Abraham (3): Unquestioning Obedience to God’s Commands

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Hebrews 11:17-19

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “Growing in Faith.” We are studying Hebrews 11 together, and ever since verse 8 in this chapter, we have been especially focusing on Abraham and his faith. This makes sense because Abraham is after all called “the father of faith” and “the father of all who believe.” This is now the third section in Hebrews 11 dealing specifically with Abraham and his faith.

In verses 8-10 we saw that Abraham demonstrated his faith by following God’s leading. Abraham followed God’s leading even though he did not know where God was calling him. And then in verses 11-12 we saw that Abraham demonstrated his faith by believing God’s promise. He believed God’s promise of a son through Sarah his wife even though they were both past age for bearing children. And now here in verses 17-19, Abraham demonstrates his faith by his unquestioning obedience when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. (Read Hebrews 11:17-19 and pray)

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One of the ways you demonstrate your faith in God is by unquestioning obedience to God’s commands. Let me ask you this morning, how obedient are you to God’s commands?

People disobey God’s commands for any number of reasons. Some people disobey God’s commands out of defiance and rebellion. Others disobey God because they just don’t think or care about what God says. Some people do care about God’s commands, but they disobey from lack of knowledge; they don’t know all that God requires. Others know God’s commands, and they truly desire to obey, but they struggle because of weakness or temptation.

And then there are those who disobey God’s commands because sometimes God’s commands just do not make sense to them. They question whether obeying God’s commands is the best course of action for them, whether it is beneficial, or even necessary.

Abraham demonstrated great faith in God because he obeyed God without questioning, even when it appeared, as we shall see, that he had some very good reasons to perhaps question God. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son in response to God’s command is perhaps the ultimate example of faith and obedience, outside of Jesus of course, that we find in the entire Bible. So, let’s take a look at verses 17-19 together and see what we can learn from Abraham offering up his son Isaac to God.

I. Faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us (17a)

The first thing we learn about faith from Abraham and Isaac is faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us. Look at the beginning of verse 17 which says: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.” (Hebrews 11:17) Faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us.

   A. God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac
      – Genesis 22:1-2

A lot of people miss the point of this whole incident because they misunderstand God’s intentions. They say, “A loving God would never approve of child sacrifice.” And you know what? They’re right! God does not approve of child sacrifice, and he never has. In contrast with the false gods and idols of the other nations, God commanded the Israelites not to sacrifice their children. In fact, that was one of the reasons why God destroyed the people of Canaan and gave their land to the Israelites – because the people of Canaan did practice child sacrifice.

God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. We read from the account of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 earlier this morning. Let me just read verses 1-2 of that account again: “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. 2 Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’” (Genesis 22:1-2) God did not intend for Abraham to actually kill his own son. God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham would obey.

This word “tested” in Hebrews 11:17 is a word which means “to test or examine, to make a trial of something.” It can sometimes mean “to tempt” when used of enticing someone to do something wrong, but the Bible tells us that God never tempts anyone to do evil. God was not tempting Abraham here. He was not making the sacrifice of Isaac somehow seem good and enticing so that Abraham would fall into the trap and do the great evil of sacrificing his own son.

God was not tempting Abraham. He was testing Abraham. He was examining him. Did Abraham really love God more than anything else? Did Abraham really put God first in his life? God knew that Abraham loved Isaac dearly. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, God was testing Abraham’s devotion to himself and making a trial of Abraham’s faith and obedience.

   B. God tests us so that we may know what is in our heart
      – 1 Peter 1:7

Faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us as well. God sometimes asks us to give up that which is most dear to us in order to prove our love for him.

You might wonder, why would God do that? If God knows everything, doesn’t he already know if I truly love him? Yes, God already knows your love for him, and he even knows whether or not you will pass the test. But oftentimes we do not know, and so in many ways the test is really for our benefit. Here’s the thing. God doesn’t test us so that he will know what is in our heart. God tests us so that we may know what is in our heart.

And oftentimes it is through the very test itself, as we exercise our faith in obedience to God, that our love for God becomes actual and real. In other words, without the test we cannot truly say that we love God. Love untested and untried is love unactualized. God tests us in order to prove our love for him and our faith in him.

We read something similar in 1 Peter about facing trials in life. 1 Peter 1:7 says: “These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:7)

God asked Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. What might God ask you to give up as a sacrifice? He might ask you to give up something in your lifestyle that is displeasing to him. He might ask you to give up a personal relationship, or status, maybe even a successful career.

Many persecuted Christians have had to give up family in order to remain true to Christ. John Bunyan, the writer of Pilgrim’s Progress, was put in prison for his faith. During this time he longed to be with his wife and family. He had a little daughter who was blind, and it caused him so much pain that he could not be there to provide for her. He wrote in his journal: “I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet, thought I, I must do it, I must do it.”

