My wife Faith gave me the most amazing Christmas present last year. She knows I have weak eyes and that reading is a bit difficult, so she purchased for me a subscription to Audible.com, so that I could “read” more and more easily. I absolutely love it! Since then, I have listened to dozens of books, from theological tombs to science fiction novels. I’ve been particularly caught on the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The series is a magnificent blend of the life of a deeply honor-bound military hero, complex interwoven plot lines and deep characters, political intrigue, and drawn out explanations of the physics behind futurist space warfare. So nerdy! So me!
At the moment, I’m listening to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Far from the arcs of missile acceleration curves under gravitic drive power, Pillars is (evidently) a cult classic about the lives of men who built great cathedrals in the middle ages. It gets pretty raw in places, and I find myself fast-forwarding through some parts, so I can’t really recommend it outright. But I find the story and the concept fascinating. It’s plot is complex, it’s characters are interesting, it necessarily weaves in a ton of church history (which I just finished studying), and it’s about engineering (of cathedrals, not spaceships) at its core, so of course, I’m hooked. Plus, if I don’t slow down on my David Weber habit, I’ll have the entire series digested by the end of the summer, and that won’t do at all.
The other day, as I was stealing a few minutes for my audiobook fix with Pillars, one of the main characters — Philip, the Prior (leader) of a monastery — was explaining to another main character — Tom, a master mason whose dream is to build a cathedral in his lifetime — why God would accept Tom’s building a cathedral in payment for the sins of his wife, who has died. Tom hopes that this will make up for the fact that she was not buried properly. Philip relates to Tom the story in Genesis 22, in which God calls Abraham to sacrifice (literally kill) his son Isaac, whom he loves with all his heart. Philip explains that we no longer offer blood sacrifices to God, because Jesus has paid our debt to God in full — “the ultimate sacrifice”, as Philip puts it. This is true (and I was impressed; the novel is written by a man who claims explicitly not to be a Christian), but he then explains that the story of Abraham’s sacrifice still carries meaning … that God expects us to give Him our best, “that which is most precious to us”. Philip asks Tom, “Is this design (of the cathedral) the best thing you have to offer God?”
Tom assures Philip that it is. So the prior assures him, “Then God will accept it!” … implying that once He has accepted Tom’s gift, God will forgive the sins of Tom’s wife.
It’s not my intention to dive into the deep end of Catholic theology this time, which we could easily do. Instead, my question is simple… To what degree is Philip (and behind him, Ken Follett) accurately portraying God’s view of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac?
Philip is right… Jesus is the final sacrifice for sin
On this point, Philip is spot on. When He laid the foundations of the earth, God associated the blood of a creature — people and animals — with its life force. Sin (violating God’s perfection) earns us death, and only the shedding of blood (the pouring out of that life force) will pay the penalty for that. Not burying people “correctly” or building Cathedrals or saying the right prayers, but blood! So, day after day, year after year, people in ancient times brought rams and lambs and doves, and sacrificed them to God, spilling their blood so that — in a very temporary, inadequate way — the sins of the person would be covered. The whole thing was an exercise in…
- Making sure we aren’t confused about how guilty they were before a righteous God,
- Teaching us how serious it is to approach and try to relate to a holy God, and
- Pointing us toward (condition them to receive) the Messiah someday.
And eventually, the long-promised, long-awaited day came, when God Himself stepped into space and time in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah. This Jesus lived a perfect life, which we couldn’t live, and died to make payment for the sins of all mankind. In an instant, the sacrifice of bulls and goats became unnecessary, a relic of a past era. The perfect Lamb of God had been sacrificed, once for all. So, Philip was right that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all who would receive Him, and permanently dismantled the Old Testament sacrificial system.
But God still calls for sacrifice
However, that doesn’t mean that the concept of sacrificing to God now lives in the past. It’s true that we no longer spill animal blood on an altar, and that, for all those covered by the blood of Christ, God no longer requires our human blood to be spilled for sin either. Jesus took care of all that. Nothing we can do adds to it or takes away from it. Sacrifice of any kind on our parts is completely unnecessary to pay for sin.
But sacrifice is necessary.
Not our blood for the atonement of sin, but our lives in submission. We offer a sacrifice of humility, a sacrifice of surrender, a sacrifice of praise. Not just music or song lyrics, not just money or time or participation in a church community, not just prayer or reading Scripture. These are all great. I’m sure God loves it when we “build Cathedrals too”. But none of this is the “sacrifice” God wants. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). God wants our very lives!
