Dear Radio Friends,
It must have been a quiet journey as Abraham, his son Isaac, and two young servants made their way to Mt. Moriah. God told Abraham to take with him his son Isaac for the purpose of offering a sacrifice to Him in the mountain. Abraham left the two young men at the foot of the mountain while he and Isaac proceeded alone. Abraham placed the wood for the sacrifice on the back of this only son of his and Sarah’s old age. He himself took the fire for the sacrifice and a knife.
I say the journey must have been quiet because Abraham had a heavy heart. You see, the sacrifice he was told to offer was that of his own son. God commanded him to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham would have to lay Isaac on an altar, slay him with the knife, light the fire under him, and burn him on that altar. Abraham did not rebel against God. This was his God whom he loved, the God who had entered into covenant with him. Abraham knew that God loved him too and would not require anything of him that was not for his good. So Abraham obeyed, believing that God could raise his son from the dead if he so willed.
What made Abraham’s burden the greater was that somewhere along the way Isaac innocently asked his father: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham could only answer his son with the words, “God will provide a lamb.”
No doubt, by the time the altar was made and the wood spread under the altar ready to be kindled, Abraham revealed to Isaac that he was to be the sacrifice. Isaac lay quietly upon the altar while his father raised the knife into the air in order to plunge it into the heart of his beloved son. It was then that the voice of the angel of God was heard from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him.” This had been a test of Abraham’s faith. He had been led by that faith to obey. Now the angel said, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.”
Abraham then lifted up his eyes, saw a ram caught by his horns in a bush, and taking it he offered the ram instead of his son.
This is the event to which the writer to the Hebrews refers in the passage we consider today in Hebrews 11:17-19. We read, “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.”
As in all the accounts recorded in Hebrews, our attention is drawn by these verses to the faith of Abraham. We need to consider his faith but that in connection with the promises spoken of here. You see, Abraham received certain promises from God. These promises, as we will find, were promises of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant relationship of love and fellowship with Abraham contained promises. It was one of these promises that made this act of Abraham doubly difficult! We examine this account of Abraham’s faith from that point of view therefore.
I. Received Promises
The writer to the Hebrews emphasizes in verse 17 that Abraham received from God promises. In verse 13 of Hebrews 11 we learn that the early saints died not having seen these promises fulfilled.
Also of significance is what we read of all of God’s saints in the Old Testament in verse 39 of this chapter: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.” In the New Testament Peter speaks of that same promise on the day of Pentecost: “For the promise is to you and to your children….” In fact, reference is made repeatedly in both Old and New Testaments to the promise or the promises. What are these promises? They are the promises God gave to those with whom He established His covenant. In the case of our text they are the promises made to Abraham when God established His covenant with him. One of those promises was that Abraham and his children would inherit the land of Canaan. The other one is found in Genesis 22: I will multiply your seed as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. These were promises that God gave to Abraham in connection with the covenant God established with him.
There are other promises God gave His people too in connection with His covenant as time went on. As God establishes His covenant with His people throughout the ages, different promises are given. But those two promises given to Abraham are of special significance to our text and to the church of Jesus Christ.
But before we speak of this we need to understand that God’s covenant and the promises of the covenant are not synonymous. We must differentiate between the two of them. They are related but not the same. If we confuse the two of them we make of God’s covenant an agreement. God promises to fulfill His end of the agreement, conditioned on whether man fulfills His side of the agreement. But that is not God’s covenant. God’s covenant is a relationship of friendship. It is a bond by which God ties to Himself His chosen people in Christ. It is a relationship of love and favor by which God pours out His blessings upon those He binds to Himself. Because of this relationship God gives certain promises to the people of His covenant. These promises or blessings of God’s covenant are not contingent on what man does. They do not depend on man’s faith or obedience.
This does not mean that God’s elect people with whom He establishes His covenant do not have a part in that covenant. Remember, God works in us by His love so that we love Him too. The Spirit of Christ dwells in the hearts of believers and they joyfully and willingly walk in God’s ways. We, as our Baptism Form teaches us, are obliged to lead a new and holy life. That is our part in the covenant. We share in God’s fellowship with us. As God delights in us, so also we delight in God. Because God is our God and He has bound us to Himself, we reveal our love for and thankfulness to God by keeping God’s commandments. God commanded Abraham to offer up his son as a sacrifice. Abraham believed God and willingly walked in God’s command.
