The Proof of Faith
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type. (11:17–19)
The proof of Abraham’s faith was his willingness to give back to God everything he had, including the son of promise, whom he had miraculously received because of his faith. After all the waiting and wondering, the son had been given by God. Then, before the son was grown, God asked for him back, and Abraham obeyed. Abraham knew that the covenant, which could only be fulfilled through Isaac, was unconditional. He knew, therefore, that God would do whatever was necessary, including raising Isaac from the dead, to keep His covenant. He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead. The thought of sacrificing Isaac must have grieved Abraham terribly, but he knew that he would have his son back. He knew that God would not, in fact could not, take his son away permanently, or else He would have to go back on His own word, which is impossible.
If Noah illustrates the duration of faith, Abraham shows the depth of faith. In tremendous, monumental faith Abraham brought Isaac to the top of Mt. Moriah and prepared to offer him to God. He believed in resurrection from the dead even before God revealed the doctrine. He had to believe in resurrection, because, if God allowed him to carry out the command to sacrifice Isaac, resurrection was the only way God could keep His promise.
As it turned out, because he did not actually die, Isaac became only a type of the resurrection. He was offered but he was not slain. God provided a substitute. It was the fact that Abraham offered up Isaac that proved his faith. The final standard of faith, its real proof, is willingness to sacrifice. “If anyone wishes to come after Me,” Jesus commands, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1).
When John Bunyan was in jail for preaching the gospel, he was deeply concerned about his family. He was particularly grieved about his little blind daughter, for whom he had a special love. He wrote, “I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children. Yet, thought I, I must do it; I must do it. The dearest idol I have known, what err that idol be, help me to tear it from Thy throne and worship only Thee.”
The patriarchs, therefore, held to the five great standards of faith: its pilgrimage, in separation from the world; its patience, in waiting for God to work; its power, in doing the impossible; its positiveness, in focusing on God’s eternal promise; and its proof, in obedient sacrifice.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your off-spring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb. 11:17–19)
In Genesis 22 we read that God came to Abraham and tested him. This marks the fifth time that Genesis records God appearing to Abraham. The first occurred in chapter 12, God’s initial call to Abraham. In chapter 15 God came and promised Abraham descendants like stars in the sky. Then in chapter 17 God came to redirect Abraham back to the path of faith he had departed in his encounter with Hagar. And in chapter 18 the angel of the Lord appeared to Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of the child of promise, and to deal with the problem of sin in Sodom and Gomorrah. In the first of these encounters, God called Abraham to faith; in the second and third encounters God strengthened his faith; in the fourth encounter God rewarded his faith. Now, in the fifth and last of these significant encounters between Abraham and the Lord, that faith would be tested by the most difficult of commands.
The New Testament confirms that God tests the faith of his people. In 1 Peter 1 the apostle speaks of various trials and then adds, “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7). God’s purpose is the strengthening of faith by trial, the proving of faith by means of tests that God himself provides.
Abraham’s Faith Tested
God tested Abraham with the greatest trial imaginable: “[God] said, ‘Take 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’ ” (Gen. 22:2).
In the first place, this was a trial of Abraham’s devotion to the Lord. Devotion to God is at the heart of his law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). The proof of love is always found in the willingness to sacrifice. God tested Abraham not merely by asking for a sacrifice, or even a great sacrifice, but the sacrifice of that which Abraham held most dear: his covenant heir, Isaac. The test of our Christian devotion always involves this, that we love not so much the gifts—great as they are—but the Giver himself above all. The question is always whether we are willing to make God first—indeed, whether we are willing to make him everything. John Owen writes: “God says to us, ‘My son, give me your heart’ (Prov. 23:26). And God commands us to love him with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Luke 10:27). This is the response God wants from us in return for his love to us.… This is love, that God loves us first, and then we love him in response to his love.”
