Last time, we continued our look at the Great Hall of Faith – Hebrews 11 – with a look at Abraham’s faith in God’s promise of an heir from his own body whom Sarah would bear to him when Abraham was a hundred years old. We saw that Abraham exhibited his faith in God’s promises through obedience to God’s calls throughout his life, and that God credited Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith in this promise to them for righteousness. The writer then briefly discussed the hope of Heaven which all Gospel believers share with those who have gone before – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, etc. That discussion in Hebrews raised the interesting questions whether the so-called Old Testament saints are “saved” and if so, exactly how they were or will be born again. We also looked at the corollary question whether those who never hear or never understand the Gospel can be saved. Although we could find no definitive scriptures in answer to these questions, we saw that because our God is a wholly righteous, and just God who has created mankind’s sense of right and justice in His own image – that whatever His final judgements might be, all mankind will agree on that Day that God’s judgements are righteous and true.
Hebrews 11:17-19 – The Great Hall of Faith – Part 5
The Hebrews writer now continues his exposition about the faith of Abraham with the story of the greatest challenge to his faith that Abraham ever faced – God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac – whom God had promised as Abraham’s heir.
17By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,”[Genesis 21:12] 19concluding 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
The story of God’s call for Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice is one of the most well-known in all the Word of God. Before we look at the story itself, recall from our previous study that Abraham was seventy-five years old when he first received the call from God to go to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12), and that his obedience was credited to him for righteousness. Sometime later (Genesis 15) God promised Abraham that he would father a son of his own to be his heir. Afterward, Abraham heeded his wife Sarah’s encouragement to father a son by her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, who subsequently gave birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael when Abraham was eighty-six (Genesis 16). God then repeated His promise of an heir to be born to Abraham’s wife Sarah when Abraham was ninety-nine, Sarah was ninety, and Ishmael was thirteen (Genesis 17). Finally, Sarah gave birth to her son Isaac when Abraham was a hundred years old (Genesis 21). Thus, Abraham had waited at least fourteen years, and as much as twenty-five years from the time Isaac was first promised, until his birth.
We find the story of God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac – the son of promise – in Genesis 22. This is one of the most intriguing and challenging passages in all the Word of God. Of course it is a tremendous testimony to the strength of Abraham’s faith, which is of course why the Hebrews writer chose it for special consideration in Hebrews 11. But it also raises some disturbing questions about the nature of God that are worthy of consideration. The story is well known among all people, not just among Christians and Jews. The story of God’s call to sacrifice Isaac has been heatedly debated, for thousands of years. Untold volumes have been written about it, and countless sermons have been preached about it. Since the story is so intriguing to almost everyone, we will examine it in detail.
1Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”Genesis 22:1-18 – NKJV
And he said, “Here I am.”
2Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
3So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”
6So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. 7But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!”
And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
8And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together.
9Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
11But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
So he said, “Here I am.”
12And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
13Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 14And Abraham called the name of the place, The-LORD-Will-Provide; [יְהֹוָה יִרְאֵה Yĕhovah yireh] as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
15Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— 17blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
Genesis 22:1 – Ordinarily, when we see the phrase “after these things” as here in Genesis 22:1, it is an indication that we should go back and determine the context of the passage that went before the one we are considering. However in this particular case, the context of the preceding chapter is wholly separate from the context of Genesis 22, so we may safely disregard it for now.
Genesis 22:2 – First, notice that God refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” Yet Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Indeed, Isaac’s older half-brother – Ishmael – being Abraham’s firstborn should have possessed the birthright later laid down by God in the law of Moses that the firstborn son was to inherit a double portion from his father. Yet Ishmael was not the child of God’s promise, and although Abraham and Sarah conspired to have Ishmael by Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant – Hagar – God Himself had already chosen the yet unborn Isaac as Abraham’s rightful heir, and as the one through whose line God would eventually bring forth Jesus – His own Son in the flesh. So why does God refer here to Isaac as Abraham’s “only” son? Perhaps it is a foreshadowing of God the Father sacrificing His only Son – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16- NKJV
God called on Abraham in Genesis 22:2 to journey to “the land of Moriah” and sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. The place is significant because Mt. Moriah is the central mountain of old Jerusalem (see Jerusalem map). It is the site of the threshing floor that King David bought from Araunah the Jebusite, upon which King David constructed an altar of burnt offering (2 Samuel 24). Later on King Solomon filled in the low land between Mt. Moriah and Mt. Zion to its south, and constructed the great platform we know today as the Temple Mount. Solomon built and dedicated the first Jewish temple on this site, which was destroyed by the Babylonians, and later rebuilt in a lesser form after the Babylonian captivity. This temple was greatly expanded and enriched by Herod the Great just before the time of Jesus. Mt. Moriah was the primary site at which burnt offerings were made by the Jewish priesthood from the time of King David until the destruction of Herod’s temple by the Romans in 70 AD.
