Lent is the time when we prepare ourselves for reflection of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. These two events are the foundation for our faith. But none of this was a complete surprise. The Easter events are often described as being “according to the Scriptures.” The only Scriptures those early Christians had were the Old Testament. But “according to the Scriptures” is more than prophecies about Jesus. There are types and symbols found in the Old Testament that we can look at that help us to see the cross through fresh eyes. One of those stories is the sacrifice of Isaac.
I can’t help but read this story through my perspective as a father. I love all five of my children equally. However, Logan, our oldest, holds a special place. We lost our first child through a miscarriage. So when Amanda was pregnant with Logan, there was a lot of worry and anxiety. We really wanted things to go well. The birth was not exactly easy and Logan looked a little beat up, but he was born as a beautiful baby boy. I can’t express the joy we experienced as we were finally able to hold our baby in our arms.
I wish I could say that the birth was the end of the anxiety. Logan was diagnosed with autism while fairly young. That was not the end of the world but something that went along with it was very difficult. While our daughter with autism, Abby, latches onto my arm when we are out, Logan is a runner. Logan has escaped from our home, from school and from group homes, many times. Most of the time he was caught quite quickly, but other times he was missing for a while and there was some doubt if we would get him back alive. The thought of losing the child that we had prayed and hoped for was almost life-crushing.
With those thoughts and emotions in my mind, we need to take a look at this difficult story about Abraham and Isaac.
Abraham and Isaac
Abraham is presented as our father in the faith. God had a plan to do something amazing through Abraham, something that continues to impact us. God made a promise to Abraham. The promise was that Abraham would become a father. That was interesting because bot Abraham and his wife Sarah were very old and Sarah was barren. But God promised it. Not only that, but God promised that through this son, a great nation would come. That was a fantastic promise and Abraham was happy to accept the offer.
The problem was that it didn’t happen right away. After waiting some time, Abraham took things into his own hands and fathered a child with a servant girl. But that wasn’t God’s plan. It was Sarah who would give birth to the promised son. After many years of waiting, the promise came true and Abraham and Sarah welcomed their son into the world. Just try to imagine the joy they experienced on that day.
But then God appeared to Abraham again and this time with some not so good news. Abraham was to take Isaac up a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. What a horrible story! It would be tempting for us to pass over this story and pretend that it never happened. We just don’t want to go here. But this story is very important. For one thing, it is in this story we find the first appearances of the word “worship” and “love” in the Bible. Abraham, taking Isaac up the mountain, tells his servants that they are going up to worship. God, in telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, tells him that it is his son that he loves.
In the story Abraham is obedient. He places Isaac on the altar and on the wood. He lifts up his knife and just as he is about to bring it down, Abraham is told to stop. God still wanted a sacrifice, but it wouldn’t be Isaac. God provided a ram as a substitute for the sacrifice. Isaac was saved.
But even with this last minute rescue, doesn’t this story cast doubt on the morality of Abraham and even of God? There is a key to reading this story properly. What was the original promise? Not just that a son would be born. The promise was that a great nation would come from this son. Had Isaac, who was still a young lad, fathered a great nation? No. So, the promise at that point had not yet completed. The test was not just whether Abraham would give up his son but whether Abraham really believed the full promise. Abraham went through with this, without discounting the emotional cost that he experienced, because he still believed that God would fulfill his promise to provide a great nation through Isaac. That changes everything.
Jesus and the Cross
What does this tell us about the cross. While this is not a straight prediction of the crucifixion, it does inform our understanding of what Jesus did. We can see Jesus in two characters within the story. In one way, Jesus is like Isaac. Isaac is the beloved son of Abraham and Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Isaac is what is most precious to Abraham and Jesus is what is most precious to the Father. But then we see a shift. Unlike Isaac who was spared this sacrificial death, Jesus does die on the cross. Here, the ram becomes an image of Jesus. Theologians talk about the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. That simply means that Jesus died instead of us. As the ram took the place of Isaac, so Jesus takes the place of us. Now of course we physically die still, even after what Jesus did. The death we are spared is spiritual death, something that is replaced with eternal life.
There is one more thing I want to mention about this. Even after hearing all this, wasn’t it cruel for God to put Abraham through this? Think about it this way. God knew even in the time of Abraham that he would eventually give his Son to die on the cross. What God does with Abraham is to give a glimpse of his fatherly heart and the price that he would pay. The event with Isaac was not about cruelty but about intimacy.
The Church and Faith
Before finishing off our look at this passage, it is worth reflecting on what this means for us in a practical way. In the New Testament, both Paul and James look to the example of Abraham, one as an example of faith and the other of works. They are not contradicting each other. the story of Abraham is about the intersection of faith and works. God made a promise to Abraham and he responded in two ways. The first was that he believed, that is he place his faith and trust in God. The second was that he acted on that faith, even when the action was the most difficult imaginable.
This story challenges us. How does our faith and work intersect? Both as a church and as individuals. God has made certain promises to never leave nor forsake us, to build his kingdom through his church. Do we really believe these promises? Our level of belief is measured by the things we do. As a church, are we doing things that reflect our faith in God? As individuals, can people see through our actions that we take Jesus very seriously? We can get so caught up in how uncomfortable this story makes us that we miss out on the challenge this story has for us personally.
We are never going to enjoy the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Even knowing that God provided a ram, it still makes us uncomfortable. But it is supposed to. So should we be uncomfortable about the story of Jesus. The Father gave his only beloved Son to take our place. That should disturb us, not in the sense of questioning God’s goodness but in questioning our response. Abraham saw in his experience a powerful reminder of God’s provision. God provided for our spiritual needs through Jesus and the cross. Do we really believe that God provides and if so, what are we going to do about it?