Scripture says that we Christians are more than conquerors. And that is one of our beloved verses. But, if we are conquerors, that means there are things standing in our way. This truth, the one about looming obstacles, can weigh down the spirit if we let it. But, there really is no need for soul troubles. We are victors after all. And what good are victors if they have nothing to vanquish?
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Jacob was headed back into the Promised Land after spending twenty years in Paddan-Aram. He was very wealthy, traveling with wives, servants, eleven sons, and abundant goods. But, he was soon to face his brother, Esau, who, as far as Jacob knew, still had a score to settle.
After sending his family over a brook for the night, Jacob was left alone and wrestled a man until daybreak (v. 24). This “man” was no mere man but God himself, a truth revealed in this passage and in Hosea 12:3, “He took his brother by the heel in the womb, And by his strength he had power with God.” When this man could not prevail over Jacob, he touched his hip socket, throwing his hip out. Jacob continued to wrestle (v. 25). Jacob would not let the man go unless he blessed him (v. 26). The man responded by asking Jacob’s name and then changing his name to Israel, for Jacob was as a prince who had wrestled with God and men, and prevailed (v. 28).
Jacob returned the question. But, instead of getting an answer, he got a blessing (v. 29). Jacob called the place Peniel, for his life had been preserved even while seeing God face to face. As Jacob passed on toward the Promised Land, the sun rose on him, and he walked with a limp (v. 31). The children of Israel remembered this encounter by not eating the sinew of the thigh (v. 32).
I remember reading this story in a children’s bible when I was very young. I remember thinking that I was going to have to go check with Dad and Mom on this one, “Are you sure about this story? I mean, wrestled with God? And won!”
It is a fascinating story with a simple truth: If you want to be blessed, you have to wrestle with God.
A PARTICULAR KIND OF WRESTLING MATCH
Jacob’s wrestling match with God is the kind of Bible story we can potentially get all twisted up. There are texts that are quite straightforward: “Do not steal.” After reading this, one does not exactly sit around the circle in the Bible study asking, “But, really, what do you think it means?” Wrestling with God, on the other hand, can result in a festive small group.
For starters, we need to be clear on who the wrestling partner is: namely, God. Jacob was not wrestling with himself. He was not wrestling with his inner demons. He wasn’t wrestling with his emotions. He wasn’t wrestling with ideas. He wasn’t wrestling with tensions. People always want to wrestle with “the tensions in the text.” Very often, all of this is simply a bit of LARPing to keep us from wrestling with the Lion. We opt for a therapy session rather than a come-to-Jesus meeting.
Also, this was no abstract wrestling match. This was not fisticuffs in the cloud. It was not a simulated boxing match or a video game. Real wrestling is wonderfully tangible. It has a way of focusing the mind. Jacob didn’t have the opportunity to do the ivory tower theologian thing. He was too focused on not getting choked out. Wrestling with God takes courage. And there is a strong inclination to get out of that particular boxing ring. If the first maneuver is to wrestle with something else instead of God. The second escape route is to pretend to wrestle with God, while manifestly not doing so practically.
Several truths lurk around Jacob’s night battle with the Lord that illuminate just how much adversity was wrapped up in the scuffle. Some have posited this a “conversion experience.” But this was not Jacob wrestling over whether God really loved him or not. This was not a conversion or assurance struggle. Those wrestlings do occur. And they seem large enough when they happen. But one eventually moves on to bigger battles.
The remarkable thing about this night of wrestling with the Lord is just how much Jacob had already been through. By running the numbers from a few different places in Scripture, we discover that Jacob was around 97 years old that night. He had just finished serving (and wrestling) Laban for twenty years. Before that, he wrestled with his brother, Esau, for his birthright and blessing. God had declared, even before his birth, that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). And yet, at 77 years old, when Jacob crossed over the Jordan to head for Paddan-Aram, he had nothing but his staff in hand (Genesis 32:10). Indeed, he was now a wealthy and blessed man. But it was uphill the whole way.
Twenty years earlier, when he was fleeing from his enraged brother, God appeared to him, and Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. God told Jacob that he and his children, who would be as the dust of the earth, would possess the Promised Land. Jacob believed him back then, and here he is two decades later, going to the mat with the LORD.
TUSSLING FOR BLESSING
A truth that cannot be lost is that Jacob wrestled with God for covenant blessing. Not only did Jacob say, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” But, God had made covenant promises of blessing to him. Jacob believed God back when those promises were made. Jacob obeyed God back then. He was headed back into the Promised Land at God’s Word. But, come to find out, those covenant blessings don’t come without a fight. We are tempted to say, “Why all this adversity if God has made promises to us?” But that would be to turn everything upside down. The real situation is, “Why all of this adversity? Well, God has made covenant promises, that’s why.”
AND IN ALL OF THIS, WE LOOK TO JESUS:
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (Hebrews 12:1-3)