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Why did Abraham sacrifice Isaac?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Genesis 22:1-19

The current issue of Fortune magazine carries this cover story: “God and business: the surprising quest for spiritual renewal in the American workplace.”

In the article, Andre DelBecq, a management professor, says, “There were two things I thought I’d never see in my life, the fall of the Russian empire and God being spoken about at a business school.” It’s about time.

David Miller, former IBM executive and investment banker who now leads a faith-in-the-workplace group called Avodah (Hebrew for “work” and “worship”) Institute: “People often talk about the sacred-secular divide, but my faith tells me that God is found in earth and rocks and buildings and institutions, and, yes, in the business world.” He’s right.

The Princeton Religious Research Index reports a sharp increase in religious beliefs and practices since the 1990s. When the Gallup Poll asked Americans in 1999 if they felt a need to experience spiritual growth, 78% said yes, up from 20% in 1994, and nearly half said they’d had occasion to talk about their faith in the workplace in the past 24 hours.

Laura Nash, a senior research fellow at Harvard Business School, says, “Spirituality in the workplace is exploding.”

Soul and body, God and daily life are finally coming together for many people in our culture. We all need that intersection to happen for us every day. So I want to answer two questions today: why? and how?

Why trust God with your life?

This week I read James Maas’s book, Power Sleep. His research proves that at least 50 percent of America’s adult population is chronically sleep-deprived. An even greater percentage report trouble sleeping on any given night. And the number who report trouble sleeping has risen 33 percent in the last five years.

Why? Why are we so stressed and anxious?

We’re working more hours than ever before in our history. The technological revolution was supposed to free our time; instead it keeps us working all the time. Cell phones, pagers, and e-mail find us wherever we are in the world. It’s as though we never left the office, because we don’t. If we can just do more, we can have more and we can be more. Or so we think.

As a result, we’re achieving financial success on an unprecedented scale, but we’re discovering that it’s not enough. As one executive in the Fortune article said, “We get to the top of the ladder and find that maybe it’s leaning against the wrong building.”

For many of us, it is.

The problem started a long time ago.

Six centuries before Christ, a poet named Orpheus began teaching ancient Greece that our souls existed separate from our bodies, and were put into them as punishment for crimes they committed in the spiritual world. The point to life, he said, was to get our good souls out of our bad bodies. Keep the spiritual from the secular.

Orpheus influenced Pythagoras, who influenced Plato, who influenced Augustine, who influenced Martin Luther and his Reformation, who influences us today. And so the Western world, from ancient Greece to modern America, has bought into this division of soul and body, spirit and life, for 26 centuries.

In our culture the “spiritual” and the “secular” are segmented. God is for Sunday, but not for Monday. Souls are for saving, but not for living. We are not to talk about our religion in public, or let it affect our public lives. The two are separate.

So while we achieve success financially, vocationally, socially, academically, it’s enough spiritually that we are periodically religious. We trust God to save our souls, while we take care of everything else.

But we can’t. God didn’t make things this way. He created the heavens and the earth, he made our planet, and he is the only one who knows how we are to live on it. When we separate our work and lives from God, we pull the plug on the only power which enables us to live and work with joy, courage, and peace. Life won’t work this way.

And it doesn’t have to. George Gallup recently conducted a poll with results he calls “among the most exciting and significant that we have recorded in more than a half-century of polling.” I’d like to know what has Mr. Gallup so excited.

Here it is. He has discovered a sliver of the American population which he calls “highly spiritually committed.” People who let God run their lives, not just their religion. People who live for God all week, not just on Sunday. People who belong unconditionally to God.

What has he learned about them? “While representing only 13% of the populace, these persons are a ‘breed apart’ from the rest of society. We find that these people, who have what might be described as a ‘transforming faith,’ are more tolerant of others, more inclined to perform charitable acts, more concerned about the betterment of society, and far happier” (emphasis mine).

God is going to ask you to join their ranks today. Here’s how.

How to trust God with your life

Our text opens with a very confusing statement: “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied” (v. 1).

You need to know that the word “test” here does not mean to tempt to do wrong, but to test so that we can do right. The Hebrew word nawsaw means to test and prove something, to show that it is so. God is going to give Abraham a faith test. And he will pass it with flying colors.

Here it is: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (v. 2).

Abraham had waited 25 years for this son. When he was born God had promised his father, “it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12). And now God tells this elderly man, more than 110 years old, to sacrifice him to God.

“Go the region of Moriah,” to Mt. Moriah. This is the most significant single mountain in the world today. Where Abraham offered Isaac, David later offered sacrifice to God on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24:17-19). And so Solomon, David’s son, built his Temple here and made this rock at the top of this mountain his Holy of Holies (2 Chronicles 3:1).

