An Encounter With GodErwin W. Lutzer | April 14, 2013
Selected highlights from this sermon
Sometimes God takes us through a crisis to help us see who we really are. Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and used lies to get ahead in the world. But when he met God—and wrestled with Him—he finally admitted that he was a cheater and a liar. And after his confession, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer gives us three life-changing lessons that Jacob learned, and that we too need to learn. It all starts with asking ourselves, “Who am I in God’s presence?”
You know, usually in the Christian life we make progress slowly. Oftentimes it’s one or two steps forward, one or two back, but generally the trajectory to being more sanctified and more Christ-like is a slow one. But sometimes what God does is He takes us through a crisis and this crisis marks us and we never forget it. It’s like a benchmark, and it reminds us of who we are and how we really seriously met God. And, of course, there are those who kind of meander in the Christian life and then eventually God brings them to a crisis too. And so the whole process of our relationship with God is speeded up. The crisis doesn’t make us perfect by any means, but what it does is it helps us along the way.
I don’t think that there’s a story in the Bible more interesting than the crisis faced by Jacob. His story that I’m going to refer to is found in Genesis 32, and you may turn there if you wish, but in order for us to understand what happened we have to also remind ourselves of the context.
Jacob was a twin and the older of the twins was Esau, and the Bible says that when they were born God had already predicted that the young one, namely Jacob, would actually be the superior one, and the older, Esau, would serve Jacob. That was a prediction before they were born.
Now when they are born, and this actually in Genesis 27, Jacob coming out into the world second grabbed the heel of his twin brother, Esau, the older one. And as a result of that their family named them Jacob and Esau. Jacob actually in its etymological form refers to God’s protection, but it sounds like heel grabber. In fact, the Bible says that’s why he was named Jacob. It’s because he was a heel grabber. Jacob is going to spend most of his life conniving, striving, manipulating on the basis of others, trying to get ahead of them, cheating along the way, and that’s the way he’s going to live his life for a time.
Now in order to see the way this is lived out he steals the birthright from Esau. The birthright was very important because what it did was it gave you special inheritance and special recognition. You received basically the continuation of the family name, and one day Esau, being a man of the world, was so hungry Jacob said, “I’ll give you some of my stew if you give me your birthright,” and so Esau said, “Sure, have it.” That was the first theft that Jacob did.
But then, and this story (an amazing story) - is in Genesis 27, Isaac, the father is dying, and he wants to bless his sons and of course, he is going to bless the older. He’s going to bless Esau, right? And so Isaac’s wife’s name was Rebecca, and Rebecca said to Jacob, because she favored him, “Jacob, while Esau is going out to hunt game so that we can have a big feast, I’ll kill one of the animals right now and you pretend that you are Esau so that you get the blessing.” And that’s exactly what happened. And three times Jacob lied to his blind, dying father because the father recognized his voice and said to him three times basically, “Are you Esau?” And he said, “Yes, I am.” And then he said, “Where did you get all the game so quickly?” And he said, “The Lord provided it.” And then the father asked one more time, “Are you really my son, Esau, because you have the voice of Jacob, but the hair on your arm (he had put an animal skin on his arm) indicates that you are actually Esau.” So the old man was deceived and gave the blessing to Jacob after three lies from his son, Jacob. Jacob lied and got the blessing.
Now, of course, Jacob is not a very likable person. I think you already picked up on that. He’s the kind of guy that all of us have warned our daughters about. In other words, you don’t want to get close to this guy because he’s a deceiver and he lies to get ahead in the world.
Then it was revealed when the ruse was over that Esau wants to kill Jacob, so Jacob goes far away to be with Laban, his uncle, and he meets his match. Both of them end up being cheaters. They sort of had mutual cheating between the two of them. Laban keeps changing the wages of Jacob. Jacob keeps breeding cattle in such a way that he gets benefit, and on and on it goes until after 20 years they can’t take it anymore. He’s married to Laban’s two daughters. Jacob decides to leave at night and he’s going to go back into the land because now he was beyond the borders of the land when he was with Laban. And on his way back he hears a rumor that Esau is coming with 400 men, and Jacob is terrified.
