What Jesus said the Scriptures are About


Previously I posted and attempted to answer the question: What is the point of Genesis? This related question is what our Lord himself said the Bible of their day--the Old Testament Scriptures (OT)--is about.

1. The OT testify about Jesus. Jesus told the Bible teachers of Israel, "These are the very Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39).

2. Moses wrote about Jesus. The Bible teachers of Israel believed in the Law and in Moses and rejected Jesus, because of his message of unconditional love for sick and "bad" people. Jesus told them plainly, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me" (John 5). Therefore, the Pentateuch is about Jesus.

3. The OT concern Jesus. Jesus taught the Bible to 2 men who were in despair. What was Jesus' emphasis in Bible study? Luke tells us: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). When Bible study focused on Jesus, their hearts were burning (Luke 24:32).

4. The OT writes about Jesus, which Jesus fulfills. Jesus said to his disciples, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

For instance, when we study about the patriarchs in Genesis, or any of the characters in the OT, it is not primarily about certain positive traits in them we should emulate (be like Jacob who "valued" God's blessing), or negative traits in them we should not emulate (don't be like Esau, who is an animal man). Such teachings are not necessarily unbiblical. But if the Bible is taught in such a way, neither Jesus nor the gospel is presented. Pastor and theologian Edmond Clowney would call such a Bible study or message a "synagogue sermon," which means that a Jewish rabbi would be able to teach the same thing as the Christian Bible teacher or preacher. Such teachings are moral and ethical. It does not change or transform the heart, which only happens when the heart is confronted by Christ and the gospel (2 Cor 3:18).

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Surprising ("Hesed") Love (1 Samuel 9:1-13)

Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921) was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887-1921. Before that he was pursuing studies in Leipzing, Germany, in 1876-77. This time also doubled as his honeymoon with his wife Annie. They were on a walking tour in the Harz Mountains when they were caught in a terrific thunderstorm. The experience was such a shock to Annie that she never fully recovered, becoming more or less an invalid for life. Warfiedl only left her for seminary duties, but never for more than 2 hours at a time. His world was almost entirely limited to Princeton and to the care of his wife. For 39 years. One of his students noted that when he saw the Warfields out walking together "the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her." For 39 years.

Love that truly loves is willing to bind itself, is willing to promise, willing and gladly obligates itself, so that the other may stand securely in that love.

2 Sam 9:1-13 is all about love. It is about David's love for Mephibosheth. The Hebrew word, which appears 3 times in 2 Sam 9:1,3,7, is hesed. Its meaning is rooted in the character of God. It is so rich that so single English word can fully do it justice: stedfast love, loving kindness, covenant friendship, loyal love, and justi ce are a few of the ways we translate hesed. Notice 3 things about hesed in David's example:
  1. It is a priority.
  2. It is surprising.
  3. It is promise-driven.
I. Top Priority

What is the priority David gives to hesed? When David was finally established king of Israel in Jerusalem, what was the very 1st thing he does? He sought for a way to show kindness (2 Sam 9:1). The search goes on until Saul's crippled grandson is found (2 Sam 9:2-6). David is like this because God is like this (Lk 19:10; Jn 4:23).

How aggressive is hour love for people? Like David, and like God, are you on the lookout for people to love?Are you on the lookout to find ways to love people who can't pay you back, who are weak, who might even have been your enemies? This is what hesed does.

II. Surprising Generosity

A 2nd thing about hesed is that it is "over-the-top" generous. Mephibosheth was the surviving grandson of King Saul--the deeply troubled ruler who hated David and sought repeatedly to kill him. Mephibosheth's father was Jonathan, David's dearest friend despite Saul's hatred, now dead along with his father. Years before, knowing that David would one day rise to power, Jonathan asked David not to cut off his love (hesed) from his family (1 Sam 20:14-15). It meant, "please don't do to me and my family what is customary in regime changes...please don't kill us." David refuses this narrow meaning. His application of the promise is expansive (2 Sam 9:7). David will show him a "kindness"--a Hebrew idiom for intensity of expression, something like "Upon my life I guarantee that I will look after you!

God's hesed love is like this. He is not content simply to see us taken care of. He wants us with him--he wants to honor us as his children. What makes this love doubly amazing is that we are proven enemies, not just potential ones. What is most astonishing about this love is what it cost: our elevation to the king's table cost God much more than some territory that he might have kept for himself. It cost him his life (Rom 5:6).

Is our love like this? Is it over-the-top, surprising in its generousity? Does it think through and address the particulars? Is it directed toward the "lame"--those who are in no position to reciprocate? Does it find special joy in conferring honor upon others? Is it fearless, reaching out to those who might turn out to be our enemies? Is it costly?

III. Promise Driven Commitment

David's hesed arises from faithfulness to pledges earlier made (2 Sam 9:1,7). What drove David's kindness was not human pressure. No one expected it. No one knew about his promise except Jonathan, who was dead. It wasn't to save face (lame beggar begging at his gate). It wasn't a deadline (20 years). It wasn't political safety (which would dictate his death). It wasn't convenient (easier to ignore him). What drove David's kindness was his word.

David shows us what our God is like. God would rather die than break a promise. In fact he did. Having promised in ancient times to rescue us from bondage to sin and death (Gen 3:15), he followed through, submitting to the horrors of humiliation, crucifixion, and death in order to bear away our sin and death. God swore to his own hurt (Ps 15:4).

Our words tend to be so much cheaper than God's. We make our marital promises that at least 50% of us formally break, and the rest of us break in our adulterous imaginations. We make vows, commitments and pledges lightly, not willing to pay the price to keep them. But God's love is a love that loves to honor--a love that pays a price. It is a love that keeps its word. So here we have God's standard, displayed movingly in David's 1st act as king:

  • a love that takes the initiative,
  • a love that is over-the-top generous,
  • a love that is costly,
  • a love that is thoughtful and particular,
  • a love that never wanders from promises that have been made.
We are to love this way because we are made in God's image and God loves this way.

IV. The Source of Costly Commitment

How do we do this? Where do we find the power to love this way? The standard is beyond us.

We find the power to love this way in the same place where David found it--in the hesed that God bears toward us. David could love Mephibosheth as he did because he had tasted God's faithful and practical love through 2 stormy decades. Though life was not easy, he had been fed, sheltered, delivered, loved, and finally vindicated by God (Ps 27:1). Similarly for us (1 Jn 4:19).How do I know that I have God's hesed? That I am safe and beloved? How can I be sure when I am so lame and crippled in both feet (2 Sam 9:8,13)? Because God's hesed toward me is not grounded in my performance. It is grounded in the performance of someone else. It is at the heart of this story and it is very important to understand.

Why was Mephibosheth so safe with David? Not because of Mephibosheth. Not because of anything he had done. Not because he had drawn out David's compassion. Not because he had done something to merit David's concern. His good fortune had nothing to do with him. It had everything to do with Jonathan (2 Sam 9:1,7). Jonathan swore undying loyalty to David, surrendered his crown to him, loved David unconditionally to the bitter end. Not Mephibosheth, but Jonathan was the reason for the pouring out of the king's love upon Mephibosheth.

