Hebrews 11:8-12, 17-19, “The Faith of Abraham”

[8]By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would after receive as an inheritance.  And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  [9]By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; [10]for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
[11]By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who has promised.  [12]Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude – innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.
[17]By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, [18]of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” [19]concluding that God was able to raise him us, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.  (NKJV)

(We believe that vs. 13-16 refers to people other than Abraham, though he may be included.  We’ll look at them in our next post.)

Abraham is one of the most-often-mentioned people in the Bible.  Indeed, his life forms the basis for a great deal of Biblical revelation and teaching, if not the majority of it.  Except for the Lord Jesus, perhaps no other person had more influence on the content of Scripture than Abraham.
In addition to Hebrews 11, there is Romans 4:16, which also mentions the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.  The term “father” isn’t used in the sense of “generation,” but of “relationship”.  Though the Bible doesn’t clearly support the term “spiritual Israel” to describe “the church,” it does clearly teach, to coin a phrase, that we are “spiritual Isaac,” Galatians 4:28.  That is, believers aren’t the children of Abraham “naturally,” but “spiritually.”
As the child bears a certain resemblance to the parent, so does “spiritual Isaac” resemble Abraham, particularly in the matter of his “faith.”  That we might not fall into the delusion that “faith” is mere intellectual acceptance of certain facts or doctrines, or that it is simply some sort of magic formula by which we may obtain our fondest desires, let’s look at what our text says about “the faith of Abraham”.

1. His faith did the impractical, vs. 8-10.

He left his native land (and family), v. 8.
His story begins in Genesis 12.  Ur was no insignificant little town, but a major metropolis of its day.  In v. 8, the thing that gets me about this move was that he didn’t know where he was going.

Have you ever thought about this?

Abraham comes home one day and says to Sarah,”Start packing.  We’re going to move!”  And Sarah replies, “Oh?  Where?”  And Abraham says to her, “I don’t know.”  And then, when the moving camels begin to appear around their home, the neighbors ask, “Where you going?”  And they reply, “We don’t know.”

There’s something else.

He lived inas in a foreign country“, v. 9.
Though it was his by promise, he never owned any of it, except for a parcel of land where he buried Sarah and some of his descendants buried their dead, Genesis 49:29-33; 50:12, 13.
In the words of the old Gospel song, “This world is not my home,” though I think we tend to forget that.  One day, that house we spend so much time fixing up, or that car that we think so much of – all gone!  Or if they’re not, we will be.

2. His faith believed the impossible, vs. 11, 12, 19.

The story of this is found in Genesis 17 and 18.  Abraham and Sarah had been married long enough for it to become evident that she was barren.  God promised Abraham a son, Genesis 17:1-8.  In all fairness to Sarah, considering what happened with Hagar before the birth of that son, God didn’t specifically say that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Since she was his wife, though, that might be taken for granted.  He did specifically mention her after the birth of Ishmael, Genesis 18:10, more than thirteen years later.
What Sarah did was a common practice of the day.  Indeed, later on, four of Jacob’s twelve sons were born to women in situations similar to Hagar, Genesis 29, 30.
I guess this serves a lesson to be careful about how we approach the promises of God.  Perhaps it serves to remind us that, when we can’t figure out how God is going to do something, or if it seems that He’s not doing anything, we better not try to figure out how we are going to do it.  After all, the current uproar in the Middle East is a direct result of what they did all those centuries ago.  Something common, acceptable and legal.
It’s true that Hebrews doesn’t mention all this.  God doesn’t deny the faults and failings of His people, but He doesn’t dwell on them like the world does, and He doesn’t define them by their shortcomings.  Perhaps there’s a lesson for us in this, as well.  We’re not defined by the mess we tend to make of things, but by the grace and mercy of God.  There are no “self-made” Christians.

3. His faith did the inexplicable, vs. 17, 18.

The world has a huge amount of difficulty with this episode, recorded in Genesis 22:1-19.  I even heard a character on TV ask, “What kind of a father does that to his son?””

The answer: the kind of father that Abraham was.

You see, Genesis isn’t all that’s said about this.  Hebrews 11 gives us a look “behind the scenes,” if you will, into the mind of Abraham, though Genesis does give us a glimpse there.  When Abraham was giving instructions to the two men who accompanied him and his son, as they were being left behind while Abraham and Isaac continued on, Abraham said, “The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back,” Genesis 22:5.  Actually, it loses a lot in translation.  The sentence shows strong determination.   What Abraham really said was, “We are determined to go, we are determined to worship, we are determined to return.”

And notice that Abraham rose early in the morning  to be obedient to God.  There was no half-hearted or reluctant response, though God hadn’t made it “easy” for him:  “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…,” Genesis 22:2.
1. He didn’t argue that this was inconsistent with or nullified the promise of a lot of descendants.
2. He believed God could do something that no one had ever yet seen – resurrect a dead body, Hebrews 11:19.  That’s how he was able to say, “We will return….”
3. Though Isaac wasn’t actually killed, he was sacrificed!

