The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Why did God wrestle with Jacob? What is God endeavoring to teach us here? For many Christians, this text often winds up getting turned into a lesson on perseverance. “Wrestle with God; stick it out, fight hard, and stand your ground. Keep on fighting, and the Lord will reward you and bless you…just like He did with Jacob.” Well…not to burst your bubble, but that’s not exactly the meaning here. Don’t get me wrong: There is some truth to this understanding (which we’ll talk about in a few minutes), but that’s not the main point of the lesson.
A little background helps. For those of you who need a refresher, Jacob was the younger twin brother of Esau. Jacob was a bit of a sneaky jerk too. It all started in the womb, where they were already fighting, giving mom terrible fits of pain and discomfort. Jacob’s name means “the supplanter; the one who grasps the heel.” He was given this name at birth because already there he was fighting with his seconds-older big brother, grasping at his heel, trying to wrestle him out of the womb first. Years later, as you well-know, this same Jacob used his older brother’s impatience and hunger and greed against him, getting him to sell his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of beans. Just a little while after that and Jacob tricked dad (Isaac) into bestowing the blessing of the firstborn upon him. Not only was Jacob now the legal heir to all of Isaac’s goods (because he had the birthright), but now he was also the Messianic heir. He had the blessing. The promised Messiah and the long line of children, greater than the stars in the sky, would now come from Jacob and not Esau.
Needless to say, there was a bit of bad blood between the two brothers. Jacob isn’t stupid. He takes everything he owns and flees from Esau. Staying home would’ve been very hazardous to his health. Esau had made it public knowledge that as soon as dear old dad died, Esau was going to kill Jacob. Jacob gets out of Dodge. Along the way he marries two women (Rachel and Leah) and has kids. Later on God calls Jacob to return home. Understandably, Jacob is quite worried about this endeavor. He trusts God, but he doesn’t trust Esau. Jacob tries to send gifts to Esau ahead of his return, hoping to “grease the skids” and butter Esau up. He even goes on to pray to God, expressing his great fear and trepidation about crossing the river and entering into hostile territory (even though it was the Promised Land, and God had told him to return). Not content with God’s Word and Promise, Jacob takes matters into his own hands and sends his family and household across in two waves, all under the cover of darkness. Esau probably won’t fight at night, and if he does, he’ll only be able to get one group and not the other. This is when the Lord God comes down in the form of an anonymous man and begins wrestling with Jacob. They wrestled all night long and into the morning.
Okay…so now’s when the real questions arise. Why a wrestling match? Did Jacob know all along that he was wrestling with God? Many people assume the answer to this question must be “yes” because after vanquishing his foe and getting Him to submit, Jacob demands that this man give him a blessing. Clearly, Jacob must’ve known he was grappling with God, right? Why else would you ask for a blessing? Who else would you ask for a blessing?
What if Jacob really didn’t know that this was God he was grappling with or asking for a blessing? I don't know. Many assume, but we all know how that works.... There is some precedence to this. Jacob did trick his dad so that he would bestow blessing upon him; the very blessing that was intended for Esau. Man can bless another man. Blessing someone isn’t just restricted to what God does. So often we hear this language of “blessing” and we automatically assume that faithful Jacob was looking to squeeze additional blessings out of God. The text never lends itself to this. This is where the inquiry of names comes into play. Jacob asks the foe’s name because to have the name of someone is to, in a sense, have dominion over them (think: Adam naming the animals). By having the guy’s name, Jacob “lords over” him. By the same token, in order to bless (or curse) someone, you need to know their name. After all, you’re calling on God (or the gods, if you were a pagan) to bless or curse this particular guy.
Now, if you notice here, the “anonymous foe” (who we know is God) never reveals His name to Jacob. Instead, He answers the question with a question. “What is your name?” Jacob tells Him, and God immediately responds by telling him that his name is no longer Jacob, but Israel. Why? “Because you have stiven/struggled/wrestled with God and man and have prevailed.” This is when the lightbulb clicks “on.” This is when Jacob learns that he’s been wrestling with God, and not only did he live to tell about it, but he got a blessing out of the deal too.
