Jesus in the Old Testament (Part 3)
We are studying a phenomenon on the Bible that is absolutely unique among the scriptures of the major world religions. I am referring to the amazing way that the Old Testament predicts the coming of the Messiah—and how these predictions are fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. These passages (and there are dozens of them) fall into two categories:
Many are straightforward historical predictions. God enables his prophets to see some aspect of Jesus and his redemptive work, and they record it for future generations. These predictions build to paint an increasingly detailed prophetic picture of Jesus. You studied the first of these predictions last week—Gen. 3:15—in which God predicted that one of Eve’s male descendants would suffer a brutal injury from Satan, but would ultimately crush Satan. This is the first of many predictions of two Comings—first as a Servant to suffer for our sins, and second as a King to vanquish God’s enemy. We will look at other predictions in coming weeks.
But many others are typological predictions. One scholar defines typological predictions as “persons, institutions, or events that were divinely designated... to be models, previews, or pictures of something that was to come in the days of Messiah.”1 In a few weeks, we will see how persons like the Old Testament prophets, priests and kings foreshadowed different aspects of Jesus’ messianic role. Next week, we will see how the institution of the Passover festival foreshadowed Jesus saving activity. This week, we will study one of the events that, while significant in itself, is ultimately significant as a preview of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also one of the most dramatic and disturbing narratives in the whole Bible. Let’s read it (read 22:1-14; CARAVAGGIO’S PAINTING). As I said, this narrative is so disturbing that before we can appreciate this type, we must first come to grips with this test...
22:1 specifically states that God told Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice in order to “test” him. He calls on his people to demonstrate their trust in him, in the same way that a teacher tests his students by calling on them to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject. This issue raises two very different problems, and they each require a different response.
One (traditional) problem accepts the legitimacy of God testing his followers, but asks: “What if God’s test is too great for me to bear? Will God reject me if I fail his test?” The Bible answers these questions by emphasizing that God is faithful—he will never test us beyond the capacity of our faith (1Cor.10:13), and he will keep working with us even if/when we fail his test (e.g., PETER’S DENIALS OF JESUS).
This test of Abraham’s faith was severe indeed, but the test and Abraham’s response is the culmination of over 40 years of spiritual development through incremental tests and imperfect but growing faith on Abraham’s part.
40 years earlier, God promised Abraham to protect him in a foreign land—and tested him by telling him to go into that land (full of enemies) defenseless. Abraham went, but he also made poor decisions to protect himself (like lying about Sarah being his sister). God, however, fulfilled his promise to protect Abraham even in spite of his lapses of faith. Gradually, Abraham learned to trust that God was a faithful protector.
God promised to give Abraham a son even though Sarah was barren and post-menopause—and tested him by making him endure 25 years of waiting and ridicule. Abraham didn’t always trust God on this; he even got Sarah’s maid pregnant and tried to make Ishmael his son of promise. But God still fulfilled his promise through the birth of Isaac at the proper time. Gradually, Abraham learned to trust that God was faithful to his promises.
Most importantly, God promised to create a great nation from Isaac that would ultimately bless all the nations of the earth. Now came the ultimate test—trust God’s promise enough to obey this command to sacrifice the son of promise. Through 40 years of development, Abraham’s faith had grown to the point that he believed that God would somehow preserve Isaac’s life (22:5 – “we will... return”). Heb. 11:19 says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill his promise. His faith was equal to the test, even though it must have been unbelievably agonizing.
In the same way, God promises to test our faith so that it grows stronger, so that we can experience his trustworthiness and play our part in advancing his plan. But he knows what our faith can bear, and he promises to never test us beyond our faith’s capacity. And if/when we falter in faith, he promises not to abandon us but to keep working with us. These promises are precious to many of us.
But there is another (recent) problem that many people have: “I am offended and outraged by the very idea of a God who would test me!” This has become the most prevalent reaction in our culture—and it signals a huge shift in the way we think about spirituality.
This objection is rooted in what I call me-centered spirituality. By “me-centered,” I mean the rather recent assumption that the essence of spirituality is the development of my inner potentials, the fulfillment of my inner desires, the realization of my inner divinity. It is no surprise that me-centered spirituality prefers domesticated gods—gods that can be harnessed by me for my spiritual purposes (impersonal spiritual energy; “Genie;” “Christian” therapeutic spirituality; etc.). And it is no surprise that me-centered spirituality is offended by any God who claims the right to displace me as the center.2
But biblical spirituality has a completely different center—it is God-centered. As C. S. Lewis said through one of the characters of The Chronicles of Narnia, God is good—but he is definitely not tame! God is the beginning and the end, the Creator, the Sovereign Lord. I exist because God created me, I exist to fulfill God’s purpose for my life, and that purpose is to point to how great God is. The moment you accept this different center, this objection to God’s testing vanishes (even though the other problem remains). Of course God has the right to call me to obey him. Of course God has the right to test my faith. Instead of using God, we are to “fear” him (22:13 - define). But with the fear of God also comes the possibility of experiencing God’s love and faithfulness—as Abraham did.
