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Brothers At War

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 23, 2005

Selected highlights from this sermon

Using the story of Jacob and Esau, Pastor Lutzer shows us that family divisions can be devastating and last for decades. We see how Jacob spent most of his life manipulating events to get what God had already promised Rebekah—the older would serve the younger.

But after Jacob encountered God and confessed that he was a “cheater,” God renamed him Israel. Sometimes God needs to humble us and bring us to a point of great need in order to reconcile us to Himself—and to others.

Because the family is such a basic unit of society, and because it is there that we learn our identity and our self-worth, there we are to be accepted, cared for, and nurtured.  Because it has such potential for unity it also has great potential for division, deep division, lasting division.  

I think of all of the families that are torn, torn by jealousy. When one person has more than the other, there is a separation because of those jealousies. When there is favoritism among children or among parents. When there is meanness, people taking advantage of one another. Somebody perhaps takes the other persons credit card and then doesn’t pay it back and on and on. You could give a list of things that go wrong.

Inheritance issues sometimes divide families permanently. Recently I was talking to a young couple in financial need, and they were invited to live in the home of his parents. And so they went. And what they discovered is that there were all kinds of hidden agendas. It really wasn’t to help them after all. It was to help the parents in ways that I will not go into. And in the process as strife and division began to rise, the son took the part of his parents against his wife. Can a wife ever recover from that? I suppose so, but it’s not easy when she has a husband who will not defend her.

By the way, that was a bad idea because the Bible says, “For this cause a man will leave his father and his mother.” Don’t go live with those relatives, no matter what they offer you. Usually it’s a bad idea.

Well, today I am going to tell you a story. It’s a true story, it’s a biblical story. But, because we are going to cover so many chapters in the Bible, I am going to tell it to you rather than reading it to you, which I hope you do on your own. It’s the story of a man by the name of Isaac who marries a woman who has a very wonderful name. (Laughter) Her name is Rebekah. That’s a wonderful name, given to at least one lovely woman that I know.

But, I want you to take your Bibles now and turn to Genesis chapter twenty five, where we have the story of Rebekah, who is pregnant. And she has struggles within her and she asks the Lord about it. And in chapter twenty five in verse twenty three, the Lord answers her and says, “Two nations are in your womb; and two people from within you shall be divided. One shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

That was a switch from the usual way it was. Firstborns always had the inheritance; they were the ones who passed on the family line. And in this case the older one shall end up serving the younger. And then what we discover is that one is born, verse twenty four, “The first came out red, his body like a hairy cloak, so they named him Esau,” which means “red” and is related to the word “Edom.” “Afterward his brother was born and his hand was holding Esau’s heel, so they called him Jacob,” which means “heel snatcher.” Later on it is going to mean “cheater.”

These two brothers developed in accordance with their gifting and their abilities, their natural characteristics. Esau ends up being a hunter, loves to go outside, and he becomes the favorite of Isaac. Jacob stays home, apparently loves to cook, and becomes a favorite of Rebekah. And thus the stage is set for conflict.

By the way, the purpose of these messages is so conflict will be resolved. And I hope that you listen because it is a story of conflict, but in the end it’s a story of reconciliation, too.

Now, two things happen which cause division that is going to last for twenty years, and really even beyond the twenty years. Two things happen, and we zero in on Jacob. Esau is out hunting the Bible says, and he comes home and he is famished. Verse thirty of the same chapter, “Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stew for I am exhausted.’ Therefore his name was called Edom. Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright, now.’ Esau said, ‘Well I am about to die anyway, so what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now;’ so he swore to him and gave Jacob the birthright. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew, and he ate and drank and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”

He is saying, “I want what I want, and I want it now! I’m hungry and my desires and my appetites are so strong that I need exactly what I need at this moment. And I’m not interested in the future. I’m interested in the here and now.” He sacrificed the permanent on the altar of the immediate. Bad idea, but he sells his birthright. That’s incident number one.

Incident number two is that Isaac thinks he’s going to die. Now actually he doesn’t die. He still lives for more than forty years. But, he is convinced that he’s going to die. So he says to Esau, “I want you to go out and I want you to get some game and go hunting. And after you’ve done that, come on back and I will give you the blessing.”

