Fear That Walks Towards Its Source
November 19, 2023 Speaker: Robert Jackson
Passage: Genesis 22
Good morning! Well. As a member of the missions committee I was tasked with one job, and that is to ensure that anyone who preaches sticks to the texts we told the missionaries we would be preaching 6 months ago. It was assumed that my being one of the people who preaches would give me an advantage in this role. The events of this week have determined that was an incorrect assumption. But let it be fully known that the Griffiths read exactly what we asked them to and this is 100% my fault. It’s me, hi, I’m the problem. So on and so forth. But! I did it for what I hope to convince you is a good reason. See, we realized that, as providence would have it, we are concluding both our Fall Missions Emphasis and our Fall Study on the fear of the Lord this week. And there is one place in Scripture that, to me, stands out as one of the clearest intersections of the fear of the Lord and missions that I know of. So we are going to end our Acts series a little early this year, but don’t worry we’ll be back at it next year. Today we will be in Genesis 22, looking to see, among other things, how the fear of the Lord is the foundation of Missions.
The text I’m reading starts in Genesis 22, verse 1, and will also be on the screens. Because the passage is somewhat long, if you need to remain seated that’s perfectly fine. But if you are able, please stand for the reading of God’s Word.
“GOD, After these things tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Please take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to lthe land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”... 3 So early in the morning Abraham 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… Then he set out and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to the young men, “Stay here by yourselves with the donkey while I and the young man will go on there, so that we can worship, and return to you.” 6 Then Abraham took the wood for 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. 7 And Isaac spoke to Abraham, his father, and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold… the fire and the wood, but… where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, n“God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went, both of them, together.
9 Then they came to the place which God had told him about. Abraham built the altar there… and laid the wood in order… and bound Isaac his son… and olaid him on the altar, on top of the wood… 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand… and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 Then the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, p“Do not lay your hand on the young man or do anything to him, for qnow I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 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. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, r“The Lord will provide”;2 as it is said to this day, “On the mountain of the Lord his provision may be seen.”3
15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, s“By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will really bless you. I will really multiply your offspring tas the stars of heaven - even uas the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess vthe gate of his4 enemies, 18 and win your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, xbecause you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they got up and went together to yBeersheba. And Abraham lived at yBeersheba.
Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, zMilcah also has borne children to your brother Nay-hor: 21 aUz his firstborn, bBuzz his brother, Kemu-el the father of Aram, 22 Chee-sed, Hay-zo, Pildash, Jid-laff, and Bethu-el.” 23 (cBethu-el fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24” This is God’s Word.
This chapter of the bible is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful, complex, meticulously crafted stories in the whole book. The precision and care of the story’s construction alerts us to the fact that we have stumbled on to something very special. You ever walk into a room that felt so important you involuntarily began to speak in a whisper? This story is like one of those rooms - you can tell that you have stepped into more than you bargained for. This story is, in many ways, the climax of Abraham’s life. I know he shows up in two more chapters after this, but this is effectively the conclusion of Abraham’s spiritual journey. And you need to know that to understand how and why this text is so full of allusions to other stories, and why every single line is weighed down with significance. I think the clearest way to see this is to look at how the structure of the story follows a pattern called a chiasm. We have talked about these plenty before in sermons and in Equipping Hour, but that’s basically where parts of the story mirror other parts so that the themes either reach a peak or they cross each other like an X, both of which show the point you’re supposed to focus on at the center as well as numerous parallels along the way.
Genesis 22 opens with the phrase, “God, after all these things, tested Abraham.” Which should immediately draw our attention, at least briefly, to the “all these things” which this testing is being oriented to. In one sense, it’s the events of chapter 21. But in another, it’s the totality of Abraham’s life. Let me show you what I mean with some slides. And by the way, this is going to move too fast to take notes on and that’s ok, I just want to show you the big picture. (1) If you want to reference them later, these slides will be linked in the sermon text when we put it on the website.
