Let me set the context for where we are in the flow of the greater story:
Genesis 28:10-11, “Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep.”
Jacob is in a dicy situation. First off, he’s not an outdoorsman. Jacob is used to the comforts of “tent life” so surviving in the wilderness was not exactly his forte. Bear Grills Jacob is not! Secondly, Jacob’s wilderness excursion is one of pure necessity.
Jacob is literally fleeing for his life. His brother Esau is angry and wants to kill him, which naturally carried with it an understandable measure of trepidation. Esau was a man of the land. Not only was he an expert marksman, but he was a savvy hunter. Esau was used to tracking his game and waiting for the ideal moment to go in for the kill. I can only imagine how terrifying this first night had to have been for Jacob!
Keep in mind… Jacob’s entire life has been totally upended. As a result of the actions of one day he now finds himself sent away from his home with his future uncertain at best. Will Esau hunt him down and kill him before he makes it to Haran? If he survives the journey will he be able to find Laban? The context for what happens next is that everything Jacob finds familiar or takes comfort in has been utterly stripped from his life.
Genesis 28:12-15, “Then Jacob dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’”
While there’s a lot we could discuss, what’s important for our purposes is that God reveals three important truths about Himself to Jacob in this dream: Truth #1: God was accessible.
Notice what Jacob first sees… He sees “a ladder set up on the earth” so that “its top reached the heavens.” The point of this was to help Jacob realize there was way more to his reality than what he could physically see. There was indeed an access point between heaven and earth… A way for mortal man to approach the infinite God. The Lord of heaven was letting Jacob know He was not only accessible, but desired a relationship with him.
Truth #2: God was actively involved in the affairs of his life though Jacob didn’t know it. Aside from there being this connecting point between heaven & earth, upon this stairway Jacob also sees “the angels of God ascending and descending.” Once again the point of this was to emphasize to Jacob the reality that God was not only accessible, but (while he may have been ignorant of this fact) God was actively involved in the affairs of his life.
Finally, aside from seeing the stairway and the angels, Jacob notices “the Lord standing above it” all. As Jacob is processing everything he’s seeing, the focal point of this dream slowly comes into view as his gaze turns upward… The Lord was not only accessible and active, but ultimately (Truth #3) all heavenly blessings descend from God to man.
While there seems to be ample evidence Jacob possessed a hunger for higher things demonstrated by his deep longing to receive the birthright… And though there is no doubt Jacob knew God had chosen to bless him before he was ever born, Jacob’s struggle was understanding how he was to attain the blessing he knew he’d already been given.
Remember why Jacob was in this very situation? Jacob had schemed to procure something only God could give him. For years Jacob had been working and striving to attain the birthright. He’d sold a bowl of soup to his dying brother and then, when that deal wasn’t honored Jacob proceeded to trick his blind dad into giving him the blessing unknowingly.
Though it’s true the object of Jacob’s desire had been right (the birthright and therefore the blessing of God was to be desired), the way Jacob pursued this blessing was all wrong.
The core idea behind this stairway and these angels ascending and descending from God all while Jacob slept was to hammer home the reality that Jacob didn’t need to strive to attain a blessing only God could give him. God had given him access and was actively involved in his life. God didn’t need Jacob’s help! He didn’t need to take the reigns to speed up the process. God was at work and that work would yield the blessing he desired!
Friend, the same reality is true in your life. God’s work in your life can only occur as God works in your life! His blessings flow from His grace, not from your efforts. His love, not your deservingness. The sacrifice He made, not the ones you promise. His work, not yours.
“So Zach what then am I supposed to be doing?” Seriously… Absolutely nothing! Spiritual transformation resides not in the things you do, but in a relationship you have. Your growth and therefore God’s blessings are yielded through Jesus, not earned by you!
In John 15:4-5 Jesus was very clear what your role was to be as His disciple. He said, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
Note: The only job you really have is to “abide in Jesus.” What this means is that your sole focus, passion, and energies should be on the development of your relationship with Jesus - knowing that it will be through this relationship that God’s work in you will be accomplished.
Genesis 28:16-22, “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!’ Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.’”
