The Lord's Day MorningFebruary 24, 2008
Missions Conference 2008:
“…That all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)”
The Genesis of Missions: Mission Impossible?
"The Children of Abraham Walk in Abraham's Faith"
The Reverend Dr. Iain D. Campbell
Dr. Duncan: Please be seated. It is our joy this morning to hear the word of God from Iain D. Campbell, the Free Church of Scotland minister in Back, on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland. It has been my privilege to know Iain for about twenty years now. We have all reveled in his faithful proclamation of the word of God in the last days since he began to preach it for us on Wednesday night. We are profoundly grateful to his congregation and elders for letting him be with us, and especially his wife Anne and their children for letting him be with us. Iain D., we wait with great anticipation your ministry of God's word.
Dr. Campbell: Thank you very much. And I say once again what a great pleasure and privilege it is for me to be with you. I hope that my accent does not come in between me and your reception of my message. It is a privilege for me to convey the greetings of my own home congregation in Scotland, and I trust that as we join together in this Missions Conference we will know God's blessing on His word and His grace enabling us to serve Him more and more with every opportunity.
Before we turn to God's word, let's just bow our heads in prayer.
Our gracious God, we give thanks today for Your word, for all that Your word conveys to us, and for all that Your word, by Your Spirit, will do in us and by us. We pray that You will be our teacher, that You will give us illumination and understanding, and help us to be bearers of Your truth as we live our lives to Your glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
We read God's word from the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, and chapter 22. And we shall read verses 1 through 19. Let us hear the word of God:
“After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘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.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, 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 and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.’ 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.’ So they went both of them together.
“When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 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. 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.’
“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.’ So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.”
Amen. And may the Lord bless to us the reading of His holy, inspired, and infallible word.
The theme of our Missions Conference is summarized for us in the words of verse 18 of this chapter in God's words to Abraham:
“In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
And I want to keep that perspective as we come to look at this chapter in the book of Genesis.
I think it's impossible to overstate the importance of the book of Genesis to the whole of the revelation of God's unfolding purposes of redemption. The whole of subsequent biblical revelation builds upon the foundations that are laid for us so magnificently in this book of beginnings. And even within the book of Genesis, it's impossible to overstate the crucial role of Abraham as God through him opens up the purposes of His grace that have been a mystery, to use Paul's language, from all eternity; but now, in time and on the stage of this world's history, that purpose is displayed, and God is going to do something magnificent through this one individual whom He is going to make a channel of blessing to the whole of the world. Indeed, as we come into the New Testament, Abraham's name is one of the first names we meet. We are reminded in Matthew 1:1 that Jesus Christ is the son of Abraham, and at least that is telling us that in order fully to appreciate the story of Jesus, we need to come back to the story of Abraham. Even more magnificent is Paul's statement in Galatians where he tells us that God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham.
Everything that we believe, everything that we preach, of the good news of God's salvation is revealed here in its embryonic form to Abraham, and it's displayed in Abraham's life. And as the history of God's redemption is worked out in the life of this man, I want us to notice that the principles of redemption are woven into that story–not least the principle of faith, by which Abraham lives for God. Doesn't the writer to the Hebrews remind us that it was by faith that Abraham left his own homeland and followed God, and went out not knowing where he was going, but believing that God had prepared for him a city? Wasn't it by faith that he dwelt in the Land of Promise as a stranger, a pilgrim, on the earth? And wasn't it by faith that he did everything that is recorded for us here in Genesis 22?
In fact, James explicitly tells us (as he illustrates the point that faith is never alone) that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar. Not that works justify; it is faith in Christ that justifies, but the faith we have in Christ is always demonstrated and displayed in the works of obedience that accompany it.
And here they are in the life of Abraham. And all of us here today, according to the teaching of the letter to the Romans, if we are men or women of faith, we are the true sons of Abraham and are walking in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham.
So in the context of our Missions Conference, I want us to come to this great chapter in Genesis 22, and I want to ask what this chapter tells us about faith. And I want to say three things.
