(Based on the “Seven Realities of Experiencing God” from Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God.)
The customer asked the shopkeeper: “What makes this set of china so much more expensive than the one over there? They look almost the same.” The reply was simple: “The less expensive set was put through the kiln only once. But the costlier set had to be put through twice: once for its background, a second time for its intricate design.”
A similar thing is true for a Christian’s faith: If we want God’s best, we must sometimes go through the furnace of testing until we fully display God’s intended design in our life. Perhaps no one understood this better than Abraham. In this story, the heat was turned up! Here we see a God who tests, asks for a sacrificial faith, and ultimately provides.
Genesis 22 is a haunting story about what it means to do God’s will, to experience God! Isaac is growing up; God’s covenant with Abraham is well on its way to fulfillment. Then out of the blue God calls for sacrifice, and not just any sacrifice: Isaac — Abraham’s only son, the son of the covenant, his hope for the future he’s waited for all his life. After all Abraham’s been through, what’s going on?
Experiencing God at work, in a love relationship, join Him in his work as He speaks and we believe and make adjustments to our lives, ultimately leads to this reality: “You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you” (Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God, Reality #7). In the final analysis, experiencing God comes by trusting and obeying.
The Challenge of Trust
God wants us to fully rely on Him.
Isaac was the son of promise. Abraham had probably dreamed of a son from the beginning. At age 75, God finally promises a son and by age 100, Abraham’s changing diapers! Now Isaac is growing, Abraham’s gift from God and hope for the future. But God evidently didn’t want Abraham to find his hope in Isaac; rather to fully rely on God. If Isaac were gone, would Abraham still trust God for the fulfillment of the covenant? Amazingly (since we’ve seen his lack of faith), Abraham shows great deal of faith, telling his servants, “we will be back” (v. 5) and telling Isaac “God will provide” (v. 8). Abraham seems to have learned a lot about God through his experience and, despite the evidence, trusts God to provide in some way. Hebrews 11 suggests:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Abraham’s Costly Sacrifice
What would it cost him?
His Only Son – Think about that as parents; could we stand in Abraham’s place? It hurts just thinking about it. But God sometimes demands costly sacrifice. William Barclay tells the story of two children who had been given a toy Noah’s ark for a present. They had been listening to the Old Testament stories and determined that they too would offer a sacrifice. They examined the animal in their toy ark and finally decided on a sheep with a broken leg. They only thing they could offer was a broken toy they could do well without.
Isn’t this the way we sometimes sacrifice? Abraham could have said: how about a nice lamb? But when God calls for a sacrifice, he often demands the nearest and dearest. Not a broken toy, but perhaps a broken heart.
God’s Covenant Promise – But Isaac wasn’t the only thing at stake, or even the most important. Most importantly, what was at stake was a covenant relationship to God. Abraham had devoted his whole life to this, leaving everything for God’s promise. But Isaac was the key, the first realization of the promise (especially to be a great nation). Now God demands him as a sacrifice? For Abraham, God’s character must have been in doubt.
CS Lewis, in grief after the death of his wife, wrote: “Not that I am in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘so there is no God at all,’ but: ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
This is not a mere test of loyalty, but a demand for sacrificial faith. Faith in God can be costly. It may demand a sacrifice we may not want to make (of job, family, lifestyle, possessions). Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
God also challenges our faith at times. Last week we noted that you cannot stay where you are and go with God. Now we must add: you cannot continue to do things your way and accomplish God’s purposes in His way. Who or what will you ultimately trust? Sometimes we start putting our trust in those very things God has given us to fulfill His assignment. When God calls, He also equips, giving us spiritual gifts and unique abilities. But there’s a danger that we might start worshiping the gifts, or think we can now do it on our own with these God-given abilities. We forget that God has given them for His specific assignment and He can take them back at any time.
Oswald Chambers writes: God never tells us to give up things just for the sake of giving them up, but He tells us to give them up for the sake of the only thing worth having, namely, life with Himself.