Having tried both of these approaches to spirituality, I can tell you that it is much more wonderful to trust the God who tests me than it is to manipulate an imaginary domesticated god to serve me. When you insist on being the center and demand that God orbit around you, you ultimately become weightless and empty. But when you take your place in orbit around God, he will give you the priceless privilege of experiencing his love and faithfulness—as Abraham did. And he will give you the privilege of demonstrating his amazing love to others. You will find that your life is being woven into his plan of redemption—your choices to trust God have a ripple effect for good beyond anything you could do. As with Abraham’s test...
This test not only confirmed Abraham’s trust in God; it also foreshadowed the death and resurrection of his Son. This is what explains so many of the strange details of this event. (John’s gospel seems especially to reflect on Gen.22 as a picture of Jesus’ death.)
Why did God insist that Abraham offer Isaac on Mt. Moriah? Why did God make him travel 50 miles when he could have told him to do it in his back yard? The answer is that it would be on Mt. Moriah that God’s ultimate sacrifice will be provided (22:14). Mt. Moriah is the site of Jerusalem, the hill complex of which includes Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was sacrificed.
Why did God explicitly command Abraham to offer “your son, your only son, whom you love” (22:2)? Was he sadistically reminding Abraham of the hole that this sacrifice would leave in his heart? No, God was drawing attention to the costliness of the sacrifice he would one day make by offering his only Son for us (Jn.3:16a).
Why did God have Isaac carry the wood (the means of his execution) to the site of his sacrifice? How cruel this seems—until you see it as a picture of what Jesus would do on his way to Golgotha (Jn.19:17).
Why did Isaac voluntarily submit to his own death? After all, if he was strong enough to carry the wood for such a large fire, he was strong enough to resist his aged father. Abraham must have explained God’s command to Isaac, and Isaac must have also believed God’s promise. But this was also a picture of Jesus. He had the power and authority to blow away every one of his executioners—but he voluntarily submitted himself because he loved us and because this was the only way we could be forgiven (Jn.10:18).
Why did God provide the ram as a substitute for Isaac? This was the beginning of the sacrificial system that God would later institute (on this mount) as the center of Israel’s worship. God instituted animal sacrifice as a picture of our dilemma and his gracious provision (EXPLAIN SUBTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT). But even the sacrificial system was a prophetic foreshadowing of the blameless Substitute that God would one day provide to pay for our sins (Jn. 1:29).3
Why did God speak through “the angel of the Lord” to spare Isaac and provide the ram? God himself spoke to Abraham in 22:1—was God embarrassed to speak directly to Abraham at this point? No, the angel of the Lord is the Lord (22:12 – “... you have not withheld your son... from me”). Who is this “messenger” of the Lord who is also the Lord? It is Jesus, and this is one of several Old Testament appearances of the pre-incarnate Jesus. How appropriate it was for him to speak these words! He could spare Isaac only because he would one day come to this mountain and not be spared. Did Abraham rejoice, not only because God spared his son, but because he also understood that God would one day provide his own Son for the ultimate sacrifice (Jn.8:56: CARAVAGGIO’S PAINTING)?
How should we respond?
Two New Testament passages echo this event and show us how to respond to it:
Read Jn.3:16. You can hear the echo of 22:2. God didn’t require that Abraham actually give his only and beloved son as a sacrifice, but God did actually give his only beloved Son for us. It was the only way a righteous God could forgive sinful people like you and me. Personalize this verse: How much does God love you? How should you respond? By entrusting yourself to Jesus, asking God to forgive you through Jesus’ death, so you can have eternal life through him. Eternal life (knowing God) begins the moment you do this!
Read Rom.8:32. You can hear the echo of 2:12. If God didn’t spare his own Son, but offered him up for you, you can count on the fact that he will freely give you everything else you need to fulfill his purpose for your life. So trust his love by entrusting your whole life to God. Is he asking you to give him something specific (RELATIONSHIP; POSSESSION; PLAN; etc.)? Give it to him, knowing that he has already proven that he will care for you fully and perfectly. You will never be disappointed!
1 Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, p. 34.
2 "Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. (Then) people become embarrassed or angry.” C. S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," cited in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), p.306.
3 “God’s final atonement for sin was not a ram caught in a thicket, but the Son of the promise. Isaac could be spared, must be spared, for while he was the son of the promise, he was so only in shadow, pointing to the true Seed, the beloved Son, not of Abraham but of the heavenly Father. God the Father spared the beloved son of Abraham, but not his own Beloved.” Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003), p.26.