Faith Tested

Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14

Title: Faith Tested

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • God’s test
  • Abraham’s faith
  • Conclusion

Introduction:

When I was applying for ministry training with Carey College in Auckland they required us to do some testing

–         We were interviewed by a psychologist and by various other people and we had to sit a psychometric test

–         I remember being put in a small room by myself, given a questionnaire and told to answer as many of the questions as I could within a certain time frame – it wasn’t long, only about 30 minutes or so, if my memory serves me correctly

While I was sitting the test someone walked by the open window behind me – it was clear they needed help and so I was faced with a choice:

–         Do I stop what I’m doing to help them and thereby jeopardise my psychometric test results? Or, do I just ignore the person in need?

–         I decided to see if I could help the guy

–         I don’t remember what he needed now (it was nothing major) but it chewed up a few minutes and consequently I wasn’t able to complete all the questions

–         It didn’t matter though because they accepted me anyway

–         Carey must have been desperate that year

At the time I didn’t think anything of it but, it occurred to me afterwards, that maybe the guy stopping by the window asking for help was actually part of Carey’s test

–         I thought I was sitting a written tick box test when in fact the real test was whether I would interrupt what I was doing, while under pressure, to see to the needs of someone else. I guess I’ll never know.

 

Today we continue the series on Abraham, focusing on Genesis 22, page 24 near the front of your pew Bibles

–         Just to bring you up to speed, Sarah has by this stage given birth to Isaac, the long awaited son & heir to God’s promise

–         Ishmael & Hagar have left home and Isaac is probably in his mid to late teens by now, maybe around 17 or 18 years’ old

–         In these verses the Abraham cycle reaches its climax with God putting Abraham’s faith to the ultimate test. From Genesis 22, verse 1 we read…

Some time later God tested Abraham; he called to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham answered, “Yes, here I am!”

“Take your son,” God said, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.”

Early the next morning Abraham cut some wood for the sacrifice, loaded his donkey, and took Isaac and two servants with him. They started out for the place that God had told him about. On the third day Abraham saw the place in the distance. Then he said to the servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice, and he himself carried a knife and live coals for starting the fire. As they walked along together, Isaac spoke up, “Father!”

He answered, “Yes, my son?”

Isaac asked, “I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide one.” And the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place which God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he picked up the knife to kill him. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!”

He answered, “Yes, here I am.”

12 “Don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him,” he said. “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.”

13 Abraham looked around and saw a ram caught in a bush by its horns. He went and got it and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “The Lord Provides.” And even today people say, “On the Lord‘s mountain he provides.”

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us

 

God’s test:

In the 1971 movie version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka is in search of someone to take over his chocolate business

–         To select the right person, someone he can trust, Mr Wonka devises a test

–         Those lucky children who win a golden ticket get a tour through his chocolate factory

–         Before they enter the factory however, a villain by the name of Slugworth, approaches each child individually and offers to pay them a large sum of money if they will steal an everlasting gobstopper for him

–         During the factory tour each child gets given an everlasting gobstopper and so the test is set

One by one each of the children eliminate themselves by some moral failure until only Charlie is left – but even Charlie has disqualified himself by stealing fizzy lifting drink, so he is dismissed by Mr Wonka without getting anything

–         Charlie’s grandpa Joe storms out in a rage determined to sell Slugworth the everlasting gobstopper but, even though there is nothing in it for him, Charlie quietly leaves the gobstopper on Mr Wonka’s desk

–         Charlie would rather remain in poverty than betray Mr Wonka

–         “So shines a good deed in a weary world”

–         Charlie has passed Mr Wonka’s test and inherits the chocolate factory

 

Genesis 22 starts with the narrator telling us that God tested Abraham saying…

–         [Please] Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.

