JACOB WRESTLES WITH GOD
Key Verse 32:28
“Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Today’s message can be called the climax of Jacob’s life. It is the point in his life that all men must come to. Jacob had been a deceiver all his life. He had also been an opportunist, an adulterer and a cheater. In short, Jacob was a sinner trying to achieve and struggle to get the things of the world that he thought would give him peace and security and even the meaning of life. He had also been a man of many struggles. He struggled to get honor, love and wealth. Yet when he achieved these things and worked hard to obtain them, he did not have the peace and security and meaning of life. Instead he only had fear and anxiety.
Now in today’s passage he comes to meet God and struggle with God in a wrestling match. This amazing event was initiated by God, the good shepherd who had been faithful to Jacob and had accepted his vow over 20 years earlier. God had not left Jacob, even when he was so intense on getting what he wanted. God had hope to change him to be a godly man with whom he would name his people, Israel, after.
We are all like Jacob in many ways. We struggle like him to obtain the perishing things of this world, because this is the characteristic of sinful men. But God waits for each one of us patiently to repent of our sins and to struggle with him and to grow on a higher plane into spiritual men and women. What then does it mean to struggle with God? How can we struggle with God?
Part 1. Jacob Prepares to meet Esau (32:1-21)
At the end of chapter 31, Jacob and Laban part from each other. From this time on, we will not hear about Laban again in Genesis. I guess Laban was glad to see his nephew go. I am sure that Jacob was just as glad to go also based on his experience with Laban. For over 20 years Jacob struggled with Laban and in his struggle, God made him fruitful. But in those 20 years Jacob had been building up a lot of fear and anxiety in his heart. The more he had, the more he worried about what he had. Also, he had 4 wives and 11 children. There was so much on his mind and so much to keep track of. His parting from Laban did not put an end to his problems, his worries or fears and anxieties. He still had to meet up with his brother Esau whom he had not seen in over 20 years and whom he deceived two times by getting the birthright and the blessing. Remember Esau was so angry at Jacob for doing that he wanted to kill Jacob.
Look at verses 1-2, “Jacob also went on his way (going back to Bethel), and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named the place Mahanaim.”
These angels were sent by God to help Jacob to see that God was with him. God wanted to show Jacob that he would personally escort him home safely. When God first appeared to Jacob back in chapter 28 he made a promise to him in verse 15. God said, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” These angels now were like secret service angels, ready to guard him and watch over him 24/7 until he came to Bethel. God sent them there because he knew Jacob’s heart was filled with fear and anxiety. There were many angels that God sent, so Jacob was overwhelmed and amazed and said. “This is the camp of God!”
A few years ago when we used to Camp Letts for the Leader’s Conference, the first night we saw some Boy Scouts camping with a few tents. Then we woke up the next morning, there were hundreds of tents with Boy Scouts all over the place, in the fields and in the forest. They were everywhere. That was a large camp. Camp means hundreds of angels. It must have been an amazing sight to his eyes! God allowed Jacob to see this incredible sight. He allowed a deceiver of men to see this glorious sight because God wanted him to trust in him. God wanted Jacob to take his eyes off of himself and put them on God. God was saying to Jacob, “Look, Jacob! I am right here with you. Trust in me. Just trust in me. Don’t be afraid!”
For a moment, Jacob appeared to recognize this, because of his excitement and the exclamation point in verse 2 and because he named it the camp of God, emphasizing God’s name. However, as we look at verses 3-5, we see that he immediately took his eyes off God and did not interpret what God showed him as meaning that God was with him and wanted to lead him and protect him.
Jacob could have had peace if he trusted that God’s presence was there along with the holy angels of heaven who had come down to personally escort him back to Bethel. One of the greatest promises of the Bible is that God promises to be with us when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus told his disciples before he went into heaven, that he would be with them always even to the end of the age. God is with us always and wherever we go by his Holy Spirit who lives in us. He will never leave us or forsake us. This is his promise to us no matter who we are, young or old, shepherd or sheep. Not only that, God is present with us by his angels who continually watch over us.
But look at the next verses in 3-5. We see Jacob did not trust in God. He began to make an emergency plan to meet Esau. He sent this message because he was still in fear and anxiety. Look at verse 6 to see what message the messengers sent to Jacob. It says, “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.” Look how Jacob interpreted this. Let’s read verses 7-8, “In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and the herds and camels as well. He thought, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.’”
In verse 7 it says that he had great fear and distress. This great fear and distress came because of his mounting sins of holding onto what he had as his security and peace, that is, his wives, children and all his material possessions, as if his life depended on them. Fear and distress can also grip our hearts when we think we might lose something in this world or if the one’s we love might become sick or get hurt. It happens when we think of what we have as our security. Money, a good job, material possessions such as a house, cars and even our children can easily give us a false sense of security. Jacob also was in great fear and distress because he did not repent of his sins that had piled up on him over the years.
The Bible tells us that the man who fears God, there will be no fear. Psalm 112:7-8 says about the man who fears God, “He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is secure, he will have no fear…” But Jacob did not fear God or trust in God at this time. Jacob did not want to lose himself and surrender himself to God’s help. Just as he held onto Esau’s heel as he was born, he was holding onto his material possessions, wives and children, instead of holding onto God. He became very nervous and made a plan to divide the people who were with him into two groups and the flocks and camels as well. He calculated and said, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” It looked like a good plan, but it gave him no real peace. So what did he do?
