The account of Abraham being ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering is shocking, not only to our natural sensibilities, but to our understanding of God. The same God who issued this command to Abraham says through the prophet Jeremiah that Judah’s burning of its children as sacrifices is one of the “detestable things” they have done, something that God says never came into His mind to command (Jer. 7:30-32). But as I was reading the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22, it occurred to me that its deepest meaning is not just as a general foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, but as an analogy of the relationship between God the Father and His Son when Jesus was crucified. It may be that parallel with God’s purpose to prove the faith of His servant Abraham was His desire to enlighten us about what was happening when the Almighty Father refused to respond to the pleas of His Son to be delivered from the cup of suffering that His Father was asking Him to drink.
The scriptural account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac gives us one of the most poignant bits of dialogue in the Bible.
“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."
The key words of this whole account are “God will provide,” which occur here and at the end of the story, after God has supplied the ram that Abraham can substitute for 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’" (22:14). When father Abraham first said those words to his apprehensive son, there was no objective assurance that it would be so. But as the writer of Hebrews says, “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19). “God will provide” describes both the intangible faith before the fact, and the fact that fulfilled the faith when God provided His substitute ram. God then commends him for not having withheld his “only son” from God.
That phrase “only son” was also used when God first issued His command to Abraham: “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 . . .” (Gen. 22:2), and of course that designation is appropriate for a story that foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of His “only Son.” As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, there was a conversation between the Father and the Son about how the project underway perhaps needed to be reconsidered. Abraham’s answer to Isaac referred to a Higher Power that could resolve their difficult situation, albeit in some way yet to be perceived by the two of them. Abraham was not responsible for the outcome, but only for his acceptance of the outcome, since he was subject to God. Jesus’ implicit question to His Father is, “Isn’t there some other way than the path you’ve set me on?” And though an angel came to strengthen Him, the Father remained silent (see Luke 22:41-44), even when the Son renewed His prayer and sweated drops of blood. Father God was in the position of Abraham, but there was no higher power for Him to defer to. This Father is called to make the sacrifice of His Son through the necessity of His own great love for mankind, which supersedes even His love for His Son. This fact is borne out in the words of the familiar passage in John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
God could spare the son of Abraham, but the ultimate cost of sparing Isaac and countless others from paying the penalty for sin was for His own Son to die instead. What anguish the Father must have felt when He had to allow His Son to drink the bitter cup, and ultimately had to turn His face away while Jesus was on the cross. The final meaning of the substitutionary ram provided to Abraham was to be played out in the sacrifice of the very Lamb of God.