(2) Abraham’s story opened with a genealogy of his father in chapter 11, but the point wasn’t his father it was to show you Abraham’s lineage. (3) Then in Gen. 12, God called Abraham, then named Abram, to leave the land of Ur and travel to Canaan alone. Now obviously he wasn’t totally alone, but only he and his household, out of their whole community, were called to leave. (4) Then later in Gen. 12 Abram lies to a King about his wife, Sarai, being his sister in order to protect himself, and he and Lot separate afterwards. Then (5) in Gen. 14 Abram goes to rescue Lot and the people of Sodom from an invading army. Then (6) in Gen. 15 God makes a covenant with Abram. (7) In Gen. 17 you first feel a sense of deja vu as God makes a covenant with him again, this time renaming him “Abraham.” Feeling a sense of deja vu when reading the Bible is supposed to alert you to the fact that something important is going on. (8) Then you get to Gen 18 and you find Abraham coming to the rescue of Lot and Sodom again as he intercedes for them with God - asking the Lord to spare them. Now you’re feeling deja vu a second time. Something is definitely up. (9) Then in Gen. 20 Abraham tells the same lie to a different king about Sarah being his sister. Again. After that Ishmael leaves. Then (10) in Gen. 22 God calls Abraham to leave his family, except for Isaac, and go do something terrifying. And finally, (11) in at the end of Gen. 22, you find another genealogy that says it’s about Nahor, Abraham’s brother, but is really about showing you where Rebekah came from.
(12) That’s not just a lot of suspicious parallels. The cool thing about chiasms is that they don’t just show you the parallels in the story, they show you the point of the story. They show you where the author wants you to pay attention by centering the structure on that point. And in this case, (13) that point is the time when Abram tried to accomplish the promise of God himself by sleeping with his wife’s servant and having a son named Ishmael. This is the center of the story, and the structure puts a spotlight on Abraham’s greatest problem: that he keeps trying to accomplish the promises of God himself. When he and Sarai are in Egypt, and he was worried that they might steal his wife and with her the hope of his promised heir, he took matters into his own hands. When it had been years since God promised and Sarai still hadn’t conceived, he took matters into his own hands. You even see him returning to the wife-is-my-sister bit in gen. 20, which shows that he still hadn’t gotten it. God had remade the covenant with him, this time adding circumcision so you know he means business, God had given him and his wife new names. So you’d think he gets it by now, but all signs point to the contrary. So, after all these things, God decided to test Abraham to see if he had really gotten the point yet. And man, is this a hard test. And this brings us to our first of only two points this morning: God requires our obedience and our fear. And I know that sounds awfully heavy and that’s because it is. But I’ll go ahead and tell you our second point will be that God has given us every reason to trust him, so I ask that you hang in there with me on this first one.
(14) Point 1: God requires our Obedience and our Fear (15)
Look at what God said.. “Take your son…. Your only son… whom you love…” At the beginning of the story, when God speaks to Abraham he specifies which son. Sort of like he’s acknowledging what Abraham has just done with Ishmael. When he sent him away in the previous chapter. Everything is so carefully constructed here. Notice the silence of Abraham and the detail of the narrative. See how it slows from covering decades in the previous chapters to covering single movements of getting out of bed, chopping wood, and saddling donkeys. Almost achingly slow. This is a very tightly composed story.. No detail is left in by chance. But here, no dialogue is included. The narrator has focused on other details - his actions, highlighted by Abraham’s dreadful silence. Waltke notes that at this point the bargainer has finally fallen silent. No haggling or dealing as he did with Lot at Sodom or with Ishmael. Just silent, fearful, obedience. The silence paired with the detail of the actions helps us to see the weight on Abraham. I suspect he didn’t rise early because he was eager, but because there’s not much point in lying in bed if you can’t sleep. Better to get up and do something - anything, rather than lie there and think about what was to happen. So rather than calling one of his many, many servants… This very wealthy, very very old man.. he saddles the donkey. And he chops the wood. And he wants Isaac there with him for all of it. And he takes three days to make a 14 hour trip. No, he’s not in a rush.
Can you imagine what kind of obedience is required to go through with something like that? Much has been written about Abraham’s mental state in this narrative. The author really invites speculation with the silence. But in Hebrews 11:19, God gives a glimpse into at least part of what he was thinking. The Holy Spirit writes, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” Do you know what that’s saying? Abraham went up that mountain not because he was hoping God wouldn’t go through with it, but because he believed God could undo it. And herein lies the point of the story. You remember how Abraham’s whole life story formed a chiasm? Well so does this chapter (16). And it draws our attention to a place in the story you might not expect. It does so with the repetition of key phrases from both the characters and the narrator. Phrases like, (17) “here I am.” And (18) “Your only son, whom you love.” And, (19) “Abraham lifted his eyes.” And then you see them (20) leaving the young men to go up, and it says (21) “the two of them went on together.” Now from last time, you remember how you can tell when you’ve stumbled on something important in the bible? When you start feeling a sense of deja vu. And here we should be feeling that again, because the phrase (22) “the two of them went on together” is repeated. But then it gets interesting. (23) Now, on the way back down, the pattern is reversed. Now the first phrase of the new section matches the first phrase of the previous section (24), as Abraham responds to the Lord, “Here I am.” And then the Lord repeats the phrase, (25) “Your only son, whom you love.” And listen, if God feels the need to repeat himself you should feel the need to pay attention. Then (26) “Abraham lifted his eyes” and after the sacrifice (27) they return to the young men together.
