He had shown a lot of potential early on and so the coach put a lot of effort in to guiding him and helping him become a better player. He had all the moves, good skating ability and the coach thought that with the right kind of direction, he could really go places. The only problem was that whenever he was in a game situation, he was not able to translate all that ability into scoring goals or even contributing significantly to the team. The coach thought that with more time, he would be able to get over that, but as time went on, it became obvious that he was not going to be able to do it. It was disappointing that after all the effort, he did not measure up to expectations.
When God called Abraham, he made significant promises to him. He guided him through some challenging situations and brought things into his life that were intended to help him grow in his faith towards God. After all this time spent and direction given, would Abraham be the kind of a man God could use to build his plan on? Would he be a man of faith who would pass a deep faith along to his descendants? Would he be a man who would be looked upon in future generations as a worthy individual, someone you would be proud to call your ancestor? God needed to test Abraham to see what kind of a man he really was. The story of that test and how Abraham did in it is found in Genesis 22.
God has sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for you and me. He has given us His Word, His Spirit and has worked in our lives to make us like Himself. Are we worthy of this investment of energy? Are we the kind of people that God can entrust His plan to? Are we God’s people or are we people rooted and bound to this world? The story of Abraham’s testing give us an opportunity to examine our own motives and commitments and desires and goals. The questions asked of Abraham are also asked again in the New Testament. After Peter had blown it by denying Jesus and after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter was confronted by Jesus with the question, given in John 21:15ff, “do you love me more than these?” Much later, at the end of the first generation of the Christian church, Jesus came to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4 and warned them, “you have forsaken your first love.” These are the questions raised for us as we examine the story of Abraham.
To understand this test, we need to start at the beginning of Genesis 21.
Recently in the news, there was a story of a 57 year old woman giving birth to her first child. With fertility drugs, this is possible today, but so unusual that it is newsworthy.
In Genesis 21:1-7, we have a story that is even more newsworthy. We discover there that God visited Sarah and she conceived and gave birth to a son at the age of 90. “God visited her” means that the conception was possible not with fertility drugs, but by the power of God. It was an act of God given because God had promised. It is interesting to note in this passage how many times the promise of God is mentioned. In verses 1,2 we read that it happened “as He had said,” “what he had promised,” “at the very time God had promised him.” God had made the promise at least six times between Genesis 12:2 and 18:10 and now it had come to be. Promises: 12:2; 12:15, 16; 15:4,5; 17:1-7; 17:16,19,21; 18:10.
After the birth of the baby, Abraham obeyed all that God had told him to do. He obeyed by naming the child Isaac. He also obeyed by circumcising him. In Genesis 17, God had told Abraham to have all the males in his house circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and him. He was to do this from then on. Abraham carried out this covenant of circumcision.
Last Sunday as we were heading out of church to go to Pleasant Valley, Alvina was coming into church. She flagged us down and I could see half way across the parking lot that there was good news. Her smile was quite large as she told us about the birth of her grandson. The birth of a child is good news and we rejoice over this news greatly. Can you imagine the rejoicing when after you have had your 90th birthday you have a child?
The theme of joy at the birth of Isaac is strong. Earlier, in chapter 17:17, we read that when Abraham heard from God that he and Sarah would have a child, he laughed. It was not the laughter of joy, but of wonder and questioning. When Sarah heard, in 18:12, that in one year she would bear a son, she also laughed. Hers was also not the laughter of joy, but the laughter of unbelief and of cynicism because of disappointment. Now, when Isaac was born, Sarah laughed again and commented that others would laugh with her. This now was the laughter of joy and celebration. It was an experience of amazement. The question she asks “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” is a question of joyful wonder at what they had been given. God had brought great joy into their life. Abraham and Sarah and all who knew them rejoiced greatly at the gift they had been given - an unexpected gift, a surprising gift, a very much desired gift. They were very happy about Isaac.
Isaac means laughter and what an appropriate name for a child who was so much wanted.
Their rejoicing was great, but there was a problem. Although Sarah’s first child, Abraham already had a son, a son he loved, a son who was by now not a child any more. When Isaac was born, the question became, who would be the primary heir?
At the celebration of Isaac’s weaning, Ishmael laughed at Isaac - here we have laughter again - only this time, it was a mocking laughter. What was the intent of his attitude towards Isaac? Was he feeling superior that as the son of a slave woman he was the primary heir?