There are some misconceptions about the part Isaac played in all this.  Just yesterday, I saw a picture where he’s shown as 10 or 12 or so, with Abraham’s arm around him.  It’s a common view, if not the usual one.

For the last part of the journey, Isaac himself carried the wood, Genesis 22:6.  This wasn’t just a couple of sticks.  And when it came time for Abraham to prepare him for the sacrifice, based on the fact he was able to carry a heavy load up a mountain, Isaac would have been well able to defend himself and prevent it.  He was a willing participant.  This shows a great respect for and trust in his father.  Perhaps also for the God of his father, Genesis 22:8.  What do you suppose passed between father and son when God did indeed provide for Himself the lamb?  Do you think they had any trouble “worshiping”?  Needed any special “music”?  Do you think Isaac ever forgot those moments?

Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that faith is “easy.”  And maybe “faith” as the world defines it is.  A few little religious formalities.  Or even a lot of them.  An ornate religious building.  Special days and seasons of the year.  But the “faith of Abraham” isn’t so easy.  Our Lord said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” Matthew 16:24, 25.

“Take up his cross.”  I think we misunderstand this, too.  Perhaps a long-suffering spouse with a less than ideal spouse might think this is a “cross” to bear.  Perhaps some situation in life – health problems, financial difficulties, or some other burden.  We’ve never seen a cross, at least as it was used in executions.  We’ve prettied it all up and made it respectable, but it was an ugly thing.  It wasn’t a “burden of life;” it was an instrument of death!

Picture a condemned man carrying a cross to his execution.  In the crowd watching him, he might see his wife and children.  He might pass some friends.  He might pass his place of business or where he had worked.  He might have made plans for the future.

None of this mattered.

He was carrying his cross.

At the same time, to “carry our cross” doesn’t mean that we simply abandon everything and go out into the desert somewhere.  It does mean that if there’s something preventing us from serving God as He would have us serve Him, we do have to abandon that.  We have to “deny ourselves.”

And, no, it’s not easy.

4. His faith received the immeasurable, v. 12; Romans 4:13.

Abraham gave up a great deal, and was willing to give up even more.  Did he lose?

Not in the least.

He was promised –

An innumerable family, Genesis 22:12.

God used two figures to show the number of Abraham’ posterity:
1. stars of the sky.  We’ve dealt with this in another post, so will just recap here.  Even as late as the 17th Century, men had only catalogued a little over a thousand stars.  It wasn’t until January 7, 1610, with the first telescope, that Galileo began the discovery that the stars are indeed innumerable.
I can imagine what the “science” of Abraham’s day might have said – and yes, I know I’m reading into the text here – “That’s not possible!  That’s not scientific!”  So God uses another figure.
2. sand which by the seashore.  Of course, I suppose that science and rationalism, in whatever form they might have taken back then, would exclaim, “Aha!  There are contradictions in the Bible!” – just like they do today.  “There are only a few stars!  Nothing at all like the sand of the sea!”  But now we know that God was right.  And the skeptics were wrong.

He still is.  And they still are.

An inconceivable future, Romans 4:13.

Paul wrote that Abraham was promised that he would be heir of the world.  This isn’t the place to get into a lengthy discussion of the different views of prophecy.  I’ve done that in several other posts.
Let’s just leave it with 2 Peter 3:13, we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, [or, “is at home”].

I can’t wait!

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Abraham and Isaac

This is about one of the more “difficult” passages of Scripture.

Genesis 22:2 (NKJV), “Then [God] 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.”

This is perhaps one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible.  “What kind of God would demand that you sacrifice your son?”  I heard this or something like it a few years ago on a popular TV show.  I’ve mentioned that I spend a lot of time on Yahoo Answers’ Religion and Spiritual section.  Two or three times, I’ve seen the question, “What would you do if God asked you to kill your son?”  You can imagine some of the answers.

It is a perplexing thing to many.  Why DID God require this of Abraham?  Without going into a lot of speculation. let’s see if we can make some sense of all this.  Note that there are three main characters in this scenario: God, Abraham, and Isaac.

God.  What was God doing, asking such a thing of a devoted believer?  Genesis 22:1 says that all this was a “test”.  There are some who use this verse and others like it to claim that God isn’t omniscient, that is, all-knowing.  He was testing Abraham, so these folks say, so He could find out what Abraham would do, what kind of faith he had.  I submit that this test was so that Abraham could find out what kind of faith he had.  It’s easy enough to say, “I believe God” when the Sun’s shining, but not so easy when things go South.

And God didn’t make it “easy.”  Notice the language: “Take now – your son – your only son Isaac – whom you love….”  Making sure that Abraham understood what he was doing.  Besides all that, Isaac was the channel through whom blessings were to flow to humanity.  Yet God said, “Take him and sacrifice him.”  It’s true that God had no real intention that Isaac should die, but Abraham didn’t know that.