That leads us to Genesis 32 and he first of all does two very wise things actually. First of all he prays. In Genesis 32:9 it says that Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds.” What a prayer it is, but I’m going to pick it up at verse 11. He says, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, and the mothers with the children.” So he pleads with God for God’s protection.
He does a second wise thing and that is he sends presents ahead of him. As a matter of fact he sends cattle and camels (30 milking camels it says in verse 15), calves, 40 cows, 10 bulls. Do you see what a rich man he has become? And he sends all these on ahead because he says, “I might be able to appease him.” This actually is what he says in about verse 19 – “That I might be able to appease Esau.”
He even sends his wives over, and his 11 children, it says in verse 22.
And now we come to the drama – Jacob being left alone at night trying to psych himself for meeting his brother whom he had wronged so many years ago, who wanted to kill him 20 years ago. Jacob is left alone, but the night doesn’t go as he planned it.
We now come to this mysterious encounter – this crisis that Jacob had with a very mysterious assailant. That leads us to the text. It says in verse 24, “And Jacob was left alone and the man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Wow! We have to stop and get our bearings here.
You know, if you are boxing with somebody, you can run away, but if somebody wrestles with you, if somebody takes you and throws you on the ground, or wrestles you down, you have no option but to fight. And Jacob is in pretty good shape. He’s been a farmer all these years, working hard, and he is able to wrestle all night, and for a time, it seemed as if he might actually win the match. And then something happens that changes the whole context of the story.
You’ll notice it says that as they are wrestling till the breaking of the day, when the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was out of joint as he wrestled with him.
End of match! The match was fixed. This touch was a divine touch. Jacob knew suddenly. It dawned on him. “I’m not fighting with a mere man. I’m actually fighting with someone who is the God Man. I am wrestling with God here.” And so after that Jacob no longer is wrestling at all. How are you going to wrestle with a dislocated hip? You’re finished. You’re weak. So what he does now is he goes from wrestling to cleaving, and he tries to hold on to the Man and suddenly he says to the Man, once he recognizes that he’s in God’s presence, “Don’t let me go until You bless me.” You see, what the Man said after He touched Jacob’s hip was, “It’s daybreak. It’s time for Me to go.” And Jacob said, “No You don’t,” and now with a wounded hip he hangs on to the Man, and he says, “Don’t You dare leave until You bless me.”
So there you have this assailant, all initiated by God. Jacob was now there looking for this experience with God. It was God-directed, God-initiated, and now he’s seeking a blessing.
And now we come to what in many respects is the heart of this story, and that is Jacob’s dramatic confession. You’ll notice that he says, “Give me a blessing.” Jacob said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me,” and He said to him (that is, the mysterious man), “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” This is the point for which God had been waiting for 40 years to hear Jacob say that. What Jacob was really saying was, “I am Jacob. I am the supplanter. I am the heel grabber. I am the one who cheated, the one who was willing to lie to get ahead in the world, the one who was willing to manipulate in order to get the blessing, even though You had promised it to me. I am the one who is guilty of striving with You my whole life – fighting against You and Your will, wanting Your will but wanting to bring it about in my own way.”
We’ve all met people like that, haven’t we? They are the kind of people who, when we stop to think about it, are always elbowing their way to the top, always willing to step on other people to get ahead, always willing to use others, self-absorbed but totally unaware of it. And he said finally, “I am Jacob.”
I find this very interesting because 20 years earlier his dad asked him essentially the very same question. “Who are you?” And he said, “I am Esau.” He lied. Now he was giving the truth.
Isn’t it interesting that oftentimes you find that there are experiences in our lives when we finally have to give up the weapons of a rebel, when we finally have to admit who we are, when we finally have to be in God’s presence and know exactly who we are, and to confess something very real? I find it also very fascinating that Jacob said to this man, “Bless me.” And God said, “You want a blessing from Me? You’ll get the blessing but I want something from you first, namely a confession. Admit to Me who you are.” And Jacob confessed.
Now the rest of the story continues because what happens is he now has a very riveting testimony to give, doesn’t he? You’ll notice it says that Jacob then recognized that he was in the face of God, for the Lord says in verse 28, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
What’s happening here in the text is that Jacob is saying to God, “I am Jacob,” and God says, “This is the point at which you are going to be renamed. You are going to be renamed and your new name is going to be Israel, which literally means God fights. God says, “Up until now you have been fighting with Me and now I am going to start to fight for you because you finally gave up your own struggles and your own way, and your own rebellion, and your own lies and cheating. Now I can bless you, and I’ll take up your cause, Jacob.”
