3. When Faith Passes the Test (Gen. 22:1-19)Related Media
Most of us don’t like tests and we certainly don’t like failing them. I grew up in England and at eleven years old we had to write an exam called the “Eleven Plus.” This exam determined whether I would go to a grammar school or a technical school. I remember my dad’s relentless tutoring in the evenings to prepare me for this exam. Surprisingly, I passed! Then, a few years later, I remember writing another set of important exams at sixteen years old called “O” (ordinary) levels. This time the results were miserable. Then came university undergraduate exams, then seminary graduate exams followed by post-graduate exams. I think the worst kind of school tests were those surprise tests that teachers sometimes give. You can probably remember when the teacher would come into the classroom and, without warning, announce: “Today we’re going to have a quiz” and your heart would sink.
God gives tests and usually without warning. More than likely you can pass a test if you prepare for it, but the real test as to whether you know your stuff is if you’re tested without warning. That’s what God does sometimes. Sometimes God tests us when we’re unprepared, off-guard, when no one’s looking, to see if in private we’re the same as we look in public; to see if we truly believe what we say or whether it is just a good show for others. Sometimes God tests us with circumstances or challenges that make no sense to us, to see if our love for him is really what we say it is; to see if we trust him the way we say we trust him. In that situation, do you really trust the providence of God; do you really believe in the sovereignty of God?
Just when we’re hanging onto something tightly, that’s often when God comes in with a test. That’s when God asks: “Do you love me more than these - more than this car, this house, this career, this hobby, this sport?”
How tightly are you holding onto “things”? It’s easy to say “I give everything to you, Lord”, without really meaning it. It’s easy to sing “all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood,” but do you? Sometimes “things” get such a hold of us, we can’t let go. Those are the times when God checks up on us to test the authenticity of our faith and our love for him. Sometimes those tests are hard. Sometimes we pass them and sometimes we fail them. Sometimes life makes no sense. That’s the way it was in the life of Abraham.
“After these things…” (22:1a). After the miraculous birth of the promised child, Isaac; after the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar into the wilderness; after the restoration of relationships in the family; after finding peace with God about God’s promise through Isaac. Just when Abraham thought that everything had settled down, that the past was finally past, that he could look forward to a glorious future, that he had it all figured out, “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am” (22:1).
God is a jealous God. He demands our absolute affection and loyalty. He won’t tolerate idols in our lives, even things that are good. He tests Abraham to see if God is first in Abraham’s life or whether Isaac means more to Abraham than God himself.
God had tested Abraham before and Abraham had failed three times. He tested Abraham’s obedience to God with a famine (Gen. 12) and Abraham failed in his obedience by going down to Egypt. He tested Abraham’s faith in God when the birth of the promised son was delayed (Gen. 16) and Abraham failed in his faith by having a son by Hagar. He tested Abraham’s fear of God when Abimelech took Sarah (Gen. 20) and Abraham failed in his fear of God by lying that she was his sister.
When you fail a test three times, it doesn’t look good for the fourth try, especially when that test will involve all three tests you’ve already failed. That can be a very dark time in your life: “Will I pass or fail?” But know this: When your faith passes the test, God renews his blessing. Notice firstly that…
1. When God Tests Our Faith, He Frequently Defies Our Logic (22:1-2).
You’ve all probably suffered the agony of buying something in the store that you had to put together when you got home, only to find that the instructions didn’t make any sense and you had to phone an 800 number to figure it out. God’s threefold instruction makes no sense to Abraham.
God’s instructions defy logic about who to take. “He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love’” (22:2a). Notice how this instruction gets progressively more intense. “Take your son… your only son… your only son Isaac, whom you love.” Here’s the issue: this child was becoming an object of affection in Abraham’s heart that was competing with God’s exclusive claims on Abraham’s heart.
By this time, Isaac is probably late teens to mid-twenties. He’s certainly no baby anymore. Over the years Abraham’s love for his son has grown and intensified. First, he loves the baby promised from God. Then, he loves a son born in his old age. Now, he loves the progenitor of a great nation. Why would God now ask Abraham to take this special child of promise to offer him as a sacrifice? God’s instructions defy logic about who to take.
