This passage is one of the most meaningful in scripture for several reasons. It is the highpoint of Abraham’s obedience, and it is highlighted in Hebrews 11:17-19 as an incredible act of faith. According to Hebrews, Abraham’s reasoning process was, “Well, God has told me that I'd have lots of children through Isaac, and he’s told me to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Therefore, I guess he’s going to raise the boy from the dead.” I only wish I had faith like that.
The main reason I want to look at this passage, however, is because it’s a good point to introduce the notion of typology. This is the biblical study of Old Testament stories and images which prefigure something in the New Testament. The word type refers to the Old Testament picture, and the antitype is the fulfillment in the NT. You actually use a form of this word when you say the word typical, meaning that something is exhibiting the essential characteristics of a group: "Jerry's behavior this morning was typical of how he acts on Monday mornings." In this narrative, Abraham is the type of our Father, who willingly sacrificed his only son. Isaac is a type of Christ up to the point where God stops Abraham, and then the imagery shifts over the ram, who was offered in Isaac’s place.
Types are pretty easy to spot in scripture, and they point us towards Christ. The book of Hebrews states that the entire sacrificial and priesthood system is meant to do this, and several stories illustrate something about Christ or his work. When Jesus was rebuking the Jews, he claimed that "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me." On the other hand, we must use caution when utilizing them.
1) First, any type that isn't specifically backed up by scripture is only our interpretation, not something on which to be dogmatic. Paul said in Galatians that Sarah, Hagar, and their respective children are typical of the law versus the gospel, so that's an inspired use of typology. The story in today’s passage is a beautiful illustration of the Cross, and it certainly looks like God put it in there for that purpose, but there are other narratives which some people have used as types with shaky hermeneutics.
2) Second, types (if legitimate) illustrate, they do not prove. We need to interpret typology by what we already know from the teachings portions of Scripture, not the other way around (just like how we interpret any narratives).
OK, enough dry theology. Let me introduce you to my favorite singer, Michael Card. This is "God will provide a lamb" which beautifully renders this story for us.
Father, your word is so rich. A child can swim in it, and an elephant can drown in it. Help me to interpret it correctly, since it’s how I hear your voice.