Harvest House Publishers
Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, said that our impossibilities “provide a platform for the display of His almighty grace and power.” God will “not only deliver us, but in doing so, He will give us a lesson we will never forget; and to which we will return with joyous reflection. We will never be able to thank God enough for having done exactly what He did.”
That was the exciting discovery Abraham made in his growing friendship with God. The audacious accolade of the Bible about this adventuresome pioneer is, “Abraham Your friend forever” (2 Chronicles 20:7). God’s own affirmation through the prophet Isaiah was an assurance of that: “Abraham My friend” (Isaiah 41:8). The apostle James’ summary of the unfolding drama of that friend-ship was,“ ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23).
Friendship with God did not come easily for Abraham. It took repeated evidences of the Lord’s intervention to bring him to that abiding conviction. All that he went through was preparation for him to be able to believe and say, “The Lord will provide.” Through it all, he became a hero of faith who towers over all other heroes of the Old Testament. The secret of his life is the gift of faith the Lord gave him. He is distinguished for the risks he dared to take and the succession of radical interventions the Lord displayed in his life.
Abraham’s heroic life can be divided into three acts: his call to faith, his realization of the gift of faith, and his ultimate test of that faith. Act three is our major focus, but the penultimate events of acts one and two are absolutely necessary to understand in order to appreciate Abraham’s bold, “the Lord will provide” conviction in the most harrowing experience of his friendship with God.
The call to faith came to Abram, as he was then called, first as the son of Terah among the Semitic people who had migrated to and settled in the highly advanced culture of Ur in northern Mesopotamia. A multiplicity of gods and idol worship pervaded the Sumerian religion of the area and time—a problem, we will observe, that was manifested repeatedly in this early stage of the history of the people of God. For a time these good Semites syncretized their God of creation, the flood, and Noah with the local gods, particularly the moon god. The evidence of that blending is shown in Terah’s name, which in Hebrew is related to the word moon. That may be the reason the Lord had to extricate Terah and his family out of the prosperous and sophisticated culture. He created a restlessness in him and motivated him to take his son Abram, his son’s wife, Sarai, and Lot, Abram’s nephew, out of Ur and follow a mysterious inner guidance to move toward the land of Canaan. They traveled along the Euphrates Valley as far as Haran.
It was there, some years later, that the same God who first guided Terah to move from Ur, appeared in a direct revelation to Abram. What He said must have put both awe and panic in Abram’s soul.
The Lord had great plans for Abram. It would take a lifetime of friendship with God before Abram realized that God would provide for each step of the way.
Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you.
The Hebrew verb can be translated “go for yourself.” The risks the Lord challenges us to take are always for our good, however frightening they may seem at first. The Lord continued:
And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Quite a promise! Acting on it required risk. Abram had nothing to go on except the promise of God. But he went forth with what little guidance he had. In the years ahead he learned the absolute faithfulness and enduring friendship of God. He needed all those years to grow in that friendship—to trust it—experiencing its reality in times when he did not trust.
After Terah died, Abram left the security of Haran and proceeded into Canaan. The altars he built along the way were symbolic of his growing faith in God, which enabled him to take new risks.
However, when a famine hit the land of Canaan, he went even farther south, into Egypt. While there Abram showed his other side— the fearful side that resisted risk, that did not trust. As he and Sarai entered Egypt, he told her to say she was his sister—a lie based on lack of trust in God’s promise. Sarai was beautiful, and Abram feared that the Egyptians would take her and kill him. None other than the Pharaoh himself was attracted to her. He took her to his home and honored Abram, whom he assumed was Sarai’s brother. But the Lord had other plans. He sent plagues on the Pharaoh and his household until the truth was told. Abram almost thwarted the plan of God to make him the father of a great people. He and Sarai barely escaped with their lives.
The realization of faith, act two of the drama of Abram, soon to become Abraham, came when the Lord led him out of Egypt into Canaan. The Lord appeared to him at his first major camp and reminded him of the blessing which could be seen in Abram’s increasing livestock and in his silver and gold. Added to that, the Lord showed him the land which was to be his and his descendants.
Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered (Genesis 13:14-16).
Then the Lord told Abram to do a strange thing. “Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you” (verse 17). In order to build in Abram the confidence of a risk taker, the Lord had to help him claim the reality of the seemingly impossible. He not only gave him a vision, but He also made him walk through that vision until he made it really his own.
God does the same thing with you and me. First He gives us the impossible dream, then He helps us envision what it will be like to possess our possession, and then through our imagination He helps us persistently image the reality. What is the dream for you?
Abram built an altar to thank the Lord and to show that he believed. What can we do to show the same Lord of the impossible that we believe in Him today?
Act two comes to a close with repeated evidence of the Lord’s blessing on Abram. Not only did he defeat the king of Sodom in battle, but Melchizedek, king of Salem and a priest of the Lord, met Abram after the battle with a victory celebration of bread and wine. Most significantly, he blessed Abram:
Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.
It must have been very comforting to Abram to hear from another human being the same promise he had heard repeatedly from God.
What God requires He longs to release in us. It is by faith alone— not works or goodness of our own—that a right relationship with God is established and maintained.
The bond of friendship between God and Abram was growing firm and strong. Good thing. For in act three we see the greatest test of that friendship. Abram was in a quandary. The promise of God had been given that he would have innumerable descendants, but Sarai was still childless. How could he be the father of multitudes without a son? Since he had no offspring, would one of the lads born in his household be heir? No. Instead, the Lord made Abram what seemed to be an impossible promise. He and Sarai would have a son. Abram found that very difficult to believe. He was a hundred years old and Sarai was 90! It was then that the Lord provided a gift, one which He generously offers to everyone who dares to risk—the gift of faith. He showed Abram the stars in the heavens and told him to count them. “So shall your descendants be.”
What follows in Genesis 15:6 is one of the most crucial verses in the Old Testament. “Then he [Abram] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” God gave Abram the only thing that can please Him and make us right with Him. What God requires He longs to release in us. It is by faith alone—not works or goodness of our own—that a right relationship with God is established and maintained. This later became the critical issue for both the early church and the Reformation. How are we made right with God? By faith alone. And what God wants from us, He implants within us. Faith is a gift.
Abram needed a constant replenishment of that gift as he grappled with the humanly impossible promise of a son. The Lord had provided in the past, but how could his 90-year-old wife have a child? After this most propitious promise, Sarai insisted that Abram impregnate Hagar, her Egyptian maid. Once again our hero is exposed as finding it difficult to believe God’s awesome promise. “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2).
A sad mistake! It sent both Abram and Sarai down an equivocating eddy out of the stream of God’s direct will for some time.
Ishmael was born of the unblessed relationship of Abram and Hagar. As we shall discover repeatedly in the unfolding revelation of the Lord of the impossible, some of our choice heroes had to cope with second best because they would not wait patiently for God’s best. But, as we shall also discover, the Lord never forgets or gives up on those He has chosen, or goes back on His promises.
The Lord takes Abramback to “zero planning” again. Once again He makes His promise as the Lord of the impossible. This time He gives both Abram and Sarai new names. Abram is to be Abraham, the father of multitudes, and Sarai is to be Sarah, a mother of nations. Added to the vision focused in new names, the Lord uses a definitive name for Himself to give Abraham new courage: El Shaddai, God Almighty, the One who has all power. As if all this were not enough, the mighty El Shaddai then offered a covenant—a promise and agreement—that He would bless Abraham and his descendants forever. The first-fruit evidence of this would be a male child to be called Isaac.
And Abraham’s response? He laughed! Later, so did Sarah when she learned of the impossible promise. That hurt their Friend. He wanted them to laugh with Him in sheer delight and glee over what He would do, not at Him or His promise. No wonder He pressed the point. There is humor in the heart of God which calls forth in us the laughter of surprise, not the laughter of scoffing. Wrestle with God until you can grasp His promises, but never laugh at Him! He’s too good a Friend for that…
When Isaac was born, Sarah had learned her lesson. She said in grateful praise, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me….Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:6-7). Who but God, the Lord of the impossible!
