Postscript on Provision

  • Nathan Schneider
Lamb dying

As a preacher and expositor, the study I do in preparation for preaching results in a massive amount of data and thoughts–far too much to include in a 40-minute sermon. The sermon-writing process can be rather painful. Insights and truths which I’ve mined from the text, which all seem so profound and important, have to go through a filter of prioritization. In the end, only a fraction of what I learn in study makes it into the final product.

Sometimes, there’s also truths and insights that end up coming to me after I’ve already preached my sermon. That’s frustrating! Maybe a particular passage of Scripture comes to mind which connects the theological dots in a way that really makes the text vivid, but I didn’t see it until after the message was delivered.

Something like that happened to me this week as I was contemplating the subject of this week’s blog. I had just completed a five-part series on God’s provision and was thinking through where I was going next, when a text of Scripture popped in to my mind. It was so relevant and so important that I couldn’t let it go.

The text that presented itself to me was Genesis 22. I know this is familiar territory for many believers, so I won’t walk through the narrative in great detail. My goal really is to draw out an important truth from this passage which is immediately relevant to the topic of God’s provision for us…His unexpected and wholly adequate provision.

THE Promise

This chapter is actually the culmination of a long narrative build-up dealing with Abraham and God’s covenant purposes for him. The first eleven chapters of this book chronicle the fall of God’s perfect creation into sin and destruction. Mankind was God’s chief creation. He was made in God’s image and tasked with representing God and ruling over creation for Him. But he committed high treason and rebelled against his creator.

God would have been perfectly just to destroy mankind. There was no outside force which prevented Him. There was no inherent goodness in people which compelled Him to reconsider. Instead, we find that the Lord is a God who restores–who takes what is broken and makes it right.

At the end of Genesis 11, we’re introduced to a man named Abram, a pagan man who lived in Ur of the Chaldeans, the same place where the Tower of Babel had originated (Gen 11:1-9), and the same land which would eventually become the mighty Babylonian empire.

And in Genesis 12:1-3 God makes a promise to Abram which becomes one of the most foundational promises in the entire Bible. God called Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his own father’s house and travel with his wife to a plot of land he had never seen before in his life. It would be a land God would give him. He would have children, and his descendants would become so numerous they would become a great nation. God’s blessing would be on them, and Abram’s name would become renowned throughout the world.

But this land and blessing and renown wasn’t an end in itself. God wasn’t just picking a random guy to be nice to. He had massive plans for Abram:

I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

This text is the first of a series of promises God made with Abram which would culminate later in Genesis 15 in an unbreakable covenant that theologians refer to as the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant forms the foundation for the whole trajectory of the Bible, both Old Testament and New. It shows us God’s heart and intention for rebellious mankind–that in the end, God’s purposes are not to condemn and judge and destroy but to bless and save. In fact, the apostle Paul, quoting this very text, identifies God’s promise here as none other than the gospel itself:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8).

Now, one of the central elements of God’s covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham in Genesis 17) was the promise that he would have a son. He would have to, for it would be through Abram’s innumerable progeny that God would bless the nations. This presented no small problem for Abram, though, since both he and his wife Sarai were rather old, and as yet they had no children. In fact, the issue of childlessness would be a fundamental sticking point that would test their faith more than once.

But God did exactly what He promised to do. Despite their up-and-down faith; despite them trying to take matters into their own hands, which resulted in the disastrous affair with Sarah’s servant Hagar which resulted in the birth of Ishmael (Gen 16); despite all of that, God was faithful. At one-hundred years old, Abraham became a father (Gen 21). His son, Isaac would be the descendant through whom God would make a nation that would bless the world. If you put yourself in Abraham’s shoes, you can imagine his simultaneous elation and anxiety. It’s circumstances like this that would lead even the most confident person to become a major helicopter parent.

THE Problem

Which brings us to chapter 22. After confirming and reconfirming His promises to Abraham, it’s here that God asks Abraham to do something rather confounding:

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

We can only imagine what was going on in Abraham’s mind. There was bound to be confusion mixed with pain and consternation. What was God thinking? Was He really asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son?

Abraham’s task was to give his son completely over to the Lord. That’s the theology of the burnt offering–it was a sacrifice which was given whole to the Lord. The entire animal was consumed on the altar (see Leviticus 1:1-17), and the act represented the worshipper’s wholesale commitment and surrender to God. There’s no getting around what God was asking him to do. This was a test, and it would demonstrate with absolute precision Abraham’s surrender to God’s purposes and his trust in God’s promise.

