Jacob - a changed man (Genesis 29-33)
The Life of Jacob 3
Jacob – a changed man
Last week we had a wonderful service when we heard the testimonies of Jack, Lucy and Helen who were baptised. They shared something of the way God has been working in their lives. Today we return to our study of the life of Jacob. We can also learn a great deal from Jacob's experience of how God was at work in his life.
You remember Jacob had always been a grabber, full of himself and full of selfish ambition. He had cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of both his birthright and the blessing. This caused such a break in their relationship that Jacob had to flee for his life. He set off for far-away Haran, the birth place of his Mother, Rebekah. On the first night of that journey, sleeping rough out in the open, Jacob had an incredible dream. God broke through to Jacob in a personal way for the first time. The faith of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham finally became his own faith too. He called that place Bethel – which meant “the house of God”. God promised to be with Jacob and to bless him and bring him back to Canaan one day. It is the same today when people come to know God in a personal way. We discover He has a plan and wants to give us a hope and a future. Faith is no longer merely an outward thing, like attending church or being religious. It is a relationship. For Jacob, meeting God was the start of a new life but he still had lots to learn.
Hard Lessons in the School of Life
Jacob arrived in Haran and very soon met up with his Mother's relatives. In fact when he saw his cousin Rachel, a very beautiful young woman, it must have been love at first sight. Jacob was welcomed warmly by his uncle, a man called Laban. Everything seemed to be going really well. Chapter 29:15 records a conversation between Laban and Jacob: “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.” Jacob was so in love with Rachel that he replied, “I'll work for you for seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban agreed. Verse 20 records, “So Jacob served for seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.”
However what Jacob did not know was that in Laban he had met his match. As a young man Jacob had been a schemer and a grabber. Selfish ambition had shaped his personality. His uncle was to prove even more self-centred and greedy. The nasty medicine Jacob had given to others, especially to his brother Esau, was soon to be given to him. Those seven years working for Laban were to be just the start of 20 years of hard labour and conflict.
When the seven years were up Jacob excitedly asked Laban to allow him to marry Rachel. The wedding feast was arranged. What Jacob did not know was that Laban secretly arranged for his older daughter Leah to be taken to Jacob on the wedding night. She must have been heavily veiled, as was the custom, and Jacob slept with Leah. Only later did he realise he had been tricked. He was bitterly disappointed. After the week-long wedding celebrations were over however Laban did agree to also give Rachel to Jacob. However Jacob would have to work for another seven years to pay off the bride price.
Jacob was to experience all kinds of family trials as a result of having two wives, even though they were sisters. There was bitter rivalry and conflict in the home. Children in the case of Leah, or not having children as was initially the case with Rachel, were further causes of heartache, jealousy and broken relationships. This is described in chapter 30 where we read of the birth of Jacob's various children – all ancestors of the Jewish nation. Jesus was a descendant of Leah's fourth-born son, Judah.
Jacob was not only tricked by Laban over his marriage but for many years he worked for his uncle and father-in-law with little thanks or recognition. When God clearly was blessing Jacob, Laban tried to manipulate the situation for his own profit. He was quite happy to benefit from Jacob's hard work but he never admitted to his wrong doing or greediness. He made life really miserable for Jacob. Maybe, deep down, Jacob could see in his father-in-law, something of himself and his own past self-centredness.
Experiencing God's Provision & Guidance
Despite all he suffered at the hands of Laban, Jacob also experienced God's gracious provision. After Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph, Jacob seems to have had a strong desire to return home to Canaan. He had been away for twenty long years. He said to Laban, “Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I've done for you.” v 25, 26.
Laban was not pleased and didn't want to lose the services of Jacob. He knew God had blessed him and prospered him because of Jacob. Meanwhile Jacob came up with a scheme to outwit Laban. Through a brilliant method of selective breeding, Jacob's herds and flocks increased dramatically. Jacob was still the schemer at heart and wanted to get his own back on Laban. Sadly, even though Jacob knew God as his God, he still allowed his old ways of doing things to come out from time to time. Jacob became very wealthy building up his own flocks rather than just looking after Laban's flocks. This made Laban's own sons jealous of Jacob. Poor Jacob really had to go through one relationship problem after another. While blessing him and protecting him as He had promised, God was working through the circumstances in Jacob's life to mould him and change him. He had to learn that to truly know God's blessing he needed to trust God and do things God's way, not his own way. Jacob found himself in God's school of life.
There are times in our lives when God has to teach us hard lessons too. He allows us to try and sort out our situations in our own way. Like little kids we would rather do things our way than ask the help of our parent. God never forces us but lovingly waits until we are ready to surrender our will and give up on our own plans.
God was moving in Jacob's circumstances. “Jacob heard that Laban's sons were saying, 'Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all his wealth from what belonged to our father.' And Jacob noticed that Laban's attitude toward him was not what it had been.” 31:1, 2. This was when God spoke to Jacob. He said, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” It was the clear guidance that Jacob needed. How wonderful when God does speak and gives us His word of encouragement and direction!