Jacob spent virtually all of his life trying to get blessings that God had intended to give him. From now on it will be up to God and not Jacob.
Well, he does have a wonderful testimony to give. Now he realizes that he’s in God’s presence, and it says in verse 29, “Jacob now asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’” This is very interesting. God asked Jacob, “What is your name?” Jacob says, “Tell me your name.” Jacob says, “We should be here on an equal footing,” and this man said, “No, why is it that you ask My name?” and there He blessed him. So Jacob got his blessing, but you’ll notice the text says that he even renamed the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face-to-face and yet my life has been delivered.”
You know the Bible says, “He who sees Me….” “No man can see God and live.” But this isn’t a contradiction for Jacob to be able to say, “I saw God.” And the reason is that all visions of God in the Bible are always mediated. They are visions where God has confined Himself to human agency, to human sight, and so, even though it is God, it is veiled. God has veiled his glory. That’s why we sing at Christmas, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” The Bible says in the book of John, “No man has seen God at any time, but the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” In other words, when you are looking at Jesus you are looking at God, but you are not looking at God as God. The only time that we shall ever see God the way in which He actually exists is in heaven. And that’s why Augustine, the great theologian, said, “Lord, you say that no man can see Thee and live. Let me die that I might behold Thy glory.” What a glorious revelation that will be when we see God directly! But here he sees a manifestation of God. He sees God who has accommodated Himself to human weakness and human experience, even as Jesus did. As a matter of fact, I believe that this actually was a preincarnate manifestation of Jesus Himself.
Well, he names the place I Have Seen God. But what about his hip? He says, “I have seen God face to face.” Verse 31 says, “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel (which is a different spelling than Peniel, but the same place), limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.” Now this was something that was carried out by some of the more orthodox Jews throughout the centuries, but it was never prescribed in the Law.
But there is Jacob who is limping. How would you like to face your angry brother with a limp, unable to fight? And, you know, with the sinew in his hip being dried up, self-confidence had to go. At this moment there was nothing else for Jacob to do but to depend wholly and totally on God, and say, “God, this is Your situation. I can no longer control it. It belongs to You.”
Now if you’ve read the rest of the story you know that in the next chapter meeting Esau went off rather well. They never became close friends. They lived in different areas, but at least they met and nobody was killing each other. God was doing something miraculous. He was going ahead of Jacob and taking care of the situation. God was fighting now for Jacob because he’d been renamed Israel.
Now with that backdrop I’d like to just simply give very quickly some life-transforming lessons that should grow out of this passage so that you and I leave here today with a fresh vision of God, a fresh vision of who we are in God’s presence, and we remember why our lives should be changed because we’ve opened God’s book.
The first lesson I’d like to leave with you is simply this. To be left alone with God is the only way of self-discovery. Goethe, the great German enlightenment scholar (not pronounced “go thee” like some do who don’t know that particular language) said, “Only God knows who I really am and may He preserve me from finding out.” Actually Goethe should have known better. It is only when we are in God’s presence with total openness that we know who we are because who you are and who I am is who we are in God’s presence – nothing more, nothing less. That’s who we are.
Whitfield, the great theologian and revivalist, said, regarding his death, “Who I am in that day, the manner of man George Whitfield was that day shall declare.” Wow! It takes your breath away. After all the criticism (and he received a lot of it), after all the opinions that people had about him, after all of his fame and everything else subsided, the question was who was Whitfield in God’s presence? Nothing else mattered except that. That day we’ll declare it.
My heart is burdened for some of you because you think to yourself that you are who your friends think you are, or you are who your family thinks you are, or who your church thinks you are, because you come to church, you sing the right songs, you are engaged perhaps even in the message. But you’ve never taken the time to ask yourself the question, “Who am I in God’s presence?” because who you and I really are is who we are in God’s presence.
Have you ever taken out an hour of your life to simply say in quietness, “God, just between you and me, open my life to you. I open it to you. I open my heart to you. Search me, oh God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me. And God, when you search me (and this prayer takes courage), show me what you see.” Have you ever done that?