Genesis 22:3 – Since Abraham clearly understood what God was asking him to do, it is apparent that a tradition of burnt offering was already established among the people of Abraham’s time, although it would not be formalized and standardized by the law of Moses until many centuries later. Although we know that Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness, and that Abraham demonstrated his faith (as we all must) through obedience, his actions described here in this verse seem strikingly cold. I find it frankly disturbing that Abraham offered no objections, but simply set about the mundane prerequisite tasks required to prepare for killing his beloved son, and then burning his dead body upon an altar.
Genesis 22:4-5 – Whole sermons have been preached, and numerous words have been written about the significance of the fact that the journey to Mt. Moriah took Abraham and Isaac three days. The period of three days is significant in God’s Word. Jesus Himself spoke of this.
38Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 39But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.Matthew 12:38-40 – NKJV
But what significance there may be in the length of time it took Abraham to reach the land of Moriah is unclear, so we’ll just leave it alone.
Genesis 22:5-6 – The word of God is unclear about exactly how old Isaac was when God called Abraham to sacrifice him. He could not have been more than thirty-seven, because his mother Sarah who had given birth to him when she was ninety or ninety-one, died later at the age of 127. Although Isaac may certainly have been much younger than thirty-seven when Abraham was called to sacrifice him, he could not have been a small child, because he was able to speak with his father and ask pointed questions, and he was strong enough to carry the wood for his own burnt offering the considerable distance from where he and his father had left the servants to the top of Mt. Moriah. The Hebrew word נַעַר na`ar we find translated in the NKJV as “lad” and in other English translations as “boy” in Genesis 22:5 may also be translated as “young man.” In fact, the same word is used earlier in the same verse to refer to the servants that Abraham and Isaac left behind to tend the animals.
Genesis 22:7-8 – Isaac asks his father an important question here in these verses. If it hadn’t already dawned on Isaac what his father intended to do to him, it seems that he’s beginning to understand at last. Abraham’s answer is intriguing. Was he trying to hide the truth from his son, or did Abraham himself believe that God would intervene at the last moment as we know He ultimately did? The Hebrew word translated as “provide” in Genesis 22:8 is רָאָה ra’ah meaning to see, look at, inspect, perceive, consider. Martin Luther translated this word into German as “ersehen” meaning “show.” Yet nearly every English language translation renders the verse similarly to the NKJV – saying that God Himself would provide the lamb for the sacrifice. Indeed, we see here in this story a foreshadowing of God providing Jesus whom John the Baptist called, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). But whether Abraham believed in his heart that God had already provided the lamb for the sacrifice – i.e. his son Isaac – or that God would ultimately provide another lamb in Isaac’s place just as He has provided Jesus – God the Son – as the atoning sacrifice for sin in our place, is unclear. The writer of Hebrews implies that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead after the burnt offering.
Genesis 22:9-10 – A great deal is made of Abraham’s faith exhibited by his obedience to God’s call for him to sacrifice his son Isaac. But what of the faith of Isaac? We see here no attempt by Isaac to resist or to run away. Indeed, he must have allowed his father Abraham to bind him and place him on the altar knowing by that time full well what Abraham intended to do. The abiding trust that Isaac placed in his father Abraham and in his heavenly Father is truly awesome, and humbling. Which of us has that level of trust in anyone or anything – even in God Himself?
Genesis 22:11-13 – Why did God challenge Abraham’s faith in this way? That our loving God would do such a thing is repugnant. Adamant atheists often rail against the idea that a benevolent God would abuse the trust of His faithful servant Abraham, by playing a such cruel emotional game with him. They argue that a loving God would never do such a thing, so therefore there is no such God. But the fact that God exists does not imply that human beings will always understand or condone His actions. In making this argument unbelievers neglect a fundamental truth about the nature of God. Our human minds only experience God within the limits of our own poor capacity for understanding Him. Here in this earthly life, we can never truly understand God and His actions.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!Romans 11:33 – NKJV
It is also curious that non-believers would seek to use the universal revulsion toward the idea that God would call upon one of His faithful followers to make such a sacrifice – in which both believers and non-believers alike share – as an argument against the very existence of God. This is somewhat akin to children plugging their ears and saying, “La la la la la. I can’t hear you,” when someone says something they don’t like as if their remaining ignorant of what is said will somehow change the facts. Although we might be repelled by the idea of God making this call on Abraham, we must certainly admit that since God created all things including Abraham and Isaac, He therefore has a perfect right to do whatever He pleases with His creation whether His creation likes it or not. In fact one might well argue that if the Bible is not the Word of the Living God, but was made up by men for their own reasons, then those purposes might have better been served by leaving out the parts that turn people off like the one found in Genesis 22, and sticking with the parts people enjoy hearing.