The trek to Moriah, where the sacrifice would take place, was a long one–three days–giving Abraham lots of time to think. How aware Isaac was is debatable. During their final preparations, Isaac clearly observes that something is missing:

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7).

Does he know he is the sacrifice? Most likely not directly. The text doesn’t really say because the focus really isn’t on him. It’s Abraham that has our full attention. All the lights are shining bright, the tapes are rolling, and the cameras are all pointed at him. What will he do? He’s come this far. Will he really give up the son he’s been waiting so many years for?

Abraham’s reply gives us the answer:

Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together (Genesis 22:8).

With that, Abraham began his preparations. He built the altar, laid the wood carefully on it, finally placing his son atop the wood. This must have been the scariest thing Abraham had ever faced. He had faced the loss of his wife on numerous occasions (Gen 12:10-20; 20:18), and even fought a major battle against a coalition of eastern kings (Gen 14:1-16). But I imagine none of those experiences compared with this one.

It was at the final moment, just before the knife plunged downward into his boy, that God stopped it all. The test had accomplished its purpose. The genuineness of Abraham’s faith, his commitment to the Lord, and his willingness to surrender to His purposes had been exposed.

But that’s not really the point. There was something even greater that was about to happen.

The Provision

With the sacrifice halted, Abraham looks up and sees something incredible. Behind him, a ram had gotten caught in a thicket and was struggling to free its horns from the brambles.

And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son (Genesis 22:13).

Don’t miss the significance of this brief statement. After God’s intervention, you might expect Abraham to have picked up his things and carry his son joyfully back down to where he had left his servants waiting. But that’s not what he did. He recognized that God had demanded a sacrifice, and none had been given. He also recognized that God had given him what he needed to demonstrate his surrender and commitment to the Lord through sacrifice. God had kept his promise and had provided for his need.

For that reason, Abraham memorialized this place and the event that occurred there by giving the site a name:

So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” (Genesis 22:14).

That phrase…”The Lord will provide”…is the Hebrew phrase Yahweh yir’eh, traditionally transliterated as “Jehovah Jireh,” and literally meaning, “Yahweh sees.” It’s a phrase that memorializes one of the glorious characteristics of our God–He is a God who sees and provides. He sees our needs. He sees our circumstances. He knows what we need before we ask, and He knows the things we need that we don’t even think to ask for. And He provides for us exactly what we need.

But that’s where this passage gets very interesting. What Abraham needed most of all in this event was not simply a sacrifice–he needed a substitute. He needed a sacrifice that could take the place of his own son. And that’s what God provided. The ram wasn’t just an animal to be slaughtered. It was a substitute that stood in place of his son.

The Principle

When you stop and consider your greatest needs, I suppose it’s easy to get focused on the physical. That’s pretty reasonable. After all, we need food and water to live. We need shelter for safety and rest. We need money to resource all of these things. We need medicine when we’re sick, blankets when we’re cold, and a pool in the backyard when it’s hot outside (okay, maybe that’s not a need).

These are all needs, yes. But what is your greatest need? I’ll take a stab at that and suggest that your greatest need and my greatest need is the same as what Abraham needed–a substitute.

In Jesus Christ we have our substitute. He hung on the cross in our place. He suffered and died so we wouldn’t have to. In Christ, God provided what we needed more than anything else in the world.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

And the apostle Peter, citing the text from Isaiah above, said this:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).

When Abraham walked up that mountain to sacrifice his own son, little did he know the significance of what was taking place. Just as Isaac was called “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (Gen 22:2), so Jesus is called God’s “one and only Son” (John 3:16), His “beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).

And just as Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice his own son–“because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son” (Gen 22:16)–so it was God who “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom 8:32).

Clearly, the events that transpired on Mt. Moriah some four thousand years ago were foreshadowing a greater event that would occur near that same place some two thousand years later. (Mount Moriah became the location of Solomon’s temple; cf. 2 Chron 3:1.) The difference: while Abraham’s son was spared by a substitute, God’s Son died as the substitute.

But what remained the same? Well, the name Abraham gave the place sums it up perfectly: Yahweh yir’eh…”the Lord sees.”

The Lord provides.