Images of the Savior (11 -- The Offering Up of Isaac on Mount Moriah)
We have already observed how perfectly fitted the miraculous conception and birth of Isaac was to foreshadow the virgin birth of Abraham's true promised Seed, Jesus Christ; and now, as we continue to examine the details of his later history, we come to find as well that God was pleased to arrange circumstances in such a way as to make his life prefigure in an astonishing and unsurpassed manner the substitutionary offering of Christ on the cross. This truth, from the outset, should serve to underscore the illimitable worth and precise centrality of the atoning death of Christ: his virgin birth, as sweet and awe-inspiring as it was, had no other end than the bloody death of Calvary which should follow it some thirty-three years later. The virgin birth was a mighty and necessary step toward a great end; but the end itself was Calvary. We see this relationship hinted at also in the life of Isaac, Abraham's first promised seed, who was given a miraculous birth just to have it taken away from him violently and unseasonably (in a figure) by the very God who had brought him into the world in the first place.
Before we may understand the significance of what is about to occur, we must remember that Isaac was the first of the innumerable seed that God had promised to Abraham, and also the one in whom was said to be the true Seed who should bless all the nations. By every human way of thinking, therefore, it was vital for the fulfillment of the promises that he should live, and not at all suffer an early death, before he had been able to extend Abraham's line, so that his offspring might begin to multiply and eventually bring the Messiah into the world. As severe a test of faith as it was for Abraham to wait on God's promise to bring him a seed from the barren womb of Sarah, this further test must have been much weightier yet; he had seen God's mighty power springing to life and confirming his oath, and yet now, when the promise is almost tangible, will he cut off all hope of the promised victory and blessing by a senseless and bloody death, exacted merely to please himself? Ah, the hints of a later day, when incredulous Peter should cry out in the spirit of Satan, â€œFar be it from you, Lordâ€ (Matthew 17:21-23)! But here, as well as there, the ways of God were deeper and more marvelous than the wisest on earth could understand.
Let us not fail to notice all of the particulars surrounding this heavy test. First of all, Abraham was commanded to go to a place which God should show him, in Moriah (Genesis 22:2), which is also where God stopped the plague against Israel in the days of David, so that he built an altar of sacrifice there, and prepared the place for the temple which Solomon should build (2 Samuel 24:15-25; 1 Chronicles 21:28-22:1). It is no coincidence that this foreshadow of the bloody death of Christ had to take place, by God's direction, at the temple site: for the temple was just the place chosen by God for his name and presence to dwell among his people. It was the place where God came down to meet and be reconciled with the men whom he had chosen. But ultimately, the temple itself was only a figure of the body of Christ, where the presence of God truly did come down to walk among men (John 2:18-22); and the body of Christ was given to reconcile and bring men to God when it was offered up as a sacrifice to God (1 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21), even as Isaac was offered up on Mount Moriah. So then, the place of the offering signaled its typical purpose, namely, that by this offering up of the body of Abraham's seed, the people of God might be reconciled to God, and brought back into his very presence.
Then, we see that Abraham, the father, took Isaac with the purpose of slaying him, and to that end brought with him a knife, and fire to consume his body; and also, that Isaac went along willingly, and brought the wood upon which he would be put to death. In this arrangement, we see a foreshadow of how God the Father would willingly take Christ his Son to the place of his death, and there slay him, and consume him with the fire of his wrath, as it were (Isaiah 53:10; Lamentations 1:12-13); and also, how the Son would willingly walk to the site of his sacrificial execution, carrying his cross (John 10:17-18; 19:16-18), to which the wood laid upon Isaac's shoulders corresponds.
Also, the account makes very clear that it would be God who should provide the sacrifice, as Abraham assured Isaac, â€œGod will see to it (that is, provide) a lamb for himselfâ€ (Genesis 22:8). And a little later, after the test was over, Abraham named the place, â€œJehovah Jireh,â€ that is, â€œThe Lord Will See to Itâ€ (Genesis 22:14), with the dual sense intended that God would provide a true sacrifice for his people, corresponding to the typical offering up of Isaac; and also, that the Lord would be seen on that mount, which was a prophecy indicating that the ultimate and final way in which men would be brought in to the presence of the Lord, to see and know him face-to-face, would occur in the offering up of Abraham's true Seed on Golgotha, to which event this typical sacrifice of Isaac looked ahead.
