Great Man of Faith discusses how Isaac’s faith exceeded Abraham’s and why Isaac is not honored as the father of our faith. Using New Testament scriptures that reveal who Sarah and Hagar represent, the author exposes a peculiar twist in God’s wisdom and explains how God dealt with Isaac and Ishmael in an equitable manner.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.  He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.  Genesis 22:9-8, NIV

 Contemporary Christianity commonly but inaccurately portrays Isaac as a young child oblivious to his fathers intentions when they traveled to Mt. Moriah. The Reese Chronological Bible estimates Isaac to be thirty-three when his father bound him and laid him on an altar. Jewish history states he was twenty-five.[1] The estimate of his age varies but one thing is clear. God waited until Isaac was a man with the maturity to understand the consequences of his father’s actions before he tested Abraham’s faith.

Isaac was fully convinced God could raise the dead when Abraham reached for the knife to sacrifice him. Yet, Abraham received all the credit for this great act of faith. Why wasn’t Isaac given equal status as the father of our faith with Abraham? If Abraham and Isaac were wrong about God’s ability to raise the dead didn’t Isaac have more to lose? 

The key difference between Isaac and Abraham’s faith is this: Isaac was not afraid to die, but Abraham was not afraid to live.  Death would have been easier than dealing with the aftermath of guilt, shame and regret. Sarah’s grief over the loss of her one and only son would have been an unbearable sorrow. The image of his son’s lifeless body forever ingrained in Abraham’s memory would have driven him insane.   

Death is an inevitable fact of life.  Willingly or unwillingly, all of God’s people will do what Isaac did: lay down our lives trusting God to raise us up again.  Accepting death gracefully is an important facet of Christianity. God grants us immortality after we die.[1]  Yet most Christians I know, when faced with their own death or the death of a loved one, fast and pray and plead with God for just one more moment of life in a body of flesh and blood that cannot inherit the kingdom of God.[2] 

The Bible assures us that Christians enter the presence of God after death.[3] If it is better to be with the Lord, why do we resist death?  The answer is obvious.  Our resistance of death is normal. Jesus resisted death. He had to set his face “like flint” to go to Jerusalem where he knew he must die before God would give him an immortal body.  Life is the Christian’s goal. We are clothed with a mortal body and no one, including Christians, desire to be unclothed. What we really desire is for our mortal bodies to become immortal, so we can partake of the things God promised to Abraham.


The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.  But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:8-10, NIV

 When Ishmael was born, Abraham and Sarah believed he was the son God promised them. Consequently, Ishmael grew up believing he fulfilled God’s promise. When Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Ishmael was relegated to a lesser status in the family, which he tolerated until Isaac joined him at their father’s table. Three-year-old Isaac did not have a clue why Ishmael mocked him.  Seventeen-year-old Ishmael was jealous of his father’s love for Isaac.

Sarah refused to tolerate her adopted son’s attitude. She demanded Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son.”  Unlike Sarah, Abraham could not easily disenfranchise Ishmael.  He was Abraham’s flesh and blood son who he loved just as much as he loved Isaac.  God settled the dilemma when he told Abraham that Sarah was right for “it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.[4]

Understanding who Hagar and Ishmael represent clarifies why God supported Sarah’s demand to send the slave woman and her son away.

 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.  His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.  These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.  One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.  Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.  Galatians 4:21-25, NIV

 Sarah and Hagar represent two different covenants.  Hagar represents the covenant of law established at Mount Sinai and Ishmael represents the children who live by the law.  Hagar and Ishmael also represent the city of Jerusalem struggling to live by the law at the time Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians.  Living by the law can never give us the things God promised to Abraham. Therefore, Jerusalem was destroyed fifteen years after Paul penned his letter to the Galatians. Israel returned to the Promised Land in 1948, but they still don’t possess the things God promised to Abraham and have never enjoyed a lasting peace. 

Living by the law attracts the devil. The law gives him the power to accuse us and demand God judge us. He has no power of his own, so he takes that which is God’s and uses it against us.  When the power of the law is removed, the power to exclude us from God’s blessing is also removed.  Sarah’s demand to get rid of the slave woman and her son was a demand to remove the only thing that has prevented God from blessing the nation of Israel – the covenant of law God established with Isaac’s descendants through Jacob at Sinai.

