December 9, 1984
In one of the most chilling, demanding tests of faith recorded in Scripture, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Alistair Begg explains that while God’s provision may not always be what we desire, what He designs is always best. With a humble heart that submits to God’s power, we can exercise a faith that far outweighs what the world deems logical.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, we’re going to open our Bibles together at Genesis chapter 22, and we’ll read from verse 1. Genesis chapter 22, and we’ll read the first eight verses:
“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’
“‘Here I am,’ he replied.
“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.’
“Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He 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.’
“Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’
“‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.
“‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’
“Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Now just a prayer together:
Dear heavenly Father, we pray that the relevance and immediacy of these words we’re now about to study may come with clarity and vitality to each one of our hearts and lives. Set us free from distracting thoughts and influences, and shut us in with you, the living God, so that we may hear you speak to all of our hearts. For your Son’s sake we ask it. Amen.
We come this morning to our second last study in the life of Abraham, in a series to which we gave the title simply Venturing in Faith. We’ve been discovering as we looked in the book of Genesis that to walk upon the pathway of faith involves us in facing challenges and in trusting promises even when things seem too hard or when they appear too hopeless. Certainly, I hope that it would have become clear to all of us and to any who have listened with an agnostic spirit that the notion that faith is merely a crutch for the weak cannot stand the test of biblical consideration. Far from faith being a crutch for weak people, we’ve been discovering that when someone steps out to walk on the path of faith, they need a strength beyond themselves; they need to be relying on the power of God; they need to be prepared for challenges which will never present themselves to people who are prepared to step back from that route. And those who suggest that faith is just a crutch for the weak have, sadly, themselves never encountered the reality of which the Bible speaks. Anyone who has read their Bible will know that biblical faith is something which puts great demands upon all who are prepared and enabled to embrace it.
Now, when we think of faith, all of us have different pictures that come to our minds. Some of us this morning, who’ve been given the great privilege of being brought up under the dictation of the Word of God, can recall many incidents in the Bible, many of them from the Old Testament, which may be described as great tests of faith. And this morning, in Genesis 22, we come to one such test. But let me tell you how my mind worked as I thought of this test of faith.
I began by thinking of the great test described in Exodus chapter 14. And you may like just to turn to these tests as we use them as a prelude to looking at this particular test this morning. Exodus chapter 14. Moses is at the forefront of a group of fearful and faltering people. And their approach to life could be described in verse 10: “They were terrified … cried out to the Lord” and “said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?’” And they were suggesting that it would have been far better to die in Egypt, to remain where they were, than to move forward with this crazy leadership of Moses. His response in verse 13 is clear: “Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’”
Now, why was it that Moses was able to make that statement? How was it that he could look at the exact same circumstances as the rest of the people, how could it be that he would hear the pounding of the hooves drawing the chariots of Pharaoh’s armies, and respond like this? Because this is the response of faith. This is faith triumphing when put to the test. The people flunked it; the leadership proved it. And the instruction given to Moses in verse 15 was clear: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.’” “Move on”! There’s a sermon in those two words all on its own, if we wanted to pause. But we’ll allow the Holy Spirit to take that and write it in our hearts this morning—two words: “Move on.”
And in verse 16, God confronts his servant with a great test of faith. He says, “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” Now look at verse 21. Here’s faith put to the test: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.” How do you think he felt at that moment, with all of those people looking at him and saying, “It was better back there. Why don’t we go back?” And he had only one reason for going forward: God said, “Tell the people to move on, and hold your staff up over the sea.” “Is that all?” “Yes.” And he did, and God honored faith put to the test.
I went forward in my mind to Joshua chapter 6 and the events described there, facing a similar test. And you could think of many others, I’m sure. And here we have the successor of Moses facing a similar test: “Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.” Jericho was in a state of siege. The Israelite armies wanted to capture it. “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.’” In other words, for God, the future is the present. “I have already done it,” he said. “Now I want you to go out and make it actual.”
Now, look what he instructs them to do:
March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse … the people will go up, every man straight in.
