************ Sermon on Genesis 22:1-19 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 23, 2001
"Abraham's Supreme Test"
I God's Foreknowledge
A Our Scripture reading starts off with, "God tested Abraham" (vs 1). Then, in verse 12, we read these words of the Almighty,
(Gen 22:12) "Do not lay a hand on the boy," ... "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."How are we to understand this? Is this telling us something about God?
There are some who look at this passage and say that in testing Abraham, the Lord learned something about Abraham and Abraham's faith that He did not know before. They say that in testing Abraham, God learned that Abraham's faith is great and real and sincere and marked by obedience. They say that in testing Abraham, God was able to get some of His questions about Abraham answered and some of His doubts about Abraham put to rest. In testing Abraham, God was surprised – pleasantly surprised – by the results.
B Those who talk and think this way subscribe to what is known as "Openness Theology." Openness Theology affirms that humans have the God-given free will to reject God's grace. Those with this viewpoint say God takes the risk that we will not do everything God wants us to do; hence, some of God's desires may go unfulfilled. They further believe that some of the future is definite and some indefinite; God knows the future that is definite and is as much in the dark as we are about the future that is indefinite. God, in other words, does not determine everything about the future.
C I want you to realize what Openness Theology does to God. The God of Openness Theology is not omniscient and omnipotent – He really did not know and did not foreordain what Abraham would do. The God of Openness Theology is subject to change – He ended up with a greater understanding and appreciation for His servant, Abraham. The God of Openness Theology has been reduced to a level where we, His creatures, can manage Him. The God of Openness Theology has been made in our image – weak, compliant, seeing in part, and knowing in part.
A wise theologian once said that "the essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him" (A. W. Tozer). Openness theology, then, is on the road to idolatry because it makes God into something less than He is. The same theologian also said, "so necessary to the church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it." In other words, if our God does not know all things and if all things do not fit into His providence, then our God is small, our faith is small, our worship is small, our moral standards are small, and the church will become nothing.
D "God tested Abraham." God is specifically named at this point with the Hebrew name [Elohim] that identifies Him as the all-pervading, supreme power of the universe. Nothing is hid from this God. Nothing is unknown to this God. Nothing is beyond the grasp of this God. Contrary to what Openness Theology says about this passage, He is immediately identified as omniscient and omnipotent.
II Abraham's Faith
A "God tested Abraham." The all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God decided to make a test of Abraham's faith. The nature of the test is startling, to say the least.
(Gen 22:2) Then God said, "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."These words always give me great difficulty. I say that because we see here the notion of human sacrifice – and the fact that God orders it.
Some interpreters have tried to get around the offence of the story by suggesting that Abraham only thought he heard the voice of God telling him to make a burnt offering of Isaac. Abraham, according to this view, was simply influenced by the human sacrifices of the heathen Canaanites around him. If his neighbors could show their devotion to their gods by offering them their children, how much more shouldn't he be willing to do the same? Misguided in this way by his religious environment, he made the journey to Moriah with Isaac. According to this interpretation, God entered the story only when He stopped Abraham from plunging the knife into Isaac.
There is no getting around it: we can't remove the offence of this story; we can't make it easier to accept by more sensitive minds by denying God's command. "God tested Abraham." The God Who sovereignly gave the son is now exercising His right to take the son back.
Martin Luther once read this Bible story for family devotions. When he had finished, Katie said, "I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that." "But, Katie," answered Luther, "He did." Here is a reminder that God demanded of Abraham no less than He himself was willing to do many years later when He sent His Son to die upon the cross.
B God's order to offer up Isaac was not the first test of Abraham's faith. Abraham passed his first test when he left family and home in Haran to go to an unnamed place God would show him (Gen 12). He passed another test when he contented himself with the land of Canaan while Lot lived among the cities of the plain (Gen 13). He passed still another test when he pursued and defeated the kings who took Lot captive and refused the homage of the king of Sodom (Gen 14). However, it seems that Abraham failed some other tests of his faith. For instance, fear got the better of him before Pharaoh (Gen 12) and Abimelech (Gen 20) when he told them Sarah was his sister – allowing both of these kings to threaten the very union out of which the promised child was to be born. And, Abraham failed to trust in God and His promises when he took Hagar as a concubine (Gen 16).
C "God tested Abraham." Did Abraham pass or fail? It is fair to say that the startling nature of God's command is matched only by Abraham's immediate readiness to obey. When God first addressed him, Abraham responded with the words "Here I am" (vs 1). Though he earlier pleaded with God to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah from impending judgment, there was no such pleading when Abraham received the command from God to sacrifice his son. Instead, he cut wood, took Isaac, and set off the next morning. He rode steadily for three days to the appointed spot – three days to reconsider his actions, three days to ask questions, three days to turn back. But he did none of this. He simply obeyed. He climbed the mountain, he bound Isaac, he placed him on the altar, and he raised his arm, knife in hand, to kill his son.
