In our previous study of Genesis 22 we observed several aspects of Abraham’s response to God’s command to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering upon Mount Moriah.
First, we consider his response to this commandments as a father (22:1-2). We sought to empathise with him how he must have felt, what perhaps was going through his mind as thee words from God sank in. At one level, he probably felt that what God was asking him to do went “against common sense, his natural affection and his lifelong hope.” (R. Kent Hughes)
But whatever his emotional and theological confusion may have been at the time, it either didn’t last for long, or he simply laid it aside deliberately, for his next response was to be faithful (22:3-10). In fact, it should be noted that the text focuses on what Abraham did rather than on how he felt—which, by the way, is the emphasis in Scripture. And thus in this passage we observe Abraham faithfully obeying God in an attitude of worship as he, along with Isaac and some servants, make their three-day journey to Mount Moriah.
Upon reaching the foothill of the appointed place, Abraham makes a remarkable statement of faith, “We will return again.” And, as we read in Hebrews 10:17-19, he believed that God would raise Isaac from the ashes of his sacrifice. And he believed this because God had given him a previous revelation (see 17:15-19, 21). Thus, as theologically illogical, and as morally reprehensible, as this commandment may have seemed, Abraham knew, based on his knowledge of the character of God, that Isaacs death would not be irreversible.
This brings us to our third observed response to God’s commandment: a fearful one (22:11-14). The angel of the Lord (possibly a Christophany?) speaks from heaven and the scene freezes. Abraham is told that it is not necessary for him to go through with it. And the reason? Because his obedience over the past three days had indeed proved that he feared the Lord above any and all. That is, his sustained obedience to God’s Word—his “long obedience in the same direction”—had proved his loyalty and love to God, supremely. In other words, Abraham was more fearful of dishonouring God than he was of death—of the death of his son—more fearful of God than of being misunderstood, even ridiculed, by others. And this fear of the Lord was manifested in his obedience. Oh, the wisdom both he and Isaac would have gained from this fear of the Lord. Because he was properly fearless, he was powerfully fearless!
We marvel at this scene, and we should. This account is not some mythical story to be added to Grimm’s collection of fairytales. Rather, Genesis 22 is the historical record of a very human father and son: two people that are just as real as you and me. And since Abraham is called “the father of all who believe” (Galatians 3:7, 29), it is to be expected (God expects it!) that we too will respond to God’s Word with the same faithfulness and fear that characterised Abraham. We may not face the same kind of tests as he did but, count on it, our faith will be put to the test, for this very simple reason: to test our faith in and loyalty to God. Or let me put it another way: your faith, as one who has been justified by faith in Christ, will be tested in order for you, and for others, to see whether you are indeed a friend of God.
Abraham, as we have seen, passed the test and, in 22:15-19, he is declared—in so many words, to be the friend of God. James makes it clear that Abraham was the friend of God because he obeyed God. The apostle writes:
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
Martin Luther famously referred to James as “a right strawy epistle,” because he misunderstood James to be promoting works-based salvation. Actually, James was doing nothing of the sort! James’ argument is simply that the root of faith will always necessarily produce the fruit of works. That is, those who have been saved by faith will manifest their justification by good works. And he uses Abraham as his inspired example.
James does not used “justified” in the way that we often think of it. By “justified,” James means “vindicated.” That is, the Scripture which said, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness” was vindicated “when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar.” Stated another way, Abraham’s justification was made plain to all when he obeyed God in the sacrifice of Isaac. And it was because of this obedience that “he was called the Friend of God.”
Abraham—the father of the faithful—was the friend of God. This means that all who are saved are God’s friends. Jesus said it this way, “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Admittedly, some believers are better friends than others, and we should all strive to be good friends of God; nevertheless, all who have been justified by faith in Christ can boldly claim to be the friend of God.
Let me ask a very searching question of you: how would you describe your relationship with God? Would you use the epithet “friend”? How would others describe your relationship with God? That is, from what they observe in your life with regard to your response to God’s Word, would they see you as loyal to Him; that is, as a friend of His? I hope so! I certainly want this to be true of my life.
In this study, let us learn from the remaining verses of Genesis 22 what it means to be the friend of God and what His friends can expect.
