NOTES on Hebrews
11:17-19 (click here for study)
God had already promised Abraham that he would both make and give him a great blessing, that he would give him the land of Canaan, and that his descendants would become a nation. After getting off track with Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham finally received God's sovereign blessing: a miracle son born to him and his elderly wife Sarah. Now God does the unthinkable: he asks Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering to Him.
When God called Abraham out of Ur, he responded without question or complaint and moved his family to Haran. After his father Terah died, Abraham packed up his household and moved on to Shechem in Canaan, on the Egypt, and back to Canaan again.
When God told Abraham to circumcise all the males in his household, Abraham obeyed the same day. When God told Abraham to listen to Sarah and to send Hagar and Ishmael away, he did so immediately.
When God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham did not argue with God. He took wood, food, servants, and Isaac and began his trek to the mountain.
Genesis 22:1 says that "God tested Abraham". This was not the only time God tested his people. He tested the Israelites to see if they would follow his instructions about gathering manna. When God delivered the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the people were frightened by the thunder, lightning, trumpet, and smoke, Moses calmed them, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning." (Ex. 20:20) He tested Israel during their forty years of desert wandering in order to see if they would obey him. (Deut. 8:2)
David praises God that he tested Israel with slavery, oppression, and great trials and finally brought them to "a place of abundance." (Psalm 66:12)
James says that those who withstand the test of trials "will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12)
Hebrews says that Abraham passed God's test by faith. Part of being in a relationship with God is being tested for one's loyalty to and faith in him. Abraham was the father of the new people God was creating for himself. He talked with God, and he had to trust him even in the most obscure situations.
Abraham had been walking and talking with God for many years by the time he received this command. He had discovered over and over that God was faithful and that he could trust Him. Abraham had, in fact, already trusted God in the process of "losing" his first born son, Ishmael. Now God was asking him to give up even Isaac. He was asking Abraham to give all he cherished to God and to hold on only to Him.
When God tests his people, the tests are never about their strength of will power to do arbitrary things for God or to keep the law. God's tests are always at the heart level. God's tests always challenge us to trust him. God isn't looking for clean and obedient law-abiding people. He's looking for people who know him and will trust him no matter into what circumstance he leads them.
God is not capricious and self-centered. He is sovereign, and he plans for each of us to have hope and a future. When he tests us, it is always a test of our relationship with him. It is always a test of our trust in him, not of our ability to do good or arbitrary things to prove our love. God does not want our good works. He does not want us to do things to prove our love. Rather he wants us to love him so he can accomplish his work in and through us.
God called Isaac Abraham's "only son". Literally, he was Abraham's second son. God told Abraham, however, "it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In the grand scheme of God, Isaac was the son of promise, and through Isaac, God's people would come. Ishmael had not been part of God's promise of blessing. He was the result of Abraham's efforts to make God's plan happen. In God's plan, Isaac was the son God counted as Abraham's seed.
In this exchange with Abraham, God was giving the first symbol of his sacrifice of Jesus. God would send his only Son to earth as a sacrifice. Just as Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice, Jesus would carry his cross until the soldiers conscripted Simon of Cyrene to carry it.
Abraham's unhesitating willingness to carry out the sacrifice demonstrated not only the faith of a man who trusts God but also the selflessness of God the Father who gave up His Son.
Just as Abraham was about to plunge his raised knife into Isaac's chest, the angel of the Lord called urgently, "Abraham! Abraham!" He instructed Abraham not to kill Isaac, and at that moment Abraham and Isaac spotted a ram caught in the bushes. The ram replaced Isaac on the altar.
This is the first instance a substitutionary sacrifice is mentioned in the Bible. Killing Isaac would have served no purpose, but Abraham's willingness to trust God modeled the relationship God wanted to have with his people. The ram took Isaac's place. Since Isaac could not prophetically function as Jesus and literally die, the ram completed the symbolism by dying in his place. In this way the ram foreshadowed the Lamb of God who would die for the sins of the world, the Lamb who would take our death onto Himself.