D "God tested Abraham." Abraham passed the test – with flying colors. But don't assume from this that it was easy for Abraham to do this. As God Himself indicated when giving Abraham the command, Abraham loved Isaac very dearly (vs 2). Not only that, but Isaac was Abraham's only son. This was the son for whom Abraham had waited many years. At their advanced age Abraham and Sarah could hardly have hoped for another son, except by some miracle again. Besides all this, Isaac was the child of the covenant promise God had made with Abraham – the promise to make of his descendants a great nation who would possess the land of Canaan and eventually be the source of blessing for all peoples on earth. From this perspective, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was asking Abraham to give up everything.
E "God tested Abraham." How do you think Isaac felt about all this? Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, tells us that Isaac was about 25 years old when the story in front of us happened. He was a strong, young man who could easily have resisted and rebelled and refused to go along. Strong, young Isaac saw the fire and the wood and asked about the "lamb for the burnt offering." It was at this point that Abraham must have told him God's command. What does Isaac do? Does he resist? Does he question? Does he turn around? No, "the two of them went on together." He helped his father build the altar and arrange the wood on it. He permitted himself to be bound and laid upon the altar by his father. Abraham raised the knife and Isaac exposed his throat as a sheep to be slaughtered. Never in history was there such obedience, except only in Christ. It would seem that Isaac, too, passed the test.
F "God tested Abraham." And Abraham's faith passed the test. What exactly did Abraham have faith in? Abraham believed that even if Isaac was killed God would still fulfill His promises that through Isaac his descendants would be a great nation who would possess the land of Canaan and eventually be the source of blessing for all peoples on earth. These promises, I want you to notice, required a living, breathing Isaac. Abraham, we would have to say, believed that God had the power, if necessary, to raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham believed in the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God.
We see this faith in God and God's power and God's faithfulness in Abraham's words to his servants. Did you catch what Abraham said?
(Gen 22:5) He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."Abraham expected to come back with Isaac! "WE will worship and then WE will come back to you." Abraham expected to come back with Isaac even though he had a clear command from God to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.
Hebrews 11:17-19 offers an inspired comment on Abraham's faith. Listen as I read what is written there:
(Heb 11:17-19) By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, (18) even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." (19) Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.Abraham had faith in God's power to raise the dead. Even if Isaac died at Abraham's hand, Abraham believed God could bring him back to life.
Abraham's faith was not some dead orthodoxy, it was not some dusty old theology that was pulled out in times of trouble, it was not some empty words that meant nothing and cost nothing. Abraham's faith was backed up by actions. Listen to what the Apostle James says about this:
(James 2:21-22) Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (22) You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.Abraham, in faith, surrendered everything to and for the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God. He was ready to give up everything for God – his child, the promises, the future. Abraham realized that when we have everything except God, we have nothing; and, he realized when we have nothing except God, we have everything. Abraham, in faith, was ready to sacrifice everything.
G We all know how things worked out. God again came to Abraham. Not as the almighty, not as the all-knowing and all-seeing. But as the "angel of the LORD." This is clearly the God of the covenant and of love and of salvation. Stopping Abraham's knife in midair, He called out,
(Gen 22:12) "Do not lay a hand on the boy ... Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
The test completed, God provided a ram for the burnt offering and repeated His covenant promises to Abraham.
III Our Faith
Is your faith anything like Abraham's? Are you willing to surrender anything and everything to the Lord?
For the sake of Christ and His kingdom we too are sometimes asked to make sacrifices: money, time, family, plans, desires, maybe even our very own lives.
I have discovered that for too many people, family can be an obstacle to faith in God and obedience to God. They would never consider calls to service which would necessitate a move or threaten financial security. They want their children to grow up with other children, to get a good education, to establish and keep friendships, and to experience the love of nearby relatives. They claim their business cannot do without them. Abraham would never have obeyed God if he thought this way. He wouldn't have left home and he would never have sacrificed Isaac.
Let me remind you, for a moment, of the kinds of sacrifices we ask missionaries, and pastors, and Christian School teachers to make. One of the items that came up a number of times with Tim and Carolyn Potstra, our incoming youth pastor, is how far away Visalia is from where they are now. They have never been this far away from family before. They know their kids will have birthdays without family members around. They know there will be special occasions like graduations and professions of faith without family. Many families get together for Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter and Fourth of July and Memorial Day – but pastors and missionaries and many of our Christian School teachers do not have that privilege. Plus, we generally expect them to make financial sacrifices as well. For many of them, it is overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated. But they do it for the Lord.
How many of you are willing to make such sacrifices? How many of you are willing to have Abraham's faith in our all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful God? With Abraham, are you willing to surrender all?
Let me end with a story from Korea as witnessed by two wealthy Christians who joined a party that was traveling around the world.
Topic: SacrificeLike Abraham, these people were willing to surrender anything and everything for the Lord. Are you?
Title: A GIFT THAT COST
In Korea one day, they saw, in a field by the side of the road, a boy pulling a rude plow, while an old man held the plow handles and directed it. The lawyer was amused, and took a snap shot of the scene.
"That's a curious picture! I suppose they are very poor," he said to the missionary, who was interpreter and guide to the party.
"Yes," was the reply. "That is the family of Chi Noui. When the church was being built they were eager to give something to it, but they had no money; so they sold their only ox and gave their money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves."
The lawyer and the business man by his side were silent for some moments. Then the business man said, "That must have been a real sacrifice."
"They did not call it that," said the missionary. "They thought that it was fortunate that they had an ox to sell."
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