28 Mar The ultimate test of faith
Genesis 22:1-8 – After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take 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.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And 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. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
Let me begin by telling you an interesting conversation I had with my ex-girlfriend. No, not that infamous ex. This is another ex. I know what’s in your mind right now. “I wonder how many ex-es does my pastor have?” The answer is not important to the sermon, move on. But my conversation with my ex is important. At that time, we were still together. I don’t know if this was just her thing, or it applies to women in general. She liked to ask what I considered silly stupid questions that lead to big fights. Any men can relate to me? One time she asked me this question: “If one day I’m pregnant and there is a problem with the pregnancy and you have to choose between my life and the child, which one would you choose?” I mean, what sort of question is this? Do all women do this or is it only her? Now, I’m a very logical person. So my answer went like this. “Well, I’m sure that you as the mother would want me to prioritize the life of the child and because I love you, I’ll honour what you want me to do. So I’ll save the child and let you die.” And she was furious. She admitted that even though she would choose the child’s life over hers, she did not want me to choose the child because that means I love the child more than her. Which did not make any sense to me because the reason I chose the child was because I loved her and because that’s what she wanted me to do. Anyway, we had a big fight for 2 days and she almost dumps me because of a hypothetical question. Ladies, do not ask this question to your husband or boyfriend after the service.
The point that I’m trying to make is that we never know how much we truly love someone or something until there is a choice to be made. The presence of a choice allows us to see what we truly love. I never knew how much I love KFC until I have to choose between KFC and cholesterol. Let me put it another way. Our choice is the fruit of our love. People cannot see the state of our heart. But people can see our love through our choice. And the proof of love is always found in the willingness to make the hard choice. This is what’s happening in this story. If you grew up in church, you knew this story very well. It is one of the most popular and important narratives in the Old Testament. And if you do not know this story, let me say that I am glad that you are here with us. This church is a safe place for you to explore Christianity. And if this is the first time you hear this story, you might wonder, “What kind of God would ask a father to kill his own son? That is bizarre and insane.” And I agree with you. If what God asked of Abraham was simply to murder his son, it is insane, and Abraham should not obey it. But I would argue with you that God did not command Abraham to commit senseless murder. There is more to the story than what we can see on the surface.
From the beginning of the passage, the author of Genesis already told us that this was a test from God for Abraham. God was testing Abraham. What sort of test? This is a test that everyone who called themselves Christians must face in life. If you are not a Christian, you are exempted from this test. This test is a test of love. One day a scribe came up and asked Jesus a question, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied in Mark 12:29-30 – Jesus answered, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Jesus said that if we are Christian, God must be on top of the list of our affection. He needs to be the one that we think about the most in our mind. He needs to be the one that we devoted our emotion toward. And he must be the reason for everything we do. Sounds tough? Definitely. But God would have nothing less. He not only wants us to follow him, but he also requires us to love him with our entire being. Or as John Legend puts it, “Cause all of me loves all of you. Love your curves and all your edges…” It’s easy for us to say with our lip that we love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds and strengths. But we only know whether that love is real or not when that love is tested with a choice. We know this. Love is not measured by how much we say we love but by how much we are willing to give and sacrifice.
And this is what happened with Abraham. Why? Did God not know the state of Abraham’s heart? Of course he knew. God knew Abraham’s heart more than Abraham knew his own heart. But there is a difference between knowing intellectually and knowing experientially. God is after experiential knowing. He wanted Abraham to experience the love he had for God. God wanted Abraham to experience that God is the only one who can meet Abraham’s deepest need. And to look to anything but God is deadly. So yes, this story is about Abraham’s obedience to God. But it is also a story about God who wants to meet our deepest need. Let’s look into it.
I divided this story into four parts. The test; The journey; The sacrifice; The provision.
Genesis 22:1-2 – After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take 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.”
