The Sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac
Part 2: The Significance of the Sacrifice
Jack M. Lane
In Part One of this series, we followed Abraham and Isaac to Mount Moriah and watched the unfolding drama of one of the most gripping sacrifices in history. Why did God demand such a sacrifice of Abraham, and what significance does it have for us today?
Abraham was the friend of God. We have that testimony in the Bible (James 2:23). God had put Abraham through a number of experiences in his life, and God knew the stuff of which Abraham was made. Sometimes Abraham did well. At other times, Abraham's behavior, or his lack of faith, left something to be desired. Overall, though, Abraham's life was pleasing to God.
But this test -- sacrificing Isaac on a lonely mountain top -- why would God ask Abraham to do such a thing?
GOD TESTS US IN MANY WAYS FOR MANY PURPOSES
Perhaps we sometimes wonder in our own lives why God asks what He does of us! We are increasingly being called on to do more than we have ever done before, to take on more responsibility than we previously had been allowed to take, to make more far-reaching decisions, change patterns in our lives, and face entirely new situations and temptations. We may have heard that, once we complete one "test," God gives us another, so we may continue to grow.
We know that the life experiences of people in the Bible "happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition," or as the margin says, for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:11, NKJV throughout). Of course, the bad things, the sins and misdeeds, of Bible heroes were not written as examples of behavior we should follow; they were written as examples of human weakness and shortcomings, to admonish us not to fall prey to the same temptations and tendencies. Many times what happened to people in the Bible happened as a result of their own human failings. The instruction for us is to avoid the things that caught those people off-guard, and be better prepared to fight off sin and weakness -- in other words, to learn from the mistakes of others.
We also know that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). The margin here says that scripture is given for "training, discipline."
Training and discipline? Those sound like military terms, rather than religious terms! Yet, it's true: God wants His people to be trained, disciplined, and obedient to Him.
For instance, God asked Abraham to do something that was absolutely against everything Abraham stood for -- God asked him to sacrifice his son! But it turned out to be the right thing to do, because we can always trust God, and His commands.
If God asks us -- and if we know that it's God asking us -- to do something difficult, or impossible, something that flies in the face of our previous training, something we never thought God would ever ask us to do -- will our training tell us to always do what God wants us to do?
Think of Peter and his vision: "Rise, Peter, kill and eat" (Acts 10:13). Too many people have jumped to a wrong conclusion about what it was God was asking Peter to do in that vision. However, once Peter understood what God was actually asking him to do, he was eager to accomplish what God wanted done (Acts 10-11).
Will our discipline be to immediately obey God in all cases, even in unprecedented circumstances? We have all been faced with new challenges in recent years, both in religion and in other areas of our lives. Have we always obeyed God instantly in all these new situations? If so, that will stand us in good stead for the trials and temptations that will be coming up in the future.
Since the break-up of the large church organization many of us had attended, and the scattering of so many of its members, God has been watching to see how much it means to us to be faithful and loyal to Him, even at the expense of our relationships with our family and friends. But this test, like so many other tests, has just been one more "straining" process in what we might look on figuratively as a stack of colanders through which we're all falling. In this analogy, God is allowing the church to flow through several strainers, which are sifting us and separating us, as we each stop at our own level, where the appropriate colander catches us. It seems like an appropriate analogy of our recent experiences.
ASPECTS OF ABRAHAM'S TEST
Abraham's various experiences throughout his life were also a sifting process along the strait and narrow road that he was walking in his life. We can take heart when he successfully passed a test, and we can sympathize and learn when we see him stumble in human weakness.
When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham had to force himself to do something no one would have allowed him to do if anyone else had known about it! He couldn't even ask anyone's advice! He didn't dare confide his plan to anyone -- not even to Sarah. He couldn't! He was all alone.
Sometimes we have to step out and obey God, all by ourselves, without our friends and family.
You've probably heard that when Abraham sacrificed Isaac, it was a picture, a type, of what would happen later when the Most High God, the Father, sacrificed His Son. There are some very real parallels, and they teach an important lesson.
HOW ANIMALS WERE SACRIFICED
You've probably also heard the story told many times over the years about Abraham lifting up the knife, ready to plunge it down into Isaac. What a gruesome picture! We're told that's what Abraham did. But that ghastly scenario is actually false!
