As you probably know, Jesus had quite a few disagreements with the religious leaders of his day. These were people who knew the Scriptures very well. One day he turned to them and said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). Did you hear that? The Scriptures testify about Jesus. Don’t forget that Jesus was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
So, leading up to Easter, we are taking a tour through some of the Hebrew Scriptures to see how they testify of Jesus. Today we’re coming to what may be a familiar story to many of you: Jacob wrestling with God. U2 even sings about it: “Jacob wrestled with the angel and the angel was overcome.”
To really understand this story, we need to know a little bit about Jacob. Jacob’s name means “Deceiver” How would you like a name like that? Jacob’s entire life had been a struggle, even from before his birth. We read that he struggled with his twin brother within his mother’s womb, so much so that his mother, Rebekah, asked God, “Why is this happening to me?” (Genesis 25:22). When he was born, he was the second born. Under the laws of primogeniture, the eldest son got almost everything, which means that Jacob got almost nothing as a result. He missed out on all the privileges of being the firstborn by minutes. And since then, his entire life had been a struggle.
Let me give you a few examples. He exploited his brother so that his brother sold his firstborn rights to him. He deceived his father so that his father blessed him, and not his brother, who as firstborn should have received the blessing. Jacob then had to run for his life, and by the time we get to today’s passage he had been in exile for twenty years. He also left his father-in-law on less than good terms. All of his life, Jacob had been angling and wrestling and deceiving to get ahead.
As we come to today’s passage, we’re in a sense coming to the climax of Jacob’s life. There comes a time when you can’t run anymore, and you have to face up to your past. And as we begin chapter 32, we find Jacob returning to Canaan at God’s command. In one sense, he’s been blessed. He left as a lonely exile; he’s returning as a wealthy herdsman with two wives, many children, and a vast caravan of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. He’s become a success.
But you can also feel the tension as he comes back home. For one thing, he’s got to face his brother Esau. Last time he saw his brother twenty years ago, his brother was trying to kill him. Then he hears that his brother is coming with 400 men. That’s obviously not a welcoming committee! His brother, it seems, is coming to make war.
Jacob is so concerned that he sends gifts to Esau to try to make peace, and he also divides his group into two camps, so that if they’re attacked at least one has a chance to get away. And it’s at this point, a point of great tension, that Jacob stands alone and encounters a man. For all Jacob knows, it could be one of Esau’s party sent ahead to deal with Jacob. And on the most crucial day of his life, a day on which everything is on the line, Jacob spends the night wrestling with this man, trying to not only win but to get this man’s blessing.
What can we learn from this passage? There’s so much, but let me highlight four things. The first is this:
1. We are all looking for what Jacob was looking for
What was Jacob looking for? His entire life, he had been trying to prove himself, to get ahead, to make something of himself. His entire life had been one of trying to make something of himself. And even now, with a family and wealth and success, you still see him longing – longing for acceptance from his brother, longing for relationships to be restored, and longing for a blessing from this wrestler. And we’re like Jacob. We all long for the same thing: to amount to something, to have our lives count, to receive validation that we matter. And it has to come from outside of ourselves; we can’t give this to ourselves. We’re all looking for what Jacob was looking for.
Let me give you some examples. Don Miller is a very popular author. His books sell very well. But when he was young, he found himself looking for an identity, as many of us did. He tried sports, but he wasn’t very good. He tried guitar, but he was really more interested in becoming a rock star than playing the guitar. And then one day when he was 25 or so, he watched a debate. Something went wrong with the camera, so to kill time one of the debaters stood in front of the crowd and recited poetry from memory for about twenty minutes. All the girls were falling out of their chairs, he says, their hearts exploding in love for him. And when the debate finally started, Miller wasn’t thinking about the debate. He was thinking of poetry, and whether he could learn some so that girls would fall off their chairs in love for him. He writes:
What I really began to ponder, I suppose, was whether or not coming off as a smart guy who knows poems could be my identity, could be the thing that made me stand out in life.
Now I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would come back to this moment much later in life and realize something very important about myself–namely, that I felt something missing inside myself, some bit of something that made me feel special or important or valued.