Rebekah overhears it and says to Jacob, “Let’s do this. Let’s trick my husband, namely your father. I am going to fix something that he thinks is going to be the game that Esau would have found. I am going to take a goat and I am going to fix it in the way that he loves it the most. And then you go in and you pretend that you are Esau.” Jacob says, “Well, wait a moment. My skin is smooth and my brother’s is very hairy.” And Rebekah thinking to herself says, “No problem. I’ll put some skin of animals on you and he won’t be able to tell the difference and so you will get the blessing.”

Well, that’s the context now for chapter twenty seven. You’ll notice that having all of that background, Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn.” The old man asks, “Who are you?” And he says, “I am Esau.” Lie number one.

Then Isaac says, “How did you get the game so quickly?” He says, “Well, the Lord has blessed me.” Lie number two.

And then he says, “Well, you know you have the voice of Jacob. Come near me.” And then the old man feels the arm of Jacob and it is rough and hairy and so he thinks it is Esau. But he does ask again in verse twenty four, “Are you really my son Esau?” Lie number three, “Yes I am Esau.”

So the dying man or the supposed dying man Isaac gives to Jacob the blessing that he thought was going to Esau. Wow.

Esau comes back from the field and he finds out what happened and he is angry. And Isaac himself is beside himself because he had been tricked by his own wife and his own son. And so he becomes very, very upset. And, as a result of that you have strife now between these two brothers.

I think it’s time for us to pause and to ask this question. Who really won in all of this trickery? Who won? Well, we could say that it is very clear that Rebekah won and Jacob won, because after all they got the blessing. Yes, they did get the blessing. But with it they got strife and they got a family that is going to be divided permanently.

Isn’t it interesting that Jacob spent most of his life trying to get through manipulation what God intended to give him anyway? It was God’s intention that he be the one to have the blessing. God would have worked it out some other way. But, he thought he had to help God out and get what he thought he had coming to him no matter how.

Well, you can understand the rest of the story. It says in the last part of chapter twenty seven, verse forty one, “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him. And he says, ‘The days of the mourning for my father are approaching,’” he was expecting his father to die, “then I will kill my brother.”

So now you have Rebekah coming up with another plan. She says, “You know what you have to do? You have to leave and you go to my brother Laban, and you work for Laban far away.” So Jacob leaves. He has an experience of meeting God, he goes to Laban, he ends up marrying two of Laban’s daughters, which means that he marries his cousins, and he begins to have a family.

And in Laban he has met his match, because Laban is a cheater just like Jacob. In fact, there is a society on the face of this earth who I will not name, but they agree among themselves that they will deceive themselves. I’m told it is mutually agreed deception. So here you have Jacob working and he is deceiving Laban, and Laban is deceiving Jacob, and on and on it goes.

But after twenty years Jacob thinks to himself, “It is time now for me to turn back and to go and to leave.” And so he leaves, and we have a very interesting story. Laban begins to pursue Jacob believing that Jacob had stolen his gods. This is a fascinating story because in chapter thirty one you find that Laban pursues Jacob and says, “Surely you have taken my gods.” This is actually in chapter thirty one, verse thirty. That’s worth a sermon on its own, isn’t it? “You’ve stolen my gods.”

Turns out actually one of his wives had, but he didn’t know it. She had taken the family idol, so you can see idolatry was still part of their lives at that time.

But Laban and Jacob decide to part, they decide to go their separate ways. And they make an agreement, they set boundaries. I want you to notice the text. It says in verse forty nine of chapter thirty one, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight.”

I saw that in a den of a Christian one time hanging on a wall. “The Lord watch between you and me while we are absent one from another.” I had to smile because in context it doesn’t mean that at all. That’s a good verse taken out of context.

But actually the context of the verse is this: “I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me. We’re going to put up a pillar here, and God help you if you put your pinky over this line, and may God have mercy on me if I put my pinky over the line. You stay in your part of the country and I am going to stay in my part of the country. And, let’s make sure that we don’t get involved with our lives again. May God watch over you when I’m not looking at you.” That’s the context. And so they set up this pillar. Could I say that there are times when we need to put boundaries on other people? You women have to put boundaries in your relationships with men. You have to say, “Here’s where the line is, and God be merciful to you if you step over that line,” because sometimes it is not possible to have reconciliation. Sometimes relationships absolutely need boundaries because there are some people who are never going to change.

