"GOD WILL PROVIDE THE OFFERING"
(Delivered Sunday, May 2, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
As a preacher, I've learned that one great way to capture everyone's attention at the beginning of a sermon is to simply say, "Let me tell you a story . . ." It doesn't matter how old we are; there's just something about us that loves a good story. We always perk-up whenever we hear that a really good one is about to be told.
I believe God made us in such a way that we learn best from stories. And that's why God Himself is the greatest of all story-tellers. He could have filled the Bible with doctrinal treatises and detailed outlines of systematic theology. But He knew that we needed more than that; and so, He scattered stories throughout His written revelation to us. These stories teach us deep theological truths through the experiences of people that we can relate to - experiences that grip ahold of us with all our senses. You may not be able to remember a strictly doctrinal exposition that you heard just a day or two ago; but chances are you are still living in the light of Bible stories you heard when you were a little child.
This morning, we're going to hear a story. And this particular story will help us understand something else we're going to do this morning; because we're also going to perform one of the most important acts that our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded us to perform regularly as a church. We're going to remember His sacrifice for us through observing the communion meal. It's something that should never be done thoughtlessly. It should always be performed with our spiritual eyes focused very deliberately upon the Lord Jesus and on the cross upon which He died. To help us prepare for that important event, I have felt led to draw our attention to one of the greatest and most beloved stories in the Bible. I believe it's a story God has intentionally included in His Bible because it so vividly displays the sacrifice of our Savior for us.
It's a story told to us in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis; and it's the story of Abraham's obedience to God's call to offer up his beloved son Isaac.
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Before we look at the story itself, let's stop and think about Abraham. He is one of the Bible's great heroes of faith - in fact, perhaps, the greatest of all the Bible's heroes of faith - because he is held up to us as the great example of what it means to have saving faith. The Bible commends him to us as "Abraham, the man of faith" (Gal. 3:9, NIV).
God had called Abraham from out of a heathen land, and from a culture that worshiped idols. He was seventy-five years old when God first called him; and his wife was sixty-five. And yet, though they were in the later years of life, they had no children. We're not given much in the way of the details; but apparently, God very specifically instructed Abraham to do something that would require great faith. He instructed this childless old man to leave the land of his upbringing and to travel to a land that he'd never seen before. God said, "Get out of your country, from your family and from your fathers house, to a land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). Can you imagine what a difficult thing that would have been to do? He would have had to sever the ties that bound him to his father's land and inheritance - the ties that bound him to his family, friends and personal comforts - and go to another land he knew nothing about, in obedience to a God that the people of his own land did not worship. What great faith that must have taken!
But God also made this great promise to childless Abraham; "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (vv. 2-3).
God was making several great promises to Abraham at once. First, even though he was childless at the time, God was going to make him into a great nation of people. And of course, if you know your Bible at all, you know that it was from Abraham that the nation of Israel was born. There was also, behind these words, the promise that this great nation would occupy the land that God was going to show Abraham; and we now know that as the land of Israel - the land of Promise. The name of poor old, wandering, countryless Abraham was going to be great; because he was going to be the father of the chosen people of God - the people that puts all other nations on the crossroads. God was promising that all people would either be blessed or cursed on the basis of whether they blessed or cursed the people that would come from Abraham.
And what's more, God was promising that it was through Abraham that the blessing of all the world would come. This was a reference to the promise God had made after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin in the garden: that the Seed of the woman would one day be born into the world, and that He would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). This, of course, is a reference to none other than the Lord Jesus Christ - our Savior - who was born of the family of Abraham.
And I hope that you can see, in all of the things that God was promising to childless Abraham, that it all hinged on God one day giving him a son. God eventually did give him a son some twenty-five years after He first called him; when Sarah, Abraham's wife miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac - and this when Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah well past the natural age of childbearing. But twenty-five years was a long time to wait - especially when you were already an old man who just kept getting older and older as time went on.
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If you read the story of Genesis for yourself, you'll see that Abraham struggled in his faith regarding this promise of a child. There were several times when God had to step in and strengthen Abraham's faith, and further ratify and clarify the promise to him. I believe that, for example, Abraham wondered at first if God was going to keep this promise through his nephew Lot. But it wasn't until Lot separated from Abraham in the land of Canaan, and moved to a neighboring land, that God told Abraham, "Lift up your eyes now and look from the place where you are - northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever" (Gen. 13:14-15) - and what God literally said was, "your seed"; not just his "relative", but his own actual descendent. God further said, "And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered" (v. 16).
