Sunday, March 12, 2017

God Will Provide a Lamb (Genesis 21:1-7; 22:1-18)


As we study our Bibles, sometimes we come across passages that strike us as, well, for lack of a better word, a little weird. We are so far removed from many of the manners and customs of the ancient world that we have a hard time relating to what we are reading. And the stranger the story, the more the critics of the Bible love to use it as a point of contention with Christians. Peter says that the “untaught and unstable” take the “hard to understand” portions of Scripture and “distort” them “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:14-16). On more than one occasion, I have found myself sharing my faith with an unbeliever, only have them throw something out about God ordering Abraham to kill his son. In addition to the moral strangeness of this passage of Scripture, it is a favorite among those who accuse the Bible of containing contradictions. They will say, “How can God condemn human sacrifice in one passage and command it in another?” Leviticus 18:21 condemns the sacrifice of infants, and Leviticus 20:2 makes it a capital offense for a parent to offer their infants as sacrifices to the pagan deity Molech. It is a fair question, and one that deserves an answer if we are to give a reason for the hope within us (1 Pet 3:15). Of course, if we are going to answer the question, then we must understand this passage for ourselves, and I suggest that this is something many believers have yet to do.

The text before us is not one of problems, per se, but it is one of God’s promise, purpose, provision, and plan. Here we find God’s promises to Abraham coming into fruition, being challenged, and coming into sharper focus as he commits himself to walk with God by faith and obedience. As we see these things taking shape in his life, we come to understand something of God’s promise, purpose, provision and plan for us. And it all centers around the reality that God will provide a lamb.

We begin by considering …

I. God’s promises cannot be thwarted (21:1-7).

In our last study (Genesis 15), we looked at how God established and secured His covenant with Abraham, assuring him that the promises that would come to pass in his life and in his descendants were sure and certain because they rested on God’s faithfulness, and that alone. It was not a bilateral agreement, in which the terms demanded that Abraham do his part and God would do His part. No, God demonstrated that He would do all the parts! While Abraham slept, God proved Himself to be the guarantor of all of His promises.

This is of great encouragement to us. The hymnwriter surely described the human race accurately when he said that we are “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” If the security of God’s promises rested in our ability to bring them to pass, we would all be doomed! We do not have the ability to hold onto God, but we rest in His ability to hold onto us! And this is how we know that His promises cannot be thwarted.

In Chapter 21, we read of God fulfilling His promise to bring forth a son to Abraham. Beginning in Chapter 12, God repeatedly made promises to Abraham about how He would bless him and his descendants, and all nations through Abraham’s seed. But Abraham had no children, and his wife was barren and unable to conceive (Gen 11:30). In Chapter 15, Abraham raised a protest to the Lord, suggesting that since God had not yet delivered on His promise, a foreign born servant named Eliezer of Damascus would be his heir (15:2-3). But God’s response was, “One who will come forth from your own body … shall be your heir” (15:4). Keep in mind that Abraham was 75 years old when we first met him in Chapter 12, and time was ticking. Neither he nor Sarah were getting any younger and both were already well past the age of bearing children. So, in Chapter 16, they devised a plan to force God’s promise to fruition. Since Abraham would father a child according to God’s promise, and Sarah was barren, the plan was concocted for him to father a child through Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar. We need to note well that this was not God’s plan, and it violated God’s intention for marriage and family. The outcome of this escapade only brought frustration and chaos. Those ramifications are still felt in the world today as the nation of Israel, the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, are perpetually embattled by the Arab peoples, purporting to be the offspring of Abraham and Hagar. If we could reduce the Arab-Israeli conflict to a lowest common denominator, it boils down to the Islamic notion that Abraham’s firstborn child (Ishmael), born to Hagar, is the rightful heir to all of God’s promises, and that those promises have been stolen and supplanted by Abraham’s second-born child (Isaac), born to Sarah. The entire ordeal is evidence that there are long-abiding consequences to our sin. In Abraham’s sinful liaison with Hagar we learn that our sin brings hardship, frustration, and difficulty into our lives and the lives of others. One thing, however, that our sin cannot do is thwart God’s promises.