We might wonder if God has the right to demand such singular devotion. The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Arthur Pink explains:
The Lord has an absolute claim upon us, upon all that we have. As our Maker and Sovereign He has the right to demand from us anything He pleases, and whatsoever He requires we must yield. All that we have comes from Him, and must be held for Him, and at His disposal.… The bounty of God should encourage us to surrender freely whatever He calls for, for none ever lose by giving up anything to God.
We can expect God to test our devotion to him in great or small ways. We will be challenged to sacrifice or subordinate our careers to his will. Or perhaps it will be a relationship that is dear to us, but that cannot abide with our higher devotion to Jesus Christ. It may be money; it may be a certain self-image or a lifestyle; it can be practically anything. God tests our faith in terms of our willingness to sacrifice for him, and in this manner he also protects us from the idolatry to which our hearts are so inherently prone. Even good things he has given us, such as Isaac, this child of God’s promise, God demands that we place back into his hand, always holding everything as a trust on behalf of the Giver and Possessor of all things.
Second, this was a trial of Abraham’s spiritual understanding. We see this in verses 17–18: “He who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ ” God had made great and surpassing promises to Abraham—possession of the land, offspring like the sand on the seashore, all the nations blessed through him—all to be fulfilled through this very son Isaac, whom God now commanded him to sacrifice.
We can see how vexing this would have been. God’s promise seemed to be pitted against God’s command. If God was to be faithful to his promises to Abraham, then Isaac must live; but if God’s command was to be obeyed, then Isaac must die. It seemed to be so inconsistent, so internally contradictory. None of us ever receive this particular command from God, since Abraham was fulfilling a unique role in history, but God may call us to obey him in a way that seems spiritually counterproductive to ourselves or our projects. Like Abraham we will have to summon up the spiritual understanding needed to obey God’s Word.
Third, it was a trial of Abraham’s knowledge of God and trust in him. I say this because of the horror of what was involved in this command. Abraham was to strike his own son dead. Furthermore, it was “his only son.” This was not strictly true, for Isaac was not the only living son; the point is that he was the one child of the promise, the one heir of the covenant. William Lane writes, “When Abraham obeyed God’s mandate to leave Ur, he simply gave up his past. But when he was summoned to Mount Moriah to deliver his own son to God, he was asked to surrender his future as well.”
Additionally, Genesis 22:2 reminds us of Abraham’s deep love for this son: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” This was godly and appropriate love, and no doubt an intimate and intense love from a father to his son and heir. The mere thought of plunging a knife into his chest must have been terrible for Abraham, much more so the act itself. Obedience required that Abraham know God and trust him with unshakable confidence.
A Great Problem for Faith
Abraham passed the test by obeying God. Hebrews 11:17 simply tells us, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac.” The Genesis account is considerably fuller:
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. (Gen. 22:3–10)
This remarkable account raises some significant questions. How does faith overcome the natural objections to this command? How does faith pass this kind of test? I want to offer four answers, beginning with this: faith kneels before God in humble submission.
Abraham must surely have had a long night before setting out with his son for the place of sacrifice. Surely he must have reflected on the staggering demand God had made, and also on God’s right to make it. He must have thought about how much he loved Isaac, and also about his devotion to the Lord. While unable to reason through all the problems, he must have knelt before God, trusted him, and asked for grace to obey. It is worth pointing out that this greatest test occurred at the end of his life’s journey of faith. Abraham’s success here is the product of earlier and lesser trials, many of which he failed, as God honed and refined his character and his faith. Having received this command, Abraham must have reckoned that God’s will was higher than his own will. “Thy will and not mine be done,” he must have prayed, perhaps with tears at the thought of what that required. Abraham’s faith humbly knelt before God and thus was able to obey God’s command.
However much difficulty this test caused for Abraham, the account of it has tried the faith of many more people. Many people read these verses and recoil from the God who speaks in them. How could a good God ask a father to kill his son? Many therefore reject the Bible on the grounds of this supposedly twisted use of divine authority. Moralists reject God, but existentialists reject Abraham, finding his faith impossible to embrace. The classic example is Søren Kierkegaard, whose book Fear and Trembling demanded to know how Abraham could be sure it was really God speaking to him; how could a father really do what Abraham went ahead and did? Surely this is not the kind of faith a decent authentic existentialist wants to emulate today!
