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The ram's substitutionary atonement for Isaac

The Ram’s Substitutionary Atonement for Isaac

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Substitutionary atonement refers to Jesus dying in the place of sinners. The Bible teaches that all men are sinners (Romans 3:23), and the punishment for sin is death (Romans 6:23).

Romans 6:10 says, “For the death Jesus died he died to sin, once for all.” There must be a death for our sins, but God is so gracious in that it doesn’t have to be our deaths, at least not eternally. Christ is willing to die in the place of wicked sinners, and this is substitutionary atonement.

Through Substitutionary Atonement Jesus Died For Us and As Us

We say Christ died “for us,” which is to say He died as our substitute. This is true, but He also died “as us,” which is to say He died as our representative. His death became our death. When He died, it’s as though we died. Therefore, the death that’s owed for our sin has been paid.

Jesus died for us and as us. His death became our death. When He died, it’s as though we died. Therefore, the death that’s owed for our sin has been paid.

Consider the story of a young man who didn’t want to serve in Napoleon’s army:

“When he was drafted a friend volunteered to go in his place. The substitution was made and his replacement died in battle. Through a clerical error the young man was drafted again. He told the officers, ‘You can’t take me, b/c I’m dead. I died on the battlefield.’ They argued that they could see him standing in front of them, but he insisted they look on the roll to find the record of his death. Sure enough, there on the roll was his name w/ another name written beside it. The case was finally brought before Napoleon himself, who after examining the evidence said, ‘Through a substitute, this man died; therefore, there’s no claim on him.’”

D.L. Moody

The man was freed because someone died in his place. The same is true for us! We’re freed from the death we deserve because Jesus died in our place. We deserved to be the ones placed on that cross because we are the ones who sin. But Christ took the judgment on Himself in our place. He substituted Himself for us and received the punishment we deserve:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

1 Peter 2:24

A few verses later:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.

1 Peter 3:18

Not only do these verses teach that Jesus died as our substitute, they also teach He made atonement. This means He satisfied the payment our sins deserve.

The Ram’s Substitutionary Atonement

One of the clearest examples of substitutionary atonement occurred when the ram died in Isaac’s place. After the Angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, we read:

Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Genesis 22:13–14

The words “instead of his son” are the language of substitutionary atonement. Earlier, in Genesis 22:7, Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham replied, “God will provide a lamb” (Genesis 22:8). The ram they found was not the lamb:

  • The Hebrew word for “lamb” in verses 7 and 8 is seh, and it means, “one of a flock, lamb, sheep, goat.”
  • The Hebrew word for “ram” in verse 13 is avil, and it means, “ram.”

Rams were used as sacrifices. The trespass (or guilt) offering was a mandatory sacrifice, and it was exclusively a ram (Leviticus 6:6). These offerings were given as atonement for unintentional sins that required reimbursing an offended party, and to cleanse from defiling sins and physical maladies. The fat, kidneys, and liver were offered to God, and the remainder of the ram had to be eaten inside the court of the tabernacle. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), a ram was sacrificed as a burnt offering (Leviticus 16:3–5).

Rams could also serve as burnt offerings, which is what God called for Isaac to be in Genesis 22:2. Since rams could serve as burnt offerings, Abraham could offer this one “caught in (the) thicket…instead of his son.” This is the language of substitutionary atonement that found its true and greatest fulfillment in Jesus. Consider the language:

He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him…
The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all…
For (our) transgressions He was stricken…
The (Lord made) His soul an offering for sin…
He shall bear their iniquities…
He bore the sin of many…

Isaiah 53:5­­­­–12

The ram died in Isaac’s place, looking forward to Jesus dying in our place. The ram rescued Isaac from physical death, just as Jesus rescues believers from spiritual death.

Jesus and the Ram’s Crown of Thorns

The “ram [was] caught in a thicket by its horns” (Genesis 22:13). The ram that died in Isaac’s place as his substitute had a crown of thorns around its head. Similarly, Jesus, who died in our place as our substitute had a crown of thorns around His head:

Twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on [Jesus’] head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

Matthew 27:29; see also Mark 15:17 and John 19:2

Why Did God Provide a Ram Instead of a Lamb?

