Calvary: the dress rehearsal
The lie of Abraham was, in fact, a prophetic truth at the heart of redemption: God will provide for himself the Lamb.
7And 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?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So 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.”
Disciples of Jesus desperately need to understand substitution as more than a theological maneuver or a spiritual truth to affirm. It must be visceral to us.
We should all be more grateful for our redemption if, like Levites in the desert, we could feel the life fleeing the lamb in our hands, could smell its blood and recognize deeply that it should have been me.
On this day in Canaan, it should have been Isaac. This was no mere faith-building exercise. Someone was going to die on that mountain, and Abraham knew it. Hebrews reveals his mind, set on the hope that God would raise Isaac from the dead afterward1. “God will provide for himself the lamb,” he lied to his son, setting the lamb before him as a pretense to keep climbing.
Nothing is left to chance in God’s plan of sacrifice. Wood that Abraham had risen so early to prepare was now arranged with care for its terrible purpose.
And here we begin to see details of Isaac’s experience that Jesus would later fulfill: Isaac was bound upon the altar, but Jesus went upon his willingly to set his people free from their sinful restraints.
Isaac was offered, but Jesus was killed. As Isaac’s death drew nearer, so did his father, never more intimate than with his knife raised. We can imagine there remained love between them, even in that harrowing moment.
But Jesus felt both the forsaking of his father and the plunge of the knife. Abraham put his lips to the cup but was spared; Jesus—though crying, Let it pass!—drank the bitterness of a father’s determination.
Imagine Abraham’s relief at the sound of God’s voice, unheard since the previous command to kill his son. Witness the joy of everything that would come that day after the dreaded offering—joy that could only come at the expense of another:
The substitute was close at hand, easily grasped. The moment when a lamb was needed, behold, he had been there all along.
The substitute was God’s grace to Isaac, taking his place in death.
The substitute was God’s grace to Abraham, sparing him from the unthinkable fate of becoming the father who killed his beloved only son, hands soaked in the family blood, staining strange ground red with the life of his precious miracle boy.
With surgical timing, God allowed the offering to proceed until the very moment of truth. He is not a cruel master who demands costly acts of allegiance; he would be satisfied with Abraham’s heart of obedience: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Sin, on the other hand, is a cruel master. The only way out is death. And when the heavenly Father took this scene to the bitter end on Calvary, he offered up the costliest payment so that we, the ransomed, could say in return: Now I know that you love me, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.
When Abraham and Isaac began to climb, the lamb had been a pretense, a figment, and it is possible, after hearing the gospel, to remain at the foot of the mountain. Before personally claiming the tragic death of Jesus as my redemption, the lamb remains a mere religious pretense.
But at the summit, where my lifeless carcass ought to be smoldering, the lamb dies to fill me with his life. And here we discover the gospel truth that ultimately spared Isaac—not God’s pity, but his plan. The lie of Abraham was, in fact, a prophetic truth at the heart of redemption: God will provide for himself the Lamb. It was substitution all along. Substitution from the beginning. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
1 Hebrews 11:19