How would Abraham respond to that line of reasoning? Surely he would have replied that he was a creature before the Creator. Abraham worshiped God as God and therefore did not think to place himself in the position of judge of the Most High and Lord of heaven. Abraham’s faith was rooted in conscious humility; his faith knelt before the throne of a God he would no longer dare to judge.
Occasionally I find myself talking with someone who is disturbed about a subject like this test of Abraham’s faith, or God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, or the Bible’s teaching on the eternal bodily punishment of sinners in hell. Inevitably, from the person’s perspective, what God is doing is a terrible thing. How can a good God do something that is so wrong?
From the perspective of their humanism, people with these questions are never going to receive an acceptable answer. Humanism is the belief, so ingrained in us all, that what is best for the greatest number of humans is ultimately the yardstick of all good. But God is not a humanist; he is a theist! God does not think that the greatest good for man is the greatest good. He thinks that the glory of his own name is paramount. He thinks that the manifestation of his justice and his holiness and, yes, his love is worth more than all the stars in the sky.
When it comes to such disturbing matters as the command God gave to Abraham, our humanism will never be satisfied. God does not intend to satisfy our humanism, but to drive us out from it. God is not going to satisfy our queries in judgment of him; God will not accept a position on the witness stand, while we presume to sit on the bench. It is only on our knees before a true God that we will receive and be able to accept satisfactory answers to questions like those regarding Abraham’s test. Abraham was no longer a humanist; all his years exercising faith had taught him to kneel humbly before the Lord and put his trust in him.
In asking how Abraham resolved his problems and passed this test of faith, the second explanation is that the faith that receives God’s promises must also obey God’s commands. We see more than a hint of this in our Hebrews passage. Who obeyed God’s command? “He who had received the promises” (Heb. 11:17).
The same faith that receives and relies upon God’s Word in the promise is obligated to receive and obey God’s Word in the command. It is the same God and the same Word. This is what Job said to his wife, when she urged him to complain about what God had allowed to happen to him: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Faith accepts both promise and precept, commands and comforts, Christ as Lord as well as Christ as Savior, knowing that the one cannot be had without the other. Faith knows that the path of safety and of blessing is also the path of obedience. Arthur Pink writes, “Spiritual faith does not pick and choose: it fears God as well as loves Him.”
Some may object that in this case the promise and the command stand in stark opposition. The command can be obeyed only by undermining the promise. The answer to that objection is that the faith that obeys God’s command leaves the means of the promise’s fulfillment to God. If God has commanded it, then God knows what he is doing and is able to work it out for good. Indeed, this is one of the striking differences between the one who believes in God and the one who believes in self. Those who trust in God do not find their solace in being able to solve the puzzle by adding up their own mental arithmetic. The Christian finds peace when he knows what God has revealed and commanded; even without understanding, his faith accepts it as true because it comes from God.
In short, we believe that God knows better than we do. He has more and better information, even infinite data compared to our slim sample size. God also has an infinitely higher capacity for processing and ordering that information. Furthermore, God does all this without sin, whereas the Christian realizes that sin has infected all the circuit boards of his own mental computer. Thus the believer is glad to trust God when he has spoken, having in his Word an infinitely better and surer guide than even our own powers of reason.
The third explanation follows from this. On the one hand, faith obeys even without answers; but we also must observe that faith gains understanding through God’s Word. God tested not only Abraham’s devotion, but also his spiritual understanding. Part of the reason he was able to succeed in this test was the answers he found in what God had already revealed.
This, too, is something that Hebrews makes clear: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). This was not autonomous, unbelieving reason, but faithful reasoning from what God had revealed. This faith explains Abraham’s willingness to take his beloved son’s life. He believed that God could raise him back to life from the dead. This statement in Hebrews is not found in the Genesis account, but it is proved there. Genesis 22:5 tells us that when Abraham arrived at the appointed place he said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Notice what he said: “We will come back.”
