The account of Hebrews 11 now turns our attention once again to Abraham and an event that took place later in his life. God had given to Abraham and Sarah a son as he had promised. One son, Isaac. In Hebrews 11:17-19 we learn of a command that God had given his servant regarding Isaac, his son. We read there: “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.” Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born.
At the time God commanded him to offer up Isaac he was anywhere between 110 to 115. This is a calculated guess, of course, because Isaac was probably a boy of anywhere between 10 and 15 years of age. He is called a lad—a boy—in Genesis 22, but the Hebrew term for this can also refer to a young person. Be that as it may, Isaac was old enough at this point to carry a bundle of wood that Abraham placed upon him.
Isaac, as we will find, was the sole heir of God’s covenant with Abraham and its promises. Once more in our text we are faced with the specific promises God gave to Abraham and now also to Isaac. We will need to make reference to them again today, but we will attempt to be brief regarding them. These verses definitely point the church of the New Testament to the importance of God’s covenant in the line of generations.
What we have here in this passage of Hebrews is a test or trial that God places before Abraham. Now, I realize that whenever God sends us affliction or some burden that we are called to bear, it is a test of our faith. God’s children receive many such trials in this life. We know that well from our own personal experience. Most of us as listeners can ourselves point to a particular trial through which God has led us in our own lives. But the writer to the Hebrews points us to a direct command of God that He used to put Abraham’s faith to a very difficult test. “Abraham, take your son Isaac and offer him up on an altar as a sacrifice to me. Take your knife in hand, slay your son, and burn him on an altar to show your faith in Me.” That is quite the command of God to this old man and his only son. God truly put Abraham to the severest of tests!
I. The Event
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 had 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. As in all the accounts recorded in Hebrews, our attention is drawn by these verses to the faith of the Old Testament believers. We need to consider his faith, but that in connection with the promises spoken of here. We do so in connection with one specific promise of God’s covenant. As we have already found a number of times, God gave several promises to Abraham. These were the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham. But this one specific promise of God to Abraham made this act of Abraham doubly difficult!
As we well know, God had already at this point established His covenant with Abraham. He spoke of it several times: “I will establish my covenant with thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant.” We take note that in this covenant God told Abraham that He would be the God not only of Abraham but of his children after him in his generations. That is important. Throughout the history of His church, God establishes His covenant in the line of the generations of believers. When God grafts His people into His church and covenant, then He continues to be the God of the children of those whom He grafts in. God told Abraham as the father of believers, “Abraham, I will make you exceedingly fruitful! I will multiply you exceedingly! Nations of people will be born of you.” According to this promise, we found, God gave to Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age. Only one son, Isaac. Their hopes and dreams were set on this one son. Out of him God would fulfill His covenant promise. Out of Isaac God would call his seed. God would multiply Abraham exceedingly, He would make Abraham exceedingly fruitful by means of this one son given to Abraham and Sarah. No other sons would be given this privilege—only Isaac. Out of him would be born the seed of the covenant; out of him would be born the church. That was God’s promise to Abraham that made this particular test God placed on Abraham so, so difficult!
But there was one more promise that made this test of Abraham’s faith even more difficult. All the promises God gave to Abraham were in reality only one central promise of the covenant. That promise to Abraham and to all of God’s people is 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! We learn of that promise in Hebrews 11:18: “in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” It may seem as if this simply refers 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 God would fulfill His promise to save Abraham, Isaac, and their elect children.
This means that the promise of the coming Messiah was wrapped up in Isaac. Not only in his birth. It was vital to the accomplishment of God’s promise of salvation that Isaac grow up and have children of his own. If he did not, Christ would not be born. So the promise that Abraham received of God in Isaac was that, through this son, God would provide a Savior who would save His people from their sin. God would not share His love and fellowship with us His church today unless Christ is born. If Isaac was not born, Christ would not be born and there would be no salvation from sin. This was the test or the trial of faith that was placed before Abraham. The writer to the Hebrews emphasizes this point: Isaac was the only begotten son of Abraham and Sarah. God gave them no other children. If Abraham now put Isaac to death, then God’s promise that Abraham and Sarah would be exceedingly fruitful would not come to pass. But worse, if Abraham slew Isaac, then Christ would not be born! God’s covenant itself depended, from a human point of view, on the life of Isaac.
II. Why He Did It
The writer to the Hebrews now points out that, by faith, when Abraham was tried or tested by God, he 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, as we have found, faith at its 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. 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 man is a rational creature, his mind is activated, so to speak. Faith is that work of Christ in a man, woman, or child 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. Rather, it is 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. Not only, therefore, does a man in faith come to know God, but his will is set free from the bondage of sin. A man’s will is activated by the power of the Spirit in him. This is why with the knowledge of faith comes confidence. A person’s desire is toward God and he learns to trust this God in whom he believes.
Such faith 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. So much did Abraham 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 thy 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—that in Isaac the Seed would come who would save him and all of God’s people from sin.
But Abraham, by God’s grace, believed. And I say “by God’s grace” because it was by God’s grace alone that 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 here placed before him. Faith always draws us away from ourselves. Faith always looks at God and Jesus Christ. Through the work of the Spirit in his heart, 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.
Faith always reveals itself in obedience. Faith is not itself obedience, but the fruit of faith is indeed obedience. If Abraham would have fled before God’s face and refused to do His will, he would have failed this trial God placed before him. Would Abraham have been rejected of God for this failure? Of course not! Abraham’s salvation did not depend on what he did. With God there is always plenteous forgiveness. God would not now have cast away this servant with whom He had established His covenant and to whom He had given the promises. But then, we must also understand that this faith of Abraham was not his own either. God worked this faith in Abraham’s heart. God also sustains that faith. Abraham did not stumble at this point, because God was leading him and directing him by His Spirit and grace. God always and ever remained faithful to His covenant and the oath He swore to Abraham. We extol the power of God’s grace when we witness the obedience of this servant of 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. Abraham was sure of that too. He was poised to slay his son as a sacrifice for sin. But God stopped him. Abraham, by God’s grace and through faith, passed the test. Now God provided a ram in the stead of Isaac.
III. What He Received
There is a phrase at the very end of our text that is not very easy to interpret. A number of legitimate explanations have been offered. 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. It is 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 in 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? His 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, the significance of 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. He accomplished this 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 the benefit of His people. So, here too we find this whole account is a figure of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. How thankful we are for the blessed truth that for Christ’s sake we are ever preserved in the fellowship and friendship of God. 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 children of Abraham, into the land of promise.