And there are some people, don’t take this wrongly, with whom you can never really reconcile. And the reason is if you try to reconcile it will always be on their terms, always having expectations of manipulation that are all a part of the reconciliation process. So, it may be better to simply separate from them.

I was in Germany recently as some of you know, with my wife Rebecca. And I came back a few days earlier than she did and she stayed there. And she asked me to water the flowers that we have at home. So I watered them. But then I began to think that maybe I missed some. So over the phone I said, “I think I may have missed some.” And she said, “Well, how many did you water?” And I said, “Five.” And she said, “Five? You can’t be serious.” And I said, “Yeah, I watered five.” She said, “We only have four.” I said, “I watered five.” (Laughter) She said, “Did you water that middle one in the den?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Didn’t you realize that is an artificial flower?” (Laughter) No, I didn’t realize that was an artificial flower.

You know, there are some people with whom you have a relationship and it’s like watering wilted, silk flowers. You can do it, but it’s not very profitable. They’re never going to change. They’re never going to be any different.

I wish I had brought a letter with me. I intended to, but I left it at home. It is a letter from someone who wrote to me about a mother-in-law who was really evil. Now I use that word very precisely. Not everyone who is hard to get along with is evil. But she’s evil.

And the reason you can distinguish that is because here’s a happy marriage that her son has with his wife, and this woman wants to come in-between the two of them to create strife. She’s always dividing. You’ve heard me say before that there are some people who get their sense of significance from being able to destroy and to divide and to hurt other people. That is where they draw their sense of significance and power. And, after reading the letter than went on for two or three pages in great detail, they did what I thought was a good thing to do. They moved out of state and they moved somewhere else.

One woman said, “You know my mother wants to control me so much. She is the Midwest distributor of guilt. Always making me feel guilty, always telling me that I have not done enough for her, always being impossible in those relationships. Sometimes you have to just draw boundaries and say, “Look, here is where the boundary is, and may the Lord watch between you and me and let’s be absent from one another.” That’s what Jacob and Laban did.

Now, don’t use that as an excuse because these people are difficult to get along with. Remember, I told you earlier there are some who are listening to me that fit into that category. And what are they doing? They’re thinking that I’m talking about somebody else and not them. That’s number one.

But number two, you do have to forgive them, as we are going to explain in this series. You have to forgive them even though reconciliation may not be possible, or maybe only partial reconciliation is possible. There are people like that, but don’t ever use it as an excuse.

Now what happens is Jacob though is on his way back and he is going to encounter Esau. And this comes to us now in chapter thirty two of Genesis. This is the place where Jacob is so full of fear. He’s full of fear, and the reason is he knows that Esau might be willing to kill him and to even the score. So it says in chapter thirty two, “Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he called the name of that place Mahanaim,” which means “the angels of God” or “God’s camp.” Jacob is wondering what to do, and I think that he outlines for us a means, by which we can be reconciled, steps that will help us in reconciliation.

First of all Jacob, to his everlasting credit actually sends to his brother a gesture of goodwill. We can’t read the whole text, but Jacob asks that his messengers go on ahead and talk to Esau. They come back and they say, “Esau is there with four hundred men and he is on his way.” Jacob becomes even more terrified. So he sends him a bunch of animals as a present. You can add them up in this chapter beginning at verse thirteen. About 550 different animals he sends to Esau on ahead as a gesture of goodwill.

There’s something about doing something nice for someone that you have wronged that begins to soften their heart. And maybe what that gesture does is it says to them, “You know, I know that I have messed up. I know I am the one that has done wrong and I’m trying to do you some good because I want your heart to be turned toward me.” That’s the first thing that Jacob does. Now also he sends ahead his wives and so forth. He’s showing trust.

Secondly, he meets God. He begins to pray, chapter thirty two, verse eleven, “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.” And he begins to plead with God and pray as he has never prayed before that his brother’s heart would be turned toward him.

In fact, he begins to pray so much that eventually God actually gives him an experience that has often been written about and meditated upon. And that is a man begins to wrestle with Jacob when he is left alone at the brook of Jabbok. You’ll notice it says in verse twenty four, “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” When the wrestling match began, Jacob in the night did not know who he was fighting with. Turns out that this actually was God, it was a preincarnate manifestation of Jesus Christ that we’ve noticed elsewhere in the Old Testament. And he doesn’t know who is fighting with him until his assailant touches his hip socket and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him, (verse twenty five).

