December 23, 2018
We had a very sweet funeral here a couple weeks ago. Yaeko Tanigawa passed away at the age of 84. She and her husband, Mal, have been part of our church. It was a small funeral – largely just family and a few others. One visiting family member, a 90-year-old elder from a church in South Carolina, shared the funeral message and did a marvelous job – expressing encouraging comfort and challenging faith for any present who may not know Christ.
Interestingly, there were some distant family members here from Charlotte, and one of them privately expressed amazement that a 90 year old would still believe this Christianity stuff. I suppose he thought by the time we grow up, we put these silly childish beliefs behind us.
Our youngest son, a senior at ECU, is a journalism major and the opinion editor for the school newspaper. While raised largely in this church, he has soundly rejected the Christian faith. Recently on his Facebook page, he invited fellow students who had fled “organized religion” to share their stories – he wants to write a column on their experiences. In the invitation, he noted the large numbers of those abandoning the faith – I suppose after they were out from their parents’ influence and rules. Again, the implication is once you grow up and become a thinking individual at a university, you leave those childish beliefs behind. Kind of like Santa Claus.
And yet, in our study of Hebrews, the author has been encouraging continued faith. Keep believing, keep living by faith, until your final breath. Even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when opposed and ridiculed. Don’t abandon the faith. Even if you don’t receive the fullness of the promises in your lifetime. Remember, God’s faithfulness is not dependent on fulfilling all His promises in your lifetime. But fulfill them, He will. So keep believing.
In chapter 11, he’s giving us a long list of people of the past who faithfully persevered – despite the opposition, despite not receiving the promises. A couple weeks ago, we began looking at Abraham and Sarah, whose long story is found in Genesis 12-25. And by the way, Abraham is mentioned more in the NT than any other OT character – some 74 times. So our author gives them a lot of attention – from Hebrews 11:8-19 – more than any other.
In the first few verses, we saw Abraham believed when God called him to go to a land He would show him. So Abraham left, even though he didn’t know where he was going. Even though, he remained a foreigner in the land of promise until the day he died, living in tents. He never received a foot of it, except for a family burial plot.
Further, he believed when God said he would be a great nation – with descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea, the stars in the sky. He and Sarah both believed when God said they would have a son – even though barren Sarah was past the age of childbearing, and Abraham was good as dead. They believed, and lived by faith – and sure enough, they did live to see the fulfillment of that promise. When Abraham was 100, Sarah was 91, they had their one son, their only son, Isaac.
By the way, one thing you should know is God’s revelation to Abraham was progressive – that is, over time He revealed more and more. He didn’t tell Abraham everything at once. He was building Abraham’s faith. For example, I made a chart for you:
In Genesis 12, while still in Ur of the Chaldeans or perhaps Haran, God promised to make Abraham a great nation – but did not tell him how. In fact, there is no mention of any offspring.
Later in Genesis 12, after arriving in Canaan, God promised to give Abraham offspring – but He did not tell him how.
In Genesis 13, God gave Abraham the extent of the offspring – as the dust of the earth.
In Genesis 15, at the Abrahamic Covenant, God tells Abraham for the first time, the offspring would come from his body. Of course, that’s why in Genesis 16, since Sarah was barren, Abraham had a son named Ishmael through Hagar.
But, that was not God’s plan. In Genesis 17, at the Covenant of Circumcision, we’re told for the first time the offspring would also come from Sarah – not Hagar.
In Genesis 18, the promise is finally revealed to Sarah – that she would bear a son. She laughed. But let’s not be too hard on Sarah – Abraham laughed in chapter 17 when he was told the same news. So God said, name the boy Isaac, laughter, so you’ll remember every time you call his name – this was impossible – but I made it happen.
Don’t miss how many years it took for that promise to be fulfilled – from about age 70-75 to age 100 when the son of promise was finally born. My point? About 25-30 years from the promise to its fulfillment. And that was just the promise of a son. It took hundreds of years for the other promises – a great nation, the land – to be fulfilled. And it took a couple thousand years for the promise of a descendent of Abraham to be a blessing to the whole world. A couple thousand years until the first Christmas, when Jesus was born.
That’s the point of the second section regarding Abraham in Hebrews 11. All these died in faith, without receiving the promises. We looked at that two weeks ago. But they died, believing the promises, never receiving them. Even though they lived for over a hundred years – to be old people. They apparently never wised up and abandoned these foolish childhood beliefs. As a result, God is not ashamed to be called their God, and He has prepared a city for them. We haven’t seen it yet. We haven’t seen Jesus yet. But we believe, and we will.
