When the Father Sacrificed the Son
The biblical account of Abraham offering up Isaac (Gen. 22) is full of redemptive-historical, typological and experiential riches. As we read through the history of God's dealing with Abraham, we get the sense that everything is moving to that moment when the Father offered up his only begotten son. The sacrifice of Isaac was the climax of God's covenantal arrangement with Abraham, and, as such, is loaded with promissory elements, which--as we discover in the unfolding of the history of redemption--would only and ultimately be fulfilled in Christ. Consider the following:
1. Abraham is a type of God the Father. No sooner had Abraham sent Ishmael away (Gen. 21:8-14) than God commanded him to offer up his son. Ishmael being gone, Isaac was now Abraham's "only son." The Hebrew employed in Genesis 22 drives us to this conclusion. The Lord told Abraham, "Take you son, your only son, whom you love--Isaac" (Gen. 22:2). Isaac was, essentially, the uniquely beloved son of Abraham. He was, in this sense, a type of the greater son of Abraham, Jesus Christ--who is the only begotten and eternally beloved Son of God. One can hardly read the Apostle's words in Romans 8:32 without calling the account of Abraham and Isaac to mind: "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" The Father offered the Son for the benefit and blessing of His people. God stopped Abraham after he willingly went forward to sacrifice Isaac at the Lord's command; but no one could stop God the Father from willingly offering up His Son for sinners. In this sense, we can say that Abraham--the head of the covenant--stood as a type of God the Father offering up the Son. 2. Isaac is a type of Christ. Isaac was a type of the sacrifice of Christ and not only a type of the Person of Christ. Jonathan Edwards noted:
"[The words] 'God will provide himself a lamb' [are] fulfilled in Christ. We may observe here an instance of the harmony between the Old and New Testament, in that ’tis according to the Old Testament as well as New, that ’tis not unreasonable that God himself should provide the sacrifice by which sins against himself should [be] atoned, and his own anger appeased. Abraham did not only tell his son that God would provide himself, but he actually did provide a ram for Abraham to offer up as a burnt offering...For Abraham, when he said, 'God will provide himself a lamb,' had no thought of any other than that Isaac was to be the lamb that was to be offered, and that God had provided for himself."1
Nowhere else in the Scriptures does God ever command a human sacrifice--apart from commanding His Son to lay down His own life (John 10:17). This, no doubt, prefigured the fact that the covenant blessings would be guaranteed through the sacrifice of the Son of Abraham. The writer of Hebrews, reflecting on how it was that Abraham could have gone through with the sacrifice of Isaac, explained that he "reasoned that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense." (Heb. 11:19). Abraham took the promises of God in one hand--namely, that all the nations would be blessed in his offspring--and the command of God to offer up his offspring in the other, and, by faith, believed that even if Isaac were to die, God would raise him from the dead in order to bless the nations. This is, of course, a beautiful type of the death and resurrection of the greater Son of Abraham. The promises of God were given to Abraham and to his Seed...who is Christ" (Gal. 3:16). By His death and resurrection, Jesus received the blessings of the covenant and now offers them to the nations.
Isaac is also a type of Christ in his willingness to lay himself on the altar. There is something mysterious and wonderful about the details of the Genesis 22 account. We are told that "Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together...Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar." There is a beautiful harmony between what Abraham is called to do with regard to Isaac and with how Isaac responds. In the same way, we find a perfect harmony between the will of the Father to give His Son over to death for the sins of His people and the Son's willingness to lay down His life for His people. Jesus carries the cross that the Father lays on Him and then puts Himself on the altar of God's wrath for our redemption.
3. The Ram was a Type of the Sacrifice of Christ. Jesus is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." He is the One who was "led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as the silent sheep before its shearer" (Is. 53:7). He is "the Lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19), by whose blood we have been redeemed. After God stopped Abraham from offering up Isaac, we read: "Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son" (Gen. 22:13). The male sheep was a type of the Redeemer. The thicket was symbolic of the sin for which he would be offered (Gen. 3:18)--symbolized also by the crown of thorns placed on the head of the Savior during his suffering. Jesus is the sin-bearer, taking the sin and the consequences of the sins of His people on Himself.
4. Mt. Moriah is a place of redemptive-historical significance. In the unfolding of biblical revelation, we discover that the Temple--the place where the Old Testament typical sacrifices were offered--was built on the very mountain where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. Edwards again explained:
"The building of the temple...was a great type of three things, viz. of Christ, especially the human nature of Christ, and of the church of Christ, and of heaven. The tabernacle seemed rather to represent the church in its movable, changeable state here in this world. But that beautiful, glorious, costly structure of the temple that succeeded the tabernacle, and was a fixed and not a movable thing, seems especially to represent the church in its glorified state in heaven. This temple was built according to the pattern shown by the Holy Ghost to David, and by divine direction given to David in the place where was the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite in Mount Moriah, 2 Chron. 3:1 [“Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord … in mount Moriah, where the Lord appeared unto David his father, in the place that David had prepared in the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite”]. [This was] the same mountain and undoubtedly the very same place where Abraham offered up his son Isaac, for there is said to be a mountain in the land of Moriah, Gen. 22:2, which mountain was called “the mountain of the Lord” as this mountain of the temple was, Gen. 22:14, “And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah jireh: as was said to that day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.” This was the house where Christ dwelt till he came to dwell in the temple of his body or human nature, which was the antitype of this temple, as appears because Christ on [the] occasion of their showing him the temple of Jerusalem says, “Destroy this temple [and in three days I will raise it up],” speaking of the “temple of his body,” John 2:19–21."2
The redemptive-historical significance of the naming of this place is also significant in the context of Genesis 22. After the Lord stopped Abraham from offering up his son, He provided him with a ram for the sacrifice. After Abraham sacrificed the ram in the place of Isaac, he named the place "Jehovah Jireh" (i.e. the LORD will provide). Moses made a point of noting this fact when he wrote the following: "Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” The final clause in this verse is extremely instructive. Moses was writing this account 400 years after Abraham had gone to offer up Isaac. The words "as it is said to this day..." made it clear that--even in Moses' day--the hope that God would provide an atoning sacrifice remained.
5. Abraham becomes the example of living by faith. When James reaches into the Old Testament to find the example of one who has a living faith, he first turns to Abraham (James 2:21-24). What great measure of faith was needed for the man of faith to obey God in offering up his only son! Having already sent Ishmael away at God's command, Abraham was now met with the challenge of his life. He had waited 25 years for Isaac and now was being told that he had to put him to death. Abraham acted in faith--as we have already noted--by reasoning through the command of God in light of the promise of God. He sought to establish in his mind what God would do if he were to obey what seemed contradictory to what He had promised. James explains that the life of faith is a life in which we do the same. We demonstrate saving faith by our obedience to the commands of God--even when they seem to strike--by trials--at the very vitals of those promises. We know that Abraham had saving faith in Christ by virtue of his willingness to offer up Isaac.
1. Edwards, J. (2006). The “Blank Bible”: Part 1 & Part 2. (S. J. Stein & H. S. Stout, Eds.) (Vol. 24, pp. 164–165). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
2. Edwards, J. (1989). Sermon Eight. In J. F. Wilson & J. E. Smith (Eds.), A History of the Work of Redemption (Vol. 9, pp. 224–225). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.