 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.  But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant.  Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.  I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”Genesis 11:13, NIV

 When we consider God’s response to Abraham’s distress in the light that Hagar and Ishmael represent a covenant of law, we find God’s wisdom hidden behind a peculiar twist.  When God assured Abraham he would make Hagar’s son into a great nation, he was not referring to the Arab nations Ishmael’s descendants became.  He was talking about the nation Isaac’s descendants through Jacob became.  Jacob’s descendants entered into a covenant of law and became slaves to the law.  Sarah’s demand grieved Abraham because he loved the nation founded upon law he foresaw his descendants would become through Isaac. 

In other words, two nations would come through Isaac, one born of the flesh and one born of the Spirit.  One nation, represented by Hagar and Ishmael, would be born through Abraham’s flesh.  Jacob and his twelve sons became the nation of Abraham’s flesh founded upon a covenant of law that they could not keep and were ultimately cursed. The other nation, figuratively represented by Sarah and Isaac, would be born by possessing the same spirit of faith Abraham possessed.  Jesus and all who believe in him will become a nation of people who share the same spirit of faith, hope and love.  God’s promise of a multitude too numerous to count that includes all nations will be brought into existence through one son of Abraham – Jesus.

In summary, if we let the Bible interpret God’s thoughts, Hagar and Ishmael represent the nation of Israel that entered into a covenant of law at Sinai.  The covenant of law corresponded to the city of Jerusalem struggling to live by the law, as they were in Paul’s day. The city of Jerusalem that Paul wrote about was the city that rejected the Son of God and the covenant of grace Sarah and Isaac represent.

The Jerusalem of Paul’s day could not accept Jesus as their Messiah because he did not adhere to the accepted traditions of his day.  In the opinion of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, Jesus made himself unclean by associating with half-breed Samaritans, eating with sinners, and touching lepers.  In addition to that, he did not agree to stone a woman caught committing adultery even though the penalty for this sin was clearly stated in the law.  When Jesus rejected the Pharisees and Sadducees interpretations of the law; the Pharisees and Sadducees rejected Jesus.

We will never be “good enough” for people who live by the law.  Fortunately, the law is only a shadow of who God is.  Since the law is God’s shadow, the law alone can never bring the image of God in our hearts to maturity.  God’s intent in giving us his law was to bring us to the grace in the covenant God made with Abraham.  The law given to Moses is the milk we need to drink until the eyes of our understanding matures.  The grace in Abraham’s covenant is the meat we need to comprehend the weightier matters of the law, which Jesus identified as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.[5] When we are able to eat meat, we will develop the strength to stand in the light of God’s presence without fear.

Abraham’s distress over Sarah’s demand to cast out Ishmael had a selfish root.  To cast out Ishmael was to cast out the nation Abraham became.  However, the nation Abraham became through his flesh children was no better than any other nation on earth.  Why should God show them preference?  Israel corrupted as badly as Sodom and Gomorrah did.  If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for sin, how could he spare Israel and remain a God of justice?  God could not and God did not spare Israel. The only thing that saved the Israelites from the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah was the covenant of grace God initiated with Abraham and his seed.[6]  No nation, including the chosen nation of Israel, will boast in God’s presence. [7]

The only tribes who returned after God sent his people into captivity were Judah and Benjamin.  These tribes returned for two reasons.  First, God remembered his covenant with Abraham.  Second, Jesus was destined to come from the tribe of Judah.  After Jesus fulfilled his earthly ministry, the Gentiles seized the land and it remained in their hands until 1948.  God permitted the Gentiles to trample his land because Israel failed to keep the covenant of law they entered into with God.  Every nation has sinned and come short of the glory of God, including the nation God rescued from Egypt to make his own.[8] 

The selfishness in our hearts is difficult to deal with because we think the only way to be vindicated is to be better than someone else is.  God does not vindicate us based on our behavior.  He vindicates us based on his behavior and the equality law demands.  God stood by Sarah and instructed Abraham to obey her demand because it was the only way to include Ishmael.  God never intended to exclude what Hagar and Ishmael represent.  The only way to include all men is to void the power in the law to exclude us.