Sarah saw what was happening and it concerned her. Once again we see her against Hagar and Ishmael. Was it jealousy or was she concerned for the proper place of her son? Was she concerned that as long as Ishmael was around Isaac was not secure as the primary heir? Whatever her motive, she asked Abraham to get rid of “that slave woman and her son.” One writer says, “Sarah was not motivated by jealousy or pride so much as by a ruthless maternal concern for her son’s future.”
This caused Abraham a great deal of distress. He loved his son, Ishmael. How could he get rid of him? But God came to him and affirmed this direction. What Abraham had to realize was that Isaac was the son of promise. What Ishmael did not realize was that because Isaac was the son of promise, the promise of 12:3 indicated that “those who curse you I will curse.” His mockery brought a curse upon himself.
“Here the story of Ishmael is tidied up so that the narrative can concentrate on the main line of Isaac.” And so Hagar and Ishmael were sent away. According to the promise of God in Genesis 17:19, it was Isaac who was the elect line. This reminds us of the significant position of Isaac. He is the one God had chosen to work through in his “plan.” Not only was he a very much loved and desired child, he was also the child through whom God has promised to work. He was the child through whom all the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2,3 would be fulfilled. He was the child through whom God would bless all nations on earth.
It is interesting, however, that in spite of allowing Hagar and Ishmael to be sent away, God still took care of them.
Abraham provided some food and water and they went off into the desert. After a while, their water and food ran out and they were in trouble of dying of thirst. At this time, Ishmael was not a baby any more. The word “lad” is used in the text, which suggests a boy or a teenager. Furthermore, if he was born when Abram was 86, as it says in Genesis 16:16 and if this was after Isaac was born at which time Abraham was 100 as it says in 21:5, then at this point Ishmael was at least 14 years old. Since this was also after the time that Isaac was weaned, he was likely even older. So we should not have the image of an infant lying helplessly under a tree about to die, rather a teenager and his mother who are both in trouble. It is Hagar who is filled with pain because as a mother, she cannot handle the thought of her son dying, no matter how old he is.
But God did not ignore them. He addressed Hagar by name, in 21:17, to indicate that he knew her, knew her situation and would care for her. He did care for her and provided water at this point and continued to guide her and Ishmael. Eventually Ishmael married and we see in 25:13-16 a list of his descendants. Although he was not the child of promise, God still cared for him.
Nevertheless, the story is about Isaac. In these stories, we learn that he was a very much desired child, a child of joy and also that he was the very special child of promise whom God had said would be born and also the descendant of Abraham through whom God would do his work.
It is with this background of understanding that we come to the test of Abraham. In Genesis 22:1, it says that “God tested Abraham.”
Sometimes sports writers talk about a team being “good on paper,” but the test of how good they really are is demonstrates in a game. You may be able to answer all the questions in your head, but the exam will show what you really know. A person may seem to have it all together, but when they are put under pressure, we find out what they are really like. This is the kind of test Abraham received.
By this time, Isaac had grown up. Once again the word “lad” is used, which most often suggests that he was at least a teenager.
God gently asked Abraham, by using the word “please.” This is not reflected in most translations. Some translations have “take now.” The word “now” could just as well be translated “please.” God is gentle in his approach to Abraham, but the thing he asks is difficult.
The request of him is to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him as a whole burnt offering. The whole burnt offering involved taking an entire animal, killing it, cutting it up and burning the entire animal. Some sacrifices involved only offering a portion and enjoying a meal of the rest, but a whole burnt offering involved the sacrifice of the entire animal. Such a sacrifice indicated giving oneself completely to God.
This was an extraordinary command both theologically and morally. How could God ask what he clearly opposes? How could God work against his own plan? It must have been very clear that God had spoken this and that Abraham had clearly understood him. This was not just a whim or what some people call a revelation from God, but needs to be discerned to make sure that it is not just the figment of one’s imagination. It was a difficult command because of the things that we have already looked at. Isaac was the child of their joy. He had given them happiness in their old age. He was the only child of promise. There was no other plan which God had revealed about how he was going to work. God identified these things when he called Isaac “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”
Abraham had to choose. Did he love the joy of having Isaac, was he bound to the hope of many descendants, was he focussed on the plan of God or did he love and trust God above all? The test would reveal it.
