Thousands of years ago a man sat in his tent deeply burdened in his heart. It would not have been obvious why to others, since he seemed to have all that anyone could desire. Yet he lacked the one thing he wanted most. This lack made everything else he had seem without value. This desire in him was a godly one -- he wanted a son. There was something good and true in his heart, at times it was as if he was walking not on this cursed land, but back in the Garden.
This evening was like that, and our Father spoke to his heart. It could truly be said of him that he lived to hear that voice. "Do not fear, Abram," he heard his beloved God speak, "I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great."
Abram almost seemed to contend with the One speaking to him when he pleaded, "O Lord God, what will you give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" As if to explain himself, Abram continued, "Behold, You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir."
God told him that, no, that would not be the case -- he would have a son. Then He took him outside, under the brilliant cloudless sky, and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be."
Abram looked at the stars as he was commanded to. He knew this was what his whole life had been leading to, and he believed.1 Years before, in obedience to his God, he had left the land of his birth. Now he was being called to trust God with his entire being. He knew this to be a commitment he could never back out of. God, who knew his heart, acknowledged Abram's faith, and He accounted it to him as righteousness.
He commanded Abram to slay and split animals in half because He wanted to enter into a covenant with him. Our God saw that He had a man that He could commit Himself to, and He did. As His presence walked through the animals, He covenanted Himself to Abram and his descendants. He promised to give them all the land from the Euphrates River to the River of Egypt.2 If He could not, He would have to be split in two like those animals.
That is the significance of the blood shed when a covenant is made -- "May what was done to the sacrifice be done to me if I do not keep it." Keeping it is more important than the covenant partner's own life. This is the nature of love, the nature of God. Had God found a man who would respond to such steadfast, covenant love with a corresponding devotion of his own? God staked everything that He had. He had faith His love would reach that man's heart, and through him, his descendants.
Abram lived in a wicked world, much like today, and many men lived in the deepest moral darkness. They would even take their own sons, and in delirious, ecstatic worship, take their lives. The fathers experience the profoundest of religious feelings at the agony and bitterness of their sacrifice, and they would be forever changed by what they had done. This behavior persisted throughout the ancient world. The reality of Abram's faith would be demonstrated to such a world, and our God prepared him many years for that test. He had to know He had a man after His own heart. This was the only way for the world to know what He was like.
Before God gave the son He had promised him, He gave Abram a new name. It was Abraham, meaning father of a multitude. At the command of his God, Abraham circumcised his whole household and even himself, at 99 years of age. He did it the same day God had commanded him to because he truly had believed God that starry night. The faith he had caused him to be obedient. He knew his God as El Shaddai, the mighty God, the One who is able to do what He promises.3 On his part, Abraham walked before God blameless in all his ways.
He raised his son Isaac with diligence, disciplining and training him in love, because his heart was turned toward him. His innermost being, his will, his secret thoughts and intents, all that Abraham was, was focused on raising up this son to be the kind of man God could use. Everyone could see that it wasn't just Abraham's flesh that had been circumcised -- it was his heart. Isaac made the natural response to such love: he turned his heart towards his father so completely that pleasing him was more important than anything. Abraham honored the words of his God every day, "For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him."4
There was a final bonding to take place between father, son, and their God. Testing him one day, God called out, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." God said to Abraham, "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you." What a test this was; his beloved son, and the seed through which the promise was to come about. This act took the utmost faith, and because Abraham had faith, he immediately obeyed. It was no principle or fear of punishment that compelled Abraham, it was his faith.
Abraham knew the reality of sacrifice. He knew exactly what to expect. He was keenly aware of the great mercy of God in the provision of sacrifice. He knew a life had to be offered as a substitute for the sinner's life. Many times he had leaned his entire weight on the sacrifice he was offering, the best, most precious lamb in his flock. He had often nearly fallen with it when its life was spent; its blood spurting out with each heartbeat, splattering him, and slowly soaking into the ground. It was a blood sacrifice.