He made a 911 emergency prayer to God. Let’s read verses 9-12. In this prayer Jacob appears to be asking God’s help. However, when we read it we can see that this prayer is very materialistic. He is only concerned about his material possessions and his desire to prosper (see verses 10-12). There is no repentance, no asking God to forgive him. He is not like the prodigal son who when he reached rock bottom confessed his sins saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” (Lk.15:18-19)
Look at verses 13-16. These verses still show us Jacob’s dependence on himself and not on Gods to save his life from fear and anxiety by what he has; his possessions. In verses 17-18, he is still calculating and making plans to save himself. In verse 19 we see that he has more plans, again using all that he has a buffer between himself and Esau. Jacob can only think that the worst thing may happen, so he needs two and even three rows of herds and servants to protect him. His thought to himself in verse 20 also shows how uncertain his plan was to him, because he used the word “perhaps.” He said, “Perhaps he (Esau) will receive me.” Jacob appears to be well protected by all he has, but now he is a lonely man and still uncertain about what lies ahead.
Part 2 Jacob Wrestles with God (32:22-32)
Look at verses 22-23, “That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.” Jacob was now in his original state before he acquired all his possessions in Paddan Aram. Right now he has nothing and is all alone. He is all by himself. When a person is all by himself and has reached his human limit, it is the best time to meet God. It was in this time, that God came to Jacob in an unusual way for him, in what appears to be a physical form. Look at verse 24, “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”
Usually a wrestling match lasts about ten minutes. This is because it is very exhausting to both opponents and one has the chance to get hurt. But Jacob wrestled all night until the sun could be seen rising in the eastern sky. I am sure Jacob was not looking for a fight. I am sure he was tired of struggling with Laban and he did not look forward to meeting Esau and fighting him. But from this wrestling match we can see clearly Jacob’s character is one that does not give up too easily. He is really stubborn in one sense. Now some people might say that being stubborn is not a good thing. Sometimes people have told me that I am a real stubborn person, that I have a thick head. One person even said to me that they never met such a stubborn person like me.
In one sense I believe it is true, but I don’t think it in terms of being negative. The reason is that God came to save stubborn people and use their stubbornness for his purpose. No one could change Jacob. He could not change himself. So God had to come down and personally beat Jacob into shape. God was like a personal trainer for Jacob, the kind of person that you can have help you to get in shape if you sign up at a health club. God was beating Jacob into place so he could personally make Jacob a new creation and use him for greater things.
Look at verse 25. “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of his hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.” Jacob was so stubborn and so unrepentant, that God had to do something to him to bring him to his senses, so he wrenched his hip. Jacob showed that he did not want to submit to God’s authority so God had to personally wrench his hip. Praise God who wrenched Jacob’s hip! Jacob’s life was on a reckless course. He was going crazy! But God intervened! This is God’s great love to sinners.
Look at verse 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.’” Jacob’s desire to be blessed shows that all he had could not be the true blessings. He wanted something more. His soul and spirit wanted what could only satisfy, that is God’s blessings. God’s blessings are not the material things but the forgiveness of sins. Jacob really wanted salvation and the peace of God that comes with it. But still he is fighting God, resisting God, not giving into God. Jacob had so many sins that he did not repent of. He had deceived many people and lived a “self-seeking” life. He had stubbornly tried to hold onto his own plan, even though he had made the vow to God, he would have forgotten God, unless God had come to him.
We can find that we often fight against God even though God has showed us the way through the Bible. How often we resist his will for us and ignore his voice during the day. We forget all that God has done for us as his sign for us that he wants us to humbly submit to him. We struggle because we do not yield to God and don’t come to Jesus with repentance. The real blessing is when we acknowledge that we are helpless sinners who can not help or save ourselves from the burden of sin and from the fear and anxiety that goes along with it. We are restless and have no rest until we come to Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In verse 27 Jacob acknowledges his name, “Jacob” Now let us read verse 28,. “Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” The change of a name by God in the Bible always represents God plan for that person. God changed Abram to Abraham, God changed Simon to Peter and God changed Saul to Paul. Jacob means deceiver. But Israel means “he struggles with God.” We see from this name that God wanted Jacob not to struggle with people anymore. This is a physical struggle that only leads to bitterness, anger, pride and fear. God wanted Jacob to struggle with him and grow to be a godly man. We can see here God’s vision for his future nation “Israel.” God wanted this future nation not to be like the nations around them, but instead to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Jacob had struggled with men and had won. Though he had won, he was not really victorious, but only burdened with sin. Now his life would be different as he struggled with God. God said that he had struggled with God and had overcome. Had Jacob beaten God? Had he outwrestled God? No. But God was showing him that when you wrestle with me you can have victory. This wrestling I believe is not to resist God, but to give into God. How then can we wrestle with God? How can we struggle with God? What does it mean to struggle with God?
First of all it means to accept his will over our own will. Even Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsamene the night before his arrest and trail and crucifixion. He prayed earnestly so that his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. Simon Peter did not want to accept Jesus’ words that he had to suffer and die. Peter had his own will for Jesus, his own plan that would make Jesus the President of Israel, and he Peter his right hand man. But Peter did not struggle and submit to God’s will, and denied Jesus three times. He later broke down and wept when he realized he had sinned by denying Jesus.
Secondly, we can struggle with God when we read the Bible personally and pray and make a decision to follow Jesus because of his grace to us. Romans 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God---this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform anymore to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is---his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Look at verses 29-32. Here we see that Jacob’s wrestling match with God was the beginning point of a new life. His confession in verse 29 shows the outcome. He saw God face to face. When he saw God in his struggle and when he saw God who wrenched his hip, he could become different. He saw God’s grace and salvation that his life was spared. This was more valuable than all the possessions that he had. This was the true blessing that his heart and soul earnestly hungered and thirsted for. Though he was never the same, because he limped, now he was different inside, at least a little, because he began to experience the real struggle. This is struggle on a higher plane, a spiritual one. Later he could confess that God had been his shepherd (Gen.48:15).