A pattern of faith-testing trials

There is so much to learn about faith and the testing and purification of our faith from the patriarchs. They were real people facing real, everyday challenges. We can notice the pattern of their experiences which are a clear mirror of our own. Their faith was tested, strengthened and re­fined. The life of Jacob follows this pattern and gives us, who follow in his steps, great encouragement and exhortation to go on believing in God’s providence.

God’s selection

We read of Isaac praying to the LORD on behalf of his wife because she was barren. God answered his prayer and his wife, Rebekah, became pregnant. We are told that, “The babies wrestled within her and she said, ‘why is this happening to me?’” 1 And God answered her, “There are two nations within you and the older shall serve the younger” (Gen 25:22-23). There would prove to be a constant striving for the ascendency between these two brothers and nations.

There is an important principle for us to note here. God had elected the younger. The nation of Israel is His sovereign choice and through His di­vine intervention they have become the nation they are today, and will yet become His people as foretold by their God. We also are His people by election, not due to any natural superiority of our own, but by virtue of our faith and by virtue of the struggle we have with bending our own will to God’s will, the One who has called us. The Apostle Paul picks up this principle in Romans 9 to show that we can be regarded as Abraham’s children, not by works but because of the very same calling and election, and our response, in faith, to the very same promises.

A type of the nation

We are familiar with the vision of the Kingdom Age given by the prophet Micah (4:1-4). In the same context are the significant words, “In that day,” says the LORD, “I will assemble the lame, I will gather the outcast and those whom I have afflicted; I will make the lame a remnant, and the outcast a strong nation. So the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from now on, even forever” (v6-7). How apt is that description of the restoration of Israel when seen in the light of their predecessor, Jacob, and his struggles! After suffering great af­fliction, Israel will be given the “first dominion” and the Kingdom will come to the “daughter of Jerusalem” – but only after they have gone through faith-refining trials like their father Jacob. In the midst of our struggles we can therefore find great hope and confidence in God’s long-term refining purpose. The hope of Israel is our hope!

The supplanter

In time, Rebekah gave birth to the first boy who was named Esau, for he came out all red and hairy. Remarkably the second twin came out tightly clutching Esau’s heel. His tight little fist could not be prised off his brother, so he was called Jacob, the “supplanter”, one who takes the heel. His name was to be so much in line with his future character! He was to become tenacious, self-willed and determined. He pursued God’s promise but in that pursuit he would become a manipulator, a liar and deceiver. He took advantage of Esau’s careless ignorance. He supplanted his brother and, in his own eyes, received the blessing of Abraham and Isaac. He was looking for something better, whereas Esau, a man of the world, lived only for the mo­ment. Jacob chose the narrow, hard way, and the way that was taken forcibly by wrestling. By lying and deceiving, Jacob followed Rebekah’s instructions in how to receive the firstborn blessing from Isaac. He was asked (twice!), “are you my firstborn son?” and, “Yes, I am Esau,” he replied. Because of this deception, Esau held a grudge and hated Jacob. Esau made his intentions clear. As soon as Isaac died, so would Jacob! On hearing this, Jacob was overcome by fear, dread and anxiety. From then on he would be constantly looking back over his shoulder as he fled. He was sent to Laban in Haran to escape Esau and to take a wife from the family.

As he fled from Esau he was given a remarkable blessing at Bethel (Gen 28:3-4, 12-17). God reaf­firmed the promises to him and gave Jacob confidence that He would watch over him. But here Jacob quali­fied his acceptance and his faith, as we can so easily do! In effect he said, “I will see if God is with me.” His words, in essence, were, “If I return safely, He will be my God” (Gen 28:21)! We then read of the vexa­tion of life with Laban and of Jacob repeatedly being deceived and deceiving. He lived by his wits and there was growing hostility between Laban and Jacob, until he was commanded by God to go back to the land of promise. After Jacob’s escape and reconciliation to Laban, we read, “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is God’s host’: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim (two hosts or camps)” (Gen 32:1-2).

The power of faith and courage

What a lesson for us! When we act and obey, God gives reassurance in the face of adversity. What came out of the unknown to fearful Jacob was to be God’s host! Jacob prepared to meet the brother that he had not seen for at least 20 years! He could no longer flee and so, as always, he prepared. All that he heard though, was that Esau was coming fast in his direction with four hundred men (v7)! Fear struck at Jacob’s heart. Clearly he was no match for hundreds of men seeking revenge!

Fear and anxiety is common to us all. But fear is not of God. It is a result of the fall and sin. Facing death himself, the Apostle Paul wrote to encourage his son-in-the-faith, Timothy, that, “God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7). Courage is not the absence of fear, but believing that there is something greater at stake than our fear. That greater thing for us is the fear of the Lord. It has been said that courage is not one of the virtues but the essence of every virtue at its testing point. David on many occasions exempli­fied the courage that is greater than fear. He said, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Again he says, “Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart; wait, I say, on the LORD” (Psa 27:1, 14).

In Genesis 32 we read that Jacob was now driven to prayer to encourage himself (v9-12). In the morning, more plans were made. He organised more gifts in order to break down Esau’s resolve; to bribe him, to slow him down and “buy” Esau’s forgiveness and grace.