Isaac was surely that lamb, and now it was time for the supreme sacrifice. Would he serve his God with the same zeal as other men served their fallen gods? He thought of the many times he had taken the finely honed knife in hand and slit the animal's throat. This time it would be his own son's throat he would lay hold of, to steady it for the deadly blow. His precious faith, which had endured many trials, did not waver when he went up the mountain with his son. He believed in his heart that God would raise him from the dead.5 That was his hope for his son and for the promise, for there was no doubt that he would do exactly as he had been commanded.
We can but wonder what went on in Abraham's heart when his son asked him, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" The Spirit of God was on him, in his moment of purest suffering and purest faith, when he said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." In this he prophesied, but in his heart he knew God had given him this life and this promise, and God could take it away.
His son willingly submitted to being bound and placed on the altar like the helpless lamb he was. His love towards his father did not falter, even when he stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay him. The highest, purest sacrifice was already accomplished in their hearts, and it was a sweet aroma in heaven. As Abraham raised his knife for the slashing blow that would rip his son's throat apart, the angel of the Lord cried out in an urgent voice, "Abraham, Abraham!"
And as he had all his life, Abraham answered with faith, saying simply, "Here I am." And he stayed his hand, to see what his God would say to him. "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me."
Abraham looked up, gratitude nearly bursting his heart, tears coursing down his face, and taking the ram caught in the thicket, the substitute for the life of his son, he received Isaac back as though from the dead. His joy was that great because God, the great God, had united the hearts of father and son in an unbreakable bond, greater than death itself. The love of God had changed a man's heart, and through him, his son's. On that day the true nature of faith was established. And for all time it was established what the seed of Abraham would be like. So God renewed and expanded His covenant with Abraham, and He swore by Himself to bring it about. God had been touched by the heart of a man.
Two thousand years later, at that very spot, another sacrifice took place. Like Abraham and Isaac, the father and son involved were totally willing. This Father had to look on while cruel, mocking hands, prepared His son for slaughter, as Abraham had once lovingly prepared Isaac. But this time there was no substitute because this sacrifice was the substitute for all men. This Father had to look away and He had to endure a keener pain than Abraham could know. His son took the sins of the whole world upon Him, and actually became detestable to His Father. The righteousness of God demanded that He turn away, and His son died of a broken heart.
Their suffering could not end at death either, for the Son had to endure the agony of death three days and three nights.6 But at last the ransom for all men was paid, and God, His Father, had to righteously raise Him from the dead, for it was impossible for death to hold Him any longer. The power of death had been broken. What joy there was in heaven!
What Abraham and Isaac had given as a type, God the Father and the Son had to fulfill. For without this sacrifice, the promise to Abraham could not be fulfilled. God needed a people whose hearts He could inscribe with His laws, especially that they would command their children after them, just as Abraham did. The New Covenant, initiated in the blood of Christ, made this possible. But the goal is unchanging, that the hearts of the fathers would be so turned towards their children that they would be just like Abraham and Isaac, as they were just like the Father and the Son. This is what it means to be in the covenants of promise Paul spoke of.7
What has to be understood is that this bond will only happen in the same way it did for Abraham and Isaac -- by sacrifice. Not the literal sacrifice they were called to, but the spiritual sacrifice that is as real as what they did, and what the Father and the Son did. The Son made this abundantly clear, but only the sheep see it. Sheep go willingly to the sacrifice; it is their nature,
If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wished to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
The seed of Abraham, wherever they are, will hear the voice of their Master in these words, and willingly lose their lives for His sake, and for the sake of His gospel.8 Something deep in them understands sacrifice. And in this wicked day where discipline is called evil, and permissiveness is called good, they are the only ones who will be able to raise up children like Isaac. They will not fear the disapproval of a wicked society, for the God of Abraham will be their shield and their very great reward.9