The Test of Faith
What do you think of trials? Do you meet all the trials of your life with joy?
A couple of the classes I am involved with at Northern Plains Biblical Seminary have considered trials in the life of the Christian. James 1:2 tells us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” I can only speak for myself, but I don’t really like trials. I like things to go smoothly so I can concentrate on the things I deem as important. But you know what, that just isn’t how life goes. My entire Christian life (over 40 years) has been filled with a variety of trials. What I have learned from these trials is that I must always keep my focus on God and put my faith in Him and His word to get through these trials.
Faith is relying on what God has done rather than on one’s own efforts. In the Old Testament, faith is rarely mentioned. The word trust is used frequently, and verbs like “believe” and “rely” are used to express the right attitude to God. The classic example is Abraham, whose faith was reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). At the heart of the Christian message is the story of the cross: Christ’s dying to bring salvation. Faith is an attitude of trust in which a believer receives God’s good gift of salvation (Acts 16:30–31) and lives in that awareness thereafter (Gal. 2:20; cf. Heb. 11:1).
How did Abraham’s faith lead him to the brink of despair?
We will look at the story of Abraham’s response to the test God laid out for him to help us understand what faith is all about. This test is the most unimaginable of all tests. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son on an altar. Through this episode in Abraham’s life, we can determine the main characteristics of faith.
We need to first consider the background of this story. Abraham received a promise from God that he would become the head of a great nation and that God would bless him and make his name great. Further, God would bless those who blessed him and dishonor those who curse him. Finally, all the earth will be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:2-3; Gen 15:5). Abraham, however, remained childless (Gen 15:2-3). Subsequently, Abraham fathered two boys; the first, Ishmael, was Abraham’s attempt to fulfill God’s promise through his human effort (Gen 16:1-6) and the second, Isaac, was the real fulfillment of God’s promise (Gen 17:15-16; 18:9-15) to both Abram and Sarai (a.k.a. Abraham and Sarah) (Gen 21:1-7). However, Sarah saw Ishmael mocking Isaac (“But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing” Gen 21:9). Though translated “laughing,” the word is used in a negative manner to show that Ishmael mocked Isaac.
Thus, the stage is set for two tests of Abraham’s faith. First, Sarah pleads with Abraham to “cast out this slave woman (Hagar) with her son (Ishmael)” (Gen 21:10) and God concurs (Gen 21:12). Though God promised that Ishmael would also be the precursor of a great nation (Gen 21:13), Abraham was still deeply grieved with the course of events because this involved his son whom he loved deeply (Gen 21:11). Even so, Abraham obeyed God and prepared Hagar and Ishmael as best he could and then sent them into the desert (Gen 21:14). As hard as this trial would prove to be, it is minuscule compared to his upcoming test which we find in Gen 22:1-19 (please read this passage). The passage has three distinct components: (1) Abraham’s test (Gen 22:1-2); (2) Abraham’s compliance (Gen 22:3-10); and (3) Abraham’s approval (Gen 22:11-19). Let’s briefly examine each of these components
Abraham’s test (v. 1- 2)
God tests the faithfulness of believers by asking them to surrender to him the best they have.
- “God tested Abraham” – This is the ultimate test of faith for Abraham. Abraham is placed in a position “suffers the effect” of the test, i.e. this means that God purposefully put Abraham into this tension-filled position. God is proving the quality of Abraham through the most extreme hardship. This test demonstrated that, when God tests his people, he is determining the quality of their faithfulness.
- “Take your son” – God commanded Abraham to take his son, but not simply his son, this was his only son (he had already sent Ishmael away); this is the son he loved. Isaac was the son of promise through whom God promised to build a great nation. The command to sacrifice his very unique son as a burnt offering seems totally unreasonable (even though child sacrifice was known in Canaan). Regardless, Abraham took off for the mountain God would show him.
- “To the land of Moriah” – Abraham was told to head toward the land of Moriah (Gen 22:2). Abraham is again told to walk to an unknown destination that God would later reveal. (Gen 12:1). And Abraham walked. Uncertainty surrounds the location of Moriah. Many consider that Abraham took Isaac to the hill near Jerusalem where Solomon would eventually build the first Jewish Temple (2 Chron 3:1). If this were the site then great significance would surround this event and point to David and even Christ himself.
- “Offer him” – Abraham was to take Isaac to the land of Moriah to “offer him there as a burnt offering” (Gen 22:2). This God-given command is one of the most theologically difficult passages of the Old Testament. Abraham is asked to behave in an absolutely “illogical, absurd, and, to say the least, nonconventional” manner”. However, as so often is the case with God, Abraham’s radical behavior proves the nature of his faith.