God’s instructions defy logic about where to go. “…go to the land of Moriah” (22:2b). Abraham had followed God’s instruction where to go years before when he left his home in Ur of the Chaldees to go to the unknown land of Canaan (Gen. 12). Now once again, he must travel from his home in Beersheba to the unknown land of Moriah, a place known only to God. Why would God ask Abraham to go to this unknown place?
God’s instructions defy logic about what to do. “…offer him (Isaac) there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (22:2c). A burnt offering was a sacrificial offering. It cost the worshipers something. It made atonement for the sins of the worshipers. It produced a sweet aroma to God. It signified total commitment, the only offering that consumed the entire animal on the altar (cf. Lev. 1). That’s the kind of offering God wants - an offering that costs us everything, nothing held back.
These instructions beg two important questions: (1) Will Abraham obey God and offer his son, knowing full well that Isaac is the only person who can perpetuate the promise of God? Abraham has just lost one child, now he is about to lose the other. He lost Ishmael to the wilderness, now he is about to lose Isaac to the altar. He has just banished Ishmael at Sarah’s command, now he is about to banish Isaac at God’s command. (2) Will God protect and provide for Isaac as he did for Ishmael? Will God resolve this dilemma?
It raises an additional corollary question: Why a child sacrifice? Wasn’t this pagan and contrary to God’s own law (Lev. 20:2-3; Deut. 18:10)? Perhaps God demanded this of Abraham to make the test even harder to understand and obey. But the question resolves itself if we focus on the whole narrative, not just the command. God never did require the slaying of Abraham’s son, because he provided a substitute.
Certainly, none of this made any sense to Abraham. It was contradictory to and inconsistent with (a) Sarah’s miraculous conception; (b) the banishment of Ishmael; and (c) God’s promise of descendants through Isaac. And now God was telling him to sacrifice this promised son? It defied logic: it made no sense.
When God tests our faith, he often defies our logic. Perhaps your own life makes no sense sometimes. Perhaps your future seems to hinge on one momentous test or decision. “Should I marry this person, or take that job, or go out in missions, or take a course of action which could change my life forever.” Perhaps you’ve suffered great sorrow and your life goes into turmoil. You can’t figure out what to do or where to turn.
Or, perhaps you feel the direction of God so strongly in your life but it makes no sense. You thought you knew where your life was headed and now it’s taking a completely different course. Remember, God’s thoughts are not your thoughts nor his ways your ways (Isa. 55:8-9).
When God tests our faith, he often defies our logic. And…
2. When God Tests Our Faith, He Repeatedly Reveals Our Hearts (22:3-11).
Abraham’s heart is revealed in his threefold reaction to God’s threefold instructions.
First, God reveals our hearts by testing our obedience to him (22:3-4). Abraham only had two options: to obey God or disobey God. And by the morning’s early light, he knew what he would and must do. “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him” (22:3).
If you react in true obedience, you’ll take immediate action - no bargaining with God, no rationalizing, no arguing, no resisting, no doubting.
If you react in true obedience, you’ll take God at his word. So Abraham gathered what was needed - a donkey to carry the load, two men to take care of them on the way, his son, and the sacrificial wood. As he split the wood, can you imagine what was going through his mind? Every stroke of the axe must have plunged into his heart, reminding him of the knife that soon would plunge into Isaac’s heart.
God’s tests demand unwavering faith in God’s word. That’s the bottom line: “Do you really believe God’s word or not?” That’s why it’s important to read, study, and memorize the Bible. If you want to pass an exam, you must know your material, in this case, God’s Word.
If you react in true obedience, you’ll take immediate action, you’ll take God at his word, and…
If you react in true obedience, you’ll face reality with courage. “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” (22:4). Just as Jesus set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem (Lk. 9:51), unswervingly going to “The Place of a Skull” (Jn. 19:17), so Abraham saw the place afar off and faced the reality of the situation with courage.
