Sunday, April 16, 2017

THE ANGUISH THE FATHER AT THE CROSS OF THE SON

It was as if God said to us, “Look, I am going to try to make this as clear as I can so that you understand.”

Do you remember how Jesus used parables to make a point? They were stories. Jesus made up stories to illustrate a truth that he was trying to teach the people, or he told stories from his own experience. In the Old Testament, God sometimes had his prophets live an experience to illustrate a message for the people. This is especially notable with the prophet Ezekiel, who God instructed to act out several lessons so that the people of his day might see what God was trying to communicate to them.

But no greater lesson is given to us by God than that of what the patriarch Abraham experienced, and the great lesson that God teaches concerns the most important truth that we have to learn. Indeed, from the life of Abraham, there are many important lessons that we can learn, but the one I am going to tell you about today is the greatest.

The Story

Abraham had a son. The son’s name was Isaac. No son is just an ordinary son to the father, but Isaac was especially important to Abraham. He was Abraham’s only son whom he had with his wife, Sarah, and Isaac was born to him when the father was one hundred years old. We sometimes read of men and women living to very old ages in the Bible, but by the time Abraham was alive, the life-span of people was not that much different than it is for us today. Perhaps a bit longer, but not decades more. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah long after the aged couple should have been able to conceive a child together. In fact, the book of Hebrews referred to Abraham’s age at this time as being “as good as dead.”

We might say, “He had one foot already in the grave.”

But it was not only that Isaac was born to him in his old age. The baby was also the fulfillment of a very old promise that God had made to Abraham. It was long ago that God told him that he would have a son, but after the promise was made, the months when Abraham’s wife Sarah did not become pregnant became years, and the years became decades. In the end, Abraham and Sarah had given up. They no longer believed that God was going to fulfill his promise to them.

Then, to their amazement, Sarah became pregnant in her old age. Her months were completed, and she gave birth to this little infant boy. They called him Isaac. The name means laughter. Isaac brought them so much joy. It was a joy for which they waited many, many years, and then finally had abandoned the hope of reaching.

This is where today’s story begins. A happy family and a son who is the pride of his old father’s life. 

An Unexpected Twist to the Story

In the midst of this happy atmosphere, imagine the shock of Abraham when God suddenly said to him one day, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2 ESV).

These were the straightforward words that God said. We are not told if there was any kind of additional explanation given to Abraham. We have only these words. Nor do we even know if Abraham had a reply or a question of any sort. We are only told that he arose early in the morning, gathered some wood for the sacrificial fire on which he would lay his son, and then started out with his son on the three-day journey to the place God told him.

Why would God ask him to do such a cruel thing? The story has multiple applications and there are many lessons to learn, but we are going to focus on only one in this blog post. This is a story to help us to understand what it was like for God himself to allow his only son to be sacrificed on the cross of Calvary. 

The Journey to the Place of Sacrifice

For three long days Abraham traveled with his son to the place where God had instructed him to go. I am sure that he was fighting a battle in his mind during the entire journey. The battle however, was not the one that you might expect him to be having. It was not whether or not he would obey God in the task. In his mind, that task was already done. He would obey God, despite all difficulty.

Actually, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead after he had been slain (Hebrews 11:19). It was the only way that Abraham could see that God would be true to his word. Isaac was, after all, the promised son from whom a new nation was to begin, and if Abraham was to slay him, he thought that the only way that God could make this happen would be to raise the boy back to life.

This belief, I am sure, must have been some comfort to Abraham, but nevertheless, where would he find the strength to kill his own son? This was the battle of his mind. To believe God seemed not to be the battle for Abraham. That battle he had fought and won years before. But when it came right to the moment when he must do the dreaded act, how would he find the strength?

As the two, the father and the son, walked side by side in those three days, in many ways Abraham already considered the task to be done. Abraham could not bear the thought of the actual slaying of his son. It was better to consider the task complete, and wait for God to act. It was better to think past what had to be done, and think only of the promise of God. 

The Only Begotten

The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to this time. In fact, it is interesting how he puts it. He said that Abraham was “offering up his only begotten son.”

Do not those words sound familiar? One of the first verses many have learned as children is John 3:16, where those words also appear. John also speaks of someone offering up his only begotten son, but it was not Abraham.

That verse reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (monogenes).

The similarities between the two accounts are remarkable.

You will recall that Abraham had prepared for this sacrifice by bringing wood from his home. It was to be the wood upon which he would lay his only son, and after Isaac was slain, the flame would be set to it to burn the body. The text does not say how the wood was carried for the three day trip, but they did have at least one donkey with them, and I suspect that they may have had a donkey as a pack animal. There were also two other men who accompanied them. If the donkey did not carry the wood, perhaps one of these men did, or perhaps even Abraham.

However, in the very last leg of this journey, at the foot of the mountain upon which Abraham would sacrifice his son, the father did an interesting thing. The text specifically states that Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son. Isaac would carry the wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain (Genesis 22:6).

The Apostle John says that Jesus, on the day of his crucifixion, “went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull” (John 19:17). Jesus carried his own cross, at least part of the way, to his own crucifixion. 

