Little Johnny was not doing very well in math. His parents had tried everything—tutors, flash cards, “Hooked on Math,” special learning centers—in short, everything they could think of. Finally, in a last ditch effort, they took Johnny down and enrolled him in the local Catholic school.
After the first day, little Johnny came home with a very serious look on his face. He didn’t kiss his mother hello but went straight to his room and started studying. Books and papers were spread out all over the room, and Johnny was hard at work. His amazed mother called him down to dinner, and the minute he was done he marched back to his room without a word. In no time, he was back hitting the books as hard as before. This went on for some time, day after day, while the mother tried to understand what made all the difference.
Finally, little Johnny brought home his report card. He quietly laid it on the table, went up to his room, and began to hit the books. With great trepidation, his mom looked at it. To her surprise, little Johnny had an “A” in math!
She could no longer hold back her curiosity. “Son, what was it? Was it the nuns?” she asked. Little Johnny looked at her and shook his head. “Well then,” she continued, “was it the books, the discipline, the structure, the uniforms? What was it?” “Well,” Johnny replied, “On the first day of school, when I saw that guy nailed to the plus sign, I knew they weren’t fooling around.”
We’re not so unlike little Johnny, are we? Sometimes we need some outside motivation to change our lives. We need an experience to get our attention if our behavior is radically going to change. Our main character in the sermon today needed a radical change and it took a radical experience for it to happen.
Jacob was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He had a twin brother named Esau (born first, he was hairy, so that’s how he got his name, “hairy”). Jacob was born holding his brother’s heel, and his name means “heel-catcher” and “deceiver.” Their mom, Rebekah, favored Jacob. There was sibling rivalry from the beginning.
Esau came in from hunting on one occasion and was famished and found Jacob cooking supper. Starved, Esau asked for some of the food right away. Jacob told his half-starved brother, “Give me the birthright and I’ll give you some soup.”
This birthright was something reserved for the eldest son. It meant double inheritance and leadership of the family when the father died. Esau may not have realized what he was doing when he flippantly agreed. He’d been scammed for a bowl of soup.
Later when Jacob and Esau’s dad thought he was about to die he knew it was time to bless his sons. He called Esau into his house and said, “Go into the field and kill me an animal. Bring me some of the meat that I might eat it.” Isaac’s wife overheard this, and because Jacob was her favorite she told Jacob about the request. The two of them went into scam mode again and Jacob, disguised as his brother, (dad’s eyesight was poor) went and received the blessing meant for Esau.
When Esau heard this he was angry, and vowed to kill Jacob at the first opportunity. That wasn’t good news, given Esau’s ability to hunt, so Jacob decided to flee. He was like Kenneth Scott Frederickson good with his bow and arrow! So, Jacob’s mother sent him to her brother Laban’s house. While living there he got a taste of his own medicine. You know, we reap what we sow. (Galatians 6:7)
Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Laban’s youngest daughter. He promised to work for seven years for Laban for her hand in marriage. However, Laban had another daughter, an older, less attractive daughter that we’ll say “he needed to unload.” He needed to make sure she got married and would be taken care of so he tricked Jacob on their wedding night, somehow substituting Leah for Rachel.
So Jacob had to work another seven years to get the wife he wanted. Long story short, he wound up with two wives, but he got the girl he wanted in the end. After all, he always got what he wanted. He became rich and prosperous and in Genesis 31:3, God told Jacob to go back to his homeland. He was promised by God, “I will be with you.”
However, his brother was still living and was likely still mad over the birthright and blessing incidents and Jacob was scared. He’d always been able to get what he wanted even if it took him extra time. He’d always been able to manage the events and affairs of his life and seemingly control the outcome. The promise that God would be with him wasn’t enough, so he went into self help mode and devised a plan.
He sent his servants ahead of him telling them to let Esau know that he was coming and that he was rich. He was going to try to smooth things over with a bribe. His servants came back and said “Your brother and his 400 closest friends are on their way to meet you.” Jacob was terrified. He wasn’t thinking “God is with me.” He was thinking, “I’ll develop a plan to further increase my chances of coming out of this alive,” and he divided his family and animals into two groups. He thought, “If Esau attacks one group, there is a chance that the other group will escape, so I wouldn’t lose everything.”