Why are you and I so safe with God? Not because of us. But because of Jesus--the one who gave his crown to the Father, the one who pledged his love and stayed loyal to his Father to the very end--even though that end meant crucifixion and hell, in obedience to the Father's wishes.

Jesus is the one and only man in history who has fully and fairly won the full outporuing of God's abundant lovingkindness (Mt 17:5). Yet he lost it all on the cross (Ps 22:1; Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) on our behalf. Thus, God's hesed on Jesus is given freely to us (1 Jn 3:1-2; Rom 8:32).

Jesus is our true David who loved us more than Mephibosheth. Jesus is our true Jonathan because of whom we are so loved.

This is a rough transcription of a sermon by Charles D. Drew, Heralds of the King, 103-116.


The Purity of Christ and Our Fallenness (James 3:17)


"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." (James 3:17)

Only Jesus fulfills these heavenly attributes of wisdom perfectly. Only by the grace of God that transforms us might we reflect these attributes that do not originate from our fallen selves.

Pure. Purity (blamelessness) is the primary virtue with all the rest stemming from purity. Jesus is the pure perfect soul. Even our purity as Christians fall short because of our spontaneous default to impure motivations. Even our best and purest of Christian acts are like filthy rags (Isa 66:4).

Peace-loving. Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6). Only Jesus promotes peace without any jealousy or selfish motivation or ambition (James 3:16).

Considerate. The ESV and NASB translates this as "gentle." Jesus was the most meek (Matt 5:5), "gentle and humble in heart" (Matt 11:29). Even at his very worst moment of life when he was led unjustly like a lamb to the slaughter, he did not open his mouth (Isa 53:7). Our best frail attempts at being gentle and considerate might be to be soft spoken, evasive or mute.

Submissive. Other translations are "open to reason" (ESV) and "reasonable" (NASB). Jesus was submissive unto death (Phil 2:6-8), even though this was most unreasonable. Our best attempts at submission might be to avoid the unpleasant repercussions of non-conformity.

Full of mercy and good fruit. How can any man be merciful toward one who seems to be unmerciful toward us? Only Jesus was merciful, when we were merciless toward him in our sins. Because of the mercy of Jesus, he bears the good fruit of our continued transformation (2 Cor 3:18; Gal 5:22-23).

Impartial and sincere. The NASB translates this as "unwavering and without hypocrisy." Try as we may, we default toward our own biases, preferences, prejudices and cultural identities. Thank God that he does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11). Otherwise, only the good guys go to heaven, and all the bad guys have no hope!

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The Stairway to Heaven (Gen 28:10-22)


One of my favorite songs of all time is "The Stairway to Heaven," by Led Zeppelin (1971). I could listen to it every day without ever getting tired of it. It is the perfect rock song ever. Why? The progressive crescendo and the spell binding ambiance makes the song mesmerizing. A google search says, "this song is about a woman who accumulates money, but finds out the hard way that her life had no meaning and will not get her into heaven."

Perhaps, this song has captivated countless millions of all ages through out the world for 40 years, because we human beings are all, without exception, seeking a "stairway to heaven," however we chose, on our own terms, to define heaven or God. In today's text, Jacob discovers, through his dream given to him by God, something radical about the stairway to heaven. It is the polar opposite of what most people and most religions think. Even Christians who misunderstand this "stairway to heaven" live a religious life that is not Christian, and which is no different from all other religions in the world.

Theme: The stairway to heaven originates from God (not man), and it is a gift of God. [The Lord will be with his people wherever they go.]

Goal: To distinguish between the gospel (God's salvation given to man) and religion (Man's effort to attain his own salvation). [To comfort God's people with his promise that he will be with them wherever they go.]

Application: Rely on God who wants to do everything for his people.

The subject of this text is the subject of heaven. There are 3 parts to this passage:

  1. Jacob's condition before the dream
  2. The dream itself
  3. Jacob's response to the dream
We can look at this text in 3 ways:
  1. The Darkness of Heaven (where heaven seems closed to Jacob)
  2. The Openness of Heaven (where heaven opens in his dream)
  3. The Gateway of Heaven (where Jacob begins to learn the way to heaven, the secret to heaven's gate)
We often think that our faith in God will help us to circumvent the problems of our own life. But is this true? Jacob believed in God. But it wasn't enough; he could not overcome the difficulties in his own life. What does he need? He needed a life changing encounter with God.

I. The Darkness of Heaven (Gen 28:10-11)

Gen 28:10-11 say, "Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep." When Jacob reached a certain unknown place, he used a stone as a pillow, likely because he had nothing else that he could use to cushion his head while he slept. This was the narrator's way of showing us how completely Jacob's life had fallen apart as a result of all that had happened (Gen 27:1-28:9). Because of his brother Esau's fury and desire to kill him, Jacob had no choice but to leave "...because the sun had set" (Gen 28:10). It was as though the sun had just set upon Jacob's entire life, as though his life was closed, shattered and dark with no light at the end of the tunnel in 2 ways:

1) Heaven is a closed book to Jacob. God had stated that he had chosen Jacob (Gen 25:23). But now everything had fallen apart. Why did God let all this happen? His life was in complete contradiction to what God had promised him. It's like being told that God loves us. Yet God allows nasty stuff to happen to us. There is an utter contradiction to what God had promised.

2) Heaven is a closed door to Jacob. It is not just that God's actions are dark to Jacob. It is that God himself is remote from Jacob. Abraham, Sarah (Gen 18:9-15) and Isaac (Gen 26:24) had each met God personally. Genesis shows it is never enough just to know about God. We need to know God, to have a personal encounter with God. It is not enough to believe in God, but to believe God. It is not enough to just have a cognitive subscription to a body of doctrine, or to have an ethical compliance to a set of rules. We need to have an encounter with God, which Jacob has not had. It does not seem that this is that time for him to meet God personally, since he had just acted deceitfully and blasphemously before his blind father Isaac. Furthermore, Jacob was not seeking God, or crying out for God. He was not praying or asking for mercy or help. Heaven was closed and dark to Jacob. Then Jacob had a dream and all of the darkness changes.

II. The Openness of Heaven (Gen 28:12-15)

In his dream, Jacob saw 3 things, and he heard 3 things. Jacob saw:

