The Story of Jacob
This morning we want to learn about and reflect on the story of Jacob, Abraham's grandson and the father of twelve sons whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. Because of the amount of material (9 chapters), I will tell the "Reader's Digest" version of the story, and then we'll look closely at the key event in Jacob's life.
There is a tension that characterizes most of Jacob's life. On the one hand, God made promises to Jacob that he would provide for every important issue in his life. On the other hand, Jacob struggled to attain those same issues through his own means. This is the tension in which Jacob lived most of his life.
Let's survey the story to see these themes, and then draw some lessons for ourselves . . .
God promised even before Jacob was born that he would inherit the Promise (read 25:23). Jacob undoubtedly knew about this promise from his mother (he was her favorite).
But, as we saw last week, Jacob relied on his own tricks to "supplant" his older brother Esau. He took advantage of Esau's hunger to extract his birthright for a bowl of soup (25:29-34) and he resorted to gross deception to trick Isaac into passing the inheritance to him (27:1-40).
RESULT: Jacob got what he wanted, but at what a cost! Esau was so enraged that he decided to kill Jacob, so he had to flee for his life to his uncle Laban's (read 27:41-45) . . .
On his way to Laban's, God broke into Jacob's life through a dream. In that dream, he reiterated the Promise and also promised to Jacob that he would protect him while he was gone and bring him back safely (read 28:13-15). Jacob's response (28:16) showed he was essentially a secular man--living his life by his own resources, apart from any real awareness of God's involvement.
When Jacob got to Laban's land, he ran up against someone who was as good a chiseler as he was! Jacob fell in love with Laban's daughter Rachel, so he hung around a month instead of the few days he had planned. Laban noticed this, and took advantage of it to extract seven years of indentured servitude for her hand. When the seven years are over, Laban took advantage of Jacob's excessive partying at the wedding feast to smuggle his older daughter Leah into bed with Jacob. When Jacob woke up the next morning, "behold, it was Leah!" Jacob was furious: "What is this you have done to me? . . . Why then have you deceived me?" (What irony after his dealings with Esau!) Laban insisted on seven more years labor for Rachel. After those seven years, Jacob and Laban then spent six more years trying to screw each other over who would get the biggest portion of their flocks.
So because of his own scheming, Jacob successfully turned a few weeks into twenty years. He wound up fleeing for his life from his father-in-law and God had to intervene to prevent Laban from killing him.
On his way back home, Jacob realized that he had to travel through Esau's land. God spoke to Jacob again and promised to be with him (31:3). He followed this promise up by sending some angels to reassure Jacob of his protection (32:1,2).
But Jacob was still scheming rather than trusting. He sent some of his servants to bribe Esau with shmoozing and the hope of gifts (32:3-5). But they returned with news that sent chills down Jacob's spine--Esau was coming to see him with 400 men! For the first recorded time in the text, Jacob prayed to God for protection (32:9-12). But then he hatched an elaborate and self-protective plan to buy Esau off (32:13-20).
Alone that night before he had to face Esau, Jacob had an encounter with God that was the defining moment of his life . . .
The Wrestling Match
Read 32:24-30. Some people interpret this event as one more case of Jacob finding a way to get his own way--this time even from God through "prevailing prayer." This is defective because it rips this event out of its context, and because it portrays God as tight-fisted and ultimately coercible by us. No, God initiated this wrestling match to portray Jacob's life up to now, and to teach him a crucial lesson.
God initiated the wrestling match, and Jacob responded by fighting back all night long (32:24). This was a picture of Jacob's relationship with God all this time. It wasn't primarily Esau or Laban that Jacob was resisting and trying to get around--it was God himself. God had a will for Jacob's life and made promises to him pertaining to that will, but Jacob had been stubbornly resisting God's leadership at every step.
After wrestling all night, God dislocated Jacob's thigh with a touch (32:25). This showed Jacob who he was fighting with (someone with immense power who could easily beat him), and that this was a picture. God had been taking progressively more drastic steps (Esau; Laban; Esau) to teach Jacob to abandon his self-sufficiency and trust him.
