Theme: Productive Wrestling with God
1) It starts with the meditation of Word and Prayer
2) It ends with the blessing of the gospel
Genesis 32:22-30 And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. 23 He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. 25 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. 26 And He said, "Let Me go, for the day breaks." But he said, "I will not let You go unless You bless me!" 27 So He said to him, "What is your name?" He said, "Jacob." 28 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." 29 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. 30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: "For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
Dear fellow saints and members of God’s household:
Wrestling tends to wear you down. That’s true for just any kind of wrestling. I’m not an expert in wrestling. I never competed athletically. The only wrestling I really did growing up was with my brother, either in the living room or outside. Neither of us were skilled in positions or strategy but no matter what we always wore each other out. Today, I wrestle most often with my kids; a process which usually involves chasing one another up and down the hallway. Again, not professional by any means but exhausting nonetheless.
In our text we hear about how Jacob wrestled with God Himself, certainly a difficult opponent. God put Jacob’s hip out of joint which certainly was painful by itself but also would have required Jacob to exert extra effort from the rest of his body. It’s a miracle that Jacob lasted as long as he did, and he was no doubt exhausted at the conclusion. But, at the end of this whole ordeal, thought he was exhausting physically, he was renewed spiritually. So it goes for all Christians who wrestle with God from time to time. It can seem like a daunting and painful process, and it certainly is at times. But, done appropriately, it always renews.
There are plenty of types of wrestling that simply wear the person down. Indeed, almost all eventually lead to fatigue. That’s kind of the point, right, who can last the longest? The Holy Spirit impresses upon our hearts today a king of productive wrestling with God which does not wear us down, but rather builds us up. It works in two ways: 1) It starts with mediation on God’s Word and through prayer. 2) It ends with God’s very own blessing through the gospel promise. As God encourages those who have ears to hear, to let them hear, so let us listen and learn from this Word today.
To get a grasp on the need for God’s Word and prayer at this point in Jacob’s life, you must understand what was going on. The Jabbok ford is a tributary that feeds the Jordan River. Jacob was traveling on his way home from Laban’s house. His two wives, Rachel and Leah, were with him, as well as the rest of his immediate family. Earlier, Jacob had sent half of his party ahead, across the Jabbok, to scout out the area. Why? Because Jacob knew that eventually he would encounter his brother, Esau. Remember the way things ended between Jacob and Esau some 15 years earlier? Jacob had deceived both Esau and their father, Isaac, when it came to receiving the family birthright. We know, to say the least, that things did not end well.
Without a doubt, there is a healthy amount of fear and uncertainty for Jacob. No one is sure how Esau will respond to Jacob’s return or what he might have planned as a vengeful response.
Once Jacob sees to his families’ safe transport across the Jabbok, he returns to the shoreline as the last one to cross over. We’re simply told that he was “left alone.” What exactly Jacob did in this interim will never be known. But, as a believer with great concerns looming on the horizon it’s not hard to imagine that his time was spent in prayer and meditation. In fact, this text is often used as a reminder of persistence of prayer in the life of the believer. Just as Jacob clung to the Lord until he was blessed, so we are encouraged by God to communicate regularly with Him, even to demand it.
Prayer is certainly on our minds here. But, I would implore you to think of something even greater. Jacob wrestled with the Lord, and stuck with it, not because of the quality of his prayer life, but because he desired the Lord’s blessing. The Lord’s blessing for Jacob was not a simple pat on the back of “well, done, you have endured and showed your worth.” The Lord’s blessing then was the same as it is today for us, a reminder of the assurance we have in Jesus, our Savior. Jacob knew about this promise because it had been passed down from generation to generation all the way from the very beginning when it was first given to Adam and Eve. He also knew it well because God had already given it to Jacob earlier. In Genesis 28 the Lord gave him the vision of the heavenly staircase with the angels and there assured Jacob that the Messianic promise given to his grandfather, Abraham, was also his.
This gospel-centered promise was on Jacob’s mind and heart as he contended that evening with God. Prayer comes into this story, not because it is the main point, but because it is a gift God gives us to keep us attached to the promise. More than focusing on the power and persistence of his own prayer, Jacob was meditating on the Word of his God. It was that Word that gave him hope. It was the substance of the promise contained within that kept Jacob clinging, even through the pain and obvious limitation.
