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Nine Lessons and Carols - Christmas Assurance

Series: Christmas Series: Nine Lessons and Carols

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 3, 2007

Genesis 22:15-18

Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the book of Genesis, chapter 22, as we look at the second of the Nine Lessons and Carols.

This morning Derek pointed us to that passage which contains the first giving of the gospel and which sets in context the whole story of redemption. And you’ll already begin to notice as we work through each of the Lessons and Carols, their purpose is to unfold the story for you across the pages of history, across the chronology of God's dealings with Israel and with the church from Genesis all the way to John; from the first giving of the gospel in the wake of the fall of Adam and Eve to the Word made flesh, who dwells among us.

And interestingly, the Second Lesson doesn't go where you’d think it might go. You might think that the Second Lesson would go from Genesis 3 to Genesis 12, perhaps, and the giving of the promise of God to Abraham. But it actually moves further, deeper into the life of Abraham, and takes us all the way to Genesis 22. And interestingly, it doesn't focus on the first fourteen verses of Genesis 22 — that remarkable story of God telling Abram to go into the wilderness of Moriah, into the land of Moriah, to the mount that He would show him, and to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice there. No, the Second Lesson in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols takes us to Genesis 22:15-18.

But it's important for us, in order to appreciate this passage that we're going to consider tonight, to remember what has happened in verses 1-14. Abraham's surrender of his son is a mirror of God's still greater love, and Abraham's exercise of faith in God's promises leads him to a glimpse of the resurrection. Even Isaac's resignation and potential suffering, too, gives us a preview of the Son of God who would be sacrificed for the saving of those who rest and trust in Him in this world. Well, in chapter 22, verses 1-14, we have this picture of the grand substitution on Moriah. And the Second Lesson in the Nine Lessons and Carols comes from the sequel to that lesson in grand substitution. You know this passage very well. You've heard it read in the King James Version here for the Service of Lessons and Carols for some forty years now. It goes like this: God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. And in the King James:

“And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing and hast not withheld thy son, thy only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is upon the seashore. 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.’”
 

And then each reading in this Service of Lessons and Carols ends with a proper Anglican “Thanks be to God,” that the whole congregation joins in upon at the conclusion of the Scripture reading.

Well, you can already tell from the King James that this passage picks up on themes which Derek expounded this morning from Genesis 3. The obvious theme is the theme of the seed.

In Genesis 3 the focus is on the seed of the woman; here, it's on Abraham's seed. But the Apostle Paul weaves those two themes together for us in Galatians, chapters 3, 4, and 5.

Well, listen closely as we give attention to God's holy word in Genesis 22:15-18. Let's pray before we read it.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your law. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

In Genesis 22:1-14, we are taught a rich feast of saving truth, but there are two things in particular that I want to draw to your attention from that passage which prefaces the lesson that we're going to study tonight.

The first thing that we learn of in Genesis 22:1-14 is the intensity of God's love for His own Son. Genesis 22, though it is a story about Abraham giving his son Isaac points us to the greatness of the Father's love for His own Son, especially seen in the language that God uses in His direction to Abraham. Do you remember how He puts it in Genesis 22:2?

“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 on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

And when we hear that word of direction — “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” — we know that every syllable of that directive is burned deep into the heart of Abraham. But we hear so many echoes of the New Testament expression of the Father's love for His own Son…for instance, when the Apostle Paul refers to Jesus in Galatians 1 as “the Son of God's love.” And so ultimately in this passage, even as we see Abram's love for his son and his willingness to offer him in obedience to God, we're reminded of God's love for His own Son and the intensity of it.

Secondly, we learn in this passage the principle of substitution, and that principle is learned in at least four ways.

First of all, it's seen in Isaac's poignant question. I think of all the heartbreaking questions that fathers have heard their sons ask them in the history of this world, there has never been a more heartbreaking question than the one that Isaac asks to Abraham in the land of Moriah. Do you remember how it goes? As they come together to the mountain, as they prepare to make their way up together to offer the sacrifice, Isaac says (in verse 7),

“My father! Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Now Abraham knows that Isaac is the one who is appointed to be the burnt offering. Never a more poignant question did a son ask his father than Isaac that day, and the very asking of the question in light of the resolution of the story points us to the principle of substitution, because in the end, Isaac was not offered as the burnt offering that day, but a ram caught in the thicket in his place.