Which brings us to our text this morning. The reason I reviewed all those offspring promises – leading to that one son of promise – Isaac – is because of what God required of this man of faith after Isaac was born. Look at the text with me, Hebrews 11:17-19.
I do not mind telling you if there is any one story in the Bible which causes me personal challenge, it is this one. How could God command Abraham to sacrifice his son? Even if God knew He was going to stop Abraham from doing so, how could a good God do that? Isn’t that evil? I’ll try to explain as we close this morning.
As we approach this story, as much as is possible, put yourself in Abraham’s sandals. You know this is a test. You know how it ends. Some of you know the story so well you could stand where I stand and teach it. But, for the next few minutes, forget what you know. Forget this is the test. Forget you know how the story ends. Try to imagine the thoughts, the emotions, the anguish, Abraham no doubt experienced during this ordeal. Think of your own son, your own daughter – would you have obeyed like Abraham did? And very quickly you say no, because God would never command that – but He did. Or would you have come up with all kinds of reasons not to obey, as if you knew better than God. To be clear, if you have a dream tonight to kill one of your children, don’t do it. I don’t believe God would tell you to do that. But He did. What do we do with this?
So, put yourself in Abraham’s sandals. God called him decades ago to go to a country he would be shown. Abraham obeyed and went, even though he didn’t know where he was going. God promised He would make Abraham a great nation – even though, at first, He didn’t tell Abraham how He was going to do it. Descendants as numerous as sand and stars. In Genesis 15, Abraham complained a bit – are my descendants going to come from one of my servants to carry on my name and household? No, Abraham, from your own body one will come. Really, because I’m like old now. Look at the stars, Abraham – that’s how many your descendants will be from your own body. And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
So then he waits for a few years. He listens to his wife Sarah who suggested he fathers children through her handmaid, Hagar. After all, it’s obvious she’s not going to have any children. And so, without consulting God, Abraham fathers a child named Ishmael through Hagar. And for 13 years, Abraham thinks, God did it – I’ll have lots descendants through Ishmael. Oh, but God then said, Abraham, the son of promise will not come from her. It will not be Ishmael. The son of promise will come from Sarah. Really? Um, she’s like really old now. Then God tells Sarah – this time next year, you will have a son. And God has made it clear that through this son, Isaac, He would fulfill the promises. Incredibly, just as God promised, Isaac is born. Can you imagine the incredible, unbelievable joy in that tent.
Two weeks ago, we saw in Hebrews 6 Abraham patiently waited and received the promise of a son. Patiently waited? You bet – it took 30 years. Again, Abraham is 100, Sarah is 91. But the promise was fulfilled, because God had promised. And He had sworn by Himself, and He is a God who cannot lie. Look at the first two verses of Genesis 21 which record the birth of Isaac:
1 Then the LORD took note of Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had promised.
2 So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him.
It’s clear, isn’t it? God had done it – fulfilled His promise, just like He said. All is well, right? Now we can move the narrative forward. Isaac can have children, a nation is born, they settle in the land, and the one through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed can come. Everyone lives happily ever after. Not so fast. God is not quite done perfecting Abraham’s faith. We read the challenging story in Genesis 22:
1 Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” [You see, he had been listening to God’s voice for decades now. He recognized it when he heard it.] 2 He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”
Really? Take your son, your only son, whom you love. God is making sure Abraham understands which son to sacrifice. There can be no hunting for Ishmael, who by this time had been sent away. Nope – take the son, the one you love – just in case there’s any confusion – his name is Isaac. Take him and kill him. What would you have done?
Now notice, this is a test. And we know that, right? We know how the story ends. Abraham knew neither – that it was a test, nor how it would end. But here’s a question, for whom was the test? Is God unsure of the outcome? Is there some chance Abraham will disobey, and God’s not sure, so He gives Abraham a test to see what he will do? I don’t think so.
To be sure, I think it is a test – think of it as a final exam. God has been testing and thereby perfecting Abraham’s faith for decades now. Will you believe Me and move to Canaan? Will you believe this land is yours? Will you believe I’ll make you into a great nation? Will you believe you’ll have descendants as numerous as sand and stars? Will you believe you and Sarah will have a son? God’s been testing, and thereby perfecting Abraham’s faith. I would suggest He does the same thing for us. Not because He’s unsure of the outcome – but to refine us, and make our faith as pure as finest gold. Consider I Peter 1:
6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials,
7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;
8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory,
9 obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.
Clearly God tests us so that He might refine us, purify us, proving the reality of our faith – by which faith we receive its outcome – the salvation of our souls. Is He unsure of the outcome? No, He’s making sure we know. Back to Genesis 21.
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. [Notice, there was no delay. There’s no indication he told Sarah what he was doing. He just rose, early in the morning, and to do what God had said.]