Where, then, did Abraham get the idea that if he killed his son God would raise him from the grave? First, he must have realized that God’s promise required that Isaac be alive. If Isaac had to be alive and yet had to be killed, then God had to raise him from the dead. This logic makes sense, but surely there is something more. Remember the circumstances of Isaac’s conception and birth, when Sarah was far beyond child-bearing age, all in a manner promised and predicted and produced by the power of God. All of this surely made clear to Abraham that God has power over life, and if he has power over life then he has power over death as well. This was the ultimate answer to Abraham’s problem, as it is for all of our problems. With the knowledge of God’s power to take and give life, Abraham was able to obey.
Abraham’s understanding came from faithful reflection on what God had earlier revealed about himself. Abraham did not have the Bible, none of which had yet been written, but he did have personal experience with God. We do have the Bible, God’s very Word and revelation, and our faith will find power to obey by learning and understanding God’s ways through the study of his Word.
Finally, and surely this is the most significant explanation, Abraham was able to obey because he knew and trusted God. Because he had really come to know God, Abraham was able to trust him completely, to rely upon the Lord as his God, and to honor him by obeying. Philip Hughes explains:
Because he enjoyed a proper relationship with God Abraham knew that God is altogether holy and just and loving and that he cannot be untrue to himself; and he realized that it was not for him, a sinful, finite creature, to query the word of his infinite Creator.… This trial, in fact, so far from shaking Abraham’s faith, actually served to establish it, for through it the unchangeable character of God’s purpose and the impossibility that God should prove false to his promise became more than ever the great motivating realities to him.
This doesn’t mean that it was easy for Abraham to obey. Abraham must have died a thousand deaths during the three days’ march to the place where he would sacrifice the son he loved. But it does mean he was able to obey by faith, and it will mean that for you if you come to know God, to study and understand his attributes, to realize that because he is holy then all his motives are holy, and that because he is almighty nothing lies beyond his ability to save. Because God is good, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (niv). “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead” (Heb. 11:19 niv), and a God like that was worthy of his trust, as he is of our own.
The Parable of the Offered Son
Verse 19 concludes by saying, “Figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” This tells us how the story ended. As they walked up the mount, Isaac asked his father about the lamb for the burnt offering. “Where is the lamb?” he asked. To this, Abraham gave a provocative answer: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). This shows us how much Abraham was able to understand, even though he lived at such a primitive time in redemptive history.
Genesis tells us how God provided for Abraham. As his knife began the deadly arc that would end Isaac’s life:
The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Gen. 22:11–14)
It is on the basis of this account that Hebrews concludes, “Figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Isaac did not die and have to be resurrected, but God spared his life and honored Abraham’s faith.
Christians have long seen the episode atop Mount Moriah as a picture of God’s provision of another sacrifice, the true sacrifice and Lamb of God. “Where is the lamb?” asked Isaac, just as the whole of the Old Testament asked that same question. Years later, in the Israelite priesthood, lamb after lamb was slain day after day at the temple. Yet all the while everyone knew that mere animals could not really take away sin. “Where is the true lamb?” the priests and people must often have asked. The answer was finally given by the last prophet of the old dispensation, John the Baptist, who saw Jesus walking along the Jordan and cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
It is interesting to note that the Greek text in Hebrews 11:19 does not say that Isaac’s deliverance was “figuratively speaking” like a resurrection. The word it uses is “parable,” so that verse 19 literally reads, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and as a parable, he did receive Isaac back from death.” Christians have long understood this to mean that Isaac’s death illustrated and pointed forward to another death, the true death that takes away our sin.