Abraham did not know what God planned to do through the sacrifice of Isaac. Hebrews 11:19 tells us, however, that he reasoned that even if Isaac died, God could raise him from the dead. There is no hint of bodily resurrection in the Bible before this story. Abraham, however, knew and trusted God so completely that he considered such a miracle possible. He knew God had specifically promised that his offspring would come through Isaac. He believed that promise of God.
Knowing God personally gave Abraham the confidence and insight to see that God could resurrect as well as create life. He knew first-hand that God could bring life into existence when nature, unaided, could not. Isaac was his proof. Further, John prophesied millennia later that the Lamb had been slain since the creation of the world. (Revelation 13:8; 17:8) Knowing God gave Abraham the spiritual certainty that God could bring even the dead back to life.
Theme Kept Alive
After providing a substitute sacrifice for Isaac, God made a point to keep the theme of substitution alive before his people. When he gave the law and organized the Israelites in the wilderness, one of God's requirements was that all the firstborn animals and children belonged to him. This was not an unusual demand from the Israelites' point of view.
The pagan gods of the nations around them demanded the sacrifice of every family's firstborn. God was revolutionary; he claimed the firstborn, but he provided a substitute, or a process of redemption, so the firstborn could live and stay at home. (Exodus 34:19-20)
God provided a specific sacrifice or offering that the Israelite's could bring to the temple to redeem their firstborn flocks. He provided the Levites to substitute for the firstborn children. (Numbers 8:16-19) The Levites, those of the tribe who were not in the immediate family of the priests, were to serve at the temple. Each Levite took the place of an Israelite firstborn, redeeming him from leaving home and living a life dedicated to the temple and its service.
God also provided sacrifices to take the place of the lives of the Israelites when they sinned. He required them to bring certain animals to the temple to atone for sin and guilt. Each of these substitutions was temporary; they all pointed ahead to the one complete substitute: Jesus. His life and death would take the place of all humanity's death for guilt and sin.
Obedience and Faith
"By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice," this passage in Hebrews begins. (v. 17)
This unquestioning obedience was important for two reasons. The first was the prophetic role Abraham played in illustrating the earliest revelation of God's great love and commitment to the substituionary death of Jesus. The second reason Abraham's obedience was important was that he demonstrated obedience by faith.
Faith in God is not complete unless we stake our lives on it.
"Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did." (James 2:21-22)
We can give mental assent to believing God and to accepting Jesus' sacrifice by faith, but if we can't risk what we love the most in order to be true to God's call on our lives, our faith is a theory, not a reality.
Jesus had to be obedient to his Father when he was a man on earth. "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:8-9)
As a human, Jesus had to learn to live by faith when his flesh experienced extreme assault, during his forty days in the wilderness, during his ordeal in Gethsemane and on the cross, and during the rest of his ministry. Jesus had to be obedient by clinging to his faith in his Father. He couldn't have survived the assault on his mind, body, and soul if he simply exercised his perfect will power. He had to have the strength of his Father's love.
Christ-followers are called to be obedient to the commands of Jesus. "I ask that we love one another," John says in 2 John 6; "And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love."
Obedience to Christ dos not depend upon our rigidly adhering to certain rules. Some of the world's most diabolical organizations function by strict adherence to rules and codes of conduct. Obedience to Christ depends upon a new focus: Jesus. It depends upon a new heart.
"Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess." (Hebrews 3:1)
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy.' " (1 Peter 1:14-15)
The biblical commands to be obedient, however, would be frustrating and ultimately disillusioning if we did not have the Holy Spirit indwelling us.
For a Christ follower, obedience is not about the law. Obedience is saying yes to the Holy Spirit and to Jesus. We're no longer stuck with a law and good intentions. We have the indwelling Lord of the Universe, the Living Law, the Holy Spirit, and now we answer to Him directly.
