The Present Truth : July 2, 1896
We pass by a period of several years. The number of years we cannot tell, but Isaac, the child of faith and promise had been born, and had grown to be a young man.4 Abraham’s faith had grown stronger and more intelligent, for he had learned that God fulfills His own promises. But God is a faithful teacher, and does not allow His pupils to leave a lesson until it is thoroughly learned. It is not enough for them to see and acknowledge that they have made a mistake in the lesson that He has given them. Such acknowledgement of course ensures forgiveness; but, having seen the error, they must go over the same ground again, and possibly many times, until they have learned it so well that they can go without stumbling. It is solely for their own good. It is no kindness on the part of a parent or teacher to allow his children to pass by lessons that are unlearned, simply because they are difficult.
So “it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Genesis 22.1, 2
In order to understand what this proving meant, we must have a clear idea of what was bound up in Isaac—of what was embraced in the promise that had been made to Abraham, which was to be fulfilled through Isaac. We have already studied it, and so have only to recall the fact. God had said to Abraham, “In thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” and, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” As we have seen, the blessing was the blessing of the Gospel, the blessing which comes through Christ and His cross. But this, since God had so said, was to be fulfilled through Isaac. The promised seed, consisting of Christ and of all who are His, was to come through Isaac. Thus we see that to human sight the requirement of God seemed like cutting off all hope of the promise ever being fulfilled.
But the promise was the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ, the seed. The promise had been very explicit, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” and that seed was first of all Christ. Therefore Christ the Saviour of all men could come only in Isaac’s line. But Isaac was yet a young man and unmarried. To cut him off would be, so men would reason, to cut off all prospects of the Messiah, and so to cut off all hope of salvation. To all appearance Abraham was called upon virtually to put the knife to his own throat, and to cut off the hope of his own salvation.
4That he was not a little child, as our ideas of the word “lad,” might lead us to suppose, is evident from the fact that he was able to carry the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain. Josephus says that he was twenty-five years old, and that age is indicated by the chronology in the margin of our Bibles.
Thus we can see that it was not merely Abraham’s fatherly affection that was tried, but his faith in the promise of God. A severer test no man was ever called upon to undergo, for no other man ever could be in the same position. The entire hope of the whole human race was bound up in Isaac, and Abraham was asked apparently to destroy it with a stroke of the knife. Well might the one who could stand such a test be called “the father of the faithful.” We may well believe that Abraham was strongly tempted to doubt if this requirement came from the Lord; it seemed to be so directly contrary to God’s promise.
To be tempted, and sorely tempted, is not a sin. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” James 1.2. The Apostle Peter speaks of the same inheritance which was promised to Abraham, and says that we greatly rejoice in it, “though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations; that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ; whom having not seen, ye love; in whom though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1.6-9
These temptations cause heaviness, says the apostle. They weigh one down. If it were otherwise—if it took no effort to endure them—they would not be temptations. The fact that a thing is a temptation means that it is something, which appeals to all the feelings, and to endure which almost takes the very life. Therefore we may know, without casting the slightest reflection upon Abraham’s faith, that it cost him a terrible struggle to obey the command of the Lord.
Doubts were suggested to his mind. Doubts come from the devil, and no man is so good that he is free from the suggestions of Satan. Even the Lord Himself had to bear them. He “was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4.15. The sin does not consist in the devil’s whispering doubts in our ears, but in our acting upon them. This Christ did not do. Neither did Abraham; yet he who thinks that the patriarch started upon his journey without first having a sore struggle, must be unmindful not only of what was involved in the proposed test, but of the feelings of a father.
The tempter would suggest, “This cannot be the requirement of the Lord, because He has promised you an innumerable posterity, and has said that it must come through Isaac.” Again and again would this thought come; but it could not stand, because Abraham knew full well the voice of the Lord. He knew that the call to offer up Isaac came from the same source as the promise. The repetition of that suggestion of the tempter would only make more sure the fact that the requirement, was from the Lord.
But that would not end the struggle. A strong temptation to disregard the command would be found in his own affection for his son. The requirement probed that very deeply: “Take now thy son, thine only son whom thou lovest.” And there was the fond and proud mother. How could he make her believe that it was the Lord that had spoken to him? Would she not reproach him for following the fancies of a disordered mind? How could he break the matter to her? Or, if he should proceed to make the sacrifice without letting her know of it, how could he meet her on his return? Besides, there were the people. Would they not accuse him of murdering his son? We may be sure that Abraham had a desperate struggle with all these suggestions that would crowd upon his mind and heart.
But faith gained the victory. His time of wavering had long since passed, and now “he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God.” Romans 4.20. “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called; accounting that God was able to raise him up even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.” Hebrews 11.12-19
The whole thing, from first to last, involved the resurrection of the dead. The birth of Isaac was really the bringing of life from the dead. It was by the power of the resurrection. Abraham had once, through harkening to his wife, failed to trust God’s power to bring him a son from the dead. He had repented of his failure, but must needs be tested upon that point, to ensure that he had thoroughly learned the lesson. The result proved that he had.
The Only Begotten Son
“He that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called; accounting that God was able to raise him up even from the dead.” Note the expression, “his only begotten son.” We cannot read it without being reminded that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3.16. In Abraham’s offering his only begotten son we have a figure of the offering of the only begotten Son of God. And Abraham so understood it. He had already rejoiced in Christ. He knew that through the promised Seed should come the resurrection of the dead; and it was his faith in the resurrection of the dead, which can come only through Jesus, that enabled him to stand the test.