Probably the first thing we notice here is how out of character God’s request is

–         It does not make sense, it goes against who God is, it seems to be a contradiction of God himself

–         Previously the Lord had promised a son to Abraham & Sarah, and Isaac was born. It was Isaac that God said would inherit the promise

–         Isaac was the one through whom God’s blessing would flow

–         And yet God is now telling Abraham to kill Isaac

–         “The command and the promise of God are in conflict” [1]

Quite apart from being illogical, God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his teenage son seems immoral

–         Some centuries later, in the Bible, God makes it clear that child sacrifice is evil and therefore not to be practised, although at that point in history the law had not yet been given

–         What we have to keep in mind here is that God never intended for Isaac to be sacrificed – as verse 1 makes clear, this was just to test Abraham

–         We might listen to this story and think that Isaac’s life is at risk here

–         But Isaac’s life was not at risk – we know God would not have let any harm come to Isaac because of the promises God had made about Isaac

–         The real risk here is to Abraham’s relationship with God – because it’s the relationship that’s being tested

–         Will Abraham trust God with everything?

–         Of course Abraham doesn’t know it’s a test, at least not yet, just as Charlie didn’t know he was being tested by Mr Wonka and just as I didn’t know the true nature of my test to get into Carey – this sort of test only works if the one being tested doesn’t realise it’s a test

 

The other thing, which isn’t so obvious in our English translations, is the gentleness or tenderness with which God speaks to Abraham here

–         Most English translations have God saying: Take your son…

–         But the Hebrew has a particle of entreaty attached, which gives this phrase a feeling of tenderness:

–         Please take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love so much…

–         Gordon Wenham sees here a hint that the Lord appreciates the costliness of what he is asking Abraham to do [2]   

It’s interesting that God requires Abraham to travel to Moriah to make the sacrifice. Moriah is 3 days journey away from Beersheba

–         Three days walking and thinking

–         Three days for the reality of what God is asking to sink in

–         Three days to change your mind

–         But Abraham doesn’t change his mind

 

The exact location of ancient Moriah is disputed – some say Moriah is where the temple in Jerusalem would later be located, which has a certain poetry to it

–         But others say this is unlikely

–         What is perhaps more significant (and more knowable) is the name itself

–         Moriah is derived from the Hebrew word ra’ah which primarily means to see to or provide

–         So in the very word Moriah (which means something like provision) we have the seed of salvation & deliverance [3]

–         If Abraham reads between the lines then he will find a hidden message of providence from God

The bigger principle we draw on for our own application is that God’s testing usually contains his provision, his salvation, his grace

 

In Mark 10 we read how Jesus tested a man who came to him. From verse 17…

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.’ ”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

 

This gospel story shares a number of things in common with Abraham’s story in Genesis 22

–         In asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was basically asking Abraham to give up everything

–         Likewise Jesus was asking the rich man to sacrifice everything

–         And, in both stories, the Lord’s testing contained his provision, his salvation, his grace

–         We’ll get to God’s provision for Abraham shortly but in the case of the rich man, Jesus wasn’t asking him to sacrifice everything for nothing

–         Rather he was saying that his giving to the poor would be transferred for him into heaven, so it wouldn’t be lost

–         What’s more Jesus wasn’t asking the rich man to step into a vacuum

–         Rather he was inviting the rich man to walk with him – so the man would be provided for within the community of Jesus’ followers

–         The Lord’s testing contained his provision – it just required a step of faith

 

Another thing we note is the Lord’s love

–         God was testing Abraham in a spirit of love – not in order to catch him out or disqualify him

–         Likewise we read that Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him

–         Jesus wasn’t trying to make it harder for the rich man – he was helping to set the man free so it would be easier for him to find eternal life

–         To be tested by God is difficult but it’s also a sign of respect & affection

–         If God tests us it’s because he believes in us – he thinks we will pass the test. God doesn’t test us beyond what we can handle

–         His testing is done in love, to strengthen us – it is not meant to destroy us

 

There’s at least one more thing these two stories share in common

Walter Brueggemann says:

–         “God tests to identify his people, to discern who is serious about faith and to know in whose lives he will be fully God” [4]

You see, it’s possible to obey God in some aspects of our life but not in others

–         The reality is: God is Lord of our life in those aspects where we trust & obey him, but something else is lord of our life in those aspects where we don’t trust him and therefore don’t do what he wants

–         For God to be fully God of our whole life we must be willing to trust him with every aspect

–         The whole meaning and purpose of Abraham’s life hinged on Isaac

–         So in asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac God was asking everything of Abraham