 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit.  It is the same now.  But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”   Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 4:28-5:1, NIV

 Isaac’s faith began to grow the day he was weaned from his mother’s milk.  Abraham “held a great feast” to celebrate that his son had reached a rite of passage on the road to maturity.[9]  No longer was Isaac dependent on his mother’s milk to live.  He could fellowship with his father over a meal of solid food. 

When Paul stated in Galatians that the slave woman’s son would not share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son, he did not mean the slave woman would be excluded. Hagar represents the law and law will never be excluded from God’s kingdom. However, the law does not have to be a yoke of slavery.  The only people excluded from God’s kingdom are those who refuse to accept God’s right to change the law.

The law is the milk we need to mature spiritually because we cannot understand the depths of God’s grace until we understand how God uses the law.  The only source of nourishment a baby can tolerate is milk.  As a baby matures, other sources of nourishment must be added to sustain the body of a growing child. In the same way, newborn spiritual babies are encouraged to crave “pure spiritual milk” so they may grow up in salvation.[10]  Spiritual milk alone is not enough to sustain a growing spiritual child either.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.  Indeed, you are still not ready.  You are still worldly.  For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 1 Corinthians 3:2-4, NIV

 Worldly believers, like Ishmael was, have not learned how to love God because they don’t know God’s ways and are still hostile toward him.[11]  Worldly believers are also subject to being controlled by the devil, because they are prone to jealousy and quarreling.[12]  Ishmael represented what Israel would become under a covenant of law.  Even those in Israel who accepted Christ resisted changes in the law and were chided by Paul for still living on milk.

 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.   But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:12-14, NIV

 At some point in our walk with God, we must add the solid food of righteousness or the solid food of mercy to our diet.[13]  Those who live on milk remain immature and unable to “distinguish good from evil.”  If Abraham had been unacquainted with the teaching about God’s righteousness, he would have lacked the maturity to distinguish the good in God’s command to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. 

Ishmael would not have mocked Isaac if he had understood the elementary truths of God’s word. He quarreled with Isaac because he was immature.  Isaac received no more in his lifetime from God than Ishmael ultimately did.  Ishmael’s descendants became nations that have endured through the ages.  The nation Isaac’s children became through the lineage of Jacob have struggled all of their existence to remain a nation.  Israel is still struggling to survive.  If Ishmael had loved the God of Abraham, he would have desired the inheritance God promised to Abraham, instead of quarreling over the earthly inheritance Abraham could give him. 

Ishmael was the first to mock a child of promise but he would not be the last. Those who live by law continue to mock those who live by grace to this day.  The yoke of slavery Paul referred to in Galatians 5:1 is the law God gave to Moses at Sinai.  Unless someone strong is willing to get under the yoke of law with us and help lift, the yoke of law will crush us.  The real difference between a God and gods, who die like men, is the ability to live by the law without becoming a slave to the law.[14]  The law does not dictate to God what will happen to his people. He skillfully uses the law to bring about the good things he desires to give his people.  The law serves God by justifying all that he does. 


Isaac became a great man of faith because the law that mocked him was cast out when he was very young.  He never labored under the heavy yoke of slavery that the law can be.  His consciousness of sin and the feelings of guilt that sin produces were very dim, if present at all.  The law was not present screaming condemnation every time he broke a law.  Therefore, Isaac was free of the sense of unworthiness so many Christians wrestle with today. 

This concept is broader than the law given to Moses.  Christians are quick to affirm that they are saved by faith not by works even as they dictate a completely new set of rules that Christians must obey or be judged inadequate. Most Christians are well acquainted with the new rules.  Pray every day, read your Bible every day, tithe, fast, and never miss a church service.  All of those things are good and beneficial as part of the Christian life but doing such things cannot make us worthy to receive an inheritance from God. 