I. Faith responds to God's call.
I want to say first of all that faith responds to God's call. That's what's happening here. God spoke to Abraham — not for the first time. In fact, it was God speaking to Abraham that initiated Abraham's pilgrimage of faith, and it is the word of God and the voice of God that is driving the whole narrative. God speaks to Abraham. Abraham rarely speaks to God explicitly in the text of Genesis. I'm sure he spoke to God often, but it's not often explicitly stated. It's God who is speaking. And God, who called Abraham to leave his home and his family in the first instance, comes to him again. And here is Abraham recognizing God's call.
We know that at this point God is testing Abraham. Abraham didn't know that. He simply heard God saying to him to take his son and to offer him up to God.
It's very interesting that the first time Abraham does speak to God explicitly on the pages of Genesis is in chapter 15. After Abraham has received the promises of the covenant and he is told that he will be a blessing to the whole earth, Abraham asks the question, ‘God, what will You give me so that I will know that what You are saying to me is true? What will You give me?’ There is maybe just a little measure of doubt to that, even in the heart of the father of the faithful. But God's answer to Abraham's question is, ‘I will give you Isaac.’ And in consequence, Isaac is born. Abraham says to God, ‘What will You give me?’ ‘I give you Isaac.’ Isn't it interesting that now God is coming to Abraham and saying to Abraham, ‘What will you give Me? Give Me Isaac.’
Our attention is drawn to the timing of all this. “After these things God tested Abraham.” After all that he had enjoyed of God's blessing and the privileges of the covenant and the assurances of God's salvation, and the signs of God's favor, after these things God tested Abraham.
Abraham recognized God's voice. Perhaps he was looking forward to yet another blessing, yet another time of great assurance, and God coming near to him again. But what he heard was altogether unexpected. “After these things….” After having walked by still waters and in green pastures, God is saying to Abraham, ‘Come with Me now into the valley of the shadow of death.’ After these things…after times of rich blessing comes this time of deep, deep trial. Isn't that often the case for the people of God?
Our attention is also drawn to the nature of the test. “Take your son, take your only son…take your only son, whom you love, and offer him up.” And at every level, Abraham's commitment to God is being tested. It's being tested at the level of his understanding.
God had made promises to him that depended on Isaac being preserved alive, and yet God is saying to him now. ‘Take that son and offer him up to Me.’ It was one thing for God to come to Abraham at the very outset of his pilgrimage and say to him, ‘Give up your father. Leave your father's household and your native country, and follow Me.’ But it was altogether something else for God to say to Abraham, ‘Give up your son.’ It was one thing for God to say to Abraham, ‘Give me your past.’ Abraham walked away from his past, by the power of the grace that commanded him. He left his idols. He was just another idol worshiper on the other side of the river, according to the book of Joshua. It was no great hardship for Abraham to give up his past in response to the call of God, but it was altogether something different for God to say to Abraham, ‘Give Me your future.’ And at the level of Abraham's understanding of God's purposes, the great mission of God that is encapsulated in the Abrahamic promise and that is being driven by God's word to Abraham…how are these to be fulfilled if Isaac is going to die?
And it's a test at the level of his emotions: “Take the son that you love.” Take this Isaac, this Isaac whom you looked upon from the very outset with a heart full of love–not just as a father does when he holds his newborn baby, but all that Isaac represented drawing from Abraham the deepest emotions of thankfulness to God and wonder, love, and praise–and now his emotions are being tested to the very limit as time and again we are reminded in this chapter that Isaac was the son that he loved.
He's being tested, too, at the level of his experience: “Take your son, your only son….” So much of your story, Abraham, has been wrapped up in the life of this boy, this child of promise, this son in whom and through whom the blessings of the covenant will be channeled, and God's salvation will reach the ends of the earth. You've experienced so much.