After all of this human effort, after all of this conniving and planning, only then did Jacob pray to ask for God’s help. Have you ever done that? You do everything you think you can to control the situation, getting all of your ducks in a row, anticipating what might happen, and then you call on God and ask Him to bless your efforts? Do you see the duality in Jacob’s life and approach? Call on God but rely on self? It doesn’t work that way. We don’t tack praying onto the end of our plans. It is prayer that we turn to in order to learn what the plan ought to be.
He had created his plan, had prayed and moved his family into safety in verse 22, and now, he was alone. Sometimes God has to isolate us to get our attention. Even though Jacob thought he was enacting his plan, God was on the scene to put him into a vulnerable state where he had no resources, no servants to help him, no family support, not even shelter. In the larger plan of God, Jacob was being set up in order for God to transform him. Now, to our main text. Please stand for the reading of God’s Word.
Genesis 32-22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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. 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.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 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.”
What I want to tell you this morning is that Jacob was enabled through this wrestling match with God that left him disabled. I see at least three reasons why the enabling came.
He was ENABLED BECAUSE HE DIDN’T GIVE UP
Jacob had spent most of his adult life wrestling with people—Esau, Isaac, Laban, and even his wives. He was a fighter, determined to get what he wanted. So God came to him as a wrestler.
Our text in verse 24 says Jacob wrestled with God until daybreak. In other words, Jacob stayed committed through the struggle.
We get the idea that this struggle was on the heels of him already being tired. He had already worked through at least part of the night to move his family and possessions to safety. Verse 22 says he took his family across the Jabbok stream or brook and then sent all of his possessions over as well. This process had to be somewhat physically involved and given how many people were in his care and how much stuff he had acquired, it had to have taken a decent amount of time.
I believe the writer tells us that the struggle lasted until daybreak because he wants us to understand that this wasn’t a quick process. It was involved and Jacob was expecting to get something out of it.
Now the text says that the “man” wrestling with him, which is God himself, could not overpower him. We know God has all power, so what could this phrase mean that the “man” could not overpower Jacob?
By crossing the Jabbok Jacob would be entering into the land that God has sworn to give to Abraham’s descendants — the Promised Land. God wasn’t about to allow Jacob to enter the promised land — the land of His blessing or favor — on his own terms or in his own strength.
It was as if God allowed Jacob to give Him his best shot and then God showed his complete superiority with a single touch. It reminds me of watching Thom wrestle with our eight year old Joshua. There is no way Joshua is going to be able to take Thom down, but Thom lets him try. Thom “puts up a fight.” Thom lets Joshua flail and jump on him until he thinks it’s time to put an end to the silliness and pins him to the floor just to remind Josh of who is really in charge, of who is boss. That night Jacob found out that he couldn’t push God around and do things his way.
I believe the length of the wrestling match points to Jacob’s stubborn nature or more nicely put his “determination.” He wasn’t going to give up. I also believe it points to God’s longsuffering nature. He could have wiped Jacob out, but he put up with him, letting him wrestle until he would grasp who it was he was dealing with. In other words, I believe that in allowing the struggle, God was showing Jacob who he, God, was. God wasn’t someone Jacob wasn’t going to be able to beat. God wasn’t someone who was going to give in.
And even when Jacob became injured and unable to be any serious competition for the man, his determined will was revealed. For once his hip was injured, he was no longer actively fighting in any effective way, so he had to be clinging to God in order to keep the two of them engaged. So now, not only is he committed to the struggle, but as he is injured, he realizes who he is dealing with and he decides to cling to God, saying “I won’t let go of you until you bless me.” This was Jacob’s seventh recorded prayer, but was the first one that showed any humility.
