When Abraham Was Saved By Jesus
The eighth chapter of John’s gospel records an exchange between Jesus and a crowd of Jews. A large portion of this dialogue revolves around Abraham, the father of the Israelite nation. To the Jew, Abraham was not only a good and righteous man that God blessed, but he represented what the ideal man should be. Just like the founding father of any nation, many Jews revered Abraham, and imagined themselves to possess the righteous qualities of Abraham by the mere fact that they were his descendants.
Without rehashing the entire chapter, Jesus and these Jews go back and forth about what it truly meant to be a child of Abraham. Jesus eventually claims to have greater authority than Abraham, and the Jews are incredulous. “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? … Who do you make yourself out to be?” (John 8:53). In answer to this Jesus makes the claim in verse 56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
I have spent a good deal of time pondering this statement. What does Jesus mean by this: that a man who lived hundreds of years prior to Jesus, saw his day and was glad? How did Abraham see Jesus’ day?
The first sentence is perhaps easier to parse out. “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.” In another gospel, Jesus asserts that even though Abraham is dead, he is in another sense still alive. “Have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:31-32) It is perhaps in this sense that Jesus is talking about Abraham rejoicing that he would see Jesus’ day. God had promised to Abraham that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed. And you could say in that moment when Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), that Abraham was given an insight into the future. And when God gave Abraham and Sarah their child Isaac, they laughed with joy, (Genesis 17:17; 21:6-7) seeing the son by which eventually Jesus would come and fulfill the promises of God. So you could say that Abraham had some notion that even though it would happen long after he died, he would see it in whatever form he took after death.
That does not completely explain the second sentence, though. “He saw it and was glad.” If Jesus was strictly speaking in the sense that Abraham would see Jesus’ day from his place in the afterlife, Jesus could have said, “Abraham is seeing it now and is glad.” Instead Jesus uses the past tense. Somewhere in the past, Abraham saw Jesus’ day, and he was glad back then. There is one moment in Abraham’s life that seems to most fit this statement, and that was when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac.
God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is a difficult passage. Even when you feel like you have some interpretation that fully and satisfactorily explains the event, it is still troubling that God would even command such a thing. I am sure that however hard it is for us to comprehend and contend with reading it today, that it was more so for Abraham, as he traveled with his son beside him, contemplating the commands of God and what he would do in response to it.
The death of Abraham’s own begotten son would have been especially poignant for him, even beyond the death of a son. He had lived for a long time without an heir of his own, and Abraham also lived in a time where passing on your lineage to your son was incredibly valuable. In a sense, Isaac was the continuance of Abraham’s life. In his son, Abraham’s essence would continue on. That is what made the promise of a multitude of descendants so powerful and wonderful to Abraham. It is something that every man in the ancient world dreamed of happening. It was the most profoundly wonderful thing that anyone could ever hope for. And Abraham had it embodied within his son, his only son whom he loved, and now he was commanded to destroy it.
So the impending death of Isaac represented not only the death of the most beloved thing Abraham could conceive of, but also represented the eternal death of Abraham. No direct descendants to come after him, no multitudes of nations to continue after him. Only death, and complete death.
So when the angel stays Abraham’s hand from killing the child, and God provides a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac, this is a profound moment for Abraham. It is the moment where God saves Abraham’s “eternal” life. It is the moment where in place of Abraham’s life, God provides his own sacrifice. And in God’s substitution, Abraham receives back his son from death, and also Abraham’s “life” gets to continue on perpetually.
Abraham experienced what we all now can experience through Jesus. Jesus is God’s sacrifice for our eternal lives. It is through Jesus’ death that we can experience salvation from eternal death. And it is by God’s grace that he made Jesus the substitution for our own lives. Abraham experienced this profound joy on that mountain the day the Lord saved his son, and saved his life. And it is in that way that I believe Jesus meant when he said “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”