The Sacrifice of Isaac – Law or Gospel?

Genesis 22:1-19

1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “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.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And 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 they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 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 lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So 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.”

15 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.

This account of Abraham leading his son Isaac up Mount Moriah with the intention of sacrificing him to God is one of the better known in the Old Testament. To many it is an offensive story seemingly telling of a capricious, abusive God who is want to demand child sacrifice.

So what are we to make of this story. Is it simply a story that challenges our commitment to God, a story that asks us to be like Abraham and be prepared to sacrifice everything, even our most treasured possessions, to appease God?

The passage is certainly about commitment, and there is no doubt that our faith ought to be a faith characterised by action – we should be 100% obedient to God’s commands. But if that were all we were to take from this passage I wonder how we’d be left feeling.

Some, perhaps, may be foolish enough to be able to deceive ourselves that we are up to the mark and end up so puffed up with a Pharisaical sense of own self-righteousness that they merited God’s favour. But most of us I suspect would be left feeling guilty and depressed all too aware of how far short we are from this level of commitment. Some of us may even despair as to whether we are saved at all and so strive all the more in the hope we could somehow secure our salvation by ever greater levels of obedience. Trust me I’ve been there – constantly rededicating myself to God in the hope that this time it’d be for real.

But praise God that we are not saved because of how committed we are to God. Rather we are saved because of how committed God is to us!

That’s worth remembering.

I think there is rather more to see in this passage.

The chapter opens with these words

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” and he said “Here am I.” He said “Take you son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the mountain of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

This is quite a request. Remember that God has promised Abraham a land, a people and a blessing, and that these promises were to come to him through Isaac. If Isaac is killed before he has had children of his own, how is God going to fulfil his promise of Abraham being the father of many nations through Isaac?

It’s certainly a strange request for God to make and yet Abraham’s response is one of immediate obedience to God’s command.

‘So early the next morning’

Abraham gets up and makes all the preparations – he saddles his donkey, cuts the wood for the burnt offering and heads off for the place he has been told to go. Abraham’s heart must have been breaking. Make no mistake this is Abraham’s son, Isaac, whom he loves. God knows how Abraham feels about Isaac and makes it crystal clear about which son it is that Isaac is to sacrifice to him. There’s no room for wriggle here – it’s not that any son will do – Abraham can’t opt to offer Ishmael. Rather it is the Isaac, the child God promised, the loved child, the child through whom the blessing was to come that is to die

Well off they go with a couple of servants and then, on the third day, as they see the place to which they are heading up ahead in the distance, Abraham says something very interesting to the two young men who have been travelling with them. In verse 5 Abraham says:

‘Stay here with the donkey. I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.

There is a statement of faith if ever I heard one.

‘I and the boy will…come again to you.’

And here I think we see, for the first time, why it is a mistake to make this passage as mainly about giving up everything for God.

Abraham doesn’t believe that he is going to lose his son. He believes that he AND Isaac will come back down from the mountain.

What we’re seeing is not so much the actions of someone who is prepared to give his son up for God but rather the actions of somebody who wholeheartedly believes God. Abraham has believed God when he said that through Isaac he would have many descendants. He believes God will deliver on this promise. And, therefore, if God has said that he is to kill Isaac then it only stands to reason that God is going to raise him from the dead again afterwards.

Abraham knows that Isaac coming back to life after being killed is LESS improbable than God NOT keeping his promise.

A person coming back to life after they had died had never happened before. It would certainly be unusual – but not impossible – not for God. But God, not keeping his promises – now that really would be impossible

How do I know this? Well because the Bible tells me so in Hebrews 11:17-19

‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offering be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’

So Abraham takes the wood for the burnt offering and lays it on Isaac’s back. He takes the fire and the knife and they continue on together – just the two of them. Isaac points out that there seems to be something missing. There is no lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham simply replies that God will provide for himself the lamb. And so they continue on.

When they arrive, Abraham builds an altar. He lays the wood on it and then binds Isaac, on the altar, on top of the wood. Remarkably there appears to be no struggle. Most scholars believe that, at the time of these events, Isaac was at least in his late teens – rabbinical tradition puts him as even older – at 37. Either way Isaac is plenty old enough to overcome Abraham who by now is an old man – well over a hundred years old. And yet there is no struggle – not even a murmur from Isaac

Could it be that Isaac is a willing sacrifice? Even as Abraham reaches out his arm and takes the knife to slaughter him

And then at the last moment, just at the point of no return, there is a voice – the angel of the LORD speaks. And it is understood that the words spoken are the very words of God.

Abraham is told not to harm his son. He looks up and sees a ram – caught in a thicket by his horns. Abraham takes it and offers it up as a substitute burnt offering in the place of his son. And Abraham names the place in verse 14:

‘”The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided”’

And so we come to the end of the passage but the good news is that I haven’t even nearly come to the end of this blog! Because we haven’t even touched on the main point of the passage yet!

If we were to summarise what we are to learn from this passage as simply:

OBEY LIKE ABRAHAM

what we would have received would be only ‘law’. And whilst the law is good and right, by itself it just condemns.

‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ [Romans 3:20]

We all know we should obey. But what if we don’t? What if we sin and fall short of God’s standards?

These are important questions since every one of us has disobeyed God – for we are all sinners by nature. We will no more behave tomorrow simply because God has told us to today than the Israelites did in the wilderness, despite their protestations, having been given the law in the Ten Commandments.

What we need when the law condemns us is some gospel – some good news. For it is good news, gospel, not law, that is the power of God for salvation.

‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.’ [Romans 3:28]

There are things we can learn about faith and obedience from this passage but those things aren’t the main point of this passage. The main point of the passage is something far more important – something that will generate the faith from which obedience will come.

And that something is the gospel because, this passage, is really about Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus, after his resurrection, gave those two disciples, with whom he walked along, probably the best bible study in history when

‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ [Luke 24:27]

Jesus was saying that the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, as well as the rest of the Old Testament are really about him.

So what has this passage from Genesis 22 got to do with Jesus? Let’s go back to the beginning of the passage and find out.

We started by reading that God told Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, and offer him as a burnt offering. Now the first question we must ask is why was anything offered as a burnt offering?

The answer is as a sacrifice for the atonement of sin (Leviticus 1:4).

But how dreadful. Surely God can’t demand this. Any of us who have children will feel revulsion at the thought of sacrificing our children to pay the penalty for our sin. Surely such a demand is a bit over the top.

But if that is how we feel, then we do not appreciate either the depth of our sin and the revulsion that God feels towards it, or the beauty and value of God’s glory that we dishonour when we sin. The truth is that God’s glory is of infinite value. Since the punishment we deserve is determined by the value of the thing we dishonour. and because we have all fallen short of God’s glory, we all therefore are rightfully subject to God’s wrath and deserving of his infinite punishment.

This is all scary stuff but having said all of this feel for a moment the anguish you would experience at losing your own child in such a way… and then consider this.

Do the words ‘take your son, your only son, whom you love’ remind you of any other words in the Bible? They should since God uses similar words to speak of Jesus, john 3:16 tells us that God gave his ‘only son’ and at both his baptism in Matthew 3:17 and the transfiguration in Matthew 17:5 God says of Jesus,

‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’

Just as Isaac was Abrahams son, his only son, whom he loved, so too was Jesus God’s son, his only son, whom he loved.

And just like Isaac – Jesus was offered as a sacrifice for sin. Now if you can imagine the heartache Abraham must have felt at the prospect of sacrificing his son, consider the cost to God to offer his son as a sacrifice – not for his own sins but for the sins of those who have sinned against him!

Awesome is a word used too readily these days – but this is just that. That a holy God should sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loves, for sinners who have sinned against Him is certainly a things which should generate awe in us.

So yes, this story is about Father Abraham’s being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. But, more than that, it points us to God the Father’s actual sacrificing of his son Jesus on our behalf.

Genesis 22 is a story about Jesus.

And where was Isaac taken?

To the land of Moriah – to one of the mountains there. Is that significant?

You better believe it! 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us that

‘Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.

So Jerusalem is on Mount Moriah. And where was Jesus sacrificed. On a hill outside Jerusalem! Isaac and Jesus at the very least were sacrificed in the same area! Now I don’t think we can say for sure from scripture but, were I a betting man, I’d wager a small coin they were both scarified on the self same hill.

Genesis 22 is story about Jesus.

And on whom is it that the wood for the sacrifice was laid – to carry it up the hill? Isaac! Ring any bells?

John 19:17 reads:

‘So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him…’

Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice. Jesus carried his wooden cross.

Genesis 22 is a story about Jesus.

I’ve already suggested that if Isaac is at least a late teen, given his youth and Abraham’s advanced age, he must have been a willing sacrifice. Jesus was a willing sacrifice too. In Luke 22:42 we read how, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed

‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done’

Isaac was willing to die at the hands of his father – for it was his father that was to wield the knife. And Jesus was willing to die at the hands of his Father – for it was God the Father who ultimately was behind Jesus’ death. Isaiah 53:10 reminds us

‘Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief’

Genesis 22 is a story about Jesus.

And did you notice how many days it was after God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac that they arrive at Mount Moriah and Isaac is spared? That’s right – it was on the third day!

Now if God commands that you be offered as a burnt offering you are, effectively, dead. Figuratively speaking then, Isaac died when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him. And on the third day, when Isaac gets the last minute reprieve, he, figuratively, comes back to life.

Now if you think I’m pushing a point here – a little contrived perhaps – turn to Hebrews 11:17-19 where you’ll read.

‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’

Isaac figuratively speaking died and on the third day came back to life. Jesus literally died and on the third day came back to life.

Genesis 22 is a story about Jesus!

I find this amazing – that thousands of years before Christ, God is providing these shadows of what is to come. But let’s be careful. Isaac is just a shadow of Christ he’s not the real deal!

Isaac is spared at the last minute. Jesus was not. Jesus fulfills what Isaac only pointed toward.