The second way that the principle of substitution is drive home in this passage is in Abraham's response. It's so interesting, I think. Not simply for psychological reasons and not simply for paternal love does Abraham not turn to his son and say, “Son, you’re the burnt offering.” No, if you remember Abraham's response, it is seemingly vague and evasive, but is in fact specific and glorious. He says (look at verse 8),

“God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

No truer words have ever been spoken, and though no doubt Abram had no idea exactly how God was going to do this, he was confident that God would. And so the principle of substitution — that there is going to be something, someone, offered in Isaac's place — is driven home even in Abraham's answer.

And then, thirdly, we see the principle of substitution illustrated in the angel's message to Abraham. As Abraham lifts his hands and prepares to plunge the knife into his son and to kill him in preparation for offering him as a burnt offering, the angel of the Lord speaks and says,

“Abraham, Abraham! [verses 11 and 12] Do not lay your hand on the boy….”

And then of course at this very moment Abraham espies a ram caught in the thicket, provided by God for the sacrifice. And through the angel's message instructing Abraham not to take his son's life, the principle of substitution is stressed.

And then, finally, Abraham's subsequent declaration presses home the truth of substitution. After Abraham sees the ram, and takes the ram and kills the ram, and offers the ram as the burnt offering [verse 13], Abraham [verse 14] calls the name of the place — what? “The Lord will provide.” Provide what? Provide a substitute. And then what does Abraham say? “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” And once again Abraham says more than he knows when he says these words. And in all of these ways the glorious principle of substitution is set forth; and didn't the very message that we heard this morning and the reading of Genesis 3:15 set our minds thinking in that direction, as we thought of the grand struggle that would culminate between the serpent himself and the seed of the woman in hand to hand mortal combat on our behalf?

Well, in all of these things we see the principle of substitution and the intensity of God's love for His own Son displayed, and that leads us to the passage we’ll consider tonight, in verses 15-18.

An extraordinary thing happened. Even after this very dramatic last-minute rescue of Isaac, the word of the Lord comes again. That is very significant, because in the life of Abraham we have eight recorded incidents in which God speaks to Abraham, and this is the eighth of those eight incidents. This speech from the angel of the Lord follows up what has happened and reiterates the very first promise that God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, so it's very interesting that the first word of God to Abraham and the last word of God to Abraham says the same thing.

But Abraham's ability to hear and understand and appreciate God's word of promise to him is very, very different than it was the first time that God spoke that word to him. What a history Abraham had enjoyed in his long walk with God! And that very history enabled Abraham to appreciate the same words of promise that God had spoken to him in the beginning in a much, much greater and deeper way. And I want to give attention to that tonight.

There's really just one point to learn in this passage, and the point is simply this: The Lord is deeply concerned about our assurance of His saving promises. The reason that the angel speaks again is to drive home to Abraham the certainty of God's promises to him, to give Abraham assurance that the reason that the angel of the Lord speaks again at Mount Moriah is to assure Abraham of the certainty of the covenant promises that God had given him all the way back in Genesis 12:1-3.

Consider four things that we're going to look at in the passage tonight. First of all, notice how God reiterates His blessings to Abraham. In the second speech of the angel of the Lord (the angel of the Lord who is the manifest representative of God, His special divine messenger to Abraham), he reiterates promises that Abraham had been given in Genesis 12:1-3.

Take a peek at Genesis 12:1-3, and then listen to the four specific things that the angel of the Lord says.

First of all, the angel of the Lord says, “I will surely bless you.” Now what does that remind you of? Well, back in Genesis 12:1-3, as Abraham is taken out of his country and away from his father's house to the land that God will show him, He says, “I will bless you.” And now the angel of the Lord says, “I will surely bless you.” It is an emphatic reiteration and confirmation of the promise that Abraham had been given in the beginning. In other words, it's a confirmation of God's unchanging purposes and covenant favor towards Abraham.

Then, secondly, notice again what he says: “I will surely multiply your seed.” Notice again that this is a reiteration of what had been promised in Genesis 12: “I will make of you a great nation.” And here, “I will surely multiply your seed.” This is a confirmation of God's promise to make Abraham a father of nations.

Thirdly, you notice again the promise again that “your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.” This is not only a forecast of the conquest of Canaan, this is not only pointing forward to the church's receiving of the inheritance of the whole world, but isn't it pointing forward to Jesus’ conquering of all of our enemies and His? What is it that Jesus says in Matthew 16 in response to Peter's profession of faith in Him?

“Peter, upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell itself will not be able to resist Me.”