  1. A stairway. Gen 28:12 says, "He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." It was something huge with dozens, hundreds or thousands of angels ascending and descending on this stairway. It must have been a stunning unforgettable sight.
  2. Angels on the stairway. What are angels? It is not what the TV and movies portray. Often, when an angel shows up in the Bible, he says, "Fear not." The word "angel" means a royal herald or attendant, a herald of his royal majesty, declaring and executing the degrees and declarations of the King. The angels ascending and descending means that God's royal power is on the move. Messengers were coming out of and returning to the throne of God. Jacob saw the angels descending from the throne of God to the earth, and returning from the earth to the throne of God. Thus, Jacob sees a visual display of the royal power of the majesty and holiness of God.
  3. The Lord. Gen 28:13 says, "There above it stood the LORD..." Robert Altar, the Hebrew expert, thinks that it is over or "above him." God came and stood right over Jacob in a posture of intimacy and nearness. And God told Jacob 3 things.
  1. "I am with you" (Gen 28:15), when Jacob was utterly friendless. The only person who loved him in the world is his mother, whom he will never see again for the rest of his life.
  2. "(I) will watch over you" (Gen 28:15), when he was utterly defenseless.
  3. "I will give you...the land" (Gen 28:13-14), when he was utterly penniless. Thus:
1) Heaven is not a closed book. This vision tells Jacob that he was utterly wrong about heaven. Jacob and us often feel that God is remote and that he doesn't care, and that our life is tragic and awful. We think that heaven is closed. But this vision tells us otherwise. Heaven is not closed. God's royal power is on the move. He is working and busily involved with the world. His kingship is flowing out into the world, and that God is working things out to bring perfect love, justice and peace at the end of history. God is doing this, but we can't see it. For a brief moment, God showed Jacob what he is doing, that his kingdom and power are always on the move. God is not unconcerned, uninvolved removed. Once, the prophet Elisha's servant was afraid, because they were surrounded by an enemy army with horses and chariots. The servant said, "Oh no, my lord, what shall we do?" 2 Kings 6:16-17 say, “'Don’t be afraid,' the prophet answered. 'Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.' And Elisha prayed, 'Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.' Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." This teaches us that though we are blind to seeing God, yet the power of God is working mightily all around us in the world.

The higher we go up a mountain the more we are able to see the landscape and how things are connected on ground level. But no one is high enough to see what only God is able to see how all things are connected. Thus, heaven is not remote; it is not closed. Try this logic: People are often very angry at God for not stopping the suffering, even though God is infinite, great and powerful enough to stop them. But if we are angry at such a great and powerful God for not stopping suffering, we must grant that he must be wise enough to have a perspective that we do not have, or have reasons for it that we cannot see. We cannot have it both ways. We are on the ground. God is higher. God can always see things that we cannot see.

2) Heaven is not a closed door. God did not stand on top of the stairway and ask Jacob to ascend. God came down to be over him. Jacob was not seeking God. He was not repenting. But God comes to him in grace. Jacob is at a lowest point of his life. He has done horrible things. But there is not a word of condemnation. God only utters to him unconditional promises of blessing (Gen 28:13-15). Why is God not the holy God of Isaiah 6:5 or Exodus 33:18-20?

III. The Gateway of Heaven

Gen 28:16-17 say, "When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.'” Jacob says, "this is the gate of heaven.” What does this mean? The narrator is contrasting this with the tower of Babel, where the people were building "a tower that reaches to the heavens" (Gen 11:4). The word Babel is related to Babylon. Babel comes from two words: “gate” (bab) and “god” (el), which means “gate to heaven” or “gate of god.” The tower of Babel was a ziggurat, which is a rectangular stepped tower. The online dictionary says it is a temple tower of the ancient Assyrians/Babylonians, having the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding stories. It is a temple with a stairway to heaven. It was built by man at a famous place where important people tended to live, or it became a famous place. People came here to ascend the steps with their sacrifices, offering and prayers to God, so as to get the blessing of the gods for themselves and their families.

Jacob was astounded because he realized that this is the way "the gate of heaven" works. Every religion requires you to ascend the man made gate of heaven to the gods. But Jacob's dream is of a gate from heaven, and of a stairway chosen by God. It is not the way to ascend up to God to get the blessing by important people being good. But it where God descends down to man by sheer grace to give his blessing to unimportant, undeserving, broken and bad people. God comes to us; we do not go to him. Religion requires man to fulfill certain conditions, but God comes to us with unconditional love, the way He came to Jacob. Every other religion is a stairway/gateway up to heaven. But the stairway to heaven is where God descends to us by his grace alone. This is different from every other conceivable religion in the world.

There is a problem. How could a holy God do this? Abraham asks God, God answers him (Gen 15:9-17). Moses says, "Show me your glory," God responds (Exo 33:18-20). Isaiah goes into the temple, he sees God (Isa 6:1-7). But Jacob does none of this. He didn't pray. He wasn't seeking God. He didn't go into the temple. He likely wasn't thinking about God. He was consumed with his own survival. Yet God comes to him completely in grace with his multitude of angels right into his life. How can this be?

Many centuries later, there is a story recorded in John 1:45-51. When Nathaneal realized Jesus' transcendent knowledge about him, he declared, “'Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.' Jesus said, 'You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.' He then added, 'Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.'” Here Jesus is saying, "I am the stairway to heaven" that Jacob saw. I am the link to heaven.

Every religion has "steps" to God. The 10 commandments of Judaism. The 5 pillars of Islam. The 8 fold path of Buddhism. Jesus is saying that he is the steps. Every religion has the steps which is a what--something that we must do. But the real gate of heaven is a who--it is a person. Jesus fulfilled the requirements. He lived the steps. He lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died. When we understand who Jesus is, only then will we "see heaven open." Jesus did not come to found a religion. He did not come to show the steps/stairway. He came to be the steps/stairway. Heaven and earth came to intersect over Jesus' dead and resurrected body. Jesus opened a cleft in the pitiless walls of the world. Jesus came down and did everything for us. Only when we understand this we will know who Jesus is and heaven will be open for us.

1) Only in Jesus do we resolve the problem of our suffering in the world. Only Christianity teaches that God came down and suffered himself. He suffered unjustly. He suffered tragedy. He suffered seemingly senselessly. But through his death he resolves all our conflicts. Out of physical death he brought real life. Out of material poverty he brought real riches. Out of worldly brokenness and weakness, he brought real strength. God's redemption works through the troubles, the suffering, the agonies, the injustice, the self-denial, the death. It is only through the suffering that I come to see heaven open and know Jesus.

2) Only when we know that Jesus is the steps/the stairway that we can have an encounter with God. (Jesus does not point to the steps/the stairway.) We may believe in Christianity/the Bible, but without knowing that Jesus is the stairway, we will never see heaven open. We will not have the experience of his love and grace, the sense of Jesus being right over us in intimacy and speaking words of unconditional love. Why?

If we see the Bible as a book of instructions, or if we see Jesus living as an example for me to follow, then we think that Christianity are steps that we must follow. We see Jesus' suffering and death as an example, and a loving inspiration at best. But if we see Jesus not ascending the steps as an example, but being the steps, then we do not see him as an example for me, but as a substitute for me, as one who gave himself to suffer and die for me, then I can begin to have an encounter with God and see heaven open.

Why was Jacob so miserable? He was lonely, deceitful, proud, wicked. He had malice. But Jesus came down and took all of Jacob's misery and loneliness upon himself as the steps, as the penalty that we deserve. Jesus suffered cosmic loneliness on the cross, suffering the ultimate penalty for sin, and crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46) Jesus did this for me. Do you sense this? Do you see this? Does it move you? Jesus became the stairway for me, not just an inspirational example. Only then does cognition become experience. Only then does believing about God become knowing God and experiencing him.

The angels were ascending and descending on Jesus, not to Jesus. Every other religion has angels ascending and descending to, and so there are steps that we must do. But Christianity is the only religion that says that God came and fulfilled all the requirements for you by becoming the steps. God did it all for us, so that he can come into our lives by sheer grace. That's why God could stand over Jacob and speak words of unconditional love to Jacob, who was one who was not even looking for God.