The Proving of God’s Friends
In reply to the question, “How are God’s friends revealed,” we should reply that they are revealed through trials. I recently spent about a week and a half visiting two of our missionary families in another country and, when I returned to South Africa, I returned to a church filled with sickness, bereavement and various other trials. Doubtless, there were many other trials in the church of which I was not even aware.
I can assure you that every believer reading these words is currently undergoing a trial, or a trial is just around the corner. I can say this with great confidence because the Bible teaches that God’s friends are proven in times of trial. Jesus Himself, “though he were a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Both Abraham and Jesus Christ went through times of trial as a proving process, and so will you and I as believers in Christ.
Jesus made this much clear in His parable of the soils (Luke 8:4-18). In His interpretation of the seed on the rocky soil, He said, “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away” (8:13). Of the seed on the good soil, He said, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience” (8:15). The word “patience” in 8:15 speaks of “perseverance.” Thus, it is clear that those who are truly born again will undergo persecution, for it is only in the midst of persecution that one can truly persevere.
We often find ourselves discouraged during times of trial, at times tempted to believe that our trials indicate that we are at enmity with God. In fact, the exact opposite may well be true: trials may prove friendship with God. Our trials may be in the form of outright persecution, or opposition in the workplace, or financial difficulties, or relationship strife, or health struggles, or a multitude of other things. Whatever the trial you face, know that God has allowed it in order to prove your faith.
It is doubtless significant that the place of Abraham’s proving in Genesis 22 was the same as his place of worship (cf. 22:5). There is a significant principle to be learned here: the best place to prove your faith as a believer is usually in the place of worship (i.e. the local church). Will you endure to the end with your fellow church members? Will you endure with them despite their flaws, despite the offences that they cause you? Let’s be mature about it: we get hurt in the church. We are often wronged by fellow believers in the body. But it is in the place of worship, during times of hardship and offence, when we prove our faith by forgiving as we have been forgiven, by persevering in the grace of God who, in His infinite wisdom, has placed you at your particular place of worship.
Paul said to the Corinthian church, “There must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19). John wrote along similar lines, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). Again, John warned believers to be discerning of those who profess faith, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
The Proof of God’s Friends
In the life of the believer, the proving process will result in one major proof: we will endure to the end. There are three important words in this passage: “love” (22:1), “worship” (22:5) and “fear” (22:12). But these three words are really summarised in one phrase: “thou hast obeyed my voice” (22:18). Above all else, the proof that Abraham was God’s friend was in his obedience to God. Let us notice several things about Abraham’s obedience, which ought to be true of our obedience as well.
The Character of the Obedience
I would suggest that the obedience that God requires of us is not a cold, legalistic, lifeless obedience. Instead, God requires of us worshipful, willing obedience. Christian parents are all-too-familiar with the cold obedience of which I am speaking. We teach our children to obey us, for this is right (Ephesians 6:1-3), but sometimes we see in our children lifeless obedience void of honour. Let me illustrate.
Perhaps as a parent you instruct little Johnny to clean his bedroom. One response from Johnny could be, “Fine! If you say so!” followed by a stomping of the feet and a sour face all the way to his bedroom. That is not the type of obedience the Bible calls for. Instead, the Bible calls for little Johnny, with a smile on his face, to gladly exclaim, “Yes, Dad. And when I am finished, is there anything else I can do for you?” That may be overstating the case slightly, but the point should be clear: God calls for willing obedience from children to parents.
Of course, He expects nothing less of the believer’s obedience to Him. This is precisely the type of obedience that Abraham exercised. He understood his obedience to be a matter or worship.
Jesus displayed the same willingness in His obedience. “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). And Jesus called for willing, loving obedience from His disciples. “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (John 14:23). “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14). “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
The proof that Peter loved the Lord would be in his obedience to Christ’s command to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17). There is a children’s song that we often sing during our Family Bible Hour which, simple as it may seem, is profound in its truth:
Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe,
Doing exactly what the Lord commands, doing it happily.
Action is the key—do it immediately—joy you will receive.
Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.
Indeed, if we have been justified by faith in Christ and are thus the friends of God, we will display a willing obedience to God’s commands. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3).