Miller says that he was looking for meaning, for some kind of endorsement from a jury of his peers, something that would win him the blessing.
He’s not alone. We’re all looking for that validation.
Tom Brady, the record-setting quarterback, says, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I think, ‘It’s got to be more than this.'” The actor Jim Carrey said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” Sidney Pollock, the movie maker, died a couple of years ago. Before he died, even when he was sick, he couldn’t stop working, even when his family wanted him to. An article written about him said, “Movie mogul Sidney Pollock says that although the grueling film-making process is wearing him down, he can’t justify his existence if he stops.” Pollock said, “Every time I finish a picture, I feel I’ve earned my stay for another year or so.” Do you see the quest? We’re looking for something that will give us meaning, that will validate our existence and prove that we matter.
You even see this in movies. In Chariots of Fire, one of the characters – an Olympic runner – is going for the gold in the 100-yard dash. When someone asks him why he is working so hard, he says, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence.” He’s saying, “I want to know that my life counts, that my life is worth something, that I’m worthy. And the way that I’m doing that is by winning as a runner.” It gives him validation. When Rocky is about to fight Apollo Creed, he says:
‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
And this is true of us as well. Our lives are one long pursuit for the blessing. This passage shows us Jacob’s quest, and it’s the same as ours. We’re all looking for what Jacob was looking for.
The second thing we notice is this:
2. This longing goes deeper than we think
Did you notice some of the examples that I just gave you? I just told you that we all long to prove ourselves by making something of our lives. But I just gave you three examples of people who have made it: a three-time SuperBowl champion, an accomplished director, an actor. And yet none of them found what they were looking for even after they accomplished something. They were still looking for more.
When you look at Jacob in this chapter, you see him preparing for battle. And his battle is not only for his life, but to preserve everything that he’s built for himself: his family and his wealth. His mind is on the next morning when he’s going to confront his brother and his army of 400 men. All the strands of Jacob’s life are coming together in this one confrontation, and he has everything to lose.
But what we learn in this passage is that Jacob’s battle wasn’t really with Esau. He’s standing alone, and a man comes to wrestle him. Jacob has no idea who this man is, but sometime during the night it begins to dawn on him: this is no man he’s wrestling with. This is God himself. Jacob is in the fight of his life, except it’s not with his brother like he thought. The one that he must encounter is not Esau, but God himself. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, Jacob thinks the main problem is: “How can I be reconciled to Esau?” But the main problem really is, “How can I be reconciled to God?”
Edmund Clowney writes:
The Lord is showing Jacob that the one he must fear to encounter is not Esau, but God himself, present in his Angel. Jacob’s struggle at last is not the wrestling match with Esau that began in the mother’s womb. His struggle is with the Lord himself, the God of Abraham and Isaac. (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture)
And what a fight it is! Verse 24 says, “A man wrestled with him till daybreak.” I remember doing some wrestling in high school. A typical wrestling match in school might last anywhere from 6 to 11 minutes if it goes into overtime. You certainly don’t wrestle all night! It’s exhausting. It’s hard to imagine the intensity, the sheer length, of this fight.
One of the problems for us is that we have pictures of WWE wrestling in our minds. In Jacob’s day, wrestling wasn’t acting, and it certainly wasn’t entertainment. Wrestling was one way in which a legal case could be settled. This was trial by combat. Jacob was on trial before God, and the blessing that he longed for could really only be given by God, the very one that he’s wrestling with.
Again, Clowney says:
Jacob realized that this was more than mortal combat. At issue was the whole meaning of his life. The prize was the blessing that he sought; the One who struggled with him was the very Angel of the Lord – God Himself appearing as man.
You need to know that this is our situation too. The longing that we have shows up in our efforts to prove ourselves through accomplishments and relationships and work. But what we’re longing for can only ultimately be met in God. Like Jacob, what we want most is something that God alone can give. But the problem is that many have not received the blessing we long for from God. In fact, Scripture tells us we’re under a curse rather than a blessing. And so you see that we have a problem: what we long for the most is unavailable to us. And we meet God not in blessing but in wrestling. The thing that we long for the most is unavailable to us, and we are actually under a curse. And nothing else can fulfill the longing no matter how hard we try.