Isaac grew to be a fine, cherished lad. Abraham and Sarah loved him deeply, not only because they finally had an offspring, but because now they knew that the covenant the Lord had made would be fulfilled. Isaac became Abraham’s pride and joy—a sense of significance and a hope for the future. The boy became his life!
Now get inside Abraham’s heart so you can empathize with the panic he must have felt when the Lord asked the impossible of him in the test of his faith. We can feel the stabs of anguish with each word of the Lord’s command: “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Genesis 22:2). What did it mean? Abraham ached with inexplicable pain. “Why, God, why?” he must have cried, his feelings torn asunder. “My son, God? How shall Your covenant come true that I shall be the father of multitudes without Isaac?” No request could have been worse. Nothing could have seemed more abhorrent.
I have tried to ponder these questions from inside Abraham’s soul. I have sat at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, beneath which is Mount Moriah, and wondered why God asked this of Abraham. Some have suggested that Abraham thought up the idea himself in keeping with the child sacrifices of the Moabites. It was considered the ultimate expression of obedience to the gods of the people. But God had been too good a friend to Abraham for him to think of needing to placate Him with a pagan sacrifice. And further, if this command of God had been the figment of Abraham’s self-justification, what of all the other times God spoke to him? No, the command to offer Isaac was real—an ultimate test of Abraham’s
What was at issue was the fact that Isaac was God’s gift, not Abraham’s possession. Could it be that like most of us, he had allowed his pride in Isaac to dull his praise to God, who had entrusted the lad to him? It is a subtle, slippery transition from “all that I have and am is a gift of God” to “all that I have and am is mine—belongs to me and God—and in that order.”
All of us fall into that kind of self-gratifying pride all the time. It’s what we do for God with our strength that becomes important to us. We forget that we could not breathe a breath or think a thought or accomplish anything if it were not for God’s moment-by-moment blessing.
I think of the times of crisis when I have had to relinquish control of my family, or profession, or future, and be called back to the realization that they are not mine, but a trust, a gift from God.
Sickness, difficulties, disappointments have shocked me alive again to the fact I cannot clutch tenaciously the entrusted gifts of life. Over the years of friendship with God I have been brought to a surrender, a crucial letting go, of what I foolishly thought was mine because of my right or hard work.
The issue is, Who or what is your Isaac? Who in your life competes with God for first place? What do you have or what have you accomplished that competes with God for the meaning of your life? It is often when a crisis comes that we realize that God does not have our ultimate loyalty or energy in daily living. False gods are not just idols in the fields or temples of an ancient, pagan time; they are living in our homes, deposited in our portfolio, fastened to the titles on our office doors, invested in the goals and plans of our self-generated lordship of our own destinies.
It is a belief that God will provide, unswerving confidence that He will give us exactly what we need at the right moment to see us through. That’s what God gave to Abraham. The thundering truth of this story for us is that God gave Abraham more than a challenge; He gave him faith in the knowledge that He would not contradict His covenant. God got to the bottom of Abraham and introduced him to the rock-bottom security of the Rock of Ages.
In your heart and mind’s eye, climb Moriah with Abraham and Isaac. The lad enjoyed being with his father and was delighted to go with him to make a sacrifice. But catch the note of passing concern about where the lamb is for the sacrifice, which turns to panic as they trudge farther up the mountain. “My father!” he said. “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). Isaac trusted his father. But Abraham trusted God even more. He responded with pathos. “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (verse
8). And they walked on, Isaac’s real question unanswered. Surely he knew about child sacrifice practiced in that area. Could it be? Not Abraham, my father!
Dare to imagine what passed between father and son when they reached the top of Moriah, and Abraham silently, almost compulsively, built the altar, arranged the wood, and then began to bind his son. Feel Abraham’s heart when his eyes met the incredulous eyes of his son. And then the fatal moment came. Abraham took out his knife to slay his son before the fire was lighted. Just at the moment he was about to thrust the knife in Isaac’s chest, the Lord called, “Abraham, Abraham!”
Not a moment too soon; not a moment too late. The words were perfectly timed! And then God said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (verse 12). Abraham had taken the ultimate risk, and God was faithful to His promise.
