As we walk along with God, we all go through tough times. Many Christians handle tough times with the following theological framework. Satan will use these tough times to tempt us, to try to move us away from God, so that we attempt to make our own blessing. God will use these tough times to test us, to try to move us toward himself, so that we can receive his greater blessing.
Most of us know that theology and we may find it helpful, until it comes to something like this story in Genesis. This horror story, this ultimate test, tears our hearts to pieces and tempts us to hate God, because here God drills down into the very center of our lives and threatens someone we love more than anything in this world.
I can’t imagine a mother who doesn’t recoil in horror from this story. What are you doing with my son? What kind of father would put a knife to his son’s throat, even if God asked him to do it? More important, what kind of God would ask this? And most important, how could anyone ever love a God who would put his children through a test like this?
What kind of man would do something like this? A man, says vs. 12, who “fears God.” That’s the heart of the matter—he fears God. That doesn’t mean he was afraid of God. That’s not what fearing God involves. It involves faith. Abraham had walked with God for decades and had learned to trust God completely. God had made promises and kept them. God had said, “I will bless you incredibly,” and he had. “I will give you a land and a son.” And God had done exactly that against impossible odds.
We can’t understand this story until we grasp that fact. Abraham had learned over the years that he could trust God completely, even when God asked impossible things, because God had demonstrated over and over again that he could do impossible things. So, when Abraham says to his servants in vs. 5, “We will worship and then we will come back to you,” note that “we.” He believed that. He truly believed that even if he had to kill his son, he and Isaac would come back together. Heb. 11:17-19 tells us that Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Here is a man who really believed it when he said in vs. 8, “God himself will provide the lamb…,” because God had always provided for him.
Abraham had seen God’s love and faithfulness demonstrated so many times that he trusted God completely, obeyed him without question, and loved his God more than anything, even his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved more than anything else on earth. That’s what the fear of God involves—not fear, but love. He loved God perfectly, with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, because God had proven himself worthy of such love.
That raises the larger and harder question. What kind of God asks a man who loves and trusts him this much to do something like this? There are some hints early in the story. He is a God who knows Abraham intimately and calls him by name. He is a God who knows what he is asking, so he says, “Please.” That word doesn’t appear in our translation, but it’s there in the Hebrew. “Please take your son.” That make this more an entreaty than a demand, more the request of a loving Father than the demand of a hard-hearted tyrant. God knows what he’s asking here. He calls Isaac, “your son, your only son, whom you love.” God knows that Abraham’s heart will be torn in two by what he is about to ask.
Yet he asks, “Please take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” That is totally out of character for God. It doesn’t fit the picture that has been emerging throughout the story of Abraham, the picture of a God who wants to bless Abraham, who makes wonderful promises, who has big plans for this man, plans that depend on this very son. Elsewhere in the Bible God fiercely forbids human sacrifice. This doesn’t seem to be the God Abraham has walked with all these years. Indeed, he isn’t even called Yahweh in these early verses. He’s just “God,” perhaps a reflection of the fact that, in the midst of a test like this, God seems strange, remote, mysterious.
Has God changed here? How do we explain this? Why would the loving Yahweh ask something like this? We get the beginning of an answer in the very first verse. “God tested Abraham.” Now, there’s a sense in which that is comforting. It tells us that even in the toughest experiences of life, God is doing something. These things are not accidental events. We are not alone in a cold, cruel universe that sometimes crushes us in its mindless machinery. The God we have known as a loving God in other situations is testing us in this. There’s some comfort in that, until we are given a test like this. Then, in agony and confusion, we ask, Why? Why do you have to test me at all, and why this way?
The Bible tells us that God’s tests have basically two purposes—to do something to us and to discover something about us. I Peter 1:7 explains that God tests us to do something to our faith, to make it strong, and pure as gold. Sometimes God is like a drill sergeant in the Marines, who puts his recruits through hell on earth, so that they are prepared for combat. The testing hurts like crazy, but it is designed to help them survive and give them victory in the end. God had given tests like that to Abraham before, and now he was strong in his faith.
The other purpose of testing in the Bible is to discover something about us. Here God is like a teacher at the end of the term. After all the tests that were designed to do something to the students, there comes this final exam designed to discover if they have learned their lessons, if they have achieved excellence. That’s what this test was about, as revealed by God’s words in vs. 12, “Now I know that you fear God.” What kind of God puts his children through the ultimate test? A God who wanted to know if Abraham had really learned to trust him completely, to obey him without question, and to love him more than anything and anyone.