–         By choosing to obey God in this, Abraham was saying that he trusted God completely with Isaac’s life and with the meaning of his own life

–         Therefore the Lord knew he could be fully God in Abraham’s life

In the case of the rich man and Jesus (in Mark 10) we don’t know what the rich man chose in the end – we only know he went away sad

–         If he chose his wealth over Jesus then he was basically saying he didn’t trust God with his wealth and consequently he wasn’t willing to allow Jesus to be fully Lord of his life

 

Okay, so we’ve talked about God’s testing of Abraham

–         Now let’s consider how Abraham handled God’s test

 

Abraham’s faith:

Verse 3 tells us that early the next morning, after God had told him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham cut some fire wood, loaded his donkey and headed off to Moriah with Isaac and two servants

–         The point is, Abraham wastes no time in obeying God

 

As they draw near to the place, Abraham tells the two servants to stay where they are, while he takes Isaac with him

–         Isaac carries the wood & Abraham carries the knife & coals for the fire

–         As Christians we look at this picture and are reminded of Jesus who carried a burden of wood on his back in preparation for his sacrifice on the cross. Isaac points to Jesus.

 

As they walk along Isaac asks Abraham, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?

–         And Abraham answers, “God himself will provide one”

 

The Hebrew word for ‘provide’ used there is ra’ah – from the same root used for Moriah – it means to see to it, as in God will see to it

–         Our English word ‘provide’ comes from the Latin word ‘pro-video’ [5]

–         Video means to see and pro means before

–         So pro-video means to see before

–         God is able to provide because he can see what is needed beforehand

–         Abraham doesn’t know how God will provide he simply trusts that God will see to it – such is Abraham’s faith in the Lord

 

In verse 9 we read that when Abraham came to the place God had told him about he built an altar, arranged the wood on it, bound his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood

 

Again we see something of Jesus in the way Isaac submits to his father’s will

–         As a boy of 17 or 18, strong enough to carry a heavy load of fire wood, Isaac could have easily resisted his elderly father – but Isaac doesn’t resist, he is the picture of meekness

–         What was it Jesus said? Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Isaac actually did inherit the land

 

Abraham lifted the knife and was about to kill his son when, at the last second, the angel of the Lord called to him, from heaven, to stop

–         Speaking on God’s behalf the angel said, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.”

–         This sentence is interesting, especially the first part…

–         Now I know that you fear God…

 

What does it mean to fear God?

–         In the Bible, to ‘fear God’ is a term which basically means to obey God

–         Fear God is code for obey God

–         People might obey God for any number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with fear, in the sense of being terrified or anxious

–         In this context Abraham doesn’t obey God because he’s scared of what God might do to him if he disobeys

–         No. Abraham is remarkably calm about all of this – he obeys God because he trusts God and believes God will somehow provide a way

 

But the really interesting thing here is that little phrase at the start of the sentence: ‘Now I know…

–         ‘Now I know’ seems to imply that God didn’t know something about Abraham previously

–         What? Isn’t God supposed to know everything already in advance?

–         Shouldn’t the Lord have known beforehand what Abraham would do?

 

John Walton offers a good explanation I think. He writes…

–         “We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience[6]

–         You see, there are different types of knowledge, aren’t there

–         There’s knowing something in your head, cognitively, and there’s knowing something practically, from experience

 

Cognitive knowledge by itself is not enough – it’s less than satisfying

–         For example, I have here a bar of chocolate

–         Looking at this bar of chocolate I know cognitively (in my head) that I will enjoy it, but knowing that in my head doesn’t actually satisfy me

–         It’s only when I experience the chocolate by eating it that I know the enjoyment of it

 

Or take another example…

–         R. knows cognitively (in her head) that I love her, but if she went through our whole marriage only ever knowing that in her head, then we would have a pretty sad and empty marriage

–         But when I do the housework or I buy her something I know she likes

–         Or I give her my undivided attention and listen to her

–         Or I tell her how much I like what she is wearing, or I take her out on a date or on a holiday, then she knows in her experience that I love her

–         And knowing something in your experience is far more satisfying

 