You know, I do that frequently, and every time I see all kinds of attitudes and hidden sins and issues that I need to deal with because I know who I am. It’s not who you think I am but who God thinks I am. And it was Jacob, left alone, that gave him the ability to confess, “I am Jacob, the supplanter.”
So that is the first lesson that we need to learn, and there is a second. Jacob tried to manipulate God all throughout his life, and to manage God. Maybe I could put it that way. He tried to manage God but at the end of the day he discovered he was up against a God he could not manage. It seemed during that long night that there were times when Jacob was winning, but at the end of the day God was able to touch his thigh to weaken him, to make sure that it was God who won the fight, and most assuredly He did, and He did it by weakening Jacob. And so as a result of this, Jacob realized that “I’m always trying to get the blessing from God. I’m always the one who is trying to make sure that I am the one who is in front of the line. All that I could care about is Jacob, Jacob, Jacob.”
I remember doing some marriage counseling and there was a father-in-law who said about his own son, “All that matters really is himself.” You and I have met people like that and what we want to do is to make sure that God does what we think He should.
Have you ever come to the point in your experience when you realize that you really can’t control God, and that you and I can’t tell God what to do? I mean, we can pray most assuredly, but one of the things that we cannot do is to manage God. He is beyond our imagination, beyond our ability to comprehend. We confess at the end of the day, though we know Him and that His ways are mysterious, they are past finding out, and we can spend the rest of our life trying to get to know Him. And I believe that in eternity one of the things that we will be doing is progressing in our knowledge of God, because the thoughts of God go on throughout all of eternity. We know that, but at the end of the day God is a mysterious God. His ways sometimes we do not understand.
Long ago I tried to stop figuring God out. There are so many things that happen in the world that I know He could control, that He could stop but He doesn’t, but what we must do is to recognize that instead of trying to manage Him or control Him, let Him control us. “God, it is up to you. I also, like Jacob, lay down the weapons of a rebel. I give myself to You unreservedly. Do with me as seems good in Thy sight. I will no longer manipulate. I’ll no longer try to fight against You. I’ll simply let you be God, and do with me as it pleases You.”
There’s another lesson, and that is that Jacob began fighting, but he ended up seeking a blessing. He ended up clinging to this man. You know it’s so easy in our lives to fight God. I think that really what we have here in the text is kind of a summary or a template of the whole life of Jacob. He’d been fighting God really all of his life, and now when he begins to recognize that he’s up against a God he cannot win over, a God who can humiliate him and weaken him, it is then that he begins the process of understanding “What I need to do is to cling to Him for a blessing.”
Have you ever been that desperate with God? Have you ever come and said, “God, I’m not going to leave you alone? I’m going to come into your presence. I am going to fast and I am going to pray because I will not leave and let go until You bless me.” I find it interesting that the way in which God blessed Jacob was to give him a handicap. God not only blessed Jacob but He crippled Jacob, and I think that if we meditate a little more on the text we’ll discover not only that God crippled Jacob, but wonder of wonders, the crippling really was the blessing. I’m sure that Jacob didn’t see it at the time, but that’s exactly what happened because now, as he left the experience limping and going along in life, he knew that there was no possible way that he could possibly depend on his own strength. From now on it was either God or nothing.
It’s been my own experience that one of the things that God delights to do in our lives is to constantly undercut self-confidence. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard. We should strive. Yes, I understand that, but at the end of the day unless God shows up, unless God does it, we have to be content with where we are and the situation that we are in because God is God and what we do is we cling to Him for grace. Paul says that it is in weakness that He was made strong.
When the Apostle Paul was given a thorn in the flesh he said, “Most gladly will I therefore rather glory in mine infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For when I am weak (not two weeks later after I get over the weakness) at that very moment I am strong.”
I am convinced that God wants all of us to live with some kind of a limp. It may not be a physical limp to be sure. It may be emotional. It may be relational. It could be health related. And God says, “This is my gift to you. This is my blessing because I am going to teach you things about yourself that you and I are going to learn together. Obviously God’s not learning but we are. But he is going to bring into our life things so that our relationship is going to be more intimate, more satisfying, more fulfilling than if He simply delivered you and you are as strong as you’d like to be.” And so God said to Jacob, “Here is the blessing. I touch you and you’ll limp all the way to victory.”