But now, wait a minute! Doesn’t God know everything already? Why did he have to put Abraham through this hell to discover that? This is a great mystery. Some solve this mystery by asserting that God doesn’t know everything. They posit that, once God gave humanity free will, God couldn’t know how we would choose in every situation. God is often be surprised by the choices we make. That solves the mystery, but leaves us with a God who bears little resemblance to the omniscient God in whom Christians have believed for 2000 years.
Perhaps a better answer to this mystery lies in that familiar distinction between knowing in your head and knowing from experience. There’s a difference between knowing in theory that someone trusts you and knowing they trust you because they have demonstrated that trust. (See the illustration at the end of this piece for a real-life example of this idea.) Perhaps, that distinction helps us understand why God would say, “Now I know… that you fear God, that you trust me…”
But I think that’s still a mystery. The only way I can deal with this mysterious test is to focus on the last words of the story, Abraham’s words in vs. 14 and God’s in vs.15-18. What kind of God would ask this? Abraham says, “Yahweh would. Not just God, but Yahweh. The God I have experienced as the faithful and loving covenant partner for all these years. Yahweh will provide.” The God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son is the God who provides the sacrificial ram himself. The God who commands his beloved friend to go up on the mountain for the ultimate test is the God who always provides up on that mountain.
Of course, God provides much more than a ram. Think of it this way. What does God give when Abraham passes the final exam? An A, a scholarship, a new car? Listen to the last recorded words of God to Abraham, in vss. 15-18. We’ve heard them before. They are the promise of covenant blessing. But here God adds to them and confirms them for all time: not just Isaac, but countless children out of Isaac; not just inheritance of the land, but conquest of all its cities; and the blessing of the entire world, not only through Abraham, but through all of the children that spring from Isaac, and especially the one known as Jesus. What kind of God tests his children? The God who intends to bless his children beyond their wildest dreams.
Remember how Abraham’s walk with God began. He was a pagan with no children, no land, no future. Now here he is, God’s dearest friend, the recipient of incredible promises that assure him and his child an unlimited future. It has taken God a long time to get Abraham to this point, but he wouldn’t give up on him. Yahweh will do anything to bless his beloved child, because that’s the kind of God he is.
We know that much better than Abraham, because we have seen the length to which God will go to bring his blessing to the children of Abraham. We have seen the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin hanging not from a thorny thicket, but from an old rugged cross. On the mountain of Calvary God provided. That’s the kind of God he is. He will stop at nothing, even the sacrifice of his beloved only Son. God stopped Abraham; he didn’t stop himself, because the deepest desire of God’s heart is to bless his children. He is, above all else, for us. And as Rom. 8:31, 32 says, “If God is for us, who is against us? He did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all. Will he not also with him freely give us all things.” That’s the kind of God who asks us to pass the ultimate test—the God who wants to give us all things.
Why does that involve such testing? Because there is a mysterious connection between faith and blessing. The story of Abraham teaches us that God chooses us freely, and make promises to us even before we believe. But then he gives us faith, so that we can receive that blessing. As Abraham shows us, the secret of receiving God provision is trusting God’s provision. If Abraham had not gone on ahead and passed the test, he would not have seen the lamb or received that incredible blessing from God.
That isn’t because God sits with folded arms and tight fists, growling, “Until you trust me, I won’t bless.” It is rather that we can’t receive the blessing until we trust. If left to ourselves, we’re closed, bent over into ourselves. We curl into a self-centered ball, protecting ourselves, defending ourselves, helping ourselves, governing ourselves, trusting ourselves. To receive God’s blessing, we have to open up, make ourselves vulnerable by obeying God, trusting that God intends us only good. God will not force us to open up and trust him. He will apply the warm pressure of his love. Usually that takes the form of pleasant experiences, but sometimes it takes the form of painful tests. He wants to move us to trust, and obey, and love him more than anything else, so that we can receive the blessings that flow from his fatherly hand.
I know very well that I have not answered all the questions raised by this horror story. But I also know this. You will never be able to love God in the midst of the horror of life in this world, until you believe that he is Yahweh, the loving God who provides, and who in his love tests our faith so that we can receive what he provides. But you will never believe that, until you look up and see that lamb caught in the thicket of hell’s horror for your salvation.
The story is so dramatic that it sounds fictional, but multiple sources say it is true. A famous tightrope artist rode his bicycle back and forth on a line stretched over Niagara Falls. After he had done that several times, he called out to the crowd, “Do you believe I can do it again?” And the crowd shouted back, “Yes!” “Do you really trust that I can?” “Yes!” “Good,” he said, “Who would like to climb on my back and ride over with me?” The crowd melted away. In theory they trusted, but when their own lives were on the line, they didn’t. The only way to prove your trust is to pass the test of putting your life on the line.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 28, 2020
Genesis 22:1-14 Commentary