Many ministers over the years have preached in great detail about how Abraham supposedly raised the knife in the air and was about to plunge it down, probably to stab Isaac in the chest ten or fifteen times. It's heard every year. Those stories are not only wrong, but to tell it that way actually conceals a vitally important lesson! And when we look at it more closely, and actually learn that lesson, we will have a deepened understanding and appreciation, both for what Abraham and Isaac went through, and also for what the Father and Jesus went through many years later.
Let's look at the account in Genesis chapter 22 and see, in plain language, what really took place on Mount Moriah.
"Then they [Abraham and Isaac] came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there [by piling up several large rocks to make a table] and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son" (Genesis 22:9-10). This is the point where God intervenes to stop Abraham from actually harming Isaac.
Nowhere does it say Abraham raised the knife up in the air in a threatening manner, pausing for a few seconds, ready to plunge the dagger into his helpless victim's heart! That did not come from the Bible! Where did it come from? Most likely from any number of Hollywood mystery thriller murder movies. It's quite unfortunate that this picture was superimposed in our minds over the clear description in Genesis.
Abraham was going to make a sacrifice. He had probably performed thousands of animals sacrifices over the years. Did he hold up the knife over every lamb or goat he ever slaughtered, scaring it into a frenzy before stabbing it repeatedly? What rubbish!
When an animal is tied up and lying on the altar, ready to be slaughtered, the most humane thing to do is to step up to it and quickly slice the arteries and veins in the neck, so that the animal's own heart will pump the blood out onto the altar, and down to the ground. The animal doesn't suffer. It quickly falls asleep as the blood no longer supplies the brain. Then, when there is no more blood to pump, the heart simply stops pumping. It's a simple, quick and humane way to slaughter an animal.
Would Abraham have quickly and skillfully slit the throats of thousands of lambs, goats and bullocks, then do something radically different with Isaac? Of course not!
Abraham prepared the altar, stacked the fire wood on it, then turned and bound Isaac's wrists and ankles, picked him up, laid him on top of the wood, and reached for the knife. It would only take a second or two to do the deed, and God had to stop Abraham instantly.
DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Why should we make such a fuss over this seemingly small point? There is a very important reason why we need to set the record straight about the manner in which Abraham sacrificed Isaac.
In the type and antetype relationship in this Old Testament example, Abraham represents the Father, and Isaac represents Christ. Isaac was to be the lamb for Abraham's sacrifice. Jesus has always been known as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). You can think of several other comparisons. There are several.
But here's where the traditional Catholic and Protestant teachings have jumped the track. They spend too much time looking at "the cross," rather than focusing their attention on the sacrifice itself. They use the cross as a religious symbol, they bow down to it, they refer to the Father's sacrifice of His Son as "the cross" (as in, "After the cross, many people were able to come to God and find salvation"). It's common both in and out of religions to wear crosses as jewelry and decorate houses with them. People use the cross as an emblem, a visual aid, of the Father's sacrifice of His Son.
While there is some disagreement as to whether or not all this is wrong, what venerating the cross does is to focus people's attention on the instrument of death, rather than the sacrifice itself. So much depth of understanding is lost because people are not encouraged to study into the way Abraham's sacrifice pictures God's sacrifice.
Here's the significance for us today: Was Abraham's knife lifted up? No, Abraham's knife was not lifted up. What was lifted up? Isaac was lifted up!
What does that picture? We aren't to worship the cross as being lifted up, we are to worship Christ as being lifted up!
The apostle John quotes Jesus as saying, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:14).
Why? "That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (verse 15)!
A few chapters later, Jesus says, "'And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.' This He said, signifying by what death He would die'" (John 12:32-33).
How does Abraham's sacrifice picture this? "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac your seed shall be called,' accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense" (Hebrews 11:17-19). That is, Abraham received Isaac from the dead, in a figurative sense, just as the Father received Jesus from the dead literally.
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?" (James 2:21) And if Abraham, who was portraying in type the Father's sacrifice, was justified by works, would we not also consider that God Himself was also justified by works when He sacrificed His only-begotten Son?
To whom does God need to justify Himself? There is no one greater than Himself. No, it was not to justify Himself to Himself. God sacrificed His Son, as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, in order to justify man to Himself! And our acceptance of that sacrifice justifies us to God.