What is a test? A test is something that shows us and grows us. It is something that shows us where we are in a particular area and then challenges us to grow in it. It means that when we are being tested, there is an area of our lives that is being stretched to the limit. Let me give you an example. Parents, think about a time when your kid tested your patience. What happened? First, it made you think that you needed to be patient. It made you think that you were patient, and you had what it took to be patient with them. The first thing your kid did to you was made you realize that you were patient to some degree. But it did not stop there. Second, when your kid tested your patience, they stretched your patience to its limit and made you grow, if you passed the test. So, a test both shows us and grows us. But there are two ways people can administer a test. The first way is to fail you. There are those who give a test for the sole purpose of making you fail and leave you feeling bad about yourself. And your kids are experts at this. Amen parents? The second way is to grow you. A teacher can give a really hard test, but also prepare students for the test in such a way that the test does not only show them where they are but also grows them. It does not mean that the test is easy. A good test is always hard and unpleasant, but effective. It makes us realize who we are and grows us in such a way that we would not have without the test. And the second way is the way that God tests Abraham.
Please note that it is God who tests Abraham. The God who had been faithful to fulfil all his promises to Abraham is the same God who tests Abraham. Before Genesis 22, Abraham’s life was marked with faith. He trusted God to fulfil all his promises. He moved when God said move. He believed God when it seemed impossible, and it was counted to him as righteousness. But now it is different. Abraham doesn’t need to trust God anymore. He is already holding the seed of promise in his hand. When it seemed impossible for Sarah to give birth to a son, Isaac was born. And Abraham loves Isaac. To the point that God refers to Isaac as “your son, your only son, whom you love.” The author of Genesis wants us to get the point. Abraham not only loves Isaac, but Isaac is everything for Abraham. Abraham has other children besides Isaac as we know from the song, “Father Abraham has many child…” But Isaac is his treasure. Isaac is different. Isaac is the only son whom Abraham loves. It makes sense why Abraham loves Isaac so much. He waited for many years for Isaac, and he sacrificed many things along the way. Isaac is God’s promise to Abraham. And now God commands Abraham to offer him as a burnt offering. This does not make sense at all.
Think about it. In the past, whenever God commanded Abraham to make sacrifices, it was always accompanied with the promise of God’s blessing. For example, in Genesis 12, “Abram, I want you to leave your big families behind and follow me. And I will make you a great nation and you will become a blessing to every family of the earth.” There was a command and there was a promise of blessing. There was something to lose but more to gain. We call this a good investment. But not this time. This time, it is a test. It is a test because it seems like Abraham has nothing to gain but everything to lose. It seems like a very bad investment. Because Isaac is not only the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, but Isaac is also Abraham’s future. All God’s future promises for Abraham lies on Isaac. That is why this is a test. When Abraham obeyed God in the past, Abraham had to give up his past. But this time it is different. When God asks Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, God does not ask Abraham to give up his past but his future. Essentially, the test that God gives to Abraham is this question. God is asking, “Abraham, who do you love more? Is it me? Or what I can give to you?”
This is the test that every Christian must face sooner or later. The ultimate test of faith is when God asks us not only to surrender our past but to surrender our future. It is when God gives us a choice between him or the benefit he offers. It is when God makes us choose between comfort and security or obedience and unknown. It is when we have to choose between God and our “Isaac” in life. A test is when obeying God’s command appears to rob us of God’s blessing. It is when obeying God will lead to some kind of personal death. It is when obeying God’s command contradicts what we feel like doing. Let me give one concrete example. A relationship is a good thing. God wires us for a relationship. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a deep intimate relationship with the opposite sex. But what if you fall in love with a non-believer? What would you do? What choice would you make? Now, I know what feels right. It feels right for you to date this person. It feels right for you to be with this person. You and that person are like an envelope and a stamp. It feels like you are destined for one another. And to deny that feeling is to deny your happiness. Surely God wants you to be happy right? This is what the test does. The test of God seeks to discover the motivating factor in our relationship with God. Why do we follow God? Why do we obey God? Why do we come to church? Is it because of God? Or is it because of the benefit he can give us? What if loving God means losing the benefit that we desire? Are we willing to obey God when it seems that there is nothing in it for us? This is the test, and it is incredibly hard.
