Subjective Sources of Abraham’s Remarkable Obedience
In John 8:56 Christ said that Abraham rejoiced to see His day, and he saw it, and was glad. If that is a reference to a specific occasion in Abraham’s life, I think it was most probably something that happened while the events recorded in this chapter were taking place. If that is true, it illustrates in an eminently vivid way that God sends trials for the benefit of those who are tried (James 1:2,3). If you could interview Abraham and ask him what was the most severe trial of his life, there can be little doubt that he would point to this time. The text itself marks it as a particularly intense time of testing when we read at the beginning of the chapter that God tempted, or tested Abraham. And by the end of this chapter Abraham himself has much cause to count these trials a joy: from his own experience he can say, in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me (Psalm 119:75). And the more we study this chapter, the more I think we will come to see the truth of Paul’s statement, that these things were written for our admonition (1 Corinthians 10:11; cp. Romans 15:4). I can’t even attempt to give a full treatment to the many themes that coalesce in this portion of Scripture, but I want to give a few hints about the sort of things we can learn from it. And I want to approach it from the standpoint of Abraham’s mindset. What was it that enabled Abraham to render such prompt obedience to God’s terrible command? It can’t have been easy. God didn’t make it easy. For one thing, He reminded Abraham of how precious Isaac was in the very way that He phrased the command: thy son, thine only Son, Isaac, whom thou lovest. But more than that, God required Abraham himself to kill Isaac. Matthew Poole explains how it was to be done:
[Isaac’s] throat was to be cut, his body dissected into quarters, his bowels taken out, as if he had been some notorious traitor, and vile malefactor and miscreant, and afterwards he was to be burnt to ashes, that if possible there might be nothing left of him.
And Abraham was supposed to start on all of this promptly, and yet was given time enough in the journey to anticipate its horrors. What did Abraham have to know and believe in order to even begin to go through with this? By what unshakable and unquestionable convictions did Abraham face and pass this most severe test?
I. First of all, Abraham knew the absoluteness of God. God was ultimate for Abraham. This appears in two ways.
A. Nothing was more important than God. This is the point that God highlights at the moment of crisis. Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. Here was Isaac -Abraham’s son, only child of the beloved Sarah, living proof of the power of God; but Abraham did not withhold him. If it was a choice between God or Isaac, there was no question as to which it was to be. Isaac was never a contender. There was no competition. And all parents have to learn this: it could be in the case of children who die, or children who are rebellious, but they cannot be put in the place of God. And of course not only parents, but all people: the first commandment is still, Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. God was supreme to Abraham. And that supremacy of God in Abraham’s heart was matched by a similar supremacy in Abraham’s mind.
B. What God commanded, must be done. This sounds simple, but this was more than just a test of devotion. In a way, it was a repetition of the test that Eve failed in Eden. You remember that God had told Adam that in the day he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die. When the tempter spoke to Eve he contradicted that, and when Eve looked at the tree she could see that it was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, to be desired to make one wise. God had said that evil would come from eating: but Eve could see that the tree was good in every way. And so she trusted her judgment more than God’s revelation. She acted as though “bad” and “good” were something that existed independently of God’s will, and that right and wrong and good and evil could be decided apart from God’s word: and so she ate the fruit and gave it to her husband as well. In that situation there was a command which perhaps didn’t seem necessary, and it was rejected. But when we come to Abraham, it seems that the trial is more severe, because Abraham is given a command which is contrary to nature, and which was opposite to instinct, to law, and even to what God had said in the past (Genesis 9:6).
But Abraham doesn’t cavil. Abraham doesn’t object. God had spoken, and He had done so clearly, and that was enough for Abraham. He didn’t pretend to have a standard of right and wrong that was independent of God’s word. He didn’t argue that God couldn’t have commanded him to do that: he packed a knife and he set out on his journey. John Calvin (Institutes III.23.2) made a similar point in writing about God’s decree:
The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found. Let human temerity then be quiet, and cease to inquire after what exists not, lest perhaps it fails to find what does exist.
God’s word was enough for Abraham. If God commanded him to kill his son, then killing his son was the right thing to do, however difficult it might be. God was to be obeyed, not questioned or resisted. The Lord was supreme in Abraham’s heart and mind.
Now we should remember that God did stop Abraham from following through: it is certainly not His will that we should kill our children. We must accept whatever God does as right, however much it offends us, and we must do whatever God commands, however unnatural and hard it may seem. But what God has told us is that we must not commit murder -Thou shalt not kill. That applies of course to abortion, which I think is the most widespread form of murder in our nation. But it applies also in an area we don’t often think about -fertility treatments. There are many options available to those couples who are having difficulty conceiving to be able to have a child. But some of those options, like in-vitro fertilization, almost always involve the conception of more than one child -but not all of them will be allowed to live. The episode of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar shows that people will do quite desperate and repulsive things in order to get a child, and the fertility industry is filled with unsavory and wicked practices; but while God’s law says, Thou shalt not kill, God’s people must never be in the position of participating in the destruction of children, even if it happens as “collateral damage” in the process of getting a child. If that means not having children, then submit to God’s will in that regard, but do not violate His word.
