Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 22:1-24

13 May 2001

Greyfriars Church


We've now completely run out of space in the bookcase that houses all our Christian books. Now, personally, I don't have any problem with having stacks of overspill books sitting on the floor, but not everybody in my household can cope with that. So last week, under orders, I started going through the books to see what we could get rid of.

After an hour or so (it's slow work, you understand; it's far too easy just to end up reading the books) I'd been through the 200+ books and identified a grand total of six that we could happily get rid of.

Anyway, it occurred to me that perhaps I was asking the wrong question. My approach had been to ask in each case, "Do I want to get rid of this book?" . A much better question would be to ask, "Must I keep this book?" . If I went through with that question in mind then I'd probably hold on to just a couple of dozen classics, resulting in a happy wife.

Similarly, sometimes I think we can approach the task of auditing our Christian lives with the wrong question in mind. Often we ask, "What would I be prepared to give up for God?" . We can fairly easily come up with a few likely candidates, so we pat ourselves on the backs, and congratulate ourselves for not being too worldly.

In contrast, our text tonight encourages us to ask the much more incisive question "What must I hold on to?" , or "what would I withhold from God?" .

Obviously the correct answer is "nothing", but I suspect that few of us can honestly say to God that we really would withhold nothing from him.

God tests Abraham

This is the place in which we find Abraham tonight. God is asking Abraham "what is it that you must hang on to, Abraham? What would you withhold from me?"

I'll be speaking mostly from Chapter 22 of Genesis this evening, so please turn to it now, if you're not there already.

In verse 1 of chapter 22 of Genesis, God's purpose is stated plainly, Some time later God tested Abrahamref. And that's my first heading: God tests Abraham

The nature of the test is set out in verse 2. God puts his finger on the most precious thing that Abraham has. God says Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and God says "give him to me" : go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offeringref.

There is no doubt that Isaac meant everything to Abraham. With God's reassurance Abraham had just about coped with the sending away of his illegitimate son, Ishmael in the previous chapter. But Isaac was different.

Abraham and Sarah had waited 25 years for an heir, and God had finally blessed them with Isaac. But it's more than the long wait. It's that Isaac is the evidence of God's promise to Abraham. God had promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation, and that one day all nations on earth will be blessed through him. It's a promise that God has made to him at least five times already, and it's a promise that can only be fulfilled through Isaac, Abraham's only son.

So, not only Abraham's son, whom he loved, but his future—every hope he had—was at stake here.

How would you react if God asked this of you?

The Christian singer and song-writer, Keith Green, wrestled with similar issues. In the superb biography of him written by his wife, Melody Green, she records the following incident:

When Keith was on the road alone for a few days, he wrote a prayer to the Lord:

I only pray You let me keep my wife Melody, for I need her love and help, although your grace is sufficient unto me. Please spare her to stay with me, I will give you far more love than I give her, and all my love for her is for you Jesus.

Take anything, but leave my Melody. Please God, but I am willing to suffer all loss if it is your precious will.

Melody continues, Keith returned home thoughtful. Would a tragedy cause him to lose his faith? If he wasn't willing to lay even the deepest loves of his life before God, what did that say about the roots of his faith?

When Keith told me what was bothering him, he said firmly, "I've decided that whatever it takes to get deeper with the Lord I'm going to do - even if that means praying and saying 'Lord, Melody's really yours.'"

Later on he faced the same struggle over his son, and wrote a very moving song about it on which, incidentally, Bob Dylan plays harmonica.

This is the same challenge God asks of us. The Christian life in this world is fundamentally one of sacrifice. Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save itref. It's easy to forget that, isn't it?

What is it that you would withhold from God? Could he ask you to place anything you have on the altar? That's exactly what he is doing, you know.

Abraham proved himself to God

The challenge that God put before Abraham was to place Isaac on the altar: God tested Abraham.

So what was Abraham's response? Well, as we know, Abraham proved himself to God. And that's my second heading: first God tested Abraham, and second Abraham proved himself to God.