Let us conclude with 3 things as application:

  1. Any place is the gate of heaven: Don't dichotomize your life. There is no place where God is not working. God's power can work and come down anywhere, for "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it" (Ps 24:1; 1 Cor 10:26). Therefore, a Christian must not dichotomize his life. Do we act, think and feel differently on Sun at church, than at other places or at other times of the week? We should practice God's presence everywhere, because God's presence is everywhere.
  2. God works especially in times when we are totally weak, totally alone, totally forlorn. God reveals himself the best at such times. Why did God come to Jacob when he didn't ask? When he didn't pray? When he wasn't living a good life in any way? God is attracted to his brokenness. God does not just come despite Jacob's brokenness, but because of it. Jacob has been dressing up. He's looking to other people for approval, so he has to be somebody else. But at this point everything falls apart. The emperor has no clothes. He is laid bare. God comes down and sees him sleeping. He is completely defenseless with no facades left. God looks at him at the bottom and loves him to the sky. This is what we all need. No other husband, wife, father, mother, king, leader, human being can take our complete weakness. They are too weak to bless us if we show them all of our weakness. But there is the one Father, King, Friend, Husband who comes down and sees us at the bottom with all of our weaknesses, brokenness with no facades, and is actually attracted to us because of them. Ps 25:11 says, "For the sake of your name, LORD, forgive my iniquity, though it is great." Jonathan Edwards pointed out that God forgives us not in spite of our sins but because of it. He is that kind of God.
  3. God doesn't give up on us, despite our "disgusting" motives. Do you think that Christianity is too much work, and that I can't keep this up? Look at Jacob's response. What's interesting is that it is so bad; it is horrible. God comes and gives him unbelievable unconditional promises of love without a single "if." God simply says, "I love you," with no "ifs." But Jacob says I will serve you "if" you do all the things you promised....then you will be my God. Don't do that! How can you come to One who has utterly given himself to you without you giving yourself utterly to him? But does God give up on Jacob after hearing his "nauseating vow"? No. What do we learn here? Even though our responses to God will always be half-ass, God will not give up on us. Why? Because Jesus took our penalty. Jesus is our stairway. Heaven opens over us by sheer grace. If we see Jesus do this for us, and to the degree we see Jesus do this, we will see heaven open. Have you seen heaven open?
This is based on a sermon by Tim Keller entitled "The Openness of Heaven."

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The Problem of Blessing (Gen 27:18-34)


I knew a medical student whose parents blamed him for their unhappy life. Despite being a brilliant student, his mom often said to him, "My life is miserable because of you." When he graduated from medical school, he committed suicide with a fatal overdose. Before he lapsed into unconsciousness and death, he called up his mom, and said with tears, "Mom, I am granting you your wish. I love you." His tragic life was the result of not receiving any blessing from his parents.

Theme: God wants to give us the ultimate blessing that we all desperately need. (God uses even human deception to accomplish his redemptive plan to bless the world.)

Goal: Seek the ultimate blessing that our soul needs. (Reassure God's people that our sovereign God's redemptive plan of blessing cannot be derailed.)

Application: Seek the blessing of God so that we can truly bless others (and not use them).

Jacob is a very contemporary figure. He is easy for modern people to relate to. He has more struggles, failures, doubts, weaknesses. He is the most unheroic hero in the Bible. To see his story in context, God calls Abram to save the world through his family (Gen 12:3; 18:18-19). In each and every generation there will be a bearer of the messianic seed carried by one of his descendants. One day, the seed will be the messiah who saves the world. The seed was passed on through Isaac, not Ishmael. Then the seed will be in one of Isaac's 2 sons: Esau or Jacob. Which one is it? Who is the bearer of the seed? Who is the son of promise? Who is the one who will be blessed?

Our key word from this text is blessing. Our concept of blessing today is so shallow and wimpy that we do not properly understand this text. We need a much richer understanding of blessing, without which this passage is confounding. This passage, which is all about blessing, will show us:

  1. The Power of Blessing
  2. Our Deep Need for Blessing
  3. The Wrong Way to Get Blessing (How we usually try to get blessing, which does not work)
  4. The Right Way to Get Blessing
I. The Power of Blessing

What is this blessing? Both Rebekah and Jacob thought they could steal it. At the end of this encounter, both Isaac and Esau thought that it was stolen. Why doesn't Isaac just take back the blessing from Jacob since he was tricked? Why didn't he call Jacob back and say, "You're just a fraud and a crook. I take back my blessing!"?

Our idea of a blessing might be to compliment people and to be nice to people. Then they say, "Bless your heart. You just blessed my heart." That's what the English word "blessing" means. What is blessing in the Bible? What is so powerful about it? Is it a last will and testament? It could be (Gen 27:28-29). Why couldn't Isaac give any further blessing to Esau (Gen 27:34-38)? Are they just primitive people?

Words of blessing from a significant figure have tremendous power to shape one's life. We could reshape the well known nursery rhyme along biblical lines, as such: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make or break my very soul." We know that off handed comments and casual comments (both words of blessing or cursing) made to us/about us, affect us more profoundly than we care to admit: "You're useless. You're ugly. You're stupid. You're a loser." These words are still operating like a power in our life today, though they were uttered just once decades ago. These words are still programing and dictating our lives. Words have a power to them, especially words of affirmation/blessing/valuing, or words of condemnation/criticism/cursing. These words move into us; they go to the very depths of our being. They become a part of us. They shape who we are. We all know this. The ancients knew this.

Words can ruin/devastate us, or comfort us and lift us up for years and years. If casual words have such an impact on us, how much more words spoken in an authoritative climactic setting, like a death bed blessing. What do words of blessing teach us?

  1. There is the power of blessing. It is a deep accurate spiritual discernment of who this person is, how God has gifted them, who they truly are (Gen 27:28-29, 39-40). One who has spiritual discernment, who looks into a person to perceive who they truly are, and who carefully uses words of affirmation and blessing, it empowers them to the very heavens all the days of their life. If you have ever truly been blessed, you can never ever forget it all of your life. Isaac knew that his words of blessing to Jacob had a power of its own. It wasn't just well wishing. It would empower Jacob to become the person God had created him to be.
  2. There is our deep need for blessing. Thus, our lives would be distorted without it. We would wrestle and struggle forever if we don't perceive we have experienced the power of blessing.
II. Our Need for Blessing

The struggle for blessing is the theme of Jacob's life. He does everything possible to get the blessing (Gen 27:6-29). When struggling all night with God at the climactic moment of his life, he says, I will not let you go unless you bless me (Gen 32:26). No one can bless themselves. Jacob's intense need for blessing is seen when Isaac asks Jacob who he is. Jacob said, I am Esau your firstborn" (Gen 27:19). But when Isaac asks the real Esau who he is, Esau said, I am your son, your firstborn, Esau (Gen 27:32). Robert Altar, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, says in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (1996), "He (Jacob) reserves the crucial term 'firstborn' for the end of his brief response." Jacob's emphasis is "I am your firstborn," for the last word of the sentence is the most crucial. In that hierarchical and patriarchal society, sons, not daughters, and the oldest son, not any other son, was the one who received the lion's share of the wealth and inheritance. Thus, the father dotes on his firstborn, since the future of his family is dependent on his firstborn. As a result, all the daughters and all the other sons were ignored by comparison. Gen 25:27-28 say, "The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob." Esau was like a man's man, while Jacob was a quiet, unimpressive mama's boy. Isaac, over the years, doted on Esau and gave him the informal blessing of the firstborn. What is this?

