Pastor David B. Curtis


Abraham's Trial of Faith

Hebrews 11:17-22

Delivered 12/02/2001

We are studying the subject of faith, not saving faith, but sanctifying faith; that faith that we are to grow in. Faith is the instrumentality of both justification and sanctification.

In this section, the writer will explore the ways in which the trials of life can be met and triumphed over by faith. Every trial we face is an opportunity for us to trust God, and as we trust Him, we grow in our relationship to Him.

Isaiah 7:1-2 (NKJV) Now it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to make war against it, but could not prevail against it. 2 And it was told to the house of David, saying, "Syria's forces are deployed in Ephraim." So his heart and the heart of his people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind.

Word came to Ahaz that trouble was coming and he panicked. He knew Jehovah was the God of Judah, but he panicked.

Isaiah 7:3-4 (NKJV) Then the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-Jashub your son, at the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller's Field, 4 "and say to him: 'Take heed, and be quiet; do not fear or be fainthearted for these two stubs of smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria, and the son of Remaliah.

God tells him to quit worrying!

Isaiah 7:5-9 (NKJV) 'Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah have plotted evil against you, saying, 6 "Let us go up against Judah and trouble it, and let us make a gap in its wall for ourselves, and set a king over them, the son of Tabel"; 7 'thus says the Lord GOD: "It shall not stand, Nor shall it come to pass. 8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, And the head of Damascus is Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be broken, So that it will not be a people. 9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria, And the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If you will not believe, Surely you shall not be established."'

We could interpret the end of verse 9 this way, "If in God you do not confide, surely in power you shall not abide." or " If you will not believe, neither blessing will you receive." The point is this: The secret to victory in the experiences of life is to trust in God. Every problem we face, every trial and every experience of life is a call to trust in God. "Without faith, it is impossible to please Him."

Let's not forget that the main purpose of our author throughout this chapter, was to demonstrate to his tried readers the great efficacy of faith; its power to sustains us in trials, to obey in the face of great opposition, and to obtain a blessing.

Verses 17-19 begin with the theme of testing or trial. These verses recall the most severe and unexpected trial of Abraham's faith, so much so that it was through this trial, more than any other, that the strength of his faith was confirmed and established.

Hebrews 11:17 (NKJV) By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

"By faith Abraham, when he was tested" - the word "tested" is from the Greek word peirazo, which means: "to put to the test". Here it refers to the act of God putting Abraham to the test in order to prove his faith. We are all quite familiar with the story, but let's turn to Genesis 22 to familiarize ourselves with the details of the story:

Genesis 22:1-15 (NKJV) Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 Then He said, "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you." 6 So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. 7 But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." Then he said, "Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 And Abraham said, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering." So the two of them went together. 9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" So he said, "Here I am." 12 And He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me." 13 Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of the place, The-LORD-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, "In the Mount of The LORD it shall be provided."

I think it is often the case that familiarity with a story tends to dim its luster, it tends to blunt its cutting edge. And the fact that we could read Genesis 22 and not be found in utter awe and amazement is an evidence of that fact. For surely here we find one of the most amazing and startling incidents in the Word of God. Here is a man (not unlike us) who is being commanded by God to perform a deed which in itself seem's absurd and destructive to the purpose of God. It was through Isaac that the promises of God were to be fulfilled. How could God ask this of him?

Please notice what Abraham didn't do? He didn't question God. He didn't say, "Are you serious, Lord? Did you mean Ishmael? Why God? Why do you want me to do this?" He didn't try to bargain, "Lord I'll do it if you replace Isaac, or if you protect my reputation (what will people say if I kill my son?) or can someone else do the actual sacrificing?" He didn't get angry. He didn't say, "God I've had enough, I can't take any more. NO, I'm not going to do it, it's too hard, too costly."

We often respond in these ways when we are confronted with the commands of God, don't we? We question, try to bargain, or get angry. For example, how do you respond to God's commands on your life? Let's look at one:

Romans 13:1 (NKJV) Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.

Who is telling you to obey all authorities? God! Do you question, "Do you mean Governor Warner?" Do you bargain, "God I'll submit if you put a republican in office." Do you get angry? "God I'm not going to submit to that person or to that law."

We all submit when submission is easy, but what about when it goes against every fiber of our being? Well, Abraham obeyed God, without question, debate, or anger, and he obeyed immediately. Verse 3 of Genesis 22 says, "He rose up early" - I would have overslept.