The Bible says Abraham offered up Isaac. Yet, Isaac wasn't cut up and burned! No, Abraham offered up Isaac on the altar, but God stopped him before he could actually sacrifice Isaac. Our Savior, however, "has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2). "But this Man [Christ], after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God" (Hebrews 10:12).
What does that mean for us? "You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 2:5). What kind of spiritual sacrifices are we priests to offer? "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:15-16).
Was there any shortcoming in Abraham's sacrifice because Isaac did not actually die? Certainly not! Because Abraham had lifted up Isaac, to place him on the altar -- because he had the knife in one hand and Isaac's neck in the other, in total compliance to God's will -- because in his own mind it was already accomplished, God accounted the sacrifice to be complete because, in Abraham's mind, it was a completed act.
THE ANALOGY CONTINUES
What happened next?
After Isaac was offered up on the altar, he was given his life back, by his father.
And not only was Isaac given life from the dead, but so were his descendants, the nations of Israel. Yes, because Isaac was sacrificed, but lived afterward, not only was he alive, but his children and grandchildren were able to be born, and the major Israelitish nations around the world today are alive, because Isaac was raised up from his being sacrificed!
If Isaac had not been released from his sacrifice of death, we would not be alive today!
And because Abraham was faithful, God made the promise unconditional, and the Israelitish nations have been blessed beyond all imagination, in physical possessions, wealth, power, and good life.
Do you see any spiritual comparisons in all this?
Since Christ, the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), was raised from the dead, following His being sacrificed, He is alive today (Revelation 1:18).
And because He is alive, all of us, in the body of Christ, have life in us, and the people of the world will be able to have that same life in them, because Christ was released from His sacrifice of death, and He lives today (John 3:36; 5:34; 6:35, 47, 54).
And because God is faithful, the spiritual Israelites of the Israel of God, the ekklesia of God, have eternal life, and will have unimaginable wealth and power as immortal spirit sons of God, and pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God (Psalms 16:11).
In one part of the prophecy, Christ was the promised Seed of Abraham. In another part of the prophecy, Isaac, although he was the only child of Abraham and Sarah, was not the only promised seed. There were to be others.
Let's read about this in Galatians 3:6: "...just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.'" Skipping verse 7 for the moment, let's continue in verse 8: "And the Scripture, forseeing that God would justify the nations by faith, preached the Gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, 'In you all the nations shall be blessed.'"
Then Paul explains, over in verse 16: "Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, 'And to your seeds,' as of many, but as of one, 'And to your Seed,' who is Christ."
But we know that Abraham was prophesied to be the father of many nations, and that the promise would be fulfilled through Isaac's descendants. In fact, just a little later, Paul wrote, "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise" (Galatians 4:28).
Do you see? Isaac was a child of promise, but so are we also children of promise! This is another aspect of the prophecies for Abraham and his descendants.
Let's go back now and look at the verse we skipped earlier: "Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7).
"For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise" (verse 18). So Abraham received these promises, and we in the ekklesia are sons of Abraham. What does that mean?
"And if you are Christ's then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (verse 29)!
Abraham was promised many nations as descendants, through our father Isaac, and that the world would be blessed because of them. That is, because of us.
And we in the ekklesia, whether or not we descended directly from Abraham or Isaac, are every bit as much children of the promise as Isaac was!
That's what Paul was saying in Galatians. The Israelitish nations that exist today are every bit as much a fulfillment of prophecy, and of God's keeping His promise to Abraham, as his own son Isaac was.
If Abraham had not sacrificed Isaac, the promises would not have become unconditional. And without Isaac being alive after the sacrifice, in order to raise up his son Jacob, these nations would not be here.
If the Father had not sacrificed Christ, and if Christ wasn't alive after He was sacrificed, to raise up the ekklesia -- spiritual Israel -- none of us would be in God's assembly, coming out of sin! There wouldn't be a church of God, a body of Christ, an assembly of believers, carrying the gospel message around the world -- and into our neighborhoods -- to the nations of Israel.
And there wouldn't be any nations of Israel to whom the ekklesia would bring the gospel!
What, then, did Abraham's sacrifice of his and Sarah's only-begotten son Isaac, on a deserted mountaintop dozens of centuries ago, have to do with us today, in the 20th century? What significance did a pile of rocks, and an old man, and a knife, have in the fulfillment of God's plan in each one of our lives?
Just about everything!