Sure. Sure. Are you kidding me? I mean, where does that fit the realm of human reason? What reasonable individual is going to join that group? Who is prepared to look a proper Charlie walking round the walls of Jericho? That’s what it came down to! Do you want to look daft for seven days on the hope that something special is about to happen?
They must have all been having their little committee meetings: “This is utterly ridiculous.” Someone said, “Well, do you remember that Red Sea thing?” “Oh, I remember the Red Sea, but that was a long time ago. Those were the glory days, fresh out of Egypt. God did special things then. This is Jericho, not Jerusalem. ‘Stand around with rams’ horns; blow the trumpet’! It’s just not normal! It’s just not what any thinking individual would ever do! It really is totally unreasonable!” That’s right. It’s faith put to the test.
And so they did as they were told, and for six days, can you imagine the expectancy that built up in their hearts? It’s okay on the first day. There’s six days to go. As it gets closer to the end… And then, in verse 15: “On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the people, ‘Shout!’” Now, that was a heavy moment, let me tell you. I wasn’t there, but it must have been. Because on the basis of the cry they were now about to make, God said, “The walls will crumble.” And I’m sure that not everyone shouted. But when the walls fell in, there were many who had wanted to shout but couldn’t bring themselves to it. That’s the way of faith. Leadership has to say, “Shout!” Leadership has to say, “Move on!” Leadership has to say, “Let’s go!” And some who cannot shout and cannot move may join in the song ere before long.
Judges chapter 6. And here we have an army so large that it couldn’t even be counted. In fact, they couldn’t even count the number of camels. That’s got to be quite a lot of camels! And Gideon is responsible for dealing with this situation under God. And in Judges 6 and 7, we’re told that Gideon had thirty-two thousand men—thirty-two thousand men to fight an army that couldn’t be numbered. And he must have looked at the thirty-two thousand and then thought of the army that couldn’t be numbered and said to himself, “What can I do with just thirty-two thousand?” And God said, “Absolutely nothing. Tell the folks who are frightened to go home.” And you’ll notice that “anyone who tremble[d] with fear” could “turn back and leave Mount Gilead”—that’s 7:3. And when the word that was given, “Those of you who are chicken, go home,” twenty-two thousand went home!
You see, when the word is given, “Shout!” when the cry is given, “Move!” when we’re out on the high wire with no safety net, then we find out whether we face the test of faith. Then we find out who’s in the show. Then we find out who’s in the army. Then we discover who’s moving. And that’s the great challenge here. And then God takes the ten thousand and reduces it to three hundred. And with three hundred, he did what could not be accomplished with thirty-two thousand.
Now, we could go on. We could spend the whole time just leafing through our Bibles, discovering, even in the Old Testament, before we break into the New, great tests of faith. And I want to say this to you—and this is how my mind worked: of all of these, none comes to me with the chilling challenge that is contained here in Genesis 22. Not a single one I can find in my Bible hits me the way Genesis 22:1–2 hits me. Would you look at what God is asking Abraham to do? He’s not asking him to part the sea, to tumble the walls, to defeat the army. He’s asking him to kill his son. Now, that’s got to be a test of faith, hasn’t it?
Genesis 21, in the opening verses, describes the immense joy which Isaac’s arrival brought. Verse 2: “Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.” Not before the time. Not after the time. “At the very time God had promised him.” And those of us who have known the joy of taking children in our arms, whether the children that are our own, or children of loved ones, or whatever, can begin to imagine what went through the heart of Abraham as, a hundred-year-old man, he took this tiny baby in his arms. How could he suppress all the emotion that was a part of his life as he thought of all that the future held? Especially so because God had told him in 21:12 that it was “through Isaac that [his] offspring will be reckoned.” It was not only special for the wee one to arrive, but it was very, very important, because it was through this individual, this boy, that all the seed of Abraham would come. So it was important not only for the little fellow to make his way through the first six months, not only to make it through his elementary years, but it was vital that Isaac made it to manhood and, furthermore, made it to fatherhood. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If through the boy is going to come the seed, then the boy needs to reach the age for producing that.