There are two ways in which Abraham proved himself to God: he proved himself by his obedience, and by his faith.


Abraham's obedience is striking. As soon as he heard God's word, without a recorded murmur, he made his preparations and set out on the journey. Apparently at no point in the three day journey did he waver from his task: not when they left the servants; not when Isaac poignantly quizzed him; not when he built the altar and the pyre; not when he tied Isaac down to it; not when he picked up the knife to slit the boy's throat, right up until the moment when the Angel of the Lord intervened to stop him.

Which of us wouldn't have argued with God? Which of us wouldn't have railed at God, or tried to reason it out with him, or just flatly refused? "Surely, Lord, that doesn't make sense! Surely you wouldn't ask me to do that!"

It wasn't that Abraham was meek or timid. A few chapters earlier he could be found pleading with the Lord more-or-less face to face about the future of Sodom, and trying to argue him out of destroying it. But in this case, when the Lord called on him, he obeyed without hesitation.

As we see confirmed in verses 12 and 16, Abraham did not withhold anything from God. Not even his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved.

I don't want to spend too long on a digression, but I think it has to be asked whether this episode suggests that God approves of child sacrifice. After all, in this day and age Abraham would rightly have been referred to social services and Isaac taken into care.

The Old Testament makes it very clear in at least four other places that God abhors and detests the practice of child sacrifice that the pagan nations, and occasionally even the wayward Israelites undertook.

However, Abraham wouldn't have known this, would he? After all, he didn't have a Bible: none of it had been written. He came from a culture where child sacrifice was an acceptable practice. As far as Abraham was aware, God really expected him to sacrifice Isaac in Moriah.


So, Abraham proved himself to God by his obedience, but notice also that he proved himself to God by his faith. The two go together hand-in-hand, as James reminds us in James chapter 2, Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he didref.

Abraham's obedience showed his faith; Abraham's faith enabled his obedience.

There is a little clue in the story as to Abraham's faith. In verse 5 he says to the servants, we—that is, Abraham and Isaac—will worship and then we will come back to youref.

Now, it could be that Abraham just lied to them. After all, he had been rather economical with the truth in previous episodes. But I believe that Abraham really trusted that God would provide a way out of this dilemma.

Abraham knew that the God who had provided Isaac to him in his old age, and had promised him a nation of descendents would not let him down now. This is backed up by the reading we had from Hebrews chapter 11. Verse 17 says,

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.ref

So we have a dramatic insight into Abraham's thoughts: he reasoned that God could raise the dead.

On the one hand, Abraham knew and trusted God's word to him completely: that his offspring through Isaac would become a great nation.

On the other hand, he also knew that God had called him to sacrifice Isaac, and he could not disobey.

Therefore, he must have concluded, God can raise the dead. Humanly speaking, perhaps, he could see no way forward, but he knew that nothing is impossible for God. Abraham was prepared not to withhold Isaac from God, but to put him into God's hands because he knew and trusted God's word to him.

Isn't that an amazing example of faith to us? The definition of faith given in Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1 is, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not seeref. Abraham was sure of the promise that God had made to him, and certain that God would fulfill it, although he could not see how.

Humanly speaking we tend just to see problems and hinderances: but God asks us for obedience all the same. If we have faith we will see beyond those hinderances and trust that God will work things out.

Perhaps God has called you to give away some money, but you are withholding it from him because you just can't see how to make the budget balance.

Perhaps God is calling you to give your security to Him—maybe to change your career and serve him elsewhere—,but you are withholding it from him because you can't see how the future will work out.

Perhaps God is calling you to give your pride to him—maybe to humble yourself and mend a broken relationship—,but you are withholding it from him, unable to believe that it can be mended, or to proud to try.

There are many ways in which God may have laid on the various hearts of the people here tonight a challenge or a call, but humanly speaking you cannot see how it will possibly work out. This is God's test of your faith; faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not seeref. Prove yourself to God by your obedience and he will prove himself to you.

