Faith in Focus

John 3:16 and the Sacrifice of Isaac

Easter time has come and gone and we've remembered again the significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the anguish of our Lord as he contemplated what his death would mean for him - separation from the Father and the weight of divine anger against human sin. In his bloody sweat, and his wrestling with the Father in prayer, we see something of how difficult it was for Jesus to pay this awful price and we marvel at his love. Familiar though they are to us, the arrest, trial and subsequent crucifixion of our Lord drive home to us the same lesson - the depths of the love that the Lord Jesus has for us and his willingness to undergo such suffering and pain on our account.

It is right and proper that we consider repeatedly what it cost our Lord Jesus to bring about our eternal salvation. But how often do we look at the events of the crucifixion from the perspective of God the Father and what it cost him to bring about our salvation? We read that most famous of gospel texts in John 3:16 and it thrills us that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son. But our very familiarity with biblical texts can sometimes result in a failure to give them the consideration they deserve.

While his approach to Scripture contained some fundamental flaws, the father of neo-orthodoxy, Karl Barth, made an interesting observation on John 3:16. He said, let's not forget the significance of that little word "only". In that word, we see something of the depths of the Father's love for the world and the price he was willing to pay for the salvation of his people. On this point, Barth was right. Let's consider John 3:16 against the background of another father and his action in relation to another son.

In Genesis 22:1 we are told that "after these things God tested Abraham." Abraham was certainly no stranger to tests of faith. It was a test for him to be told by God to leave his birthplace in Ur of the Chaldeans, which is south east of modern Iraq. It was a test for him to undertake the 1200k journey up the Euphrates river valley and then another 1200k down into the land of Canaan, which would later become Israel. These things were not easy. Abraham had to trust in God and believe in his promises. But this was only the beginning. When he got to the land of Canaan, he discovered that it could not even sustain his family. There was a famine in this land which God had said would be his, and Abraham was forced to go to Egypt. Another test of faith. It was a also test for Abraham to be told by God that he was going to have a child when his wife was barren and they both were beyond the normal years for bearing children. Again, Abraham had to reach out and trust in God's promise when all the circumstances were stacked against that promise. But the greatest test of all was the one that the Lord reserved until this later stage in Abraham's life when Isaac had grown to become a young man. In many ways we can say that all that God had done with Abraham had been training him for this last and greatest of challenges.

Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you (Gen.22:2).

This was a test on a number of levels. First and foremost there is the horror that any parent would feel at a demand like this. It is a severe enough test of faith when parents are called upon to stand by when one of their children is suffering. Imagine how Abraham must have felt on hearing this command to kill the son whom he loved. Still further, there can be no "oh well, let's get this terrible thing over and done with" type of response, for Abraham has to walk a three day journey to the place of sacrifice. There was plenty of time for him to agonise over what would happen at the end of the journey. When his son innocently asks, "Well, father, we have the wood and the equipment for making a fire, but where is the lamb?" all the father can do is answer somewhat evasively: "God will provide for himself the lamb" - literally in the Hebrew: God sees before himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son (vs.8).

There is something else as well. God says to Abraham: Take your only son and sacrifice him. Yet we know from the earlier chapters that Isaac was not Abraham's only son. He had another son whose name was Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise. It was Isaac who was the miracle child, born against all human odds, and it was Isaac whom God had said would bring the further fulfilment of the covenant promises. Without Isaac, how would Abraham become the father of a multitude of nations? How would he be an instrument for the blessing of the nations? Yet here Abraham is asked to put his only son to death. It was as if, in one fell stroke, all Abraham's hopes were to be dashed.

Small wonder that according to Hebrews 11, Abraham could only go through with this because he believed in the ability of God to raise Isaac from the dead. But still, all those natural questions must have plagued him. Why was God doing this? Why did he have to sacrifice Isaac? What is the point of it all? It must have seemed both senseless and contrary to everything Abraham had learned about the Lord throughout his life.

So what was the point of the sacrifice? The answer is that in this event, God was showing, in advance, what he would do with his own Son many centuries later. Abraham had offered up sacrifices in other parts of Canaan, including Beersheba where he was when he received this command. Yet God requires him to journey for a three day period to a specific mountain which would be revealed to him. A mountain in the land of Moriah. In 2Chronicles 3:1 we learn that Mount Moriah was the place where Solomon built the temple of God, and again, this was no accident. Solomon knew where to build the temple because the Lord had revealed the site to his father David. But if we go further on in the history of God's people, we come to a point in which God the Father sent his Son into the world - a Son who deliberately set his face towards that temple in Jerusalem, knowing full well what was coming when he went there. In his own way, as he sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, he wrestled with the question: "Where is the lamb of sacrifice?" "If there is any way, Father, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done." In his own way, he carried upon his back the wood for the offering as he bore his own cross to the place of slaughter - at least until someone else had to bear it because he was too weak to carry on. And where was the place of slaughter? A little hill just outside Jerusalem. We do not know whether this was the precise spot on which Abraham laid his son Isaac so many years earlier but it was certainly in the general region.

Go to the land of Moriah - and offer up your son. That's what God said to Abraham and God knew all along that one day, on that very mountain, he would take his only Son to the place of sacrifice. In this case, however, there would be no lamb caught in a thicket to stand in his place. There was opportunity to release him, because the Roman governor Pilate always allowed one prisoner to go free at the Passover feast. But the people did not want him released. Instead they called for a man named Barabbas, a man whose name, rather poignantly, means Son of the Father. The people already had their Messiah figure - their Barabbas - but the true Son of God was the stone that the builders rejected.

The point is that God knew all along that this would happen and he knew what he would accomplish with the death of his only Son. What was it that Abraham had said when the lamb was provided in the place of Isaac? Jehovah Jireh. God will provide. Literally: God will see. In the mountain of the Lord, God will see. But now with the death of Jesus upon a cross on that little hill outside Jerusalem, the proverb has changed. Now it reads: In the mountain of the Lord, God has provided. God has seen his own Son lay down his life in sacrifice for his people so that they would not have to suffer punishment for their own acts of disobedience against his perfect laws. And God has accepted that sacrifice as sufficient. Jesus stood in for you and me and took upon himself God's righteous anger which you and I deserved. This is the wonder and glory of Good Friday.

But if we understand anything about the relationship between the crucifixion of our Lord and the events of Genesis 22, let's understand the cost of this salvation to both Father and Son. Put yourself in the shoes of Abraham trudging on together with your only son, whom you love. Step by agonising step you draw nearer to the horror that awaits. If you can sense something of what Abraham must have felt, you can begin to understand something of the cost that it was for the Father to provide the lamb of sacrifice for a people who did not deserve that gift of love for a moment. That little word "only" in John 3:16 carries with it a wonder that leaves us bowing our heads and hearts in humility before a God who can give so much for the likes of us.

In the mountain of the Lord, the Lord has provided - at immense cost to himself. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, "since we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe" (Heb.12:28).

Michael Flinn

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised July 1998 / Copyright 1998