What a moron! This phrase “Jacob made a vow” reveals the fact he completely missed the entire point of the dream! In response to everything God had just revealed to him, Jacob replies in the most audacious of ways. “God, if you do all the things you’ve just promised to do for me I’ll let you be my God. Additionally, if you bless me I’ll give you back a tenth.”
Not only does Jacob’s immediate compulsion to make a “vow” to God reveal the fact he still possesses a complete misunderstanding of what God’s grace was all about - which was the purpose behind this dream, but Jacob’s promise to also “give a tenth of all that God gave him” was actually nothing more than a bribe meant on incentivizing God’s continued favor!
Understand… Jacob’s vow is completely self-serving. Yes, he’s making a promise that will obligate him to a future action, but the vow itself is predicated upon God acting first. “Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘IF GOD!’” Jacob’s compulsion to make a vow to God in order to prompt God’s continued favor, blessing, and protection was not only silly, but the reality is that it was insulting! Jacob was treating God like He was a shrewd merchant as opposed to a loving Father, as if his relationship with the Lord was transactional not doting.
Because God’s grace is based upon a covenant He’s made with you and not one you make with Him, making such a vow in an attempt to receive His continued blessing completely discounts the sole sufficiency of Jesus’ work on the cross.
Now before you judge Jacob you should consider how often we approach God in the same manner. Understand, anytime you pray, “God, if You do ________, I’ll do _________!” you’re making the identical mistake. And oh how quick we are to do such a thing when we really want God to act! When you loose you’re job and the savings are about depleted, how quickly you’ll hit your knees and pray, “God if You’ll give me a job, I promise I’ll finally start tithing.”
How about when your child or spouse get’s really sick and you’re utterly hopeless because there’s nothing you can do about it? You’ll hit your knees and pray, “God if You heal my child, I’ll never miss another Sunday - even if the Broncos have the early game in London.”
Or what about that girl or guy you’ve been totally crushing on but they haven’t even noticed you existed yet… You’ll pray something like, “God if You’ll cause them to fall in love with me, I promise I’ll dedicate my life to becoming a pastor or a missionary or something.”
What makes this approach so tragic is that you’re actually communicating to God that you really don’t believe He cares about you… That the unconditional nature of His love is a lie… That grace is a manipulation technique God uses to get what He wants out of you!
What you’ve implied through such a prayer is that God took your job away because you weren’t tithing… Or that He allowed your loved one to get sick because you haven’t made church attendance a priority… Or that the reason that girl hasn’t paid attention to you really boils down to the fact you haven’t been serious about your relationship with Him.
This is why such an approach to God is not only insulting but ultimately reveals you haven’t come to understand the incredible nature of His grace. God loves you unconditionally. You don’t have to bargain with a man who’s giving away everything in his store for free!
The truth is that while this revelation of God was radicle, Jacob didn’t get it. Instead of simply allowing God to work through his life, Jacob is determined to be the master of his own destiny. From Bethel he makes his way to Laban where his life goes from uncertain to dysfunctional. He finds himself in the home of a schemer and ends up marrying sister wives.
After some 20 years in Haran, Jacob finally decides it’s time to head home. He goes through the process of breaking ties with Laban, and as he’s approaching the Promised Land he’s preparing himself for the inevitable reunion with his brother Esau - who wanted to kill him.
Genesis 32:22-24a, “Jacob arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. Then Jacob was left alone…”
What a place for Jacob to be! He’s afraid. A reckoning with Esau is about to commence. His past mistakes and transgressions… Things Jacob had been running from for all these years are about to catch up with him. Jacob left alone and now he’s returning to face Esau alone.
Additionally, we’re told Jacob finds himself at a place called “Jabbok.” Ironically, this word means “emptying.” For twenty years Jacob has tried to be his own man apart from grace.
Jacob has worked, and schemed, and connived… He’s clawed his way to where he is. He’s achieved all that he has. And yet, because he failed to allow God’s work to be God’s work accomplished God’s way and in God’s timing, working instead in his own strength to attain a life only God could give - in the process Jacob had created quite a mess for himself.