Genesis 22:3-5 – 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”
I love Abraham’s response. He does not negotiate with God as he did in the past. He does not argue with God. He obeys God immediately. Perhaps Abraham has learnt his lesson from all the previous failures. He gets up the next day and begins to make way to Mount Moriah. However, Abraham’s immediate obedience does not mean that it is easy obedience. It takes them three days to get to Moriah. Imagine what Abraham feels in those three days. I’m not a father so let me use my dad as an example. If you do not know, my dad is a weeper. He cries easily. But not me. I’m a real man so I don’t cry. I remember clearly it was my third day in the hospital because of leukemia. They have decided to treat me with chemotherapy. And to do that, they had to perform a mini surgery to insert a catheter into my body. A catheter is a small tube that they used to inject chemo into my body. It was just a mini surgery. And right before the surgery, lo and behold, my dad cried. He said he would have traded place with me if possible. And I thought to myself, “Dad, why are you crying? This is just a very small surgery.” But watching him cry made me cry as well. Crying is contagious. I blamed him for it. But if you are a father, you understand what my dad felt. But what Abraham experience goes beyond that. It is one thing to be told that your son might die; it is another thing to be told to kill your own son. Abraham must be in despair. He must have died a thousand death in those three days journey.
But look at what he says in verse 5. Genesis 22:5 – Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” This is remarkable. Abraham does not say that he will return, but he dares to say that both he and Isaac will return. What happened? What happened in those three days journey that made Abraham say these words? The book of Genesis does not tell us the answer. But the book of Hebrews gives us insight into what happened in those three days. Hebrews 11:17-19 – 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. Pay attention to the word “considered.” I love this word. I will teach you a Greek word. This is a very important word in the New Testament. “Logizomai.” The authors of the New Testament use this word a lot. It is translated into English as consider or reckon. It is actually an accounting term that is used to acknowledge something as true. But it is not wishful thinking or forcing yourself to believe something that is not true to be true. It is not pretending but considering. It means it requires us to think and consider.
Here is what happened. Abraham is faced with a dilemma between trusting God’s promise and obeying God’s command. It seems like there is an unsolvable conflict between the two. On one hand, if God is to be faithful to his promises, then Isaac must live. Isaac is the son of promise. It is through Isaac that God will continue the fulfilment of all his promises to Abraham. God said so himself. That is his promise. On the other hand, if God is to be obeyed, then Isaac must die. And that means the end of all God’s promises to Abraham. This is the dilemma. So, what did Abraham do? He thinks. He considers. Let me tell you his train of thoughts. “Okay, I know what God is telling me to do. I must sacrifice Isaac. But I also know who God is. God is not a liar. All through these years, he proved himself faithful again and again. Even when I failed him, he remained faithful. When I thought that there was no way for Sarah to give birth and I slept with Hagar and gave birth to Ishmael, God said it was not Ishmael that will carry his promises. God said I will have a son through Sarah. And when I was 100 and Sarah was 90, when our bodies were as good as dead, Sarah conceived a son. Isaac was born when it seemed impossible. God never lies and he always keeps his promises. So why did he command me to sacrifice Isaac? Isn’t that mean that God will fail to keep his promises? That cannot be true. Does God contradict himself? No, there is no contradiction in God. So, there can only be one answer. If God is able to bring Isaac into existence out of our old dead bodies, then he is also able to raise Isaac from the dead.” Do you see what happened? Abraham reasons with himself. Abraham might not understand the “why,” but he knows the “who.” He reasons and he knows that God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-loving. God is always good, and he is faithful to keep all his promises. That is why he concludes that even though it feels like death, nothing is more reasonable than to obey God. And they will return.
My friends, this is true faith. Faith is not only obeying God when we feel like it. Faith is obeying God even when we do not feel like it because we know that he is always good and faithful. True faith does not pick and choose. The same faith that receives God’s promises is the same faith that obeys God’s commands. Faith trusts that God knows what he is doing even if we don’t. We do not obey God because we fully understand God but because we know who he is. Abraham uses what he knows about God to reason with himself. Rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate who God is, he uses the truth of who God is to dictate his circumstances.