Then again, and very strikingly, we must observe how the fulfillment of all the promises made to Abraham was most firmly assured by that which to human appearances ought to have precluded it entirely: for it was in consequence of Abraham's willingness to put his promised son to death, who was so necessary for the accomplishment of all that God had covenanted to give to Abraham, that God confirmed again the promise with a mighty oath, swearing to him that he should multiply his seed, and that all the nations would be blessed in his Seed (Genesis 22:15-18). To all outward appearances, it was necessary for Isaac to live, if he should be the source of life and blessing to all the world. But in God's design, his early and bloody death was necessary instead to that end. In the same way, when Jesus came, all the people thought that he should seize the kingdom and reign gloriously forevermore; and they considered it an unthinkable tragedy, and one that should put an end to his potential for ushering in the Messianic blessings, if he should be put to death by the Roman government. But in reality, as a seed of wheat that must die and be buried in the ground before it can spring forth in new life, so it was necessary for Jesus to undergo death before he should bring life to all the nations. How gleefully Satan rejoiced, and how bitterly the apostles wept, when Jesus was put to a violent death before he had fulfilled the promises that his followers were so sure he had come to accomplish; but in that very death, Jesus in fact secured eternal life and every promise ever given to the fathers, so that they who wept came to rejoice, and they who laughed were soon terrified and utterly vanquished. This great paradox and mystery was first whispered in the strange testing of Abraham, who was commanded to put to death the seed through whom God said the Messiah should come; and when he obeyed in the simplicity of faith, ensured the fulfillment of the very promises which by every reason he seemed to be precluding.
In the next place, we must observe how, not just Isaac, but also the ram caught in a thicket, was a notable type of the Savior who should be offered up as an acceptable sacrifice to God. When the ram was provided for a sacrifice, Isaac was already laid out upon the altar, with the knife of vengeance stretched out and the fire of wrath kindled up to consume him. But then God cried out by his Angel, stopped the quickly descending blow, and gave instead a ram to be slain in the place of Isaac. In these circumstances, we see how all of us who are Abraham's seed by faith were at one time children of God's wrath, which hung over us and was about to fall down with a crushing force, just as the knife was about to come down in cruel fury upon Isaac, Abraham's seed of promise. But then, God cried out in pity through his Son Jesus Christ, whom he sent to arrest to the knife of wrath which was about to slay us. This act we see typified in the arrival of the Angel of the Lord, which is a common designation for Jesus in the Old Testament, who stopped the knife which was about to fall upon the throat of Isaac. But not only did God give the good news, by his Word, Jesus Christ, that he would pass over the exaction of that death of which we were the heirs; he also made that acquittal possible by providing a spotless Lamb, who is also Jesus Christ. So then, Christ is both the Angel of the Lord, who gave the good news of God's forbearance to Abraham; and also the ram, who was offered up so that this good news might come to pass indeed, without any compromise of God's justice. He was sent to proclaim peace (Isaiah 61:1-3; Ephesians 2:17), and also to suffer stripes to provide that peace (Isaiah 53:5; Ephesians 2:14-16).
That it was a ram in particular which God chose to use in this instance is also instructive. This event serves as the foundation of the intricately structured sacrificial system of Israel which would later be given in great detail upon Mount Sinai; and in this coming system would be provision for the offering up of many animals, all of them clean and without blemish, but each of them emphasizing some different trait, whether it be the meekness of a little lamb, the massive strength of a great bull, or the far-away wandering of a scapegoat. But here, in the inaugural event, as it were, of Israel's later intricate sacrificial rituals, we see those most outstanding characteristics at once, the ram being a sheep, and hence an emblem of meekness; but also, as a mighty horned animal, a fitting emblem of strength and courage, and no mere helpless lamb. So Jesus, when he was offered up, displayed both the most lowly meekness and humility, not opening his mouth before his accusers (Isaiah 53:7; Matthew 26:63; John 19:8-10); but also the most ferocious strength and power, conquering all the forces of darkness as a mighty ram drives away the wolves with his fearful horns (cf. Colossians 2:15).
Finally, let us consider what we may learn from the actions of Abraham, who in this event certified the legitimacy of that title, â€œthe father of the faithfulâ€. First, we must be willing to give up everything to obey and follow God. So Abraham obeyed God even when it meant giving up his beloved, promised son. Just as Jesus gave up everything to obey the Father, even pouring out his life to accomplish his will, so he calls us to give up everything if we would be his disciples, even being ready to follow his example and pour out our own lives to follow his call and proclaim his good news to the nations (Matthew 10:37-39). In this way, just as Isaac pre-figured Jesus' sacrifice, so we are blessed to post-figure (in a sense), that same sacrifice, sharing in Jesus' sufferings and so proclaiming the power of God to the world (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:7-12; Philippians 3:10-11; Colossians 1:24-25).
But second, we must notice that this sort of obedience can only come from faith in the resurrection power of God. Abraham obeyed because he believed that God was faithful, and that he could even raise the dead in order to fulfill his promises (Romans 4:18-25; Hebrews 11:17-19); and thus his works justified his faith, which brought him favor with God (James 2:21-24). In the same way, Jesus was sustained in his perfect obedience by a faith which looked ahead to the resurrection power of God, and so, â€œfor the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of Godâ€ (Hebrews 12:2). In this, he is our ultimate example, who are also sustained and empowered to make tremendous sacrifices by remembering the promises of God, and rejoicing in the inheritance laid up for us, and trusting that he who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us up, and bring us to glory at last (Romans 8:11, 24-39; 1 Peter 1:3-9).
Jesus, how sweet your saving death,
The atoning sacrifice!
My plea rose up on your last breath
Like incense to the skies;
I weep before that blessed tree
Where priceless blood was spilled for me,
Where all the wrath of God was poured
On the Beloved of the Lord.