Genesis 32: 22 - 32
We have come to the crucial moment of Jacob’s entire life. Up until now, Jacob has certainly lived up to his name—taking every advantage he can find to get ahead in life. Jacob is simply taking care of business the best way he can. Sometimes his ambition gets ahead of his wisdom and he does some unethical things.
All that is about to change. When the sun goes down, his name is Jacob. When the sun comes up again, his name is Israel. After that he would walk with a limp. That night made all the difference. He met the Lord in a powerful way, and his life was changed forever. God brings people to crisis points that radically change the course of life forever. Before the crisis, you look at life one way; afterwards and forever, you see the world in a different way.
This is the crisis that not only reveals who Jacob is, it also transforms him into something different. When Jacob wrestled with God, he lost … and he also won. After all these years, Jacob meets his match at midnight.
1. The Setting
A. The Time Jacob’s 20 years in Haran were not easy. Most of the time was hard. Promises were made and then broken. Wages were set and then changed. Demands were made, then changed, then made again. Jacob wondered if he would ever go home again.
B. The Place Jacob was camping at the Jabbok River - on the border of the Promised Land. 20 years earlier, the Lord appeared to him near Bethel and said, “I will go with you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.”
C. The Crisis For most of us, our deepest experiences with God are preceded by a personal crisis. Jacob is no different. His crisis can be summed up in 1 word: Esau. For 20 years he has lived with the memory of how he cheated his brother—not once, but twice. For 20 years he has wondered whether Esau still plans to kill him. For 20 years he has dreamed of going home, but each time his dream became a nightmare when he thinks of … Esau.
Jacob had sent messengers to meet Esau with a message of peace and reconciliation. When the messengers returned, they brought an ominous report – v. 6. Maybe Esau has decided to get even after all these years. No wonder Jacob is frightened.
Unfinished business. Most of us know all about it. Maybe it’s a broken relationship you thought time would heal. Maybe it’s an unkind word you said and you hoped that if you ducked low enough and long enough, they would forget about it. Maybe it’s a broken promise, a job unfinished, a lie you hoped would never catch up with you. You were counting on the fact that “time heals all wounds.” Maybe that’s true for flesh wounds, but time never heals the deep wounds—the ones that go to the bone.
Sooner or later you’ve got to go back and face your unfinished business - confront your past - face the people you hurt - come clean about your mistakes - own up to what you did. You can’t just go through life hurting people left and right, saying, “It doesn’t matter because I’ve arrived.”
2. The Struggle v. 22 - 26
Jacob is alone. God has Jacob exactly where he wants him - just Jacob and God. Everyone else is on the other side of the river. God is ready to speak to Jacob. When was the last time God spoke to Jacob in a deep way? 20 years earlier—at another point of crisis—when he was fleeing from Esau. 20 years later, he’s still fleeing from Esau, but this time there’s no place to hide. In that desperate moment of loneliness, God begins to deal with Jacob.
The greatest problem God has with most of us is getting us to slow down long enough to hear his voice. We’re always on the move, always talking, never stopping just to listen. We’re constantly going through life in high gear. That’s how you survive in the big city. You rev up early in the morning and you don’t stop till it’s time to go to bed. That’s life.
We’re scared to death to slow down because we feel the pressure from the people right behind us. When God speaks to us, it’s like listening to a faint radio signal. We hear so many other voices that God’s voice fades in and out.
So what does God do? If we won’t slow down on our own, he’ll slow us down. Any crisis that breaks into our little routine and forces us to stop what we are doing and begin to listen to God. That’s what’s happening to Jacob. God has arranged that he can get Jacob alone at a moment when he feels completely helpless.
Here is a bizarre scene. Jacob is alone with his thoughts, watching the stars and wondering what tomorrow will bring when a man suddenly appears before him. Who is he? Jacob doesn’t know and the man isn’t saying. Suddenly the man grabs Jacob and begins to wrestle him to the ground. Jacob fights back desperately, thinking it might be a robber or a hit man sent by Esau. On and on the men wrestle—grabbing, struggling, always aiming for some advantage, looking to pin the other man to the ground. They do not talk to each other. Jacob is battling for his life.
Hours pass as neither man is able to gain an advantage. Jacob is exhausted but he dare not stop or show any sign of weakness. Sunrise is not far away. The mystery man reaches out and touches Jacob’s thigh, dislocating it. Just a touch, and Jacob feels his thigh bone pull out of its socket. Huge pain and incredible weakness.
Later on Jacob will discover that the “man” was really God himself. I believe the mystery man was really a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. If so, why couldn’t the “man” subdue Jacob? He could, and he did just by touching his thigh. The “man” wrestled with Jacob all night to demonstrate to Jacob that no matter how much strength Jacob had, he was no match for God.
But why did he touch Jacob’s thigh? Because that is the largest and strongest muscle of the body. By touching his thigh, the man was deliberately crippling Jacob at the point of his greatest strength. When you wrestle with God, you always lose.
God Doesn’t Play By Our Rules
In order to accomplish his greater purposes, God is willing to do things in your life that may appear to you to be unfair. God’s answer is always, “My child, I love you more than you know, but I’m not playing by your rules.”