Now I have to say, and it needs to be stressed, that this experience did not make Jacob perfect. One of the great problems that oftentimes happens in the Christian life, especially among young Christians, is they think to themselves, “If I have one great wonderful experience with God it will take care of everything. It will take care of addictions. It’ll take care of relationships. And the answer to that is “no.” It may help you in that moment, but today’s experience never protects you from tomorrow’s temptation. And that’s why I think it’s so important to stress that Jacob still continued to struggle. He was not necessarily a model man even after this experience, but there’s no doubt he made tremendous progress because God intervened in his life.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, can we expect an experience like this?” No, I don’t think that we should expect it. It happened only to Jacob. I know for sure I’ve never had a man come and wrestle me in the middle of the night, and I have to say I’m kind of glad I can say that. But that’s not the point.
One day Jesus, who is the revelation of God, made the statement, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” He said to Simon Peter, “Simon, you are Simon, but you are going to be called Peter, the Rock. I am going to rename you.” And the same Jesus who renamed Jacob and called him Israel is the same Jesus now who renamed Peter and called him the Rock. It’s the difference between who we are and who God sees us as being. God has the ability to know what He wants in our lives, and we also can be renamed not because our birth certificates will change, but in God’s mind you can be somebody different than you are today. And I can imagine that Jesus is saying to some of you, “You are Anxiety.” I had a woman tell me that if she gave up all of her anxious thoughts she’d have nothing to think about all day. “You are Anxiety.” Are you willing to admit that before God? And Jesus said, “I want to rename you. Your name shall be Peace.”
I can imagine that to some He maybe says, “Your name is an addiction.” Are you willing to admit that? You know sometimes those who are in an addiction need to go through a crisis. When they finally are brought low and they can’t manage it anymore, and it’s beyond them and they are in utter total desperation, they finally say, “I’m an addict,” and God is attracted to weakness. He’s attracted to our honesty. He says, “Now you are in a position where I can help you.”
My wife and I know a woman involved in an immoral life style. She was never able to get out of it until she told us that she got down on her knees and she prayed and she said, “Oh God, either deliver me, or kill me right now. Do one of the two,” and it was that day that she walked into newness of life, and today she is married to a man and they help broken hurting people.
You see, God is waiting for that desperation. I can imagine he might say to some, “You are rejection. That’s who you are. You wallow in rejection. All of your thoughts are how you were rejected by your family and friends.” And our hearts go out to you, by the way. “Today I’m going to welcome you as a brother, as a daughter of God, as a son of God. Today you are renamed. You are Acceptance.” I can imagine that. (applause)
Is your name Bitter? Life has been hard, hasn’t it? You have not been able to get the breaks in life. You see other people, who are advancing in various ways, and being blessed, and your life is bitter, and Jesus says to you today, “Your name is Bitter but I’d like to change your name. I’d like to call you Blessed.”
Perhaps I’m speaking to someone today whose name is Guilty. Your name is Guilty. You admit that before God and God says, “I’m giving you a new name, and the new name is Forgiven.” Isn’t that beautiful to be named Forgiven? (applause)
You see, the good news of the Gospel is that when Jesus died on the cross for our sins He made provision whereby we might be able to come into God’s holy presence, to spend time with the Almighty, to ask Him to view our hearts, and we don’t have to fear all the ugly things that God might show us because we know that there is forgiveness and cleansing and grace to all those who believe in Jesus. At the end of the day, God is in the (business of) transformation of character, and when we admit who we are He gives us a new name, and transforms us into someone with a new name. Are you willing to receive Him today? An encounter with God can begin even as we pray. Would you join us please?
Our Father, we thank you for this remarkable story, and we thank you so much for Jacob. Thank you that, despite all of his faults and all of his failures, he was willing to finally admit who he was. Thank you that you renamed him. And we ask today, Father, that you might give us the humility to be able to admit who we are so that we can become who You want us to be. Apply this message, Lord, in whatever way to every person who has heard it, a different application, and we pray that You will help us to respond to the prompting of Your Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.