Still, however, the years rolled on. In time, Abraham began to wonder if God's promise was going to have to be kept through his household servant Eliezer - since there was no one else. In those days, if a man had no living heir, a servant who was born into his household would become his heir. And after several years had passed, and there was still no son, Abraham prayed, "'Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' Then Abram said, 'Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!'" (Gen. 15:2-3).
And it was then that God again ratified His promise and clarified it further to Abraham; "This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir" (v. 4). Then God very graciously took Abraham outside and made him look up at the evening sky. "Look now toward heaven," God told him, "and count the stars if you are able to number them." And, of course, Abraham couldn't because they were beyond counting. Then God said, "So shall your descendants be" (v. 5). Then we read those words that are so important in the New Testament to our understanding of saving faith; "And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (v. 6; see also Romans 4:1-25).
Shortly thereafter, Abraham had another laps - this time actively seeking to help God's promise along. His childless wife Sarah encouraged Abraham to have a child through her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. This was not something that was considered immoral in those days. It was a lot like the idea of Hagar serving as a surrogate mother. She indeed bore a son to Abraham named Ishmael; and Abraham was hoping it would be through him that God would keep his promise. "Oh, that Ishmael might live before You", Abraham prayed (Gen. 17:17). But God said, "No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him" (v. 18).
Finally, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God met with him personally and said, "I will certainly return to you, according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son" (Gen. 18:10; see also v. 14). Shortly thereafter, as the Bible tells us, "And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him - whom Sarah bore to him - Isaac" (Gen. 21:1-3). Isaac's name means "Laughter"; because, as Sarah herself said, "God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me." Here she was - old, childless, ninety-year-old Sarah - nursing the baby she had just given birth to by old, hundred-year-old Abraham! Who could do anything but laugh in wonder!
God at last kept His promise!
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Now, the reason we have examined all this together is because you couldn't possibly appreciate this morning's story from Genesis 22 unless you knew what had preceded it. God made a tremendous and humanly impossible promise to Abraham; and He brought Abraham's faith along - through various 'ups' and 'down's' - until, at last, the promise was kept. All of the promises of God rested upon Abraham's miracle baby, Isaac. In fact, all the future blessing of the world rested upon Isaac. My salvation and your salvation are based, in part, on the historic fact that Isaac was born. He was literally, at that time, the most precious child upon the earth.
And the years passed along; and Isaac - the miracle baby - grew. And God spoke again to Abraham. And this time, what God said must have come as a terrible shock. Genesis 22:1 says, "Now it came to pass after these things" - that is, after all the things that God took Abraham through to ratify and clarify His promise of a nation that would come from Abraham's body - after these things, "God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!"
I think that Abraham, by this point, had grown to recognize the voice of God quite easily; don't you? Abraham said, "Here I am." "Then He said, 'Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah" - and I also think that Abraham had become accustomed to going wherever God had told Him to go; even if it was to a land he didn't know. But then came the shocker. God said, ". . . And offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (v. 2).
It's hard to express how difficult a command this must have been for Abraham to even consider - let alone fulfill! The Law would not be given through Moses for several centuries from that time; but if we're to take what God says in His law regarding burnt offerings and apply it to this case, then this means that Abraham was to take Isaac to the place God was sending him, place his hand on Isaac's head, cut his throat and drain out his blood, skin him and cut him into pieces, lay the various pieces on the alter, wash his entrails with water, and burn all on the alter as a burnt sacrifice (Leviticus 1:4-9). Can you imagine a father being called by God to do such a thing? All of the natural inclinations of a father would revolt against it! And what's more, as if all that were not enough, God specifies to Abraham that he was to do this to "your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love"!
I appreciate that, early on, God lets us know what He's doing to Abraham. It says at the very start that God was "testing" Abraham. God had developed Abraham's faith over the many years; but faith - even great faith - isn't really revealed unless it is "tested". Earlier, we were told that Abraham believed God's promise of an offspring that would be more in number than the stars of the sky; and that, as a result, God accounted his faith as "righteousness". Abraham had faith in God's promise of many children; but that faith was not yet proven by action. This was what the apostle James was speaking of when he said,
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God" (James 2:21-23).