Not only are God’s promises not thwarted by human sin, neither are they thwarted by human inability. In Chapter 17, God declared to Abraham that He would yet bring Abraham a son to inherit the blessing of His promises. This time, He was more specific. Not only would the child be born to Abraham, as Ishmael was through Hagar, but this time God said that He would give Abraham a son by his wife Sarah (17:15-16). On the cusp of his one-hundredth birthday, and Sarah on the verge of her ninetieth, it seemed impossible! Sometimes we get confused by the fact that some of the earliest characters of the Bible lived impressively long lives – hundreds of years! Compared to someone like Methusaleh, who lived to be 969 years old, Abraham was barely old enough to get his driver’s license at the century mark! But it should not escape our notice that after the flood, lifespans decreased dramatically. Abraham would die at age 120, and that was a “good old age” at that time (15:15). To father children, and for Sarah to bear a child, was humanly impossible. As evidence of that, when God declared it to Abraham, the Bible says that “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). When Sarah learned of the promise, she too “laughed to herself” (18:12). The Lord’s response was “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” For man in and of himself, it was impossible! But with God, all things are possible (Mt 19:26; Lk 1:37). The things that God has promised us which are beyond our abilities are all within His ability! His promises are not thwarted by human inability.

Neither are His promises thwarted by human unbelief. When God promised a son to be born to Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham caught his breath from the hysterical laughter that overcame him, he said, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (17:17). And Abraham began to plea-bargain with God to allow His promises to pass to Ishmael instead. He found it difficult to believe that God would actually do this thing. Sarah did as well, saying from her laughter, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (18:12). From an earthly perspective, it would have been understandable for the Lord to say, “Well, then, if you do not believe Me, then I will not do it.” But He did not say that. The unbelief of Abraham and Sarah did not thwart His promises from coming to pass. And neither does the unbelief of any other human being limit God’s ability to bring about all that He has promised.

In spite of Abraham and Sarah’s sin, in spite of their inabilities, and in spite of their unbelief, “The Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him” (21:1-2). The irony of the situation was not lost on the geriatric couple. They named the child “Isaac,” in accordance with what God had commanded them (17:19; 21:3). “Isaac” means “he laughs,” calling back to the immediate reaction of Abraham and Sarah to God’s promise. Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. … Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (21:6-7). Indeed, it is a laughable thing in the ears of any human who hears such things. Who would have said it? Well, in fact, God said it! And when God speaks a word of promise, the fulfillment of that promise rests on His righteous, and not our sin. It rests on His ability, not our inability. It rests on His faithfulness, and not our faith or our lack thereof. Abraham and Sarah learned what we all must learn: God’s promises cannot be thwarted. He will deliver on every promise He has ever made, and there is nothing that any man, angel, or demon, can do to undo what He has promised.

The promises God makes are always inseparable from His purposes for which He is working in the world. He always has a purpose. That is a certainty. But it is not always certain to us what that purpose is. And as Abraham discovered in Chapter 22 …

II. God’s purposes may require our testing (22:1-2).

In the study of literature, we encounter a method of story-telling known as the “omniscient narrator.” The omniscient narrator is not one of the characters in the story, but knows everything about the characters, including their thoughts and emotions. The omniscient narrator also knows things that are going on that the characters do not know. So for example, we might be reading something like this: “It was a dark and stormy night. John and Sally were stranded in the woods. John was afraid, but he tried to be brave for Sally. Sally thought they may never survive the storm, but several miles away, a search party had assembled to find them.” You see, the narrator knows things that John and Sally do not know, and because he is the one telling the story, we know too. John and Sally do not know how each other feels or that there is a search party coming, but we do.

There are many stories in the Bible told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This should not surprise us, for the Scriptures are inspired by God – the ultimate omniscient narrator. There are occasions when we know more about what is going on than the characters in the story. And this is one of those occasions. Abraham knew that God was calling him in Genesis 22:1, and so he said, “Here I am.” And Abraham heard what God said to him: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (22:2). But we know more than he knows. We know the reason why God said this. Verse 1 tells us: “Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham.”

There are several passages of Scripture in which we find God putting His people to the test. This idea strikes some as inappropriate, as though God were setting His people up to fail or leading them into an occasion to sin. It is a rule of biblical interpretation to always interpret difficult passages in light of clearer passages, and we have a very clear statement on this in James 1:13. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” So we know that is not what is going on here with Abraham. Instead, God’s “testing” of His people involves the proving and strengthening of character. It is not as though God does not know, for He knows everything, including the hidden secrets of our hearts and minds. Rather, the testing provides an opportunity for God to reveal that which He already knows. As Walt Kaiser writes, “there is no connotation of doubt or a desire to trick or deceive the one placed under the test. His testing was only concerned with obedience or the fear of God … in order to manifest to individuals and others the dispositions of their hearts.”[1] And this is what God is doing with Abraham here in this otherwise troublesome command to sacrifice his son. We know that, but Abraham does not. Yet, because we know that it happened to Abraham and a host of others in Scripture, we must not be surprised that it may happen to us on occasion. Like with Abraham, when it happens, we may not be aware until the test is completed. But we know that God’s purposes may require our testing in order to prove and strengthen our character.