The true test of obedience is to see the reality of what God demands and to face it without turning back and without complaint. Perhaps you’ve been there - you’ve seen the test coming in the distance, you knew what it would cost you, and you faced it without doubt.
So, God reveals our hearts in our reaction to tests of obedience, and …
Second, God reveals our hearts by testing our faith in him (22:5-8). If you react in true faith, you’ll have the right perspective. “Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you’” (22:5). He had the right perspective: the sacrifice of his son was worship! He had the right perspective: “We will come back - God will keep his word. If Isaac is slain God will raise him up again.”
If you react in true faith, you’ll have the right determination. “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together” (22:6). Before, Abraham had placed the bread and water on Hagar’s shoulder. Now he places the wood on Isaac’s shoulder. Both actions must have torn his heart. But despite all that is happening, there is unity between them; the two of them went together - one in purpose, bond, trust, communion.
Isaac is big now, strong enough to carry the wood but young enough to ask a childlike question: “And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’” (22:7). If you react in true faith, you’ll have the right perspective, you’ll have the right determination, and, if you react in true faith, you’ll have the right answer. “Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together” (22:8). Many times before, Isaac had probably seen his father sacrifice a lamb. He knew the procedure, but this time there is fire and wood but no lamb. He knew the pagan sacrificial practices of the Canaanites who offered their firstborn sons as sacrifices to placate the pagan gods, so his question is very valid and real: Might this be what his father is doing?
When tough questions are asked, true faith has the right answer. You can’t explain everything but you respond out of deep faith in God - no wavering, no bitterness, no despair, no rebellion; just trust and serenity. Abraham’s answer completely satisfies Isaac. He has complete trust in his father, complete confidence and reassurance. Besides, he had heard his father tell the servants: “We (I and the boy) will come again to you” (22:5). What a great relationship Isaac had with his father!
A person’s true character comes out when the chips are down. It’s easy to trust God when everything is going well, but it’s much harder when life is falling apart. It’s easy to express faith in God when everything is rosy but much harder when things look bleak. When Abraham’s world fell apart, he trusted the promise of God (Gen. 21:12), he trusted the power of God (Heb. 11:19), and, here, he trusted the provision of God. When our world seems to be falling apart, we need to trust the promises of God, trust the power of God, trust the provision of God.
God reveals our hearts by testing our obedience to him, by testing our faith in him, and…
Third, God reveals our hearts by testing our fear of him (22:9-10). “9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son” (22:9-10).
If you truly fear God, you’ll show it in your actions. It took faith to gather the donkey, the servants, and the wood three days ago. But it took fear to build an altar, arrange the wood, and bind Isaac. That’s why the angel of the Lord said: “Now I know that you fear God” (22:12).
What does it mean to fear God? It means to reverence him totally, trust him implicitly, obey him unquestioningly; to fear offending him by sinning against him. When you fear God, you obey him no matter what the cost, despite natural instincts, human logic, and unknown consequences. When you fear God, you hold him above everything else - supreme, sovereign - and trust him above all else. When you fear God, you take him at his word. The fear of God is the result of knowing God, loving God, trusting God (Ps. 11:10; Job 28:28; Eccl. 12:13).
When God tests our faith, he frequently defies our logic, he repeatedly reveals our hearts, and…
3. When God Tests Our Faith, He Constantly Confirms His Faithfulness (22:11-19).
The knife is poised, ready to be plunged into Isaac’s heart, and at the climax of the drama we discover God’s faithfulness.
First, God confirms his faithfulness by withdrawing the penalty (22:11-12). What a relief it must have been for Abraham to hear God’s voice. God speaks from heaven at just the right time. The God who would one day slay his own Son, and whose hand no one would withhold, now withdraws the penalty: “11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12 He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me’” (22:11-12).
God confirms his faithfulness by withdrawing the penalty. The penalty for sin is withdrawn when we trust Christ as our Saviour by faith. The penalty of testing is withdrawn when our faith passes the test. He turns our nighttime of testing into the dawn of relief.