Hebrews 11:17 says, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.” God must be first in our lives, and God sometimes tests us to give us the opportunity to put him first. When that happens, we must choose to obey God without questioning. That’s the first thing we learn about faith from Abraham and Isaac. Faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us.

II. Faith obeys God even when we don’t understand (17b-18)

The second thing we learn is this. Faith obeys God even when we don’t understand. Abraham could not understand why God would ask him to sacrifice Isaac, and yet he was still ready to obey God’s command. Look at verse 17 again and into verse 18: “He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’” (Hebrews 11:17-18)

   A. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his one and only son
      – Hebrews 11:17

Verse 17 describes Abraham as “he who had received the promises.” The word translated “received” here is different from the usual word for “receive” that we find in the Bible. It is a legal term that means “to undertake or assume responsibility for something,” for example, when a couple receives an adopted child into their care and keeping. Abraham had received the promises of God concerning the future generations through Isaac who would inherit the land of Canaan and become a mighty nation. He was now the caretaker or keeper of those promises. God had entrusted him with Isaac, and now Abraham was responsible to take care of Isaac and to watch over him in response to God’s promises.

But now Hebrews 11 tells us: “He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son.” These verses bring us right up to the final moment, the moment when Abraham held his hand high, firmly grasping the knife of sacrifice, ready to plunge it into the heart of his one and only son who lay there bound and helpless on the altar.

Now Isaac was not literally Abraham’s only son. Abraham had an earlier son named Ishmael, but Ishmael was not born of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. God had promised Abraham countless descendants, not through any son, but through a son born to him through Sarah. We read God’s words about this in verse 18: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”

And so, it was in this sense that Isaac was Abaraham’s one and only son. Born to him and Sarah in their old age, Isaac was the son of promise and no other. Isaac was “uniquely” Abraham’s son, which is another meaning of the phrase “one and only” in verse 17. Isaac was the son of promise, and yet Abraham, the caretaker or keeper of the promises of God, was about to sacrifice his one and only son in obedience to God’s command.

Look at what God was asking Abraham to do here. It would have been hard enough for Abraham to sacrifice any of his sons, but this was his only son through his wife Sarah. Not only that, but he and Sarah had waited many long years for the birth of Isaac. Isaac was a miracle child, born to them in their old age and despite Sarah’s barren womb. And now after all these years of waiting for Isaac, God was asking Abraham to offer him up as a sacrifice? It didn’t make any sense.

   B. Isaac was the key to the fulfillment of God’s promises
      – Hebrews 11:18

But it goes even deeper than that. God had told Abraham clearly: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” (Hebrews 11:18) And so, Isaac was the key to the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the land and the nation of Israel.

There was a real conflict here, and not just between Abraham’s love for God and his love for Isaac. No, the conflict here is that God’s command seemed to be in conflict with God’s promise. John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers, put it this way: “The things of God seemed to fight against the things of God, and faith fought with faith, and the commandment fought with the promise.”

Our conflicts of obedience usually have to do with the conflict between God’s commands and our desires. In other words, it is a conflict between what God wants and what I want. Abraham faced a far greater conflict than this. For him it was God’s command versus God’s promise! This took far greater faith for him to obey.

Now, if Abraham had the faith to obey when God’s command seemed to contradict God’s own promise, surely we can have faith to obey when God’s command merely contradicts our own desires. Think about it. Why are we so willing to claim God’s promises, but so hesitant to obey God’s commands? They both come from the same God!

   C. God calls us to obey even when we do not understand
      – Proverbs 3:5; Isaiah 55:8-9

And even in those instances when we truly do not understand, God still calls us to obey. Proverbs 3:5 says: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) God says in Isaiah 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) Who are we to question God? God knows what is best for us far better than we do.

Do you see how strong Abraham’s faith is here? “He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’” (Hebrews 11:17-18) Abraham may not have understood, but he still obeyed. Faith obeys God even when we don’t understand.

III. Faith trusts God to work out all the details (19)

What do we learn about faith from Abraham and Isaac? 1) Faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us. 2) Faith obeys God even when we don’t understand. And then 3) Faith trusts God to work out all the details. Look at verse 19 with me now: “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:19)

According to Genesis 22, Abraham and Isaac had a three-day journey to the place of sacrifice on Mount Moriah. I’m sure that gave Abraham a lot of time to think. But think as he may, Abraham could not possibly reconcile God’s promise with God’s command. Abraham did not know how God was going to work this all out. But he determined to obey God no matter what, and he trusted God to work out all the details.