At this juncture of his life Jacob is at the end of himself… He’s running on empty… He’s at the end of his rope… Jacob is out of schemes, out of ideas, there’s nothing more he can do!
Genesis 32:24b-26, “And a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, ‘Let Me go, for the day breaks.’ But he said, ‘I will not let You go unless You bless me!’”
Imagine this scene. Jacob is on a crash course with his brother Esau. He’s alone. It’s dark. Jacob is desperate, exhausted, ready to give up - not to mention afraid. When out of nowhere we’re told “a Man” attacks him and a wresting match ensues that lasts until day-break. Jacob and this mystery Man go back and forth exchanging blows. It’s life or death!
This was not your typical Floyd Mayweather fight where you dance around for 12 rounds in order to avoid getting hit or for that matter a Ronda Rousey overhyped 48 second flop. This was a real battle royal. A true fist-a-cuffs. Diaz vs. McGregor going 5 in the Octagon!
In order to understand what’s happening and why, you need to first see this “Man” - the aggressor as not just any man. In Hosea 12:3-4 we’re told, “In Jacob’s strength he struggled with God. Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed; He wept, and sought favor from Him.” This “Man” (notice the noun is capitalized) was none other than Jesus.
Secondly, this Hebrew word “wrestled” is unique for it literally means “dust.” The implications being this was not a dream, a vision, some type of hallucination, or spiritual wrestling, but was instead an actual physical altercation that took place between Jesus and Jacob.
Additionally, it should be pointed out Jesus, not Jacob was the initiator. Jesus, knowing everything that was going on in his life, was the one who came to Jacob and went on the attack. Jesus wrestled with him all night hoping Jacob would give up, call uncle, and tap out.
On this passage David Guzik wrote, “God wanted something from Jacob. God wanted all of his proud self-reliance and fleshly scheming and came to take it, by force if necessary.”
With that in mind, this statement “He saw that He did not prevail against him” so that “He touched the socket of his hip” carries with it a much deeper meaning. Jesus wrestled with Jacob all night not because He couldn’t have beaten him. Instead Jesus allowed the struggle to continue the duration with intention. The purpose was for Jacob to yield and surrender.
It is evident, at some point during the struggle, Jacob came to understand Who it was he was actually wrestling with. In verse 30 he even observes, “I have seen God face to face.”
At some moment within the struggle something changed in Jacob. He goes from wrestling to clinging… From fighting off to grabbing hold… Notice when Jesus finally tells Jacob “let Me go” his reply is “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” Once again, what makes this all more interesting is that, according to Hosea, Jacob was weeping by this point.
This phrase “unless You bless me” reveals so much about where Jacob is mentally. Up until now Jacob has worked hard to see the promises of God manifest in his life. And yet, it seems he now understands he’s really nothing apart from God’s blessing. “Unless You!” indicates Jacob came to accept the reality that without God’s involvement he really was nothing.
Genesis 32:27-28, “So He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob.’ And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’”
As Jacob is clinging onto Jesus think of the powerful implications of this question… “What is your name?” Why would Jesus ask him his name? At first you can’t help but think about the last time Jacob had been asked that very question. You see 20 years earlier his father Isaac had asked what his name was and Jacob lied and said it was Esau. In a sense by asking him this question Jesus is reminding Jacob that he caused the mess he found himself facing.
Beyond this, you can reason Jesus asks him such a question in order to force Jacob to admit out loud what his name was… To admit who he really was… He was “Jacob” or literally “heal-catcher.” This was his identity, his nature. Jacob had to concede he was his problem.
I imagine it’s in this moment that Jacob let’s go and rises to his feet. The light bulb has gone off. The point has been made. The lesson understood. Jacob had come to terms with who he was. He acknowledged his inadequacy. Jacob is now at the point of complete brokenness.
Notice what Jesus then does… “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” First off in ancient cultures names were significant. Not only did they speak of the person’s nature - identity, but the act of naming signified authority and dominion over that person.
This is why God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. Additionally, it also explains why God gave Sarah the name Isaac and then most notably Mary the name Jesus. And yet, it’s interesting that “Jacob” was the name given to him by Isaac and Rebekah. It was given specifically to represent the activities of his flesh… He was literally a heal-catcher.
