m being put upon the altar,” and that’s what happens in the life of Isaac. And Abraham is beginning to wonder now obviously as he began to wonder when God spoke to him the first time, “How in the world is this going to work out? Because after all, this is the boy that God gave me that is to be the seed of the nation,” that would eventually bring about the fulfillment of the promises including the Redeemer.
The Bible says in the book of Hebrews, and whenever you find a commentary on the Old Testament, always go with what the New Testament writer says, it’s very important. You can’t improve on the New Testament. It says in Hebrews chapter 11, verse 19, “By faith Abraham was willing to offer up Isaac, believing that God was even able to raise him up from the dead, from whence he received him,” figuratively speaking. Wow!
Remember there had not been a resurrection now. We look back and see that Jesus was raised and that there is going to be a resurrection. But there was no resurrection that Abraham could point to. This is why he is the father of faith. This is why when the Bible speaks about him he is talked about as a friend of God three times, but also the man that we are to emulate, the man that we are to believe. Because when he offered Isaac on the altar he said to the two young men, remember, “We are going to go to this mountain and we are going to worship.” And then the whole idea is clear in the text, “We are going to come back to you.” The old man expected a resurrection because God is God. If Isaac is going to be the child of promise, Isaac will be the child of promise even if Abraham kills him because God is God and we’re not.
Well, in verse ten the angel of the Lord speaks. Notice it says in verse ten, “Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ He replied, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy; do not do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.’” What is a man willing to do in obedience to God? It’s been proven.
Some of you perhaps have seen Rembrandts picture of this. Someday I’d like to see the original. It’s apparently in St. Petersburg in Russia in one of the museums. But you can see replicas in art books. You can see pictures of Rembrandts painting of Abraham and Isaac. It is dramatic! You have to stare at it for a while because in the picture what you have is Abraham already having his hand on Isaac’s throat. So he has one hand on the boy’s throat ready to strike and his other hand is up in the air with the knife, and the angel of the Lord wraps his hand around Abraham’s wrist. “Don’t do it Abraham, don’t. I know now how much you love and fear God.”
That’s where the analogy breaks down when you get to the cross. Because when Jesus died on the cross there was no hand from heaven. There was no rescue from the cross. He cried up and said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the Father did not come out of heaven and prevent His death or rescue Him. But Jesus went the whole way for you and for me. He died for sinners.
What a dramatic story. We’ve talked about the greatest test, the greatest trust, and now the greatest truth. The greatest truth is that God is going to provide for Himself a sacrifice. You’ll notice in verse 13, “Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and behold behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide,” Jehovah Jirah, “as it is said to this day, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided.’” Literally the phrase means, “God will provide, God will see to it.”
Some of you are going through a struggle, you’re on the mountain, and who knows what kind of surprise God has for you that you know nothing about. You’ll open up your eyes and realize that God made provision for you that you could not have predicted. The Lord will see to it. I think of the number of times in my life when I’ve been in a predicament and not knowing what to do. In the end I look back and say, “Yeah, the Lord saw to it, the Lord provided.”
And so Abraham takes this ram and sacrifices the ram in the place of Isaac. The ram is now a picture also of Jesus. You say, “Well, I thought Isaac was.” He is, but Isaac can only take us so far. Abraham was not allowed to kill his son, he was prevented from doing so, and so Isaac the typology breaks down after Isaac is rescued from the altar.
In order to complete the picture God takes this ram that is caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham sees it and kills it. You’ll notice that the text says in the last part of verse 13, “He offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” It is now a substitutionary sacrifice, which is exactly what Jesus was when He died on the cross. The Bible says, “He was just, but He died for the unjust.” He died for the ungodly.
You remember I’ve told this story before, but it is a story I love to tell about a woman who was very opinionated and very opposed to the gospel. She was open to it, but she had her own vision as to what the gospel should be. So with a smile on my face—and if you ask a question like this please always smile. You don’t want to ask a question like this and not smile. Or if you do it that way you may not be able to smile afterwards.
I said to her, “Would you consider yourself to be ungodly?” “Are you kidding? Of course not! I’m not ungodly.” I said, “You know, that is really too bad, then Jesus didn’t die for you, for the Bible says, ‘He died for the ungodly.’” I’m glad personally that Jesus died for the ungodly because I am ungodly. And I think in a moment of honesty you are ungodly, too.
The Bible says that Jesus died, the just for the unjust. Jehovah Jirah, the Lord will provide, and the Lord provided for Abraham. Imagine the new concept of God that Abraham had when he came down from that mountain! We could read the rest of the story, and I hope you do, about how God reiterated the covenant. God said, “Indeed I am going to bless you and I am going to bless your seed.” Isaac of course now is alive, and he is going to become the father of a great nation and so forth. His whole conception of God was different when he came down from the mountain.
One of the reasons I want to see it on video is because I want to see the different expression when Abraham went up to the mountain and to what he looked like when he came down from the mountain. Having proved that he feared God, having proved that he loved God, and God comes to him in fresh, brand new ways.
What are the greatest lessons that we can learn from this? First of all, worship always involves sacrifice. You’ll notice it says in verse five, “The lad and I will go yonder and worship and then we will come to you.” You say, “Well, I always thought worshipping was coming to church and singing the right hymns.” Well, it is that. And if you come to Moody Church, God knows you sing the right hymns, don’t you? We make sure that you do! What wonderful hymns we sang today: “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners” and “It is Well with My Soul.”