But all of that gets us no closer to understanding why God put Abraham’s faith to the test in this way. Certainly, God in His omniscience has known since before the beginning that Abraham would obey His call to sacrifice Isaac, so it could not have been to reassure Himself of Abraham’s faithfulness which He had already long-since credited to Abraham for righteousness. Most people are similarly uncomfortable with the story of Job. Why did God allow satan to inflict his tortures upon Job whom God Himself had said was “a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil [Job 1:8b]?” As with Abraham, God must have already known how Job would react to the troubles satan inflicted upon him – that he would not curse God for his troubles as Job’s own wife suggested he should (Job 2:9). Another case in which many might question the goodness of God is the story of Lazarus the brother of Martha and Mary, and Jesus’ own dear friend (John 11:1-44). Surely Jesus could easily have healed Lazarus’ illness from a distance as soon as He heard of it, just as He did when the woman of Canaan came to Him asking for healing for her deathly ill daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). In fact, Jesus the omniscient and omnipotent God in the flesh could also have prevented Lazarus from falling ill in the first place. Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus had suffered and died to raise him back to life instead of simply healing the illness that He knew would take Lazarus’ life?
In each of these cases, as with every other case in which God miraculously intervened in earthly affairs, we find that God’s purpose was not fulfillment of the events themselves, but rather to teach His children some object lessons through them – the most important of these being the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself. In the case of Lazarus, His purpose was clearly to teach Mary, Martha, those present on the occasion, those who read the story thousands of years later, and even Lazarus himself that Jesus – God with us – has power over life and death. In the case of Job, we find that the lesson was primarily for Job and his counselors to stifle their baseless pride, and humble them before Almighty God.
Aside – In Job’s case, the lesson was certainly not intended for satan,who is altogether irredeemable. We know from Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 20:10 that satan and his demons are going to be condemned to the lake of fire for all eternity. God has foretold satan’s eventual eternal condemnation, and He will certainly carry it out. The question is often asked whether satan will ever repent. Certainly we know from Isaiah 45:23 that God has sworn by Himself that one day every knee shall bow before Him. Presumably, that includes satan and his demons. However, that doesn’t imply that satan may be rescued from the judgement that awaits him. In fact, many of those present at the Great White throne where God will pronounce His final judgement upon all creation (Revelation 20:11-15) will join the devil and his angels in the lake of fire for all eternity. As the saying goes, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” As long as people live, they continue to have an opportunity to call upon the Name of Jesus our LORD and be redeemed from sin unto eternal life in Christ. But the Word of God is clear that satan and his angels are already condemned along with the beast (antichrist), and his false prophet who will be rulers during the great tribulation prophesied by John in the book of Revelation. We will need to wait for the Day of the LORD to learn the rest of God’s final judgement, but the final end of satan, his angels, the beast, and the false prophet we know already from God’s Word.
But what of God’s last-minute intervention cancelling His call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and His miraculous provision of the sacrificial ram in Isaac’s place? What lesson did God intend by it, and for whom? First, consider the effect of the episode upon Abraham himself. As I suspect many Christians do, I have often wondered whether my Christian faith will stand the test if it is ever profoundly challenged. If, God forbid, Christians alive today will live through the Great Tribulation foretold in Daniel, Matthew, and Revelation, will my faith be strong enough for me to refuse the mark of the beast, or will I renounce the Gospel to save my own skin (albeit only temporarily).
Jesus gives His believers reassurance against such doubts, that we will remain strong in faith by the power of His Spirit when challenged…
16“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. 17But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. 18You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. 21“Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 22And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.Matthew 10:16-22 – NKJV
Paul also reiterates this reassurance in his letter to the Corinthians…
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.1 Corinthians 10:13 – NKJV
Perhaps Abraham also had such doubts. But Abraham didn’t have this assurance from Jesus in God’s Word to rely upon as we do. No doubt, satan frequently brought to Abraham’s mind his moments of weakness in the past, such as when he lied to Pharaoh out of fear for his life about Sarah his wife, and persuaded her to corroborate his lie saying she was his sister, not trusting in God to protect them both. We know – just as the Hebrews writer stresses in Hebrews 11 – that Abraham was a true man of faith, and that his faith was credited to him for righteousness. But like all of us and virtually all of the great heroes of the faith we find in God’s Word, Abraham’s faith was far from perfect. Perhaps God put Abraham’s faith to the test here in Genesis 22 to prove to Abraham himself that his faith was strong enough to carry him through any situation.