It is to have the most powerful person in the clan--the father--look at you and say, "No one's like you. You're special. I love you more than anyone else." It is to have the uniquely valuable person say to you, "You are uniquely valuable to me."

Why is Jacob exploiting his father? Why is Jacob risking everything in such a cold calculating way? When he says "I am your firstborn," he is saying, "I should have been the one that you dote on. I am the unique one. I am the special one. I am your firstborn. I should be the head of the family, not my impetuous impulsive shallow temperamental brother. I should be the one you should have loved most. Give me what I want. Give me blessing. Smile on me. Dote on me. Bless me."

This is what every human being wants more than anything else. We all want the blessing of the firstborn. When we do not have it, it poisons our life. When Isaac favored one son, it poisoned everybody's life. Jacob became a cold calculating conniving opaque person. Esau, though likable fun loving person, became a rotten spoiled brat. Isaac was poisoning his own kids by giving the informal blessing of the firstborn all along to Esau, and now he wants to give him the blessing formally.

No one wants general love from general people. But we want unique love from uniquely special people in our own lives. We need a person we look up to say to us, "There is no one like you. You are special. You are unique. I love you more than anyone else." We all want/need this. We cannot bless ourselves. Our self worth cannot come from ourselves. We need a smart person say we are smart. We need a good person say we are good, in order to feel good. This is the blessing of the firstborn. We all need this. We all need blessing.

III. The Wrong Way to get Blessing

Jacob is a frightening example for how to get blessing. He became like somebody else. He hid himself and dressed up as somebody else. He dressed up as someone he is not. He dressed up like Esau. He got hairy like Esau. He changed his voice to sound like Esau. Isaac probably thought, "You feel like Esau. You're hairy like Esau. But there is something about the voice." To get blessing, Jacob could not be himself. He had to be someone else in order to be blessed. He was different from Esau. He was smooth. He was domestic. He couldn't be himself if he wanted to be blessed by the most important/significant person in his life.
We are all doing this. How are we getting blessing from others? From the world? How are we getting the blessing we really need? We don't let others see who we are, see our flaws, weaknesses. We dress up like someone else. If we like someone, we think, "What if this person loved me? Wow. Then I would be blessed." Someone who is stunning, attractive, lovely looks at me and says, "There is no one like you. You are my everything." To get what we desperately feel we need, we dress up like someone we are not. We put a lot of time into our appearance, our clothes, our mannerisms, that may not be who we truly are. We dress up as someone else to get the blessing we think we desperately need. Some desperately need their parent's approval. They try to be something they think their parents want them to be. Or they rebel. They become the opposite of what their parents hope/expect, saying, "I don't care what my parents think." But why are they so upset? Their lack of blessing from their parents, or others, cause them not to feel blessed. So they can't be themselves.
Another way to get blessing is to come to church and Bible study, and dress up as a really good Christian, with no gross sins or temptations or weaknesses or hangups. Why? They want other Christians to think well of them; they want their blessing. So they dress up to be like the Christian that the other Christians think they should be. But this does not work.
One of the saddest verse is when Isaac says, “Come here, my son, and kiss me” (Gen 27:26). This is a sly way for Isaac to have 1 more test to confirm that this really is Esau; he can then smell him. Gen 27:27-28 say, "So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, 'Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine.'" What did Jacob see when this was said? Jacob saw the look of his father that he had always wanted--the look of pride, affection, affirmation--the radiant look of joy that he had always wanted to see from his dad toward him, and the words from Isaac's lips that he always wanted to hear. Did this help? Did this change him?
This blessing sat inert for many hears, because Jacob knew it wasn't him that Isaac was loving/blessing. It must have been incredibly bitter to get that close to get from his father the love he always wanted, but it was not Jacob for he had dressed up. So, though he was blessed, yet he was not blessed at all.
Anyone who dresses up and is blessed for dressing up does not experience blessing at all. If someone hides his sin, his flaws, his weaknesses, and even if they are blessed, they are not really blessed because they have dressed up. All the compliments and blessings in the world are not going to sink in and fill up that vacuum. What then can we do?
This narrative is extremely bleak for everyone's life falls apart. Esau screams for blessing, saying, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” (Gen 27:38) Then he plans to kill Jacob (Gen 27:41). Rebekah had no choice but to send Jacob away (Gen 27:42-25). She never sees the son she loves ever again for the rest of her life. She never again sees the only one she has a loving relationship with. Jacob, who received the blessing of the firstborn, goes away penniless. Everyone's life falls apart. What is the moral of the story?
Be a better parent. Bless all our children, not just one of our children. Pray for insight to see our children's gifts, strengths and aptitude and bless each of them with affirmation and confirmation with the wisdom of God. We do learn this from this text? But there are 2 problems:
  1. Those who have already been messed up by bad parenting and have already left home.
  2. But even those who received good parenting are also still like Jacob.
The need for blessing is not just the result of bad parenting. Bad parenting makes it worse. God parenting makes it better. But even with good parenting, we are still covering up, hiding ourselves, dressing ourselves up to be someone in order to get others to give us their approval and blessing. We are like little kids who say with our silent inner voice, "Bless me. Bless me, too" as we dress up like a great husband, a great father, a great worker, a great doctor, a great teacher, a great Christian, a great man, etc. Outside we dress up like someone great and honorable, but inside we are like a kid, saying, "Bless me. Bless me too" (Gen 27:38). Why? There is a spiritual problem here. What is the solution?
It is hinted at by what Isaac says. After Esau came and Isaac realized that he has been deceived, Gen 27:33 says, "Isaac trembled violently and said, 'Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!'” There is a complete shift toward the end of Isaac's sentence. He begins with "who was it," and shifts with the word "indeed" which is similar to "behold." He is saying, "Who is that crook, liar and cheat who just came and deceived me, and behold he will be blessed." He is realizing 2 things:
  1. God works even through Jacob, and the crooks, liars, failures and the bad people. That is what God does. God works through and brings his grace to unworthy people. Commentators say that Esau is the more likable character, and even the narrator/storyteller likes Esau more. Thus, God's grace is working even against the taste of the narrator. There is almost nothing about Jacob that is appealing. With Abraham there were good chapters and bad chapters. But with Jacob every chapter is bad. He does not do anything that is a good example. In a way, he is the weirdest person possible for God to choose/bless. What is the moral of the story? It is not that if you have a great family God will work, and if you have a bad family with bad parents God won't work. Instead, God is blessing the one who is the most screwed up member of the whole family. The moral of the story is that God brings his scandalous intervening grace into the lives of people who don't seek it, don't deserve it, who resist it, and who don't appreciate it even after they have been saved by it--over and over and over again. God works through sheer grace.
  2. Isaac surrenders to God's grace. When Isaac says, "—and indeed he will be blessed!” he is not only saying that God will bless Jacob, but that he will accept it. Derek Kidner, in his Genesis (The Tyndale OT Commentary Series),1981, says that this "expresses more than mere belief that the spoken word is self-fulfilling; he knows he has been fighting against God, as Esau has, and he accepts defeat." How has Isaac been fighting against God? During Rebekah's pregnancy the Lord revealed to her that "the older will serve the younger" (Gen 25:23). Surely, Rebekah shared this with her husband. But he has been fighting against this all of his life. He wants to follow the world's way of blessing the older son. He follows his own preference of wanting the man's man Esau rather than the mama's boy Jacob. He realizes he has been resisting the whole approach of grace, for he likes the stronger one, the better one, the older one, the more appealing one, but he doesn't like the weaker one, the less likable one, the younger one, the marginal one, the failed one. But now he not only accepts the God of grace, but he also rests in that grace and surrenders his resistance to the God of grace. How can we do this? How can we get the blessing by accepting God's grace?
IV. The Right Way to get Blessing