God confirms his faithfulness by withdrawing the penalty, and…
Second, God confirms his faithfulness by providing a substitute (22:13-14). Just as Abraham had assured Isaac (22:8), so God now provides a substitute. “13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (22:13-14). Abraham’s part in the story is completely subordinate to God’s part. Abraham’s faith is not memorialized, but God’s faithfulness is. The “Mount of the Lord” becomes a permanent witness to the gracious provision of God.
Through all of this, Abraham came to know God in increasingly more precious ways. First, he knew God as “Jehovah” – I am that I am (Gen. 12:1). Then, “El Elyon” – most high God, possessor of heaven and earth (Gen. 14:19). Then, as “El Shaddai” – God almighty, the One who can do what is impossible with men (Gen. 17:1). Now, as “Jehovah-Jireh” – the God who provides.
In the darkest circumstances of our lives, when faith triumphs God confirms his power, his love, his trustworthiness. He is the God who provides. He provides a Savior as our Substitute. He provides the faith to believe, to overcome temptations, to endure tests, to carry burdens, to go on when you feel like quitting, to trust him at all costs. If you’re passing through a deep test of your faith, remember that God is Jehovah-Jireh, “the LORD will provide” and your dark place will become a memorial to his faithfulness. When you look back on the experience, you will call that heavy burden, that deep sorrow, that prolonged sickness, “The Mount of the Lord,” the place where God provided.
God confirms his faithfulness by withdrawing the penalty, by providing a substitute, and…
Third, God confirms his faithfulness by renewing his promise (22:15-19). The voice from heaven comes a second time to finish the story. “15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’ 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba” (22:15-19).
First, God attributes praise to Abraham for his faithfulness: (1) “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son” (22:16); and (2) “Because you have obeyed my voice” (22:18). Now, God confirms his faithfulness by renewing his promise to make Abraham’s descendants plentiful (17a), powerful and successful (17b), and influential throughout the earth (18).
The ultimate consequence of this test is not the sparing of Isaac but the renewal of God’s promise about Abraham’s descendants. They will prosper because Abraham was obedient and faithful – he passed the test. You will never know the impact you will have on future generations because of your obedience and faithfulness.
1. God’s tests often defy our logic. They usually come when you least expect them. One day everything is great, the next your world is upside down. This is where we meet and learn about God in the extremity of our need, in the suddenness of our total dependence on him.
When everything is going well, look out for God’s test! When you’re going through it you won’t like it and it may not make any sense to you. God’s tests often appear incongruous, illogical, because our perspective and understanding are limited. God’s tests may cause you immense grief and you may even think God has abandoned you, because the darkness often obscures what we know by faith.
2. God’s tests repeatedly reveal our hearts by touching intimate, private areas of our lives, by confronting us with a choice between our dearest possessions and him, by forcing us to decide what’s most important to us, by determining where our security lies, by proving our hearts, by demanding that we give up what we love the most to put him first. God wants your heart, 100% of it. He wants you to trust him no matter what. He wants your heart because he cares for you and loves you enough to die for you.
Is your heart totally committed to God? Would you give up your dearest possessions for him? Is he first in your life? Or, does something or someone else hold first place in your heart? How deep is your love for God? When put to the test, will you come forth as gold tried in the fire? Can you truthfully say: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee”?
3. God’s tests constantly confirm his faithfulness. He is the God who turns darkness into dawn. He is the One who provides. When you can’t figure it all out, when you think everything is hopeless, when you struggle all alone, God steps in at just the right time to reveal the next step, to confirm his faithfulness, to renew his blessing.
Do you really trust him to provide for you, to bless you even when things look dark, and when your faith is tested? Remember: When your faith passes the test, God renews his blessing.
In the final analysis, God’s tests draw us closer to him because in our darkest experiences God becomes more personal and real to us, and because we hear him speak in ways we would otherwise never hear. He relieves our burden, affirms our faith, provides for us, blesses us, and renews his promises to us in ways too wonderful for us to imagine.