Great Moments in Bible History
“You stay here and I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” The statement sounded natural enough under the circumstances. The young men who heard it probably did not think twice about it. They could not have known how hard it was for Abraham to make that statement, what strong emotions he had to choke back, and what great faith it took.
Only three nights earlier God had given Abraham the most difficult task he had ever been given. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2). No explanation was given for such a strange command. No reassuring promises. For all he knew he might never see Isaac again this side of the grave. If anything, God made it more difficult for Abraham by using such phrases as, “only son,” and “whom you love.”
Why did God make such a demand of Abraham? The story begins with the explanation: “God tested Abraham.” He wanted to see whether Abraham loved God more than he loved his son. The test God gave him would very clearly answer that.
But this raises another question. Didn’t God know Abraham’s heart? Couldn’t He predict in advance what Abraham would do? Why did Abraham have to go through three days of mental agony just to prove what God could have known by Himself? These are good questions. There are some who would answer them like this: “Yes, God knew what Abraham would do, but Abraham did not. The test was so that Abraham could see his own faith.” This is a nice explanation, but it does not entirely agree with the story. When the test was all over, and Abraham had shown that God came first in his life, God declared to him, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). God did not say, “Now you know,” but, “Now I know.”
I think a point we are in danger of overlooking is that there is more than one purpose for a test. We have been looking at this test simply as a check to see where Abraham was spiritually. In fact, the test itself was designed to help Abraham grow.
The Abraham that climbed that mountain was not the same Abraham he had been three nights earlier. The test had changed him. For three days he had wrestled alone with his problem. He had grown as a result. The Abraham that reached the top of that mountain was a stronger Abraham. It was to that stronger Abraham that God said, “Now I know.”
None of us today is called upon to offer his son as a burnt offering, yet we too face tests. Some have the attitude which says, “Why do I have to do anything? God knows my heart.” These people misunderstand the purpose of tests. It is only through such tests that our hearts actually become what God wants them to be.
What About Faith?
An alert reader might object at this point in our story, “Didn’t God count Abraham as righteous several chapters ago when he believed God’s promise to him?” (That story is found in Genesis 15.) “Then why is God testing him now? Was he saved by faith or not?” These are good questions.
It is certainly true that God counted Abraham as righteous based on his faith in God. But we must keep in mind that people who believe what God says will do their best to obey what God tells them to do. If they are not willing to do that, we will quite naturally question whether they really believe God. All his life Abraham demonstrated his faith in God by doing what God told him to do.
In the New Testament James wrote to some people of his day who apparently thought that you can separate faith from obedience to God. He responded, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). He then used this very story from Abraham’s life to prove his point. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21) When James uses the word “justified,” he is not saying that Abraham was made righteous by works (which would contradict Genesis 15:6), but rather, that Abraham’s obedience to God demonstrated that he really did have faith and that God had been right years earlier to declare him righteous on the basis of that faith.
“Where is the lamb?”
A Strange Reply
It was a very reasonable question . You or I might have asked the same thing if we had been there. But at first sight Abraham’s answer does not seem completely honest.
Abraham and his son Isaac were on the way up Mt. Moriah. When they got to the top they were going to offer a sacrifice to God. But something was puzzling Isaac. Isaac was carrying the wood, his father was carrying the fire and a knife, but where was the lamb for the sacrifice? Little did Isaac know that he was to be the sacrifice. Just three days earlier God had commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. For three days he had kept that awesome commandment a secret, wrestling alone with his own emotions and the perplexities of the command. Now, it seemed, the time had come to share that secret. His son was asking him point blank, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7)
But instead of replying as we would have expected: “You, my son, are to be the burnt offering,” he gave the strange reply: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” What did Abraham mean by that? Was he simply lying to his son, so he could get him to the top of the mountain where he would be killed?
As it turned out, Abraham’s statement proved literally true. Just as he was about to plunge the knife into his son, the angel of the Lord stopped him. Abraham had passed the test. It wasn’t necessary to go any further. Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. He offered the ram as a sacrifice instead of his son. So God had indeed provided a sacrifice. Yet this could not have been what Abraham meant in his strange reply. He could not have known what God would do when he got to the top of that mountain.
Abraham had had time to do some very serious thinking on that three-day trip. It is obvious from his reply to his son that he had been thinking about the basic meaning of sacrifices. Sacrifices would not have been necessary at all if humans had never sinned. Sin is so serious that it requires the death of the sinner. A sacrifice is the offering of something to die instead of the sinner. These facts Abraham knew well. But God’s unusual command must have made Abraham look deeper into the matter.
What would be a good sacrifice? Up to this time Abraham had been offering sheep and other animals. He may never have given the question much thought. But now God was demanding a human sacrifice. Abraham must have begun to realize then that no animal could take the place of a sinner in death. There really is no comparison between the value of an animal and the value of a human. But if an animal was not enough, what did Abraham have to offer that would be good enough? The answer, of course, is, nothing.
It was at this point that Abraham showed his great trust in God. If he had nothing to offer, he was confident that God would not let him down. When his son asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” he replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering.”
What did Abraham think God would provide? He may have been thinking about his son Isaac. God had promised Isaac to Abraham in advance. Abraham knew God had special things in mind for the boy. Perhaps this was it. Isaac was to be the sacrifice that would take away sins. If that was Abraham’s thought, he soon changed his mind. God stopped him just as he was about to kill his son. Isaac would not be the sacrifice.
But if Isaac was not to be the sacrifice, Abraham was confident that God would not let him down. When those events were all over, we read that “Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (Genesis 22:14).
It was to be nearly 2,000 years before the Lord provided, but provide He did. When Jesus was 30 years old, John the Baptist saw Him and announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And Abraham’s reply was proved true. God really had provided the lamb for the burnt offering.