The scribes and Pharisees did all of the above, and more, yet Jesus warned that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to enter the kingdom of heaven.[15] The problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was love.  They hated Jesus even though they admitted that he was a teacher sent by God.[16]  If they truly loved God, they would have loved the one God sent.[17]

There are mountains of books that instruct the Christian on the right way to live, but few explain the right way to love.  Love is the only commandment Jesus left us, but how can we obey his command if we don’t understand what it means to love? God’s idea of what it means to love and our ideas about love tend to clash.  Jesus stated, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.[18] Yet the gospel records Jesus doing things we might call anything but love.

Would love turn water into an alcoholic beverage?  Would love drive people out of church with a whip? Would love sleep while we struggle to survive in a storm?  Would love ignore two blind men crying for mercy, and when love finally healed them demand that they tell no one about this great miracle?  Would love call a desperate woman’s daughter a dog and refuse to help her?  Would love embarrass religious leaders by calling them whitewashed tombs? [19] The answer is “yes.” Jesus did all of these things, and he is an example of God’s love. 

Jesus boldness in words and deeds came from a clear conscience.  He never committed a sin that could rise up to condemn him.  We wrestle with guilt and condemnation because we commit sins that become festering sores in our consciousness.  The only way to clear our conscience is to pay the debt our sin incurred.  For example, if I ran over someone’s mailbox with my car, I can pay them the value of the mailbox and it can be replaced with a new one. When I have paid what I owe, nothing can be held against me and my conscience is clear. Sometimes the price sin incurs is too costly to pay.  If I drove my car inebriated and killed someone’s child money is not enough to pay for their loss. A child can never be replaced. Fortunately, faith in God’s love and forgiveness will clear my conscience because he paid to redeem me from the debts I owe.

 But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.  The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.  This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.  Hebrews 9:7-9, NIV

 The ministry of the Levitical High Priest taught us that the gifts and sacrifices demanded in the law given to Moses cannot clear the conscience of the worshipers.  Whether it is the law handed down to Moses we are trying to live by, or the rules we make up to define a good Christian, living by law will never clear our conscience.

 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves.  For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.  If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.  But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  Hebrews 10:1-4, NIV

 There is a specific reason the law given to Moses had an inability to clear the conscience of worshipers.  Atonement is made for people who sin ignorantly.[20] At least once a year, God’s people were reminded in a grand ceremony to feel guilty for their sins.  Even though God’s people were guilty of sins, they couldn’t feel guilty about sins committed in ignorance. As long as the people were repeatedly reminded of their sin, it was impossible to perfect them by clearing their conscience.  To clear the conscience of his people, God had to stop reminding them of sins that they didn’t know they were guilty of.  Jesus is our atonement for sins committed in ignorance, not a fool for people who hate him!  If we know we have sinned and refuse to repent, atonement is not enough.  When we sin knowingly and willingly, we must repent knowingly and willingly and then forsake that sin.  However, even if we repent and forsake our sin it’s not enough to satisfy the demands of justice.  

God was not pleased with the sacrificial offering of animals the law demanded because it left the conscience of his people riddled with guilty feelings.  When we are consumed with guilt and shame for the sins we have committed, we are inhibited from entering boldly into God’s presence that we might receive the good things God desires to give us.  Fortunately, God had a plan to perfect his people before he laid the foundations of the world.

 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will O God.  Hebrews 10:5-7, NIV

 Finally, the day came that a sinless man declared, “Father, . . . not my will, but yours be done.[21] The father wanted his sinless son to include others in their family. Jesus willingly laid down his life to include us and for that selfless act God exalted him to his right hand.

 When this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.   Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.   The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this.  First he says:  This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord.  I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.   Then he adds their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.  Hebrews 10:12-17, NIV

 Jesus dealt with the sin problem once and for all.  God no longer remembers sins that are committed in ignorance and sins his people sincerely repent of and forsake.  Yet, many Christians still wrestle with guilt and shame for their sins.  Part of the problem is the way we receive communion.  Most churches I have attended instructed me, at least once a month, to examine my life for sin before I received a symbolic piece of cracker and barely enough grape juice to fill a thimble.  If God was not pleased with an annual reminder of sins, why increase the remembrance of sin to twelve times a year? 