Hebrews 7:7 says, “Without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater.” So by crying out for a blessing Jacob was acknowledging that God was greater than him. By seeking God’s blessing he was humbling himself and exalting God. He realized that only God could provide the blessing he so desperately needed and he believed that God was sufficient. God said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In his weakened condition Jacob was able to believe in God and so God’s power was made perfect through his weakness.
There was something about the daybreak, the light of morning that brought a realization to Jacob that this thing was far more than physical. Something spiritual was at stake. Something spiritual needed to happen and he held on resolutely as he pleaded for a blessing.
Not only was he enabled because he didn’t give up, but he was ENABLED BY SEEING WHO HE REALLY WAS AND BY ALLOWING GOD TO CHANGE HIM
Jacob asked for a blessing and the man asked Jacob a question. “What is your name?” As far as the Genesis record is concerned, the last time Jacob was asked that question, he told a lie! His father asked, “Who are you, my son?” and Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn” (27:18-19, nkjv).
The Lord didn’t ask the question in order to get information, because He certainly knew Jacob’s name and that Jacob had the reputation of being a schemer and a deceiver. “What is your name?” meant, “Are you going to continue living up to your name, deceiving yourself and others; or will you admit what you are and let Me change you?”
You see, the struggle is often the process that we have to go through whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, financial or a combination of all of the above-which enables us to see who and what we really are. It is often in the struggle that we are able to see and confess who we really are and are put in the position to receive the transformation that is needed for us to receive the blessing that God has for us.
What is your name? The question had more than a simple one-word answer. In the Old Testament one’s name was linked to his nature. God wasn’t saying, “Are you willing to admit that I have you beat in this wrestling match?” He was saying, “Are you ready to be done with the scheming, manipulating and planning of your life?” “Are you ready to be completely changed so that I can use you?” Before Jacob could be blessed he had to confess who and what he was because the blessing required a change in his nature.
A lot of people pray, “God bless me,” but what they are saying is, “God do what I want you to do. Give me what I want you to give me.” They don’t want to have to change or altar their plans. They want to be in the driver’s seat and just want God to give them the gas to get them to where they have decided they are going.
Listen, God blesses those whose desire is His will, His way. Period. Henry Blackabey, author of “Experiencing God,” says, “You can’t stay where you are and go with God.” You can’t stay the way you are and go with God. God’s kind of blessing isn’t just for you. It is for everyone around you as well. God’s blessing is to flow through you to impact everyone around you for His purposes and He can’t flow through a channel that is clogged with selfish plans and desires. The “heel-catcher” had been caught and had to come clean about the dualistic way he had been trying to live.
The change in his nature started with a wound. His hip was injured in the struggle. Sometimes a wound is a very special act of God’s grace. It was the wound that began the process of Jacob recognizing who he was wrestling with. It was the wound that led him to cling to God in the struggle. When you are clinging to someone, you are in the place of submission. It was because of the wound that Jacob submitted to God. He let the wound cause him to cling to God. When you realize that, you see that the wounding was a gracious gift that God gave to Jacob.
God’s wounds are necessary because of the tendency of human nature to be proud; because of our tendency to rely on our own power and strength. The Apostle Paul finally reached the point in his struggle over the “thorn” in his flesh where he understood God’s purpose of the thorn. He wrote later that God sent it to “keep him from being conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7).
The God who wounded Jacob, Job, Paul, and His own Son, will wound his servants precisely where they need it the most. Why? In order to destroy us? Never! But because he is the Master Potter and wants to make us.
God wounds us in order to make us. We want God to use our strengths; God wants to use our wounds. For God knows we are never stronger than when we are wounded. Because it is His wounds that make us weak in ourselves so that we might be strong in the Lord.
The transformation in Jacob’s life began with the wound. If Jacob was going to be blessed this time, it wasn’t going to be because he made a back alley deal or created a scheme or plan. It was going to be because he was holding on to the only One who could bless him.