Now, with that in your mind, let’s look at the test which God designed.
First of all, notice the context. We’re not given any details of the length of time that had elapsed between the events described in Genesis 21 and the incident that’s recorded here. It just says, “Some time later…” We can, of course, by careful reading of the text, infer certain things. For example, in verse 6, we’re told that “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac.” So, clearly, Isaac had reached the age of being at least a sturdy youth, however old he might have grown. He was strong enough and large enough to be able to carry the wood for the burnt offering.
And so, here we have this situation. “God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied.” God had spoken to him many times before but never like this. “‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love …. Sacrifice him.’” I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking questions. I look at this; I say, “Is that like God? Would God do that? Is that the God to whom I have committed my life and whose direction I seek to follow?” It is. And some have balked at this and have sought to deny the authenticity of these verses because it doesn’t square with their notion of God. The key thing is that events square with God’s notion of God, not our notion of God. And C. S. Lewis, in his little book Letters to Malcolm, speaking of this kind of difficulty, writes these words: “The troublesome fact, the apparent absurdity …, is precisely the one we must not ignore. Ten to one, it’s in that cover[t] the fox is lurking.” Reason comes along and closes over the covert—denies it, ignores it, explains it away. Faith comes along, confronts impossibility—things that are suprarational—and says, “I cannot ignore it. I cannot deny it. I must wrestle with it. For it is probably here that one of the great keys to God’s purpose is to be found.” And such an approach would be accurate, especially in relation to this test this morning.
Now, furthermore, within the context, culturally, of Abraham’s day, he would be familiar with Canaanite fathers sacrificing their children. It was customary in Canaanite religion, as a great offering to the gods with a small g, to take your firstborn and to sacrifice them on the altar. So Abraham would have become familiar with that. He would have seen it in the pagan culture of his area as the apex of worship. But that doesn’t help in this context. No, when we read Genesis 22, we need to read it from the beginning to the end, and we must view the opening demand of verse 2 from the perspective of God himself. What did God know that Abraham didn’t know? God knew that he wasn’t going to kill Isaac. We know that because we’ve read the end of the story. But Abraham didn’t know that. And that’s what made it such a test.
Notice, secondly, not only the context in which this is set but the cost that was involved. When we turn forward to Hebrews 11 and we read there of those who were highlighted in faith, we discover Abraham right at the heart of it all. And in Hebrews chapter 11, each step of faith, or each important step of faith, for Abraham is highlighted for our consideration. We look at verse 8; we recall it: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” And we look at that with wonder. We come to verse 11; we read, “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” And we look at that with great admiration. Here is a man unable to father children with a wife who herself was unable, and he believed God for that. But when we come forward to verse 17, we stand before it in silence: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.”
Beloved this morning, is that what faith is all about? Is this faith? Obeying God no matter what the cost involved might be? Try, along with me, to put yourself in Abraham’s shoes, as it were, as he looks on the son for whom he had waited for twenty-five years and with whom he had lived, let’s say, for thirteen or fourteen years, and seeing the little Isaac run around as a toddler, grow into infancy, and finally begin to make the progress towards manhood. And as he pulls back the curtain of the dwelling place in which he is and looks out, he sees that young man walk around the area of his home. He sees the son that he loves. He sees the fulfillment of God’s promise. He hears God saying to him, “Through Isaac … your [seed] will be reckoned.” And he hears God saying, “Take him and sacrifice him.” And every phrase of verse 2 must have been like putting a dagger in your heart and then turning it round and round. God said, “Take your son.” Ugh! “Your only son, Isaac.” Ugh! “Whom you love.” Ugh! “[And] sacrifice him.”