You say, “Well, I thought that was worship.” Yes, that’s worship, the fruit of our lips. But biblically, worship means that I bring myself, I bring an offering. In the Old Testament in the Temple they always came with something for God. Even when we are invited out for dinner somewhere, thanks to the good memory of my wife, we stop and at least buy a box of chocolates to bring to people.
It’s amazing how many people come into God’s presence Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and they bring Him nothing. Worship always involves sacrifice. And then we have Romans chapter 12,” Give your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” That’s where it starts. It begins by saying, “God, you have myself first,” that’s worship. And Jesus chided people who thought that because they said the right words and sang the right songs that they were worshipping. He said, “No, you’re doing it, but your heart is far from Me.” Worship is sacrifice.
The second lesson is that when God wants to expose the idols in our lives He sometimes chooses what is most precious to test us. And what is most precious but our children? But let me ask the question this way: what would it take for you to turn away from God? If God took your children would you turn away from God? If God allowed you to go through a difficult marriage, you go through the gut-wrenching process of a divorce; would that make you turn from God? What is it that is in your life and in my life that means more to us than God, so that we can just dispense with God and turn against Him if things do not go our way and if He does not cooperate with our vision of happiness?
I suppose that the greatest idol in our lives actually is the idol of happiness. We think to ourselves, “I deserve a vocation in which I am happy. I deserve a marriage in which I am happy. I deserve living situations in which I am happy,” and there’s nothing wrong with improving those. But I’m simply saying that our happiness is so bound up with what we want that we lose the larger vision of obedience and love of God, which lies at the root of the greatest commandment: “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” That’s the greatest sin, to not love God with your whole heart, and everything flows from there, doesn’t it?
This summer I was at Bughouse Square, a mile south of here at the Newberry Library, giving my defense of Christ to an audience that was not entirely receptive. A few of you were there, so you know. You’re given a blow horn and you can say anything you like. I was giving a defense of Jesus, and people can interrupt you. It’s great fun! They can shout at you, they can say things that we wouldn’t say in church, and you just enjoy the banter.
But when it was over, there was a woman who was very indignant. I ended by giving a personal testimony of at the age of fourteen accepting Jesus. She said to me, “What sin did you commit by the age of fourteen for which you needed forgiveness?” I guess she thought I was going to say, “Well, you know I actually killed my brother.” But I didn’t do that, even though I felt like it many times. The problem is he felt like that, too, with his brother.
I looked at her and said, “You know what my problem was? I broke the first commandment: “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind.” I said, “I broke that commandment.” She looked at me and walked away. That’s the greatest sin you can commit, to have a child, a vocation, something else in the place of God that means more to you than God Himself. That is idolatry and that is sin.
What is it that God needs to do for you before you draw near to Him? You say, “Until He resolves this difficulty, until I get justice I’m not going to have a thing to do with God. Until I can understand His ways, until I can see what God’s up to I’m not going to have a thing to do with Him.” That’s idolatry because you are withholding something from God. There is something that means more in your life than He does.
The final lesson is of course that we will never give up the creature until we have been satisfied with the Creator. Only when we are willing to say, “God you are first. You’re number one,” then of course all of the other things will fall into line. But as long as we are narcissistic, filled with unrecognized self-absorption —and that, by the way, is the greatest hindrance to progress in the spiritual life, unrecognized self-absorption—As long as we are there we are not going to be able to love God. And when we don’t love Him we will always put Him in second, third or fourth place.
And so the angel comes out of heaven and says to Abraham, “Abraham!” He says, “Yes, here I am.” “Now I know that you fear God.” How much is a man willing to do for God? Abraham tells us, “Anything He asks!” Is that your heart today? Is that my heart today?
Jesus, when He was here on earth centuries after Abraham, 19 or 20 centuries later, said to some of the people who were criticizing Him and accusing Him of saying that He was God, which of course He did and which He was, He said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day and he saw it and was glad.” Maybe Jesus had this story in His mind.
How was Abraham saved? What happened to his sin? He was saved on credit. God says, “I’m going to take your sin, Abraham, and I am going to put it away over here on a shelf,” figuratively speaking, “because I know that someday a Redeemer is going to be born, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And when He comes, your sin will finally and completely be dealt with.” There is no other way to be forgiven than the Lamb that God supplies for Himself and for you and for me.
Let us pray. “Now, Father, only You can expose the idolatries of our hearts. Only You can say to us, ‘Do you see this idol? Do you see that idol?’ We can’t see them ourselves, we are too blind, and we are too self-absorbed. Would You by Your Spirit, would you show us?”
How many of you today say, “Pastor Lutzer, God has talked with me about some idols in my life that I need to deal with,” would you raise your hands please, all throughout the auditorium and up in the balcony, too? Would you in this moment say, “Lord I will deal with the idols that You have exposed”?
“Father we do come to You thanking You that so many generations later, so many centuries later we can look back on a story to inspire us to love You more than anything else and to sacrifice for You. Teach us these things Lord, we pray, and don’t let us go until we’ve heard your Word about our hearts, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”