Kill your only son.
Let’s face it—that’s a tough Bible story to swallow. At face value, it assaults the very idea that God is love. Or does it?
New Testament scripture offers insight into this Old Testament mystery. John, for example, recorded a parallel of God’s call to Abraham:
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son” ~ Jesus (John 3:16).
“Take now Your son, Your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him there” ~ God (Genesis 22:2, NKJV).
James and Paul saw Abraham’s experience as something fundamental to believers in the New Testament (both of them included this story in their letters to the Christian church).
“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,’ concluding 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, NKJV).
Like Paul, James also commended the actions of this father of the faithful:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God” (James 2:21-23, NKJV).
So why is Abraham called a “friend of God” for offering up his only son? Do God’s friends offer their children in child sacrifice?
As a father of two my heart agonizes over Abraham’s trial and the crushing weight of darkness…
These Bible accounts pose another difficulty. James says that Abraham was “justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar” (James 2:21).
Justified by works?
By pagan, heathen, child-sacrificing works?
As a father of two, my heart agonizes over Abraham’s trial and the crushing weight of darkness that suffocated his every step towards Mount Moriah.1 That’s why to me, Abraham’s story of love, sacrifice and deliverance by faith is the most decided declaration of the Father’s heart in the entire Bible.2
First, it unfolds the plan of salvation in the parallel between the experience of Abraham and the Father of Calvary’s Lamb.3 In these biblical counterparts we see a frightening but beautiful shared experience between God and a man from Ur He called friend:
- Isaac’s birth was a miracle as was the virgin birth of Jesus (Genesis 21:1-7; Matthew 1:23).
- The three-day journey to Moriah during which Abraham’s heart agonized over his only son parallels the three days God’s heart agonized over the separation from His only Son (Matthew 12:40).
- Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from death. The Bible predicted that God would raise Jesus from death (Hebrews 11:19; John 10:18).
- Abraham led Isaac to Moriah and the altar of sacrifice. God led Jesus to the Temple Mount and Calvary (John 8:28).
- Isaac carried the wood to Moriah’s place of sacrifice just as Jesus carried the wooden cross to Calvary’s place of sacrifice (John 19:17).
- Abraham and Isaac, like God the Father and the Son, went “together” to make the sacrifice (John 10:18).
- The child Isaac was instructed by his father that he was the sacrifice just like the child Jesus was instructed by His Father that He was the sacrifice (Luke 2:49).
- The geographical location where Abraham offered Isaac was walking distance from where Jesus was offered.
- Both Isaac and Jesus willingly accepted the call of God to be sacrificed (John 10:18).
- Both Isaac and Jesus were bound (Matthew 27:2).
- Abraham raised up a knife against his son. God raised up a sword against His Son (Zechariah 13:7).
- Like God, Who “spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” Abraham offered up his only son (Romans 8:32, KJV)4
- Isaac trusted the character of his father just like Jesus trusted the character of His Father (Luke 23:46).
- Both Isaac and Jesus were delivered from death on the third day (Acts 10:40).
- Enduring the trying ordeal, both God and Abraham rejoiced in the ultimate triumph of the sacrifice (Isaiah 53:10; John 8:56).5
God shared with Abraham a miracle, an altar, and a sacrifice. Abraham and God both instructed, bound, and willingly offered their trusting sons together in death. Together they gave all, and together they were delivered and rejoiced in the ultimate triumph of their shared experience of faith and love.
Deliverance for Abraham came as his hand was stopped by the angel’s voice, yet the Bible recites the account as if it happened. Once, twice, yes, three times the New Testament affirms that Abraham gave his son as an offering.
“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (Hebrews 11:17).
“He that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son” (Hebrews 11:17).
“When he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21).
This New Testament declaration is based on the actual words spoken by God to Abraham:
“you have done this thing…” (Genesis 22:16, NKJV).
“and have not withheld your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:16, NKJV).
“because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18, NKJV).
Six times the Bible indicates that Abraham did it, that he obeyed God’s voice, that he did not withhold his son, but offered up Isaac upon the altar. Yes, his hand was stayed at the last minute, yet in heart, intent and purpose Abraham committed the act.
As affirmed by Jesus in His sermon on the mount, actions are not necessary for the deed to be done.