Jacob was wrong when he said, "I am the firstborn." The word "firstborn" occurs 109 times in the NIV. The Bible tells us that Jesus is "the firstborn over all creation" (Col 1:15), God's firstborn whom he brought into the world (Heb 1:6), "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom 8:29), "the firstborn from the dead" (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5). This means that Jesus lives through out eternity in a state of firstborn blessing, living in the very bosom of his Father, "in closest relationship with the Father" (John 1:18; NIV 2011). The Father, the ultimate person, doted on his Son, and poured out love and blessing into his Son's heart. What love, joy and delight any father has when he just watches his child sleep. This might be just a dim hint of what the Father saw in his Son through out eternity. But the Son leaves his firstborn blessing. He comes to earth and dies on the cross. As he dies he prays. Every other time Jesus calls God Father. But as he dies he says, "My God, my God" (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34), instead of Father. Why? 

On the cross, Jesus lost the blessing of the firstborn. How? Paul says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (Gal 3:13-14). Jesus dressed up like us and got the curse we deserve, so that when we believe in Jesus we can be clothed like him. 

The way of salvation through our own effort is where we dress up saying, "I am a good person, though I sin a little here and there." We dress up for God through our effort, hoping or expecting that he should bless us. It does not work. Why? We will be as nervous as Jacob was when he was dressing up like someone else hoping not to be discovered as a fraud in order to be blessed. 

The way of the gospel is that Jesus dressed up as us, so that he got the curse we deserve. Then when God sees us, he sees us as though we did everything Jesus did. When we believe in Jesus, we receive what is too hard to believe and too good to be true: we get the firstborn blessing. Heb 12:23, says, "to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven." What kind of family has nothing but firstborn? How can a parent with 12 kids have all firstborn?

What this teaches us is that the love, blessing, affirmation we experience from the Father when we stand on the basis of Jesus' work and righteousness, and what he did for us on the cross, makes us feel like we are the only one in the world, and the most loved person who ever lived. We experience exactly what it feels like to be the firstborn. God makes us feel like "there is no one like you." Jesus said, "the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:23). A Christian knows that God has loved him even as God has loved Jesus. We know God's love when we see Jesus losing the firstborn blessing so that we can have it, when we see Jesus dressing up like us so that we can dress up like him. Jesus is the one who fulfilled what Rebekah said, "may the curse fall on me" (Gen 27:13). She didn't know what she was saying, and she couldn't do what she said. But Jesus did. He took the curse that should fall on me. Jesus is our true Rebekah. Jesus took our curse and lost his firstborn blessing, so that we, who should have been cursed, could have the firstborn blessing of the Father.

What does this mean practically?
  1. The blessing of the firstborn is available now. Though we are not in control of it, we need to go and seek this blessing experientially, for as Christians this is available to us. Rom 8:16-17 say, "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ..." This is only done by God through the Spirit. Yet we can experience this now (Rom 5:5). 
  2. Truly bless others. "Bless and do not curse" (Rom 12:14). We can do so only when we have personally experienced the blessing of the firstborn. Humanly we can bless and compliment others. But we do this so that others will like us. This is not blessing; it is using. We are not really discerning who they are, or what God is doing in their lives, or thinking of them, but only thinking of ourselves. Only when we know that we are truly blessed, can we truly be a blessing to others (Gen 12:2), by empowering them to be the person that God intended them to be. 
Truly blessing others is not clairvoyance. No one can just pronounce a blessing on others without truly knowing that person. To bless others requires that we are their friend, and that we know them with deep meaningful discernment, as Jesus blessed Nathaniel (John 1:47-49). 

This is from a sermon by Tim Keller (The Problem of Blessing [Gen 27:18-34]).

Posted via email from benjamintoh's posterous


Abraham Offers Isaac (Gen 22:1-14)


"The LORD will provide" (Gen 22:14).

Theme: The Lord provides a sacrificial lamb so that his people may live.

Goal: To assure God's people that their faithful covenant Lord can be trusted to provide their redemption.

Application: Do we trust the Lord to provide, or do we go after what we want?

{A major challenge of teaching/preaching Genesis 22 is to avoid superficial applications by attaching practical remarks to verses in the text, without asking what message Israel received from this narrative. For example, as Abraham was called to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:2), "so we, in like manner, may be called upon to make sacrifices." Or "great trials are best entered upon with but little company" (Gen 22:5). Or "God delights to bring his people to the mount, to the very brow of the hill, till their feet slip, and then he delivers them" (Gen 22:11). Though not unbiblical, it misses the theme of the author. Similarly this title and "imperative" outline misses the theme of Genesis 22: Sermon title, "The Journey of Faith." Sermon points: 1. Be in relationship with the Most High God; 2. Risk it all; 3. Be prepared and obedient; 4. Trust God to provide; 5. Receive God's blessing.

When I reviewed Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller, I shared how I used to teach Gen 22: "Offer your Isaac to God, you sinner!" and how Keller, in his book, explained the narrative by pointing to Christ.}

Of this famous text, F.B. Meyer (1847-1929), Baptist pastor and evangelist in England, rightly said: “So long as men live in this world, they will turn to this story with unwaning interest. There is only one scene in history by which it is surpassed; that where the Great Father gave His Isaac to a death from which there was no deliverance.”

Gen 22:1-19 records the most famous incident in Abraham's life. The Hebrew word for this narrative is "Akedah," which means "the binding of Isaac." Robert Altar, in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (1996) says, "The abrupt beginning and stark, emotion-fraught development of this troubling story have led many critics to celebrate it as one of the peaks of ancient narrative." It is one of the best told stories in all of ancient literature. It is absorbing, infuriating, and riveting. As a result, people have spent centuries debating all the various multiple levels of meaning in the text. Let's see if we might get to an understanding of this and hopefully be transformed by it by looking at these 3 points:

  1. The essence of the call
  2. The horror of the test
  3. The wonder of the lamb
I. The Essence of the Call (Gen 22:2)

"Then God said, “'Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you'” (Gen 22:2). There are 3 similarities with the original call in Gen 12:1-3 with this call.