Indeed, the parallels are striking. Abraham was a father asked to sacrifice his son. We noted earlier that the expression “one and only son” doesn’t exactly fit here, although Isaac was singular as the child of promise. But perhaps the real purpose of the phrase is to point us to another Father who did give his one and only Son as a sacrifice. John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
There is considerably more to this. Isaac carried wood for the offering on his back, just as Jesus Christ would later carry his cross to his own place of sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac’s journey through the valley of the shadow of death totaled three days, and for three days Jesus Christ lay in the tomb before he, as Isaac prefigures, was raised by the power of God. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century a.d., sees Isaac’s deliverance as “an intimation of the divinity of the Lord … for Jesus rose again after his burial, having suffered no harm, like Isaac released from sacrifice.” Indeed, some Christians see the ram in the thicket as a symbol of Christ’s human nature, offered up to death for us, and Isaac as a symbol of Christ’s divine nature, which though taken to the place of death is not allowed to die.
These are interesting—indeed, more than provocative—parallels. But if we add them up, what does it mean for us? We considered earlier the revulsion people experience at the idea of a father being commanded to offer up his son to death. What, then, do we think of a Father who does this voluntarily, as God has done? If this repulses us, it is only because we have forgotten or denied the essential fact of our situation, that we are sinners before a holy God. Only by bowing before God will we ever make sense of a passage like this, but now we must add that we can grasp it only by confessing the guilt of our sin and our need of a lamb to die like this for us. We must be the ones who cry out, “Where is the lamb? Where is the lamb for me?”
If we will cry for the lamb in faith, we will discover in God’s Word the amazing fact that God the Father gave his one and only Son out of love for us. Romans 3:25 tells us, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (niv). Speaking of Jesus, Paul writes, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). As Paul also says, all of this is “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6).
The key to accepting God’s Word is to realize that God’s glory is higher than man’s good. But here we find that in reality, for sinners, God’s glory is also the source of our good, namely, our redemption in Christ’s blood and the forgiveness of our sins. If this does not change our way of thinking about a Father offering up his Son, then I suppose nothing ever will. In the cross of Jesus Christ we find what Paul described as “what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of] the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19). That is the love that calls us to faith in God.
Therefore, whenever God tests our faith, trying our devotion to him, whenever God calls on us to say, “Your will be done,” let us remember Jesus Christ, who faced his death on a cross for us with similar words. With blood-tinged drops of sweat upon his brow, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
How great was Abraham’s joy upon the mount. He named it for what had happened there, calling the place “The Lord will provide.” We look back with greater joy to another mount, where another Lamb was slain in our place, and we name it “The Lord has provided.” Therefore, whenever God tests our faith, whenever he imposes his sovereign rights, we remember that he is a God who has purchased for us a free salvation, a full forgiveness, a costly redemption at the price of his own Son’s life. As Peter Lewis wrote: “The faith of Abraham may inspire us but it is the faith of Jesus that saves us, the Son who ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death—even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). There is no atonement on Moriah but on Golgotha there is a once-for-all and perfect sacrifice for sin; it was what was done there that saves Abraham and Isaac and you and me.” It saves us, that is, if we turn to that Father and to his Son in faith, eager to receive what he has promised and willing to obey his Word, because we have come to know his love and trust his grace.
17. By faith Abraham, &c. He proceeds with the history of Abraham, and relates the offering up of his son; and it was a singular instance of firmness, so that there is hardly another like it to be found. Hence for the sake of enhancing it, he adds, when he was tempted, or tried. Abraham had indeed already proved what he was, by many trials; yet as this trial surpassed every other, so the Apostle would have it to be regarded above all his trials. It is then as though he had said, “The highest excellency of Abraham was the sacrificing of his son:” for God is said to have then in an especial manner tried him. And yet this act flowed from faith; then Abraham had nothing more excellent than faith, which brought forth such extraordinary fruit.