Abraham’s compliance (v. 3-10)
- “Abraham arose early in the morning” – Abraham did not lag in his response to God; rather, the very next morning he arose, gathered the necessary resources, traveling assistants, and his son, Isaac and began his journey to the land of Moriah. He did not hesitate in leaving or bargain with God for a different plan.
- “Cut the wood” – Abraham fully understood the journey before him. God wanted him to sacrifice his son. Abraham didn’t know where he was going, so he had to prepare. He cut the wood for the sacrificial fire. The tension this would bring to Abraham must have been unbearable.
- “On the third day” – The 3-days is critical—it seems to be a foreshadowing of the three-day journey of Israel into the wilderness to sacrifice to God in Exodus (Exod 3:18; 5:3; 8:27) and the typical period of preparation for the most important events (Gen 31:22; 34:25; 40:20; 42:18, Exod 3:18, passim)—and also consider that Christ rose from the dead after 3-days.
- “Stay here” – Abraham must take this final leg of the journey of faith and obedience by himself. He only brought “The boy” — here Abraham addresses his son as an adolescent even though he may have been as old as 25. He was certainly old enough to carry the wood since the donkey was left behind.
- “Come again to you” – One must wonder if Abraham knew that in some way God would provide so that Isaac and he could both return. Abraham appeared to believe that God was able to and would “resurrect” Isaac (Heb 11:17-19); Abraham’s faith was “the same quality and caliber as Christians who believe in Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
- Abraham brought all of the need resources. He brought “The fire and the knife” and Isaac carried the wood for the altar. But Isaac raised a most interesting and important question: “Where is the lamb” – Isaac, in a show of respect, asked his father about the lamb for the sacrifice. In response, Abraham could only say, “God will provide” – Abraham was probably thinking that God had already provided the lamb and that was Isaac. This conversation must have been excruciating for Abraham.
- “Bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar” – This passage shows the obedience of Isaac. He was strong enough to object to this plan; he could have resisted. But he did not. He allowed Abraham to bind him and to place him on the altar. At that time, he knew he was the lamb.
- “Took the knife to slaughter” – Abraham, with full intent to obey God, was prepared to plunge his knife into Isaac, his son. This is the climax of the tension developed by the narrator.
Abraham’s approval (v. 11-19)
- “The angel of the Lord” – God has been watching over these events. Abraham was in the process of passing the test; he was fully prepared to obey God. The angel of God (perhaps Gabriel) was at hand to stop Abraham’s action and to spare his son. God tests our faith by bringing us to the edge—and sometimes it appears over the edge—only to deliver us through the most difficult trials. Remember—tribulations-perseverance-character-hope (Rom 5:3-4).
- “Now I know you fear God” – Finally, the narrator explains the purpose of the test, i.e. to see if Abraham did indeed fear God. In the affirmative, the angel testifies, “Now I know” and forever, Abraham will be known for his faithful obedience. The one who truly fears the Lord believes that compliance with the Word of God, no matter what the cost, is the primary responsibility of each person of God. This is the greatness of Abraham at this time.
- “A ram…in a thicket…Abraham…offered it” – God did indeed provide the lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham must have been overtaken by joy and relief when God provided the lamb. In a similar manner, Isaac must have been in a state of confusion but ecstatic over what had just happened.
- “By myself I have sworn” – By who else can the creator of the universe swear (Heb 6:13—For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself)? He alone is sovereign. He alone can bless the faithful. Again, God swears His intention to bless Abraham and to multiply his offspring. Through Abraham, all the nations of earth would be blessed. This is ultimately carried out in the birth, death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lessons for today
- Faith obeys the Word of God completely.
- Faith surrenders the best to God, holding nothing back.
- Faith waits on the Lord to provide all of one’s needs.
These truths apply equally as well to us in the New Testament. God did not hold back when He promised to provide for all of our needs. Rom 8:32 says: He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?
Yet, God does not provide until personal sacrifice has been made. True worship is costly. This was always so for Israel when they brought sacrifices. Those offerings were supposed to be given in faith so God would provide all the needs of each willing worshiper.
Two thousand years before Calvary, we have the gospel story given to us in advance through a preview, a prototype. Yet Isaac himself could never have actually provided purification for sins, for he was a sinner just as we are. Two millennia later and two millennia ago, God became a man, went to the cross, and there, shedding His blood, bridged the gulf between His own holiness on the one hand, and you and me on the other. On the mountain of the Lord, it was provided.
We have been:
- Called from labor to rest (Matt. 11:28)
- Called from death to life (1 John 3:14)
- Called out of bondage into liberty (Gal 5:13)
- Called out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9)
- Called into the fellowship of His Son (1 Cor. 1:9)
“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:11–12).
How do you stand up under God’s testing? Have you considered what we have been called from and what we have been called into?