This is the second great lesson of the story—obedience is complete when inward surrender is complete. The outward act is not needed. As affirmed by Jesus in His sermon on the mount, actions are not necessary for the deed to be done. We are what we think whether or not the action is taken. We are what we will to be, and all true action is in the submission of the will.6
This heart sacrifice was an act of obedience by faith, affirmed as such by God (Hebrew 11:17). According to Genesis 22:16-18, Abraham’s surrender of his only son was the final victory of faith that opened the way for God’s blessing and the Abrahamic covenant.
Up to this point his faith had not been perfect. He had twice shown distrust of God in concealing the fact that Sarah was his wife, and again his faith wavered in his marriage with Hagar. God subjected him to another “test” of his faith and this would be the closest which man was ever called to endure.
It would be an overwhelming test for Abraham, partly because he knew the divine requirements of God’s law that included the command, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Sacrifice my son? As a father and as a believer in the one true God?—his entire nature must have recoiled from the idea. Was he under some kind of a delusion? Dark whisperings of doubt pressed in to assault his path of faith. How could God be requiring the very thing He forbids?7
If I had to choose between dying, or letting my son die, I’d die myself.
This story delivers an intimate look into the reality of the gospel by revealing to us the heart of the Father, making real His unconditional love for all humanity.8 Where else in all Scripture do we find such an agonizing portrayal of the Father’s experience?9 And if it is such, if Abraham is in this story reflecting the heart of the Father in His gift of His only Son, then is not God reflecting our response to such a gift? Should we not echo, in the light of Calvary’s cross, God’s own words back to Him, “Now I know that You love me, because You have not withheld Your son, Your only Son, from me.”10
There are many who have thought that the Father had no part in the sufferings of the Son; but this is a mistake. The Father suffered with the Son. If I had to choose between dying or letting my son die, I’d die myself. In this sense, the Father had it harder.
There is a third lesson from this story, the lesson of friendship. God considers all humanity His friend, but with Abraham friendship was reciprocal (Zechariah 13:6). Abraham embraced God’s ultimate sacrifice. In this shared experience the mutual friendship deepened. God the Father and Abraham the father gave their very all in a mutual solidarity of obedience and love.
- In order to obey God’s command, Abraham willingly offered up his only son.
- In order to uphold His commandments, God willingly offered up His only Son.
Abraham entered into a close bond of empathy with the Father’s heart-wrenching saga of love, faith and hope. Our tests seem so minor in relation to Abraham’s struggle (we had a difficult time letting our son go off to college). In Abraham we see God’s heart struggle with the decision to give His only Son for our sin.11
As a father, I can hardly imagine what Abraham endured to exercise the faith needed to offer his only son, but I guess that’s the point. In biblical history, only Abraham and Isaac were positioned to offer this poignant insight into heaven’s heart.12
Jesus broached this same subject of friendship with His disciples, as He was about to lay down His life for the world:
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15, NKJV).
A friend is one who stands closer than kin. Someone who laughs with you in the good times and supports you in the bad. Someone who feels what you feel, who hurts when you hurt. Friends experience a close bond of attachment and esteem through shared experiences, developing trust, loyalty and love. Abraham was called a friend of God because he knew what his Master was doing. Through this terrible test of faith, “all things” concerning the sacrifice of the Father were made known to him. Abraham knew by experience the heart of the Father. He knew because he did whatever was commanded him, even laying down Isaac, the love of his life, on the altar. Like God with Abraham, Jesus shared His “Moriah” with the disciples, seeking to show them the Father’s heart and draw them (and us) into close friendship with the Divine.
Through his terrible ordeal, Abraham experienced the very heart agony of God. His story is God’s story communicated to us with all the darkness, doubt, and love of a faithful friend. Friends, true friends, good friends, are a rare commodity in this present fallen world, yet God found one among us.
Abraham’s bond of friendship with God came through faith. This same friendship is gifted to us in Christ. In this story, it is our privilege to believe, from an inspired basis, just why Abraham was called “a friend of God.” Amen.
- “Moriah” in the Hebrew means “to see, perceive, have vision, consider, be seen, be shown” (Strong’s #7200). This word is connected to three key verses in the Genesis 22 story—verses 2, 8, and 14. In verse 2, God commands Abraham to take his son to the land of Moriah—“to see, consider, be shown.” In verse 8, Abraham tells Isaac that God Himself will “be shown.” Then in verse 14, Abraham calls the place of sacrifice “Jehovah-jireh,” meaning “in the mount of the Lord it shall be shown” (verse 14). The idea then is that God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac so that His ultimate sacrifice of His only Son on Calvary’s cross would “be shown” to Abraham and to us (see also Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 155).