The sacrifice was to take place a three days journey away at Mount Moriah. For three days he had time to think about what he was about to do. For three days he would be tortured by the heaviness of the decision he needed to make. In verse 5, when talking to the servants, he called him “the lad” instead of “my son.” Does that indicate some of the turmoil he was in? Does it indicate that he was already detaching from Isaac?
In the same verse, when he instructed the servants to “stay here,” he said to them, “we will come back to you.” Knowing what he was supposed to do, why did he say this? Was he lying, but trying to shield his servants from knowing so they wouldn’t make him change his mind? Does it indicate that he had no intention of going through with killing Isaac and so knew that they would return? Or is it possible that he already had so firmly placed his hope in God that he was sure that he would not have to kill Isaac?
When Isaac asked where the sacrifice was, we have the same possibilities. Was he being evasive to shield Isaac? Was he committed to not going through with it or was filled with hope that God would provide some other sacrifice and he would not have to kill Isaac?
Add to this the consideration that he already had to send one son away and we begin to get a sense of the turmoil that Abraham was under. It is very clear that, as one writer says, “obedience to God and love for his son will tear him in diametrically opposed directions.”
And yet, not much said about Abraham’s feelings, instead, the text concentrates on his acts of obedience.
We know that Abraham was being tested, because the text says so, but Abraham did not know this. When put under extreme pressure, it would be proved what kind of a man he really was. The decision he had to make was “total reality.”
When he raised the knife over his bound son and was about to plunge it into his him, we know that he passed the test. We discover that although he was thrilled to have a son and rejoiced in him, he was not first and foremost attached to the joy of having a son. We discover that although he was honoured to be the recipient of God’s great promises, he was not attached to those promises. He was attached to God first of all. He had come to know God and his first love was a love for God. He had come to trust God and believe that every Word of His, every command was true.
He had learned these things in all of his previous interactions with God. He had discovered that even if it takes a long time, God always comes through. He had learned this by having to wait until he was 100 years old for the birth of Isaac. He had learned that God is able to overcome and bless even if the enemy seems very strong. He had learned this through failure when he had acted in fear in Egypt and with Abimelech. In spite of his failure, he had discovered the power and blessing of God. He had learned that God is totally just in all his judgements. When he prayed about Sodom and Gomorrah, in concern for his nephew, Lot, he learned about the justice of God.
John Calvin wrote, “Whenever the Lord gives a command, many things are perpetually occurring to enfeeble our purpose: means fail, we are destitute of counsel, all avenues seem closed. In such straits, the only remedy against despondency is to leave the event to God, in order that he may open a way for us when there is none. For we act unjustly towards God, when we hope for nothing from him but what our senses can perceive…” Abraham learned to trust God, even when he could not see the outcome from the beginning.
Do we have such a trust in God? Do we love Him above all? Do we love and trust Him even when we are in difficulty? Do we love Him above all when we are blessed with prosperity?
In the moment that Abraham trusted God, God did indeed provide the lamb for the sacrifice. This is the nature of God. Whenever God tests or allows us to go through a trial, he comes back with a promise and a blessing. This happens so often in Scripture and it happened here again.
Genesis 22:17 says “I will surely bless you” which indicates that now God would really bless him.
The promises we have heard before are repeated and built upon. Instead of his descendants being as the stars, they are now promised to be as the sand on the seashore, which is even more impossible to count than the stars. Now instead of all nations on earth being blessed only through Abraham, all nations will be blessed through His descendants. The promise is passed on from Abraham to those who follow him. Abraham has proved himself to be a worthy individual to carry on the promises of God to the next generation.
The test that Abraham faced invites us to ask the same questions. Abraham was tested to discover whether he loved Isaac as a son, whether he was enamoured with the promises of God and their blessing or if he truly loved God.
With the challenge of Revelation, “you have lost your first love” we are faced with similar questions.
Even if the blessings come from God and we acknowledge that and even if the blessings are the result of the promises of God, the question remains. Do we love the blessing, do we love the promise of God or do we love God?
Do we love our salvation or do we love the author of our salvation. If we love our salvation, we will be glad that we have it, but we will not grow, we will stay with milk instead of going on to meat.
Do we love the answer to prayer we have received or do we love the one who gave the answer?
Are we walking in strict obedience to the word or in loving relationship to the author of the Word?
These are the questions raised by this story and each of us must answer them for ourselves. God tests us through life every day. The tests come through trials, through challenges, through blessings, through prosperityand through the words of others. The question God asks beneath every test is the same - “Do you love and trust me?”