Now, I look at this, and I say, “Hey, I don’t even know what faith is all about. I didn’t even get my big toe wet in the puddle.” And I ask myself this morning: What leap of faith, as an individual, am I taking? What leap of faith, as a fellowship, are we taking that costs us? For there is a cost involved in the movement of faith. And God touched him where it hurt. And that’s exactly what God our heavenly Father may choose to do to us to teach us what it really means to rely upon him. He’ll touch us where it hurts. And he knows where we hurt. He’ll touch us in our pride, and he’ll touch us in our pockets, and he’ll touch us in our future.
Thirdly, will you notice the consequences? You see, if Isaac were to be sacrificed, then it would end the hope of descendants through him. And by all human calculations, Abraham’s action would mean the hasty end of the divine plan. And as you read these verses, it becomes patently clear that the problem lay in the fact that what God would do to Isaac and what God would do through Isaac didn’t hold together. And so Abraham was confronted with a test. Would he go the way of human wisdom, which would mean disobedience? Or would he walk the path of faith, which would mean a radical revolution within his life and within his family? And that’s always the way. It’s faith versus human rationale. It’s dependence upon God versus dependence upon ourselves. It’s looking at the future from the perspective of a God who is all-powerful or looking at the future from the perspective of a puny man. And I ask you again this morning, as I ask myself: Are we facing the future with faith? This kind of faith. Biblical faith. Faith without the safety nets. Faith out on the edge, with no way back and only a way forward.
I don’t know a great deal about finance, but I know this: that I’d rather trust in the reality of an all-powerful God than trust in the ability of some with their pocket calculators. And if you view the future with a pocket calculator rather than view the future through the perspective of God, your future is very different from that which God desires for you. And if we seek to avoid the inevitable tests of faith, we will never enjoy its unspeakable compensations. Maybe we could ask the Holy Spirit to apply these things to our hearts this morning as individuals. For God knows where we are in relation to the test, and God knows where we are in relation to our trust.
It is that to which we return, and turn now finally, as we notice not only the test which God designed, but we notice the trust which Abraham displayed.
You know, when you read verses 3 and 4, there’s almost a clinical dimension to them. And as I read them—“Early … next morning Abraham got up … saddled his donkey … took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac”—I just wonder at that. First of all, I ask myself the question: Why did he get up early? I would have been tempted to pull the blankets over my head again and again and again. If there was one day I didn’t want to face, it must be the day when I take my only son and walk the journey towards his death. But he got up early.
It’s interesting that also in Genesis 21 he got up early, in verse 14, when he had to deal with his other boy, Ishmael. And there’s a sense in which it would seem safe to infer a habit of facing a hard task resolutely: “It’s got to be done, so I’d better get up in the morning and get on with it and face the future with God’s help.”
You look at verses 3 and 4, and you ask yourself the question, “Was Abraham a stoic? Did he have no emotion at all?” Well, we know he had emotion. The events of the earlier chapters make clear the way in which he responded to men and women with compassion and with empathy. No, what we have here in verses 3 and 4 we might describe within the context of a set of scales. If you imagine scales in a grocer’s shop that balance like this, on the one pan of the scales, there was for Abraham common sense, human affection, and lifelong ambition. You got it? Common sense, human affection, and lifelong ambition—here. And now God brings to him a great test which he’s designed, and on this test the scales rest. And into the other pan Abraham places trust. And trust outweighs all these other three.
My friends this morning, as we think of it—human affection, lifelong ambition, common sense, and faith—just ask yourself the question in your life: Which way down has the pan fallen this past week? Which way are the scales tipping in your life as you face your future? For Abraham’s test, in some measure, is ours.
Now, we need to wrap this up. So let’s ask the question: What do we learn from this incident, to which we’ll return for a final time next Sunday morning? We learn this: that the life of faith is to be lived in the area of the will and not in the realm of the emotions—that in terms of faith, our emotion must capitulate to our wills. And Abraham, in the way he responds to this test, shows that faith is treating the future as if it were present and is accepting the unseen as if it were presently seen. And as you observe these events, we realize that this test, instead of breaking Abraham, brings him to the summit of his lifelong walk with God. This was do-or-die time. This was the final crunch for him. Either at this point, Abraham’s faith would be destroyed and he would be nowhere, or else it would be the summit of all that God was doing for him and in turn through him. And because he responded in trust, it was.