The change continued with a new name. In the Bible, receiving a new name signifies making a new beginning (17:4-5, 15; Num. 13:16; John 1:40-42), and this was Jacob’s opportunity to make a fresh start in life. The new name God gave him was “Israel,” which means prince of God. The text goes on to say he had wrestled with God and have Overcome! Not only was his name Israel, but it was overcomer! The explanation in Genesis 32:28 is that Jacob had gained power because he prevailed. He lost the battle but won the victory! By seeking God’s blessing and finally being weakened and forced to yield, he had become an “overcoming prince of God.” He learned that you become an overcomer by surrendering fully to God!
When God rules our lives, then He can trust us with His power; for only those who are under His authority have the right to exercise His authority. While at home, Jacob had served himself and created problems; and for twenty years he served Laban and created further problems, but now he would serve God and become a part of the answer.
ENABLED BECAUSE HE WANTED THE RIGHT THING-GOD’S BLESSING-Jacob had already been blessed physically with a large family and great wealth, so when he asked the wrestler to bless him, he wasn’t asking for more stuff. He was asking for something he didn’t already possess. When he asked for a blessing, he was asking for a transformation.
Do you see that ever since he had stolen his brother’s birthright and blessing, he had been a man on the run? He had run from his brother to another city. Later, he had to run from his uncle Laban. He had lived outside of the land that God had promised to him. Listen, if you are depending on your own cunning, your own business savvy, your own shred way of relating to people and planning and plotting, you will always live outside of God’s best for your life and without His enabling blessing. And because of that you will always be a man or woman on the run, chasing this fix or that high or this status or that award.
Jacob’s conniving way of living and running wasn’t working any more. It didn’t take care of his fear concerning meeting his brother. He needed a new way of living. He needed a change of heart. In the book of Ezekiel God promised to change our hearts when He said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;” (36:26). We must desire a change of heart the way David did when he prayed, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Like Jacob we must come to God with a genuine desire to be transformed.
A Jacob wholly dependent on God can become an Israel. What can we become if we let each wound draw us closer to the Lord and make us more dependent on Him?
What was Jacob turned Israel enabled to do? He was enabled to be reunited with his brother without fear. He was enabled to receive a change in his character. He was enabled to fully rely on God rather than himself. He was enabled to live in the land God told him to, and enjoy the fruit of his hard earned labor. And most of all, he would raise up the family that would eventually in God’s timing bring in the only Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Oh that our names might say something more than we can imagine!
Did you notice that Jacob did not initiate this wrestling match? The man, God, approached him. By all indications, the Lord was the one who started it! He provoked the struggle! Now, the question begs to be asked, “Why did the Lord want to wrestle with Jacob?” Well, I don’t know if we can completely answer that question, but we do know this. IT WAS SOMETHING THAT GOD WANTED TO DO! We should know that God wants to be actively engaged in our lives. This wrestling match was not only something that God wanted, but it was something that Jacob needed.
Does God need to wrestle with you about something in your life? If it concerns something God wants you to do, you better go into submission! Is there something you need to wrestle with God over? Is there a blessing you need? An answer? Reassurance? God’s presence? God’s power? Grab hold of God and don’t let go!
What’s your name today? Is it Anger? It can be peace. Is it hate? It can be love. Is it pain? It can be delight. Is it Disobedience? It can be Happy to serve. Is it ought against my neighbor? It can be Love for one another? Is it Deceiver? It can be Prince with God. The truth is until we encounter God and his grace and mercy it is “Sinner”? We have all sinned. We need a new name, that of Christ.
Is it possible that you have been on the run? Are you running your own life? Are you trying to scheme and connive and plan to make things happen? Have you been praying, “God bless my plans?” Are you so busy that you couldn’t hear God speak a blessing over you even if that’s what you wanted?
The point is not who is going to win this thing, but who is going to surrender. Jacob probably thought all of his adult life that his problem was with Esau. It wasn’t Esau. He learned through this wrestling match that the problem was with God. He had kicked against God’s will and God’s design and God’s Word and God’s plan all of his life.
It was a crippling experience for Jacob, but from that point, he was crowned prince of God. When his family saw him limping into the Promised Land they might have said, “Jacob, why are you limping?” He probably would have straightened up and said, “Don’t call me Jacob, call me Israel. I met God last night, and I’ll never walk the same again.”