The word, tempted or tried, means no other thing than proved. What James says, that we are not tempted by God, is to be understood differently, (Jas. 1:13;) he means that God does not tempt us to do evil; for he testifies that this is really done by every man’s own lust. At the same time he says not that God does not try our integrity and obedience, though God does not thus search us, as if he knew not otherwise what is hid in our hearts; nay, God wants no probation that he may know us; but when he brings us to the light, that we may by our works shew what was before hid, he is said to try or prove us; and then that which is made openly manifest, is said to be made known to God. For it is a very usual and frequent mode of speaking in Scripture, that what is peculiar to men is ascribed to God.
The sacrificing of Isaac is to be estimated according to the purpose of the heart: for it was not owing to Abraham that he did not actually perform what he was commanded to do. His resolution to obey was then the same, as though he had actually sacrificed his son.
And offered up his only-begotten Son, &c. By these various circumstances, the Apostle intended to shew, how great and how severe the trial of Abraham was; and there are still other things related by Moses, which had the same tendency. Abraham was commanded to take his own son, his only begotten and beloved son Isaac, to lead to the place, which was afterwards to be shewn to him, and there to sacrifice him with his own hands. These tender words God seems to have designedly accumulated, that he might pierce the inmost heart of the holy man, as with so many wounds; and then that he might more severely try him, he commanded him to go a three days’ journey. How sharp, must we think, was his anguish to have continually before his eyes his own son, whom he had already resolved to put to a bloody death! As they were coming to the place, Isaac pierced his breast with yet a new wound, by asking him, “Where is the victim?” The death of a son, under any circumstances, must have been very grievous, a bloody death would have still caused a greater sorrow; but when he was bidden to slay his own,—that indeed must have been too dreadful for a father’s heart to endure; and he must have been a thousand times disabled, had not faith raised up his heart above the world. It is not then without reason, that the Apostle records that he was then tried.
It may, however, be asked, why is Isaac called the only begotten, for Ishmael was born before him and was still living. To this the answer is, that by God’s express command he was driven from the family, so that he was accounted as one dead, at least, he held no place among Abraham’s children.
And he that received the promises, &c. All the things we have hitherto related, however deeply they must have wounded the heart of Abraham, yet they were but slight wounds compared with this trial, when he was commanded, after having received the promises, to slay his son Isaac; for all the promises were founded on this declaration, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” (Gen. 21:12;) for when this foundation was taken away, no hope of blessing or of grace remained. Here nothing earthly was the matter at issue, but the eternal salvation of Abraham, yea, of the whole world. Into what straits must the holy man have been brought when it came to his mind, that the hope of eternal life was to be extinguished in the person of his son? And yet by faith he emerged above all these thoughts, so as to execute what he was commanded. Since it was a marvellous fortitude to struggle through so many and so great obstacles, justly is the highest praise awarded to faith, for it was by faith alone that Abraham continued invincible.
But here arises no small difficulty, How is it that Abraham’s faith is praised when it departs from the promise? for as obedience proceeds from faith, so faith from the promise; then when Abraham was without the promise, his faith must have necessarily fallen to the ground. But the death of Isaac, as it has been already said, must have been the death as it were of all the promises; for Isaac is not to be considered as a common man, but as one who had Christ included in him. This question, which would have been otherwise difficult to be solved, the Apostle explains by adding immediately, that Abraham ascribed this honour to God, that he was able to raise his son again from the dead. He then did not renounce the promise given to him, but extended its power and its truth beyond the life of his son; for he did not limit God’s power to so narrow bounds as to tie it to Isaac when dead, or to extinguish it. Thus he retained the promise, because he bound not God’s power to Isaac’s life, but felt persuaded that it would be efficacious in his ashes when dead no less than in him while alive and breathing.
17 The NIV’s “was about to sacrifice” represents the Greek imperfect tense “was sacrificing,” which can have the sense of setting out to do what was not in fact completed. The tenses carefully reflect the OT story in which Abraham “offered” his son (perfect tense of the same verb) but was not allowed to go through with the sacrifice.
