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Wrestling Jacob

Category Articles
Date September 29, 2003

(An account of a sermon preached in SanDiego at the Banner of Truth ministers’ Conference)

by John Marshall

In the climactic third scene of the narrative of Jacob’s return from Paddam Aram to the Promised Land is the account of Jacob’s reconciliation with his brother, Esau. This is the climax of the incident. We might well have thought that Peniel and Jacob’s struggle with the Lord himself there through that long dark night would have been the climax. But, it is not so. Peniel was the prelude to something else, the basis of something else, Peniel made possible something else, and that something else is what we have read this morning. And so it must be in our lives. God’s work and presence in our lives must always lead to, for it is designed to lead to, our being a people who practice our faith in a zeal for good works.

For what you have in this account of the brothers’ reconciliation is not simply two estranged brothers at peace once again. That is God’s blessing, no doubt,and part of the way God kept his promise to bring Jacob safely home to thePromised Land. But there is something more than that here: there is Jacob acting in the fullness and the freedom of true faith. You have Jacob finally the very reverse of the grasping, cowardly man he was at the outset. Divine grace has done its work in this man. And how do we know that. Well, we know it from the way in which Jacob, in penitence and humility, seeks not only to repent of his former sins against his brother, but also to undo them. Here is a man who is, before God and man, and by faith in God, repudiating what he was and what he did, and seeking instead to give glory to God in his relationship with his brother.

Jacob came toward Esau, we read in v. 3, bowing down seven separate times as he approached. Then Jacob had his entire family do the same, bow down to Esau as they approach him. This is not obsequiousness, grovelling. The seven-foldbowing was, in that day, the proper customary show of respect of a vassal toward his overlord. We know that from the Amarna Letters, an archaeological find that has given scholars lots of information about the culture of this time and place. In other words, Jacob is not afraid here. He has already met theLord and received the Lord’s promise of blessing. The limp with which he walked as he approached his brother was a constant reminder of his new name, Israel.The Lord himself had told Jacob, apparently just a few hours before Jacob met Esau, that, having struggled with God and man, he had overcome. What he was doing in bowing down to his brother was not an act of desperation, seeking to manipulate his brother into clemency. It was an act of faith, of freedom, of humility and obedience.

We see here a truly humble and penitent man doing what he knows is the right thing. He ought to treat his brother in this way, he ought to humble himself before Esau. Indeed, as we will see, he ought to do even more than this. He ought to give back to Esau the blessing that he stole from him twenty years before.And that is exactly what Jacob is doing , giving back the blessing. At least so far as that could be done on the human level, Jacob was doing that. You see,Jacob’s bowing down to Esau and his family’s bowing down to his brother exactly reverses the blessing that Jacob stole from his brother years before. Isaac,remember, had said to Jacob, when he thought he was Esau, “Many nations will serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.” [27:29] But here Jacob is reversing that order and bowing down to Esau.

You see that same reversal in other things Jacob did. He awaited his brother and it was Esau that spoke first in v. 5. This too was the etiquette of a vassal , lord relationship. What is more, Jacob throughout addressed his brother as his lord and referred to himself as Esau’s servant. The blessing that Jacob had stolen years before amounted to the promise that the elder would serve the younger. But here the younger, by his own choice, out of no necessity laid upon him by law or custom, simply out of the freedom of his faith, is taking the form of a servant toward his brother.

All of this is confirmed in the most powerful way in v. 11. The word the NIV renders “present” is precisely the same word rendered”blessing” in 27:35,36, where we read Esau lamenting the blessing his brother had stolen from him. What Jacob had stolen, he now sought to give back.Jacob, by the grace of God, was free to give back the blessing and wanted to do so, wanted to express both the forgiveness he had received from God and the favour that God had shown him by enriching his brother instead of himself and humbling himself before his brother. Jacob was showing his strength in God by surrendering his rights , for these blessings, , stolen or not , did come to him through his father, it was legally his right to expect his elder brother to bow to him. Jacob knew now, trusting in God as he was, that he did not need to manipulate and beguile and cheat to find favour for himself and his loved ones;he did not have to worry about his welfare. The Lord would provide; he had promised Jacob that he would. This confidence delivered Jacob from his fears and enabled him now to treat his brother in a manner consistent with his faith in God and secure a reconciliation that would have been impossible on any other terms.