And what has God said in Genesis 22? “Your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.” And of course it harkens all the way back to the verse that we considered this morning in Genesis 3:15: “You will bruise His heel, but He will crush your head,” God says to the serpent of the coming Messiah.

And then, fourthly, here in Genesis 22, verses 15 to 18, we see this promise reiterated:

“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 22:3.)

And so we see a reaffirmation of the purposes of Abraham's blessing: that he might be a blessing, and that in him all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This is what Isaac Watts has us sing about when we sing “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth its successive journeys run.” This is the reign of the Messiah from shore to shore.

And so the first thing that we see happening as the angel of the Lord speaks is we see God reiterating His blessing to Abraham. But now Abraham is in a unique position to believe God's blessings. Why? Because year after year, through times when it seems like God has forgotten His promises, and in times when God has answered His promises in extraordinarily miraculous ways, and the immediate way of God having spared Abraham's own son, Abraham's ears… his heart has been opened to believe God's word in a way as never before. For years and years Abraham had no son, and yet he was promised to be the father of nations. Now he has a son; having been given that son, God commands him to offer that son as a sacrifice, and the son is given back to him “as from the dead,” and Abraham has reason to trust that nothing will deter the promises of God coming to pass towards him.

There's a second thing we see in this passage, and that is the Lord swearing by himself in reiterating the purpose. Look at the language of verse 16: “By myself I have sworn….” As if God's promise wasn't dramatic enough, as if God's covenant relationship with Abraham were not enough, here God swears an oath to Abraham, and He swears by himself. This is a relatively rare thing in the Scripture. You’ll find it in Jeremiah once; you’ll find it in Isaiah once; and then, you’ll find this passage quoted in the New Testament and the oath of this passage which the Lord takes referred to in both Luke and Hebrews. (But we're getting there eventually!) But it's a very rare thing. In this word of confirmation the Lord employs shocking language: “I swear by myself.” He himself will witness to His promise, because He can't appeal to anyone higher than himself. And so He swears by himself to Abraham.

Now let me ask you a question. Where was it that God had originally sworn by himself to Abraham? It was in Genesis 15, when God went between the pieces of the slaughtered animals in the form of the smoking oven and flaming torch and did what? He called down curses on himself, saying, ‘Abraham, if I am unfaithful in my promise to you, be it done to Me as we have done to these animals, if I break My promise to you.’ It is the Lord who swore by himself in Genesis 15 reiterating that oath, that swearing, here in Genesis 22.

Now isn't it interesting that in Genesis 22 Abraham is called upon to offer his son, but the Lord provides a substitute, so Abraham's son is not offered; and then God says, ‘Abraham, I swear by myself that the promise will be fulfilled.’ Isn't it interesting that it will not be on the basis of the sacrifice which Abraham brought, but on the sacrifice which God provides that God's oath to Abraham will be confirmed? And of course ultimately the sacrifice that God provides is not simply that ram caught in the thicket bush, but the one to whom that ram points: God's Son, His only Son, Jesus, whom He loves, will be shown on the mount of God's own appointment to be the one whereby God's promise is secured to Abraham and to all who believe on Jesus’ name. It's really an extraordinary thing going on here.

Thirdly, notice that Abraham's obedience–listen closely and carefully to what I'm not saying and to what I am saying–Abraham's obedience becomes the instrument of God's assurance to him.

Abraham's obedience becomes the instrument of God's assurance to him. Abraham's obedience does not merit for him acceptance with God. Abraham's obedience does not add to his faith so that his faith and obedience together serve as the instruments of God's justifying of him. But the Lord uses Abraham's obedience as His means of assuring Abraham. Since Abraham believes God and offers up Isaac and does not withhold him, and then God provides the substitute, it sets the context in which God will now assure Abraham of the certainty of His purposes towards him. In other words, the reward of Abraham's obedience here is his assurance, and the Lord honors him by reaffirming and expanding His covenant commitments to him.

This is important for us to realize. There's no mistaking that when we are disobedient in the Christian life, what happens? Our assurance suffers, because obedience is the instrument and context in which God wants to build up our assurance of His mercy. His mercies are not based on our assurance in any way. Our obedience is not the ground of God's mercy to us, and it is not the cause of our assurance. But it is the instrument which God so often uses in order to encourage us in the Christian life. When we have been faithful to Him, so often in times which are lean and troubling God will use the growth in grace which has accrued to us in the context of our walking with Him as the fertile ground in which He will assure us when our souls are in need of His refreshing word of comfort. And this is what happens here with Abraham. His obedience serves as the context in which God will grant to him this beautiful word of assurance.