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Now, we don't find that Abraham hesitated or deliberated on the matter one bit. He didn't try to negotiate with God or search for an alternative. We're simply told, "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 the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him" (Gen. 22:3). Apparently, God had given Abraham this command sometime during the night. I suspect that Abraham didn't sleep afterwards. I'm sure he reflected much upon God's command to him, and understood very clearly the dreadful thing God was telling him to do.
Have you ever laid awake all night thinking about a hard thing that God was telling you to do? I know that I have. What do you do when it's time to get up? I have to confess that, often after such evenings, I'm still deliberating on it long after the morning is over - still trying to work out the angles. But Abraham didn't delay. He got up early in the morning and began immediately to prepare for the journey. It took many years for such obedient faith to be developed in Abraham!
Abraham had been living in the land of the Philistines (21:34); and God was calling him to travel from there to one of the mountains of the Land of Moriah. This was a three-day journey. Can you imagine how Abraham spent those three days? He would have thought deeply about God's command to slay his son as he travelled along the dusty roads on his donkey. And at night, when they'd stop and set up camp, and he'd lay down to rest, he would have played over and over in his mind - in all the horrible details - the thing that was about to be done. And yet - even then - we still do not find that Abraham hesitated or deliberated.
The Bible tells us, "Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off" (v. 4). Have you ever been on your way to do something you really didn't want to do; and then, finally pull up to the place where it would have to be done? Have you ever felt that sinking feeling when that place finally met your eyes? We're not told how it was that Abraham recognized the place once he got there. Perhaps God identified it to him once he arrived. But I can't help but think that Abraham felt a very sober feeling once he saw it - the place where his beloved son was to be sacrificed.
But this is where Abraham's faith once again shines. Even when he looked at the place, he exhibited a great hope in the power of God. We're told that he said something quite remarkable to his travelling companions. "And Abraham said to his young men, 'Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you'" (v. 6). Do you see it? He said that Isaac and he would go up the mountain to worship, and Isaac and he would return! Even though God was calling Abraham to slay the son through whom the promise would be kept, Abraham had no doubt that the promise would still be kept through him. This was not a problem for Abraham to work out, but one for the God who made the promise to work out.
The writer of Hebrews explained Abraham's confident hope to us in this way;
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called," concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense (Hebrews 11:17-19).
If God called Abraham to slay the one through whom the promise would be kept, Abraham was confident that the same God could raise him from the dead. This reminds me of someone who was once being ridiculed for their faith in God. The skeptic said, "I suppose if God commanded you to jump into a brick wall, you'd do it!" And the believer replied, "If God commanded me to jump, it would be my job to jump . . . and God's job to make a hole!" Abraham was going to 'jump' by faith - and trust God to 'make the hole'.
We're not sure how old Isaac was at this time. Some have suggested that he was thirteen years old, some have suggested that he was much older than that. The Hebrew word translated "lad" can even refer to someone in their adult years; and so, I take it that, by this time, Isaac was at least a strong healthy young man. The Bible tells us; "So Abraham took the wood of the burn offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, 'My father!' And he said, 'Here I am, my son.' Then he said, 'Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?'" (vv. 6-7). Isaac was clearly old enough to carry the wood for the offering up the mountain; and he was also clearly old enough to ask some pressing questions.
And look at how Abraham answered: "And Abraham said, 'My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering.' So the two of them went together" (v. 8). Clearly, Isaac wasn't the only one thinking along the way. Whether it was through the provision of Isaac, or some other means, Abraham was confident that God would provide the sacrifice.
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And this is where we see the faith, not only of Abraham, but also of Isaac. As it became clear to Isaac what was about to happen, we don't read of any resistance on his part. We're told, "Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son" (vv. 9-10). Abraham bound his son; but not, it seems, because Isaac was resisting.
Can you imagine how much strength of faith this action of Abraham took? Abraham knew that, once he plunged down the knife, he would be slaying the child through whom all the promises of God were to be kept. And yet, he had no doubt that it was God who was commanding him to do it. In my mind's eye, I see the hand of Abraham tightly grip the knife and begin to draw his hand back for the plunge. I even see a quiver in his lip; and a tear running down his face. But I don't imagine Abraham exhibiting any lack of resolve.
And then, as if at the very last minute, we're told, "But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!' So he said, 'Here I am'" (v. 11). I can't help but notice that this is almost the same exchange that we read in verse 1 - except here, God calls his name twice, as if to say, "Stop, Abraham! Go no further!" I'm sure Abraham did not move a muscle!