What lessons might Isaac have carried away from this event? The renowned and outspoken atheist Professor Richard Dawkins has written of the profound effect such a mental trauma might have on a child…
A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such a psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders.’Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..
Quoted from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1331138-god-ordered-abraham-to-make-a-burnt-offering-of-his, July 1, 2019
Of course, the narrative we find in Genesis 22 makes no mention of Abraham justifying his actions to anyone except in answering his son’s question, “… where is the lamb for a burnt offering? ” Dawkins has simply made up his remark about the Nuremberg defence out of thin air, because after all it is always quite effective in the absence of any sound logical arguments when debating a question to compare one’s opponents to Nazis, albeit on the very thinnest of logical threads, and even if one’s opponents are the God of the universe Himself, and an old Jew who’s been dead for over three thousand years. But let’s just drop that for now.
What about Dawkins’ contention concerning the psychological trauma suffered by Isaac? Firstly, Dawkins is clearly unaware of the analyses that have been done concerning Isaac’s age at the time of the Genesis 22 story. Isaac was almost certainly not a very young child at the time, but likely a teenager or even older. But even if Isaac was very young and tender at the time, which memory is most likely to have affected him most profoundly throughout his life – the memory that his father had obeyed God’s call to sacrifice him, or the memories of hearing the very voice of the angel of God, and of God’s miraculous provision of the sacrificial ram in his place? But even if the memory of his father’s willingness to sacrifice him in obedience to God lodged most deeply into Isaac’s psyche, is that really such a bad thing? The major take-away from the story is after all, the reassurance of God’s blessing in response to faithful obedience – a lesson we might all do well to take to heart (particularly professing atheists like Professor Dawkins).
Of course, some of the lessons we can take from this story are the ones the Hebrews writer emphasizes…
- that Abraham’s faith – exhibited by his obedience – was credited to him for righteousness
- that God blesses us in response to our obedience
- that we too may receive the righteousness of God through our faith.
As we have seen, this is the overarching theme of Hebrews 11. But there is another message in Genesis 22 – the foreshadowing of God the Father’s sacrifice of His only Son Jesus for our redemption from sin. God’s provision of the ram in Isaac’s place was a model of His provision of Jesus – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – in our place to rescue us out of death which is our rightful punishment for sin. In fact, it could rightfully be argued that this is the primary message of the story.
Aside – Just as Abraham willingly obeyed God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, Jesus also obeyed His Father by willingly offering up Himself as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. This is an important point. It has been said that the Jewish leaders of His time killed Jesus, or that the Romans did, or that satan did, or that we ourselves did by our sins. But Jesus Himself says otherwise. Certainly all of these players were factors in bringing Jesus along His path to the cross, but He makes it abundantly clear in His Word that He had chosen to offer Himself up even before the foundation of the world. Even more importantly Jesus reminds us that He has overcome death through His resurrection, and that by His sacrifice and resurrection He has also won this victory over death for all people who will believe His Gospel.
14I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.John 10:14-18 – NKJV
17“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
Genesis 22:14 – We chose the name יְהֹוָה יִרְאֵה Yĕhovah Yireh Farm as the name for our Huppstead in Aiken. The name was taken from this verse in Genesis. Abraham must have been overjoyed to see the ram that God provided in Isaac’s place. It is a reminder to us that every blessing we have is a gift of God as James reminds us.
17Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.James 1:17-18- NKJV
Of course, most importantly, God has given us the perfect gift of His Son Jesus who came down from the Father to redeem us out of death, of Whom the ram provided in Genesis 22:13 was a portent as we have just seen.
Genesis 22:15-18 – Finally, we see in these verses, God’s reiteration of the promise of Jesus’ coming first given to Adam and Eve (and indeed satan) in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:15. It is worth our time to take a quick look at the word “seed” we find in verse 18. The Hebrew word is זֶרַע zera`. Literally, it means seed or a sowing, but figuratively here in this verse and many others, it means offspring, descendants, posterity, or children. In this verse, we find not only a reiteration of the first messianic prophecy given in the Garden, but also a narrowing down of the line of descent which would eventually lead to Jesus’ incarnation. Of course, Adam and Eve were the first ancestors of all mankind, but as Genesis continues, we find a narrowing of the Messianic line first to the seed of their son Seth, then to the offspring of Noah’s son Shem, and now here in Genesis 22 to the family of Abraham’s son Isaac. Paul gave a detailed exposition of this messianic prophecy in his letter to the Galatians.
Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.Galatians 3:16 – NKJV
Before we leave our study of God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, let’s take a brief look at the Hebrew’s writer’s comment at the end of Hebrews 11:19.
17By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,”[Genesis 21:12] 19concluding 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
As we have seen, the story in Genesis 22, is not only a testimony to Abraham’s faith which was credited to him as righteousness, but is also symbolic of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the remission of sin. By Jesus’ sacrifice, we have been delivered to our Father raised up from the dead, not just figuratively as Isaac was when the ram was sacrificed in his place, but quite literally since our sin brought death into the world (Genesis 2-3) out of which Jesus restored us to life by His sacrifice on the cross. Paul devotes an entire chapter to discussing this concept in his letter to the Romans. Here is a sample.
18Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.Romans 5:18-21 – NKJV
20Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Many people today, including many self-described evangelicals, have trouble with the idea of substitutionary sacrifice for the remission of sin. We examined this when we looked at the topic of blood in an earlier study, but it is worth repeating here. The Word of God is quite clear about it.
And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.Hebrews 9:22 – NKJV
Recall that Jesus Himself said that He had come to fulfill the Law.
17“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.Matthew 5:17-18 – NKJV
Here is another example of a concept that repels us. Did Jesus really have to be sacrificed on the cross for the remission of our sins? If God is a loving God, couldn’t he simply have forgiven our sins without the bloodshed? Yes, God is indeed a loving God. In fact God is the creator of love itself. But we also know that God is perfectly holy, just, and righteous. In His perfect holiness, He cannot possibly dwell in the presence of sin, yet he created us for the very purpose of fellowship in His presence, having given us free will so that we might be able to choose to love, honor, and obey Him, knowing even before He did so that we would rebel against Him in sin. God in His righteousness has defined for us exactly what righteous living is, but none of us on our own is able to live the perfectly righteous life that God requires. In fact, the Bible is clear that we are born into sin even from our mothers’ wombs. Here is where God’s justice comes into play, and with it His mercy and grace.
Consider a human judge hearing the case of a person who committed a terrible crime under our law like murder or rape. What if the perpetrator admits to having committed the crime, freely confessing that he knew what he had done was wrong, even as he did it. But the criminal is truly repentant about his crime, and solemnly swears he will never do any such thing again. If the judge were to consider the accused man’s true repentance as sufficient punishment for the crime, and sets the man free on the promise never to do such a thing again, would we consider that justice had been served. Certainly not! We would be outraged. So it is with God. His justice will be fulfilled just as Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18 as we have just seen. Furthermore, we know from Romans 6:23 that God’s only prescribed punishment for sin – any sin – is death.
It would seem that God had come to an impasse. In His righteousness and holiness, He cannot dwell in the presence of sin, yet in His love for us, He desires our fellowship and devotion. How could he reconcile this dilemma and establish truly righteous justice? In His mercy and grace, God established the principle of substitutionary atonement. To fulfill His justice, He would allow Another to take upon Himself the righteous punishment for sin – death – in our place so that not only might His justice be established, but He could thereby restore us into the place of fellowship with Him in His glory for all eternity. In His Law, God established an elaborate system of animal sacrifices among the Jewish people as a model of the true substitutionary atonement He Himself would one day establish. But this system was only a model. The animal sacrifices were never intended as a final and complete atonement for sin, nor could they ever possibly have provided it. The Hebrews writer said as much as we learned in a previous study.
1For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. 2For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. 3But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.Hebrews 10:1-4 – NKJV
Repeatedly throughout God’s Law, we find the requirement that the sacrificial animal was always to be without any blemish or imperfection. The sacrificial substitute for the remission of sin had to be perfectly righteous in His nature, and His actions. Only one being in the entire universe could fulfill this requirement – God Himself. Therefore He purposed before the beginning that God the Son would take on the flesh of the man Jesus of Nazareth to live the perfectly sinless life that was required by God’s righteousness, and then offer Himself as the substitutionary sacrifice to establish God’s justice.
Here again, we find a case where our human instincts rebel against the ordinances of God, mostly because we don’t fully grasp the true intensity of God’s perfect holiness, and His consequent abhorrence of our sin. If the truth be told, we rebel against this plan of salvation because we don’t grasp the full depth of God’s love for us which is so unfathomable that He conceived of this plan of salvation even before the beginning.
Next time, we will continue our examination of Hebrews 11 – The Great Hall of Faith – with a brief look at the stories of Isaac, Jacob. Then as the Hebrews writer does, we will examine the life and faith of Moses in some detail.