19 The Greek phrase ἐν͂ͅ παραβολή, en parabolē, “figuratively speaking” (GK 4130), may be intended to convey not just that the language is nonliteral but more specifically that the author is thinking typologically (cf. his use of παραβολή, parabolē, in 9:9) of Isaac’s binding for sacrifice and restoration as pointing forward to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ—a typological link that the NT does not develop but that was exploited in early Christian writing.
11:17–18 / The author’s language in v. 17 is close to the language of Gen. 22. “The binding of Isaac” is referred to in some Jewish liturgies for the New Year. For allusions to this story, see also Sir. 44:20; Wisd. of Sol. 10:5; 4 Macc. 16:20 (cf. 13:12). The reference to only son may reflect indirect influence of the Christology of the early church, in which of course the title was very important. Paul may build upon Gen. 22 in Rom. 8:32 and some have thought that John 8:56 may have this story in mind (cf. John 3:16). The word for one and only son (monogenēs) does not occur in the Genesis narrative according to the lxx. There (Gen. 22:2) Isaac is referred to as “son … whom you love” (or “beloved,” agapētos), a closely related word and an apparently alternative translation of the same Hebrew word. The use of the expression “only son” in reference to Christ occurs only in the Johannine literature of the nt. (For “beloved son,” see Mark 1:11; 9:7; 12:6, and parallels.) Isaac, of course, was not Abraham’s only son—but he was the only son of Sarah and the only son of the so-called line of promise as the next verse unequivocally points out. He was therefore the unique son. James (2:21f.) also refers to Abraham’s offering of Isaac as an example of one whose “faith was made complete by what he did.” For Isaac as a type of Christ in early Christian literature (e.g., Barnabas 7:3), see references in Hughes, pp. 485f. The Greek verb about to sacrifice (prospherō) can also be described as an inceptive imperfect tense, “he began to offer,” without completing the deed. The promises again connote not simply those of a temporal quality, but more particularly the transcendent expectations they foreshadowed. See note on 4:1. On the importance of the present passage for the author’s perspective, see J. Swetnam, Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981).
Abraham’s submission (11:17–19)
In Jewish tradition Abraham was said to have been tested by God on ten different occasions. Here the letter focuses on the occasion when he was ordered to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. At a time when Abraham must have been bewildered by God’s command, he continued to believe and refused to act in any way other than the Lord had told him. It seemed ridiculous to offer up his only son when, after all, the child had been God’s promised gift. The Lord had assured him that it would be through his child that the promised grace would begin to be established: Through Isaac shall your descendants be named. God now seemed to be going back on his word, but Abraham was determined to do what the Lord God required. He held on to the truth of God’s promise, believing that if Isaac had to be killed as the sacrificial victim, then God would raise him from the dead to fulfil his ultimate purposes. Abraham refused to put limits to either his obedience or God’s power. He maintained his faith in the creative power of God (11:3) and his word (4:12). The saving event was an eloquent parable. Isaac was received back from the verge of death, a sign of God’s unfailing provision in the moment of man’s desperate need.
11:17–19. These verses illustrate the faith of Abraham in his readiness to sacrifice Isaac (see Gen. 22:1–10). The test lay in the conflict between the divine promise that Isaac was the heir and the commandment of God to put him to death. Abraham chose to believe that God’s promise could not fail and obeyed accordingly.
How could Abraham sacrifice Isaac when God had designated Isaac as the child of promise? Abraham could easily have questioned the guidance from God to offer Isaac. Even though he had never seen a resurrection, he came to the view that God was going to raise Isaac from the dead after the sacrifice had been completed (see Gen. 22:5). Abraham’s faith ascended to the level of a resurrection, and God restored Isaac to him as one snatched unexpectedly from the dead.
17. By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18. even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19. Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
Genesis 22 contains the story of Abraham’s greatest test of faith. This story reveals Abraham’s readiness to obey God at the expense of Isaac, to cling to God’s promises even though obedience to God’s command would nullify it, and to believe that God would raise Isaac from the dead. We note three points.