And that brings us to my third heading, God proved himself to Abraham.

God proved himself to Abraham

In the end, of course, we see that Abraham's faith was not misplaced. The Angel of the Lord dramatically intervened; Isaac was saved, and God provided a ram for the sacrifice. God tested Abraham; Abraham proved himself to God; and finally, God proved himself to Abraham.

How Abraham's faith must have been strengthened by this episode, especially when God reiterated to him his promise in verse 16.

That's how faith works, isn't it? I could equally have headed this sermon as Faith Tested, Faith Exercised, Faith Strengthened. Faith is like a muscle: it will grow as it is exercised.

Abraham's faith didn't come from nowhere, it had grown over the years: he had exercised his faith when he left his home in Haran; he had exercised his faith when he had obeyed God in the matter of circumcision; and he had exercised his faith on numerous other occasions, each and every time finding that God is faithful. So now Abraham's faith was fit and strong.

And that's a lesson for us. Be faithful in the small things so that when the big things come our way we will be strong. We are not born as Christians with an enormous faith; it grows as we practice it. So, as we read the word of God, apply it in our lives, and experience God's faithfulness, our faith will in turn grow. Be faithful in the small things, so that God can entrust you with the big things.

I love reading Christian biographies because they are full of people with great faith. Corrie ten Boom is a particular favourite. Here's a small but illustative episode from her life, one of dozens. She needs 2000 dutch guilders to fund a trip to Russia, so naturally she prayed for it.

I heard a very clear directive from God: "Give away 2000 guilders".

"Oh, no, Lord," I said, "You didn't understand. I didn't say I wanted to give away 2000 guilders. I said I needed someone to give me that amount so I could go to Russia."

After some more prayer she is convinced that she must give the money to a certain mission group with an immediate need.

I couldn't understand how anyone's need could be more immediate than my own, but I sat down and wrote a cheque to this mission group.

Of course, later that day the post arrived. Among it was a surprise advance from her publisher. "I looked at the figure. It amounted to more than I needed!"

It's marvellous what happens when faith is exercised, isn't it? And I'm certain there are many people here tonight with similar or even better stories of God's answer to their faith. Corrie ten Boom did not withhold from God when he asked of her, and God did not withhold himself from her. Abraham did not withhold from God when he asked of him, and God did not withhold himself from Abraham.

If we want to deepen our relationship with God, let us not withhold ourselves from him. Perhaps you might feel challenged by God tonight to undertake a kind of spiritual audit: not of your bookcase, but of your life. Maybe it would be appropriate to ask, "What is it that I would withhold from God?" .

If you do do this, then don't be like the rich young ruler, who, when challenged by Jesus to give his money to the poor just couldn't do it. It says that he went away sadref. Rather, let's be like Jesus' disciples, to whom he says after that incident, Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal liferef. That's faith in action.


The title that was given to this sermon was "God's Word to Abraham", so I'd better just address that for a moment.

As I mentioned earlier, Abraham didn't have a Bible, so you'll notice that God spoke to him very directly. We have an enormous advantage over Abraham, because we have an Old Testament and a New Testament. In other words, we have a complete record of God's word to us. Abraham was able to be faithful to God because he knew God; how much better can we know God since we have his word to read.

So, we find in it that, like Abraham, we have a clear and glorious promise of future hope. Ours is different from his, but all the more glorious for that: we will one day be with the Lord himself.

Unlike Abraham, in God's word, we have hundreds of accounts of God's faithfulness to his faithful people to encourage us and to challenge us.

And unlike Abraham we have in his word the demonstration that God does not ask of his people anything that he is not prepared to do himself.

I wonder if Abraham had any inkling that many centuries later God himself would be prepared to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, in order to save his people.

He did this in order to fulfil that very promise to Abraham: to bless all nations through his offspring.

God has withheld nothing from us. Let us, like Abraham, resolve to withhold nothing from God.