Notice how God tested Abraham’s allegiance. When God called to Abraham in verse 1, his response was, “Here I am.” The Hebrew word used here is the word hineni. The most familiar use of this word is found in Isaiah 6, where God asks rhetorically, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” The prophet’s response is “Hineni.” “Here am I. Send me!” Inherent in the words “Here I am,” is a willingness to do whatever is asked. It is like when someone says to you, “Can you do me a favor?” And you say, “Sure!” And then they tell you what the favor is, and you think, “Hmm. Can I rewind the clock a bit and hear the favor before I tell you whether or not I will do it?” To say to the Lord, “Here I am!” is to say, “I am fully Yours, and will do all that you command me to do!”

Those are easy words to say in a solemn stained-glass Sunday sanctuary. But when the rubber meets the road Monday morning, are we as committed to the Lord as we said – or sang! – Sunday morning? A. W. Tozer once said, “Christians don’t tell lies – they just go to church and sing them.” Earlier in the service, we sang, “Content to let the world go by, To know no gain nor loss.” In another song, we sang, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know. Fills my every longing, keeps me singing as I go.” What if this week, God tested the truthfulness of your singing by taking from you all that you value in this world? What about when you come out of that long and tedious meeting, or when you are faced with frustrations at home or work? Is He keeping you singing? Is He filling your every longing? You see, you can say to the Lord all day on Sunday, “Here I am Lord! I am Yours and I am willing to do whatever You ask me to do!” That’s all well and good until He asks. Then what will our response say about our allegiance? God tested Abraham’s allegiance and He may test ours as well.

Not only did God test his allegiance, but we also see that God tested Abraham’s affections. We all know that the Bible has a lot to say about love. Do you know where the word “love” is first used in the Bible? It’s right here in verse 2, when God says to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love.” Abraham’s love for Isaac is understandable. The love that any good father has for his son is only natural. And the love that Abraham has for Isaac is all the more special because of how long he waited, and how the child represented the fulfillment of all God’s promises to him. Abraham truly recognized that Isaac was a gift from God, and he cherished the gift, as well he should. But I think it is significant that the word “love” occurs first here in the Bible. It does not occur in relation to man’s relationship to God, which should be our highest affection, but rather to God’s gift. Idolatry takes many sneaky and deceptive forms in our lives, and can most often be found when we elevate the gifts above the Giver in our affections. In God’s testing, He proves whether or not He is our first and greatest love. 

Watchman Nee, the great Chinese evangelist of the last century, said that Isaac “represents many gifts of God’s grace. Before God gives them our hands are empty. Afterwards, they are full. Sometimes God reaches out His hand to take ours in fellowship. Then we need an empty hand to put into His. But when we have received His gifts and are nursing them to ourselves, our hands are full, and when God puts out His hand we have no empty hand for Him.”[2] If this happens, then we must let go of the gift in order to take hold of the Giver. God tested Abraham’s affections by commanding him to place Isaac, his son whom he loved, on the altar. What might it be in your life that God is calling you to take to Moriah and lay on the altar? What love has usurped God from His rightful place in your heart? Abraham might have said, “What good would that do for God, for me to kill my son? What is God going to do with a dead boy?” Maybe we would ask the same: How is God going to benefit from us letting go of that which we cherish so dearly? And this my friends is where Abraham had to learn, and we must learn, that it is not for God but for us! The benefit is in us placing God foremost in our affections, for only as we love the Giver above all can we truly love the gifts that He gives in the right way. Abraham’s love for His son did not need to decrease, but his love for God needed to increase to the highest place. As a friend of mine has said, “God really doesn’t want your ‘Isaacs.’ He just wants more of you!”[3] He might have to test your allegiance and affection in order to get more of you, and He is willing to do so, for your own good.

Now we move on in our text to consider …

III. God’s provisions are received by faith and obedience (22:3-18).

There is a foundational spiritual principle that applies to all of God’s dealings with mankind: “What God requires, God provides.” He will not ask us to offer up to Him or render unto Him anything that He has not already provided to us. It is the very fact that God has provided an Isaac to Abraham that entitles him to require an Isaac of Abraham. Now, we have the benefit of knowing that God was testing Abraham, and we’ve read the end of the account. We know that God will halt Abraham’s hand before he puts the blade to the boy. Abraham, however, does not yet know that. But he knows that God will provide what God requires. And by his faith and obedience, he receives that provision.

Notice in verse three Abraham’s careful obedience. God commanded him to take his beloved son to Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering, so Abraham prepared himself to do just that. He saddled the donkey, marshaled the servants, split wood for the fire, and took Isaac and went. Verse 6 indicates that he took “the fire and the knife” as well. He left no detail out. He took everything he would need to do exactly as the Lord had said in complete obedience. So it is for us, when the Lord calls us to a task, no matter how difficult. We must prepare to follow through in complete obedience. Abraham did not know what the Lord would tell him to do next, but he was prepared to fully obey the last thing the Lord told him to do. Often you and I do not know what God’s next command for us will be, but we can rest assured that He will not reveal the next step until we have taken the first one. Until we have completely obeyed the last thing He told us to do, we cannot expect to discover what it is He would have us do next. There must be complete obedience.