Now crippled, Jacob can only hang on to God--a picture of his proper relationship with God. Now that Jacob's tenacity is expressed in a dependent posture, God blesses him (probably reiterates the Promise) and renames him to cleanse him from his old ways ("supplanter;" "deceiver") and give him a new identity to live up to ("one who strives effectively with God"). God has always been willing to bless Jacob. He has only been waiting for Jacob to ask with a trusting, dependent heart.
Jacob learned the lesson. The next morning, he dropped his elaborate and self-protective plan with Esau and instead passed ahead of everyone to meet him directly (33:3), trusting God's promise to protect him. He discovered that Esau had forgiven him, and he went on to supply godly leadership for his family.
Jacob is not a special case--he is a picture of all of us. All of us struggle with God. We are deeply committed to making our lives work apart from personal dependence on God's direction and power. The Bible says this is the heart of human depravity.
It's not just that we are ignorant about God, have misconceptions about him through poor authority figures, defective churches, etc. We also have a deeply ingrained suspicion that God is neither wise nor good--that he can't be trusted. In fact, we tend to project on to God what we are really like (selfish, controlling, etc.).
It's not so much that we doubt that a personal God exists or that he has a will for our lives. Deep down, we know both of these things. That's what we're afraid of, because we don't want to surrender the control of our lives to anyone, including (most of all) God.
Some of us express this pretty overtly--we say we want nothing to do with God, scream at him, etc. The rest of us are more subtle and passive, but the suspicion and struggle are still there. The latter are often in greater danger than the former because they deceive themselves into thinking they don't struggle with God.
God works through suffering and adversity to teach us our need to depend on him. Because the problem isn't merely misinformation about God, the solution requires more than simply learning that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Since the problem is deeply-rooted self-sufficiency, God works to "break" this through adversity.
Often (like Jacob), he just lets us reap the consequences of our poor choices (ALIENATION WITH ESAU >> BROKEN RELATIONSHIPS DUE TO YOUR SIN; LOST JOBS DUE TO YOUR IRRESPONSIBILITY). Sometimes, he intervenes with specific discipline (LABAN; WRESTLING >> PEOPLE IN THE WAY OF YOUR AGENDA; SICKNESS?, RELATIONAL & CAREER DISAPPOINTMENTS; CONFRONTATION & DISCIPLINE BY OTHERS). He loves you enough to "take you to the mat."
Even then, you have a choice. God won't make you submit to him, but he will polarize you. Either you harden in your commitment to control your own life, and deepen your suspicion about God's goodness--or you admit your inadequacy and submit yourself to God, and experience his goodness and wisdom.
GOSPEL: Conversion is not only saying "I'll take the free gift you offer me through Christ"--but also saying "I am willing to bow to you and submit to your leadership." This is why coming to Christ is painful (ME), because it hurts the ego to admit you can't take care of your own life. But it is a pain that is worthwhile because it leads the way home . . .
Learn to recognize and resolve your controversies with God. Even after you come to Christ, there are still areas you don't yet trust God with, or areas that you take back under your control. This is what I mean by a controversy with God. God will make an issue of these, both because they hinder his purpose for your life and injure you in the process.
EXAMPLES: ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS (focus on spiritual growth & developing close friendships vs. sexual &/or partner compromise); CAREER & MONEY (focus on serving God & trusting him to provide vs. fixating on career & fitting ministry in around it); RELATING TO OTHERS (forgiving, confronting, honesty & vulnerability, submission vs. writing people off, distancing self., etc.)
POSSIBLE SIGNS OF CONTROVERSY: dried up Word & prayer; chronic absence of seeing God working in & through you; increased vulnerability to temptation; frustration and anger with people and circumstances that are "in the way;" alienation from mature Christians who know you well
Vital Christians monitor themselves regularly so they don't allow themselves to become hardened in controversy with God. It's a great thing to have a heart that is sensitive to God's conviction rather than to be a "moral mule" (Ps. 32:8,9)!
If you have allowed this to happen, follow James' advice! Read Jas. 4:6-10 (all verbs are in a tense that indicates the need for a decisive and urgent break with the old life). When you tell God you want to get back with him and that you're willing to take whatever steps are required, he will show you what you need to do. And when you respond, he will restore your walk with him immediately.