Over the past few Sundays I have been leading my youth through the book of Genesis, so when it finally came time to present the story of Abraham and Isaac I began to look into the common biblical themes of sacrifice and a willing heart. In the end my lesson became both an Old and New Testament tale. This lesson spans over four different tales of sacrifice and the lessons we can take from each of them.
Abraham is the father of Israel and viewed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as a strong pillar of their faith. At age seventy-five God has promised him a son, but God did not give him a son through his wife Sarah for over twenty-five years. During this time Abraham tried to force God to work several times, and each time it failed or backfired on the old man, but God was good to keep his word and his son Isaac was born to him.
God had promised that through Isaac, Abraham would become the father of a great nation that would eventually be a blessing to the entire world. Isaac was not only Abraham’s son, but also his hope for the future and a physical incarnation of God’s promises being fulfilled. So when the events of Genesis 22 come around they come as a shock to the reader.
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, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
– Genesis 22:1-2
This seems like madness to many of us. Abraham had been faithful (mostly) to God for his entire life and Isaac was the promised child that Abraham waited twenty-five years for. Isaac was the one who would form a great nation that would produce a blessing for the entire world, so how is it now that God is asking Abraham to sacrifice all of this? Abraham is not only being asked to give up his son, but also his legacy, and all the promised gifts of God. Despite being given this incredibly difficult task, we see that Abraham complied:
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded 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, 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?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
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.
At this point we are looking at what is potentially going to be one of the most powerful moments in the Old Testament. We are bearing witness to a father about to slay his son with a knife and offer him as a burnt offering. This is a father who is willing to give the greatest gift God has ever given him back to the Lord as an act of total obedience. The pain Abraham must have been feeling in this moment must have been unimaginable, and fortunately the story does not end the way most people would have expected.
But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“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.”
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. 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.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Abraham proved his obedience to God by showing his willingness to give up the thing he loved most. Abraham proved in this act that he held God in a higher position than anything on earth, and as a result he is remembered today by millions today as the father of their people.
Lesson 2: The Rich Young Ruler
Where Abraham shows a great willingness to follow God, the “Rich Young Ruler” shows us a glimpse of one who was completely on the opposite side of the coin. In this story, a rich young man wants eternal life but is unwilling to part with some earthly treasures to obtain it:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said,“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
This story of sacrifice (or an unwillingness to do so) seems pretty cut and dry to most of us. This young ruler was pretty full of himself having thought he had kept all the laws since he was a boy, but in the end he still had something that he was not willing to give up. This young man wanted eternal life (not to follow Christ, but simply to reap the rewards) but in the end he wasn’t willing to part with his wealth and earthly comforts even for life eternal. What a fool, holding on to shiny coins when he had to opportunity to follow the Son of God and join in eternity, but before we are too quick to judge we must consider how we would respond if put in a similar situation. Are we holding on to stuff so much that we will be unwilling to part with it if God calls on us?
Lesson 3: The Family Men
In an often misunderstood story we see that Christ can, and will, sometimes call us to give up more than just our personal wealth and possessions. In Luke 9:57-62 Jesus makes it clear that even something like family should not stand in the way of you answering the calling God placed in your life. In this account two men are given the opportunity to become disciples of Christ, but before they commit the both claim they have family matters that need to be resolved first. Jesus makes it clear that even something as wonderful as a good family cannot take precedence above serving the Lord:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
For many readers Jesus comes off as a bit of a jerk in this passage. Surely he was not in such a rush that he couldn’t wait for a son to bury his recently deceased father, and what kind of person would ask someone to leave their life behind and follow him without even the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones? These men weren’t greedy like the rich young ruler, they were family men who wanted to honor their loved ones. The problem here is not a willingness to sacrifice, but a hesitation. Where as the disciples we know from scripture dropped everything and followed the Lord, these men hesitated. They wanted to follow the Lord, but they valued their family more, and when the time came they put their family first. In most cases putting family first is considered nobel, but when it hinders your willingness to further the Kingdom of God then you have made an idol out of your family. By asking the Son of God to wait for them to deal with family matters first, they essentially were saying “I’ll get around to following you God, but first I have some more important things to deal with.” Like the rich young ruler, these men were holding onto gifts so tightly that they completely missed the one who had given it to them. I have no doubts that as those three men lived to see their wealth or wonderful families gradually fade (as all earthly things do) they must have looked back on the day they had a chance to be a disciple of the Son of God and wondered what could have been.
Lesson 4: A God Who Sacrificed
So we’ve established that following God means that sometimes we are called to make sacrifices. On cannot live for himself (or for any other cause) and still be fully devoted to God, or as scripture says:
“A man cannot serve two masters”
Our hearts need to be fully devoted to God and furthering his kingdom. I am not saying that wealth, family, or worldly things are always bad, but I am saying that we need to remember never to put any of them before God. To say that this is a difficult task is to majorly understate just how impossible it is for us to live this out. We are selfish and worldly. You and I will fail at this, and thankfully God is merciful and delights in forgiveness. The thing we have to remember is that we don’t worship a God who just makes demands and calls for us to sacrifice all the time (although in our selfish worldly mindset it can sometimes seem like that). Let us never forget that it was God who gave you life and he create every wonderful and beautiful thing you have ever experienced. Best of all he willingly sent his beloved son to die so you would be spared the pain of death. This is the fourth, and ultimate story of sacrifice and willingness:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
So if we ever find ourselves wondering how on earth God could call us to give up ______. Remember what he first gave up for you. God gave of himself to suffer and die to take the place for you and your sins out of love. God is always in the business of providing what’s best for his children, and sometimes that might require us to suffer through things we don’t understand or perhaps give up some things we love. Growth sometimes is hard and often times what is best doesn’t come until we give up some of the lesser things we so often king to. God has a great plan for you, but in order to get there you might have to be willing to give up somethings, but I promise you that following God will be infinitely better than whatever it is you are afraid to lose. We worship a God who was willing to hang on a cross for you, so shouldn’t we be willing to make some sacrifices for him?