How do we know this to be true? Well, the blessing came through the Word spoken, just as it does for us. Jacob said, "I will not let You go unless You bless me!" 27 So God said to him, "What is your name?" He said, "Jacob." 28 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." To the untrained ear and unawakened heart, this hardly sounds like a promise. Usually, any promise worth receiving contains something of value – some possession or gift. A new name doesn’t seem to mean much.
It’s not how the name sounds that makes the difference, rather it’s what it means and represents. The name Jacob means “heel.” It was a reminder of the way that Jacob entered the world. He clung to his brother’s heel in birth. Metaphorically, Jacob was always clinging for something in life. Up to this point he never seemed to have everything he wanted. And just as he wrestled with God on this river plain, along with Jacob’s struggle always followed wrestling. Early in life he wrestled with Esau, contending for his father’s approval and for the family birthright. Later he wrestled with Laban, working seven additional years for Rachel after finding himself on the receiving end of human deception. Now Jacob found himself contending with the greatest adversary possible, not God, but himself.
God was not there to cast Jacob to the mud and ridicule his existence. If that’s what God had wanted He surely would have delivered it. God was there to confront Jacob’s own fears and insecurities. His entire life up to that point was born of struggle. To get his way, Jacob relied on his own strength, persistence, and craftiness. Sometimes those things work in earthly struggles, but they always leave their ugly marks. Along the way Jacob had ruined his relationship with his brother, tarnished his relationship with his father, and made his first wife feel inadequate and unloved. Jacob was certainly a survivor in human eyes but at what cost? Was he really “winning” in life, as we might say today? Not really. Here, on the edge of the Jabbok, Jacob was really lost and that’s precisely why God came to him. All of these thoughts were wrapped up in the name, Jacob. Henceforth, that would change. No longer would be the “heel,” the “wrestler,” he would be Israel. God’s own, God’s people. God’s one who was called to a purpose in His name.
By itself, Israel literally means, “he who contends with God.” But this was the title God would give His own, and it was fitting in its own right. Yes, throughout their history Israel would contend with God. There was a constant tension in their relationship because of sin and wickedness. We know that struggle well, too, for we are spiritual Israel. We have been given a new name through the death and resurrection of the world’s Savior, for we are part of the world. From that moment on, all believers would likewise wrestle with the Lord.
There is tension in our relationship with God when sinful cares and desires flood our lives or when temptation comes looming around the corner of a thought or action. There must be that tension. If there wasn’t God would not be God. He is holy by nature and hates all that is not. He must or He would not be true, perfect, and just. The struggle is intense at times because, like Jacob, God must detach us from sin. The problem is that is so rooted into who we are that it is literally a detachment from ourselves, or perhaps more appropriately, a dislocation.
No one argues that wickedness and evil should be punished. But, when the mirror of God’s holy law points the crosshair His judgment at us, we resist. Jacob was guilty. He tried to run. He tried to make excuses. He tried to hide from what he had done in the past. When the time was right, God confronted him with the truth. But, this was not a confrontation of judgment or destruction. It was an honest moment of reflection and blessing. Therein rests the truth for our lives. To be blessed by the Lord is to be brutally honest about the truth. There is no other way. We have no hope in the gospel if that hope is in ourselves. God must detach us from the error of death. As Solomon wrote and as Hebrews quotes, “The Lord loves the one He disciplines (Pro. 3:11-12, Hebrews 12:6).”
What is your wrestling with God like? Are you honest about things you’ve contributed to the tension, or are you still trying to dodge the truth? Do you cling to Him in order to impress others with your amazing personal resolve or because you hunger and thirst for the Word of blessing? Is that blessing that you desire rooted in your own efforts and power or in the only Savior who paid the penalty for your sins? There are many lessons to be learned from Jacob’s wrestling match but none greater than attention to and reliance on the Lord’s promise of forgiveness. It was that very blessing which sustained Jacob throughout his life and taught him to trust in God alone.
We want our wrestling with God to follow the same pattern. There’s always different points of exhaustion given the situation you’re in. That’s the nature of the struggle. We might call it a product of this sinful and failing world. But, even God can work through that mess. What a miracle! He takes what is broken and dissolute and renews it! Why, then, are we so quick to doubt Him? Why don’t we trust? Could it be that sometimes we get in the way? Jacob did and so do we. But, always, with the Lord, at the end of the painful struggle, there is blessing. Not a temporary, earthly blessing that fades away like everything else. But, an eternal promise of life in Jesus Christ. This is true, because the Word of God.
Ephesians 1:13-14 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.