Next we notice Abraham’s confident faith. God told him to go to Moriah, to one of the mountains “of which I will tell you.” Abraham went forth fully believing that God would show him the place, and verse 4 says that he saw the place from a distance. But it is in verses 5 and following that we see the confidence of his faith on fully display. In verse 5, he said to the young men who had accompanied him and Isaac, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Don’t miss the confidence of his faith. He says, “We will go, and we will return.” Now, how is that possible? How can Abraham take his son off to slay him as a sacrifice, and say that they will both come back? I suggest that even Abraham himself does not know how it will be possible. But he knows two things: God promised to fulfill all His promises through Isaac, and He told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Though these things seem contradictory and incompatible, Abraham believes every word that God has spoken to him. Hebrews 11:19 says that Abraham “considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead.” He didn’t know how God would do it, but he believed by faith in all that God had promised, so he was confident that though he offer Isaac on the altar, he would bring the boy back with him.

And as the father and son walked along, Isaac became curious and said in verse 7, “My father! … Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham’s answer reveals his confident faith in the Lord. He says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Whatever God requires, God will provide. Abraham believed fully by faith that God would not require of him anything that God had not provided, and he was fully prepared to act on that confident faith. As he did, building the altar, arranging the wood, binding Isaac and laying him on the altar, he prepared to follow through in complete obedience and confident faith. And it was then, in verse 11 that the silence of heaven was broken with a word from the Lord delivered by His messenger angel.

The angel said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And again Abraham said “Hineni! Here I am.” These are the only words Abraham speaks to God in the entire passage, and he says it twice. “I am yours Lord, I will do whatever You ask me to do!” And the message from heaven confirms that this has been proven. “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Notice the phrase that is missing this time: “whom you love.” Abraham proved by his faith and obedience that the Lord had the preeminent place in his affections. And it was only then that Abraham noticed “a ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (v13). What God requires, God provides! And He provided the lamb to die in the place of Isaac as a substitute. So Abraham called the name of that place, “YHWH Yireh,” “The Lord will provide.” But until Abraham acted in complete obedience and confident faith, he did not receive what the Lord provided.

My friends, what God requires, God provides. And though His promises cannot be thwarted, and His purposes may involve our testing, His provisions can only be received as we walk with Him in complete obedience and confident faith just as Abraham did. Only as Abraham reinstalled God alone on the throne of his life could he truly receive his only son back from death to life by the provision of a substitute on his behalf. God always provides what God requires of us. And this brings us to the even greater truth of this passage.

IV. God’s plan is portrayed in detail.

God’s plan for Abraham was never isolated to Abraham. His plan for Abraham always encompassed the entire world, including us. It was so when God first called him in Chapter 12, and it remains so as God confirms His plan to Abraham in verse 18 here. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” Throughout Abraham’s life of faith, God has been clarifying His plan for how He would bless the world through the singular seed of Abraham who was coming into the world. That blessing would not come through the offering of Abraham’s only begotten son whom he loved on the altar of Moriah, but in the offering of God’s only begotten son whom He loved on the altar of Calvary’s cross.
What God requires, God provides. And what does He require of us? Nothing but complete righteousness and perfect obedience. The bad news is that none of us is capable of offering that God. But the good news is that what God requires, God provides. If we were to ask God, “Where is the lamb?” God would point our eyes to Moriah – the very same mountain later known as Jerusalem, and He would show us the Lord Jesus stretched out to die on the altar of the cross. And He would point us to Him and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Dying in our place, God’s only begotten Son, whom He loved, took our sin and the penalty of our sin upon Himself, and gives us His perfect righteousness which was demonstrated in His sinless life in exchange. He reckons that righteousness to us by faith as we yield ourselves to Christ as our Lord and Savior, our sacrifice who was offered in our place as a substitute. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. And thus, the seed of Abraham brings the blessing of God to all the nations of the earth as His good news goes forth beckoning all who hear it to turn to Him and be saved!

What God requires, God provides, and He has provided the Lamb to die in our place. We can look to Mount Moriah and see His cross, and say “The Lord has provided.”  

[1] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), 124-125.
[2] Watchman Nee, Changed into His Likeness (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1967), 62.
[3] Tom Hayes, God Doesn’t Want Your Isaacs (Saluda, NC: Paths of Revival, 1983), 5. 

No comments: