Updated: Sep 17, 2019
WHAT IS FAITH?
Faith is believing that miracles are only a nod from God away.
“11 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. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. 13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ 19Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:11-19).
This particular section of Hebrews 11 is rich in promise, in warning, in instruction, in example.
A. Child Given: The Impossible Made Possible
Notice this interesting statement in Hebrews: “…Abraham…was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who made the promise” (Hebrews 11:13).
I wonder if, and when, Sarah and Abraham stopped asking for a child. The Scriptures tell us that they were passed child-bearing age but without doubt they had tried to get pregnant and had, at some point, determined that it simply wasn’t going to happen. But when God made the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that he would become the father of many nations, Abraham believed that what hadn’t been possible through their human efforts would be possible through divine efforts.
We know that there were moments when doubt crept in, when, as time passed without the promised child, they thought that perhaps God needed a little help with the project. Hagar, and the subsequent birth of Ishmael was proof of that. Doubt is common to us all, especially in our “instant gratification” society. We expect answers quickly. Waiting doesn’t come naturally. But doubt cannot be embraced, it must be dealt with immediately. James 1:6, 7 reads: “But when he asks, he must believe and no doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man shouldnot think he will receive anything from the Lord…”
Often our emphasis is on the amount of faith we can conjure up. But if that is true then the results depend on us and not on God. That doesn’t mean we don’t exercise faith and grow our faith. The issue is to believe without allowing doubt to take root and displace that belief. In Mark 9:14-32, a father brought his son to the disciples hoping for healing. They were unable to help but when Jesus arrived on the scene, the whole dynamic of the situation changed.
“Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’ ‘From childhood,’ he answered. ‘It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ ‘If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’”
This father’s expression is so typical—I believe but in the back of my mind there is this niggling doubt forming. But this father’s request shows us what to do with that niggling doubt that threatens to derail budding faith. The man was asking God for the wherewithal not to doubt what he had already exercised faith to believe. Perhaps our biggest challenge is what we do with the doubt when it happens, as it inevitably will. Do we harbor it or take it to the Lord as did this father and ask for help to deal with it?
This was what Abraham and Sarah should have done rather than take matters into their own hands in their impatience to fulfill the promise God had made to them. But let’s go back.
When Abram left Haran for Canaan, he was seventy-five years old. He was still childless, but his own history might have kept him from worrying about that.
Abram’s own father didn’t have children until he was more than 70 years of age. It doesn’t appear that Abram and Sarai began to worry about their childless state until 10 years later when Abram was 85. (Genesis 16:16)
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her. Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.”
Abram and Sarai had their moments of doubt and there is no indication that they consulted God before they made this decision. It seemed like a logical solution to them—a reinterpretation of the promise God had made to them. I wonder how many times that gets us into trouble! This situation could have happened with any one of Abram servants, and while it is somewhat speculative, it is probably that Abram picked up Hagar during his unauthorized visit to Egypt in Genesis 12:10-20 as one of the gifts given to him by Pharaoh: “He [Pharaoh]treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.” Not once, but TWICE, did Abram get into trouble that was rooted around Sarai, his “sister” (cp. Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20:1-18) a mistake that his son would repeat later with is own wife (Genesis 26:1-16).
“Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.’ And she added, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’”
Sarah’s would not be the last of the impossible pregnancies recorded for us in Scripture. Luke 1:1-38 tells us about two others. Elizabeth bore her husband, Zechariah, a son in his old age—the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist. Mary gave birth to the Son of God, Jesus, while she was still a virgin.
There is no question that Abraham, a man of faith, was an imperfect man. His actions while he waited for a son, his half-truths when he was afraid, his treatment of Hagar and her son which began the resentment that has resulted in the war we live today between Arabs and the rest of the world, all signal those frailties. Yet he is numbered among those who demonstrated faith and from whom we can learn how to live out that faith in our own lives. Faith is not always constant or consistent.
An even greater test of Abraham’s faith and his obedience was yet to come.
But first we need to pause and take a look at what the writer to the Hebrews has chosen to place between the birth if Isaac and the trip up Mount Moriah for the boy’s execution.
There is an “interruption” in the flow of the story. The writer says, speaking of Abraham, “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”
Then comes, in verses 13-16 this parenthesis: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
Abraham is getting the promised son, the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise of a nation, and descendants too numerous to count. But the temporal and the temporary is not the fulfillment of the promise.
It is so valuable to us to imprint what that writer says here on our hearts. Like these people of faith, we too are only passing through, pilgrims on a journey to something much more than this life could ever offer us. And it is with that destination in mind we are called to live out our lives—looking for something better—heaven.
What is also of interest is the idea that people like Abraham, called to leave behind all he knew to head off into the unknown, we have a choice. If Abraham had not been willing to release his past, God would have allowed him to return to it, missing the blessing that was in store for him. On all levels we get to choose—will we step out in faith and embrace the pilgrim’s life, or will we hold on to what we know? For those, like Abraham who believe and take that step of faith, God calls out a “well done” and is pleased to allow them to be known by His name.
But there are always tests along the way.
B. Child Taken
Genesis 22:1-19 describes an act common among the nations that surrounded Abraham. Abraham is asked by God to give up the child promised to him and delivered to him through a miracle from God. We wonder why God would ask such a thing especially given the manner of the instruction.
Barnes argues: “It is evident that the absolute Creator has by right entire control over his creatures. He is no doubt bound by his eternal rectitude to do no wrong to his moral creatures. But the creature in the present case has forfeited the life that was given, by sin. And, moreover, we cannot deny that the Almighty may, for a fit moral purpose, direct the sacrifice of a holy being, who should eventually receive a due recompense for such a degree of voluntary obedience. This takes away the moral difficulty, either as to God who commands, or Abraham who obeys. Without the divine command, it is needless to say that it was not lawful for Abraham to slay his son.”
After the Law was instituted, we have records of God’s attitude about human sacrifice. God’s view of human sacrifice is clearly laid out in various passages of the Bible including:
Leviticus 18:21: “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of God. I am the Lord.”
Among pagan nations child sacrifice was considered to be, not a crime, but an act of worship. Abraham lived in a time before God had set down any instructions about such sacrifices, at least as far as we are informed. There is little doubt that this kind of practice also took place in Israel as well as in the pagan nations that surroundedIsrael (i.e. Judges 11:29; 1 Kings 16:34) even after God’s condemnation of it.
Israel often took on habits and practices that it saw in its neighbours. Some say that, to combat this tendency, God taught His people a better way, one that we see in the practice of “redeeming” the firstborn. Instead of sacrificing a child, that child would be bought back. This became a picture of what Christ would do for us in rescuing from the consequences of our sin—death—by purchasing us with His own life sacrificed in our place. “It hardly admits of doubt that the ancient laws of Israel, by which the firstborn were dedicated to God (Exodus 22:29), and by which an animal was to be sacrificed in order to redeem the firstborn son (Exodus 34:20), point back to the custom of an earlier age, in which the primitive Hebrews had practised the sacrifice of the firstborn. The redemption of the firstborn with a lamb at the Feast of the Passover (Exodus 13:12-15) has been considered by some to be traceable to a similar origin”(Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges)
Luke 2:21-24 describes Mary and Joseph “redeeming” the life of Jesus as they purchased the doves or pigeons that would be offered in his place. cf. Exodus 13:2, 12.
The powerful images of that final plague that struck the Egyptians during the time of Moses, as described in Exodus 12, combined with the equally powerful images of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, would become “types” of Christ and the salvation He purchased for us with His own life.
Several Biblical scholars say that the experience that God put Abraham and Isaac through was meant to be an illustration to the generations that would follow them, a graphic example of the rule that God would later add to the instructions He gave the nation of Israel. The pagan nations might practice child sacrifice, but the God of Israel condemned such a practice.
From the Genesis passage we get a small clue as to what Abraham thought as he approached the place of sacrifice. Genesis 22:6-8 says: “Abraham took the word 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 the 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.” Abraham declared the words “God himselfwill provide” when Isaac asked about the sacrifice that they needed as they approached the top of the mountain.
There is no demand made on Abraham’s part. He doesn’t tell God how to fix the obvious problem. He simply believes that one way or another God will fix the problem.
MacLaren writes: “There is not a syllable about the feelings of father or of son. The silence is more pathetic than many words. We look as into a magic crystal, and see the very event before our eyes, and our own imaginations tell us more of the world of struggle and sorrow raging under that calm outside than the highest art could do. The pathos of reticence was never more perfectly illustrated. Observe, too, the minute, prolonged details of the slow progress to the dread instant of sacrifice. Each step is told in precisely the same manner, and the series of short clauses, coupled together by an artless ‘and,’ are like the single strokes of a passing bell, or the slow drops of blood heard falling from a fatal wound. The homely preparations for the journey are made by Abraham himself. He makes no confidante of Sarah; only God and himself knew what that bundle of wood meant. What thoughts must have torn his soul throughout these weary days! How hard to keep his voice round and full while he spoke to Isaac! How much the long protracted tension of the march increased the sharpness of the test! It is easier to reach the height of obedient self-sacrifice in some moment of enthusiasm, than to keep up there through the commonplace details of slowly passing days. Many a faith, which could even have slain its dearest, would have broken down long before the last step of that sad journey was taken.”
But even if, and when, he knows that the end will be a good one, does it make it any easier to subject the love of one’s life to a cruel hardship? What would God the Father, have felt? “He who spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all—" (Romans 8:32)
The passage in Hebrews gives us a different perspective as to what Abraham was thinking. According to Hebrews 11:17-19 Abraham held onto the promise that it was going to be through Isaac that future generations would be blessed so “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead…”
Many people, including me, have used passages like Matthew 10:37-39 as a kind of “proof text” to show that God must be first above all others in our lives. While that is true, and the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 is proof of that, the passage in Matthew and others similar to it are, in their context, not about that at all.
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
If we begin at Matthew 10:32 we quickly see that Jesus is addressing another issue altogether.
“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven…”
Jesus is talking about how the Gospel will divide families and the importance of not compromising one’s faith for the sake of peace in the family. In a sense that IS putting Christ above family, but while a broader application can be made, within the context there is a much more specific one that what we generally suppose.
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was a test of Abraham’s faith, and that his witness as a man of faith would have been compromised if he had put his love for his son ahead of obedience to God’s command.
MacLaren writes: “The very first words of this solemn narrative raise many questions. We have God appointing the awful trial. The Revised Version properly replaces ‘tempt’ by ‘prove.’ The former word conveys the idea of appealing to the worst part of man, with the wish that he may yield and do the wrong. The latter means an appeal to the better part of man, with the desire that he should stand. Temptation says: ‘Do this pleasant thing; do not be hindered by the fact that it is wrong.’ Trial, or proving, says: ‘Do this right and noble thing; do not be hindered by the fact that it is painful.’ The one is ‘a sweet, beguiling melody,’ breathing soft indulgence and relaxation over the soul; the other is a pealing trumpet-call to high achievements.
God’s proving does not mean that He stands by, watching how His child will behave. He helps us to sustain the trial to which He subjects us. Life is all probation; and because it is so, it is all the field for the divine aid. The motive of His proving men is that they may be strengthened. He puts us into His gymnasium to improve our physique. If we stand the trial, our faith is increased; if we fall, we learn self-distrust and closer clinging to Him. No objection can be raised to the representation of this passage as to God’s proving Abraham, which does not equally apply to the whole structure of life as a place of probation that it may be a place of blessing.”
Another scholar, Ellicott, comments: “The sacrifice had for its object the instruction of the whole Church of God. If the act had possessed no typical value, it would have been difficult for us to reconcile to our consciences a command which might have seemed, indirectly at least, to have authorized human sacrifices. But there was in it the setting forth of the mystery of the Father giving the Son to die for the sins of the world; and therein lies both the value and the justification of Abraham’s conduct and of the Divine command.”
MacLaren notes:“The friend of God must hold all other love as less than His, and must be ready to yield up the dearest at His bidding. Cruel as the necessity seems to flesh and blood, and specially poignant as his pain was, in essence Abraham’s trial only required of him what all true religion requires of us. Some of us have been called by God’s providence to give up the light of our eyes, the joy of our homes, to Him. Some of us have had to make the choice between earthly and heavenly love. All of us have to throne God in our hearts, and to let not the dearest usurp His place. In our weakness we may well shrink from such a test. But let us not forget that the trial of Abraham was not imposed by his own mistaken conceptions of duty, nor by a sterner God than the New Testament reveals, but is distinctly set before every Christian in essence, though not in form, by the gentle lips from which flowed the law of love more stringent and exclusive in its claims than any other: ‘He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.’”
The lessons in this story might be obvious, though understanding them might not make our obedience to God’s commands any less difficult.
Matthew Henry writes: “Observe, 1. The person to be offered: Take thy son; not thy bullocks and thy lambs. How willingly would Abraham have parted with them all to redeem Isaac! Thy son; not thy servant. Thine only son; thine only son by Sarah. Take Isaac, that son whom thou lovest. 2. The place: three days' journey off; so that Abraham might have time to consider, and might deliberately obey. 3. The manner: Offer him for a burnt-offering; not only kill his son, his Isaac, but kill him as a sacrifice; kill him with all that solemn pomp and ceremony, with which he used to offer his burnt-offerings.”
MacLaren observes: “He is sure that there is some point of reconciliation-perhaps this, perhaps that, but certainly somewhat. So he goes straight on the road marked for him, quite sure that it will not end in a blind alley, from which there is no exit. That is the very climax of faith-to trust God so absolutely, even when His ways seem contradictory, as to be more willing to believe apparent impossibilities than to doubt Him, and to be therefore ready for the hardest trial of obedience. We, too, have sometimes to take courses which seem to annihilate the hope and aims of a life. The lesson for us is to go straight on the path of clear duty wherever it leads. If it seem to bring us up to inaccessible cliffs, we may be sure that when we get there we shall find some ledge, though it may be no broader than a chamois could tread, which will suffice for a path. If it seem to bring us to a deep and bridgeless stream, we shall find a ford when we get to the water’s edge. If the mountains seem to draw together and bar a passage, we shall find, when we reach them, that they open out; though it may be no wider than a canyon, still the stream can get through, and our boat with it.”
“Obedience is complete when the inward surrender is complete” writes one author, commenting that sometimes, as in the story of Abraham, the outward act is not necessary.
“The command, then, to offer up Isaac came as a threefold test of faith: (i) did Abraham love and obey his God as sincerely as the heathen around him loved and obeyed their gods? (ii) did he, in the conflict of emotions, put his affection for his son before his love for his God? (iii) could he himself undertake to obey a command of his God, which was in direct conflict with that same God’s repeated promises that in Isaac should his name be called1? It was this last which constituted the most acute trial of Abraham’s faith. But he stood the test; and in the surrender of everything, will, affections, hope, and reason, he simply obeyed, trusting, that, as a son had been granted to him in his old age, when he was as good as one dead, so, in God’s good providence, His promises would yet somehow be fulfilled, and Isaac would live”(Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges)
Faith is rewarded by God’s acceptance and approval. “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12).
Faith is rewarded by a deeper insight into God’s will and character. 1 Samuel 15:22 says: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey us better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”
Also, in Romans 12:1, 2: “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
“There is a false element in the current conceptions of sacrifice, which tended to make its efficacy depend upon material quantity and cost. In the case of a human offering, the suffering, bereavement, and agony, mental and physical, seemed only to augment its value. The Deity that required to be propitiated with human life, was capricious, insatiable and savage. This hideous delusion about God’s Nature was finally to be dissipated. God had no pleasure in suffering or in death, in themselves, God was a God of love. Life should be dedicated unto Him, not in cruelty, but in service.
“Sacrifice in the Chosen Family was to be free from the taint of this practice. The substitution of an animal for a human victim was to be the reminder of a transition to a higher phase of morality. The Revelation of the Law of Love was to be traced back by the devout Israelite to the Patriarchal Era, and to the religious experience of Abraham, the founder of the race. The Episode is a spiritual Parable.”
Faith is sometimes rewarded by receiving back the surrendered blessing, made even more precious because it has been laid upon the altar.
Hebrews 11 reminds us of what needs to be our attitude when we do NOT receive back the surrendered blessing.
We hope against hope that what we surrender will be returned intact. But that isn’t always the case. If it were faith would not be necessary—we would always know that the gift would be returned to the giver. Because we do not know the ultimate and eternal purposes of God when we present our gift, when we give back to the One who gave the gift in trust to us in the first place, we are forced to exercise faith—the belief that whatever God does is good and right and that there is something better coming than that which we have surrendered to Him. Abraham believed God and that faith stood him in good stead before the Lord.
James 1:2-4 tells us: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
What happened to Abraham is probably the greatest test of faith that anyone can be asked to take. Even leaving his home, packing up and heading off into the unknown would not have been as much of a challenge of whether or not he trusted God as being asked to sacrifice the son he had been promised as the cornerstone of his dynasty. How many times between the moment God asked this sacrifice of him and when he raised the knife to kill his son did he consider refusing, walking away, arguing, doubting, resisting? And if Sarah was aware of what was going on, how difficult was it to persevere in the face of whatever pressures she might have brought to bear on him. We don’t know what Sarah knew but most of us can imagine what a mother might do or say if her husband announced he was taking their only son up a mountain in order to present him as a human sacrifice.
But we can be sure that when Abraham and Isaac came down off the mountain, both of them had grown in their faith by leaps and bounds. Telling the story of God’s provision would have had an impact on all who heard it, just as it has an impact on all who hear it today. Every test successfully passed adds to our growth in spiritual maturity and takes us one step closely to that completeness that we aim for as we seek to become like Jesus.
Abraham named the spot “Jehovah-Jireh,” the Lord will provide. Abraham had answered Isaac’s question about the lamb by telling his son that the Lord would provide. This expression of a faith that does not doubt, faith in the God of the impossible who makes barren old women give birth, who brings people back from the dead so that His promises are kept, became a permanent memorial to God’s faithfulness.
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. Is there a promise that God has given to you that, like Abraham, believe God will be faithful to despite the apparent impossibilities? Renew that conviction right now.
2. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we are all “aliens and strangers on earth” and that something better awaits us. What do you need to loosen your grip on in this life to fully embrace that is waiting for you in the next one?
3. How is the description of events as Abraham takes Isaac up Mount Moriah to sacrifice both a foretelling of the story of Calvary and a reminder of what our relationship to God needs to look like?
4. We wonder at Isaac’s apparent submission to what, at least near the end, would have obviously meant his death. His father had said that God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice. What might this tell us about the trust between the father and the boy, and the boy and Yahweh?
5. Describe tangible ways your faith in God has impacted the journey of faith that others are travelling.
6. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.