You would expect that Abraham could be left just to enjoy the rest of his life, but God says no, take that son and give him up to Me. That's the word that comes to him. And Abraham's faith responds to that word. Abraham responds immediately. We are told that he rose up early in the morning. There was no delay, there was no arguing, there was no speaking here at this point; there was simply the instant obedience that faith brings into human life. God commanded, and it is His to command. Abraham obeyed, and it belongs to faith to obey God immediately. And he obeyed without wavering for three long days, journeying to the place that God was going to show him, every step of that road so heavy, every part of it so difficult…but without wavering Abraham simply follows the Lord completely, with a whole heart that is devoted to the God who calls him.
And at last, without questioning, he brings Isaac to that place, binds him to that altar, and he lifts the knife in his hand, ready to slay his son. If that is not obedience to God's word, I do not know what is.
And yet, I wonder…I wonder as I read this passage who is really being sacrificed. I wonder as I read this passage who is actually on the altar. Oh, I know on the theater of Moriah, Isaac is literally bound to that altar ready to be offered to God. But in the courts of heaven, as God tests Abraham, I wonder if it's not actually Abraham who is being offered and sacrificed in the wholeheartedness of his commitment. And I wonder if it is not God who is actually slaying Abraham here, so that he will die to his own self-interest; and he will die to everything about himself and be committed absolutely to the God who called him in the first instance, as God takes that dearest idol he possesses and tears it from his breast so that Abraham will follow God alone.
I wonder if God is not calling you to make a sacrifice today. Perhaps, yes, to sacrifice more time so that you will pray for the gospel and pray for the preaching of the word, and pray for the missionary work of the church all over the world; to sacrifice, yes, perhaps more money to support missionary interests at home and overseas; perhaps even to do what Abraham did and give up your future and sacrifice your plans so that you too can serve God in a different way. And all these plans you’re ready to give up for God. But you know it means nothing unless we have learned to say with the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ,” and I take my heart and I offer it to You (in Calvin's great words) “promptly and sincerely.” And everything that I ever dreamed for myself, everything that I ever longed for myself, I simply want to take and place it in Your hands and let Your knife do to it what You will. Here am I. Send me. And it is the sacrifice of the heart that is pleasing to God. And it is in the death of self that we serve God the most. And Abraham is going to be a better person as a consequence of all of this, simply because on Mount Moriah he is the one who is put to death, and Isaac is the one who is spared.
God has His own unique way of making us holy, and it was for that purpose that Jesus died, according to the writer to the Hebrews, so that He might sanctify the people, and so that His redeemed people, saved from their sins, justified by His blood, made new people and new creations in Christ Jesus, might be sanctified and set apart for Him to use…the death of self for the glory of God.
John Piper talks about the supremacy of Christ in mission through suffering. That's exactly what happens at Moriah, as the mission purpose of God revealed in covenant promises to Abraham now finds Abraham at this point where he is emptied of the things he loves the most, in order that he might be holy and consecrated to God. What a calling, and what a God to serve in this world! Faith responds to God's call.
II. Faith rejoices in God's provision.
Let me move on to say, secondly, that faith also rejoices in God's provision. God speaks again. The same God who asked of Abraham that he offer up Isaac now comes to him again, and the angel of the Lord calls from heaven and says, “Abraham! Abraham!” And he says, “Here am I.” “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” says God, “or do anything to him. I know now that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
There are some people who read that verse as if it is teaching us that God did not know what Abraham would do at this point: that there are some things that even God does not know, and He's dependent on our choices to see how we react in certain situations before He knows certain things. Well, I'm not one of these people! There is nothing that is unknown to God. Past, present, and future — they are all under His immediate inspection. He knows all your choices. He knows what is in your heart. Isn't that what was said of Jesus in John 2? Nobody needed to tell Him what was in the heart of man, because He knew what was in men's hearts. God knows what you will do with your life. He knows where you are today. He knows all about your future. It's not Abraham that's testing God at this point; it's God who has been testing Abraham, and God knows Abraham's heart. But Abraham needs to know his heart, and Abraham needs to come to this point where, like the Apostle Peter, in a subsequent moment of illumination, will cry out to Jesus, ‘Lord, You know all things. You know all my failings — and they are many; You know my sins — and they are plenteous; You know all my griefs and sorrows, You know all my trials and my needs. You know all things. And I appeal now to Your omniscience: You know that I love You.’