  1. The call to go: "Leave...and go" (Gen 12:1), and now: "Take your son...and go" (Gen 22:2).
  2. I will show you later: "...go to the land I will show you" (Gen 12:1), and "Sacrifice him ... on a mountain I will show you" (Gen 22:2).
  3. A call to offer/give up a lot: "country, people, father's household" (Gen 12:1)--his safety, status, culture, family--and now "your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac" (Gen 22:2). This was not God rubbing it in, but to restate the obvious that Isaac was his only son left, since Ishmael had already left. Isaac was the only bearer of his family inheritance, his only social hope. Isaac has become Abraham's emotional center. God was asking Abraham to offer up every finite source of hope and security.
What can we learn about the call of God from the entire life of Abraham (Genesis 12-25)? Paul said, "those he called he also justified" (Rom 8:30), and "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you" (Eph 1:18). Paul essentially says that one is not a Christian unless they have heard the call of God, for God only justifies those he has called. The call of God does not happen just once, but it happens again and again through out one's Christian life. Hearing the call of God is also the way one grows as a Christian; we need to re-hear the call more deeply and intimately. The call not only makes us a Christian. It also grows us as a Christian.

What does it mean to hear the call? To rehear the call? The testimony of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a prominent British congregational minister, illustrates what it means to hear the call of God. In the 1920s, Lloyd-Jones was a rising young doctor in his late 20s. He was working under a top doctor in the best hospital. His future was bright and promising, and he was religiously indifferent. He knew a prominent doctor, one of the chiefs of medicine who had everything going for him economically and socially. He was dating a woman and she died suddenly. In a daze, he asked if he could sit in Lloyd-Jones' room, and he sat staring at the fire for 2 hours without saying anything. This event shook Lloyd-Jones greatly, not because his behavior and grief was inappropriate, but because he realized that no matter how powerful or prominent one is, yet the foundation of one's life was so vulnerable and so shaky. When Lloyd-Jones he saw that man staring in the fire, he realized the vanity of all human greatness. He heard the call.

What is the call? Heb 11:8 says, "For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." The essence of the call of God is the realization that without the call of God you have no foundation for life whatsoever. No matter who one is, religious or not, Christian or not, believes the Bible or not, goes to church or not, he or she has something that functions as an emotional center, without which one would feel completely stripped of his worth, significance, security and value. Without that something, they will have no meaning and joy of life. That is the object of the soul's deepest faith. It doesn't matter what it is, life will one day strip it away: family, looks, sex appeal, career, etc. Until we realize that whatever means the most to me, whatever keeps me from jumping off the bridge is nothing but a sand bar in a rising river. Until I realize that unless I have God I have nothing, I have still not heard the call of God. When Abraham heard the call, he went because he sought "the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." One who hears the call of God realizes deeply that his only foundation is God, and without it, he has nothing.

How does the call of God grow you? When we become a Christian we grant that God must be our foundation. But in the course of Christian life, we soon realize that though we intellectually acknowledge that Christ is our foundation, functionally and practically we know that it is not the case. Though we say that God's love is everything, yet certain forms of human approval, love and power are still the emotional foundation of our heart. We will never live the big life that Abraham lived and make progress in the Christian life and maturity. If we are still devastated by criticism or failure, or living in fear of losing something, our practical functional foundation is still not Christ, but something else. Life will eventually strip everything away, including whatever we put our hope in. Whenever we encounter something being stripped away, it is God saying, "Listen to the call." Your heart still says that you have to have this to be happy, to feel loved, significant, important. But all we need is Jesus. The call comes to us every time there is a difficulty in life. Whatever we resist losing, someday we will lose it anyway; it will be ripped away from us: family, children, friends, youth, power, etc. When we hear the call, God enables us to let it go. Our heart screams, "My heart needs it, but all I need is Jesus." When we can let these things go, then God enables us to be the man we were meant to be. We will be a master of life, rather than be mastered by life.

To be a Christian is to hear the call of God, until our life's foundations change from "something" to Christ. To grow as a Christian is to re-hear the call of God and to keep letting go of things that bind to us as though we cannot live without them. This is the essence of the call.

2 practical applications:

  1. People ask/think: If I become a Christian, do I have to do this/that, give up this/that, stop this/that? One who asks this is not coming to God at all. They are not coming to God as God. God/the call of God always says, "Go, and I will show you." A working definition of God: God (god) is the absolutely sacred non-negotiable thing in your life.
  2. Sometimes it feels as though the God who is trying to save you is killing you. Elizabeth Elliot visited a sheep farm in Wales. She saw the shepherd put the sheep into an antiseptic tank to keep them from getting parasites/worms that would kill them. The shepherd forced their head into the water, while the sheep struggled to get out. To save them, it felt as though their shepherd was trying to kill them.
II. The Horror of the Test

The traditional approach of the church (and of the Koran) to this difficult passage is this: No matter how difficult/outrageous/stupid/pointless/crazy the command, do it anyway. The moral of the story is "Just obey." Unconditional obedience is taught in the Bible. But there is a problem with seeing this text in this way. There is a problem if the emphasis is Abraham's obedience.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote "Fear and Trembling" (1943). Though many Christians told him that they felt inspired by this story, it bothered him because this text terrified him to death. It created in him fear and trembling. In the book he imagines a preacher teaching from this story that man must obey God no matter how outrageous the command. Then a man in the congregation goes back and kills his son. The next week the preacher rails about what kind of a monster of a father would do such a thing. Kierkegaard's question is that if that man was condemned why wasn't Abraham condemned. His point is that at a strictly ethical level the story does not work. Some eventually said that Abraham failed the test because he should have refused to obey God's outrageous command. But they still haven't grasped the true horror of the test. They still do not know what this test meant to Abraham in his context.

In the last 20 years, critical commentators began to shed light on what this command meant to Abraham. It did not mean to Abraham what it means to us today. Why? The commentators are saying 2 things:

  1. God does not tell Abraham to murder his son, but to offer him up as an offering, not to just stab him.
  2. Because God told Abraham to offer him up as an offering, the command was not incomprehensible to Abraham.
To understand the true horror of the test, one has to understand the meaning of the firstborn. Jon Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, wrote "The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son." To understand how Abraham heard this command, we need to understand 2 things:
  1. Ancient cultures were not individualistic. Our hopes and dreams are of individual success and prosperity. In Abraham's time no one thought this way. Their hopes and dreams were for the family's success. They didn't think as individuals, but they thought as a family.
  2. The iron law of primogeniture. It was universally practiced by all ancient cultures. It meant that the oldest got all the marbles, he got almost all the inheritance. If the inheritance was divided up equally, the family would lose their status in the community. Thus the firstborn got everything, and he had to be the benefactor for everyone else.
In Genesis, God was continually undermining this law of primogeniture. God favored Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. God was not confirming this hierarchical pattern of society. But all ancient cultures looked to the firstborn as the ultimate hope of the family. What God repeatedly points out in the OT, which Abraham understood, is that the life of the firstborn is mine (Exo 22:28-29; Mic 6:7; Jud 11:29-40). The firstborn animal (Exo 13:2,11-13, 34:19-20), the first fruits of the grain, is God's. God repeatedly says that the life of the firstborn is forfeit, as in the Passover. The Jewish firstborn was also forfeit unless a lamb was slain. Even after the Passover, God continues to say in Exo 22, Num 3, 8 that the life of the firstborn is forfeit unless it is redeemed, unless a sacrifice was made, unless there was a payment of 5 shekels. The ancients understood this, which we do not.

