MARTIN LUTHER preached an estimated 4,000 sermons (some 2,300 have survived). He also lectured and wrote commentaries on numerous books of the Bible. As historian Roland Bainton put it, “He was always teaching, whether in the classroom or the pulpit; and he was always preaching, whether in the pulpit or the classrooms.” Here, in Bainton’s translation, is Luther’s exposition of Genesis 22—the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith.
“I Am Afraid Every Time I have to preach,” Luther confessed. Though he preached often—once he gave 195 sermons in just 145 days—for him, preaching never ceased to be an awesome endeavor before a holy God. One scholar has called Luther’s preaching “the best and principal work of his variously busy life.”
Abraham was told by God that he must sacrifice the son of his old age by a miracle, the seed through whom he was to become the father of kings and of a great nation. Abraham turned pale. Not only would he lose his son, but God appeared to be a liar. He had said, “In Isaac shall be thy seed,” but now he said, “Kill Isaac.” Who would not hate a God so cruel and contradictory?
How Abraham longed to talk it over with someone! Could he not tell Sarah? But he well knew that if he mentioned it to anyone, he would be dissuaded and prevented from carrying out the behest.
The spot designated for the sacrifice, Mount Moriah, was some distance away; “and Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt-offering.” Abraham did not leave the saddling of the ass to others. He himself laid on the beast the wood for the burnt offering. He was thinking all the time that these logs would consume his son, his hope of seed. With these very sticks that he was picking up the boy would be burned.
In such a terrible case should he not take time to think it over? Could he not tell Sarah? With what inner tears he suffered! He girt the ass and was so absorbed he scarcely knew what he was doing.
He took two servants and Isaac his son. In that moment everything died in him; Sarah, his family, his home, Isaac. This is what it is to sit in sackcloth and ashes. If he had known that this was only a trial, he would not have been tried. Such is the nature of our trials that while they last we cannot see to the end.
“Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes, and saw the place afar off.” What a battle he had endured in those three days! There Abraham left the servants and the ass, and he laid the wood upon Isaac and himself took the torch and sacrificial knife. All the time he was thinking, “Isaac, if you knew, if your mother knew, that you are to be sacrificed.”
“And they went both of them together.” The whole world does not know what here took place. They two walked together. Who? The father and the dearest son—the one not knowing what was in store but ready to obey, the other certain that he must leave his son in ashes
Then said Isaac, “My father.” And he said, “Yes, my son.” And Isaac said, “Father, here is the fire and here the wood, but where is the lamb?” He called him father and was solicitous lest he had overlooked something, and Abraham said, “God will himself provide a lamb, my son.”
When they were come to the mount, Abraham built the altar and laid on the wood, and then he was forced to tell Isaac. The boy was stupefied. He must have protested, “Have you forgotten: I am the son of Sarah by a miracle in her old age, that I was promised and that through me you are to be the father of a great nation?” And Abraham must have answered that God would fulfill his promise even out of ashes.
Then Abraham bound him and laid him upon the wood. The father raised the knife. The boy bared his throat. If God had slept an instant, the lad would have been dead. I could not have watched. I am not able in my thoughts to follow. The lad was as a sheep for the slaughter. Never in history was there such obedience, save only in Christ. But God was watching, and all the angels. The father raised his knife; the boy did not wince. The angel cried, “Abraham, Abraham!”
See how divine majesty is at hand in the hour of death. We say, “In the midst of life we die.” God answers, “Nay, in the midst of death we live.”
Historian Bainton adds: “Luther once read this story for family devotions. When he had finished, Katie said, ‘I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that.’ ”
“ ‘But, Katie,’ answered Luther, ‘he did.’ ” CH
By Martin Luther
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #39 in 1993]
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