Okay…so the moral of the story is to fight and wrestle with God until you get your way? NO! That’s not what this is teaching us. I know that’s what we want to hear, but that’s not the point of the story. Remember: Jacob was struggling and wrestling with doubt. He believed God and His blessings/promises, and yet his prayers and actions revealed the fact that he really didn’t trust God. He was afraid. He doubted. So God takes on human form and wrestles with Jacob (and lets him win) all so that God can teach Jacob a profound lesson on trust.
The lesson God was teaching: God NEVER forgets His promises! God NEVER forgets His blessings. God had already promised that He would bless Jacob, and Esau wasn’t going to be able to undo that. Did you notice in this account that the blessing Jacob receives is a new name? He didn’t receive a blessing of “more stuff.” It wasn’t a material blessing, like God gave him winning lottery numbers or a nice hunk of property or made him ten years younger. It wasn’t anything like that. In fact, you could even go further and state that Jacob’s blessing had already been given to him before when God Himself had first promised to make his name and his family line great. Again, when life got tough and Jacob took his eyes and ears off of God, Jacob doubted this blessing/promise. All he saw/thought about was Esau and the trouble that he was sure was awaiting him. God doesn’t bless Jacob with “stuff.” He blesses Jacob with a new name—Israel—which means “one who wrestled with/struggled with God.” He also “blesses” Jacob with a bum hip, which he most-likely had the rest of his life. We’re never told that he was healed.
How is any of this a blessing?! And that question right there reveals our lack of understanding of what it means to be truly blessed by God. Jacob had a new name. Every time he heard that new name; every time he had to limp somewhere, he remembered his face-to-face encounter with God. “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” More than that, he remembered God’s promises and blessings. God was merciful and gracious to him. By means of this struggle, God was able to remind Jacob of the blessings that He had already promised him. Jacob—Israel—was a changed man; a new man; a man who truly walked (or limped, as the case may be) by faith.
Folks: In closing I’m not going to take the typical tact and ask you what things you struggle with and wrestle with. “Be like Jacob and persevere as you wrestle with God in prayer, and you will overcome.” That may be true. Then again…it may not be true. Believe it or not, but there are some things you simply can’t control. There are some things you simply can’t overcome or beat, no matter how hard you try. No one can overcome or beat death, no matter how hard you fight it. Sometimes God says “no,” and that’s His final answer. Besides, if anything, these lessons show us that to be like Jacob isn’t exactly something we should strive for. Now, the lowly woman who did trust in the mercy and the promises of God and persisted, even when it seemed like Jesus was against her? Sure. Absolutely. She’s a great model of faith. Jacob, on the other hand? I hope and pray that it doesn’t take a whooping to get you to wake up and remember God’s promises and hold fast to them in faith. Jacob didn’t trust in God’s blessed promise, but the man who bore the new name “Israel” did.
And that’s where we want to focus. You bear a new name. You bear the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God Himself put that name upon your forehead and upon your heart in Holy Baptism. Hold fast to Him. Hold fast to the blessing that He has already blessed you with in Christ. No matter how bad things may get, you belong to Christ. You are a child and heir of almighty God, and nothing and no one can ever take that from you.
And I say this with good reason. I live in the same fallen and sinful world that you do. There are going to be times that it seems like everyone is against you. There are going to be times that you will doubt and despair. There are going to be times that you will not let God work, be it His way or on His time schedule, firmly convinced that you know better than God; firmly convinced that He needs your help. There are going to be times that it seems like even God is against you. He’s not. The Father turned against Christ so that He would never have to turn against you. He hasn’t forgotten the promises He made to you in Holy Baptism. The Lamb of God stands before the Father’s throne for the rest of eternity, bearing the wounds of His crucifixion, forever reminding His Father that all our debt has been paid in full by Him. It is finished, once and for all.
Baptized into this victorious death and resurrection, this is God’s unfailing and eternal promise to you. This is your blessing. May you never lose sight of or let go of this great gift.
In Christ’s name,
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