And then he begins to realize that he is in the presence of deity. Somehow that touch was so powerful, it was so debilitating. It was so humiliating that Jacob knew, “I’m in the presence of someone greater than just a man.” So Jacob asks him, “What is your name?” And He said, “Why do you ask my name?” You’ll notice than He said, “Let me go, for the day has broken,” that’s the assailant. But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And He said to him, “What is your name?” And he said to him, “Jacob.”

In saying his name, Jacob was confessing cheater, heel grabber, deceptive. And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The name “Israel,” a striver with God, some people have interpreted it “price of God.”

What’s going on here in the text? It’s deserving of a message by itself, except to say that God was humbling him. God was bringing him to the point of humiliation and great need. Jacob would not be able now to depend on any human strength as he goes to meet Esau. He is totally dependent upon God, because God humbles and weakens all those whom He would really bless. Whether it’s Paul’s thorn in the flesh, whether it’s an experience of sickness or a broken relationship, God always humbles and weakens those whom He intends to bless.

And so the story continues. “Jacob is now limping,” the Scripture says, “on his thigh,” and he’s going to meet Esau. And he meets Esau, which leads to a third lesson that Jacob teaches us. First of all, he very graciously sent an olive branch ahead. Secondly, he met God. And thirdly, he greatly humbled himself. Notice that the text says, “Seven times he bowed before Esau,” and he always said, “I am your brother, Jacob,” so he honored him. And he says, “If I have found favor in your sight,” verse ten, “than accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.”

It’s actually Esau that runs up and embraces Jacob, as you read the text. Jacob is saying, “I saw God last night and when I look into your face I know that God answered my prayer. Because your disposition toward me, which is so amiable and so friendly and so forgiving, it is as if I am looking into the face of God. This is a God thing, God has answered my prayer.” And so Jacob and Esau are reconciled.

There’s something that Jacob should have done that he didn’t. He should have actually brought up the issue. He should have asked specifically for forgiveness, but he doesn’t. It’s as if the brothers understand what’s going on, and Esau of course remembers all too well what happened. And so he’s willing to forgive and be reconciled.

But, there is an interesting twist in the rest of the chapter. Esau says, “Well let’s travel together. Let’s go to Seir where I live, and let’s do it together.” And Jacob says, “No, no, Esau. You know we have to travel very slowly because we have some animals that are with young ones. You go ahead to Seir and I’ll meet you there.” And so Esau goes off to Seir and Jacob goes the opposite way. He goes north and we don’t know whether or not the brothers ever met again. Certainly scripturally there is no evidence that they did.

So once again, is Jacob still up to his old tricks of deception? That’s a good question to ask. It’s as if he’s saying, “Esau you know you’ve been really nice to me, but I don’t really trust you yet. I don’t really trust you. You go your way and now that we have been reconciled, I’ll go mine.” And so the story ends.

But it’s really not the ending because later on Jacob is going to have ten sons as we will learn next week, ten sons who are going to lie to him. His nature of cheating and deception is going to be multiplied in the lives of ten of his children.

Now there are two lessons that I want to conclude with today. The first one is this: God sometimes uses a crooked stick to make a straight line. Because I have to ask you this question, who would you rather have as a neighbor - Jacob or Esau? We might say to ourselves, “Any day Esau. You know Esau was the man’s man. He liked to go hunting. He was the kind, you know, who wanted to be in the forest. He wasn’t staying at home cooking lentil soup. He was the kind who did what he wanted to do.”

The Bible says he married two Hittite women who became a great means of grief to his parents. But as most firstborns, he did what he wanted to do to prove who he was. But, he seemed to be a nice guy. At least the text doesn’t tell us that he was a cheater like his brother.

Yet the Bible says that “Esau was a profane man.” And he was profane because he despised his birthright. He didn’t care whether or not the inheritance was going to go through him. Eventually, Jesus Christ would be born from the person who bore the family line. And that’s why today we say “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and we don’t say “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Esau.” But, Esau didn’t care. He went ahead on his own way.

But look at Jacob - cheater, liar, and deceiver. And yet the difference was in his lifetime Jacob did encounter God. You study it, and time after time he’s meeting God. God is coming to him. God came to him when he left, when he was sleeping at Bethel. God comes to him now, and God communicates with him because there was a time in his life when he came to know Jehovah God. And God had chosen him to be the one to have the birthright, who would carry on the family line and all of the legal implications of the continuation of the family.