   A. Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead
      – Genesis 22:5; Romans 4:17

Verse 19 says that Abraham “reasoned.” The word translated “reasoned” here is a word related to our English word for logic. It’s a word that means “to reason or determine, to calculate or judge.” It’s a word which always deals with reality. It refers to solid facts, not baseless suppositions. For example, if I “reason” or “calculate” that my checking account has five hundred dollars in it, then my checking account has five hundred dollars in it. My reasoning is based on evidence, not just a wild guess in the dark. Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. Why? Because Abraham “reasoned” that God could raise the dead.

Here’s how Abraham’s logic went. Abraham reasoned; he calculated; he ran the numbers; he did some holy math, and this is what he came up with. This is probably what he was thinking about on his three-day journey to the place of sacrifice.

  1. Isaac was the son of promise. For God’s promise to come true, Isaac must have children.
  2. At this particular point in time, Isaac was unmarried and had no children.
  3. God had now commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.
  4. If Isaac died before having any children, then God’s promise would be null and void, unless God somehow raised Isaac back to life again.
  5. Abraham believed God’s promise, and therefore he reasoned that God must have power to raise the dead.

 
Now this is remarkable faith. You have to realize, Abraham had no historical precedent for this belief. No one had ever been raised from the dead yet at this point in history. And yet Abraham reasoned his way to a belief in the resurrection simply based on the promise and the command of God concerning Isaac.

We find a hint of Abraham’s faith back in Genesis 22 when Abraham said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5) Notice that Abraham said, “We will come back to you.” Now that is astonishing. Abraham knows he is about to sacrifice his son, and yet he still tells the servants, “We will come back to you.” This statement shows that Abraham, in obeying God’s strange command, never stopped believing God’s promises.

Romans 4:17 says this about Abraham: “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17) Even though God’s promise and God’s command seemed to be in direct conflict with each other, Abraham chose to believe God’s promise and to obey God’s command. And he trusted God to work out all the details.

And you know what? God did work out all the details. Back to Hebrews 11, verse 19 concludes: “and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:19) You see, as far as Abraham was concerned, Isaac was already dead. Abraham had determined to obey God no matter what. Abraham lifted the knife, He was ready to slay his only son in unquestioning obedience to God’s command. So, when God provided the ram as a substitute for Isaac, it was just as if Abraham had received Isaac back from death.

   B. Isaac is a figure or parable of Jesus
      – Genesis 22:7-8; John 1:29, 3:16

The phrase “figuratively speaking” in this verse is actually the Greek word for parable. And in many ways Isaac is a figure or a parable of Jesus – Jesus, who was sacrificed to death and then was literally raised from the dead.

The parallels here are numerous. Abraham offered up his one and only son in obedience to God’s command. John 3:16 tells us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (the exact same word in the Greek), that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Jesus and Isaac were both obedient sons to their fathers, even unto death. Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering up the mountain to his place of sacrifice. In the same way Jesus carried the wood of the cross up the mountain to his place of crucifixion. Abraham and Isaac had a three-day journey to Mount Moriah before Isaac was figuratively raised from the dead. Jesus was crucified, buried and rose again on the third day.

Those are some of the parallels. But there is one major difference. And the major difference between Jesus and Isaac is this. In the case of Isaac, God stayed Abraham’s hand. God provided a substitute for Isaac so that he would not have to die. But when God sent Jesus into the world, he did not stay his own hand. God did not provide a substitute for Jesus, because Jesus was the substitute. God provided a substitute for Isaac so that he would not have to die. God provided Jesus as our substitute so that we wouldn’t have to die.

When Isaac asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8) God provided a ram for Isaac that day, but centuries later God provided his Son as a Savior for us. Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb?” God answered Isaac’s question when John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Author Peter Lewis writes: “The faith of Abraham may inspire us, but it is the faith of Jesus that saves us, the son who ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). There is no atonement on Moriah but on Golgotha there is a once-for-all and perfect sacrifice for sin; it was what was done there that saves Abraham and Isaac and you and me.”

We’re often asked the question from this passage: “Would you love God enough to be willing to sacrifice your only son for him?” But the good news of the gospel is that God loved us enough that he was willing to sacrifice his only Son for us.

CONCLUSION: One of the ways we demonstrate our faith is by unquestioning obedience to God’s commands. At the beginning of today’s message, I asked you a question. How obedient are you to God’s commands?

Abraham teaches us that faith and obedience go together. Faith recognizes that God sometimes tests us. Faith obeys God even when we don’t understand. Faith trusts God to work out all the details.

I challenge you to commit yourself to a life of unquestioning obedience to God’s commands. That is part of what it means to live by faith.

© Ray Fowler

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