“And the Angel of Yahweh called to Abraham — a second time from heaven. And he said, ‘In myself I swear, utters Yahweh; because of this thing that you have done in not sparing your son, your only one, I will surely bless you and your seed will surely be great as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the lip of the sea. And your seed will take possession of the gates of his enemies. And in your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed on account of your obeying my voice.”
There is truly a ton of material in this passage, but it is valuable to keep the whole statement of the Angel of Yahweh, the pre-incarnate Christ, as we look at the parts. Once again, He speaks for God and with authority. He states to Abraham that “you have not withheld your son from me.” Notice too, the language of Abraham sparing his son. Jesus uses similar language in teaching his own disciples:
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If someone desires to come after me, then he must renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For the one who wants to save his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it benefit a man if he acquires the whole world but forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?’”
Now our English translations of this passage in Matthew do a bit of a tricky switch on us, that I am hopefully remedying here. In each of the cases that I have translated as “life” the Greek word yuch/ (psuche) is being used. This is the term from which we get the English word, “psyche,” and it means much the same thing in both English and Greek. The yuch/ (psuche) refers to the seat of one’s person or you could say his personality. It is what makes us tick and what makes us individuals and different from one another. It is also typically seen as the primary place in which we bear God’s image. It can be used to refer to our physical life here on earth and sometimes it can be used to refer to the ongoing nature of our spiritual life, though it is a distinct thing from the pneuvma (pneuma) or spirit.
The dominant English approach to translating this passage of Matthew is to presume that Jesus is talking about one’s physical life in the former part of the statement and talking about one’s eternal spiritual life in the latter part, but that is not what is literally being stated. If we render the word consistently, all of the way through, we realize that the emphasis is not so much on eternal things but on temporal ones. And what good does it do for you if you spend all of your energy building an empire for yourself, but it kills you in the process? As people often say, “you can’t take it with you…” Jesus is not condemning a man to eternal fire for building a financial empire, but he is asking the question, “are the sacrifices you are making worth the riches you have acquired?”
Abraham is a wealthy man at this point in his life, but the greatest wealth that he holds is found in the person of his son Isaac and in the promise of God that Isaac and his children will be multiplied greatly on the face of the earth. God has thus asked Abraham to place even that on the altar of sacrifice. On a purely human level, Abraham and Sarah could have lived the life of a king in terms of their wealth, but then they would be gone and their witness forgotten. This child was everything, yet they were willing to lay even that to the side if God so desired it — choosing to be in submission to God’s design and not to their own.
This is the heart of what Jesus is teaching his disciples. Their obedience would cost them their lives in a variety of ways. Most would die martyrs deaths. But for all of them, the real cost would be that they would set to the side their personal plans and aims and follow God’s plans for them. Ultimately, God’s plans for us are far better than any plans that we could make on our own, but it takes faith and obedience to go through the process of getting there. It means picking up the implement of our suffering and death (the cross) and following Jesus wherever he would lead. It is counter-cultural to do so, but in the end, it is far better. Ask any pastor or missionary who has left a life behind to follow Christ, and like Abraham, they will affirm, “Yes, it is infinitely better than what I could have designed on my own.”