In last week’s sermon concerning the growth of the faith of Abraham leading up to the birth
of his long-awaited son, I mentioned in his story that his greatest test for him was yet to come. It is that test that we are going to look at this week.
As we also saw last week, Abraham, the man in the Bible who is presented to us as the personification of great faith, failed with trusting God in several ways. His faith stumbled. It was God who remained steadfast.
As you remember, despite the laughter of both Abraham and Sarah at the idea that they could have a child at their respective ages of one hundred years old and ninety years old, God had promised them that they would indeed have a son, and in fact, they should name him “Laughter” (Isaac). Then, as we read on in the text, we see these words:
Now the LORD attended to Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised. (Genesis 21:1-2 BSB)
Please especially notice in these verses that they specifically say that the son was born to this couple “at the very time God had promised.” This is important not only because it demonstrates the faithfulness of God, but also because of its prophetic implications.
And now the laughter of disbelief at the promise one year earlier, turned into a laughter of joy for this old man and wife. Sarah expressed this when she said, “God has made me laugh, and everyone who hears of this will laugh with me. Who would have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Imagine the confirmation of faith that it was for man and wife when Isaac was born. It was the fulfillment of a decades-old promise of God for them—decades of waiting and wondering, decades in which there were doubts and delays, and decades in which God thought it necessary to reaffirm repeatedly the promise to Abraham numerous times.
But now Isaac had come—the child of promise. He was the fulfillment of the covenant of God to Abraham that he would make of him a great nation who would be a blessing to every nation. This nation could now begin. It could begin through this child of promise, through Isaac.
The Greatest Test
If at any level you were able to image the satisfaction for Abraham and Sarah in receiving this baby of theirs and watching him grow into a young boy, try now to imagine the word of God that came suddenly to Abraham one day: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you” (Genesis 22:2).
It seems not to make sense. Why would God go to so much trouble and go through so much preparation of Abraham to receive this long-awaited son, only to then have him sacrifice the boy on an altar?
But if Abraham had doubts at these words of God, we are told of none. The only words that we read are that “Abraham got up early the next morning, saddled his donkey, and took along two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had designated.”
This is not the Abraham that we saw earlier. Earlier we saw an Abraham who, when receiving a word from God, expressed doubt at what God told him.
We saw an Abraham, who when the Lord had earlier tried to give him assurances, replied, “O Lord GOD, what can You give me, since I remain childless...Behold, You have given me no offspring, so a servant in my household will be my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3).
Earlier we saw an Abraham who, by his actions in having a child through a servant girl, was expressing doubt in the words of God. We saw an Abraham who earlier even laughed at the word of God when God told him that even at one hundred years old, Abraham would become a father.
However, at the word of God that came to him telling him to offer up this long-awaited son of promise, we hear of no doubt. We only hear that Abraham set off to do what God told him, and set off without hesitation.
Having Faith Does Not Mean We Stop Thinking
All of this does not mean that Abraham had become a man blind to reason. It does not mean that he did not think through the process of what God was telling him. We do not know all of Abraham’s thoughts as he set out to obey what God had given him to do, but we do have some insight into his thinking given to us in the New Testament book of Hebrews.
In that passage we learn that Abraham believed that Isaac was indeed the child of promise and that the promised nation was to rise from him. Abraham also knew that God must have a plan in mind of which he was unaware. Thinking about what this plan might be, Abraham “reasoned” that after he had sacrificed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead—it was the only way that Abraham could see that God could fulfill his plan to raise a nation from this promised son.
As it turns out, it did not happen in that exact way. As we learn from the account, as Isaac lie on the altar and on top the wood that was to be used for the fire, and as Abraham took the knife with which he was going to slay his son, and angel from the Lord called his name to stop him.
The angel then said to him, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me” (Genesis 22:12 BSB).
Then, as Abraham looked behind him, he saw a ram that had gotten caught in the thicket. Abraham saw this ram as a provision for the sacrifice in place of his son, and so completed his act of worship to the Lord. Seeing this provision of the Lord, he commemorated the moment by calling that place “The LORD Will Provide.”
Then again Abraham heard the voice of the angel from heaven. The angel spoke to him the words of the Lord, again confirming the covenant that God had made with Abraham:
By Myself I have sworn, that because you have done this and have not withheld your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will multiply your descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will possess the gates of their enemies. And through your offspring all nations of the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice. (Genesis 22:16-18 BSB).
Obedience to the Greatest Test
The events on that mountain were a test. They were a test to determine the depths of the faith of Abraham. Would he, has he had in the past, stumble in his faith and attempt by his own means to fulfill what God had said? Or would he simply obey, and trust that God’s promises would remain true, despite all outward indications that what God said could not possibly come to pass.
One perhaps would think that the long promised birth of Isaac to a ninety-year-old woman would be enough to give Abraham all the assurances that he would need to have the faith that God could always and would always fulfill his word. But with the sacrifice of this same promised son, God was now requiring Abraham to act on that faith.