And here is Abraham on Moriah, and he's been emptied of all self-interest and all self-confidence, and all self-reliance, and with the death of self he comes to know himself, and he comes to rejoice in what God has been doing in his life and through his life, from the very beginning right up to this moment.
I tell you it is the only hope that gospel teachers have, and it's the only hope that missionary workers have, that God is at work in men and women to fulfill His purposes in them and through them. And if I believed every time I entered the pulpit that the success of the gospel depended on the logic of my argumentation or the eloquence of my language, or the exquisiteness of my accent, or anything else about my public performance, I should give up immediately! But I know, and I can hope and dream, every time I am in the pulpit that a sinner may be saved, not because of what I can do in here but because of what God does in your heart and in my heart, and reminds me that within the Trinitarian covenant of His grace all that the Father gives to the Son will come to Him. And those who come to Him, He will not cast out. And I invite sinners here today to come to Jesus. And all over the world, sinners may come to Jesus as they are, with what they have, with all the blemishes of their past and all the hang-ups of their future, and I can say, “Come! And welcome to Jesus Christ!” And I can believe that sinners will come, because the Father gives them to the Son and works out in their experience what He purposes to do in giving a kingdom to the Lord Jesus.
And so, my friends, today let's rejoice in what God is doing in the lives of men and women, working out His purposes and drawing sinners to follow Jesus. We are only readers after the fact, and we see souls saved, movements of faith beginning in hardened hearts, and tears of repentance flowing from dry eyes, and steps of faith instead of steps of disobedience. And in all of this…in all of this…God is doing His work. And the thirsty ground of the human soul becomes a pool of water, and God looks at His people and sees a well-watered garden that He planted by His grace and to His glory, and will rejoice in the work of His grace and the provision of His salvation in the lives of men and women.
But Abraham needed to see more. Abraham turned, and saw a ram caught by its horns, took that animal, and offered the animal in place of Isaac. It's an awe-inspiring moment.
It's very interesting that when Abraham was called first in chapter 12, he ended up building two altars. Here he built one altar on which two sacrifices were offered: first of all, in the binding of Isaac, the sacrifice of Abraham's own heart; and now, in the death of the animal, the sacrifice of the substitute. And among the shadows of Moriah's mountains I seem to see a greater than Abraham here. And as this father gives up his only son, whom he loves, only to discover that he's going to be spared through the death of a substitutionary sacrifice, I seem to catch a glimpse of what Jesus refers to as Abraham's seeing the day of Christ and rejoicing. Because the glory of Moriah is derived from Calvary's great transaction, where God, His Son not sparing, offers Him up and takes Him to the place of sacrifice; that at Calvary there is no voice to stay the sword of justice, as the voice of God stayed the knife in Abraham's hand; at Calvary the Son of Abraham is the Passover Lamb who is substituted for sinners the world over. And I look at Calvary, where a greater father than Abraham offers Abraham's greatest Son, and Jesus dies there.
And to use the magnificent words of B.B. Warfield, “Jesus dies on the cross, but not of the cross.” The cross was the means by which He died, but not the reason why He died. He died through being crucified, but not because He was crucified. He was nailed to the tree, but that wasn't the cause of His dying. The cause of His dying is precisely because He is there as the substitutionary atonement for the sins of His people. He dies bearing my sins in His body to that tree, so that I might live; so that through His condemnation at Calvary, the Judge in heaven will say to the sword of justice as it hangs over my head for my sins, ‘Do not slay my son. Jesus has been crucified. He has been put to death’; and I am now pardoned through His dying, justified by His blood, saved from the wrath to come.
