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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on faith. Previous post.

“Sacrifice your son.” This is a paraphrase of the opening of Genesis 22, arguably one of the most startling texts in all of Scripture. Many reasonable Christians, loving parents, and unresolved skeptics have stumbled over this text in which God commands Abraham to do the unimaginable—kill his beloved son. In this article, we will explore why God commanded Abraham to offer the great sacrifice of Isaac, his son, and what it means for God to be the One who offers the even greater sacrifice of Jesus, His only begotten Son.

There are some stories so riddled with intense emotion that words can barely do them justice; this is one of those texts. Genesis 22 must be seen against the backdrop of what comes before it. In the immediately preceding chapters, God not only promised Abraham descendants but He intentionally stretched the faith of Abraham and Sarah by causing them to wait until they were one hundred and ninety years old, respectively, before they finally conceived and bore Isaac—the son of God’s promise. The years in between when God promised a child to them and when that child came to them were peppered with trials, failures, and faith. In the desert of Sarah’s barrenness, she conjured up an ill-conceived, fleshly attempt to procure a son for them by way of Hagar, her servant. That plan failed miserably and ended sadly for everyone. Things never go well when our impatience triumphs over our faith and we take matters into our own hands rather than waiting on God.

In spite of their sins and unbelief, God’s favor did not depart from Abraham and Sarah. At just the right time—just as God had promised—Sarah and Abraham conceived and Isaac was born. The child was beautiful to them both. The joy that entered their hearts upon Isaac’s arrival after all those years undoubtedly swallowed up all their tears of grief in a single gulp of parental bliss. My wife and I learned years ago that we could not have children. We now have three beautiful adopted children whom we love tremendously. Though Abraham and Sarah’s years of barrenness were stretched out far longer than ours, it is not hard to imagine the deep joy that must have gripped their hearts when they held little Isaac and looked into his eyes.

Years have passed by the time we come to Genesis 22. Isaac is now a lad—a boy becoming a man. And it is in this context that God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The bond of years between Abraham and Isaac has been solidified. But Abraham’s love for God is so great and his trust in God’s promises so unwavering at this point that he gathers his servants, wood, and Isaac and heads to the top of Mount Moriah. Isaac is young, but he’s no fool. On the journey, he notices something lacking among their provision: there is no sacrificial victim. It is in this context that Abraham answers Isaac with what becomes one of the best-known names of God: “God will provide” (v. 8; cf. v. 14, “the Lord will provide”).

We ought to be careful at this point not to speculate about what Abraham meant or foresaw at this point. Some suggest that Abraham did not believe that God would make him go through with sacrifice of Isaac, but there is nothing in the text that suggests that. Rather, Abraham seems to simply trust that God will provide. God had provided all these years. He had proven Himself faithful even when Abraham and Sarah were unfaithful. And now, atop Mount Moriah, in this theater of faith and testing, Abraham submits to the most difficult command of his life, binding Isaac to an altar. Isaac is silent. No more words are exchanged. The wood is laid down. Isaac is laid down. The scene is set, and Abraham prepares to fulfill the most costly test of faith any parent could imagine: he prepares to kill his boy.

God had not given up His beloved Son for innocent, broken little children; He gave up His Son for self-professed and studied rebels like me and you.

It is at this moment (not too soon and not too late) that God intervenes. God’s intervention comes like a well-timed lightning bolt. God calls to Abraham and staves off Abraham’s knife from harming the boy. For the second time, God not only calls to Abraham, but Abraham answers with the intrepid “Here I am” (v. 11). These are the words of a willing servant. These are the words of a man who has lost himself in the promises of God only to find himself again in the provision of God. God is not only the God of promise—He is also the God of action. He enters history to save His people. He saves us from our enemies. He saves us from His wrath. He saves us from ourselves. Here, atop Mount Moriah—what will later become the site of the temple—God enters history to climactically rescue Isaac. A ram is providentially stuck in a thicket of thorns. Abraham quickly takes the ram and binds it on the altar in the place of Isaac. Just as Abraham promised to Isaac, the Lord has provided. For Abraham He has provided both a son and a substitute.

For many, this is the great break in the clouds where the story takes a welcome turn for the better. Abraham passed the test. Isaac gets to live. God provided (Heb. 11:17-19). But every Christian who knows their Bibles well knows that although this may be the end of this scene, it is not the end of the story. The covenant of grace requires that another stage must be set for the completion of the sacrifice from which Abraham and Isaac were spared. God “swore by himself” to Abraham that Abraham would inherit all the promises that God made to him. But how would these promises ultimately come about? How would God fulfill the promise He makes here in Genesis 22 as well as the promise He previewed in Genesis 15, where God Himself walks through the gruesomely halved animals?

It is here that we look to another mountain. Not Moriah, the place where Abraham almost offered up Isaac; not the site of the temple, where sacrificial animals were regularly offered for the sins of the people. No, the mountain we must look to is even more gruesome and bewildering—it is Mount Calvary. There, atop that mountain that was wrapped in the darkness of Mount Sinai, God would do the unthinkable: He would offer up His Son in our place. What is most striking here, and pierces the heart of every Christian, is that what Abraham almost did but was spared from, God actually did. He did not spare His only begotten Son (Rom. 8:32). When Jesus laid down His life as sheep before His slaughterers, He was quiet as a lamb. But as He cried out to His father in anguish from the cross, there was no ram caught in a thicket, no lamb to take His place, no priest to intercede on His behalf. Here, on this Son, fell all of the sins of the people of God. It was the darkest day in history. It was the most beautiful day in history. Every well-staged story of dramatic irony pales in comparison to what God did in not sparing His own Son. What Abraham could not do, God did. And it is done; it is finished.

Years ago, my son, now ten years old, was overtaken by a life-threatening infection. It was very serious, and he spent about a week in a specialized children’s hospital. We never left his side. This giant mass of infection grew on his neck with a merciless fury. He was twice prepped for major surgery only for the doctors to decide against it for fear of how threatening the surgery itself would be. At night, I would walk him up and down the softly lit corridors of his floor in the hopes of keeping his metabolism active enough to push the uber-antibiotics through his compromised system. I held his little hand and he pushed his IV pole. As we walked, I looked into the rooms on the hall, each of them occupied by a broken little child. Some of them had family with them at every moment. Others seemed to have no one but the medical staff. I wondered where their parents were—were they also injured, working, or worse? Either way, I have never been so overwhelmed by a sense of compassion for other human beings. These little broken children were alone and fighting for their lives. Yet, to be perfectly honest, for as much as I had compassion on these dear, broken, little children, there was not a single one for whom I would have given up my beloved son. Then it hit me—God had not given up His beloved Son for innocent, broken little children; He gave up His Son for self-professed and studied rebels like me and you.

Christians often say that our salvation is free, and rightly so, for it costs us nothing. But let us never forget that while our salvation is free, it is not cheap. It cost God that which is most precious to Him—His beloved Son. The Lord has provided, and how richly blessed we are to be united to Jesus, the Son who is greater than Isaac. Let us also not forget the incomprehensible love of the Father, who, in His love for us, did not spare His only begotten Son.

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