Recently I spoke at the Auckland Japanese Christian Church on the life of Jacob. Since I only had one opportunity to comment on a long and eventful life, I focused in on what I believe to be the defining moment in Jacob’s life – his so-called wrestle with God in Genesis 32:22-32. In the process for preparing for this message and in the aftermath of delivering it – there has been much blessing.
Jacob lived up to his name which literally means, “to grasp the heel”, and which figuratively came to mean “to deceive”. He was given this name at his birth when he was born literally holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau (Genesis 25:26). However, we find out that at the end of his life, he is “letting go”, blessing others and with a new name – Israel. What brought about the change in his life, from moving from a self-centered life to a God-centered life? This is a very important question because it concerns each one of us as well.
At the time of our story in Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob is totally absorbed with just one thing in life and it was to do with his imminent meeting with his brother Esau. It never occurred to him that there was a far greater need – a meeting with God – that was first required. He did not realise that the two were connected, that his meeting with God would first prepare him for his meeting with his brother. Jacob had to meet God first before he could meet Esau.
This was a very tense time in Jacob’s life and the tension is building in the story. He is now returning home to Canaan after many years away. He had left the region of his hostile father-in-law Laban, and now he is entering the region of his hostile twin brother Esau. Their parting words and actions many years before was one of Esau threatening to kill Jacob for taking his birth right. And so the big question is: ‘What would be Esau’s response to Jacob now?’ Jacob is further alarmed when his men report to him that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men (Genesis 32:3-8). In a desperate attempt to soften any hostility, Jacob sends ahead gifts of goats, camels, sheep and donkeys (Genesis 32:13-21). Then Jacob intended to spend the night alone, clearly conscious that a great crisis was looming in his life. Anything might happen in the morning when he meets Esau and his 400 men.
But he did not spend a quiet night alone. A man wrestled with him throughout the night until sunrise. Perhaps at first he may have thought it was one of Esau’s men but Jacob soon came to realise that it was God himself in the form of a man, or at the very least an angel who represented God, in the form of a man. This man wrestled with Jacob throughout the night. This was God’s way to teach Jacob a very important lesson, one that we must learn today. God had to wear Jacob down in order to teach him this lesson. Jacob had to reach a point where he could no longer rely on his own strength but solely trust in God. Only then would he be ready to meet Esau and enter the Promised Land. He would enter not by his own strength but by God’s grace and power.
Jacob’s whole life could be summed up as one of a struggle. He had struggled with his twin brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban. He was now about to struggle with God! This was God’s way to teach Jacob that he had to put God first in his life. And so God came to Jacob in such a form that Jacob could wrestle with him all night. This was a ‘controlled lesson’, for it took just a simple touch from the Lord to disable Jacob before the day dawned. God had to bring Jacob down so that he would come to the end of himself and finally trust in God. And so God touched Jacob’s hip and took away the very power Jacob needed for wrestling. By one touch Jacob was brought to the very end of his resources and left utterly powerless.
Here we see how God has to sometimes deal with each of us. In wanting to bring us to himself, he has to take us to the end of our own limits and beyond. We naturally resist this or we are slow to see that it is God who is doing this. So he touches us in the area that we perceive is our strength. He makes us weak so that we will turn to him.
As the night was coming to an end and the sun was about to rise, Jacob recognised who it was that he had been wrestling with throughout the night. And he stopped wrestling and began to cling, to hold on to his mysterious attacker. Now disabled at the very point of strength required for wrestling, he could now do nothing but cling; from living a cunning life to clinging, from resisting to resting. “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. Change is now taking place in his life. He is now aware that without God in his life, he would not succeed. It is always best to put God first in your life.
What are you wrestling with today? Perhaps such challenging experiences you may be facing are placed there by God because he is saying ‘trust me…do not rely on your strength…persist in holding onto me…cling onto me’.
Then the angel of the Lord called attention to Jacob’s name. He was no longer to be a deceiver of people but rather one who was known to struggle with God and who overcame. His new name (Israel) was going to be a permanent reminder of his struggle with God and of God’s gracious response. He was blessed now with a new name, a new character, and a new limp in his walk – yes, that’s right – a new limp in his walk. Jacob was now going to keep for the rest of his life not just a new name but a limp in his step to remind him of his wrestle with God and of God’s gracious response. He would not forget God’s lesson ever again!
This story is an illustration of how God deals with us today. When we are faced with a crisis, with difficult challenges, with overwhelming needs, and we feel at the end of our tether. Let us learn from the story of Jacob to always put God first in our lives and trust him. The Christian life is a life of wrestling against the difficulties of life but such wrestling is often God’s way of casting us upon his wisdom and grace. It teaches us to hang on to God or else – disaster! Or as the apostle Paul said:
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given to me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10).