Abraham.  Genesis 22:3 has got to be one of the most amazing verses in the Bible: “So Abraham rose early in the morning….”  I wish I could underline this:  “early in the morning.”  No hesitation, no questions, just got up to go and do what God had told him to do.  Four men on a three-day journey.  I can’t help wondering what thoughts went through Abraham’s mind.  

Isaac.  I’ve seen pictures showing Isaac as a young boy accompanying his father on this journey.  Some have pictured him as such, helpless and unable to defend himself from a cruel and heartless father.  However, v. 6 tells us that he was able to carry the wood for the sacrifice.  This was more than just a couple of sticks.  Isaac would have been well able to refuse and prevent his father from laying him on the altar when the time came.  His father was probably 115, or older.  Isaac was probably at least an older teenager; I heard one preacher say that Isaac was 33 years old, like Jesus going to the Cross, but there’s no way to know that for sure.  He was, however, old enough that he had to be willing to go along with his father.

He was also an observant young man.  In verse 7, we read of his asking his father, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”    This brings us back to Abraham.

Abraham, v. 8.  We mentioned a moment ago the thoughts that must have gone through Abraham’s head.  I think that by morning Abraham had already settled his mind on this matter.  Note what he told the two young men who accompanied him and Isaac on this journey.  When they got within sight of their destination, “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’,” v. 5.

 “WE will come back to you….”  The Hebrew text is even stronger: “We are determined to go, we are determined to worship, we are determined to return.”  Was this just something Abraham said to cover a bad situation, or did he really mean it?  Or, perhaps he was  delusional, an old man overwhelmed by a tragic situation?  

We can’t be sure of the exact sequence of Abraham’s thoughts, but the New Testament gives us some insight into them.  Hebrews 11:17-19 says, “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 even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.”

In other words, Abraham knew God, he trusted God.  Now, the rationalists of his day, like those of our day, might have said, “Now, wait a minute, Abraham.  Show us tangible, verifiable evidence that God can raise anyone from the dead.  No one has ever come back from the dead.  It’s not scientifically possible.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.”  Granted, in Abraham’s case, he could have pointed to Isaac, who had been born miraculously, and said, “Here’s my evidence.”  The point is, in this case, Abraham trusted God in spite of “the evidence,” that is, that he was going to have to kill his son, so far as he knew, and no one had ever, up to that time, been raised from the dead.  He knew that God had promised great blessing through Isaac.  Indeed, he was to be the continuation of the Abrahamic line.  Perhaps Abraham reasoned something like this:  if God were to be faithful to that promise, then He would have to raise Isaac from the dead.

Abraham didn’t look at the situation; He looked at God.  God knows what He is doing, even if we don’t.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, how can we know – really know – what God is doing?

But that’s not the focus of this story; it’s on Abraham’s answer to his son’s question; his response to the query about a lamb:  Abraham answered, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering,” v. 8.  This brings us back to God.

God.  God stopped Abraham at the last possible moment, humanly speaking.  He doesn’t always act when, or how, we think He should.  Leaving aside what God told him about his obedience, there was “a ram caught in a thicket by its horns,” v. 13.  God had indeed “provided”.

Centuries later, John the Baptist cried out concerning the Lord Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world,” John 1:29.  The incident of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing, a “type”, of the Lord Jesus.  This is how Paul, in Galatians 3:8, could say that “God preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand.”  Granted, Paul doesn’t specifically mention the death and resurrection of Christ, but it’s only through that death and resurrection that “all nations of the earth shall be blessed,” Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4, where the promise is repeated and verified to Isaac himself.

As that ram became a substitute for Isaac, so the Lord Jesus became a substitute for sinners.  As the ram was sacrificed in the place of Isaac, so the Lord Jesus was sacrificed in the place of sinners.  The Gospel isn’t, “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  The Gospel is that God has provided a substitute and a sacrifice for those who believe on Him.  He has given the answer to our sin problem.  God imputed the sins of those who would believe to Christ.  As it were, those sins became His, even though He was sinless and perfect and holy.  Christ suffered the punishment due those sins.  Conversely, God imputed the righteousness of Christ to believers, though we are anything but righteous.  God looks at believers as being as righteous as Christ, because His righteousness has been credited to them.

When my firstborn son was just an infant, I was someplace where there was a crying baby.  He was having a fit about something, as babies know how to do! I had never liked crying babies, but as I looked at this red-faced little fellow, somehow I saw my own son – and it was alright.  God looks at believers and, instead of seeing our failings, sins, stubbornness and general all-around unworthiness, He sees His Son, in Whom He is well-pleased.  And it’s alright.  Not that we can live as we like, as some charge, or that we don’t have responsibility to live holy lives by the grace of God.  It’s that we’re accepted because of the Lord Jesus Christ, not because of what we do.  God has provided for Himself – and for us – a Lamb.

As I said at the beginning, this is a controversial passage.  I’ve tried to explain it Scripturally.  I hope it’s been a blessing to you.  If you still have any questions, I’d be glad to try to answer them.

“To the praise of the glory of His grace.”