Images of the Savior (10 -- The Birth of Isaac)
Of all the notable things that could be said of the life of Abraham our father, without a doubt the most outstanding is only this: he was promised by the God of heaven, to whom nothing is impossible, that he should be given a Seed who would bless all the nations of the earth, and bring down the very presence of God to mankind. It stands to reason, then, that of all the types that we see displayed in Abraham's calling, wanderings, the covenant ceremonies he went through, and so on, one of the most notable should pertain to his being given a seed, quite apart from natural human means, as a testimony to the life-giving and promise-fulfilling power of the God who first called him out from his land and kindred. And in actual fact, this is precisely what we encounter in the birth of Isaac, Abraham's promised heir, and the most remarkable type of the virgin birth of our Savior in all the Old Testament histories.
We may see in very many particulars how well-fitted this birth was to foreshadow the birth of the Savior, promised many years before to our first parents, Adam and Eve. For first of all, Isaac's birth was preceded by a sovereign and unilateral promise of God to Abraham, that he had neither merited nor even requested beforehand. In the same way, when God first promised to send a Savior, it was a surprising response of unmerited and unsought favor to our parents who were marked only by guilt and shame in their audience with the Lord, and who had only wrath to expect from him (Genesis 3:15). Then, after making this sovereign and gracious promise, which to all human appearances seemed impossible, God allowed Abraham and Sarah to continue many years without their promised child; howbeit he did condescend to reaffirm his promise and so strengthen their faith at many times during their long wait (see Gen 12:1-3, then 12:7; 13:15-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-9, 19; 18:9-15). In the same way, after giving fallen mankind their first promise of the woman's Seed, God brought them through many centuries in which that expected and yearned-for Messiah had not yet come, but he never allowed his people to lose all hope, and sent many prophets to stir up their faith, and to reassure them of the faithfulness of God's word, and of the sure coming of the Seed.
In the next instance, we see most solemnly pressed upon Abraham and Sarah that their heir would indeed come, but that this would not occur until the precise appointed time, which thing our account in Genesis emphasizes twice, first in 18:14 and then in 21:2. Now, this speaks to the fact that the birth of Abraham's greater Seed was not at all random, but most minutely determined by the will of God, who prepared all things for him throughout all of world history, and then sent his forerunner, John, to prepare his way more particularly at the exact designated time (cf. Isaiah 40:3-5; Matthew 3:1-6; also, Malachi 4:5-6; Luke 1:13-17; Matthew 17:10-13). And thus it is as well that the apostle describes his advent thus: â€œBut when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, made to be of a woman, etc.â€ (Galatians 4:4). And then, we must mention two other noteworthy particulars: that God came down to speak to Abraham face-to-face when he told him of Isaac's birth, and that he emphasized most strongly that Abraham's heir should be of Sarah's own flesh (Genesis 18:1-15; see also 15:1-6); for in those things we are reminded of how God met face-to-face with Adam and Eve when he promised them a Seed who should bring them back to himself, and also how he emphasized that the Savior would truly be a Seed of the woman, that is, of very human flesh and blood, which is a most vital thing for our Savior to partake of, if he should satisfactorily fulfill his redemptive office (Hebrews 2:9-18).
We may observe as well how this â€œappointed timeâ€ was said to be in the Spring, which was called literally the â€œtime of lifeâ€ (Genesis 18:10, 14), and which was thought of in ancient times as the beginning of a new year, and even spoken of elsewhere as the â€œreturn of the yearâ€ (e.g. 2 Samuel 11:1). Now, this is evidently a type of Christ's birth, which might very truly be called the time of life, in that it made possible a new and eternal life for sinners dead in their guilt; and it also designated a new redemptive era, called by the prophets the â€œacceptable year of the Lordâ€ (Isaiah 61:2; cf. also Luke 4:16-21), and was used by later historians as the event to designate a new calendar, in which the years were henceforth called anno domini (A.D.), that is, â€œthe year of the Lordâ€. So the birth of Christ really did come at the beginning of a new year: and to this symbolic truth our celebration of Christmas well corresponds even today, seeing we celebrate the birth of the Savior in conjunction with the advent of a new calendar year; and also, right after the winter solstice has brought the darkest day of the year, from which point, light begins to increase, and the promise of Spring is assured; just as after Jesus came to earth, light began to flood the nations, bringing the promise of new life to all.