Hebrews 11:17 says, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac..."

The word "offered" is from the Greek word prosphero, which is the same word that is used for the offering up of sacrifices. When it is said that Abraham "offered up Isaac", the meaning is that in purpose and intention he did so. The perfect tense is used here denoting Abraham's full intention to do as God had bidden him; his obedience was such that the deed was as good as done. HOW could Abraham do that? How could he draw back the knife to slay his son? How? He could do that, because he knew the God with whom he was dealing. It was because Abraham knew with a knowledge immovable that God was infinitely Holy, and therefore, what ever he commanded was righteous simply because it was God who commanded it. He knew God was omnipotent, and therefore, if need be, he could raise the dead. He knew that God was all wise, and although it seemed to be a very difficult situation, he knew that God knew what He was doing. It wasn't Abraham's to worry about how the problem was going to be solved. It was God's problem. Abraham's responsibility wasn't to figure out how Isaac would be delivered, His responsibility was to obey. He knew with a knowledge immovable that God was infinitely good.

Without a thorough confidence that God would never ask His children to do anything that does not have their well-being in view, Abraham would simply not have been able to honor God's command. It makes no sense to follow the directions of a guide whose motivation you do not trust. Our failure to readily follow God's commands reflects a lack of deep confidence in His goodness. The problem with unsteady commitment is not centrally a problem of the will; it is rather deficient belief. We simply do not believe that the God who commands us to a certain action is good. If we knew He was good, we would sense a deep desire to follow His leading in the same spirit with which Abraham responded to God's command.

It follows that the basic cure for weak commitment is renewed faith, not rededicated effort. God's goodness must be clearly understood if His commands are to be gladly followed. An awareness of His character naturally stimulates a desire to follow His leading.

Genesis 3:1-6 (NKJV) Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Has God indeed said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden'?" 2 And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 "but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'" 4 Then the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. 5 "For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.

Satan's lie to Eve was that God was holding out on her. She questioned God's goodness, and so she disobeyed, and so did Adam, thus causing the fall!

Believer, do you understand the goodness of God?

Exodus 34:6 (NKJV) And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,

Not only is God good, but He is the only one who is, Jesus said:

Mark 10:18 (NKJV) So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.

At times, all of us can do a good deed, but God is good, it is His nature. Only God is immutably good:

Psalms 52:1 (NKJV) Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man? The goodness of God endures continually

God is not like man, who can be good to you one minute and absolutely evil the next.

James 1:17 (NKJV) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

God's goodness is unchangeable, He is always good. If God were not good, we would all live in constant fear of our lives. The goodness of God is his inclination to deal well and bountifully with His creatures. His goodness is seen in bearing with the infirmities of his people, and accepting imperfect obedience:

Psalms 106:1 (NKJV) Praise the LORD! Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.

To sacrifice his son made no sense to Abraham, but he obeyed, because he knew that God was good. Had Abraham not known the God with whom he was dealing, he would have failed miserably. The key to surviving the trials and difficulties in this life is in the proper knowledge of God. Abraham not only knew God, he knew himself, and he realized that it was not for him, a sinful, finite creature, to question the word of his infinite Creator. To question the word of God is to question the goodness of God.

Romans 9:18-21 (NKJV) Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. 19 You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" 20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

Man is in no position to question God. Our restricted human horizons incapacitate us for passing judgement on the thoughts and the ways of God.

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NKJV) "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," says the LORD. 9 "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.

God's thoughts and ways are far different from ours, Abraham knew this, he knew God and he knew himself, therefore, he responded immediately and obediently to the command of God.

Who has ever faced a trial so severe as Abraham? Put yourself in his sandals for a moment, consider what he went through. By trying to put ourselves in the life situation of the characters of Scripture, we can come to a better understanding of what we are reading.

Abraham was not ordered to slay all his herds, but a human being; and not one of his faithful servants, but his beloved son. Think of the revulsion at the prospect of losing his child. Many of you have lost a loved one, and you know how painful it is, but imagine how you would feel if you had caused the death of that person. Calvin said, "To be ordered to kill him with his own hand is more terrible than any father's spirit can bear. He must have been stunned a thousand times had not faith raised his heart beyond this world."