Faith in God is not actually confirmed until it is seen in our actions. One can declare that he has faith in God, but still nevertheless work his own methods to bring about the ends that God promised that he will accomplish. One can allege that he has faith in God, but still place his confidence for his security in his bank account. One can believe that he has faith in God, but even that person himself will not know his level of faith until it is tested.
The events on the mountain on that day were a test for the faith of Abraham. They were a test to see if he would act on the faith he professed. In the past, even though Abraham believed God, he failed in this crucial part of his faith to act according to his belief. He had stumbled.
Now however, with his obedience on the mountain to the word of God, his faith had been regained. It was not only regained, but it was also immediately rewarded. Even though Abraham’s thought that after he had sacrificed his son, God would raise Isaac from the dead was not the way that it happened, God rewarded Abraham's faith by providing a substitute sacrifice for Isaac. Abraham's belief that God would return his son to him was proven true.
It is as the writer of Hebrews also puts it, by God doing what he did, “In a sense, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death.”
On the mountain that day, God not only provided the sacrificial animal, but he provided for Abraham a confirmation of the redemption of his faith. After years of stumbling in his faith, Abraham would stumble no more.
What is faith? How do we know that we possess faith? Faith is not a tangible object that we can hold in our hands and describe. Any definition that we can put to the word will always remain a little vague. Also, determining the level of one’s faith is a difficult proposition.
We look the word up in the dictionary and we may agree with the definition, but it still remains a little shapeless and ethereal. The dictionary says, “Belief and trust in and loyalty to God. Belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.”
It’s true, that is what faith is—belief in God. But is your belief in God enough to make you have a confidence in living, a confidence that those without faith do not have? When difficulties come, do you nervously and fearfully try to manipulate matters by your own schemes as Abraham did in his earlier years? Or, like Abraham in his later years, does your level of faith in God also cause you to be obedient to what God is telling you to do, and then patient to see how he is going to work things out?
Abraham first believed God, but he still feared for his life while in foreign lands. His faith was not strong enough to allow him to rest in the Lord. Because he was afraid God could not protect him, Abraham told the foreign kings that his wife Sarah was his sister, putting her in a compromising position.
It was only after many years of walking with God that, as Abraham stood over his beloved son on the altar and reached out his hand to take the knife, that Abraham he showed a true and matured faith. It was there that he was willing to act in the way God had told him, and simply trust the outcome to the Lord. He may have considered how God would act, but he did not attempt to use his own scheming to try and work the outcome according to his own doing. At this stage of the life of Abraham, he had learned to trust God, and to obey.
The instructions from God were quite clear, and it is impossible to go half-way in a sacrifice. There is no room for shady lies about your wife being your sister, or manipulation of events. In a sacrifice, either one must obey, or disobey.
On the mountain, Abraham obeyed. It was because of his obedience that he learned that, despite all grim predictions about what the outcome may be, God will provide. Jehova-Jirah.
A Biblical Definition of Faith
Like our dictionaries, the Bible also gives a definition of faith.
Here it is, found in Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of what we hope for and the certainty of what we do not see.”
It a good and accurate definition, but like the dictionary definition, when we walk away from it, it is a little difficult to see what it actually means. That is why, in that chapter of Hebrews, the writer gives several examples of the lives of people who had learned how to live with their very lives defined by faith.
Sometimes you may hear someone refer to this chapter of the Bible as “The Faith Hall of Fame.” I have never liked this description, because the one thing that each of the people mentioned were not seeking was fame. They cared not for the world, or for any recognition that the world could give. Super bowl rings or Oscar awards would have meant nothing to them. As the text reads, “They acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”
Of those people of faith that are mentioned in that chapter of the Bible, prominent among them are Abraham and Sarah:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, without knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
By faith Sarah, even though she was barren and beyond the proper age, was enabled to conceive a child, because she considered Him faithful who had promised. And so from one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8-12 BSB)
It is a good tribute to this couple of faith. The incidents of stumbling have been forgotten, but the lessons that the stumblings provided have not. That which remains in their eulogy is their faith.
Our Own Legacy
If the writer of Hebrews were to write of your faith, what would he say? Like Abraham and Sarah when their son was born, many of us are also in the “twilight of our years.” That is the way we talk these days. We don’t like to say as the writer of Hebrews said of Abraham, “as good as dead.” Nevertheless, if you are in the twilight of your years, perhaps you think that the time is long past when you could accomplish anything for the Lord and to grow in your faith.
If that is your thinking, read again the story of Abraham and Sarah. God reserved the very best part of the tribute for their lives until the very end. It may be a new thought for you, but the best part of your life may still be ahead of you as well.
We do not need to finish our days of walking on this earth simply trying to exist by living from one personal health crisis to another pandemic crisis. We do not need to use our last years by endlessly trying to argue and fight with anyone who does not share our particular political view. It all accomplishes nothing. The life that God gives us is greater than that.
Would you not rather work for something that will have eternal value?
The writer of Hebrews, after reviewing and giving us the examples of the lives of faithful men and women who have gone on before, next says this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2 BSB).
That same writer also tells us this: “Do not throw away your confidence, for it holds a great reward. You need to persevere, so that after you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised. For, ‘In just a little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay’” (Hebrews 10:35-37).
When will he come? More on that next week.