“And he (Stephen) said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldeans, and dwelt in Haran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell” (Acts 7:2-4).
In a few words Stephen provides a clear summary of the great act of faith on Abraham’s part. His great journey of hope was based on the simple command that God gave him, that he should leave home and go to a land that God would show him. Not until he arrived would he know that he was at the place God promised!
The developing promise
The development of the promise was made over a period of more than 50 years. It began when Abraham (at the time called Abram) was still in Ur, and culminated in the final declaration at the time Isaac was offered. Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, and the LORD had previously told him for leave Ur. So Abram set out in a general direction, while not knowing the specific location that God had in mind. It would be revealed to him when he arrived.
It is most helpful to see how the promise was progressively revealed to Abraham as the years went by. The process was gradual. It started when God told him to leave his homeland and go to another place which God would show him. Associ- ated with the instruction was the promise that he would be a famous man and his name would be blessed. Later, when Abram arrived at the place God wanted to give him, God told him that this was the place, and that he was to walk up and down in the land. All that he could see would be given to his descendants and him. But at this time he had no children!
A few years later God again appeared to Abraham and renewed the promise that he would have many children, as numerous as the stars of heaven. But at this time too he was a childless man, probably more than 80 years old! However, such was the strength of God’s promise, that when Abraham asked for some kind of assurance that this would happen, God went through the process of making a “formal” covenant with him. The process to make the covenant was the same routine that two men would have used in that era when they made a covenant or agreement between one another.
About 15 years later, when Abraham was 99 years old, God again appeared to him and told him that the time had come for him and his wife Sarah to became parents! Sarah was 89 at the time and her natural childbearing years had ended many years before!
Nevertheless, God said that Sarah would be the mother of a baby boy (to be named Isaac) and Abraham would be the boy’s father. And so it happened, exactly as God had said. Isaac was the child of promise; he was the boy through whom the promise of many descendants would find its most significant fulfillment.
The astonishing commandment
Some years went by and God appeared to Abraham with an astonishing instruc- tion, one that required a huge amount of faith to keep: he should offer the son he loved so much as a burnt offering at a place appointed by God. So for the second time in his life, Abraham set out on a journey to a general area, but not knowing the specific place that God had designated. It would be revealed to him when he arrived.
By this time Isaac was old enough to know what was happening. Isaac had a moral responsibility to obey his father, and he willingly submitted to his father’s will! Is it possible that Isaac was about 33 1/2 years old when this event happened?
The record of this supreme sacrifice is given in Genesis 22. When reading the chapter our attention is immediately arrested by the word “tempt”. But this was not a temptation in the normal sense of the word. The Hebrew word means “test”. But what kind of a test? There are different kinds of tests with which we are familiar. For example, nobody intending to purchase a car would take it for a test drive and drive it into a brick wall to determine how strong the vehicle is. Rather, the idea of the test drive is to demonstrate the quality of the vehicle. On the other hand, a scientist designing an aircraft will test metal to its breaking point in order to establish its suitability for the intended use.
It was the first type of “test” that Abraham was called upon to submit to. The test that Abraham was put through was to demonstrate the quality of his faith. The faith of Abraham had been developing for many years and now was the time for its great quality to be brought to the full light of day. It was in his willingness to offer up Isaac that his faith is seen in the fullness of its strength!
The offering up of Isaac prefigured a greater offering that another Father would make about 2,000 years later. At that time it was God who in a sense was “tested”, and the purpose of the “test” was to show beyond all doubt the power and quality of His love! It was in the Father’s willingness to offer up His Son that His love is seen in its full strength! It was at this time in Abraham’s life that, as Jesus said,
“Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
As Isaac willingly obeyed his father and laid himself on the altar, there was an aspect of joy in their vision of a similar obedience and sacrifice that would be made on another day in the distant future!
This is not the first time that Abraham built an altar for worship. And it is prob- ably not the first time that he had offered a burnt offering. But this offering was
different. He was to take the thing he loved the most and make it his offering. The child who was “the son of his old age” was to be offered as a sacrifice to the God who had declared that it would be through this same son that the great purpose of God would be developed.
But it was without hesitation that Abraham moved to obey the command he had received from God. It is written that by faith he:
“…offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure” (Heb 11:17-19).
“I have opened my mouth unto the LORD”
The example of giving to God a most treasured possession is not unique to Abra- ham. Many years later Jephthah faced a formidable foe on the day of battle and as an act of worship he declared to God that, should the victory be won, when he returned home the first thing that came out of his house would be dedicated to the LORD as a burnt offering. This was a voluntary vow, but when his only daughter and only child came out to meet him, Jephthah was devastated. He realized that the thing he loved the most was to be yielded to God as an offering of total dedication. But like Abraham he submitted to the requirements of God’s word. Her life became a “burnt” offering when she was dedicated to working for the LORD for the remainder of her life.
A little later, when Israel was in a state of great ungodliness, a barren Levite woman, named Hannah, yearned to be the mother of children. In her desperation she prayed for a son. In her prayer she declared that, if blessed with a son, she would dedicate him to the LORD for his entire life. So it was that, when her son Samuel was born, she raised him only until he was weaned and then fulfilled her vow. Thus the thing she loved the most became a “burnt offering” of total dedication.
The first mention of a “burnt offering” is in Genesis 9 when Noah, after the flood, made an offering. It is said of that offering that “the LORD smelled a sweet savor”. Thus a pattern is set that such offerings made “in righteousness” are a delight to the Almighty.
The prophetic response
But there is more to the story of the offering of Isaac, an offering that in many respects is a type or model of what would be accomplished by the Father and His Son. When the father and son were on their way to the appointed place, Isaac carried the wood on which he was to be laid. So too, when the Father and Son were on their way to the “appointed place” 2,000 years later, it was the Son who carried the wood on which he was laid and then lifted up.
When they were walking along toward the appointed place, Isaac asked his fa- ther where the lamb was that would be offered. Abraham simply replied that the LORD would provide the lamb for the burnt offering. In Abraham’s mind at that moment, did he not believe that Isaac was the lamb to be slain? Without doubt
that was his expectation. But Abraham could also see beyond the moment of worship on mount Moriah. However, when the angel told Abraham to spare his son, it was a ram and not a lamb that was taken in the place of Isaac. Thus the prophetic comment of Abraham about the lamb being provided by God was not fulfilled on that day. Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question was a prophecy that was to be fulfilled some 2,000 years later.
The sacrifice of obedience
On that day Abraham’s son, his only son, the son whom he loved, was spared. But in reality Abraham had made the greatest sacrifice he could have made. Do you think that Samuel could possibly have had Abraham in mind when he said to Saul: “To obey is better than sacrifice and to hearken than the fat of rams”?
When you read this record of Abraham’s great sacrifice, how are you stirred? Perhaps the pinnacle of the record in Genesis 22 is the declaration of the Al- mighty:
“In thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
For us, brothers and sisters, it will probably not happen that all families of the earth will be blessed because we personally have obeyed and continue to obey the voice of God, but it is certain that some will be blessed. It may well be that the person to be so blessed because of your sacrifice of obedience is the person, or persons, in your life whom you love the most!
Martin Webster (Kitchener-Waterloo, ON)