When God says that the life of the firstborn is forfeit, Abraham understood God saying that there is a debt of sin that every family owes to God. Though this may make no sense to us, it did make sense to Abraham. If God told Abraham to kill Sarah, Abraham would not have done it. He would have thought he was hallucinating. God wouldn't have said it. When God asked Abraham to offer up his firstborn, Abraham understood it. Abraham and ancient Hebrews knew that God is a God of justice. They knew that we all have failed to live according to that law of justice, that we have all lived self-centered lives, that God cannot overlook it, and that a debt of sin must be paid and that every family and every human being owes. When Abraham heard this painful call (Gen 22:1), he knew that God was calling for this debt of sin to be paid. Though Abraham knew all this, it was a call that tore him apart and that caused him infinite pain and agony. What is the real horror of this test?

Heb 11:18-19 say, "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.'” The horror is this: The command of God apparently contradicts the promise of God. God is just. There is a debt of sin that needs to be paid. But the promise of God is that through Isaac the world would be saved. Abraham's conflict was how can a God of command also be a God of promise? How can a God of holiness also be a God of grace? How can a God who rightly can call in this debt of sin, also be a God who promises that through Isaac the whole world would be blessed? How would this happen? This is the horror of the test.

Gerhard Von Rad, one of the outstanding Christian interpreters of the OT in the 20th century, climaxes his exposition on the text by saying in his commentary on Genesis (3rd ed, 1972, p. 244), "Therefore, unfortunately, one can only answer all plaintive scruples about this narrative by saying that it concerns something much more frightful than child sacrifice. It has to do with a road out into Godforsakenness, a road on which Abraham does not know that God is only testing him. There is thus considerable religious experience behind these 19 verses: that Yahweh often seems to contradict himself, that he appears to want to remove the salvation began by him in history. But in this way Yahweh tests faith and obedience!”

The real horror of the test is, "How can a holy God be gracious? How can a gracious God be holy?" If God is not just what hope is there for the world? What are we going to do with all the evil? But if God is just what hope is there for us, for Abraham and Isaac, who are sinful? The real horror is how will God be both just and justifier of Abraham? How will God be both the holy God of the command and the gracious God of the promise?

III. The Wonder of the Lamb

All commentators are agreed that the climax of this text is when the narrator slows down the action from Gen 22:6-11. The only dialogue between father and son in Genesis occur in Gen 22:7-8, which seems to be in slow motion. Notice Abraham's answer. What pushed Abraham up that mountain? Was he going up the mountain saying, "I can do it. I must do it. I will do it. I will just obey." This is not what is driving him. He is not driven by his obedience. His answer is "God will do it. God will provide. God will see to it." The Hebrew word for "provide" is "see for himself." Abraham is saying, "You can't see the lamb. I can't see the lamb. But God will see to the lamb." He is saying, "I don't know how God will be both holy and gracious. I don't know how God is going to have the debt of sin paid, and still be the God of promise who says that through Isaac all nations will be blessed/saved." This is what is getting Abraham up the mountain. The testimony is not, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be obeyed," but "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided" (Gen 22:14). It is not "on the mountain I will do it," but "on the mountain God will do it." Abraham doesn't know how. But he knows that God will find some way to pay the debt of sin and still be the God of promise to bless the world.

We know what Abraham could only intuit. We know that Abraham's little lamb Isaac cannot pay the debt of sin for the family. Neither can the ram caught in the bushes. Heb 10:4 says, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Then why did Abraham have to offer Isaac? 2 Chron 3:1 says, "Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David." Calvary was part of the mountains of Moriah. Why did Abraham not have to bring the knife down on his son? How can God be both a God of justice, holiness and command, and the God of grace and promise?

Centuries later, the Father let his Son up the same mountain, where he let the Son be put up on the wood again. Edmond Clowney, in Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, wrote, "The Son paid the price on Calvary. So did the Father. In mystery beyond mystery, the eternal God was silent as the incarnate Son cried, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Not just at the Incarnation did God give his Son. He gave him also in the darkness, in the silence, as he forsook his Beloved." Paul applies the words of Genesis 22 to Jesus when he said, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom 8:32)

Abraham could not have walked up this mountain as a traditional moralistic person, which says, "If you obey well God will bless you." If Abraham believed that God was the God of Justice only (and not a God of grace as well), he would not have gone up the mountain. He would have given up, saying, "I cannot kill my son." He couldn't have gone up the mountain without hope.

On the other hand, a modernist or a liberal person who does not believe in the depth or debt of sin, and who only believes in a God of love, but not a God of justice, he would not have gone up the mountain either, saying, "I don't owe God anything!"

If one believes in a God of love, but not holiness, or who believes in a God of holiness/justice, but not love, both would not go up the mountain. We need both hope and duty to go up the mountain. We need to have both a sense of a debt of sin of what I owe, and to know a God of incredible love and grace. We need both. It is only the Cross that God can be both. If we do not believe in the cross, if we do not believe in what Jesus did, if we do not believe in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, we will not be able to climb the mountains that we will face in life.

We need to have a sense of duty which the moralist has, but which the modernist does not have, and we need to have a sense of love and grace which the modernist sort of has, but which the moralist doesn't. It is only the cross where we can have both a sense of duty and a sense of love.

Life will come and take away the things we love and value. We experience it more the older we get. Whatever we find our value, significance and worth in, will be taken away bit by bit. How are we going to be able to deal with it? We have to turn to God and say, "You are my love. You are my hope. You are my approval." But how do we do this? It doesn't happen by telling ourselves, "I have to trust God. I can get up the mountain. I will get up the mountain. I must get up the mountain." This does not work.

We have this story so that we can have some understanding of what the Father did with the Son. If Abrahan had been at the foot of Calvary and saw the moment when Jesus died, he would have taken the very words that God had said to him on Moriah in Gen 22:12, and he would have turned it around. Before the cross, he would look up and say to God the Father, "Now I know ... that you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from me."

Until and unless we know this, we can never be free from the enslavement to people, enslavement to circumstances/situations. No one can ever live a great life like that of Abraham by trying. We must first believe in the one to whom Abraham points, even when he points to a point of utter Godforsakenness. We can never overcome our own pseudo salvations simply by trying.

How can we know that God loves us and delights in us to such an extent, so that we truly rest in God and delight in his love for us? We can't just make ourselves to do so. We can't do so abstractly. But by the power of the Spirit, we may see that Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain was a picture of the price the Father paid for us on Calvary. Until we see that the ultimate sacrifice was paid for me, nothing will significantly or permanently change us organically. But when this moves us, touches us and transforms us by the Spirit, then and only then we can say, "Now I know...now I know...now I know..."

This is from a sermon by Tim Keller (Real Faith and the Only Son).

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