- The heart of the human father yearns over his son. He looks into the face of his little child, and trembles at the thought of life’s peril. He longs to shield his dear one from Satan’s power, to hold him back from temptation and conflict. To meet a bitterer conflict and a more fearful risk, God gave His only-begotten Son, that the path of life might be made sure for our little ones. “Herein is love.” Wonder, O heavens! and be astonished, O earth! (Desire of Ages, p. 49).
- “The sacrifice required of Abraham was not alone for his own good, nor solely for the benefit of succeeding generations; but it was also for the instruction of the sinless intelligences of heaven and of other worlds. The field of the controversy between Christ and Satan—the field on which the plan of redemption is wrought out—is the lesson book of the universe. Because Abraham had shown a lack of faith in God’s promises, Satan had accused him before the angels and before God of having failed to comply with the conditions of the covenant, and as unworthy of its blessings. God desired to prove the loyalty of His servant before all heaven, to demonstrate that nothing less than perfect obedience can be accepted, and to open more fully before them the plan of salvation” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 154).
- “Abraham’s soul was torn asunder by the conflict of fatherly love and obedience to God. The narrative intimates this struggle by continually insisting on the relationship between the two. The command dwells with emphasis on it: ‘thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest.’ He takes with him ‘Isaac his son’; lays the wood on ‘Isaac his son.’ Isaac ‘spake unto Abraham his father’; Abraham answers, ‘Here am I, my son’; and again, ‘My son, God will provide.’ He bound ‘Isaac his son’; he ‘took the knife to slay his son’; and lastly, in the glad surprise at the end, he offers the ram ‘in the stead of his son.’ Thus, at every turn, the tender bond is forced on our notice, that we may feel how terrible was the task laid on him—to cut it asunder with his own hand” (MacLaren’s Commentary Expositions of Holy Scripture, Genesis 22).
- Abraham had greatly desired to see the promised Savior. He offered up the most earnest prayer that before his death he might behold the Messiah. And he saw Christ. A supernatural light was given him, and he acknowledged Christ’s divine character. He saw His day, and was glad. He was given a view of the divine sacrifice for sin. Of this sacrifice he had an illustration in his own experience. The command came to him, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest,… and offer him… for a burnt offering. Genesis 22:2.… This terrible ordeal was imposed upon Abraham that he might see the day of Christ, and realize the great love of God for the world, so great that to raise it from its degradation, He gave His only-begotten Son to a most shameful death. Abraham learned of God the greatest lesson ever given to mortal. His prayer that he might see Christ before he should die was answered. He saw Christ; he saw all that mortal can see, and live. By making an entire surrender, he was able to understand the vision of Christ, which had been given him. He was shown that in giving His only-begotten Son to save sinners from eternal ruin, God was making a greater and more wonderful sacrifice than ever man could make.… In the words of Abraham, “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8), and in God’s provision of a sacrifice instead of Isaac, it was declared that no man could make expiation for himself. The pagan system of sacrifice was wholly unacceptable to God. No father was to offer up his son or his daughter for a sin offering. The Son of God alone can bear the guilt of the world” (The Desire of Ages, pp. 468-469).
- “So we have the climax of the story—faith rewarded. The first great lesson which the interposition of the Divine voice teaches us, is that obedience is complete when the inward surrender is complete. The outward act was needless. Abraham would have done no more if the flashing knife had buried itself in Isaac’s heart. Here is the first great proclamation of the truth which revolutionizes morality and religion, the beginnings of the teaching which culminates in the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and in the gospel of salvation, not by deeds, but through faith. The will is the man, the true action is the submission of the will. The outward deed is only the coarse medium through which it is made visible for men: God looks on purpose as performance” (MacLaren’s Commentary Expositions of Holy Scripture, Genesis 22).
- Satan was at hand to suggest that he must be deceived, for the divine law commands, “Thou shalt not kill,” and God would not require what He had once forbidden. Going outside his tent, Abraham looked up to the calm brightness of the unclouded heavens, and recalled the promise made nearly fifty years before, that his seed should be innumerable as the stars. If this promise was to be fulfilled through Isaac, how could he be put to death? Abraham was tempted to believe that he might be under a delusion. In his doubt and anguish he bowed upon the earth, and prayed, as he had never prayed before, for some confirmation of the command if he must perform this terrible duty. He remembered the angels sent to reveal to him God’s purpose to destroy Sodom, and who bore to him the promise of this same son Isaac. He went to the place where he had several times met the heavenly messengers, hoping to meet them again and receive some further direction, but none came to his relief. Darkness seemed to shut him in, but the command of God was sounding in his ears, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest.” That command must be obeyed, and he dared not delay. Day was approaching, and he must be on his journey” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 148).