Could you cut your child's throat? Even knowing that God would raise him from the dead, could you do it? It certainly wouldn't be easy.

Genesis 22:2 (NKJV) Then He said, "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."

Abraham loved Isaac very dearly, a son of his old age. He had waited for this child in fulfillment of the promise for 24 years, and he was to kill him.

Hebrews 11:17 goes on to say that Abraham, "...offered up his only begotten son". The word "only" is from the Greek word monogenes, which means: "unique". Abraham had other sons, but Isaac was unique and irreplaceable, he was the one through whom all the covenant promises were to be fulfilled. Genesis 17:21 says, "I will establish my covenant with Isaac".

Hebrews 11:18 (NKJV) of whom it was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called,"

The death of Isaac was like the destruction of all the promises. How could God be true to His word if Isaac died? Abraham, as a man of faith, held tenaciously to the conviction that what appeared to him to be an insoluble problem was for God no problem at all. Though everything else was obscure, one thing was clear to him, namely, that God, whose word was unshakably true, had a way of resolving the problem which was as yet unrevealed.

He understood the truth of Luke 1:37, "For with God nothing will be impossible"

Hebrews 11:19 (NKJV) concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.

Abraham knew that God keeps His promises even if He has to raise the dead to do it. Genesis 22:5 says, "I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you."What great faith! Abraham said, "We are going to go and worship!" What did he mean? Isaac and I are going to sing some songs? Or Isaac and I are going to have a Bible study? NO! That is not what Abraham meant by worship. What is worship in its true essence? Worship is this: bowing to the divine will. True worship says, "God, you are worthy of my obedience." Abraham in effect said, "Isaac and I are going to obey God. I'm going to slay my son, and then we'll both come again to you."

The word "concluding" that begins verse 19 is from the Greek word logizomai, which means: "to reckon or reason". This is a favorite word of Paul. Abraham reasoned in his own mind, for three days he reasoned, God is good, God is trustworthy, God is faithful, God is omnipotent, God is omnisciencent. And yet He has told me to sacrifice my son, the son through whom the promises are to come. He reasoned for three days and concluded that God was able to raise the dead.

Isaac, himself, was a constant witness to the power of God to give life where before there was the equivalent of death because of the remarkable nature of his birth. Isaac was a miracle child, and God could perform another miracle just as easy.

The writer goes on in verse 19 to say, "From whence he also received him as a type". Isaac was as good as dead in the mind of Abraham. But also this probably has the meaning of: "in a manner that prefigured the resurrection of Christ". It is this incident that is referred to in the words of Christ in:

John 8:56 (NKJV) "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad."

He saw the resurrection of Christ in the type of Isaac.

What was the purpose of this test? Why did God test Abraham, and why does He test us? This story is referred to in only one other New Testament passage. Let's look at it and see if we can't get some insight into the purpose of trials:

James 2:21-24 (NKJV) Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

I see three things about trials in these verses: 1. Abraham was justified by his works; his action in the trial, verses 21 &24. James says he was justified by works. That's what it says, isn't it? Yes! Now doesn't the Bible teach that we are justified by faith? Yes, it does:

Romans 4:1-5 (NKJV) What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
Romans 5:1 (NKJV) Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Paul is saying that justification is by faith, and he uses Abraham as his illustration. James is saying that justification is by works, and he also uses Abraham as an illustration. How do we resolve this? We know that the Bible doesn't contradict itself. Look at:

Romans 4:2 (NKJV) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

"...but not before God" - You cannot be justified by works before God, only by faith. Well what does James mean in verse 21? There is another justification, and it is by works. The term "justification" has two uses: 1. To declare and treat as righteous. 2. To vindicate, to show or demonstrate as righteous. Paul uses the first meaning, and James uses the second meaning.

By faith Abraham was justified before God, and his righteousness declared; and by works he was justified before men, and his righteousness demonstrated. It is one thing to be cleared from all guilt because of your faith in Christ, but it is another thing to have our way of life acceptable in the sight of God. There are two kinds of justification - Abraham was justified by faith when?

Genesis 15:6 (NKJV) And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

Abraham was justified by works when? Genesis 22, which was 40 years later. Verse 24 says that this justification is by faith & works. God tested Abraham, and He tests us to reveal the depth and strength of our faith. To whom, God? No God does not test us as though He were otherwise ignorant of what lies in our heart. God is omniscient. Through trials our faith is demonstrated to others and to ourselves. Apart from this trial, how would you know how strong Abraham's faith was? You wouldn't. Through trials we are justified, or vindicated or demonstrated as righteous to others and to ourselves. Apart from trial, you don't even know how strong your faith is.