The proof that you are the friend of God is not perfection, but direction. That is, the proof that you are God’s friend is displayed in the direction of your will. Consider the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord gave the charge (noted above) to feed His sheep. How do we know that Peter was truly a friend of God? Because, in the opening chapters of Acts, we see him feeding Christ’s sheep. Was Peter perfect? Far from it! We are well familiar will Peter’s varied and spectacular falls, and yet the overall direction of his life pointed toward obedience.
God’s friends have a willing attitude toward God’s Word. Let me then ask: as you read this, what is your attitude to God’s Word? Are you cynical, critical or even blatantly opposed to God’s Word? Or do you have the attitude of young Samuel, “Speak; for thy servant heareth” (1 Samuel 3:9-10)?
It is interesting that “the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven for the second time” (22:15). Why did the angel call to him for a second time? Because he had obeyed the first time!
I recently read an incredible book called A Mission to Headhunters, which told the story of a mission outreach to the Shaura people of Ecuador. In the 1950s, a missionary couple travelled to Ecuador to work amongst these headhunting natives. They would spend some 35 years ministering to these people. After about a decade, they began to see some fruit. The book gives the native term for our English word “Christian.” It is a word that we would struggle to pronounce, but it literally translates into English as “one who bows.” In truth, that is precisely what a Christian is: one who bows to the authority of Christ.
The Conduct of the Obedience
Not only does our passage detail the specific character of Christian obedience, but it also makes plain the conduct of that obedience. We can pick out at least five aspects of Abraham’s obedience, which ought to be true of our obedience as well.
We see that, once God had spoken to him, “Abraham rose up early in the morning” to obey the voice of the Lord (22:3). He wasted no time in performing the humanly horrific deed of offering up his son as a burnt offering to Yahweh. We might imagine that Abraham would have slept in that morning, looking for every excuse to put off for as long as possible the action to which he had been called. But that is not what we read; to the contrary, we read of Abraham rising early to obey the voice of God.
It seems from the biblical text that this prompt obedience is something that Abraham learned. Our first encounter with him tells us that “the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country…” (12:1). The word “had” here is important: the command had come to Abraham previously, but he had not immediately obeyed the voice of God. Having spent some 40 years in relationship with the Lord, however, Abraham in Genesis 22 no longer lingers to obey God’s voice. Instead, he is prompt in his obedience.
The principle here is quite simple: God’s friends become better friends over time. The pilgrimage of the Christian life entails learning more and more about the character of God, which leads us to become more and more prompt in our obedience to His voice. When my children were 18 months old, they were not as quick to obey me as when they were (or will be) 18 years old. Obedience is something that they had to learn over time, and so it is in the Christian life.
We should note briefly that delayed obedience is often actually disobedience. We are often tempted to linger in our obedience to God because we actually don’t want to do as He has commanded us. The longer we put it off, it seems to us, the more chance there is that God will retract His expectations and we can escape the obligations that seem so dreary to us. This, however, is often nothing less than gross faithlessness, which is manifested in a refusal to obey God’s voice.
We learn from this passage also that Abraham’s obedience was prioritised. God did not call for just any sacrifice, but for “thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” (22:2). Why did God emphasise “whom thou lovest”? Was he not testing Abraham to see if he loved Him more than Isaac?
Abraham’s obedience was prompt because it was his priority. He loved God more than he loved Isaac and thus he had no hesitation in obeying even the hardest of commands.
God’s friends have their priorities right. Yes, they love family and friends, but not nearly as much as they love God. If our obedience to God will be prompt, He must occupy first place in our lives. This indeed is the reason for our trials: to teach us to love God passionately.
Abraham, the friend of God, was passionate in his obedience to God’s commands. Again, Abraham understood his obedience to God’s command as an attitude of worship. As noted in our previous study, Abraham “clave the wood for the burnt offering” (22:3) most likely because he wanted to be sure that there was no excuse for him not to carry through with full obedience. He had no way to be sure that there would be wood available atop Mount Moriah, and so he took wood with him to be sure that he had everything he needed to fully obey God. Indeed, he was passionate in his obedience!
God’s friends are passionate in their obedience to Him. This is because God’s friends love Him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. If our love for God is passionate, we will eagerly look for opportunities to obey Him, rather than looking for excuses to disobey Him.
