All That the Prophets Have Spoken: Isaac on the Altar

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?  And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27 (KJV)

Though it may be hard to see at first glance, the entire Old Testament is a testimony to the Messiah to come. The above verses demonstrate this. Christ rebukes His disciples (who do not recognize that it is Him), for failing to realize that the Old Testament prophesies that the Messiah needed to suffer and enter into His glory. He reiterates this idea again later:

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.  Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Luke 24:44-47 (KJV)

Christians should be prepared to see Christ in all of scripture. In this post I’d like to go through one particular Old Testament story and how it, through the eyes of faith, prophesies of the coming Messiah and his sacrifice: the story of Abraham going to sacrificing Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22. This is a text that leaves many well-meaning Christians confused, as child sacrifice is very much against the character of God, but I think when seen rightly, it really should cause awe and wonder at the brilliance and love of our God. As we go through, we will see some striking parallels in the text, as well as one very important discordant element.

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.  And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Genesis 22:1-2 (KJV)

In order to put Abraham to the test, God tells him to sacrifice his son. Already we see start the parallels between Isaac and Christ. God calls Isaac, Abraham’s “only son… whom thou lovest.” Although Abraham had another son (Ishmael), he was not the son of the promise, the son of his wife Sarah, nor did Ishmael live with Abraham any longer. Thus Isaac is called his only son. Despite God having many sons, (John 1:18), Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father (John 3:16, 18)1 as well as the Son whom the Father loves (Matthew 3:17). Additionally, we know from 2 Chronicles 3:1 that the Temple in Jerusalem was built on Mount Moriah. Thus the same place that Jesus was to be offered up (Jerusalem) was where Isaac was to be offered. We’ll pick the narrative back up where Abraham sees the place where he is to offer up Issac.

And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.  And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.  And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?  And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.  And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.  And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Genesis 22:5-10 (KJV)

Isaac has to carry the wood for his own death instrument just as Christ had to carry His death instrument: the cross of wood (John 19:17). Isaac just like Christ was to be slain and sacrificed while laying against wood. Notice also what Abraham says to Isaac: God will provide a lamb. Abraham is lying to Isaac, but later will be proven to be true as God does indeed provide something for a sacrifice. We’ll pick that thought back up after the final portion of the narrative.

And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.  And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.  And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.  And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.  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.

Genesis 22:11-18 (KJV)

Again the text emphasizes that Isaac is Abraham’s only son. Notice even the detail about how the ram was caught. It was caught by its horns. Why this particular detail? If the ram was caught by its horns, that means the thorns were right next to its head, just as Christ had thorns upon his head (Matthew 27:29). There’s no good reason for this particular detail except as a foreshadowing of Christ. Isaac is not reported as saying anything or fighting his elderly father, just as Christ did not resist what was coming (John 19:8-11, Matthew 26:59-65). And as an interesting note, if one holds to the idea that the Angel of the Lord is the second person of the Trinity (which I do), this means that the Son is the one who speaks to Abraham, participating in the foreshadowing of His own death.

Despite all these parallels, the narrative now breaks away from paralleling Christ. Isaac is not actually sacrificed here, whereas Christ would be. Why is this? There are several reasons, but the one I want to bring out is that this points to the fact that a sacrifice is still needed. Abraham sacrificing his son would not have saved him. A better sacrifice was needed. Also, there’s the fact that Abraham said a lamb would be provided. When you read through the story, it feels wrong, that Abraham would say God would provide a lamb, but instead a ram is provided. One would expect literarily, that if an element in the story was set up, it would be fulfilled exactly. However, Abraham still spoke the truth. God would provide Jesus, the lamb of God (John 1:29), as a sacrifice, some hundreds of years later. The discordant element turns out to be perfectly harmonious when viewed in the light of Christ. The ram also speaks of the need for a substitute. God provided the ram so that Abraham was able to sacrifice it, instead of his son.

Abraham may have loved his only son, but God the Father loved His Son more. Yet He gave His Son up for a sacrifice. He put the crown of thorns on Him, and made Him carry in the instrument of His death. He then had Him slain; unlike with Abraham He could not spare Him. And here is the final parallel we’ll discuss. After Abraham goes to give up his son, he’s told that this act will lead to his seed and the nations being blessed. In Jesus, the true seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), the nations are blessed because now they are able to be freed from their captivity to sin. Because Christ lived a righteous life (1 Peter 2:22), and died as a penalty for sin (2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 3:25), all those that believe in Him by faith will be saved from the just wrath of the Father (Acts 16:31, John 3:36). What beautiful love that Father has for those who believe, that He gave His beloved Son on our behalf. If you are not a Christian, I urge you, repent and believe in the Son of God who gave Himself up as that simultaneously dreadful and wonderful sacrifice.

Photo by Geoffrey A Stemp from FreeImages

[1] The same Greek word used of Christ as only begotten (μονογενής), is also used of Isaac in Hebrews 11:17.

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