Rembrandt’s painting of this dramatic intervention depicts the salient truth. As Abraham is about to thrust in the knife, he looks up in response to God’s intercepting call. The knife is actually flying out of his hand into the air—as if he had been waiting for the voice, and when he heard it he flung the knife away with a triumphant, “I knew You’d come! I knew You’d provide a way!” Rembrandt has captured a mixture of awe, amazement, and assurance on Abraham’s face. I am moved when I reflect that Rembrandt used the same model for Abraham’s face as he used for the father in his painting of the return of the prodigal son. The loving heart of God is evident in both.
After the moment of the radical intervention, Abraham looked up and saw behind him in the thicket a ram caught by its horns. God did provide! Here was the substitutionary sacrifice. We’ve felt Abraham’s anguish; now let your imagination capture his joy. He offered the ram in place of his son, and called the place YHWH-jireh, which means “the Lord will provide.” The words became a metaphor of the intervening majesty of God. They have been repeated by succeeding generations during difficulties and have been put on the placards carried before armies and processions.
This familiar story in Genesis 22 flashes like a diamond, displaying new rays of truth each time we hold it up for reflection.
We never tire of it, not only because of the gripping drama, but because it speaks to our deepest need to trust God for the gift of faith in times of risking, and touches our longing to be reassured of the timely interventions of God.
Most of all, we are called back to another mount a short distance from Mount Moriah—Mount Calvary. There God did what was truly impossible. He gave His own Son as a sacrifice for the sins of all people, in all ages. What He did not require of Abraham with Isaac, He required of Himself with Jesus Christ, that we might know that we are ultimately loved and forgiven.
An awesome chill swept over me the day I walked from the side of Moriah, the Dome of the Rock, to the Garden Tomb, and then around from the open tomb to the jagged rock that bears the shape of the skull—Golgotha. Visits to ancient tells and historic sites can be sentimental, but not if what happened at them is relived in our hearts and minds. God is the same—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is the Lord of the impossible—Moriah and Calvary. There was a cross in the heart of God when He intervened with Abraham and dealt with the syndrome of sin through the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. And the same cross-shaped heart beats for you and me right now. He loves us to the uttermost, and He came Himself that we might know we are His beloved, cherished people.
There are three crucial things we have learned from Abraham about the Lord of the impossible. They are all closely intertwined as parts of one great assurance to help us in living now and forever.
The first is that the Lord created you and me to be His friends. That conviction lacks neither reverence nor awe. In fact it engenders both. He came in Jesus Christ to call us into a profound friendship and revealed the lengths He would go in indefatigable love on the cross. In the confidence of that friendship we can seek His guidance, dare to risk, and know His abiding presence with us. When we look into the face of God in Christ we see His incredible affirmation and acceptance, unending support, and undying love. And as we gaze, lost in wonder and gratitude, we hear Him remind us that His friend-ship is not dependent on our adequacy or perfection. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15). Put your name in the place of Abraham’s and hear the Lord say,“ , My friend!”
The second thing Abraham has taught us is that the essence of faith is risk. We can dare to risk, knowing that the Lord loves our Isaac more than we do. That was Abraham’s startling discovery. In the focus of both Moriah and Calvary, we can see our Isaac in an entirely different perspective. God is for us and not against us. He does not want a religious sacrifice of our Isaac but an unreserved surrender of our willful control of whoever or whatever has become our Isaac. Think of the people who become the extension of your ego—whose success brings you false pride or whose failure breaks your heart. Or consider the thing you cherish most—health, reputation, position, or plans for the future. And then reflect on opportunities which may have become obsessions. Your job, some cause, the church, or a responsibility may have become the passion of your life. Whatever or whoever bridges the gap between our fondest dreams and our longing for fulfillment becomes our Isaac. The adventure of friendship with God is surrendering our control of what we were never meant to control. We commit what is not ours in order to gain what we cannot lose. Abraham gave God his Isaac, his future, and his destiny as the father of multitudes. In return, the Lord gave Isaac as a gift and assurance that He loved the boy and believed in Abraham’s future more than Abraham did.