A lamb would’ve better prefigured Jesus, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29, 36), better than a ram. But by providing a ram there is no doubt that Abraham’s words were not fulfilled; it is obvious a lamb was still required.

In verse 14 Abraham said, “The-Lord-Will-Provide,” and in Hebrew this is “Jehovah Jireh.” In verse 8, Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” If Abraham saw the ram as the sacrifice God would provide, he would have called the place, “The Lord Has Provided.” Instead, Abraham called it “The-Lord-Will-Provide,” because he looked forward in faith to a future day when God would provide the required lamb.

There is evidence Abraham passed along his revelation to subsequent generations. The words “as it is said to this day” (Genesis 22:14) refer to the day Moses wrote Genesis; therefore, five centuries later, people were still saying, “it shall be provided.” The words “In the Mount of the Lord,” mean they looked forward to God providing at this location on Mount Moriah.

Unlike people in the Old Testament, we can say, “The Lord has provided!” We can proclaim with great joy and thanksgiving that the Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world was offered up as our Substitute.

Abraham Saw Jesus through Isaac

We see Jesus through Isaac, but did Abraham? Could he have had any idea he was prefiguring what God the Father would do with His Son two thousand years later? Could he know the Angel Who stopped him from sacrificing his son was the Person his son represented and the Person Who would later die for them both?

In , Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”

John 8:56

Saying Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day means nothing more than he looked forward to the fulfillment of the promises God made him. Jesus went beyond that, though, in saying Abraham did see His day! Abraham saw Jesus—including His sacrifice—through Isaac. He had at least a veiled, shadowy idea of the true and greater reality taking place:

When Isaac willingly (allowed himself to be) put on the altar, Abraham saw the day of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Wiersbe, Warren. The Bible Exposition Commentary, Volume I: Matthew-Galatians. Chariot Victor Publishing, 2003, p. 323.

How did Abraham ‘see’ Christ’s day? Abraham saw the day of Christ in type. In offering Isaac on the altar and in receiving him back in a figurative sense from the dead (as Hebrews 11:19 says), he received a marvelous foreshadowing of the Savior’s death and resurrection.

A.W. Pink’s Commentary on John and Hebrews, specifically John 8:4

Abraham witnessed through the binding of Isaac a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Moody Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible by the Faculty of Moody Bible Institute. Moody Publishers, 2014, p. 1634.

Abraham was permitted to have a view of the death of the Messiah as a sacrifice for sin, represented by the command to offer Isaac.

Barnes, Albert, Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, (1834), at sacred-texts.com

(Abraham) saw (Christ’s day) in the type of Isaac being offered, then receiving him (back).

Matthew Poole, Annotations Upon The Holy Bible: Wherein The Sacred Text Is Inserted, And Various Readings Annexed, Together With The Parallel Scriptures. Nabu Press, 2011, p. 105.

He saw Christ and his day, his sufferings, death, and resurrection from the dead, in a figure; in the binding of Isaac, in the sacrifice of the ram, and in the receiving of Isaac (back) from the dead.

Gill, John. Exposition of the Old and New Testament, by John Gill, (1746-63), at sacred-texts.com

God revealed the New Covenant to Abraham

Consider these two verses:

  • Psalm 25:14—“The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.”
  • Hebrews 9:15—(Jesus is) “the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death.”

Abraham feared God, and God showed him the New Covenant by revealing the Mediator of the covenant through Isaac. Romans 4:11 says Abraham is “the father of all those who believe.” Even though Abraham was in the Old Testament, he is able to be the father of New Covenant believers because God revealed His Son to him, and he looked forward to that Son in faith.

Thus, people in the Old Testament were saved by grace through faith in the same way we are saved in the New Testament—by grace through faith. They looked forward in faith, while we look back in faith. When the ram died in Isaac’s place it foreshadowed the substitutionary atonement of our Lord when He died in our place.

Discussion Questions

  1. How was the ram a shadow of the greater reality fulfilled in Jesus?
  2. What other examples of substitutionary atonement can you think of from Scripture?
  3. In what other ways could Abraham see Jesus through his son, Isaac?

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