Biblical Faith, Part 5

2-5_abraham-sacrifice-isaac

In Matthew 17:20, our Lord made a statement that has echoed on and on for two thousand years and, generally speaking, it has been misunderstood for that long.

“It was because you haven’t enough faith,” answered Jesus. “I assure you that if you have faith as big as a mustard seed, you can say to this hill, ‘Go from here to there!’ and it will go. You could do anything!” (GNB)

Really? I’d wager you’ve had the exact opposite experience at least once in your life. Jesus wasn’t lying or exaggerating when He spoke those words. We simply don’t understand them. More often than not, we think with our hearts and not with our reasoning minds, so that we believe – we honestly believe – we can treat faith like a sort of magic charm, hauling it out when we get into trouble. But that’s not what faith is at all. Nor is faith a reward from God for our having faith. Some Christians actually believe this. Maybe you do; maybe you believe God rewards us when we exercise our faith. Granted, there is a germ of truth in this. In the initial stages of our walk of faith, God teaches us many things about our new Christian life, including how faith works. But as we get on in our Christian lives, we should quickly learn the inescapable fact that we do not earn anything through faith. Indeed, the real power of faith is that it brings us into a right relationship with God and it gives Him the opportunity to work in our lives as He sees fit.

Your experience, Matthew 17:20 notwithstanding, is probably the same as mine: God has to let you get to the very precipice of despair or hopelessness so that you will finally come into direct contact with Himself. God does this so that we will learn how to live a life of faith rather than an up-and-down emotional life based solely on the enjoyment of His blessings. Oswald Chambers said this:

The beginning of your life of faith was very narrow and intense, centered around a small amount of experience that had as much emotion as faith in it, and it was full of light and sweetness. Then God withdrew His conscious blessings to teach you to “walk by faith.”

Perhaps Chambers had in mind the words of the apostle Paul –

For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7 NIV)

“God withdrew His conscious blessings.” A test of your faith. Faith by its very nature is so easily taken for granted, or taken advantage of, it must be tested. But really the testing of our faith is much more than that. We are a very self-centered people. We think everything is about us. But as far as the testing of our faith goes, it has more to do with God’s character being proven to be completely trustworthy under any and all circumstances, than whether or not our faith passes muster. We must know – we must be convinced in our own minds – that God means what He says He means and that He will do what He promises He will do.

Abraham had his faith tested like none other.

While God was testing him, Abraham still trusted in God and his promises, and so he offered up his son Isaac and was ready to slay him on the altar of sacrifice; yes, to slay even Isaac, through whom God had promised to give Abraham a whole nation of descendants! He believed that if Isaac died God would bring him back to life again; and that is just about what happened, for as far as Abraham was concerned, Isaac was doomed to death, but he came back again alive! (Hebrews 11:17 – 19 TLB)

The greatest trial of all

Taylor’s paraphrase bings out an interesting fact. Abraham’s whole life was essentially a test. Every movement Abraham took from the moment he left Ur was a test. Part of that test was the greatest trial any man could ever endure: God demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Can you imagine the stress this caused in the patriarch’s mind? Here’s what he had been told by God –

Isaac is the son through whom my promise will be fulfilled. (Genesis 21:12 TLB)

All of the promises God made to Abraham were 100% dependent upon Isaac. He would grow into maturity and pass them on to his children. If Isaac were to die, God’s promises would simply evaporate; they would be meaningless. Can you see the conflict that surely must have been waged in the man’s conscience; the conflict between love for his son and his duty to God? Not only that, God had promised him an uncountable posterity through Isaac. So why would God now call on him to offer the boy as a sacrifice?

The simplicity of faith

Abraham didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t have any answers! Nor did he understand. All Abraham knew for sure was that he had to obey God in this. He’d already gone through something like this before, remember?

God had told Abram, “Leave your own country behind you, and your own people, and go to the land I will guide you to.” (Genesis 12:1 TLB)

Abraham was issued an impossible command, but he obeyed. And here, years later, God gave him another impossible command. Abraham knew what he had to do. He had to obey. But Abraham knew something else. After all the years of wandering, he knew God. He didn’t know how, but by now he had enough faith to know that God would work things out regardless of what happened to Isaac.