- “Again, faith is rewarded by a deeper insight into God’s will. Much has been said about the sacrifice of Isaac in its bearing upon the custom of human sacrifice. We do not believe that Abraham was led to his act by a mistaken idea, borrowed from surrounding idolatries. His position as the sole monotheist amid these, the absence of evidence that human sacrifice was practiced then among his neighbors, and, above all, the fact of the divine approval of his intention, forbid our acceptance of that theory. Nor can we regard the condemnation of such sacrifices as the main object of the incident. But no doubt an incidental result, and, we may perhaps say, a subsidiary purpose of it, was to stamp all such hideous usages with the brand of God’s displeasure” (MacLaren’s Commentary Expositions of Holy Scripture, Genesis 22).
- “None but God could understand how great was the father’s sacrifice in yielding up his son to death… It was to impress Abraham’s mind with the reality of the gospel, as well as to test his faith, that God commanded him to slay his son. The agony which he endured during the dark days of that fearful trial was permitted that he might understand from his own experience something of the greatness of the sacrifice made by the infinite God for man’s redemption. No other test could have caused Abraham such torture of soul as did the offering of his son. God gave His Son to a death of agony and shame. The angels who witnessed the humiliation and soul anguish of the Son of God were not permitted to interpose, as in the case of Isaac. There was no voice to cry, ‘It is enough.’ To save the fallen race, the King of glory yielded up His life. What stronger proof can be given of the infinite compassion and love of God? ‘He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’ Romans 8:32” (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 152-154).
- “Lastly, Abraham was rewarded by being made a faint adumbration [foreshadowing], for all time, of the yet more wondrous and awful love of the divine Father, who, for our sakes, has surrendered His only-begotten Son, whom He loved. Paul quotes the very words of this chapter when he says: ‘He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.’ Such thoughts carry us into dim regions, in which, perhaps, silence is best. Did some shadow of loss and pain pass over the divine all-sufficiency and joy, when He sent His Son? Was the unresisting innocence of the son a far-off likeness of the willing eagerness of the sinless Sufferer who chose to die? Was the resolved surrender of the father a faint prelude of the deep divine love which gave His only Son for us? Shall we not say, ‘Now I know that Thou lovest me, because Thou hast not withheld Thy Son, Thine only Son, from me’? Shall we not recognize this as the crown of Abraham’s reward, that his act of surrender of his dearest to God, his Friend, has been glorified by being made the mirror of God’s unspeakable gift of His Son to us, His enemies?” (MacLaren’s Commentary Expositions of Holy Scripture, Genesis 22).
- “Said the angel, ‘Think ye that the Father yielded up His dearly beloved Son without a struggle? No, no.’ It was even a struggle with the God of heaven, whether to let guilty man perish, or to give His darling Son to die for them.… I saw that it was impossible for God to change His law in order to save lost, perishing man; therefore He suffered His darling Son to die for man’s transgressions” (Early Writings, p. 127).
- “Abraham desired earnestly to be let into the mystery of redemption; and God, to instruct him in the infinite extent of the Divine goodness to mankind, who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, let Abraham feel by experience what it was to lose a beloved son, the son born miraculously when Sarah was past child-bearing, as Jesus was miraculously born of a virgin… Abraham, the most dignified, the most immaculate of all the patriarchs; Isaac, the true pattern of piety to God and filial obedience, may well represent God the Father so loving the world as to give his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die for the sin of man. But the grand circumstances necessary to prefigure these important points could not be exhibited through the means of any or of the whole brute creation. The whole sacrificial system of the Mosaic economy had a retrospective and prospective view, referring From the sacrifice of Isaac To the sacrifice of Christ; in the first the dawning of the Sun of righteousness was seen; in the latter, his meridian splendor and glory. Taken in this light (and this is the only light in which it should be viewed) Abraham offering his son Isaac is one of the most important facts and most instructive histories in the whole Old Testament” (Adam Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1831).