I don’t want to speak with melodrama, because every day brings these kinds of tests, in some measure, in our lives, and every juncture along the path of faith for a fellowship challenges us in these regards. But my friends this morning, we are facing, as we look at the future, tests which may break us or which may bring us to an advance on the summit of our relationship with Almighty God. John Newton, who was a cursing slave trader till God saved him and he wrote the song “Amazing Grace,” also wrote another hymn in which comes this stanza:
He cannot have taught us
To trust in his name
And thus far have brought us
To leave us in shame.
For each tender mercy
We hold in review
Confirms his sure promise
To see us right through.
So that God does not initiate that which God by his power is unable to conclude.
Now, verse 4 makes it clear that Abraham is not working here on the basis of a great surge of emotion. He is not here somehow blanking it, in the opposite notion, out of his mind and shutting it off and, in a great surge of activity, grabbing a dagger and driving it through his son. No, no. This is not, in the words of one of Shakespeare’s characters—I think it’s Hamlet as he considers the possibility of assassination—he says, “If it were better that ’twere done, then ’twere better that ’twere done quickly.” In other words, “If I’m going to do this, I’ll just have to do it!”
But Abraham didn’t get the privilege of doing that. Look what happened: he got up, and he walked, and he rode on the donkey, and he walked, and he rode on the donkey, and he walked, and he rode on the donkey, and three days later, “on the third day,” he “looked up,” and he “saw the place in the distance.” Plenty of time to think, plenty of time to change his mind, plenty of time to devise another scheme, plenty of time to think of a slip road, plenty of time to conjure up a U-turn, but he kept going. Why? That’s faith.
And as he walked forward on that day—as he got up, set out, looked up—we can only imagine what was going on in his heart as he awaited the inevitable questions of his son. And eventually, in verse 7, it comes—what he’s been dreading and wondering how he’ll respond all the way along: “[And] Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’” Well, I bet that went right up and down his spine. Isaac had said “Father” to him hundreds of times, but not the way he said “Father” to him on this morning. And Abraham knew what was to come, and he said, “Yes, my son?” And in the answer that he gave to him, he made clear that he trusted in God with certainty and that he was prepared to know God for the details of his life. And his answer to the question in verse 8 is a model response to an agonizing question.
You see, what Abraham was doing was hammering out his theology on the anvil of his experience. How many of us have committed ourselves to a step of faith, but on the three-day journey, we turn back? With time to think, with time to find a way out, we didn’t stay the course.
Can I ask you, fathers: Are you taking your sons on journeys of faith? Have you been on a journey of faith with your boy lately? Do you know Christ for yourself? Can you take your boy on a journey of faith? For on that day, Isaac discovered Abraham’s God for himself as he’d never done before. Why? Because Abraham kept on. And the provision that God gave to him was a surprise to them both, but it was appropriate. And as we think of facing the future, and we wonder what it holds and the things that God will provide and may not provide and the things that we desire, we need to remind ourselves of this also: that God’s provision may not always be what we desire, but what he designs is always best.
Listen to the discovery of one man, in conclusion:
He prayed for strength, that he might achieve;
He was made weak, that he might obey.
He prayed for riches, that he might be happy;
He received poverty, that he might be wise.
He prayed for power, that he might have the praise of men;
He received weakness, that he might feel the need of God.
He asked for all things, that he might enjoy life;
He received life, that he might enjoy all things.
He received nothing that he asked for, all that he hoped for.
His prayer was answered, and he was most blessed.
That was the experience of Abraham. And that will be the experience of all who walk the pathway of faith, in which God reveals the mysteries of his providence.
 Joshua 6:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Joshua 6:3–5 (NIV 1984).
 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), 59.
 John Newton, “I Will Trust and Not Be Afraid” (1779). Lyrics lightly altered.
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.7. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.