Once again, we must note that it was Isaac—the son “whom thou lovest”—that Abraham was called to sacrifice (22:2). God’s friends are called to obey Him always to the point of death to self.
Abraham had been given great blessings from God and he had survived them! We know that he survived his blessings because he was willing to give them up for God. What do I mean that Abraham “survived” his blessings? Too often, we are blessed richly by God, but soon come to take those blessings for granted. In fact, we believe that we have gathered the blessings for ourselves and that they cannot be removed from us.
Consider Israel of old. The nation was blessed by God in a tremendous way, but she eventually clung so tightly to her blessings that she was unwilling to give them up when commanded by God. Many professing believers exhibit the same attitude. Perhaps God blesses them financially but then later calls for them to sacrifice of their finances. When they are unwilling to do so, they soon fall away from the fellowship of the church, because they have fallen away from fellowship with Christ. What has happened? They have not survived the blessings!
I have personally seen this in the lives of people: let us pray to God for the grace to—like Abraham—survive His blessings in our lives. Isaac was a tremendous blessing in Abraham’s life, but the proof that Abraham was the friend of God was his willingness to sacrifice that blessing on the altar of obedience.
The final thing that can be said of Abraham’s obedience in this chapter is that it was persistent. It was a three-day journey from Abraham’s home to Mount Moriah (22:4). For three days, whilst the cost of obedience hung heavy on his heart, Abraham persisted in his adherence to God’s command.
“A friend loveth at all times,” wrote King Solomon (Proverbs 17:17). Is it not wonderful to have a friend who remains your friend at all times? That is the type of friend Abraham was to God. When he enjoyed the laughter of young Isaac in his home, he was God’s friend; when he was called on a painstakingly long three-day journey to sacrifice his blessing, he remained God’s friend.
Those who have been justified by faith are marked by what one man has called “a long obedience in the same direction.” They are God’s friends when everything is going well, and they are God’s friends when everything seems to be falling to pieces.
Do you show that you are God’s friend by persistent commitment to your marriage vows? Husband, do you love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it? Wife, do you submit respectfully to your own husband?
Do you persist faithfully in your ministry when things are fruitful and when they are not? Do you persist faithfully in your devotional life when you feel as if the angels have brought your news directly from God, and when the heavens seem to be brass? Are you persistent in your covenantal relationship with the church when things are good and when they are bad? What about your stewardship, or your pursuit of sanctification? I trust that you get the picture: God’s friends begin walking the path of obedience and three days later they can still be found on that path.
The Promise for God’s Friends
Having noted all of this, we now come to our text passage for this study. Here we see the prosperity that attends “friendly obedience.” In other words, these verses point to certain things that the friends of God can expect. We see here a threefold promise from God to His friends.
The Promise of Peace
First, God assures Abraham of His previous promises. These words would have been familiar to Abraham, but they would have brought great peace to his heart to hear them afresh from the Lord:
And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
It is interesting that God adds an illustration of His blessings here to His previous illustrations. Previously, He had told Abraham that his seed would be as the stars of the sky; now He adds that they would be as the sand on the seashore. This is tremendously significant, particularly as we transport ourselves from the age of telescopes and advanced astronomy to the day in which Abraham lived.
The late Henry Morris informs us that the naked human eye can only view about 3,000 stars. Thus, the promise of descendents as numerous as the stars would not have been as striking for Abraham as it is for us. He would have looked to heaven and seen thousands of stars, but it was still a comparatively small number. But when he heard that his seed would be as the sand on the seashore, then he would have felt the same overwhelming awe that we feel today. He had no concept of just how many stars there are in the heavens, but he had some concept of how many grains of sand there are on the seashore.
I have been saved for many years, but there are times when I feel more “Christian” than other times. I sometimes feel God’s love in a greater way than at other times. Over the years I have found that, in times of testing, I cannot see beyond the hand in front of my face. But as I come to the end of the dark tunnel, I look often back at the big picture with a renewed assurance that I belong to God. Paul said it this way:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
Consider Abraham’s situation. Having just experienced the greatest trial of his life, he now hears God’s voice for the second time. What do you suppose he is thinking? “Oh, great! Another trial!” “The last time I heard God’s voice He told me to sacrifice my son; what does He have in store for me now?” But he is doubtless relieved when he realises that this time God’s voice is one of assurance, not of trial.