Matthew 26:31-35 (NKJV) Then Jesus said to them, "All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: 'I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' 32 "But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee." 33 Peter answered and said to Him, "Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble." 34 Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times." 35 Peter said to Him, "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!" And so said all the disciples.

Did Peter mean this ? Yes, I think he did.

Matthew 26:69-75 (NKJV) Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, "You also were with Jesus of Galilee." 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you are saying." 71 And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, "This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth." 72 But again he denied with an oath, "I do not know the Man!" 73 And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, "Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you." 74 Then he began to curse and swear, saying, "I do not know the Man!" Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, "Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times." So he went out and wept bitterly.

Peter thought his own faith was impregnable until the trial revealed its weakness. Probably no one was more surprised than he of this tragic weakness of his faith. So the first thing we see is that trials justify us, they demonstrate the strength or weakness of our faith. Abraham probably surprised himself by how much he trusted God.

2. Trials strengthen our faith:

James 2:22 (NKJV) Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

Abraham's faith was strengthened and matured by the trial, as he stepped out in obedience his faith grew stronger. Strong faith glorifies God:

Romans 4:20 (NKJV) He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,

Let me remind you, as the writer of Hebrews continues to do, that if we do not trust God in the trials, they could turn us away from God, they could cause us to fall as Peter did, and thus dishonor God.

3. Trials responded to in faith will deepen our walk with God, they will cause us to have a more intimate relationship with him:

James 2:23 (NKJV) And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God.

Jesus said in John 15:14, "You are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you."

So God uses trials to strengthen our faith and our relationship to Him, and also, to demonstrate to others and to ourselves the depth and strength of our faith. Abraham passed the test and was justified. He stands as an example to us all!

What about Sarah? How did she respond to all of this? I'm sure she must have known about it. As Abraham was leaving, I'm sure she said, "Where are you guys going? When will you be back?"

Most of you probably remember the story of Susan Smith, the 23 year old mother from Union, South Carolina who murdered her two young sons. That happened seven years ago. After the truth came out that she had killed her sons, Nightline interviewed several people from Union who were shocked and appalled that a Mother could murder her children. More recently, we had the woman who killed her five children by drowning them in the bath tub. It truly is tragic and so unnatural for a mother to do that. Well, put yourself in Sarah's position, mothers, would you let your husband take your only child, the child of your old age, the child miraculously born to you, and let him take the child off to kill him, because God had told him to? Sarah was a woman of great faith also:

Hebrews 11:11 (NKJV) By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.
1 Peter 3:5-6 (NKJV) For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.

Ladies, remember Sarah the next time that your trial is brought on by a husband who wants to do something that to you seems ridiculous. Your responsibility is to submit to your husband and trust in your God.

The only way Abraham had of putting the promise together with the command was to believe God would raise his son. For the readers of this epistle, the point is that when their trying experiences seem to run counter to God's gracious promises, they should look beyond this life - to the resurrection - as the final harmonization. Believers, there are some things that will only make sense to us in heaven, there are some things we'll never understand in this life, and that is what faith is all about; trusting God in every experience of life.

Hebrews 11:20-22 (NKJV) By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones.

He is concerned to point out to us that these men are undeterred in their faith in the face of death. They trusted God's promises right up to death, they would receive the promises only in resurrection. Believers, sometimes things in this life just don't make sense to us, and we must simply trust in the character of God.

Believer, do you trust God enough to go through something like this? Why not? Do you know that He is good? Our failure to readily follow God's commands reflects a lack of deep confidence in His goodness. The problem with disobedience is not centrally a problem of the will; it is rather deficient belief. We simply do not believe that the God who commands us to a certain action is good. If we knew He was good, we would sense a deep desire to follow His leading. God's goodness must be clearly understood if His commands are to be gladly followed. Believer, study His Word and learn of His goodness. "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good" (Psalms 34:8).

Continue the Series

Berean Bible Church provides this material free of charge for the edification of the Body of Christ. You can help further this work by your prayer and by contributing online or by mailing to:

Berean Bible Church
1000 Chattanooga Street
Chesapeake, VA 23322