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Jacob Wrestles with God

Date: Oct. 7, 2018

Author: Bob Henkins

Genesis 32:1-32

Key Verse: Genesis 32:30

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

As I prepared this message it reminded me when I was a sophomore in high school. I was on the wrestling team and we were at a tri-meet where three high schools were competing against each other. Tri-meets were kind of neat because each weight class had to compete twice once against each school. At that time, I wrestled the 119 lb weight class. When my weight class came up, I was in the first match and I beat my opponent pretty easily. Then my opponent wrestled against the athlete from the other school and he seemed to beat that guy pretty easily. So, I thought that since I beat him, and he beat the other guy, now that it was my turn to wrestle the other guy, I should have no problem winning. And for the first four minutes of the match that’s exactly what I thought. It was amazing, every move I tried worked. I remember seeing my team mates off to the side shouting, showing me different moves to try. So, I would let the guy go and try another move and I was dumbfounded because they worked and I was racking up the points. By this time, I was starting to get tired and I wanted to finish him off. I had let him go again and as he shot for my legs I tried what was called a cross-face. As he grabbed for my legs, I held his head and hit him in the face with my forearm, I felt his body shudder and he dropped to his knees. I thought, “this was it, now I have him,” but instead of weakening him, somehow, he became revitalized and angry. He had a sudden surge of power and flipped me over and my face slammed into the mat. Now the tables were reversed, and he was inflicting damage on me, finally he flipped me over and had me on my back. I bridged with my neck for as long as I could but I was exhausted and my strength was gone. With seconds remaining, he pinned me and won the match. I should have won that match, but along the way, I think I lost my focus. I was proud and arrogant and because of that, I lost the match. In our passage today, Jacob also has a wrestling match, but this wasn’t against a high school opponent, he wrestled with God and through it he was forever changed.

In last week’s passage we saw how Jacob had successfully freed himself from Laban’s grasp and now he was preparing for his greatest challenge, facing his brother Esau, who vowed to kill him 20 years ago (Ge 27:41). Let’s take a look at verses 1-2. “Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.” It’s interesting that after Jacob left Laban he runs into a bunch of God’s angels. We’re not told how many there were, but he calls it the camp of God so I assume that there must have been a lot of them.

And then for some reason, after seeing the angels, Jacob decides to send a message to his brother. Verses 4-6 say, “He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’” 6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”” For the past 20 years, Jacob must have thought about what he would do when he returned home. He would have to deal with his brother but how? He had taken his brother’s blessing and inheritance, he conspired with his mother and deceived his father and because of that his family was shattered. His father shook with rage and his brother wanted him dead. Now the time was upon him, what’s he going to do? Maybe Jacob had planned this strategy all along, or maybe he was inspired by the angels, I don’t know. But he came up with a plan to win his brother’s heart. He had become a wealthy man, why not give Esau a huge gift, one that will blow him away. So, he sent his brother a message that he was coming and as he was gathering up a bunch of his animals to give him he got the shock of his life. Esau’s on his way and he’s got 400 men with him.

Jacob thought he had plenty of time and he could meet Esau on his own terms but that was out of the question now. Take a look at verses 7-8. “In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” When Jacob heard that Esau was coming, I imagine an alarmingly vivid picture of his angry brother charging at him with his army freaked him out. It appears that since Jacob was gone, Esau had done pretty well for himself too. A group of four hundred men was no laughing matter. And if they were armed fighting men that was even worse. After all Abraham defeated the kings of the East (14:14) with only 318 men. The contrast between Esau’s army and Jacob’s flocks reminds us of their childhood when we first met them in chapter 25 (v7). But unlike Esau, Jacob invested in his family and herds, instead of an army. Although Jacob’s not sure if Esau comes with evil intentions, he assumes the worst and takes a preemptive measure, dividing his family into two groups hoping that at least some of them may survive. All of Jacob’s material possessions, everything that he worked so hard for, has suddenly became a burden to him and he’s afraid that he’s going to lose it all.

At first, Jacob reacts by his instincts. He always seemed to be a man of action. But this time something’s different. He suddenly stops and cries out to God. Let’s read verses 9-12 please. “Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’” Jacob’s fears compel him to seek God in prayer. I think this is Jacob’s first real prayer to God. Even in his vow, he was really talking with God, it was more of a statement to himself, “If God will be with me…. Then the Lord will be my God.” This time is different. Previously God spoke to him, now he is crying out to God. But the way he cries out “God of my FATHER Abraham, God of my FATHER Isaac, he emphasizes the relationship he has with God by virtue of his father and grandfather. Even after all this time, his relationship with God seems somewhat distant and not as personal as it should have been.

Even so, I believe this shows huge growth in Jacob’s life of faith because he’s beginning to call on the name of the Lord. I really like his prayer. He remembered what God had told him and his prayer is based upon God’s promise to him. Then Jacob repents and recognizes his short comings. He humbles himself before God as he realizes that he is undeserving as all his sins are exposed. For the first time he acknowledges God’s blessing upon his life. He left with only a staff and now God had blessed his life more than he could imagine with wives and children and flocks and herds and servants. Indeed, God had made him prosperous.

Jacob’s prayer should be an encouragement to us. Prayer is very personal, powerful and valuable. It is something that we shouldn’t give up or neglect. Struggling through prayer, Jacob could see the source of all of life’s blessings come from God. This was a foreshadow of overcoming Esau too. We should learn from Jacob to struggle with God in prayer. Jesus taught his disciples to pray and not give up through the parable of the persistent widow. (Lk 18)

Verses 13-21 reveal the vastness of Jacob’s gift. It says, “He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” 17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’” 19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.” Jacob’s gift was enormous. He sent more than 550 animals in 5 different groups with a servant leading each one. Mike calculated that the 220 goats, 220 rams, 30 camels & young, 50 cattle, 30 donkeys would be valued somewhere around $318K in our economy today. Jacob’s hope is that all these gifts and his repeated message would win his brother’s heart and provide him with a substitute for the inheritance he took from him.