And I rejoice today in the provision God has made, and the testimony of every believing soul in this building today and all over the world today is “Thanks be to God for His unspeakable, indescribable gift! If He did not spare the Son that He loved, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?” I rejoice in what He provides fully at Calvary, I rejoice in what He provides in my life by His grace, moment by moment, and day by day. And I look away from myself to Calvary's great transaction, and I rest my soul there.
Are you rejoicing today in the death of the Son of God as the substitute in place of His people? Faith responds to God's call; faith rejoices in God's provision; and, faith receives God's blessing.
III. Faith receives God's blessings.
Yet again, heaven speaks. Yet again, God communicates His word to Abraham:
“By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son…I will surely bless you….”
Isn't that magnificent? Could Abraham have thought when he left home, when he closed the door behind him to sacrifice Isaac at Moriah, he would return with an even greater blessing? Could he have dreamt that the blessing would come this way?
I bought a gift recently, since I came here, to take home to the family. And the assistant in the shop asked, “Would you like me to gift wrap it?” And so I said yes, and off she went for what seemed like an interminable age, and then she emerged from the back of the shop with a beautifully wrapped box! And it was worth the price of the gift just to see the wrapping around it! Of course, you can't reason from the wrapping to what's inside it, but it's just lovely to see. But then you have to open it to see what's inside it.
Well, you know, God has a remarkable way of wrapping His presents. He has a blessing to give to Abraham, but He wraps it in this terrible, terrible experience of having to offer his heart in his son on Mount Moriah. And yet, had he not done that and gone there and experienced this, and opened up that wrapping, how could he ever have known the blessing?
Take courage, my Christian friend. Today you may be going through some very difficult moments in your life. I tell you this: In God's purpose you are in the best possible place in which you could be right now, and will enjoy an even greater blessing as a consequence than you could ever have enjoyed without that trial. “I will surely bless you.” Isn't it worth it just to hear God whisper to your soul, “I will bless you”?
But even more than that, “And your offspring….” In this Isaac, offered and risen…in this Isaac, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
You remember what Paul does as he takes up these words and runs with them and reminds us that God does not say to Abraham, “In your offsprings…” (plural). But singular. Because, says Paul, God was talking about Jesus. And when Abraham's great Son to be revealed on the stage of human history when the fullness of the times had come, when all of God's intimated purpose and the shadows of the Old Testament age at last found their fulfillment in the one life that could fulfill every prophecy and every prediction and every promise of the Old Testament, in Jesus and in His death and resurrection that purpose focused on Christ now breaks out, as in the name of the exalted Lord the church is commissioned to go into all the world and take the good news to every nation. And in the name and by the authority of the dead and risen Son of Abraham, the gospel commands all men everywhere to repent, and to enjoy the blessing. And isn't that what Paul says lies behind the cross where Christ is made a curse for us, so that the blessing of Abraham will rest upon the Gentiles?
And here we are. Here we are. Strangers to the covenant promise, by nature far away from God, no part of the covenant family or the covenant community, and yet we have heard a voice from inside the covenant calling us to follow. And God brought us near by the blood of Jesus, and the blessing of Abraham comes upon us through Abraham's great Son, who did die and rise again for our justification.
Maybe you’re here today and you’re not a believer yet in the Lord Jesus Christ. I invite you to Calvary. I invite you to the cross, to the place where this Jesus dies for sinners; who bears the sins of others in His body to the tree. Come to this place. Come now. Come as you are. Put your trust and all your faith and hope and confidence in Him, and look outside of yourself. The message of our modern age is “Look inside yourself…get all your inner strength and all your inner resources to help you through every crisis.” And I want to say no, you look outside yourself. Look away from yourself. Look to the finished work, and come to Calvary and know the blessing of God on your life: sins forgiven, peace with God, justified like Abraham by faith in the covenant promise.
And if you are a believer in the Lord, I invite you to Calvary. See the place where Jesus died, and follow His example. And let the mind that was in Him be in you, and go and serve Him through the power of the cross and the grace of our living Jesus. And may we believe great things and do great things through Him who strengthens us. Amen.
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Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.