Remember, Esau was not being bought off here. He was powerful enough to take everything he wanted anyway. He had his four hundred men. And Jacob was fresh from Peniel. His faith in God was at full flood.

One of the pleasures for me of going away to preach at conferences as I did two weeks ago, is that I get to hear the preaching of others. And I heard some able and devout preaching of God’s Word at the Banner of Truth Conference in SanDiego. In a sermon by John Marshall, pastor of a Congregational Church in Hemel Hempstead, northwest of London, he mentioned having conducted a wedding sometime ago. The bride was the daughter of a man who had served on a merchantman during the dark days of the German blockade of Great Britain during the Second World War. He had been a marine engineer, responsible for the ship’s power plant. He had been down in the engine room when his ship was torpedoed and was only just able to get out in time. Others working in that same place did not escape because the heavy watertight doors shut when the ship was hit and then could not be opened again. This man made it to the deck, but because of the steep pitch of the now sinking ship, the lifeboat swung in its davits and struck him in the head, knocking him unconscious. He fell to the deck and was badly burned, for the ship was not only sinking but was on fire. A man who scrambled into the lifeboat told the ship’s engineering officer, who was sitting there, about what had happened. This officer, a Scot, as it happened,left his seat in the lifeboat, scrambled up the grappling net, put the unconscious and badly burned man over his shoulder and carried him down the net to the boat. When the man woke up he had no idea how he had gotten into the lifeboat. The ship’s officer, however, had seen someone else in need when he was on the deck rescuing his friend and he went back for him as well. The ship took him down with her when it sank.

Now John Marshall’s point, in the wedding sermon, was this: “we wouldn’t be here today, if it weren’t for that Scot.” You can’t have a wedding without a bride, you can’t have a bride without a daughter, and you can’t have a daughter without a father. We wouldn’t be here today without that Scot,without the sacrifice he made at such terrible cost to himself.

Now he wasn’t saying that that Scottish hero was a Christian, apparently there wasn’t any evidence of that. But, he was saying that the world that we live inis supercharged with meaning, and, in particular, is supercharged with intimations of the unseen world and its reality, of the gospel and its nature and character. Here is a man who lived because of the sacrifice of another, a man who had nothing to do whatsoever with his own deliverance and owed it all to another. The application to the gospel and to Christian faith is so obvious it does not need to be stated. The Scot was Christ and we are the marine engineer! It is moving and wonderful to hear such things, precisely because we all feel the beautiful goodness, the supreme goodness, in such an act. And what is the gospel but a message about one such self-giving, more terrible by far,yet infinitely more wonderful and accomplishing the salvation not of one man,and not his temporal salvation only, but the eternal salvation of a multitude no man can number who did not deserve such a sacrifice to be made for them, did not deserve it at all.

Christianity, you know, is the only religion in the world that has such a supreme sacrifice, such love and self-giving at the heart and centre of its faith. I am reminded of the remark of Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist,alas no friend of Christianity and certainly no friend of the Spanish conquest,who nevertheless wrote:

“One can only imagine the astonishment of the hundreds and thousands ofIndians who asked for baptism as they came to realize that they were being asked to adore a God who sacrificed Himself for men instead of asking men to sacrifice themselves to gods, as the Aztec religion demanded.” (May 1999), 37

Well, we have a similar intimation, a similar picture here. Jacob is a Christ-figure in this history. In humble self-effacement, he gave up his rights and humbled himself and so reconciled his brother. In the same way the Son of God gave up his rights and humbled himself in order that he might reconcile the world to himself.

I don’t mean to say that we should necessarily think that the point of this history as it is recorded in Genesis 33 is precisely to foreshadow the self-giving of Christ. The Scot officer did not save the marine engineer into order to illustrate the gospel, however wonderfully his act does in fact call to mindChrist’s self-giving for our salvation. And I don’t think the point of this history is to foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There are, after all, some very important differences between Jacob and the Lord Christ. Jacob was seeking to undo the consequences of his own sins and Christ had no sins of his own to repent of or seek to undo. Esau is not, by any stretch of biblical teaching, an image of the people of God who are saved by the self-sacrifice of Christ. He is precisely not that by the express teaching of the Bible. But, surely, we are to take notice of the fact that as soon as Jacob received his truly Christian name, the name that was his reward for a true and living faith in God, he acted in a truly Christ-like humble,self-sacrificing way and accomplished in a small way precisely that reconciliation that our Saviour accomplished in the greatest conceivable way by his own self-giving.

