Father Abraham, Mother Mary

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I’ve been studying the gospels as of late. And one thing that I’ve only recently noticed is the striking parallels between Abraham in the Old Testament, and Mary in the New Testament.

In Romans, Paul calls Abraham the “father of all who believe” (4:16). The reason he calls him that, is because Abraham is the prototypical believer. He is the man of faith. He assents to God’s call from his homeland to a land he doesn’t know. He believes the promise of God: that he will have a son in his old age, and that this son will bless the nations. He believes even in the face of Sarah’s disbelief. But perhaps most shocking is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the promised son back to God. Not many years after God miraculously gave Abraham his son, God told Abraham to offer Isaac back as a sacrifice. In typological fashion, Abraham leads Isaac up the mount as he carries the wood of his own sacrifice. Hebrews tells us:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Heb 11:17-19)

Through and through, Abraham believed and obeyed. For this, he is our father in the faith. The “father of all who believe”. He is an example of life in Christ.

However, as one looks at the life of Mary, one finds incredible similarities that cannot be overlooked. Mary assents to the angel’s promise of a son, one through whom the nations will be blessed: “He will be great….and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). In fact, Luke contrasts her faithful assent to God with Zechariah’s doubt-filled question to the angel: “How shall I know this?” (Lk 1:18) Instead of doubting, Mary responds with: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Mary and Zechariah parallel Abraham and Sarah. And like Abraham, Mary was asked to give assent to her Son’s self-sacrifice; except, while Isaac was spared, Jesus was not. Mary, at the foot of the cross, watched her Son truly die! And watching her Son die, Mary certainly would have struggled to believe as Abraham did. How could her Son bless the world, if he was to die? She was forced to believe in a more dramatic and real way than Abraham “that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb 11:19).

Now, what is even more striking here, is that while Paul assigns Abraham our father in the faith, Christ himself assigns Mary our mother in the faith. As Jesus hung on the cross, he gave his mother to his disciples! John 19 tells us:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,“Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27)

The beloved disciple is John. However, he leaves his name out to include all of Christ’s disciples. In this way, Jesus is giving his mother to the entire church as an example of the Christian life. She, like Abraham, believes and trusts. She, like Abraham, is a parental figure, an example of life in Christ. One may even say, a greater example, for she saw her Son truly die; and in the face of opposition, she believed God’s promise. In this way, then, Mary is the mother of all who believe.

Joseph Ratzinger now gives some insight:

The parallel between Mary and Abraham begins in the joy of the promised son but continues apace until the dark hour when she must ascend Mount Moriah, that is, until the Crucifixion of Christ. Yet it does not end there; it also extends to the miracle of Isaac’s rescue – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Abraham, father of faith – this title describes the unique position of the patriarch in the piety of Israel and in the faith of the Church. But is it not wonderful that – without any revocation of the special status of Abraham – a “mother of believers” now stands at the beginning of the new people and that our faith again and again receives from her pure and high image its measure and its path?

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Mount Moriah (part 2): The Only Loved Son

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The other day, I wrote a small post on Genesis 22. You can read that here. I’d like to continue meditating on the implications found in Genesis 22, where God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac. In my previous post, I focused primarily on the fact that a substitute was provided on behalf of Isaac. In this way, Isaac’s life was saved, and the death was passed to the ram instead. This is a historical continuum found all throughout scripture, and it climaxes in the substitution of Jesus for the sins of mankind.

But now I want to look at Abraham’s love for his son Isaac. Three times in the text, God calls Isaac Abraham’s only son (v. 2, 12, 16); and two of those times, God refers to him as Abraham’s only loved son (v. 2, 16). All this focus on Isaac as being the only beloved son of Abraham is meant to illustrate how hard it was for Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice to God. Of course, Isaac is not simply Abraham’s only sonButIsaac was the promised son (Gen 12, 15). Isaac was the son through which all of God’s promises to Abraham (and the world) would be realized. Only ten chapters earlier, God appeared to Abraham and promised that through his seed, the nations of the earth would be blessed. The problem was, his wife was beyond child-bearing age. They were unable to have a natural-born son. In Genesis 15:2, Abraham offered his slave as an adopted son — God said no. Then in Genesis 16, Abraham decided to have a son by one of his servants, Hagar. While this was a technically a biological son, it was not by Sarah, so God said no to that as well. Finally, God miraculously gave Abraham and Sarah a son in Genesis 21.

So, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only loved son, he meant: “offer the very promised son that I gave you” — the very one that would bring blessing to the nations! God wanted Abraham to give this one up. To Abraham, Isaac was much more than a child. This son was an encapsulation of all of God’s promises concerning Abraham and his descendants.

