The ultimate faith…put to the ultimate test

The ultimate faith…put to the ultimate test

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” 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. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 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.” 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. 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?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. "Abraham's Sacrifice." The Hermitage.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. “Abraham’s Sacrifice.” The Hermitage.

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. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” 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. 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.”

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
— Genesis 22:1-18

A few weeks back, the question was raised in Sunday School class as to how Abraham could come to the place of being willing to sacrifice Isaac.

It was a rhetorical question.

I am the type of girl who answers rhetorical questions.

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And the answer to your question as to how in the world Abraham could be willing to go as far as he did with respect to being willing to sacrifice Isaac is because God kept his promises. Abram of Ur was an ordinary man with an extraordinary relationship with the LORD. there were other individuals who experienced visions and theophanies and locutions and all sorts of other extraordinary things, but only Abram — who became Abraham — had a covenant with the LORD. And it was the LORD who walked through both halves of the sacrifice, not Abram: it was the LORD who made such a bold statement to Abram that if he didn’t keep his promises to Abram, may “this” (the halved sacrificial animals) be done to him. And all along the way — and in-spite of all Abraham’s clever plans to save his own skin (“She’s my sister…”) and “help” God (Ishmael and Hagar) — God remained faithful to Abraham. For certainly Abram’s/Abraham’s own faith was not steadfast, he waited to leave; he made a lot of mistakes along the way to point to doubt in God’s plan, God’s protection, and God’s promises.

But God kept his promises.

I was writing to a friend last week that it is a great comfort that God’s faithfulness in me and to me is not contingent on my faithfulness to God or my own lack of faithfulness in my own utility to God. Only those with a very simple and trusting nature could ever trust God at his word on that count, the rest of us have to fail and battle it out.

And somewhere along the line — after watching God’s faithfulness amid his failings, after witnessing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (even from afar), and after receiving Isaac as the child of promise…but maybe not until in-the-moment on top of that mountain — Abraham “got it” and took the step to step out in faith.

To a 21st c. Western American mind the whole scene is horrifying and barbaric, but in that time and place even human sacrifice was common. The LORD — the LORD who keeps his promises — required this thing of him. By no means would I dare to suggest Abraham was somehow numbly and callously resolved to do this thing without any doubts, reservations, emotional response, etc. — by no means — but the point was that when it came down to the crucial and decisive moment? Abraham’s faith in God’s faithfulness proved sound.

I don’t know if you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, but Chapter 11 is pretty chilling. Now, we can throw the word “Lord” around (and Christians so often do), but what it means to subject oneself to live in submission and obedience to the lordship of another is something that impacts all aspects of a person’s life. Abraham “got” that too (eventually). The other thing Abraham found out — and what C.S. Lewis explores — is that sometimes (often!) what God requires of us is for us to give him the one thing most precious to us, the one thing we cling to that isn’t him. For a rich man it was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. For Abraham, it was his son.

And for each of us the submission to Jesus Christ as Lord does cost, through for each of us that cost may be different. What is NOT different is that the cost is a dear one, a sacrificial one — the LORD is not content with the lame leftovers, he wants the first-fruits. So perhaps the question is not how in the world Abraham could come to the moment of willingness to sacrifice his precious son, but rather what is it in our own lives that God is calling us to sacrifice?

Abraham’s faith was great, and is referenced may times in the Bible; despite its numerous citations, it is also a faith which defies description. It is an intensity of faith that is mirrored (but not matched) by the faith of many others in the Bible. It is a faith that was “credited to him as righteousness.” And the reason that great faith is referenced, cross-referenced, and extolled by three major world religions is because its greatness is exemplary.

Could I wield that knife? I think that answer has changed over time, flip-flopped back and forth. One great “advantage” to growing up in an unchurched home is that when I discovered the Bible at fourteen, it was the Bible and not some sanitized or watered-down children’s version. I didn’t have anyone’s commentary or exegesis influencing my impression of the text, I just had the narrative of Genesis, read like a primary source document, unfolding before me. I’ve always read the Bible like an historian, then and since. I’m not sure I could see things quite as clearly then, but I promise you that I didn’t need the many cross-references later in the Bible to point me to Abraham’s faith. More than any impression of apparent barbarism on the part of God, what I see now and what I saw then was a man who was forced to come to the end of himself and make a decision about the true measure and mettle of this faith.

Could I wield that knife? In many ways I already have. My own “Isaac” is not a living child, but what I have surrendered of myself (per God’s request) is no less grave, no less dear, no less precious…merely far less visible. I don’t think I’m too bold to say that my Lord and my God keeps his promises. — VKS


“Who But You (Abraham & Sarah),” Mark Hall and Megan Garrett