That said… Now that Jacob had come to the point of realizing he was powerless in his flesh and had come to fully understand the power of grace, God changes his name to “Israel.”
Please note the Hebrew word “Israel” compounds two different words: The verb “sarah” which means “to rule” and “el” meaning God. The word “Israel” therefore means “God rules.” As such we understand this man was no longer being governed by his flesh (Jacob), but now by God (Israel). In accepting God’s grace Jacob been given a new identity - Israel.
Genesis 32:29-32, “Then Jacob asked, saying, ‘Tell me Your name, I pray.’ And He said, ‘Why is it that you ask about My name?’ And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’ Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip. Therefore to this day the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.”
Let me sum things up with one clear statement of fact… God isn’t Oprah or Dr. Phil. He isn’t interested in making you a better you. Instead, God’s sole desire is to make you into something brand new. The goal of Christianity isn’t the renovation of self, but a complete regeneration. The purpose isn’t life-improvements via behavioral modification, but new-life via an internal transformation brought forth through the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit!
As the Paul so gloriously wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
This story of Jacob wrestling with Jesus (in the context of him failing to grasp the true point of the dream (grace) which led him along a 20 year journey towards brokenness) is that it illustrates for us the mechanism for how this work of transformation occurs in our lives. Consider… How did Jacob ultimately become the man God had called him to be?
Was it though his efforts, striving, scheming, planning, work, ingenuity, his flesh - the natural man - being Jacob? No! Jacob became the man God wanted him to be the very moment he reached the end of himself, was willing to admitted who he was (insufficient), stopped wresting with and grabbed hold of Jesus, surrendered his flesh to the influence of divine grace, and allowed God to transform him by imparting a new identity - Israel!
For so many years Jacob tried so hard and failed - when in one moment he simply became via a work of God. Christian, I know you really so want to be the person God has called you to be… And yet, please understand the key to becoming that person isn’t working harder! The story of Jacob teaches us the key is to instead stop wrestling with God and surrender to the power of his amazing grace demonstrated through His Son Jesus.
In a sense stop trying to become the person only He can make you! Consider the work Jesus has already accomplished in your life… You were an enemy of God, but He made you a child of the Most High… You showed seeds of wickedness in this world, but He made you an heir of all the promises of heaven… You were ripped off, but now eternally blessed…
You were once held captive by this sinful world, but now you’re a citizen of heaven… You were once lost, but now you’re found… Blind, but now you see… Lame, but now you run… Broken, but now made whole… You were a blasphemer, but now you’re a proclaimer… A rebel, but now a friend… Fallen, but Jesus made you righteous in the eyes of God.
And how did any of these amazing transformations occur in your life? Did you work hard to earn them… Scheme to procure them… Wrestle to attain them… Do you even deserve them? No, not at all! Instead, you became these things the very moment you came to the end of yourself, stopped wrestling with Jesus, and accepted the reality His grace is enough!
Friend, if that work of God alone was more than able to begin such an amazing work, don’t you think God is more than able to complete it? Stop wrestling and let Jesus transform you. Hang out with Jesus and let Him teach you how to walk consistent with the new identity you’ve been given. “Unless Jesus” you’re in trouble. Unless grace you’d remain as you are!
As we close don’t forget Jesus came and wrestled with Jacob because He loved him and wanted to change his life. He’d tried to reveal the incredible nature of His grace through His Word - but Jacob missed it. So what did God do? He let Jacob attempt to do it on his own. Not surprisingly he failed and in that moment of emptiness he was prime for the taking.
I can imagine there are some of you wrestling with Jesus right now - right where you’re seated. You want God’s blessings, but you want them on your terms. You want God to work, but only in the way you’ve determined. You want to retain a measure of authority. Well, just like Jacob, if you’re willing to be honest you’ll admit your life is a total mess as a result!
Friend, understand you’re wrestling right now for one reason. Jesus is on the attack because He loves you and wants to provide you a life far superior to the one you’ve created for yourself. Instead of fighting Him off may I encourage you to simply grab hold. Instead of wrestling just surrender and allow the radical nature of His grace to transform you into someone new!
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