Scripture: Genesis 22:1-19; 1 Peter 2:18-25
For three thousand years one of the most powerful stories among Jewish, Islamic and Christian people is the story of Abraham binding his only son Isaac in preparation for sacrificing him to God. At first sight, this seems an inhumane and immoral act. But right from the beginning the reader knows there is no intention on God's part that Abraham's only son would be killed. God's request was that Abraham offer up Isaac as an offering was a test of Abraham to see if this man who was to be the father of a great nation, and the spiritual father of all Jews, Moslems and Christians would do whatever God asked him. The first verse states clearly that Gen 22:1 "Some time later God tested Abraham."
There is no thought of an actual sacrifice of Isaac in the narrative, only Abraham does not know this, otherwise it would not have been a test. The reader knows more than the main characters in this story. The inward struggle of Abraham as he carried out the Lord's request is powerful. Abraham was an old man living in the north of what we call Syria. God spoke to Abraham and promised him that although he was childless he would have a son, that he would be the founder of a great nation living in its own land, and that through him the peoples of the earth would be blessed. Now God tests Abraham in a way that would end all three promises. The reader is as surprised and shocked by God's request as Abraham himself would have been. Further, the reader is given no explanation of the request. God's request of Abraham is blunt and simple: v2 "Take Isaac", "go", and "sacrifice him". The reader is given no reason to believe that Abraham himself had any further explanation. This story is gripping.
There is just a simple trusting statement of the father to his only son v8 "God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son". That reply anticipates precisely the final outcome of the story: v14 "The LORD will provide."
The anguish in the story builds up through all the details of what the father and his son did. v3-14 "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. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 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." 6 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, 7 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?" 8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together. 9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son."
Every listener awaits eagerly what will happen next. Surely the innocent son will not die? Surely the great old man will receive his promises?
Surely no such horrendous crime will be allowed? Surely God would not take the only son through whom the nation will be built, the peoples of earth will be blessed and allow him to die? 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. 12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." 13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."
These words "Jehovah Jireh" or "The Lord will provide" have become a touchstone of many people in dire need, whose faith has been tested to the limit. Perhaps without income, food, accommodation, a secure future, never-the-less they have remained faithful to God sure the Lord will provide. Halfway through this story the theme appears and we know the outcome. The reader is assured both of the outcome of the narrative and of the quality of Abraham's faith.
Abraham's words illumines his silence. Amid the anguish of Abraham's silence, there is seen a confidence in the Lord who will provide. The Lord provides a fit substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac in a sacrificial lamb. This story illuminates for Christians some of the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ on that first Good Friday. Isaac represents each of us. Jesus is the lamb who was sacrificed in our place. On Good Friday, does this help us understand the Cross?
1. SIN ALWAYS HAS A PRICE.
During this week, a wonderful group of ministry students from The Wesley Institute of Ministry and the Arts, met each morning in Wesley Centre and studied how to witness to others about the meaning of Easter. This included what the Bible calls sin. Many do not want to talk about personal sin. As our students fanned out into city streets, they found scores of ordinary people who accepted that Rom 3:23 "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Many realised there is a price to be paid for our sin. As Paul puts it Rom 6:23 "The wages of sin is death." Part of the meaning of the Cross was that Jesus died as the penalty for our sin. Like Isaac, He was innocent. Like Isaac, Jesus was willing to utterly trust His Father. Unlike Isaac He became the sacrifice for sin. Sin has a price that must be paid, and that price is paid in sacrificial blood.
On the Cross Jesus offered the blood, not of a lamb, but His own blood, as the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. As one hymn says:
"Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
or wash away our stain.
But Christ the heavenly Lamb,
takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name,
and richer blood than they."(I Watts)
The forgiveness of sin is no light matter: it could only be accomplished at the price of the blood of God's own son. God cannot say: "Now don't you go worrying about that. It doesn't matter any more." Forgiveness is costly because sin is serious. God's Son alone has the power to offer for us eternal salvation.
2. GOD PROVIDES A SUBSTITUTE SACRIFICE.
Theologians describe what Jesus did for us upon the cross in words like expiation, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justification, mediation. All of these are correct in describing what Jesus did for us. But there is another: substitution. God provided a substitute for Isaac, a lamb that was to be the sacrifice. God provided for all of us a substitute to pay the price of sin: Jesus the Lamb of God.
On the symbolic altar of Isaac before me now, we have also placed the bread and wine, the emblems of the Lord's Supper. Because they remind us that the body and blood of Jesus were His sacrifice for our sins. Those people who describe Jesus as a great teacher, poet, philosopher, healer, miracle worker or a founder of religion have missed the whole point. Those aspects of His life are mere accompaniments of His main task which was "to remove sin through the sacrifice of Himself." He was the substitute sacrifice for each one of us.
3. JESUS IS THE LAMB OF GOD TO TAKE AWAY OUR SINS.
Peter saw clearly what happened and he wrote
to the early Christians 1 Pet 2:24 "Christ Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed." When we realise this we are lost in wonder at God's great love for us. Charles Wesley struggled to understand how great was God's love:
"And can it be that I should gain
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should'st die for me!"
We are used to seeing the cross, the symbol of the death of Jesus Christ, and it has little affect on us. Since Golgotha millions have been made: wooden ones in churches, gold ones round the necks of women, tawdry mass-produced plastic ones and giant steel ones that mark mass war graves. And what effect does the Cross have upon passers-by? Even on that day of the crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem, many people just passed by.
The cross had little effect upon the workmen who fashioned it, the soldiers who guarded it, the people who passed it or the priests who caused it to end the life of Jesus. Nor to millions who think of Easter in terms of holidays, the Royal Agricultural Show, chocolate rabbits and a host of other silly things. But to Christians who understand, we are left simply praising God for His grace and love.
"And when I think of God His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the Cross, my burden, gladly bearing,
He bled and died, to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!"
Dr Ernest Gordon in his book "Through the Valley of the Kwai" tells of one of the prisoner of war work parties which built the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. At the end of one day, a Japanese guard declared that a shovel was missing. Insisting that it was stolen, he demanded the guilty step forward for punishment. When no one moved the guard shrieked wildly: "All die! All die!" and gave orders to the guards to machine-gun all of the work crew. At that moment one stepped forward, accepting blame for the missing shovel.
The guards kicked the defenceless prisoner to the ground and beat him senseless with their riflebuts. He never moved again. The other prisoners picked up their tools and marched back into the camp leaving their dead comrade. At the guard house, the shovels were counted. None were missing. That soldier laid down his life that his friends might live. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13
Jesus died innocently upon a Cross on this day, so that you might not bear the cost of your sin. The problem with many modern people, is that we refuse to believe in the presence of sin, the penalty for sin, or of the requirement of the shedding of blood. But our refusal to accept the fact of sin or its consequences does not make the fact any less a fact, or the consequences any less likely. The facts are: each of us have sinned; each of us shall die; each of us shall pay for our sins and the penalty is eternal death. But there is one other great fact: "God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not die but have eternal life." John 3:16.
God provided a lamb whose blood was acceptable in place of ours - a substitution. Isaac was the first to understand. He had been spared by the blood of a lamb. His life would now be lived for God because God had spared him through another. So we can understand the death of Christ and its affect upon us personally. "In my place condemned He stood. Sealed my pardon with His blood. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!" And understanding, we want to commit our lives to Him, and His work forever!
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