Three Days in the Tomb

For three days, as Abraham had walked with his son, in many ways his son had already been made a sacrifice. His life had been given. It was easier for Abraham to think past the terrible act, and concentrate on God’s promise of fulfillment. For three days, the father considered his son as one dead.

For three days, the lifeless body of Jesus lay in the tomb of Jerusalem. During that time, we read of the great sorrow and even despair of his mother, his disciples, and the other people who were close to him at that time. We read how they wept and mourned the death of the one that they loved.

What we do not read about during this time is the anguish of God the Father. However, with the story of Abraham, we can at least get a small sense of what it must have been like for the Father in heaven. We could never know the sadness of the Heavenly Father, and indeed, the sorrow that Abraham must have felt is even beyond the grasp of our emotions. However, by identifying with this man Abraham, we can at least touch his grief, and by touching his grief, we may be able to sense the great depths of the grief of God.

The Silent Lamb

To continue with the story of Abraham and Isaac, Abraham put the wood for the sacrificial fire on the shoulders of his only begotten, the one who would soon be put to death. For his part, Abraham had in one hand the torch with the flame that would light the sacrificial fire. In the other hand, the knife – the curs-ed knife.

Almost beyond pity, Isaac innocently asks a question. “Father, we have the wood for the fire, and we have the torch, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

I do not know how Abraham was able to keep his composure to respond, but somehow he found the strength. “The Lord will provide the lamb,” he told his son.

I would greatly like to know what the conversation was like at the top of Mount Moriah, but all that we are told is that when they got to the top, Abraham built an altar and laid the wood in order on top of it. Then he bound his son, and placed him on the wood.

Of course, by now, Isaac knew he was the one to be sacrificed - he was to be the sacrificial lamb.

We do not read of argument or protest. There is no mention of struggle. Only that the boy was on the wood of the altar, waiting his time to be sacrificed.
In the trials leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus and after hearing the charges brought against Jesus, the high priest adjured him to answer the charges. “Why is it that you do not answer?” he said to Jesus (Matthew 26:62).
But Jesus kept silent.

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, Pilate asked him, “Where are you from?”
Jesus gave him no answer (John 19:9). 

The prophet Isaiah wrote: “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, neither did he open his mouth (Isaiah 53:7).

I think that both Isaac and Jesus already considered the act to be done. They were just waiting for it to happen. They were not living in terror of it, because in their minds, it had already happened. Like Abraham, they were instead anticipating how God the Father was going to bring them again to life. 

The Act and the Provision

On the top of Mount Moriah, Abraham reached out his hand to take the knife. The dreaded moment had come.

Then a voice: “Abraham, Abraham.”

Someone was calling his name. It was the angel of the Lord, calling to him from heaven.

“Do not harm the boy or do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, even your only son.”

Abraham lifted his eyes and saw a ram nearby. The ram’s horns had gotten entangled in a thicket. In a way that even Abraham did not know when he spoke the words to his son telling him that God would provide the sacrifice, God had indeed provided.

Abraham called the place, “The Lord Will Provide.”

He received his son alive. For three days he had considered him dead and wondered how God would bring him back to life, and now he knew. God provided a substitute. 

Jesus laid in the tomb for three days. He was dead. His life had been taken. Before he was crucified, he had explained to his disciples and to the others that he would rise from the dead, but either they did not believe it or they did not understand.

But the Father knew. He grieved for those three dark days, but on the third day, it happened. God was so eager to bring his son back to life that he sent his life to him very early in the morning on the third day – even before it was light outside. He would not wait until midday or even until later in the morning. After the required three calendar days and not a second more, Jesus rose from the dead! As Abraham took his son alive in his arms, God the Father took his Son, alive again in his arms. 

The Blood that Gives Life

But there had been a price. The blood of Jesus had been spilled. His blood was at the place where he was whipped, it was all along the Via Dolorosa as it ran from the gashes in his flesh and from the thorns cutting into his head by the spiteful crown of thorns that the soldiers had placed there. The blood of Jesus was in a dried puddle at the foot of the cross, where he hung bleeding and where the spear had pierced his side.

The life of every creature is in the blood. The Scriptures have taught us that. The blood of Jesus had been spilled. The life of Jesus had been taken.

Why? Why did God do this?

This is the story of the entire Bible. It began in the Garden of Eden, where God took the life of an innocent animal to provide a covering for the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Abel demonstrated it in the sacrificial firstling of his flock offered to the Lord. It was taught to us in the sacrifices that Noah performed after the flood, and we read of it in all of the burnt sacrifices throughout the Old Testament. We even see it in the example of Abraham and Isaac. The life is in the blood.

Our lives have been tainted by sin. We have upon us the penalty of death. Our own blood cannot save us from this death. For reasons largely unknown and not understandable to us, to purchase our lives, the blood of an innocent substitute must be found.

For us, that substitute is not the blood of the firstling of a flock of sheep. It is not a ram with his horns entangled in a thicket. It is the blood of none other than God Himself! Jesus Christ is our Redeemer!

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