Have you ever been surprised at who God uses? Have you ever been shocked at the fact that somebody who wasn’t exactly upright was yet used by God? It doesn’t justify their sins and their deceptions, but isn’t it often true that God uses people whose lives are not as upright as they should be?

Jacob spent all of his life trying to manipulate and to get what God intended to give him. What he would not do is trust God. When the first oracle came, (and I’m sure his mother told him about it,) that the elder shall serve the younger, he should have just said, “God, I don’t know how you’re going to work this out, but I give it to you and I am going to trust you.”

Instead what does he do? He figures out his own way to do what God wanted him to do, just like we sometimes are. There are things that God wants to give us and we are insistent that we will get them our way. And the message of Jacob is that God has to give those blessings to us His way and not ours. So that’s the first lesson.

The second lesson is that reconciliation is God’s work. First of all, God reconciles us to Himself, doesn’t He? The Gospel of reconciliation; “God was in Christ reconciling us to Himself.” And today there may be somebody here who has never trusted Christ as Savior. You’re not reconciled to God. You know the lingo, you know the songs, and you have heard the sermons. But you’ve never been drawn in by His love to receive Him and be reconciled. I urge you today, be reconciled to God. Come in faith, come in humility, come as a sinner, but come to be forgiven and to be received.

So reconciliation is God’s work. But after we’ve received God’s work, our first desire is to be reconciled to others. We should be willing to do whatever God expects us to do to be in fellowship with other people. As a matter of fact, this is so deeply birthed within us as a result of the work of the Spirit and the new birth that Jesus even said on one occasion that, “If you cannot forgive those who have wronged you, your Father can’t forgive you.”

In other words, the relationship between human beings is the next vital relationship that we must deal with if we’re to be fully in touch with God and have a conscience without offense.

How important was this to Jesus? Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, “If your brother offends you, go to him.” But, He also said these words, he says, “If you are going to give an offering to the temple, and as you are on your way to the temple you remember that your brother has need of you or rather that your brother has been offended. Or, that he has been offended against you even if you are innocent, Jesus said, ‘Leave your gift there and go be reconciled to your brother and then come back and offer your gift.’”

He’s saying, “If you are the offender, make it right. If you’re innocent but the other person has an offense against you, you make it right. And then you come and offer your gift, because your gift means nothing until you are reconciled with your brother.” God is a God of reconciliation and He calls us today to be reconciled.

The whole history of the human race often times is a history of strife, and anger, and positioning, and a desire to say, “I’ll separate myself from those who have hurt me.” We as believers should be coming together, forgiving, working toward reconciliation.

You know Jesus said these words, He says “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” We sometimes use that for prayer meeting. We say, “Well, if there are two or three people in prayer meeting, Jesus is there among them.” It can be applied that way but that is not the context. The context is if your brother has been offended and you are in the process of reconciliation, and you are coming together in My name to be reconciled, there am I in the midst to help effect the reconciliation.

As a pastor I have to tell you that seldom have I ever experienced the power and the presence of God as greatly as when I am counseling and reconciling. When you have a couple in your office and both of them are weeping, and they are asking one another to forgive one another, it’s just as if heaven comes down. And you say, “Surely this is the work and the presence of God.” God desires reconciliation. We must pursue it even if it is unattainable.

It must be pursued, bit forgiveness must always be granted. You say, “Well how do I know if I’ve really forgiven someone?” Well, thank you so much for asking. That is a wonderful question because that is what we are going to discuss next week. Next week we are going to find out exactly whether or not you have forgiven those who have wronged you. We are going to give you a test, and you will discover whether the answer is “yes” or “no.”

Let’s pray. “Our Father, we pray in the name of Jesus that we who know you who have been forgiven so much, we who have been reconciled to you, we ask in Jesus name that you’ll make us reconcilers. We pray today Father that if our brother has ought against us, whether it is our fault or not, that we might go to him or her that we might be reconciled. Bring to our minds oh Father all of those issues with which we must deal so that our consciences may be clear, that the work of your Spirit may be unhindered. And that the blessing of God which makes rich and adds no sorrow will be given to our families, and to our church family. We pray in Jesus name, Amen.”

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