We are living stones (1 Peter 2:4-6). Incredibly, God gives us the power to defy Him and choose to build our own house. But instead, we could also chose to allow God to build us into something greater — His spiritual house. God gives us the right to chose exclusion from the building — to crawl off the altar and back into the fire (as Caedmon’s Call puts it). But His desire … and call … and command … is that we would turn from our sin and be saved. All we have to do is give up fighting to make our lives all about us, and to submit to God. And in one regard, this is very much a sacrifice. We give up everything we could possibly (temporarily) eke out for ourselves in this life, and accept what God (quite permanently) offers to give us instead.
Now, if you have the eyes to see, you will quickly notice that this is like asking someone to exchange a smallish wad of pocket lint for 5-6 million metric tons of 24 carrot gold. But if you really love your pocket lint, and are blinded to the ability to see the mountain of gold right in front of you, then you might be tempted to call that sacrifice … and rage against the one demanding your pocket lint from you. “My precious!!!”
Actually, the analogy is severely flawed. In truth, you’re trading in your filthy, disease-ridden orphanage and the poisonous snakes that lives there and are trying to kill you … for formal adoption into the King’s family, a lavish room in His house, an infinitely large pile of gold, a new perfect body, a new name, royal robes that accompany your becoming heir to the Kingdom, and the invitation to enjoy all of the above for all eternity with the God who made and adores you.
But I thought the pocket lint-gold thing was a bit more succinct, so I led with that.
At any rate, if you could see all that, then you would hardly call surrendering to God to become heir to all He wants to give you a “sacrifice”. But many can’t see it, and even if you do, you still do have to sacrifice your killer orphanage snake and your pocket lint to get it. Even Christians — who are born again, signed and sealed — sometimes have a terrible time giving up things in their lives that interfere with their being with God the way He desires it … which is what life is all about in the first place.
So, what about Abraham?
The original question was: Why did God tell us (in Scripture) the story of Abraham and God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac?
Philip (from Pillars) says that it’s to demonstrate that God wants our best. I disagree. I believe God had several specific things in mind when He ordained that Moses would record the history of this story, but I don’t think that was one of them.
Here’s what I’d say…
First, we’ve already talked about God’s putting a lot of energy in the Old Testament into pointing forward to Jesus. This story certainly does that. The father of God’s people on earth (Abraham) loves his son, but out of his greater love for God, he is willing to sacrifice his son (Isaac). Sounds familiar. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The Father of all of us (God) loves His people so much that He is willing to sacrifice his own Son (Jesus). Amazing.
Secondly, God was forcing Abraham to choose. He created a scenario where only one of them would get their way. God does that alot. Would Abraham worship his son and sacrifice his God, or would he worship His God and sacrifice his son? Most read this story and fixate on God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But God was never going to allow Abraham to do that, and in the end stopped him from doing so (literally, an angel caught his arm in mid stroke of the knife — cool!). God wasn’t really asking him to sacrifice his son, he was asking him to sacrifice himself. What had to die was Abraham’s borderline-idolatrous view of Isaac. What had to die was Abraham’s perceived control over / power to produce the destiny God had promised to him. God had told Abraham He would make him into a great nation, and now Abraham had to trust God enough to slay his only heir. It was Abraham’s demand to understand (even control) how God’s plan would work that was on the altar. Questions of trust and worship, not human blood, hung in the balance. So, not Isaac per se, but Abraham was absolutely called to sacrifice.
And so are we.
What is the manner of my life in regard to these things?
What about you? What are you sacrificing to God? What are you refusing to put on the altar?
If you’ve committed your life to Christ, then ask yourself… what’s still hidden in the corners of your heart and mind that you’re unwilling to let him have? If we could see your spiritual hands, would they be open, palms-up in worship, or in a ninja death grip around some stupid lifeless wooden idol? Whatever it is, throw it on the altar, and set it on fire!
If you’re earning your way to heaven, then I’d start with sacrificing that. God is never going to love you because you work hard, play nice, give money, go to church, fly the American flag, or make sure you’re “better” than the next guy. Only Jesus earns God’s love, and He has extended it to you. Will you accept it? Which sounds better, the poisonous snakes or being adopted as the son and heir of the King? Because you have to choose.
As we said, you cannot have this life AND that one. God’s kingdom has rules… there are no poisonous snakes allowed in the house. One of you has to go. You can’t cling to your sin (your way, your pride, your idol) and expect God to look the other way. You must choose! And while choosing Christ will cost you everything you have in this life. The alternative costs far more. Pocket lint, or gold? Snakes or sonship? Death or life?
God takes this incredibly seriously…
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)