But this structure in chapter 22 is different from the structure of Abraham’s life. Now, the second half is reversed. The pattern has changed. And I think it’s because the narrator is alerting us to the fact that something has changed this time that hadn’t changed before. Something has reversed. And I think what changed is Abraham. And when a person reverses we call that repentance. And we see that in the way the narrator draws our attention to a place we might be tempted to overlook: the conversation between Isaac and Abraham on the way up the mountain. And as if the structure of the narrative weren’t enough to draw our attention here, the phrase “here I am” is repeated for a third time, the only one of these phrases in the structure to get a third repetition, and Abraham and Isaac each say exactly 6 words to each other in Hebrew. Perfectly mirrored statement and response both beginning with “my Father” and “My son.” The narrator is really pulling out all the stops to get you to look at this and to pay attention when Isaac asks, “my Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” and Abraham says, “my son, (28) The Lord will provide a lamb for himself.” The flipped chiastic pattern alerts us to the fact that something has changed and this is it. Abraham has gone from fearing what will happen if he doesn’t take matters into his own hands to fearing the Lord. He’s gone from (29) “I will accomplish the promises of God for myself” to “God will accomplish his promises for Himself.”
I think this is the pinnacle example of the fear of the Lord in this story. Perhaps even in the entire book of Genesis. But I don’t think we only see that in Abraham. One of the most interesting characters at the very center of this story is almost entirely silent except for one question. And this warrants our attention. On Wednesday nights we have been gathering in our seasonal study to teach from the book, “Rejoice & Tremble” by Michael Reeves. In the book Reeves seeks to work out a biblical understanding of what it means for Christians to “fear” God. One of the primary points Reeves makes is that in English, Hebrew, and Greek, the word “fear” has virtually the same semantic range, meaning it can be used in both positive and negative ways. So I can fear God because I don’t trust him, or because I do. I can fear him because I think he means me harm, or because I understand the vast disparity of significance between him and me. Sort of like I can look up at the stars on a clear night, or peer over the edge of a boat in the ocean, or stand on the edge of the grand canyon, and I could either be afraid of falling in, or I could simply tremble at how vastly more significant these things are than myself. And a couple weeks ago we talked about how love and fear are like two circles of a venn diagram that overlap, and how the place they overlap is, functionally, what we understand to be worship.
Well, in this book, Reeves points out that twice in Genesis, after this story, God is referred to by the name, “The Fear of Isaac.” In Genesis 31:42 Jacob, who is Isaac’s son, refers to God as, “ If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.” And if you were to look there you would see “Fear” is capitalized indicating it is a name. Isaac’s relationship to God was defined by fear. And not the bad sort, that thinks God has evil intentions towards him, the good sort. Why do I say that? Same reason I say that of Abraham. The two of them went up together. Neither of them turned to run, neither of them tried to fight, neither of them froze in terror. They went up together. And listen, Abraham was an old man. Well over 100 years old. Isaac was old enough to carry enough wood for a large burnt offering, and to carry it up a mountain that was too steep for the donkeys to carry it up for them. The word “young man” used for Isaac is the same word used for the servants that travel with them. Isaac isn’t too young or too stupid to see what’s going on here. And you can see it in the phrasing. If you’re casually talking to your dad you say, “hey Dad what’s going on with this?” But he says, “..... my Father… .” and he waits for Abraham to answer him. And then they fall silent. And the two of them walk up together.
Not only do they walk up together, but this young man lets his 100 year old father bind him, and lay him down on the stack of wood. And he doesn’t move when he picks up the knife. Abraham believed God was able even to raise Isaac up from the dead, if he went through with it. And everything in this very carefully constructed narrative points to the idea that Isaac believed that too. This is the kind of fear and the kind of obedience that the story implicitly exhorts the reader to have. It’s not being afraid of God. It’s not obedience under threat of death. It’s obedience under the hope of life. It’s the kind of slow but consistent walking you do when you realize that running away from the God who speaks to you is the least likely way to find blessing. And walking towards him, even if it costs you your life, is the most sure path to blessing.