And, it is not simply that in Jacob’s behaviour toward Esau he took a Christ-like part and showed us something of the self-effacing and self-sacrificing character of the Lord Jesus. More than that, Jacob served and honoured his Saviour in his brother Esau, in this brother whom he had wronged long years before. It is not just that we can see Christ in Jacob.It is also the case that Jacob saw Christ in Esau.

Surely that is the statement that caught your attention as we read the text,the statement Jacob made to his brother in v. 10: “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God” a statement made more remarkable by its close similarity to the statement Jacob made at Peniel just hours before (32:30) to the effect that he had seen God’s face and yet his life had been spared. Jacob,now seeing things clearly in a way he had not before, now looking out on the world and upon his circumstances and his relationships with a true faith inGod, he saw Esau and he treated Esau as one who stood in God’s place to him and for him.

Now it is not altogether an easy thing to explain how this was so. For it was not that Esau was like God in any particular way. He was not. He had not even chosen to remain in the Promised Land; he was living in Moab. He was not a man who was concerned with the things of God. However attractive a character he may have been in other ways, he had no taste for divine things and for the life of faith and God’s covenant. It was not Esau that made his face seem like God’s face to Jacob.

It was Jacob’s faith and Jacob’s experience of God’s mercy that turned Esau into a representative of God to him and that saw in Esau’s reconciliation with him the acceptance and the reconciliation he had been granted by God. Everything now for Jacob had to do with Jacob and God. In Jacob’s eyes, even his offended brother Esau, even dangerous Esau,was important primarily for the way in which Esau played a role in Jacob’s own relationship with God. Esau’s weeping with him and receiving him and being reconciled to him was to Jacob the living proof of what God had done in him and for him. Esau was the mirror in which Jacob saw the Lord standing above and behind him. Esau’s hand was God’s hand extending favor to Jacob.

Our Saviour taught us a similar thing when he said that when we clothe the naked, or visit the lonely, or give food to the hungry, we are as much doing all of that to him and for him. In that way we see our Saviour’s face in the face of others, in the face of everyone whom we treat in a way that betrays our faith in Christ, in the face of everyone who is or can be for us in some way a mirror of the merciful and gracious Lord as we have experienced him ourselves.And precisely because we have to do with our Lord and Saviour in every one we meet and in every relationship of our lives, relationships with others and our treatment of others become the stage upon which our faith performs and acts out the drama of our own encounter with God and walk with God.

It is for this reason that over and over again he has taught us in his Word that we are to treat others, we are to conduct ourselves in regard to others in keeping with what he has done for us and shown to us and given to us. That is,our relationship with Christ is to determine the character of our relationship with others. We are to walk with God and Christ in and through the interchange we have with others. His way with us is to shape and determine our way with others. This is what Jacob did. He didn’t explain all of this to Esau, but he treated his brother as a man should who had learned to hate his sins, who was grateful for an immense mercy shown him, and who was now happy to leave the issue of his life to the one who had promised him protection, provision, and blessing. He sought to love and serve God in Esau and so, in that way, Esau became the face of God to him.

And so Paul tells us to be kind and compassionate and to forgive others as we have been forgiven in Christ, and to live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, and not to take pride in ourselves over others,for what do we have that we have not been given, and to carry each others burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. And Peter tells us, for example, to bear the insults of others humbly and patiently and graciously as Christ did when he suffered the hatred of others for our sake. Faith had made Jacob Christocentric; Christ was the center of everything, determined the meaning of everything!

If you and I, brothers and sisters, were only more sharp sighted, we would see countless times a day the Lord Christ in the face of others and would find countless opportunities to express and to embody our own experience of God’s grace in Christ to us in our conversations with and treatment of others. Only rarely does such an opportunity arise to go back on to a burning ship and to lay down one’s life for another. But there are in this fallen world unending opportunities to draw out of one’s own experience of God’s grace an appropriate way of dealing with other human beings and so find Christ in their faces. If he or she is someone who has sinned against us, the forgiveness that Christ has extended to us should make us forgiving toward that someone. If it is someone we have sinned against, God’s mercy to us in defiance of our sins should cause us to forsake our pride and make us the most ready of all people to acknowledge our sins and seek forgiveness from that someone’s hand. If it is someone who is in need or suffering in some way, God’s meeting our great need ought to make us the most caring friend of that needy someone. And on it goes.