He believed that if Isaac died God would bring him back to life again

At the time of the patriarchs, this kind of miracle had never happened. Where did Abraham get this idea? Such was his faith. He reasoned with his mind – not with his heart – that God wouldn’t have him do anything that would jeopardize the promise. If Isaac died, then God would just bring him back to life. That’s the simplicity of faith in action. Abraham simply knew God would never do anything against His character. There was another man who had such faith: Job. In faith, he could write these words after he had lost everyone he loved –

“I came naked from my mother’s womb,” he said, “and I shall have nothing when I die. The Lord gave me everything I had, and they were his to take away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 TLB)

Of course, in Job’s case, the death of his family was “accidental.” But here, Abraham was being asked to take the life of his son. He was obedient. He fully complied with God’s command. In fact, had not God intervened at the last second, Isaac would have been killed.

It’s a powerful lesson to be learned – a lesson not only dealing with faith, but another mystery: love. Abraham’s faith was surely tested. To his great credit, Abraham demonstrated that in spite of his shortcomings, he had unwavering faith in his God. But he also demonstrated something else every modern Christian needs to understand: he loved God above anything else in life, even his son Isaac. Abraham’s faith was vindicated because his special son hadn’t become an idol to him.

A reasoning faith

But Abraham’s faith wasn’t a blind faith. Nor was it a slavish, robotic devotion. Abraham knew precisely what God’s Word to him involved: The promise would come to fulfillment through Isaac, and his descendants. His faith was based on that word. It wasn’t based on emotions or feelings; it was based solely on what God had told him. How different we are from Abraham! Our faith more often than not is motivated by things as flimsy as how we may feel at any given moment. We “feel” therefore we pray and have faith. If we don’t “feel,” then we don’t have faith. Abraham had the same feelings and emotions we all have, but his faith wasn’t based on the love he had for his son or how he felt at the moment. It was based on the Word God had given him. That’s all Abraham needed. His faith was objective, and that object was the God. That’s why we read this:

Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:19 NIV)

“Abraham reasoned that God…” Abraham knew God. He knew the power God had – power to even raise the dead! When faced with his test of faith, Abraham “reasoned.” He recalled everything he knew about God. He didn’t just blindly rush headlong in obedience. He thought, then he obeyed. He was convinced in own mind as to the character of God. And based on what he knew about God, he knew he had to obey. He knew he couldn’t lose. This is some powerful faith Abraham had. Remember, he didn’t have a New Testament to read. Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead yet. This patriarch simply knew God so well, that as far as he was concerned, God not only could raise the dead, but that He would raise the dead.

Abraham’s faith vindicated

As is His custom it seems, at the last second God intervened and provided a ram for the sacrifice. He instructed Abraham to offer that ram instead of his son, Isaac. The young man was spared, snatched from the jaws of death by an act of God. And Abraham’s faith was vindicated. So was God’s character, by the way. That’s not an unimportant thing. When a believer obeys in faith, God’s character will always be proven.

We sing a lot of hymns about faith. There are many Gospel songs and even secular songs that speak of faith. There have been many movies made about faith. Even a movie about potatoes and faith! But if this story proves anything, it’s that there is a strong connection between faith and obedience. Or, put another way, they are two sides of the same coin. One can’t exist without the other. Abraham learned that lesson thousands of years ago, yet it so often goes unnoticed today so that many Christians haven’t made that vital connection.

Simon Kistemaker shows us the sequence of events in Abraham’s life that allowed him to have the kind of faith we all desire:

Abraham believed and loved God, who promised him a son. After many years of waiting, Abraham received this promised son and loved him. Then God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. If Abraham sacrificed Isaac, he would keep God but lose his son. If he disobeyed God, Abraham would keep his son but lose God.

Indeed.  The problem so many Christians have is that they would rather have the blessings given them by God than God Himself. Faith, true Biblical faith, is faith in God exercised against everything that contradicts Him. True and lasting faith is faith that trusts and obeys God “no matter what.” Maybe the greatest expression of true faith in the Bible is this one:

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him… (Job 13:15 AV)

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