Genesis 22:6-10 – 6 And 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. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. 9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
Now, I want to take a few minutes to explain to you what really happens. How is it possible for God to demand Abraham to sacrifice his own son? Because that is the main objection to this story. Is it morally right for God to command such a horrific command? What sort of monstrous father would do such a thing? Because let’s face it. If you come up to me after the service and say, “Pastor, thank you for the sermon. God is speaking to me clearly through your sermon. He tells me to go home and kill my son,” let me tell you, you are not going home. Timmy and Josh are going to lock you on the floor while Ellis calls triple zero. We will make sure that you are in jail. So, what is happening in this story? How can the all-loving good God demand a child sacrifice?
To understand what happened, we need to understand the law of firstborn privilege. In the last 20 years, some of the best commentaries have shed light on what this command would have meant for Abraham. It did not mean to Abraham what it tends to mean to us. In ancient cultures, the firstborn inherited everything in the family. They looked to the firstborn as the ultimate hope of the family. The firstborn was the person who carried the family’s name and status in the community. That is why throughout the Old Testament, God kept saying, “The firstborn is mine,” because it represented their very lives. For example, God required the firstborn cattle and the first fruits of the grain to be sacrificed to him. And remember what happened in the 10th plague in Egypt. God declared that he would kill the life of every firstborn unless a lamb was slain, and its blood was put on the doorpost. And it continued in the life of the people of Israel. God said the life of every firstborn of the Israelites must be redeemed with a sacrifice and payment. In other words, God was saying, “There is a debt of sin that every family owes me. And that debt must be paid.”
So, when Abraham heard God commanded him to offer up Isaac, Abraham understood what God was saying. If Abraham heard God said, “Abraham, I want you to kill Sarah and marry a new younger wife,” Abraham would have never done it because God would not have commanded a senseless murder like that. And note, God did not say, “Go into Isaac’s tent and slit his throat.” He did not. God was very specific in what he wanted Abraham to do. Abraham was to offer Isaac as a burnt offering at Mount Moriah. So, when God said, “Offer Isaac,” Abraham knew exactly what it meant. God is the God of justice and there is a debt of sin that must be paid. So, Abraham’s struggle with the command is not because it is immoral. Abraham knows that he is a sinner and God has the right to demand payment for sins. But God also promised that through Isaac, all the families of the earth would be blessed. The struggle for Abraham is how can God both demand payment for sin and keep his promises? How can God be both just and merciful? How can God be both holy and gracious? Or to put in Paul’s words, how can God be both just and the justifier of Abraham? Do you feel the tension?
Now, pay attention to what Abraham says. He had three days to think of this tension and his answer is remarkable. Genesis 22:7-8 – 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When Isaac asks, “Dad, where is the sacrifice for our sins?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the sacrifice.” The word provide is actually the word “to see.” Abraham is saying to Isaac, “God will see to it” which mean that God will take care of it. In other words, Abraham is saying to Isaac, “My son, you can’t see the lamb right now. I can’t see the lamb right now. But God will see to the lamb. I do not know how but God will take care of it.” What an answer! Abraham is convinced that God will work out all the details. So they walk up the mountain and built an altar. Then Abraham puts Isaac on the top of the altar and takes out his knife to kill Isaac when suddenly a voice calls out to him from heaven.
Genesis 22:11-14 – 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
The tension is solved. God comes through. Just when Abraham is about to kill Isaac, God stops him. God tests Abraham and Abraham passes the test. What Abraham is able to see is that this test is about trusting and loving God above everything. God says that he now knows that Abraham fears him. In the Bible, the fear of God does not refer so much to being afraid of God but more to be wholeheartedly committed to God. To fear God is to stand in loving, joyful awe and wonder before the greatness of God. In other words, when God says he knows that Abraham fears him, God is saying “Now I know that you trust me and love me more than anything in this world.”