In truth, that seems to be the pattern in the Bible: trials followed by comfort and assurance. This divine peace and assurance is well worth the pain that it costs to get there. If you want to “hear” God’s voice of assurance, you must hearken and learn obedience in the things that you suffer.
The Promise of Partnership
Abraham was not left alone after his trial; instead, he was given partners with whom to travel from the place of worship, “So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba” (22:19).
Three times in this chapter you read of companions travelling together (22:6, 8, 19). At first, they travelled together to the place of worship; now, they travel together back from the place of worship. I would imagine that the trip down the mountain was a lot easier than the trip up the mountain. They had been strengthened in their love, worship, fear and obedience, and were blessed with fellowship.
I have seen this principle at work in the lives of people I know personally. Our pioneer cross-continental missionaries went to their place of ministry knowing only one man, who ministered some four hours away. They remained faithful to God in their ministry and, whenever I visit them, I am astounded to see the relationships that God has given them with the local people to whom they minister.
There is nothing quite like church life! Sadly, there are many professing Christians today who don’t quite understand that. To them, church life means little. They believe that they can go it alone. Such professing believers ought to cry to God for mercy, because if they can go it alone they probably are going it alone!
Abraham, the father of the faithful, could not go it alone. He needed others and so do we today. The church is God’s gathering of friends, who acknowledge that they need one another in their walk from Mount Moriah to Beersheba—and from Beersheba to Mount Moriah. Paul wrote some astounding verses in the opening chapter of his letter to the believers in Rome:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers; Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you. For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.
Take note: the apostle did not believe that he could go it alone. He desired to “be comforted together with” the Romans “by the mutual faith both of you and me.” Yes, he wanted to be a blessing to them (1:11), but he looked forward to being blessed by them in return (1:12).
There is no better group of people with whom to endure trials than God’s covenanted family. The name “Beersheba” means “the place of oath” or “the place of covenant.” And those who by the covenant of God have been put together, have been put together in order to encourage one another. That fellowship in turns strengthens our relationship with God.
The Promise of Providence
The closing verses seem at first glance to be something of an anticlimax. After the wonderful story of Abraham’s obedience and God’s faithfulness, the chapter closes with a genealogy:
And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, Behold, Milcah, she hath also born children unto thy brother Nahor; Huz his firstborn, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram, And Chesed, and Hazo, and Pildash, and Jidlaph, and Bethuel. And Bethuel begat Rebekah: these eight Milcah did bear to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, she bare also Tebah, and Gaham, and Thahash, and Maachah.
There is one major principle that I believe God intends us to learn from these verses: God’s friends are never outside of God’s plans. The key to these verses is the short opening phrase of 22:23, “And Bethuel begat Rebekah.”
Even as Abraham and Isaac climbed Mount Moriah to the place of testing, God was working hundreds of kilometres away to prepare a bride for Isaac. He was moving history so as to fulfil His promise to His friend. Abraham had no idea what was happening with his family back in Mesopotamia, but God had all things under control.
God’s friends need not worry about tomorrow, for God will make a way! “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
I mentioned above our church’s pioneer cross-continental missionaries. Some years after that family left the church, another family went from our church to the same country, albeit several hours away from our first missionaries. This family travelled to their place of ministry with a pre-arranged ministry partnership, which fell completely through soon after they arrived. By his own testimony, this missionary went through times of tremendous doubt, wondering if he had perhaps pre-empted God in leaving South Africa with his family.
Meanwhile, God brought a national pastor to the same region. Because he spoke a different language, this pastor had to start an English-speaking work. God brought our missionary and this pastor across one another’s paths and today they are working together in a church that has great potential to impact the country in which they minister for the gospel of God. As our missionary travelled up the mountain of trial, God was working a long way away to provide the means for blessing.
I do not know the trials you face as you read these words. What I do know is that, if you are a friend of God, He is doing something wonderful behind the scenes that will one day be revealed in its glory. Therefore, be a faithful friend, trusting the One whose friendship is indeed closer than that of a brother.
Are you God’s friend? Then be assured of His peace, partnership and providence! Are you no friend of God? Then come to Him today for grace to help in the time of need!