Genesis 22 contains one of the strangest stories in the Bible. There, God commands the patriarch Abraham to take Isaac, his only son, and sacrifice him on Mt. Moriah. This seems utterly unlike God. Throughout the Bible, He is the Helper of the helpless. The Law of Moses describes sacrificing one's children as an abomination. In Romans 1, Paul condemns those who are without natural affection.
Nonetheless, God commands Abraham to commit this abomination, to deny his natural affection, and to do that at which the heart of nearly any parent would revolt. We would expect such an instruction from the lips of the evil one, not the God who is wholly good.
Despite what has been asked of him, Abraham continues to obey. He takes Isaac to Mt. Moriah, ties him on an altar as as a sacrifice, and has his hand upraised to slit his son's throat before God stops him. He is willing to surrender even his only son if that is what God asks.
In Hebrews 11:17-19, we gain more insight into Abraham’s thinking. He knew that God had promised to give him countless descendants through Isaac, and he trusted that God would keep His promises. Thus, he concluded that if he obeyed God and killed Isaac, God would raise his son from the dead. He believed that God was capable even of resurrection; if that was what had to happen for God's promise to be fulfilled, God would do it.
As it happened, Abraham was wrong about God's plan. God never intended for him to complete the crime of killing his own son. However, Abraham was right about God. He believed that God was faithful, acted in accordance with that belief, and was rewarded for his faithfulness.
Thankfully, God does not ask any of us to present our children as burnt offerings! However, there are times when He asks us to do things that are confusing or difficult. Isn't it terribly hard to ask Christians who experience same-sex attraction never to act on that attraction, not even once? What about when we pray and pray for something, but as months and years go by, the answer to our prayers is nowhere in sight?
In these predicaments and many others, we might have our own ideas about why God is doing what He's doing. God has forbidden this because of X; God is not giving me what I ask for because of Y. These assumptions may be right; they may not be. Sometimes, though, we get so attached to our assumptions that when they prove to be wrong, we stomp off in a huff like Naaman did when told to bathe in the Jordan.
However, we don't have to be right about God's plan either. In fact, it may be that God is testing us by doing something different than we expect. Certainly, that was true in Abraham’s case.
Instead, we simply have to be right about God. Like Abraham, we must believe that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him, and we must have the courage to do it. If we do, even if we are completely wrong about what He is doing, we are certain to find His blessing.
The more we learn about the Bible, the better we will understand it. Because God's word is a unity, even books that were written thousands of years apart are interconnected. Many parts of the New Testament are so closely related to Old-Testament stories that trying to understand the former without the latter is nearly impossible.
One such reference appears in Hebrews 12:24. There, the Hebrews writer tells us that the sprinkled blood of Jesus says better things than the blood of Abel. If all we've got is a New Testament, we are sunk. There is no way for us to understand this!
However, with the help of the story of Cain and Abel, which is recorded in Genesis 4, we can see that the Hebrews writer is making a powerful point. There, we learn that these two brothers offered different sacrifices to God. Abel’s was pleasing; Cain’s wasn't. Out of jealousy, Cain killed his brother, committing the first murder.
Cain soon learned, though, that even though Abel was dead, the consequences of his crime continued. In Genesis 4:10-11, God points out the evidence for Cain’s sin and its implications. He tells the murderer that his brother's blood cries out against him from the ground. Because of this, Cain was now under a curse, alienated from the ground that had drunk that blood.
That's what the blood of Abel says. It announces that great sin has been committed and condemns the sinner with a curse. The blood of Christ, however, speaks better than that blood.
In order to appreciate this, we must recognize the ways in which the blood of Abel and the blood of Christ are alike. Both Abel and Christ were innocent and did not deserve death, so when the blood of each was shed, it was a shedding of innocent blood.
Nonetheless, the consequences of these two murders are very different. The blood of Abel cried out against Cain and proved that he was guilty. By contrast, when we are sprinkled with the blood of Christ as we obey the gospel, that blood announces our forgiveness, not our guilt. It washes us clean rather than staining us.
Additionally, although the blood of Abel on Cain brought a curse, the blood of Jesus removes a curse from us. Because all of us have sinned, all of us are cursed with death and eternal death. On the cross, Jesus became a curse for us. He died in our place so that we could inherit eternal life instead.
Thus, when the Hebrews writer tells us that the blood of Christ speaks better than the blood of Abel, he is making a massive understatement! The blood of Abel condemned Cain with its testimony; the blood of Christ justifies us with its testimony. The whole course of Cain’s life was blighted by the blood that stained his hands, but our eternal destiny is transformed for good by the sprinkled blood that cleanses us.
One of the greatest apparent advantages to a godless way of life is the freedom that it allows. No longer must the unbeliever be concerned with the law of God and whether it permits him to do what he wants to. Instead, he is free to do whatever he thinks is right.
However, this seeming benefit comes at a steep cost. When we are free to do whatever we want, there is nothing for us to do. There is no meaning for us to achieve, no purpose for us to fulfill.
When we point this out to atheists, they often reply that they are free to create their own meaning. You can decide to make your life about whatever you want it to be about! Sadly, the reality here does not measure up to the theory. The goals that we choose for ourselves inevitably prove unfulfilling.
This is well illustrated by the first couple of chapters of Ecclesiastes. In them, Solomon deploys the nearly unlimited resources that he has amassed in order to discover purpose for his life. He embarks on massive building projects and funds to the fullest every pleasure that he enjoys.