This is where the story gets interesting. We’ve seen through Jacob that we’re all longing for the blessing. And we’ve also seen that the blessing we long for is something we ultimately need from God. It’s not going to be met through our accomplishments, relationships, or resume. But now we see:
3. This blessing is won through weakness
Question: Who won the wrestling match? That’s a trick question. In verse 25 it says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him…” So it looks like a draw. This mysterious man could not overpower Jacob. But then in verse 26 he says, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” And Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And Jacob ends up getting the blessing that he longed for. Now remember that a blessing is always verbal. Somehow this man, God himself in human form, spoke words of blessing to Jacob, words that he had always longed to hear. Incredible. So, in a very real sense, Jacob won.
But look at verse 25 again. “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.” All it took was a touch, and Jacob limped for the rest of his life. Do you see? This was no ordinary wrestling match. When you wrestle, you always wrestle with someone in your own weight class. If you wrestle someone who is 15 pounds heavier than you are, you don’t stand a chance. Jacob was wrestling with all-powerful God. The only reason he wasn’t crushed was because of God’s grace.
So how did Jacob prevail? Two ways: one because of God’s grace. But Jacob also prevailed in weakness. This is the moment at which Jacob’s life turns. All of his life, Jacob had been fighting. He’d been self-sufficient, proud, and self-reliant. He’d been the independent manager of his own life, doing everything that he could to get the blessing that he longed for, by fair means or foul. And all night he had done the same thing: he’d wrestled with God and tried to get the blessing from God on his own strength.
But now God had crippled him. He had crippled Jacob’s self-sufficiency. For the first time in his life, all Jacob could do was to hold on in helplessness, clinging to the One who could crush him. He had certainly not won a wrestler’s victory. He didn’t pin down his opponent; in a sense he hadn’t won at all.
What he said was, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “He won when he was helpless; he had a power with God when his power was gone” (Clowney). Jacob was under great danger because daylight was coming, and nobody sees the face of God and lives. Jacob won with God when he stopped trying to win God, when he admits his name – Jacob, which means “Deceiver”. Then he hears, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel [‘He strives with God’] because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28).
This is, by the way, how we still obtain God’s blessing. We try to get God’s blessing most of the time through our strength, by performing, by building our resume. But it’s only when we get to the point at which we’re brought to the point of utter weakness, in which we see our sinfulness and dependence on God, and we simply cling to him in repentance that we get the blessing.
And Jacob becomes a picture of what the Christian life is: blessed, but limping; weak and humble in ourselves, and yet dancing. The blessing that we long for from God is won through the weakness of repentance.
But lastly we see:
4. The blessing we long for was won through the weakness of the cross
In a sense, both Jacob and his opponent foreshadow Christ. The wrestler was God but didn’t come against Jacob in all of his strength, or else he would have crushed him. Instead he came in humility and weakness. He withheld his power and his judgment, and in grace heard the cry of faith and gave him the blessing. Galatians 3 says that he redeemed us so that we may receive the blessing.
But Jacob also points to Christ. Jacob was given the name Israel; we learn later that Jesus is the true Israel. With Jacob, God feigned weakness so that he could give the blessing. In Jesus, God became weak so he could give us the blessing. Jacob wrestled all night; centuries later, Jesus wrestled all night in the agony of Gethsemane’s garden. Jacob was smitten by God; Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was stricken by God, and afflicted. Jesus became the Victor because he went to the cross as the Victim. He would not let go until he had received the blessing. The weight of divine justice that would have crushed Jacob instead crushed Jesus. Jacob held on at the risk of his life to get the blessing for himself; Jesus held on at the cost of his life to obtain the blessing for us.
The blessing we long for, the blessing we desperately need, the blessing from God was won through weakness. So I pray that you would experience the blessing that comes from reaching the end of yourself, and simply clinging to God in your weakness. And I pray that you would experience the blessing that Jesus won for us through the weakness of the cross.
Father, as we come to the table, thank you that the blessing we long for is found in you. And thank you that it’s not won through our strength, but it’s won through the weakness of repentance. And thank you most of all that it was won through the weakness of the cross. Thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.