The Gospel According to Isaac

The Gospel According to Isaac

The Gospel According to Isaac.

In many ways, Isaac was Jesus before there was an incarnate Christ. Isaac proclaimed the gospel story thousands of years before the gospel. For one thing, Isaac was precisely and purposefully named before birth, just like Jesus. And with that name came a particular mission in life. So, as it turned out in history, both Isaac and Jesus were men of a destiny determined in the heavens.

“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah, which means princess. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’ Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?’ Then God said, ‘Yes, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac, which means laughter.’” (Genesis 17:15-19).

In this prenatal naming ceremony, God shows a sense of humor. That shouldn’t surprise us, since God is the eternal source of humor. Abraham could only laugh in wonder when the Lord told him about having a son with Sarah. Seemingly in honor of Abraham’s laughter, God told him to name the boy Isaac, which means laughter. Perhaps the name reflects the fact that both Abraham and Sarah laughed when they heard the baby news from the Lord. Or maybe Isaac’s name reflects the unspeakable joy that an unexpected miracle child will bring to a childless couple in old age. Or perhaps naming the boy laughter reflects the joy of bearing a son who is a promised child of the Covenant, the boy who will produce countless descendants, blessing the world in a promised relationship with the Almighty God. Isaac will continue the line of God’s chosen people, which would surely bring the joy of laughter to anyone’s heart.

Perhaps the clearest reflection of the gospel story reflected in the life of Isaac was the unspeakable drama of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the near sacrifice of the purely innocent teenage boy. Several years after the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, when it seemed like God and Abraham were bosom buddies, God decided to test Abraham’s faith. God suddenly said to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham responded in his faithful way, “Here I am.” God asked Abraham to take his teenage son Isaac to a nearby mountain, Mt. Moriah. At the top of the mountain, Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac on an altar for a burnt offering. After Abraham and Sarah waited all those years for their promised child, God asked Abraham to a perplexing and horrific thing. Human sacrifice wasn’t all that uncommon, so despite his profound misgivings, Abraham obeyed God one step at a time and took Isaac to the mountain. There he made the altar, and Isaac cried out, “My father!” And Abraham answered, “Here I am, my son.” There he secured Isaac on the altar and prepared him for sacrifice. One often forgets that Isaac himself had to fully submit to God’s test. What was going on in Isaac’s mind as he was tied to the altar? What was the relationship between father and son after this difficult, agonizing scene? We do know that Abraham reconciled God’s impossible request with the fact that God could certainly raise Isaac from the dead if need be (Hebrews 11:19). How else, in fact, would Abraham’s descendants become as numberless as the stars, if Isaac’s line was cut off so soon? Following the binding of Isaac to the altar, the drama of this unforgettable scene intensifies. “And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son” (22:10). But the Angel of the Lord, who very well could have been the preincarnate Jesus Christ, the Messenger of Yahweh, came to Isaac’s rescue. “The Angel of the Lord had called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” and Abraham once again, as was his habit, answered, “Here I am.” The Angel then instructed Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy, or do anything to him!” (22:11-12). The Angel intervened just in the nick of time, saving Isaac from being sacrificed, and confirming Abraham’s deep trust in God. The Angel then spoke to Abraham a second time, repeating the promise made to him so long ago, that there would be countless descendants in Abraham’s line. The Lord then exclaimed that, “In your seed, all the nations of earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (22:18). The Angel’s message was straight from heaven, heard loud and clear by Abraham and Isaac. A ram was then found in a thicket, and this was God’s provision for the burnt offering. Isaac, perhaps still terrified and perplexed, must have been thinking, that could have been me. But God came to the rescue. In due time, Father God would know what it was like to lose a Son, and there would be no rescue that time. The Lamb of God, caught in the thicket of evil and hatred, sacrificed on the altar. It’s not surprising to know that Mt. Moriah is just a stone’s throw from Golgotha. The glorious fact is that Abraham received his son Isaac alive after Isaac had been as good as dead. This was a living parable, for it prefigured the Resurrection of Christ, and it hinted at the future universal resurrection of the dead.