Then, we notice that God brought Isaac to Abraham and Sarah out of a twofold death, Sarah being naturally infertile in her prime, and also far past the age of child-bearing, even if she had ever had a fruitful womb (cf. Romans 4:19). In the same way, Jesus came to make a mockery of the twofold power of death over the human race, freeing them from the spiritual death in which they were held captive by the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15) and winning for them an eternal, resurrection life, which should overturn the effects of physical death on the body and in the world (1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 42-57; Romans 8:11, 18-23).
God also gave Abraham a seed from a womb that was naturally incapable of bearing seed; which he also did in a much more astonishing way when he brought forth the Messiah out of a womb from which by nature it was impossible that life should come forth, being that of a virgin maiden. This greatest birth in all of history displayed the life-giving power of God to an infinite degree, and certified that Jesus was in fact the Son of God (Luke 1:34-37); but this same power was whispered ahead of time in the miraculous nature of the birth of that first seed of Abraham and Sarah, our father Isaac, from whom as well their greatest Seed should come.
Then again, we see a hint of the effects of the Messiah's birth in the naming of Isaac, who was called â€œLaughterâ€ (which is the meaning of the name â€œIsaacâ€), first of all because Sarah laughed at the promise in unbelief, and similarly Ishmael laughed in mockery at him (Genesis 18:12-15; 21:9); but also, because she later laughed in joy and astonishment, and prophesied that all of God's people should so laugh with her (Genesis 21:6). In the same way, when Jesus was first born, the world despised and derided him, and laughed at him in mockery (see Psalm 22:7-8; 35:15-16; Isaiah 53:3; Matthew 27:27-31, 39-43); but then he made all his people to rejoice in him, and to laugh at their enemies (Philippians 1:25-26; 3:3; 4:4; Psalm 52:6-7; Revelation 19:1-3), even as he had come to laugh at them, once he had ascended to his throne in victory (Psalm 2:4; 37:13; 59:8; Proverbs 1:24-31).
Finally, we must make the application of these typical circumstances to our own lives: for we are crucified with Christ and given a new life in him (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:1; Romans 6:4-5), which is just the same in nature as that which was displayed in his own miraculous entrance into human life; and if we in our spiritual endeavors do not show the same evidence of the miraculous, promise-fulfilling, life-giving power of God, then we make clear that we are not Christ's at all, but rather of a different spirit altogether, and still in the grip of sin and death. Let us consider again the life of Isaac, with this end in mind.
First, Isaac came, not through the will of the flesh, but according to the promise of faith, Abraham believing in the resurrection power of God, and so being given this miraculous seed (Romans 4:18-25); then, once Isaac had been born of the promise, he was persecuted by his older brother Ishmael, who had been born of the natural efforts of the flesh, Abraham and Hagar having attempted to bring about the results of God's promise of an heir through their own efforts, and not waiting on him in faith (Genesis 16). However, Ishmael, the child of works, was cast out altogether, and not at all allowed to inherit the blessing with Isaac, the child of promise, who came by the expectant waiting of faith (Genesis 21:10). These circumstances have a typical application to our lives even today, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 4:21-31): for if we attempt to obtain God's promised blessings through our own works or efforts, then we are as Ishmael, born of natural means, and with no hint of that true, miraculous, divinely-engendered life which was perfectly displayed when God brought the Savior out of the virgin womb of Mary. And as we therefore have no true life, we have no part in God's inheritance of eternal life and joy in his own presence, but will instead be cast out forevermore. However, if we expect the promised blessings of God quite apart from our own works, but just because he is faithful who promised, then as Abraham we wait for the fulfillment of God's promise patiently and expectantly, and hope for the day when we will rejoice forevermore before our Christ, in an incorruptible body, not because we are worthy, but because God, who brings life out of death, has so promised; and even though the moralists and works-born religionists will hate and persecute us, we will be triumphant at the last, and inherit God's blessing. For he who brought Isaac out of the dead and barren womb of Sarah, and who brought Jesus out of the virgin womb of Mary, will surely bring us out of this barren and fruitless place of death, and fill us with the resurrection power of Jesus Christ, who has conquered death forevermore. Oh, let us rejoice in the birth of the Savior, and hope in the life-giving power of the God who brought him forth from the virgin womb, and who promises to sustain us as well with the miracle of eternal life in Jesus!
Jesus, how sweet your virgin birth,
Deep, lovely mystery:
Out from the unsewn womb sprang forth
God of eternity!
I kneel before your bed so rough,
My Savior in a feeding trough,
Divine before the world began,
And now in time become a man.