Now, we mentioned that there were two important promises God gave Abraham when establishing His covenant with Abraham. The first is that Abraham’s children would inherit the promised land, the land of Canaan. But that earthly land of Canaan was only a typical or earthly picture of the true promise of God to Abraham and his children. God’s promise to all believers in Abraham is that He will bring all the members of His covenant into the promised inheritance of heaven. Canaan was a type of heaven. It is evident from verses 10 and 16 of Hebrews 11 that Abraham and the Old Testament saints looked forward to that inheritance, the same one we look forward to today. God yet promises that to us today.
The second promise of the covenant God made with Abraham is that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him. Because this was true, his seed would be as the stars in the sky for multitude. The nation of Israel that entered and subsequently developed in Canaan was huge—millions of people strong. But again, this is merely a part of the picture. The real promise of God to Abraham is that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in Abraham’s seed. In other words, God would gather His chosen people from out of all nations. Abraham would be the father of all these because all these people would be characterized by the same faith as Abraham. This promise includes far more than merely Jewish people. It includes believers today too since we are the sons of Abraham by faith. Abraham is the father of all who believe! He is our father!
These promises to Abraham become a reality because there is really only one central promise of the covenant. All the promises that we have mentioned are wrapped up in that one central promise made to Abraham and his children. That promise was this: God would send into this world one born of the seed of Abraham that would save him and his elect children from their sins! Read verse 18 of Hebrews 11: “Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” Now, it may seem as if this refers simply to the truth that Isaac and his children would be the heirs of the covenant. That is true! But then we read Galatians 3:16: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” Christ was the central promise of the covenant! “In Christ,” Paul explains in II Corinthians 1:20, “all the promises of God are yea, and Amen.”
As we well know, God has kept His promise to send His Son to earn salvation for all believers. If He had not, all the other promises would fall to pieces. They would mean nothing. As we explained last week, God is our God and we are His people only for the sake of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross! That promise of the coming of the Savior made to Abraham and his children is still made to the believing children of Abraham today. Except now we look for the fulfillment of that promise in the second coming of Jesus Christ, when He will usher in for us that eternal land of Canaan.
What beautiful promises God gives to His people! Believers are the people of God whom God sees in Christ, chosen from eternity to be His people. With us God dwells, and His promises to us are sure. Just as God for Christ’s sake will never sever His covenant bond with us, so also every promise God makes is unbreakable and sure! God will never leave us or forsake us! He is our God unto all eternity.
II. Tested Faith
Abraham believed that. By faith, when he was tried or tested by God, Abraham willingly offered up his only begotten son. Faith is of that kind of character. Faith clings to God and to Jesus Christ. Faith never clings to self. Faith trusts God. Faith knows God and places confidence in God alone. This is true because, you see, faith at root is itself a bond. When the Spirit of Christ works in the heart of one of God’s elect, then He grafts that sinner into Christ. Whereas before he was saved he was lost in sin and unbelief, now he is grafted into Jesus Christ and becomes alive with Christ’s life. He is as a dead branch grafted into a live vine so that the life of the vine flows forth into that branch making it alive too.
But this faith always comes to fruition in the heart and life of a believer. In other words, faith is not simply a work of God’s grace on a person. God works faith in a person and, because he/she is a rational creature, his/her mind is activated, so to speak. In other words, faith is that work of Christ in a man or woman, or child for that matter, by His Spirit, by which that person’s understanding is opened and he comes to know God. Not that he knows God in the same sense that the unbeliever can know all about God and Jesus Christ. But in the sense that the believer comes to know God intimately as his God, the God of his salvation, the God who loves him, the God who has entered into covenant with him. Because this knowledge now dwells in him, the believer also places his complete confidence in him. He trusts God and he trusts his Savior Jesus Christ.