God gave that command, and then cancelled it, so of course, there was something for Abraham, and for us, to learn from God’s command and its suspension. He saw that God required consecration, that God does not hesitate to challenge the dearest treasures of our hearts for His own rightful place: Christ applied that teaching to us in Luke 14:26,27: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
God will be supreme: Christ will have our hearts. But there was something else as well. When Abraham surrendered Isaac to God, he got to keep Isaac. Christ announced that those who give up family and possessions for His sake and the Gospels will receive an hundredfold in this time (Mark 10:29,30). The only way to keep anything is to put it in God’s hand, to give it up to Him. Now that is not a guarantee. If you knew that by telling God that He could have this or that you would get to keep it, it would just be a mental game. When you abandon a project, a dream, a relationship, a possession to God there is no promise that He won’t take it away. No, the surrender must be real. But trying to hang on to something is not going to work. Nothing is yours to keep; God can do what He wills with everything you have and everything you are. It is God’s anyway, and you may as well recognize the fact. And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. Mark 8:34,35. You see the guarantee in the text: first of all, that if you try to save your life, it will be lost. What you try to cling to apart from God, without reference to His will, is inevitably going to be taken away. But when you turn everything over to God, you find that He has been very generous towards you, that your life has been saved, and that what you have lost is trash in comparison with Christ (Philippians 3:8). Abraham surrendered Isaac wholly to God: and not only was Isaac spared, but God again pronounced abundant blessing upon Abraham.
There was also a vivid reminder for Abraham in what happened here, and Abraham fixed on that aspect when he gave a significant name to the place where these things happened: Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord sees, or will be seen. This means that God will provide, or (what amounts to the same thing) that God will manifest Himself on our behalf. I call it a reminder because Abraham had already announced this to Isaac. When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb?”, Abraham replied that God would provide himself a lamb. We can apply this across the board, and in any kind of lack remind ourselves that God is the God of Abraham, the God who provided. But it is true of worship: God is the one who supplies what is necessary so that we may worship Him acceptably, as in this case he provided an acceptable sacrifice. And it is true of salvation: God is the one who provides everything necessary for our deliverance, as He provided for the deliverance of Isaac.
And that leads on to another lesson which Abraham and Isaac would have learned from this event, the truth of substitution. Isaac was a condemned victim; but God interposed and saved him, and did so by means of a substitute. By God’s decree a ram had gone up that same mountain, and had gotten tangled and trapped in a thicket. God had appointed that a substitute for Isaac would be there at the very time when he was needed. So Isaac went free, but the ram was killed. Abraham offered up that ram in the stead of Isaac his son. They learned not merely that God provides, that God is the God of deliverance, but that God delivers through the provision of a substitute. Abraham’s son went free because there was a substitute to take His place. But years later, when another Father raised His hand against His son, no one called from heaven to prevent it; that Father killed His Son, and there was no substitute. Abraham’s son was delivered by a substitute; God’s Son, on the other hand, was not delivered because He was the substitute for a sinful people.
II. In the second place, Abraham knew the infallibility of God’s promises. Perhaps the hardest part of this trial was that God called upon Abraham to destroy the child of promise. When God promised that Abraham would have a son by Sarah, Abraham had not believed that promise right away; he had laughed and asked for God’s blessing on Ishmael (Genesis 17:17,18). But God had strengthened his faith, so that he had ceased to consider his own age, or the deadness of Sarah’s womb: and God had fulfilled that promise, Isaac had been born. And now God commands him to kill that very child, with whom God had said he would establish his covenant. God’s promises to Abraham were centered in Isaac. In Abraham’s position I think I would have been very confused and hesitant and grieved; but Abraham rose up early and promptly went to carry out his duty. He knew that obedience to God will never result in forfeiting God’s blessing, however destructive obedience seems. And he knew something else: we don’t know at what point he came to this conclusion, though I suppose it was at some point on the journey to Moriah. But as we learn from Hebrews, at some point Abraham came to the conclusion that if he killed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead. The Bible doesn’t say that God told him that. I believe he reasoned his way to that conclusion. He had two things to work with. One was that God had told him to kill Isaac, and he was committed to doing just that. The other was that God’s promises could never fail. And that meant that not even the death of Isaac could interfere with the fulfillment of God’s promise – God would bring him back to life if that was what it took. And God confirmed that faith in Him, that belief in resurrection, in giving Abraham a figure of the resurrection when Isaac was spared (Hebrews 11:17-19). Is it any wonder that Christ said that Abraham saw His day? Abraham saw salvation by a substitutionary death, and resurrection by the power of God in faithfulness to His promises.
Abraham’s faith in God as the Just and Supreme One Whose word is unquestioned, and whose faithfulness and power limitless enabled him to obey the hardest commandment laid upon him. May God give us grace to have a similar faith, that we may obey as much as our father Abraham. The record of Abraham’s failing in the exact point where he was strongest, his faith, show us that it wasn’t his superhuman virtue that enabled him, but the grace of God: and what the grace of God did in Abraham, the grace of God can do in us. When we see Christ taking our place, and the Father lifting up His hand against Him, and then again when we see Christ rising from the dead, how can we doubt that we must give Him first place in our minds and hearts, that we must surrender all to Him to do with it as He sees fit; and how can we doubt that He will abundantly satisfy all those who put their trust in Him?