The worldly would suppose this to be heaven on earth. Many of them live with the goal of accumulating wealth until they too, like Solomon, can do anything they want. However, Solomon’s experience with it was anything but heavenly, and the few who achieve such levels of wealth today also discover that it is unsatisfying.
As the Israelite king says in Ecclesiastes 2:11, “When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.” If we place our hope in ourselves, we will be disappointed.
Still others seek to find meaning in some earthly cause. There are those who give their lives to an organization or business; still others live for an ideal, like environmentalism.
The problem is, though, that results don’t live up to our aspirations. Businesses fail or, worse still, fire us. Organizations fall short of their goals. Causes get sidetracked by human selfishness and pride. More subtly, success may be even harder to deal with. What do you do if some worldly goal of yours is completely achieved? Go fishing?
Thus, we see that honoring the purpose for which we are created, though it appears very restrictive, is actually a blessing. Christians can live a meaningful, fulfilled life from beginning to end without facing the disappointment that hounds the worldly. Because God's goals are bigger than we are, we never find them inadequate. Better still, when we come to the end of our lives, we can anticipate an eternal reward instead of oblivion or eternal punishment. The yoke of Christ may appear to be a burden, but when we take it up, we find it to be lighter than anything else.
Our final Bible reading in the New Testament, Revelation 21 and 22, contains a great deal of imagery that is familiar to us from the songs that we sing. Here, we find the street of gold, the river of life, the trees that bear fruit every month, and a city where there is no night because it is illuminated by God and the Lamb. When we read these images, we immediately associate them with heaven because that's what our hymns do.
However, on their own terms, the last two chapters of Revelation are not about heaven. This comes as a shock to many Christians, but it is plain on the face of the text. In Revelation 21:1-2, the actual state of affairs is described. The first heaven and the first earth are destroyed, along with the sea, signifying the end of the Hebrew cosmos. They are replaced with a new heaven and a new earth.
Into this new cosmos descends a city from heaven. The city is described as the holy city, the new Jerusalem, a city prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. A very similar description of this city appears in Revelation 21:10. Once again, John makes clear that this is a city coming from heaven.
This city is the subject of most of the rest of the book. It is the city with 12 gates, 12 foundations, and walls built of precious stones. Everything else in the city is made of gold. In this city there is no night, the throne of God is in its center, and the river of the water of life flows from that throne. The tree of life flourishes along the banks of the river. Here, the people of God will reign along with Him forever and ever.
Certainly, there is considerable dispute about the nature of this city. Some believe that it represents the victorious church. Others, myself included, think that it describes the eternal reward of the faithful. However, never once does John call it “heaven”.
As always, John's words here ought to be taken seriously but not literally. Because we live in the present creation, we have no way of comprehending what the future creation will be like. Nonetheless, the glorious imagery that John uses helps us to appreciate the glory that awaits us.
I wish that the authors of our hymns about heaven had been more careful with their language. Interestingly, the greatest of our hymns about the life to come, “There Is a Habitation”, never once describes the holy city as heaven. The author of the hymn was a 19th-century gospel preacher named Love H. Jameson. He clearly knew his Bible well, and all of his descriptions of our future home are easily justifiable from Scripture.
Even now, I don't mind singing about the streets of gold in heaven. I think we should sing with longing for our future home, and I am willing to use “heaven” accommodatively to get the point across. However, as we sing, we should remember that the Bible itself says something different.
One of the most off-putting visions of praise in the book of Revelation appears at the beginning of Revelation 19. Many of the elements here are familiar. The 24 elders and the living creatures from Revelation 4 and 5 make an appearance, and they are joined by a numberless multitude that also is praising God. The text is filled with hallelujahs.
The behavior of God's servants here does not trouble us, but their motivation does. They are glorifying God because he has judged the notorious prostitute Babylon, and the smoke of her burning is rising up forever. That's not very nice! Shouldn’t they be mourning that God had to reluctantly destroy Babylon instead?
However, this praise that seems so inappropriate to us reveals something vital about God. It is right for His people to rejoice at the humiliation and downfall of His enemies because He is glorified in that too.
The iron law of God's creation is that all of it must bring glory to its Creator. Most of the time, this is a straightforward process. The stars glorify God every night as they have since the fourth day. The birds sing His praises; the mountains are memorials to His majesty. All of these honor Him, and they have no choice but to do so.
At first glance, it seems that the role of human beings is different. God created us with free will. We can choose whether we are going to serve Him or not. A few live for Him, but most serve themselves. They will go to their graves never having glorified Him.
However, human rebellion against God's purpose cannot defeat it. God must be glorified, and indeed God will be glorified. Paul promises us that on the day of judgment, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. No one will be able to avoid honoring Him on that day.
Nor does the working out of God's glory end there. When His enemies are cast out from His presence, He will exhibit their eternal ruin as a sign of their folly and His power. It didn't have to be that way. They could have chosen to use their free will to honor Him in life. Instead, their just punishment will forever commemorate His ultimate triumph and their ultimate defeat.
This presents us with a stark choice. We are going to glorify God, whether we like it or not. We can glorify Him the easy way by offering Him our willing obedience. If we refuse, we will glorify Him the hard way, as the unhappy losers in the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
None of us want to be the eternal equivalent of the Nazis in World War II. We want to be the victorious soldiers in the parade, not the prisoners of war. However, even though the devil likes to confuse the issue, those are the only two options. If we will not choose the first, the second will be chosen for us.