That is the faith that characterized Abraham. He believed in God. He knew God and he knew the promises God had given him. He knew he was one of God’s children for the sake of that Messiah to come and that nothing would separate him from God’s love for him. So much did he trust God that he believed that if God required him to sacrifice his son, God would still be faithful to his promise that “in Isaac shall his seed be called.” Abraham believed that God would fulfill that promise. In faith therefore Abraham also clung to this knowledge: God would be able to raise his son from the dead in order to fulfill that promise. Notice verse 19 of our text, “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.” Abraham believed in the resurrection of the dead! He believed that with God all things are possible. God promised him—and God never goes back on His promises—God promised him that in Isaac that seed would come who would save him and all of God’s people from sin. The real trial or test of Abraham’s faith, therefore, was not that he was told to kill his own son. The real trial of his faith was that if Isaac died, so also the promised Messiah would not be born!
But Abraham, by God’s grace, believed. And I say by God’s grace because by God’s grace alone Abraham had the will to do of God’s good pleasure. God works that in us. Faith was not a work of Abraham, that’s for sure. If it were, that faith would have failed the test God had now placed before him. Faith always draws us away from ourselves. Faith always looks at God and Jesus Christ. By the power of God Abraham was able to raise that knife to kill his son. God would fulfill His promise in Isaac! He would! God can raise from the dead! As horribly painful as it was, Abraham put his heart to fulfill the will of God.
Ah, to be characterized by that faith! What do I do when God tests my faith? When God’s Word tells me to do something that goes against what I want, will I in faith say, I will follow my God? When I am faced with the hardest of circumstances in my life, will God work in me by His grace that I might confront them with quiet, brave endurance? Of course we will, fellow believers! When God works faith in the heart of His chosen children and then tests that faith, it is only to strengthen us in that faith.
In faith Abraham obeyed God. Obedience: that was the test of His faith. The fruit of faith is works of obedience to God.
But here is the point of the writer to the Hebrews: look at the faith of Abraham and follow it! Abraham believed in God, and God counted it to him for righteousness! Know God and His Son and trust in them! Then walk in the way of obedience before Him, denouncing your own will and following after that which is good and acceptable in God’s sight. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up his only begotten son accounting that God was able to raise him up. God will always keep His promises to us. We can be sure of that because He has kept the one central promise of His covenant: Christ has redeemed His people from sin.
III. Prefigured Christ
Now, there is a phrase at the very end of our text that is not very easy to interpret. There have been given a number of legitimate explanations to it. But I believe that its meaning is clear enough: Abraham offered up Isaac, believing that God could raise him from the dead, “from whence also he received him in a figure.” Or, “from whence Abraham received Isaac in a figure.” At first I thought that this referred to the ram that Abraham now sacrificed in the stead of Isaac. The ram was substituted in the place of Isaac and was a picture of Isaac. Its true, of course, that the ram itself is a picture of the blood that needed to be shed to cover sin. But this does not explain the idea that Abraham received Isaac, not the ram, in a figure. The meaning is rather that this whole incident involving the offering up of Isaac was itself a figure, a type that speaks to New Testament believers of Christ. Isaac was received by Abraham as a picture that pointed him, and we with him, to the work Jesus Christ accomplished for us on the cross. Examine this event. Whom was Abraham called to offer as a sacrifice to God? Abraham’s only-begotten son, Isaac. Whom has God offered up for the people of His covenant as a sacrifice for sin? His only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
And though Isaac’s blood itself was not shed, his being a sacrifice is significant. God offered His only-begotten Son on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. There Christ shed His blood to cover our sins. God declared us righteous on account of Christ’s sacrifice. Furthermore, by His sacrifice Christ destroyed the power of sin and Satan for us. This He accomplished in order that through His sacrifice God might maintain the covenant established with His elect people who are in Christ.
And again, though this did not take place with Isaac because God stopped the hand of Abraham, nevertheless Abraham believed that God could raise his son from the dead. This is exactly what took place with Jesus Christ. As we in faith behold His work performed for us, we know and are confident that God has indeed raised His Son from the dead for our benefit. So, here too we find this whole account a figure of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. What wonderful promises God has given His people for Christ’s sake. How thankful we are for the blessed truth that for Christ’s sake we are ever preserved in that covenant. God is our God. He promises He will never leave us. In faith we cling to that promise just as did Abraham. We look for God yet to fulfill that final promise that Christ will come again and bring us, the seed of Abraham, into that promised land.