This doesn’t mean that God is trying to find out if Abraham loves him. God knows the state of every heart. But God is putting Abraham to the furnace, so his love for God could finally come forth as pure as gold. To Abraham, Isaac is everything. If God does not intervene, Abraham would have certainly come to love his son more than God and the gift more than the Giver. That would have been destructive. God is actually being merciful to Abraham. Isaac is a wonderful gift for Abraham, but he is not safe to have and hold until Abraham is willing to put God first. God would not let Isaac becoming Abraham’s idol. If Abraham never had to choose between his son and God, he could not see that his love for Isaac is becoming idolatrous. That is why God tests him and he passes the test. Then God provides a substitute for the burnt offering. And pay attention to what happens next. Because this is the key to the story.
Genesis 22:14 – 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Notice that the name of the place is not “I will obey” but “The Lord will provide.” The actual translation is “The Lord will see to it.” So, yes, this story is about Abraham being tested but it is also more than that. If this story is mainly about Abraham’s obedience, Abraham would name it based on his obedience. But Abraham knows better. This story is not mainly about Abraham’s obedience but about God who provides. And that is why it is said that “On the mount of the Lord, the Lord shall see to it.” The Lord shall see what? A substitute for Isaac. A substitute offering for the debt of sin. The story of Abraham and Isaac is the foreshadow of another Father and Son.
Listen to how Jesus says it. John 8:56 – Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad. Jesus claims that Abraham had a unique insight into the day of Jesus. He might not fully understand it, but Abraham somehow knew that one day God would provide a substitute offering that would remove the debt of sin. Abraham saw that God will provide a sacrificial lamb that we need, and he was glad. And when Jesus finally came into the world, did you know what John the Baptist said about him? “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus came to be the substitute offering to pay the debt of sin.
Just like Abraham, God the Father had to sacrifice his Son, the only Son whom he loves. Just like Isaac, Jesus had to carry the wood up to Mount Moriah. Do you know where Mount Moriah was? It was right next to Calvary. Just like Isaac, Jesus was stretched out on the wood to die. But unlike Abraham and Isaac, there was no substitute offering for Jesus. On Mount Calvary, when God the Father lifted his knife, there was no voice from heaven to stop him. God the Father pierced his knife through his Son. Why? Get this. The cross of Jesus Christ is the answer to the tension between God’s holiness and God’s grace. It is the solution between the debt of sin that must be paid and the fulfilment of all God’s promises. At the cross of Jesus Christ, the justice of God and the mercy of God met. At the cross of Jesus Christ, the debt of sin is paid once and for all. The justice of God is served. But at the same cross, the mercy of God is manifested. Jesus paid the debt of sin that we could not pay so that whoever believes in him might receive the promise of God. Because God did not spare his firstborn Son but gave him up as a sacrifice for sin, we do not have to offer ours. There was no substitute for Jesus because he came to be our substitute.
Let me close with this. Do you know what it does to you? If you see what Abraham saw, it melts you from the inside. I do not know what kind of test God is putting in front of you right now. He might ask you to surrender your husband, wife, children, business, hobby, boyfriend, girlfriend, or it might be your future. But the way you pass the test is not to simply say, “I must obey.” It does not work. The way to pass the test is to consider the gospel, consider the cross of Jesus Christ. Think. Paul puts it this way. Romans 8:32 – He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? If God the Father did not withhold heaven’s best from us, will he not graciously give us what is good for us? That means that today if God asks us to surrender anything to him, it cannot be because he doesn’t want what is good for us. He has given up his own Son to die for us to let us know that he will not withhold anything good from us. This is how we can walk up the mountain. Not by thinking that we must obey but by considering the gospel. Abraham looked at Mount Moriah and said, “The Lord will provide.” Today we look at Mount Calvary and say, “The Lord has provided.” And we can say to God, “Now I know that you love me because you did not withhold your Son, your only Son whom you love from me.” Let that truth melts our hearts and changes us from the inside. Let’s pray.
- What is the test that God gives Abraham and why is it necessary?
- “The ultimate test of faith is when God asks us not only to surrender our past but to surrender our future.” Explain why it is a lot harder to surrender our future than our past.
- Have you ever felt the tension between trusting God’s promises and obeying God’s commands? Share your story.
- “Logizomai.” How do we apply this in our daily life? Give some life examples.
- Read Genesis 22:14. What does it mean “The Lord will provide”?
- How does the gospel empower us to offer our “Isaac”?