If we stop to remember our sins, we are taking communion in an unworthy manner. We need to remember what Jesus has done, not what we have done or not done.  Jesus said REMEMBER ME!  In him there is no sin.  Before communion is received, stop to remember that Jesus is the atonement who erased from God’s mind the sins we presently commit in ignorance and the sins we have sincerely repented of.  Stop and remember that Jesus has made us sinless in God’s eyes.

Abraham knew about sacrifices and how to make them because a priesthood existed in his day.  Abraham gave a tithe of the Sodomites possessions to Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High.  If a priesthood existed there was certainly knowledge of God’s law.  The pivotal difference between Abraham and the descendants of Jacob was this: the descendants of Jacob entered into a covenant of law with God; Abraham entered into a covenant of grace and therefore his conscience was the only law God was obligated to judge him by.

Isaac became a great man of faith who served God without fear because he lived under the umbrella of God’s covenant of grace.  The law was cast out when Isaac was a small child; therefore, Isaac was not reminded of his sins twelve times a year or even once a year.  When a formal, legal agreement has not been established between God and man, like the one made at Sinai, there is nothing to take into account that can be held against us.[22]  When we know that God is not holding anything against us, there is nothing to defile our conscience.  Isaac did not feel guilty for sin because he knew God was not holding his sins against him.  Isaac’s clear conscience gave him the boldness to lay down his life in faith believing God would keep his promises, even if God had to raise him from the dead. 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.[23]  A clear conscience is not enough to save us from death.

 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses even over those who did not sin by breaking a command as did Adam… Romans 5:14

 God did not hold anyone’s sins against them before the law was given at Sinai but that did not stop death. God abruptly interrupted Abraham’s sacrificial offering of his son Isaac because sacrificing Isaac would not have stopped death either. The wages of sin is death and that wage must be paid for our conscience to be clear for eternity.  But a clear conscience does not pay the price for sin, therefore a clear conscience can not make us innocent; it only gives us great faith.  Faith does not void the law.[24]  If faith made the law irrelevant, there was no need in Jesus becoming a sacrificial lamb to atone for our sin according to the requirements of the law. 

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”  Fortunately, the burden of fulfilling the letter of the law is not upon the children of promise to accomplish.  As Isaac lay on the altar waiting for his life to end and begin again, he heard a voice from heaven say to Abraham:

  “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said, “Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”  Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns.  He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  Genesis 22:12, NIV

God’s people can serve their God without fearing death for it is the will of God that no one would lay a hand on the children of promise nor do anything to them for the sins they have committed against him.  God will provide a substitute!  In Isaac’s day, a promise made; in our day, a promise kept.  

[1] Hebrews 9:27

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:50-53

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:6, NIV

[4] Genesis 21:12, NIV

[5] Matthew 23:23, NIV

[6] Sodom and Gomorrah were never rebuilt. Israel has flourished as a nation and Jerusalem still thrives because God swore an oath to give everything to Jesus who will distribute the inheritance to his people.

[7] Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9, Jeremiah 23:14, Lamentation 4:6, Ezekiel 16:46-56

[8] Romans 3:23

[9] Genesis 21:8, NIV

[10] 1 Peter 2:1-2

[11] 1 John 2:15, 3:1; Romans 8:7

[12] 1 John 5:19

[13] Righteousness means the same thing as equality and equality is how God shows mercy.

[14] Psalms 82:6-7, KJV

[15] Matthew 5:20

[16] John 3:2

[17] John 8:42

[18] John 14:9, NIV

[19] John 2:9; John 2:15; Matthew 8:18-25; Matthew 9:27-30; Matthew 15:26

[20] Leviticus 4:20-35; Numbers 15:25-28

[21] Luke 22:42, NIV

[22] Romans 5:13

[23] 1 Corinthians 4:4

[24] Romans 3:31, NIV

[1] Whiston, William, A.M., The Works of Flavius Josephus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979), Volume II, 98.

About Teena Myers

Teena Myers is the Chairman of Southern Christian Writers, a freelance writer and author of three books.
This entry was posted in Epiphanies of Patriarchs and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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