Abraham’s faith had triumphed when God directed him to the land of the promise and when God gave him Isaac, the son of the promise. But had Abraham reached a plateau of faith? Was his faith dormant and inactive? Would Abraham be able to submit to a much greater test of faith? Would he be willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God?
The writer of Hebrews says that God tested Abraham and implies that the test lasted from the moment God called him to sacrifice Isaac on one of the mountains of Moriah until the angel of the Lord stopped him from slaying Isaac. God tested Abraham to see whether the patriarch’s love for God was stronger than his fatherly love for his son Isaac. Therefore, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son at a place far removed from where they lived. Presumably Sarah may not have been informed about God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.
If God had taken Isaac’s life by natural or even accidental death, Abraham’s faith would have been severely tested. But God asked Abraham to take Isaac and with his own hands kill his son for a sacrifice to God. Job could say, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (1:21); but Abraham would have to say, “The Lord has given me a son and wants me to give him back as a sacrifice.”
Abraham obeyed. He fully complied with God’s request. In fact, if God had not intervened, Isaac would have been killed. Abraham showed his unwavering faith in God in humble obedience to God’s word. He demonstrated his love for God above anyone else, even his son Isaac.
That Abraham responded not in blind faith and slavish obedience is clear from the second part of verse 17 and verse 18. Abraham had received God’s promises, especially this word: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Gen. 21:12; also see Rom. 9:7). Abraham knew that in Isaac the promise of the multitude of descendants would be fulfilled. Descendants of Isaac would include all the spiritual offspring of Abraham. Thus, with the death of Isaac, the line of believers would be terminated.
The author of Hebrews writes that Abraham “was about to sacrifice his one and only son” (v. 17). Certainly Abraham had Ishmael, but this son belonged to the Egyptian servant Hagar. Isaac, not Ishmael, was the heir, the son of the promise. If Isaac’s life were to end, the salvation of the world would not take place. For through Isaac, God’s promise of salvation would come to realization. Actually, the promise remained in effect, for God prevented Abraham from terminating Isaac’s life and from nullifying the promise. Abraham was about to kill his son, but God said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Gen. 22:12).
In genuine faith Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. He knew that God’s power is unlimited and that God can make that which is dead come back to life. Abraham himself had experienced that: he who was “as good as dead” (Heb. 11:12) was able to procreate a son through God’s power. Abraham’s faith reached a mountaintop of trust in God when he said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5). He knew that Isaac would return with him. He believed that God would give life to the dead (Rom. 4:17), even though no one as yet had been raised from death.
Of course, Isaac did not die, someone may say, and therefore a resurrection from the dead did not take place. The author of Hebrews anticipates this observation, and to avoid any misunderstanding he adds the phrase that is translated as “and figuratively speaking.” Because Abraham’s obedience was complete, Isaac had no way of escape. Only God’s direct intervention saved his life, and thus “figuratively speaking” he was brought back to life.
What is the meaning of the expression figuratively speaking? Is Isaac a figure of Jesus Christ? Both have the designation one and only son. Both were appointed to be a sacrifice, except that for Isaac a ram served as substitute. Commentators in the early church and the Middle Ages were apt to see a parallel between Isaac and Christ and to say that Isaac prefigured Christ.
However, a word of caution is in order. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews nowhere regards “the sacrifice and salvation of Isaac as a type of Christ’s death and resurrection,” and “the idea is nowhere found in the New Testament.” No one disputes the well-known truth that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. But we ought to avoid making a writer say more than he intends to convey.
The conclusion of this matter is that the author of Hebrews stresses the unique faith of Abraham. By faith Abraham offered his son Isaac and received him back from the dead. The writer implies that Isaac actually never died, and therefore the incident must be understood figuratively and not literally. In this sense Abraham received Isaac back from death.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 335–336). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 469–480). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (pp. 286–288). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 161). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hagner, D. A. (2011). Hebrews (pp. 197–198). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Brown, R. (1988). The message of Hebrews: Christ above all (pp. 211–212). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, p. 202). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, pp. 327–329). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.