Fourth and lastly, though, remember that this is, as far as we can tell, God's last word to Abraham. As far as we know, God never speaks to Abraham again. And the very last words that Abraham ever hears from God are “I will surely bless you,” even as the very first words that he hears from God are “I will bless you.” And so God leaves Abraham for the rest of his life with this final word of assurance: ‘Abraham, I am swearing by myself. You are not going to be the basis of the certainty of My promises. I am going to be the basis of the certainty of My promises. Yes, Abraham, your obedience has provided a glorious context in which I am going to give you assurance, but ultimately your assurance does not rest on you. It rests on My having sworn by myself.’

Now that's the one simple lesson of this passage. The Lord is deeply concerned about our assurance of His saving promises, and He assures Abraham of the certainty of His covenant promises through the word of the angel in this passage.

But this passage is picked up on in two places in the New Testament. I'd like you to turn with me quickly to those passages.

First turn with me to Luke 1. In Luke 1, beginning at about verse 67, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, prophesies over John the Baptist's role in the coming of the Messiah. It was the first time that Zechariah has spoken in many months, maybe seven or so months. You remember he had not believed the word of the angel to him, and the Lord had struck him dumb. And then when it comes time to name the boy who has been born to Elizabeth, his wife, he scrawls out on a tablet (in answer to the question ‘What is his name?’) “His name is John.” Just like the Lord had instructed. Everybody in the room is saying, ‘But there's nobody named John in your family!’ “His name is John.” His voice is loosed, and in verse 67 all the way down to verse 79 is the prophesy that he speaks. But here's what you need to see, beginning in verses 68:

“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember His holy covenant,
the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies
might serve Him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”
 

In other words, Zechariah is saying that John the Baptist is going to be a great prophet of the Lord, preparing the way for the Messiah who will bring about the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 22:15-18. He would fulfill the oath which the Lord swore to His people. And so Luke is telling us that the coming of Jesus into this world brings about the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 22:15-18.

You’re beginning to see now why that Anglican canon so many years ago, almost a hundred years ago now, picked Genesis 22:15-18 as one of the Old Testament readings in the Service of Lessons and Carols, which sketches out for us the broad strokes of the story of redemption.

There's another passage that even in greater detail refers to Genesis 22:15-18, and I'd like you to turn with me to the book of Hebrews. Hebrews 6:13-18:

“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you,’ and thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.”
 

Now in this passage the author of Hebrews is wanting to press home several things.

First of all, he's wanting to press home this truth: that God in His kindness to us, in His desire to assure us, not only gives us a word of promise but He adds to that word of promise an oath. And God adds that oath not because of the reason that we add oaths to promises in this fallen world. Why do we take oaths? Because people aren't trustworthy. That's why we foreswear them in courts of law, so that there are legal consequences to their dishonesty. But God is not like man, that He should lie. So why does God take an oath? Because your faith is weak, and because He loves you. And because He loves you and He knows your faith is weak, He adds to His word of promise an oath, so that by two things…the author of Hebrews —

“…in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge to Him might have strong encouragement to hold fast the hope set before us.”
 

But of course the author of Hebrews’ other purpose is to point to the fact that Jesus himself is the fulfiller of this promise that God had given to Abraham. We sing about this in our hymnal in a number of hymns. Maybe the most familiar is No. 521. Turn with me there. In 521, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less, look at the third stanza:

“His oath, His covenant, His blood

Support me in the whelming flood;

When all around my soul gives way,

He then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.”

All other ground…all other ground…all other ground is sinking sand.

You see, the author of Hebrews is reminding you that God's oath, God's covenant promise, the blood of Jesus Christ…these are the ultimate grounds of our assurance and salvation. If we look anywhere else for assurance, we will not find it. If we look anywhere else for salvation, we will not find it. All other ground is sinking sand. And so ultimately, God in Genesis 22:13-18 is pointing you to the only One who can save and assure you: Jesus, the Messiah.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for the way that You preach the gospel to us from the Old Testament. We thank You for the way that Christ is displayed, even in the law of Moses. We recognize, O God, that we often seek refuge for salvation and assurance in things other than Your oath, Your covenant, and Jesus’ blood. Forgive us of this folly. Spare us from this folly, because all other ground will sink. But He is all the help we need. Grant that we would believe it. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you stand for God's blessing.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, till the day break and the shadows flee away.

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