This was a hard thing to ask of Abraham. And yet, when Abraham is asked to give up Isaac, he never once questions God. In fact, Abraham is astonishingly deliberate in his obedience. When God told him to kill Isaac, Abraham got up early (Gen 22:3), gathered his materials (22:3), and went immediately to Mount Moriah (22:4-10). Never once did he doubt God. In fact, Abraham trusted that God would provide (v. 5b, 8). The amount of forced obedience involved in going to sacrifice Isaac is absolutely incredible. It was so incredible, that when the angel stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, he said: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son” (Gen 22:12). Abraham’s fear and love for God was placed in the context of his willingness to give up Isaac. What a love Abraham had for his God!

But we must also remember that God stopped Abraham from doing this — God provided a substitute for him. And so, Abraham did not have to go through with sacrificing his only son. And God did this because Isaac was not the ultimate son. He wasn’t the ultimate promised seed from whom would come blessing. The substitute of the ram pointed to a better son; and this was fulfilled in Christ (Gal 3:16).

In fact, we are told in John 3:16 that Jesus is a fulfillment of Genesis 22: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. What this means is that as much as Abraham was obedient and willing to give Isaac, and as much as he had love for God, God is the ultimate Father proving his love for the world by actually giving his only Son. And this means that God’s love is infinitely greater.

Can one even comprehend the unfathomable love the Father had for the Son? As much as Isaac was chosen, Christ was the ultimate chosen one one, chosen even before the foundations of the world (1 Pet 1:20, Rev 13:8). He is the ultimate Son who brings about the blessings promised in Genesis 12 (Gal 3:16). He is the true Israel who brings God’s people back from their wanderings and blesses the nations (Is 49:5-7). The love that God had for the Son was eternal, glorious, and perfect (John 17:5). And yet God, in his overwhelming love for the world (kosmos in Gk — this communicates God’s love not just for people, but also for the entire created order), actually gave his Son up as the true sacrificial Lamb (John 1:29). Abraham’s love is but a small glimpse of the love of God for sinners!

In fact, Paul says in Romans 5:8 that God proves his love for us by giving Jesus as a sacrifice. He asks in Romans 8:32 (no doubt thinking of Genesis 22!): if God did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not give us all things? What Paul means to say here is that there is no greater love found in God than the gift of Jesus. So while Abraham loved to the extent of being willing to give up Isaac, God loved to the extent to actually giving up the eternal Son; and not only for one person, but for the entire world.

What love God has for sinners!

 

Mount Moriah (part 1): The Place of Substitution

Abraham and Isaac Laurent de La Hire, 1650

We find Mount Moriah first in Genesis 22:14, where Abraham named it “The Lord Will Provide”. It was named this after God had tested Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The test was incomprehensible for anyone. But it was even harder for Abraham because God himself had promised to miraculously conceive for Abraham and his barren wife. And in Genesis 21, God supernaturally provided this promise. But only a chapter later (perhaps when Isaac was only 10 years or so old), God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the boy back to God. We know this was a test by God to see if Abraham loved him more than his promises (Gen 22:1, 12); but certainly, Abraham didn’t know why God commanded him to give up what God had miraculously given him.

After seeing Abraham’s great obedience (Gen 22:3-10), God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, and instead provided a ram for him to sacrifice (Gen 22:13). For this reason, Abraham called it “The Lord Will Provide”. What this name is meant to convey is that God gave a ram to sacrifice in substitution for Isaac. Rather than having to kill his only beloved son (Gen 22:2, 16), Abraham was provided with a ram instead. Because of this, Mount Moriah was a place of substitution.

And in fact, Mount Moriah continued to be this place of substitution. 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us that on that very mount, God had Solomon build the temple for sin sacrifices. And in 1 Kings 8:29-30, Solomon prayed that God might continually look on the mount, and hear the prayer of his people on the basis of the sacrifices. Solomon was even so bold to say that God had chosen to put his name on this mount; and because of that, when Israel sinned and prayed toward the temple, Solomon asked that God might listen and answer them (1 Kings 8:44, 48-49). And so God continued to provide by way of continued sacrifice in the temple. He continued to substitute that his people may not be killed.

But it does not stop there. While Abraham’s son was spared, and while God’s people were spared in place of a substitute lamb, Jesus was not. Jesus was killed right outside the temple on Golgatha in the very same region as Moriah. And Jesus was given as a substitute for the worldAnd in fact, John calls Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29); and even more prominently, John calls him God’s only Son (John 3:16). What else could John have in mind but this substitutionary pattern found in the Old Testament? Indeed, the writer of Hebrews tells us that all of the stories in the Old Testament ultimately pointed to Jesus as the true substitution, for bulls and goats couldn’t take away sins–no, we need a better sacrifice (Heb 10:1-4). This sacrifice is Jesus.

Rather than sparing his only Son as Abraham did, God gave him up, that we might be saved. And, God gave him as a lamb to be slaughtered for the people’s sins. Moriah, for God, was a place of substitution. It was a place where one dies in the place of another. And this place of substitution climaxed and was finished and fulfilled in the substitutionary death of Jesus. And he died that we might not die, but that we might be forgiven, cleansed of our sin, and received by God.

This is part 1 of a two part post. You can view the second post here.