God said to him, "Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me" (v. 12). Can you imagine the relief that came over Abraham - and over Isaac? It had been a test all along; and Abraham had passed!
"Then," we're told, "Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-LORD-Will-Provide" - or, as it is in the Hebrew 'YHWY Yireh' - "as it is said to this day, 'In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided'" (v. 13-14).
When I read this story, I have to wonder how many times I have disobeyed God when He has clearly called me to do a hard thing; and the whole time long, He was really only administering a test of my faith. I hate to think of how many such tests of faith I have failed. This was a test of faith; and in Abraham's case, he passed the test! "Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: 'By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son - blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.' So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba" (vv. 15-19).
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And this brings us to the whole matter of our communion meal. I believe God intends for this wonderful story to help us appreciate the atoning sacrifice of Jesus our Savior. Stop and think about it with me; and I'm sure you'll agree that there are some remarkable hints in this story that point us to Jesus' sacrifice for us.
First of all, Abraham was called upon to sacrifice a son - specifically his only son, whom he loved. Three times in this passage, God emphasized to Abraham that Isaac was his much-loved, only son. And similarly, we're told in the Bible that God the Father looked down upon Jesus at the time of His baptism and said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). We're told that God so loved the world, "that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). Just as God called Abraham to sacrifice that which was most precious to him, God also offered up what was most precious to His own heart - His beloved, only begotten Son.
I can't help but observe that Abraham's son rode to the place of his sacrifice on a donkey; just as, of our Savior, it's written, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zech. 9:9). Nor can I help but notice that it took three days journey before Isaac would experience his figurative "resurrection"; just as it is written of our Savior that He would be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40), awaiting His literal resurrection.
Isaac was sacrificed at a place called Moriah, on one of the mountains of Moriah. Do you know what Moriah is? Moriah is the place that King David purchased from Ornan the Jebusite in order to make a sacrifice unto God (1 Chron. 21:18); which was also the very spot that Solomon later built the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem (2 Chron. 3:1). Abraham took Isaac to what would one day be known as Jerusalem! In fact, many Jewish scholars taught that the altar of burnt offering in the temple was situated in the exact spot at which Abraham had offered up his beloved son Isaac. At the very least, this means that Isaac was offered very near to the same spot at which God offered His own beloved Son for us! Abraham offered up his son on a hill at Moriah; and so did God the Father!
Before He was taken to the cross, our Savior was bound (John 18:12); just as Isaac was also bound. Isaac's father led Isaac to Moriah accompanied by two others; and as he went up the hill, he bore the wood on his own back on which he would be sacrificed. Likewise, the Bible tells us this of Jesus; "And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of the Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side and Jesus in the center" (John 19:17-18).
Abraham's son was very submitted to his father. From all that we can see, he was prepared to lay down his own life willingly in obedience to his father. And so was God's own Son. Jesus said, "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father" (John 10:17-18).
And then, there was that lamb! Abraham told Isaac, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering"; and, of course, He did. And Jesus is clearly presented to us in the Bible as "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). He's the one that Isaiah wrote about when he said, "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7). He is the one the Book of Revelation calls "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). When Abraham saw the lamb that God provided in the place of Isaac, he rejoiced; because what he had said was true - God DID provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering. And perhaps that may have something to do with what Jesus said about him; "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).
I'm not sure how far to take this; and I certainly don't want to over-spiritualize this marvelous story. But I must make the observation that the lamb that became Isaac's substitute was found caught in the thicket by its horns. This reminds me of our Savior; who went to His place of sacrifice for us with a crown of thorns upon His head!
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As we come to the Lord's table this morning, I believe it's a very good thing that we remember the story that God has given us of Abraham and the offering-up of his own son Isaac. What a great story it is! Clearly, God has given this story to us in order to point us to the offering He made for us of His own Son. And let's also remember one great difference between the story of Isaac and the story of Jesus. Abraham was stopped from offering his son; but God the Father fully did what Abraham the father was stopped from doing. God did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all (Rom. 8:39). He faithfully made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
As we partake together of the symbols of His body broken for us, and His blood shed for us, let's partake thankfully - and keep our eyes fixed on Golgotha; where it can truly be said that, "in the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided" (Gen. 22:14).
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