Today this rock is enshrined in the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim structure completed in AD 691. It is the holiest spot on earth to the Jews, and third holiest to the Muslims. They both want it. And the Middle East conflict which rages today all comes down to it.

But long before all of that, a conflict raged here in the heart of an old man. He is to “sacrifice” his son here, to slit his throat and burn his body. To give up his beloved child, his heir and legacy and future, everything that matters to him. To give it all to God.

And he does. He and Isaac get up early the next morning and travel by foot more than 40 miles over three days. He climbs up this mountain with him, and lays his bound son on this altar, knife high in the air. How can he do it?

Because he trusts God. Not just with his religion, but with his life. Not just with what he can spare, but with his best. He knows that whatever he gives to God, God will bless. He trusts God.

Hebrews 11:19 says, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” He knew that if God wanted him to sacrifice this son, God could raise him back to life. God could still keep his promises and make him his heir. God could do whatever God wants to do.

You see it in his promise to his servants: “We will worship and then we will come back to you” (v. 5). And they did.

You see it in his promise to Isaac: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). And he did, giving Abraham the ram which replaced his son on the altar of worship.

Abraham trusts God with his best, and God does more with it than Abraham ever could.

He makes this one child the father of the Hebrew people. Through his descendants God brings his own Son, who dies on his own sacrificial wood as our sin offering to God.

And now because of what God did through Isaac, Abraham’s seed, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). Through Abraham’s child we are all God’s children. All because he gave his best to God, and God blessed it and is using it still today.

So, how do we join those people Gallup called “highly spiritually committed?” How do we get beyond the spiritual-secular chasm in our culture, and find God’s power and God’s purpose in all we do? How do we live at peace in this hectic, high stress, burned out, sleep-deprived society?

We do what Abraham did. We let God run our lives—every part of them. We put our families on his altar, ask him how to love them and raise them and help them, and do what he says. We put our friends on his altar, and our finances on his altar, and our futures on his altar. We put our best abilities and our worst failures on his altar. We put ourselves where Abraham put his son. We give our lives to God.

Romans 12 is the New Testament commentary on our text. Hear these familiar words in a new way, through Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (emphasis mine). “Take your everyday, ordinary life—and place it before God as an offering.” Do it today.

Conclusion

Put Isaac on the altar today.

Eric Liddell did. The Scotsman who won the gold medal in the 1924 Olympic Games turned his back on fame and fortune to serve God as a missionary in China. He died in a prison camp there, but the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire told his story to the world. He put Isaac on the altar, and God is using him still.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. This German genius was safe teaching theology in New York when he returned to Nazi Germany to fight Hitler and serve God with his life. He was hanged on April 8, 1945, but his theology and his witness are more powerful today than when he was alive on this earth. He put Isaac on the altar, and God is using him still.

Benny Newton did. Latino trucker Fidel Lopez was being beaten by the crowd during the Los Angeles riots of 1992 when Rev. Newton saw the uprising on television and ran to break things up. He threw his body over Lopez’s and yelled to his fellow black neighbors, “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too!” He had a small ministry in the inner city, and died of leukemia the next year. But his story has been told all over the country since. He put Isaac on the altar, and God is using him still.

God will bless anything you let him bless. He will use anything you let him use.

Have you kept him out of your work, or your family, or your friends, or your finances, or your future? Or is Isaac on your altar? Have you surrendered every part of your life to God’s will? Can he send you anywhere? Can he use you in any way?

God doesn’t want Sunday, but all week. Not just what you gave him financially today, but what you kept. Not just your church, but your business, your friends, your life. He wants it all.

This week, before I could preach this message to you I had to hear it myself. I had to say to God, “I don’t care what people think, but only what you think. I belong only and fully to you.” Will you join me? God wants your Isaac, your best, your all. I call you to give it to him.

Last Tuesday afternoon I had the great privilege of preaching as part of E. K. Bailey’s annual conference on expository preaching. Preachers come from all over the world to this event. And I’ll tell you, if you can’t preach to 700 black preachers, you can’t preach.

That very day, God moved me to close the message by quoting a statement of faith which is dear to my heart. It was written by a young pastor in Zambabwe who was later martyred for his faith. You’ve heard it before. Hear it again. And make it your own:

“I am part of the ‘Fellowship of the Unashamed.’ I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I’ve stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I am finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals.

“I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by his presence, lean by faith, love by patience, live by prayer, and labor by power.

“My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions few, my guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, diluted, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of adversity, negotiate at the table of compromise, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

“I won’t give up, shut up, let up, or slow up until I’ve preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ.

“I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go until he comes, give until I drop, preach until all know, and work until he stops.

“And when he comes to get his own, he’ll have no problems recognizing me—my colors will be clear.”

Are yours?