4 On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. [Now, while the text doesn’t say, can you imagine the angst of his soul for three days as he made his way toward the mountain God identified. Perhaps waiting for God to say, just kidding. That’s enough. God doesn’t, so onward he goes.]
5 Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” [That’s amazing to me – he calls this an act of worship – and it is. Obedience, no matter how challenging, is worship.]
6 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 the two of them walked on together.
7 Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. [Don’t miss Abraham expected a lamb to be provided for sacrifice.] 9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
This is the event to which Hebrews refers. This is incredible, unbelievable faith. Recall all the promises which had been made to Abraham for decades. And the Genesis narrative is clear – it is through Isaac all the promises will be met. He is the son of promise. Now, take and sacrifice him. And our Hebrews text summarizes Abraham’s response. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He stretched out his hand took the knife to slay his son. The son of promise. He who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son.
You must understand, from a human perspective, the command contradicted the promise. Verse 18 says, “it was he of whom it was said, ‘in Isaac your descendants shall be called.’” Abraham understood the promise, and he understood the command. As far as he was concerned, this was God’s problem, not his. Apart from knowing the rest of the story, it would make no sense to us. And I would suggest some of the most difficult times you will ever face are the tests of your faith you don’t understand. That you may not understand in this life. But, we live by faith.
So since this was God’s problem, how did Abraham reconcile it is his own mind? Verse 19, “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead.” How did he know that? Well, he’s seen God in a sense raise him and Sarah from the dead – create life out of dead bodies. And by the way, this assuming God would raise Isaac from the dead is seen in the Genesis account: “Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.’” Abraham fully expected to obey God, and somehow return with Isaac. Again, this was God’s problem. Are there things in your life about which you need to say, this is God’s problem. To obey will bring me great pain, even sorrow. But I’ll obey, and leave the consequences to God.
One author writes, “When Abraham obeyed God’s mandate to leave Ur, he simply gave up his past. But when he was summoned to Mount Moriah to deliver his own son to God, he was asked to surrender his future as well.” [William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary] That’s what He asks of us – to give our past, our present, and our future to Him. You likely know the rest of the story, but let’s read it in Genesis 22:
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 stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
13 Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. (Can you imagine being Isaac? Years of therapy?)
So as we close, what do we do with this command by God for Abraham to sacrifice his son as burnt offering? Does that bother anyone? Some of you might say, “Well, He didn’t let Abraham go through with it, so it was okay.” So, is it right for God to command us to do something evil as long as He doesn’t let us do it? I would remind you of a couple of things. First, most will quote Leviticus 18:21 which is a prohibition against sacrificing children to Molech. But, Molech was a false god.
Second, we must also remember James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” The idea is, God doesn’t tempt anyone with evil. So, is it possible the command to sacrifice his son was not evil? True, He didn’t allow it, but if He had, was it His right to do so?
What do I mean? God will not be judged by us, His fallen creatures. Everything He does is right. We have neither the authority nor the moral character to judge the God of the universe.
And the last thing I would say is this. Don’t be too hard on God calling someone to sacrifice his one and only son, the one he loves. If you are opposed to that, you are opposed to the Gospel. Because that is exactly what God did for us. He called for the sacrifice of His own Son. The difference? He didn’t stop the soldiers from driving the nails into His Son’s hands and feet, or from thrusting the spear into His side. He Son died – as a sacrifice of atonement for us.
Which is what the end of verse 19 says, “from which he [Abraham] received him [Isaac] back as a type.” The word is literally parable. The point is, this story of the sacrifice of Isaac is a type, a parable pointing to the reality of the sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus. I want to be careful about making comparisons, types that are not intended here. But some seem rather obvious. Consider these striking parallels:
- God also had only one, begotten son, whom He loved.
- This Son was sacrificed as an offering to God. You see, burnt offerings were offerings for sin. So also, the offering of Christ on the Cross was for sins – not His, but ours.
- Notice the three days it took Abraham and Isaac to get the mountain – so also was Jesus dead for three days, before God received Him back.
- Isaac carried the wood of the sacrifice, just as Jesus would bear His own cross.
- The story of Isaac has a substitutionary, sacrificial ram who would take Isaac’s place. Jesus would have no substitute – but He would be the substitute, the Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world.
So if you struggle with this story as occasionally do I – remember it is a type of the One to come. In fact, one author suggests that in John 8, when Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing My day. He saw it and was glad” is a reference to this story. He saw the day of Jesus in parable form. And we remember the words of Paul in his famous chapter on Abraham, man of faith. Romans 4:18-22:
18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.”
19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb;
20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God,
21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.
22 Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.
23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him,
24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,
25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
It is the glorious story of the Gospel.