Let me conclude with an illustration that brings this great lesson to bear on the duties of parents as well, seeing as we have witnessed the baptism of an infant girl this morning.

There was a man who lived in England at the end of the 18th and through the first half of the 19th century. He was an enemy of the church and the gospel of Christ. His name was William Hone. He was regarded as the “arch-blasphemer” of England in his day and for some blasphemous parodies of the Litany, the Athanasian Creed,and the Anglican Catechism that he wrote he was actually arrested and tried at the Old Bailey. He was acquitted, though primarily for technical reasons having to do with the precise wording of the law against blasphemy. Still he was widely regarded as an archenemy of the Christian church. A kind of Larry Flynt of his day.

But the tragedy of William Hone is that he was the product of a Calvinistic Christian home. His parents belonged to a particular sect of Calvinists in England in those days, the followers of William Huntington, who were marked by their war unto death against Arminianism and all Arminians. These people spoke with great harshness of Arminians and of John Wesley, the Arminian leader, in particular. To the Huntingtonians, Wesley was the apostle of error and a child of the devil because of his denial of sovereign grace.

It happened that Hone was educated in a school, strange to say, whose headmistress was a Wesleyan. Well, she fell ill and the boy, because he was one of her favourite pupils, was allowed to visit her. Once when he was with her in her sickroom a visitor was announced and it proved to be none other than John Wesley himself in his old age. The boy at first was thoroughly alarmed because,of course, he had been brought up to regard Wesley as the devil’s agent.

“There entered the venerable old man, his silvered hair hanging down to his shoulders, his complexion fresh and placid, his smile sweet. To the boy’s amazement he seemed to have the countenance of an angel. He ministered to the lady, spoke comforting words, knelt down, prayed, and took his departure,saying to the awe-struck lad as he did so, ‘God bless you, my child, and make you a good man.'”

In later years Hone recollected that scene and said, “I never saw Mr.Wesley again; my [old teacher] died; but from that hour I never believed anything my father said, or anything I heard at chapel. I felt, though I could not have expressed it, how wicked was such enmity between Christians; and so I lost all confidence in my good father and in all his religious friends, and in all religion.”

Now, I cannot leave it there. For, though the story is too long to tell this morning, William Hone, after years of never looking at a Bible and mocking everything connected with the Christian faith, was saved himself by the grace of God, repented deeply of the sins he had committed against the gospel of Christ, and spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel he had tried for years to destroy. He wrote a poem commemorating his conversion that began with the lines,

The proudest heart that ever beat Has been subdued in me. The wildest will that ever rose To scorn thy cause or aid thy foes, Is quelled, my God, by Thee.[from S.M. Houghton, My Life and Books, 75,78-81]

What was the human cause of Hone’s rejection of the gospel? Parents and a church who did not treat others as God had treated them, who were not gracious as God had been gracious to them, who did not express their faith in Christ in their relationships. A child could not read the gospel out of their words and deeds, as you could read it out of Jacob’s words and deeds in Genesis 33. They did not make the gospel attractive by their actions, as Jacob did here.

There is your calling and mine, brother and sister. To be sure, each day, that in our conversations with others God’s grace and mercy toward us can be detected; in our actions toward others, God’s way with us can be seen, in the way we treat others and what we do for others we betray that we have faith in a Saviour who loved us while we were yet his enemies, who gave himself for us,the just for the unjust to bring us to God. To be sure, that is, that we are seeing Christ and serving Christ in our relationships with others.

Peniel to reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. But what it led to much more was Jacob wearing his faith on his sleeve and expressing it in his behaviour toward his brother , for the very first time. And it is to be so with us. Or,for this is just another way of saying the same thing, we should be findingChrist’s own face in the face of everyone we meet every day. And we should so speak with them and treat them that they may be able to find Christ, the merciful Saviour, in us as well.

Jacob found Christ in Esau; Esau, if only he had eyes to see, could have found Christ in Jacob.

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