Even though Jacob had prayed and prepared and sent his gift he was still extremely worried. We can see it in the fact that he couldn’t sleep that night. “he … got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.” (v22-23) Jacob’s mind was racing, so many things were going through his head. So many scenarios and possible outcomes flashed before his eyes. None of which gave him comfort. And then something weird happens to him, it was probably the last he would have thought would happen. Suddenly a wrestling match breaks out. Take a look at verses 24-29. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.” I find it really strange that suddenly a man appears and starts to wrestle with Jacob. It seems so random but it really wasn’t. All Jacob’s life he wrestled with everyone, starting with his brother in the womb, and his father for his blessing, and Laban at work, his wives at home, and finally even with God. So, this wrestling match, was God’s way of revealing this to Jacob. I don’t think he fully realized it before this.

I believe the mystery man was really a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus. But if this is true, why couldn’t the man subdue Jacob? To me it’s kind of like a father wrestling with his kids. He could easily overpower them but he chooses not to. They hold on to him not letting go. You can see pictures of kids hanging on their father’s legs as he walks around. I think he chose not to in order to shows God’s patience on Jacob. The man wrestled with Jacob all night until daybreak. I’m sure that he was exhausted, my wrestling matches lasted only 6 minutes and I was wiped out afterward, but they went all night. Even though Jacob was exhausted, he still didn’t want to let go. This shows his desperation. All his life he had been self-reliant. He depended on himself. But here we see a change. Jacob had nowhere else to go, he needed God and he knew it. He had to hold on. So, Jacob holds on to God until God blessed him.

I think Jacob’s name change signifies a transition in his life. The name Jacob meant “deceiver” and Israel means “he struggles with God.” Jacob was finally starting his personal journey with God. The fact that Jacob wanted to know the man’s name indicates that Jacob wanted to have a personal relationship with him, with God. You don’t ask a person’s name unless you want to get to know them. I find it amazing that God had been with Jacob for all these years, but Jacob was never fully quite with God. Sure, God was there, he knew about God but there never was this personal connection, the life-giving relationship until now. And I realize through this passage this probably happens to all of us. God is with us, but we don’t realize the full implications of that until we meet him personally.

“So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  And as The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, … he was limping because  his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.”

Sometimes, when everything seems to be falling down around us, we may feel so unlucky, like Jacob. But we have to realize that it’s may not just be a run of bad luck that these things happen, but that it’s God’s sovereignty and maybe God uses events like this to help us to turn to him and cry out to God. Sometimes God has to break us down in order to build us up and bless us, just like he did with Jacob. Some of us are so stubborn and others are not. Abraham & Isaac didn’t go through this and yet Jacob did.

God was so gracious to come down and be with Jacob. God could have said, “I’m done with you. When will you ever change?” Jacob seemed like he would go on forever wrestling with others like his brother, Laban, and even with God. The significance of the passage lies primarily in Jacob’s discovering the freedom and enduring grace of God. The passage shows that God is free to bless who he pleases. Jacob was on the verge of receiving the promise of God, however he wasn’t ready spiritually to carry out the blessing. Jacob needed to have his own faith, obtaining the blessing through his own personal encounter with God, not by heredity. The blessing Jacob desired could not be given to him automatically, just because God made a promise to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Nor would he be able to get it with his own strength or by his clever wits. However, through this event, the fear of his brother, the restoration of their relationship and especially wrestling with God, Jacob experiences the grace of God personally, and through it he is transformed forever. His inner man is changed from a cocky deceiver to a humble person who acknowledges his indebtedness to God and how he wronged his brother. This event depicts the decisive transforming moment in Jacob’s life so that he can become the ancestor of faith in which a nation of God’s people can be built.

It is interesting, when we see Jacob’s wound it indicates both the pain and victory of his encounter with God. Neither Abraham nor Isaac had such a confrontation with God, making Jacob a remarkable ancestor to whom his descendants could look to as their example. Jacob’s wounds were like the scars on Jesus’ hands, in that they signified both his pain and his victory. It’s only because of Jesus, that we can see God face to face, for the holy God demands righteousness, which we are not, and we would be burned up in the presence of God. Seeing God face to face was like seeing Jesus. Knowing our sin and how we should be condemned, we should be dead, and yet Jesus came and sacrificed himself so that we could be saved is amazing.

I was moved by our hymn this morning in which we sang:

Oft times the day seems long, our trials hard to bear, We're tempted to complain, to murmur and despair; But Christ will soon appear to catch His Bride away, All tears forever over in God's eternal day. It will be worth it all when we see Jesus, Life's trials will seem so small when we see Christ; One glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase, So, bravely run the race till we see Christ. And since the Chicago Marathon is today, our hymn ties in nicely, just like the Marathon, we need to bravely run the race of faith, the race of life, until we see Christ. So, when we encounter difficult events like this, when things look dark without a ray of light and it feels like we’re being tossed around with no help in sight, we must remember that there is someone in heaven who knows our deepest needs and desires, all we need to do is go to Jesus in prayer to find a solution. May God be with you.

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Amos 6:1-14

Key Verse: 6:8b

The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts:

  “I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds,
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