The real struggle

“Jacob was left alone” (v24). It has been said that ‘when we are truly alone, that is who we truly are’. And here, Jacob was truly vulnerable and alone with his feelings. In his mind he was facing probable death, divested of his earthly possessions, power­less to control the outcome. Only then did his real struggle begin!

We can picture Jacob’s plight. He was in the darkness and an assailant came at him. His great­est fear was realised – Esau had found him! He wrestled his assailant and then he realised that it was not Esau but a divine being, far stronger than he was but one who withheld his full strength. The angel was conforming and transforming Jacob as they wrestled. Jacob went from trying to overpower by his own will power to clinging on desperately for God’s will to be done. God had provoked this crisis with Jacob to bring about absolute faith and trust and to give Jacob courage. God held the power to disable Jacob at any time and the struggle was nec­essary, not for the angel, but for Jacob. He needed with clarity to see the gentle superiority of God. The message was clear – ‘Jacob, you may wrestle with all your might, but I can disable you with one touch.’

So many helpful principles are shown here. The Apostle Paul could write, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” God was in effect saying, ‘Jacob, leave Esau to me. Stop trying to accomplish your desires through your own strength.’ Paul concluded that, “I will all the more gladly boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (RSV 2 Cor 12:9). When we are feeble, weak and impotent, then we can be strong; strong in the grace and power of Christ in us (v10). Even if we suffer great loss, it is better for us to enter the Kingdom “maimed”, without eye or hand than not to enter at all. All those who enter the Kingdom will have learnt this important lesson. The scars we have been given have helped make us trust in God. We will all limp into the presence of the Lord at that day, joyful that his grace has been sufficient for us.

At the break of day, Jacob prevailed over the angel. The prophet Hosea comments upon this incident. He says, “He (Jacob) struggled with the angel and prevailed; he wept, and sought favour from him” (12:4). We can picture Jacob clinging to the heel of the angel, not letting go, weeping and pleading, ‘bless me, bless me’! The lesson is powerful. God wants us to desperately cling on to Him. That is prevailing with God. The prophet Hosea goes on to say, “So you, by the help of your God, return; observe mercy and justice, and wait on your God continually” (v6). This is wrestling and prevailing with God to receive the blessings. This is, in effect, losing our life to gain it. It’s defeat and victory in one crisis of faith. Surely we recog­nize our own struggles, fear, darkness, loneliness, powerlessness and exhaustion in Jacob’s struggles. Yet he was blessed!

Jacob told the angel, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26). For so long he had lived with the doubt that he had achieved the blessing in a deceitful and illegitimate way. The angel asked, “what is your name?” (v27). Of all the things he could have said! Jacob was compelled to relive the last time he had asked for a blessing – the blessing he had stolen by deceit and lying. He had said then, “I am Esau.” Jacob fully understood the reason and indictment behind God’s question and he answered truthfully, “my name is Jacob!” God knew Jacob’s name and character from the womb. He wanted Jacob to confess and to own it! Deep in his heart, Jacob knew he was a deceiver and that he had got the blessings by fraud. He had tried to obtain them by his own wit and guile.

Jacob becomes Israel

Jacob teaches us what we all must do. He confronted his failure, his weakness and sin, and faced God. We come this morning to confess who we really are, to acknowledge our sin and cling to our God. We must not give up! We must be totally determined to see Him face to face, He who is so much greater than all our fears and anxieties.

Jacob was told, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28). The prize of Jacob’s victory was a new name, “Israel”, prince with God. Jacob then asked him, saying, “Tell me your name, I pray” (v29). He was told in effect, ‘you know who I am, the representative of the God of Abraham and Isaac. And now Jacob, I am your God. And he blessed him.’

The record beautifully says, “And as he passed over Peniel the sun rose upon him” (v31). The dark night of struggle was over. Jacob would go out to meet Esau and, though limping and powerless, he was stronger in his faith that God Almighty would answer his deepest need. And He did, and He does today. Like Jacob we must let God win!

The story continues in chapter 33 where we read one of the greatest reconciliation stories in Scripture. We read of Esau, who clearly demon­strates the grace of God, running up to meet Jacob, embracing him, falling on his neck and kissing him. “And they wept” (v4)! That is the same language used by the Lord to illustrate the readiness of the father to greet his prodigal son in Luke 15. Jacob said, “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me” (v10).

There is so much more in the Genesis record that Jacob would have to endure. But so it is with us for who knows what is ahead of us? We limp and are maimed, but we have a promise and blessing that God is with us. Let us keep trusting and persever­ing, just as Jacob’s life finished in faith, blessing and worshipping on his staff. As cited by Paul this was the culmination of a life learning to show faith and trust in God (Heb 11:21).

The greatest example

We come now to contemplate our Lord Jesus Christ in light of these things. Jesus, in the days of his flesh, wrestled with sin and won. We see him in the garden in great agony, with strong crying and tears, yet he prevailed. He, “With gentle resignation, still…yielded to his Father’s will” (Hymn 216). There was the beautiful, submissive spirit of ‘Not my will but yours be done.’ And an angel came, sustained him, held him and steadied him for the greatest act of faith and courage the world has ever seen. Now God has given him a name above every name, that at his name every knee shall bow. He bowed his head and surrendered his spirit.

We come to remember our Lord Jesus, he who overcame what we cannot and will never overcome. But through faith in his blood, we share the victory, the forgiveness of our sin and his righteousness. May he continue to give us the reason and faith to keep wrestling and to let God win!