Because we believe that God is all knowing we can agree that God knew, cognitively, what Abraham would do (in advance) – but he didn’t know it in his experience until Abraham actually obeyed him

 

God’s test enabled the Lord to taste the quality of Abraham’s faith

–         I believe God experienced Abraham’s faith as genuine and pure

–         We know his faith was genuine because he obeyed God

–         And we know it was pure because Abraham obeyed even though there was nothing in it for him & in fact obedience would have cost him dearly

–         Knowing the purity (the quality) of Abraham’s obedience of faith, in his experience, delighted God, it blessed him

 

When was the last time you did something for God that caused him to know, in his experience, that you love him?

–         We can demonstrate our love for God in a whole variety of ways, both large & small

–         We can put our shopping list prayer aside for a few minutes and spend time simply adoring him, praising him, telling him how much we appreciate and value him

–         We can love those people he places around us – even people we find difficult

–         We can forgive others as he has forgiven us

–         We can give the Lord our undivided attention, spending time in the Bible trying to listen to what he is saying

–         We can follow the promptings of his Spirit

–         We can respond in obedience to his call on our life

–         And when it feels like our life is being emptied and we can’t see the way ahead we can trust that God will provide a way, somehow

 

In verse 13, having been stopped by the angel of the Lord, Abraham looks around and sees God’s provision in the form of a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Abraham sacrifices the ram and Isaac lives

–         Then Abraham named that place Jehovah Jireh, ‘the Lord provides’

–         And guess what, the Hebrew word translated as provide is: Ra’ah

–         God saw beforehand what was needed and put the ram there in advance

 

Conclusion:

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes this comment on Abraham’s faith…

 It was faith that made Abraham offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God put Abraham to the test. Abraham was the one to whom God had made the promise, yet he was ready to offer his only son as a sacrifice. God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I promised.” Abraham reckoned that God was able to raise Isaac from death – and, so to speak, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death.  [7]

The writer of Hebrews is drawing a connection between Abraham’s faith and our faith, as Christians, in the resurrection of Jesus

–         If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved. [8]

 

It has been a testing time for many people in this congregation lately

–         Some of you have experienced significant loss and all the pain and disorientation that goes with that

–         In Genesis 22 God preserves Isaac’s life, but we know from our own experience that he doesn’t always preserve life

–         To those of you who have lost the Isaac in your life, the good news is: death does not have the final say. God has provided a way

–         Through Jesus’ resurrection God has seen to it that our losses can be restored and our mistakes redeemed

 

Let us pray.

–         Loving Father, save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

–         But if it is your will that we be put to the test, grant us the grace to keep trusting you and give us eyes to see your provision within the test. Through Jesus we ask it, Amen.

 

Questions for Discussion & Reflection

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    How do you feel reading this story of Abraham being tested by God?

3.)    Have you ever sensed that God was testing you in some way?

–         How? What happened?

4.)    In what sense was God’s test of Abraham illogical and even a contradiction of God’s own character?

5.)    Compare & contrast God’s testing of Abraham in Genesis 22 with Jesus’ testing of the rich man in Mark 10. How are these stories similar? How are they different?

–         How is God’s love evident for Abraham and the rich man?

–         How did God provide for Abraham and the rich man within the test?

–         Is there any aspect of your life that you are yet to trust God with?

6.)    Can you think of other examples from the Bible, or from your own experience, where God’s testing also contained his provision?

7.)    In what ways does Isaac remind us of Jesus?

8.)    What does it mean to fear God?

9.)    In what sense did God not know? (refer Gen 22:12)

10.)       How do we know when our faith in God is genuine?

–         How do we know when our faith in God is pure?

11.)       Take some time this week to express your love for God.

 

[1] Calvin quoted in Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis, page 188.

[2] Gordon Wenham quoted in Paul Copan’s book, ‘Is God a Moral Monster?’ pages 47-48.

[3] Paul Copan, ‘Is God a Moral Monster?’ page 48.

[4] Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis, page 193.

[5] Karl Barth referred to in Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis, page 191.

[6] John Walton, NIVAC on Genesis, page 514.

[7] Hebrews 11:17-19

[8] Romans 10:9

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