Jacob wisely discussed things with his wives. He told them how God had been speaking to him. How important it is for husbands to bring God into their decisions and also to involve their wives and families in the process of determining God's will! Rachel and Leah supported Jacob's plan to leave.
Exhausting Our Own Resources
The story takes a dramatic turn. Laban hears about the sudden escape of Jacob and his wives and children and flocks. He decides to give chase. You can read the exciting story in chapter 31 from verse 24. God intervened and in a dream warned Laban to be careful about what he said to Jacob. It was a very tense and scary time for Jacob and his wives and family but miraculously things ended fairly amicably with Laban and Jacob agreeing to part peacefully. A much more difficult situation now faced Jacob. Sooner or later he would have to meet his brother Esau, the one who had wanted to kill him twenty years earlier. God graciously met Jacob again. This time He sent angels to minister to Jacob. The Bible tells us, “When Jacob saw them, he said, 'This is the camp of God!' So he named that place Mahanaim.” 32:2. Mahanaim means “Two Camps”. Jacob realised that not only was there his camp with all his family and their flocks but there was a camp of angels. Angels sometimes appear in the Bible – they are messengers of God protecting and bringing God's Word to His servants. We are not always aware of it, but angels also watch over God's children today.
God was trying to tell Jacob not to be afraid for His angels were camping with him and were watching over him. Despite this experience Jacob was very worried about the reaction of his brother Esau to his return. He sent messengers ahead with a message for Esau: “Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favour in your eyes.” 32:4, 5.
In some ways it is remarkable how much Jacob has changed. Gone is the pride and the bravado. Gone is his arrogance and his self-confidence. Maybe he was still scheming though. He knew he had to be extremely polite and avoid stirring up his brother's anger. Maybe Jacob thought by giving Esau lots of face and by showing great respect he could avoid conflict. It might have been Jacob's attempt to protect himself and his family. From a human point of view it was a wise move.
The news the messengers brought back, however, really frightened Jacob. They reported, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” The Bible says, “In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, 'If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.'” v 7, 8. Verse 9 tells us that Jacob did pray. He confessed he was completely unworthy of God's kindness and faithfulness to him. He begged for God's mercy and help. Jacob had learnt a lot and it was good he turned to prayer. However he was also all the while trying to scheme his way out of the danger. He had an elaborate plan to try and impress Esau and deflect his anger. Jacob was coming to the end of his resources. He was so worried and so afraid he was running out of options. His past life of grabbing and deceiving was coming back to haunt him. He was a desperate man, although he now knew God. God was bringing him to the end of his own plans and self-centredness.
Meeting God and Being Changed
In verses 22-31 we read how Jacob was all alone the night before Esau his brother was expected to arrive. Jacob had sent his wives and children over to the other side of the Jabbok stream. Jacob had made all the plans he could and was now left alone to wait the morning. This was when Jacob suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in a struggle, wrestling with a stranger. Jacob didn't know who it was but was determined not to give up. He kept on struggling even though he could not get the better of the other person. In fact only later did Jacob realise it was God who arranged that wrestling match. God was wanting to break Jacob's self life and bring him to the end of all his schemes and plans. He wanted to show him the old sinful nature needed to be conquered. He wanted to show Jacob that spiritual blessing came from surrender not from cleverness and self-effort. Human pride and ambition were not to get in the way of humble dependence upon God and His grace. Jacob could not inherit Canaan through his own cleverness and self-effort but rather by simply receiving it as a gift from God. Jacob was of course a believer. He knew God. But he was still relying upon his own fleshly efforts to get along in life. God had to teach him the secret of spiritual fruitfulness and the pathway to spiritual blessing.
Jacob did not want to surrender to his assailant. Hour after hour he wrestled. Jacob was so determined. He was not going to give up. Are we not so often just like Jacob? We too do not want to surrender up the lordship of our lives. We too want to prove ourselves and so we struggle and fight. We resist the gentle voice of our Lord. For many years God had been trying to break Jacob's pride and self-centredness. He had wanted him to stop trying to get blessing through his own fleshly efforts. Only now in this night-time wrestling match did God finally break Jacob, so that he was ready to let God take control.
The person wrestling with Jacob finally “touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.” v 25. After that simple touch Jacob could no longer fight. It brought him to the end of his resources. All he could do was cling desperately to the man. Jacob realised it was God dealing with him and he knew to resist was pointless. However he was determined to hold on for God to bless him. He said in verse 26, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Of course God could have disabled Jacob much earlier in the struggle but He wanted him to surrender willingly. Once he did surrender willingly God did indeed bless him. Jacob was a changed man. Not only did God give him a new name, Israel, but he finally broke his reliance upon his old sinful habits and self. For ever after that he walked with a limp. It was a reminder to Jacob of his weakness and his need for God. God had met him in his extremity, and God had blessed him. Now he was ready to meet Esau without fear. No longer was he relying on himself but he was relying upon God. When we surrender to God we receive His power and blessing. God did amazing things for Jacob that day, after his night of struggle and surrender. Incredibly, he was reconciled with his brother Esau. God did it all. It is an amazing story. Nothing is too big for God if we will stop our own struggling and striving and simply surrender to Him.