Abraham offered up his only begotten son, in confidence that he would be raised from the dead because God would offer up His only begotten Son. Nay, more, God had already offered His only begotten Son, “who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world,” but who had yet to be manifested. 1 Peter 1.20. And herein we can see the marvelous faith of Abraham, and how fully it comprehended the purpose and the power of God. For the Messiah, the Seed through whom all the blessings were to come to men, was to be born of Isaac’s line. Isaac was to be cut off without an heir. Yet Abraham had such confidence in the life and power of the word of the Lord that he believed that it would fulfill itself. He believed that the Messiah who was to come of Isaac’s line, and whose death alone could destroy death and bring the resurrection, and who had not yet come into the world, had power to raise up Isaac from the dead, in order that the promise might be fulfilled, and He be yet born into the world. Greater faith than that of Abraham could not possibly exist.
The Resurrection and the Life
In this we see not only proof of the pre-existence of Christ but also of Abraham’s knowledge of it. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11.25. He was the Word that was in the beginning with God, and that was God. He was the resurrection and the life in the days of Abraham as well as in the time of Lazarus. “In Him was life,” even endless life. Abraham believed it, for he had already proved its power, and he was confident that the life of the Word would bring Isaac to life in order that the promise might be fulfilled.
Abraham started forth on his journey. Three days he pursued his weary way, in which there was ample time for the tempter to assail him with all manner of doubts. But doubt was fully mastered when “on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.” Genesis xxii. 4. Evidently some sign that the Lord had given him appeared on the mountain, and he knew beyond all doubt that the Lord was leading him. The struggle was over, and he went forward to the completion of his task, fully assured that God would bring Isaac from the dead.
“And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” Verse 5. If there were not a single line in the New Testament about this matter, we might know from this verse that Abraham had faith in the resurrection. “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” In the original it is made very clear: We will go, and we will come again to you. The patriarch had such confidence in the Lord’s promise that he fully believed that although he should offer up Isaac as a burnt offering, his son would be raised again, so that they would both return together. “Hope maketh not ashamed.” Having been justified by faith, he had peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The trial of his faith had been patiently endured, for we must know that the bitterness of the struggle was now over, and a rich experience of the life that is in the Word had come to him, producing an unwavering hope.
The Sacrifice Completed
We all know the outcome. Isaac carried the wood to the appointed place. The altar was built, and he was bound and laid upon it. Here still we have the likeness to the sacrifice of Christ. God gave His only begotten Son, yet the Son went not unwillingly. Christ “gave Himself for us.” So Isaac freely yielded himself as a sacrifice. He was young and strong, and could easily have resisted or fled if he had wished. But he did not. The sacrifice was his as well as his father’s. As Christ carried His own cross, so Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice, and meekly yielded his body to the knife. In Isaac we have a type of Christ, who was “led as a lamb to the slaughter;” Abraham’s statement, “God will provide Himself a lamb,” was but the expression of his faith in the Lamb of God.
“And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing that thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering instead of his son.” Genesis 22.10-13. The son’s life was spared, yet the sacrifice was as truly and as completely made as though he had been put to death.
The Work of Faith
Let us turn to read what this transaction teaches us as to the relation of faith and works. “Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled, which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God.” James 2.20-23
How is it possible for anyone to suppose that here is any contradiction or modification of the doctrine of justification by faith as set forth in the writings of the Apostle Paul? All the Scriptures teach that faith works. “Faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5.6) is declared to be the one necessary thing. The Thessalonian brethren were commended for their “work of faith.” 1 Thessalonians 1.2, 3. So the case of Abraham is used as an illustration of the working of faith. God had made a promise to him; he had believed the promise, and his faith had been counted to him for righteousness. His faith was the kind that works righteousness. Now that faith received a practical test, and the works showed that it was perfect. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness.” This work was the demonstration of the fact that faith had justly been imputed to him for righteousness. It was faith that wrought with his works. The work that Abraham did was a work of faith. His works did not produce his faith, but his faith produced his works. He was justified, not by faith and works, but by faith, which works.
The Friend of God
“And he was called the friend of God.” Jesus said to His disciples, “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of My Father, I have made known unto you.” Friendship between two means mutual confidence. In perfect friendship each one reveals himself to the other in a way that he does not to the outside world. There can be no perfect friendship where there is distrust and restraint. Between perfect friends there is a perfect understanding. So God called Abraham his friend, because they perfectly understood each other. This sacrifice fully revealed the character of Abraham. God had said before, “I know him;” and now again He said; “Now I know that thou fearest God.” And Abraham on his part understood the Lord. The sacrifice of his only begotten son indicated that he knew the loving character of God, who for man’s sake had already given His only begotten Son. They were united in a mutual sacrifice and a mutual sympathy. No one could appreciate the feelings of God so well as Abraham could.
No other person can ever be called upon to undergo the same test that Abraham endured, because the circumstances can never again be the same. Never again can the fate of the world be bound up in a single person, and hang, as it were, in the balance. Yet each child of Abraham will be tested, because only they who have the faith of Abraham are the children of Abraham. Each one may be the friend of God, and must be such if he is a child of Abraham. God will manifest Himself unto His people, as He does not unto the world.
But we must not forget that friendship is based upon mutual confidence. If we wish the Lord to be confidential with us, we must make Him our confidant. If we confess our sins, laying out before Him in secret all our weaknesses and difficulties, then He will show Himself a faithful friend, and will reveal to us His love, and His power to deliver from temptation. He will show us how He has been tempted in the same way, suffering the same infirmities, and will show us how to overcome. Thus in loving interchange of confidences, we shall sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, and may sup together. He will show to us wonderful things; for “the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him; and He will show them His covenant.” Psalms 25.14