3. The Conversation v. 26 - 29
In this conversation, we discover 4 new things about Jacob -
A. A New Determination v. 26
Up until this point in Jacob’s life, he used all his strength and ability to achieve his own ends. For the first time, he’s come to the end of his own resources. Before this night, Jacob was running the show. Now he realizes that without God, he’s nothing. All his huffing and puffing has brought him to realize how helpless he is when compared with the strength of God. Now he is learning the great lesson - “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”
When our greatest energies are surrendered to God, our lives are radically redirected. That which was used for evil now is used for good. That which was used for trivial pursuits now is used for the kingdom of God. That which was used for earthly gain now is used for eternal profit.
B. A New Confession v. 27
This was the turning point, the crucial moment, the breaking point of Jacob’s life. Why did the man ask his name? Didn’t he know who Jacob was? Of course he did. The question is, “Jacob, do you know who you really are?” He was a man who fully earned his own name. He was “Jacob” through and through.
“Are you ready to admit who you really are? Are you ready to confess the deep truth about yourself?” Most of us will do anything to avoid the hard truth about the way we live. You’ve heard it said, “The truth will set you free” – “but it will hurt you first.” If you are willing to be hurt by the hard truth about who you really are, then you can be set free. The hardest truth is the truth about yourself. If you ever dare to face that truth, then Jesus can begin to set you free.
C. A New Name v. 28
Who won the match that night? God. Who lost? Jacob. But who really won? Jacob! That’s the paradox of life. When we wrestle with God, we always lose. But when we lose, we win! Did not Jesus say something very similar? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
In God’s economy, the values of the world are completely reversed. The way up is down and the way to save your life is to lose it. Strangely enough, when you fight with God, defeat leads on to victory and the road to the kingdom goes by way of the cross.
God is continually bringing you to a place where you will surrender your will to him. But in that act of surrender you obtain the only victory that really matters. In losing, you win!
D. A New Blessing v. 29
From now on Jacob would be God’s man through and through. No longer a cheater and deceiver. From now on he would be remembered as the man who wrestled with God.
Let’s put it all together. In the great wrestling match of his life, Jacob lost. But in losing, he won! When that long night is over, Jacob knows something he didn’t know before. He now knows that God knows him through and through, and loves him anyway. What a revolutionary discovery that is for all of us. When you realize that God sees right through your hypocrisy … and yet loves you anyway, that truth will change your life forever.
God is saying to Jacob, “My son, I know more about you than you do about me. That’s the way it ought to be. You don’t have to cheat anymore. Now you and I are going to walk together. Those other days are behind you forever.”
4. The Epilogue v. 30 - 32
We can summarize the end of the story very quickly: Jacob now realizes that he has had an encounter with God! Jacob now walks with a limp. The nation remembers this night.
The next morning, when Jacob crosses the Jabbok, he is walking with a limp, one leg dragging behind the other. There is pain in his face, but a smile on his lips. His sons crowd around him, “Dad, what happened? All you all right? Did you have an accident?” Jacob replies, “Boys, sit down. I’m going to tell you the strangest story you’re ever going to hear.” That story was told and re-told and passed down across the generations—the night when Jacob wrestled with God.
5. Lessons From the Jabbok
A. God brings us to crisis points where our self-sufficiency is shattered, and we are forced to yield ourselves to God. God allows these things to happen so that, like Jacob, we find our self-confidence shattered and we are forced to trust in God in a new and deeper way.
B. Until we are “broken” by God, we can never be greatly used by God. God brings us again and again to breaking points. God can’t really use a self-reliant man. But a broken and contrite heart, he will not despise. When you are broken, you’ll be ready to listen and ready to obey. Then—and only then—can God greatly use you.
C. Until we admit the truth about our condition, we will remain as we are. What is your name? Until you can say, “My name is bitterness,” you can’t be healed. “My name is greed” - “My name is deception” - “My name is unfaithfulness.” What is your name? Whenever you are ready to come clean, God can make you clean. But until then you will stay just as you are.
D. Once God breaks us, we will look back on that experience with gratitude. Up until this point, Jacob has limped on the inside—a cheater, a manipulator and a deceiver. But now God has intervened. He who once limped on the inside now limps on the outside—a reminder of the man he used to be.
It is better to limp through life trusting God completely than to strut in our self-confidence. Strutting is lots more fun because strutting puts you out in front of the parade where everybody can see you. But those who strut through life are eventually brought down. And the people God really uses are the ones who limp across the finish line.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8: 34. That night on the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob picked up his cross and limped after his Lord.
If you are limping today, you’re not a victim, you’re a trophy of God’s grace. What seems today like humiliating defeat, in the hands of God will be transformed into a glorious victory.
Prayer - Father, our greatest need is to believe what I have just said—that from defeat you can bring forth victory. We know it is true, yet many of us have our doubts. We know that you can take the wounds of this life and transform them by your grace. Do it, Lord. Touch us with your transforming power. Help us to embrace the cross of Christ, to pick it up and to follow after our Lord, limping as we go. Amen.