There might be some of you here today who God is calling to an obedience that feels like death. And I want to tell you, based on this story, to keep walking. I don’t know what it will look like yet, but if you’re walking towards the Lord it’s going to be ok. And I or any of the other elders will be glad to walk with you. If that’s you please come and talk to one of us after the service. But now we come to our second and final point,
(30) Point 2: God has given us every reason to trust him
It is my hope that in learning from this story we would not merely get to a place of feeling hope is possible, but to a place of feeling it is necessary. And we aren’t there yet so we have a little more work to do. Unfortunately, common misapplications of this text stand in our way.
One of these is the tendency to make this story all about Abraham loving Isaac too much and God too little. One of the ways you’ll hear this text preached is, “Abraham loved the gifts of God more than God, so God had to remind him of what’s really important. So you, Christian, be careful not to love God’s gifts more than God.” Now that is a true sentiment, to be sure. But I have a big problem with that type of sermon from this text for a few reasons. For one, taken in light of this narrative, it puts the center of the effort back on you. It takes a message about God providing what he requires and turns it back into a message of you providing what God requires. Namely, the correct balance of your own loves. You be careful not to love stuff more than God. Ok, well, say you already feel like you love God as much as you can, what are you supposed to do? Try and love your kids less. That feels more accessible. Just try and dampen your love for everything else to make sure it is less than your love for God. Hate your father and mother so that your love for God will be paramount. That’s what the bible says, right?
But not only does it reverse the story from God provides to you provide, it undercuts the emotional thrust of the story which is all about the love of a Father for his only Son. The question isn’t whether Abraham loves Isaac too much, it’s whether Abraham knows that God loves him like he loves Isaac. That he can be trusted to care for Abraham like Abraham cares for Isaac. To protect, provide for, and watch out for him like he does for Isaac. He is a good Father, and he loves his children. But, if I could step back to our context for a moment, there is something in us that fights against that faith. Both that God loves us and that he will provide. Before my daughter was born I was worried. Because I’m not naturally a very touchy-feely kinda guy and I was worried I wouldn’t be an affectionate enough father for a daughter. Then a couple months after she was born I was rocking her to sleep and I looked down at her face and I was overcome by my love for her. And it was a sweet moment and I briefly felt relief because I had nothing to worry about, I loved her more than I loved my life. And then, in typical first year seminarian fashion, I started overthinking and getting worried about maybe I love her too much and it’s idolatrous of me because I was afraid I loved her more than anything. And then a thought just casually floated to the surface of my attention, like a passing comment overheard in another conversation. It was stated simply and matter of factly. God loves you like you love her. And every part of my flesh shouted “NO.”
That’s not allowed. He is too perfect for that. He is impassible. He is holy. And I am not. He’s not allowed to love me that way. She has me wrapped around her finger it’s not like God is wrapped around mine. And then I realized, that’s true, he doesn’t love me like that. He loves me a lot more than that. A couple months ago I was attending a lecture at TGC about the impassibility of God and the lecturer made a very powerful point about why the impassibility of God is good news for us. He said, “you and I have passions. God does not. That what impassibility means, it means without passions. And we get all upset about that because we say, “does that mean that God isn’t moved by love, or by our suffering?” And yes, that is what it means. God is not moved by our suffering. Because when you and I are moved by something, it implies we were not feeling a certain way about it and then we were moved into a state of feeling appropriately about it. God doesn’t need to be moved into caring for us because he’s already there.” Before my daughter was born I was worried I wouldn’t love her enough and then I met her and it moved me to love her. God has never been moved to love you. He’s always been loving you. God didn’t love Abraham after he left Ur. He called him out of Ur because he loved him. He didn’t make a covenant to love him. He made a covenant because he loved him. And he didn’t start loving him once he saw that he would sacrifice his son for him. He called Abraham to go up that mountain so he could show Abraham that his love could be counted on.