Because as Isaac lies on the alter and as Abraham reaches out his hand to take the knife to slaughter him – and note the word ‘slaughter’ – the shadows shift.

A substitute is brought in. In v13

Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns’

– a picture reminiscent, to me at least, of the crown of thorns the soldiers twisted together and placed on Jesus’ head.

And it is now the lamb that is the shadow that points us to Jesus.

A lamb that is a substitute, slaughtered in the place of Isaac.

A lamb that becomes the burnt offering – the sacrifice for sin.

A lamb that took the punishment that would have fallen on Isaac for Abraham’s sin.

A lamb that God had provided.

Look at verse 8.

‘Abraham said ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’

These are prophetic words. For not only do they prophecy what will happen perhaps an hour or two after they were uttered, but they prophecy a couple of thousand of years in to the future, to the time when God would provide another lamb, to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin, on that self same mountain. And this lamb is Jesus – the Lamb of God.

John the Baptist had it right when he saw Jesus coming towards him at the River Jordan and said in John 1:29

‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

Jesus who is described in Isaiah 53:7

‘Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter’

This lamb would carry his cross up Calvary and bear the wrath of God for us – as a substitute – that we might escape the punishment we deserve.

Lastly note that Abraham said that God would provide for himself the lamb.

What does that mean? In what sense did God provide the lamb for himself?

Listen to Romans 3:25-26

‘… God put forward [Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’

God’s forgiveness puts his righteousness at stake. It makes him look unjust. But these words from Romans 3 tell us that Jesus was put forward as a propitiation by his blood – that is the death of Jesus absorbed God’s wrath at the sin he had previous passed over. Now, as Jesus is crucified, our sin is punished and thereby God’s righteousness is upheld. And that is why it is said that God provided a lamb for himself.

So yes, it is true that Jesus died for us – to secure the forgiveness of our sins. But it is also true that Jesus died for God – to maintain his righteousness in his forgiving us of those sins. Jesus death is what it costs God to forgive us.

It matters hugely when we sin. It deserves the death of the first born son. That is what God’s just requires – but in his mercy God provides his own much loved only begotten son to be that sacrifice.

We have much to be grateful for.

A forgiveness totally free to us but at such great cost to the Father. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is the nice kind one and that God is the rather severe wrathful one. John corrects us if we were to think such a thing in 1 John 3:9-10 where he writes:

‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.’

God is not a God who approves of and demands child sacrifice of us. On the contrary, Genesis 22 makes clear his love is such that he provides the sacrifice we require.

Nor let us come up with any silly nonsensical notion that God the Father is guilty of some form of ‘cosmic child abuse’. Remember the Father and the Son are one, [John 10:30] and that Jesus was a willing sacrifice who, we are are told in Hebrews 12:2,

”for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame,’

So the Bible is not first and foremost a book that tells us how to live. Yes the Bible does give us laws to live by and we should listen to those laws, but first and foremost the Bible is about Jesus – both Old and New Testament – and about what he has done to save us when we do not live as we should. We should not read the story of Abraham and Isaac and primarily take from it that we should be prepared to sacrifice what is most important to us for God. Rather we should see in this story how God sacrificed what was most important to Him to secure our forgiveness.

But can we be sure that God will really forgive us? Look at Genesis 22 v16. A second time the angel of the Lord calls from heaven and says:

‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…

And God goes on to confirm that he will keep his promises that he made to Abraham

‘…because you [Abraham] have obeyed my voice.’

Abraham’s obedience as it were secured God’s promises. Abraham’s obedience was an obedience that came from faith – an obedience that proved Abraham’s faith – a faith in those same promises of God.

Similarly Christ’s obedience secures all of God’s promises of blessing to us.

It is not our obedience that secures anything – it is Christ’s obedience that matters. In 2 Corinthians 1:20, Paul tell us,

‘For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.’

Because of Jesus – his perfect life, his death on a cross, and his resurrection on the third day – we can be certain that all the promises of God for us will be fulfilled.

And so we see in Genesis 22 both law and gospel. The law exposes our need for salvation and drives us to the cross. And there we find good news – a gospel that has the power to draw from us the obedience that comes from faith.

We must not trust in our devotion to God for salvation. Believe me, our devotion doesn’t come close to meriting God’s favour. Rather we must trust that it is what Jesus has done for us that justifies us before God.

So let’s rejoice that his perfect life is credited to us – providing us with the perfect righteousness we require to be acceptable before God, the righteousness that means He can look on us just as if we had always always obeyed.

‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ [2 Corinthians 5:21]

And let’s rejoice that our sins were laid on Jesus and that his willing sacrificial death paid the penalty that is justly deserved for every sin we have ever committed – and will ever commit. A sacrifice that means that God can look on us just as if we had never sinned

Believe this good news today and we might just find we obey a little more than we have before. That would be the obedience that comes from faith.

Jesus is the hero of our salvation – not us It’s all about what he has done – not about what we do. Let’s have faith in Jesus – the one who has secured the promise that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

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