"The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
Life In the Spirit
There is only one way we can live obediently by faith. To be obedient the way Jesus asked us to be we must be born again. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
When we are born again, we die to our old life of works and law-keeping. We become connected to God by the Holy Spirit's living in us.
"Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit." (Romans 8:2, 4)
When we become born again we live a new kind of life. "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Sprit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." (Romans 8:13-14)
When we accept Jesus, he sends his Spirit to live in us. "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-to the praise of his glory." (Ephesians 1:13,14)
When we receive the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit also become ours-behaviors and attitudes that are impossible for us to maintain on our own. These things are completely the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23)
When we are born again and sealed by the Holy Spirit, we begin to experience the discipline and the prompting of Jesus in our hearts and minds. We begin to be able to react in ways and to make decisions that normally would be impossible for us to do. We begin to be obedient to Christ.
Obedience to Jesus is different from obedience to the Ten Commandments. Although God's intent for his people in both covenants was to have a relationship with him in which they honored him, the reality of the old and the new covenants was different. In the old covenant the rift of sin still split the universe. Living by faith was possible, but being one with God in a new birth, Holy Spirit-sealed union was not yet a reality.
Today we live by faith, listening and responding to the minutest nudging of the Holy Spirit and doing what he asks of us, no matter how startling or inconvenient. In the new covenant, living obediently is a mark of having received the Holy Spirit. Only by His power can we go beyond behavior and live in union with God, at peace and at rest in our souls because we are trusting him and allowing the Spirit to transform our attitudes and perceptions and motives.
God is asking you to trust him implicitly. He is asking you to be willing to surrender to him the person or things that you treasure the most. Jesus wants you to be willing to give up your comfort, your family, your reputation, your power-your "Isaac", whatever that is-for Him. He wants to provide for you; he wants to surprise you with his love and care, but he can't do those things for you as long as you hang onto your treasures at any cost. As long as you maintain control over your life, God can't do for you the things he wants to do.
As long as you clutch your right to feel angry or bitter or aloof or withholding, God cannot heal your relationships or fill your heart with peace. As long as you wear your love for your loved ones as a badge of honor, clutching and manipulating them in the name of concern, God cannot create mutual respect inside those relationships.
God's surprising grace has already intersected your life. He asks you to recognize it as his gift to you instead of rationalizing it away. He wants you to be vulnerable to his care and provision. He wants you to feel convicted of your habitual ingratitude and self-protecting objectivity. He wants you to experience your hurt and disappointment and sadness instead of pushing them aside and refusing to face them.
God is asking you to give up your carefully controlled design for your life. He is asking you to release your claim on your most treasured gifts from him. God is asking you to allow him to define you and to love you stripped of the persona you have created for yourself. He wants you to trust him enough to give up your most compelling identity: mother, father, businessman, professional, artist, benefactor, peacemaker, perfectionist, negotiator-whatever it is you most prize about yourself, God will ask that you lay it at his feet and allow him to be your identity instead.
Just as Abraham had to act on his faith in God and be willing to obey his Lord even when His command seemed contradictory to His promise, you have to sacrifice God's greatest gift to you when he asks you to let it go. In order to experience the freedom and restoration God wants to establish in your heart, you have to be willing to follow him even when his call to you takes you away from everything you love and take for granted.
The miracle is that when you do surrender to God's call and sacrifice your dearest treasures to him, he gives back to you love, peace, a sense of belonging, and a secure identity.
When we finally risk the ultimate obedience and walk away from everything we hold dear for the sake of being true to Him, only then do we experience the indescribable joy and freedom that is our inheritance. We can only experience the fullness of his grace in our lives when we trust him enough to follow him into the unknown.
Jesus wants to be your sole identity. He asks you to trust him. He asks you to take that step off the cliff into the uncharted future of living by faith.
He wants to surprise you with himself.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised July 1, 2001.