After noting that the old covenant believers died before inheriting the fullness of God’s promise (Heb. 11:13–16), the author of Hebrews returns in today’s passage to looking at how specific Old Testament saints illustrate the kind of persevering faith we must have in Christ. Verses 17–19 turn to Genesis 22 and one of the most well-known episodes from the life of Abraham—the Aqedah, or the binding and sacrifice of Isaac.
Without a doubt, it took a firm confidence in the truth of God’s promises and unfailing belief in the goodness of God for Abraham to obey the Lord’s command to offer up Isaac. The author of Hebrews reminds us of this implicitly in verses 17–18 when he says that Abraham “received the promises” specifically through Isaac, the son of promise through whom Abraham’s offspring would be named. If we remember the story of Abraham, then we recall just how long it took for the patriarch to see the birth of Isaac. God did not promise Abraham a son and then immediately deliver on His word. Twenty-five years passed between God’s first announcement to Abraham and Isaac’s arrival (Gen. 12:4; 21:5). During that period, the promised son was threatened by kings who sought to take Sarah as a wife and even by the rash actions of Abraham and Sarah themselves in the episode with Hagar and Ishmael (12:10–20; 16; 20).
Given the importance of Isaac and the trouble Abraham went through before Isaac was born, we would be unsurprised if Abraham had refused to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. Here was God Himself “threatening” to violate His own word by taking away the promised son. But Abraham knew the Lord better than that. He understood that the Lord was not actually going to break His covenant. Abraham knew that even if Isaac died, God could still fulfill His promises through him. John Calvin comments that Abraham “did not limit God’s power to so narrow bounds as to tie it to Isaac when dead, or to extinguish it. . . . He bound not God’s power to Isaac’s life, but felt persuaded that it would be efficacious in his ashes when dead no less than in him while alive and breathing.”
Abraham understood that Isaac’s death would not prevent God from fulfilling His oath (see Gen. 15). Death was an impotent enemy of the Creator of life. He could raise Isaac from the dead if need be to keep His promise. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac because he knew God could overcome any obstacle to His promise (Heb. 11:19).