The Test of Obedience
God wants to see if we’ll put our faith into action.
Despite Abraham’s seeming trust, the biggest step was yet to come: putting that trust into action. Notice this is a 3-day journey. God gave him plenty of time to think: why is God ruining the covenant? Can I do it? Until he held the knife in his hand, Abraham may not have known if he could do it. But at that point, when he showed his full commitment to God, God stopped him. Was it necessary for God to know? No, He already knew Abraham trusted in Him. But it may have been necessary for Abraham to understand the extent of his commitment to God. God responds, rewarding his trust by providing a lamb, and rewarding his obedience by fulfilling the covenant. Abraham continues to journey with God, knowing Him even better and working for Him more powerfully. He continues in obedience: burying Sarah in the promised land, seeking a God-fearing wife for Isaac, and not allowing Isaac to move out of the land of promise.
What might we learn from this?
Obedience brings power – James says that faith not put into action is dead, but faith can be powerful when put into action. When the disciples obeyed Jesus, they saw and experienced God’s power working in and around them. But when they didn’t obey, or tried it on their own, they experienced a power failure!
Obedience is a prerequisite for service – Sometimes people want God to use them, give them an assignment, but they are not obeying God in other areas. God doesn’t generally wield His power through disobedient people.
Obedience is your moment of truth – What you do will reveal what you believe about God. It will determine whether you will experience His mighty work in and through you, whether you will come to know Him more intimately:
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3-6)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
Obedience is costly – to you and those around you. At one point, many disciples walked away from Jesus because the cost was too much. Only those willing to pay the price will experience the power & presence of God working through them. Obedience was costly for Paul, for Mary the mother of Jesus, for Moses, for Abraham. However, disobedience, failing to do God’s will, is even more costly! God may give you a second chance, as He did with Jonah and David; but their disobedience was still very costly. Obedience, on the other hand, although costly, is always worth the cost!
A God Who Provides
(11-18) – Abraham’s faith proved itself and he was stopped in the act. God doesn’t relish sacrifice but loyalty, obedience. “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).
On Abraham’s part, the sacrifice was made. To complete Abraham’s sacrifice, God provides a substitute. This answers Isaac’s question and proves Abraham’s faith in him (8): he is a God who provides. That doesn’t mean we sacrifice looking over our shoulders, waiting for a voice to say “stop!” But God knows our limits: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
God not only provided, he made Abraham and his family a great nation, through whom other nations were blessed, in accord with his promise (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham kept his part of the covenant and God kept his. What does it mean for us? Allen Ross writes: “The one who fears God, that is, the faithful worshiper, will obediently surrender to God whatever he asks, trusting in God’s promises of provision and blessing.”
This is a great story, actually the most prominent and favorite for the Jewish people historically. But there’s one greater, in which God tested himself (not us) by giving the costly sacrifice of his only, dearly-loved Son as a substitute for the death we deserve. We cannot read this story as Christians without being reminded of this similar story it points ahead to. God Himself provided a lamb to be offered up in our place: His only Son, the Son of the covenant, Jesus Christ. When we broke the covenant through our sin, God paid the price through the blood of His Son. We commemorate it regularly in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our faith in testing comes from knowing that the God who tests is the one who ultimately provides by making himself the sacrifice.
God knew what He was asking of Abraham, because He ultimately asked it of Himself! If God asks you to sacrifice, to endure something that seems impossible, know that He’s done far more than that Himself, for you! In this story, in a sense we identify with…
- Abraham: we are called to be people of obedience and faith
- Isaac: our death substituted for by God’s provision of a Lamb
While this event points to the faithfulness of Abraham, and our need to do the same, it also points to the faithfulness of God. And while experiencing God means trusting and obeying Him, it ultimately means knowing a God who keeps His covenant with us — even when we fail — by providing a Lamb. Are you experiencing this God in your life?
-presented to Cutlerville East Christian Reformed Church