One wonders, though, how that dramatic, historic episode on Mt. Morah impacted Isaac’s life. Think of it… As a teenager he was stretched out on a sacrificial altar, bound, expected to just lie there submissively like an obedient child. The knife was in his father’s raised hand, ready to slay him, and was only stopped at the last minute by the Son of God, the special heavenly Messenger. What was Isaac thinking during that near-death experience? Was he wondering what he had done so wrong that he would be executed? Was he mystified that the father he loved and trusted would kill him for no apparent reason? Did he doubt the very God that had been so close to his family growing up? If he was at all human, and he was, his whole world must have turned upside-down. He would certainly have been shaken to the core for who knows how long. The question is, did Isaac ever get over his experience on Mt. Moriah with his father? Did it effect his relationship with father Abraham in any way?  Did he have a difficult time trusting his father after this incident? We don’t know, since the Scripture never tells us about this incident from Isaac’s perspective.

Unsurprisingly, Isaac grew up as a protected, if not coddled, only child. Even his marriage to Rebekah was arranged by father Abraham. But Isaac seemed to accept the way he was raised, he tended to mind his own business, and was not an initiator like his father. Isaac was content to stay at home, raise a family, and increase the family’s wealth as an owner of much livestock. Isaac was a very patient man, and a first-rate husband to Rebekah. He faithfully grew into his enduring role of Jewish patriarch, and is a major hero in Biblical history.

Isaac was a man of prayer, just like Jesus. Isaac participated in the gospel story by maintaining a deep and intimate relationship with the Father through prayer and meditation. It’s interesting to note that the Jewish sages based each of their weekday prayers on the character and actions of the patriarchs. Thus, the recommended daily prayers of Jewish believers were inspired by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham represents the morning prayer, since he often “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before God” (Gen. 19:2722:3). Isaac inspired the midday prayer, since he “went out to converse with God (or, to meditate) in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63). And Jacob represented the night prayer, since his powerful encounters with God were in the night, including his visions and dreams and his momentous wrestling with the mysterious angel (Gen. 28:11, 32:22).

Isaac’s life symbolized the midday prayer. He, like the afternoon, was a gradual transition from one reality to the next. “Isaac’s is the quiet heroism of continuity, a link in the chain of the covenant, joining one generation to the next.” Isaac was not the initiator or the prime mover like his father or his son. His role was to continue the transitional virtues of steadfastness, loyalty, and the will to persevere. Isaac’s afternoon prayer was described in rabbinic tradition as a dialogue, a conversation between God and himself. Isaac went off by himself into a field and talked with God and reflected about the faith in the middle of the day. He continued the faith of his father Abraham, and he did so responsibly and dependably. Isaac captured the spirit of the  midday prayer and lived it out.

Isaac lived out the spirit of transition, and he handed down the faith to his sons. What they did with that faith culminated in his son Jacob initiating the nation of Israel. After much painful drama between his sons Esau and Jacob, Isaac died at the age of 180 years. It was notable that both his sons were at peace when they buried their father Isaac. (Gen. 35:29).

If we based our afternoon prayers on Isaac’s prayer life at midday, we would lean towards having a conversation with God that would involve meditation and reflection on the faith. We would seek God’s help in maintaining the faith that we started the day with and will end the day with. Our afternoon prayers will continue the continuity between our morning and our evening with God, between the faith handed to us and the faith we want to hand down to our children. Afternoon prayers seek God’s sufficiency in remaining steadfast, faithful, and consistent in fleshing out the character and life of Jesus. Our midday prayers should encourage us to maintain ourselves in connection to our faithful past and our faithful future. We ask God to enable us to demonstrate the fruits of the Holy Spirit, to shine  our light, to be the salt of the earth. We ask God to keep us from laziness, listlessness or weakness, and to inspire the energy to work and live productively and responsibly. Midday prayers are the meaningful link between our morning life and our evening life. These prayers should propel us to keep the faith alive, to continue through the day and close it, not somehow, but triumphantly.

Isaac lived a life that reflected Jesus and the gospel story. He was named before birth, he had a heaven-sent destiny, he acted out the Redemption story on Mt. Moriah, trusting in his father to the very end, and he was a man of prayer and faithfulness. In many ways, Isaac’s life was the gospel in miniature.