The story is not about Abraham learning to obey, as much as it is about Abraham learning what God is really like. At the beginning, when the story says, “after these things ‘God’ spoke to Abraham,” the word for God is “Elohim.” Which is the Hebrew word for God. It’s not his name. It could mean any god. It’s not Yahweh, the name that the author had been using for God in the previous chapters. It’s as if the narrator is trying to momentarily conceal the character of God, to underscore Abraham’s uncertainty about all this. What kind of God is he really? I thought he was the kind who would bless me.. But now he seems like the kind who will take from me. But Abraham believed God, not just that he existed, but that he is faithful, that he rewards those who seek him, and that he was able even to bring the dead back to life. And as soon as Abraham raises the knife to kill his son, “Abraham!” The Angel of Yahweh breaks onto the scene. Yahweh, not just any God, Abraham’s God, the Fear of Isaac, is here in all his graciousness. And he magnifies all the previous blessings even more than before. He says this time, because you have obeyed me, I will really bless you. James 2:21 reflects on this moment saying, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a zfriend of God.” When Jesus was speaking to his disciples in John 15 he said, “No longer do I call you servants,1 for the servant wdoes not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Abraham became a friend of God because God was no longer concealing his provision, he was revealing it.
And then Abraham lifts his eyes and sees that a ram had been caught in the bushes and the seems to give the connotation that it had actually been there the whole time, but whether it was or not doesn’t matter because the plan had always been for it to be there. The plan was never for Isaac to die. It was for Abraham to finally see who God really is, that he is a good and faithful Father who blesses those who seek him. And Abraham has every reason to trust him. And now that Abraham sees that, God magnifies every part of the previous blessing from chapter 17. Not only will Abraham’s descendants be as numerous as the stars in the sky, now they will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Not only will his offspring possess the land, and here the Hebrew shifts from plural to singular masculine, “your offspring will possess the gates of his enemies.” And all nations of the world will be blessed in him. Do you see it? Because Abraham feared the Lord, all nations will be blessed through the promised offspring who will possess the gates of his enemies. The fear of the Lord is the foundation of hope, both for yourself and for all nations.
God says because Abraham was willing to give his son, his only son, whom he loved, it shows that Abraham must love God. That’s the logic. If you would do that for the son you love, you have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love me. The Apostle Paul loves that logic. So he says in Romans, “God shows his love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us… He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” You need to see Abraham’s love for his son to see how much God loves you. The point is not to use your love for God as a baseline below which you are obligated to force your love for other things. The point of the story is to use the love of a Father for his Son as a baseline from which to demonstrate God’s love for you, and thereby motivate and grow our love for him in return. We love him because he first loved us. In this story, God is using our love for good things to expand our understanding of his love for us, thereby increasing our love for him, not trying to dampen our love for other stuff. The problem isn’t that our love for other things is too strong, it’s that our love for God is too weak. It must be stoked. And God does it with beautiful stories like this one.
You, brothers are sisters, are the son he loves. The way you feel about that thing you don’t want to let go of… that’s how he feels about you. If God had a cell phone you’d be on the lock screen. When God says to Abraham, “Go take your son, your only son, whom you love, and offer him to me.” This is the first use of the word love in the English bible. Do you not hear echos of something? ”God so loved the world, that he gave his son, his only begotten son, so that whoever believes might not die, but live.” God gave his only son. Whom he loved. Because he also loved you. The Father says to Abraham, “not your son, but mine.” And the Son says to Isaac, “not your life, but mine.” That is what it will cost, but you will not pay it. When Christ comes into the world, the voice crying out in the wilderness says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And that lamb himself says, “when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all peoples to myself” As it is said to this day, “On the mountain of God, his provision will be seen.”
The name of that place is “Yahweh-jireh,” sometimes misspronounced as “Jehovah Jirah,” but it’s a name for God that can mean a lot of things like God sees, or God has seen to it, or God has provided, or God has been seen but it’s the perfect name for this place because all of that is true so when I read it earlier I opted for the rendering “The Provision of the Lord will be seen.” Because God was seen here, but not just his divinity, his mercy. Not just his power, but his provision. And you and I have seen even more. Because in a few moments we will take communion like we do every week and it will be a reminder of the greater provision of God. Of the time Christ prayed, if possible, that this cup of wrath pass from him, and the Father said no. And so the Son went up willingly. Carrying the wood for his own sacrifice. So that you and I might not die but have everlasting life. The only cup offered to you this morning is the cup of the New Covenant of grace in Christ’s blood. So you can walk up the mountain knowing the sacrifice has already been provided and made. And you're walking as a son walks with his Father who loves him. So now your life is not a dying sacrifice of atonement, it's a living sacrifice of worship. That doesn’t just make hope possible, it makes it necessary.