Turn with me to Genesis 32:22-32:
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” 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, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
Today I want to talk about the grace of God; namely, the purpose of grace in the life of a believer, and the means by which God oftentimes implements that purpose. Those of you who have been christians for a long time know, or can perhaps predict, where I am going to go with this, as I suspect you have experienced God’s work of grace in your life—or at least I hope that you have. In short, the main message of my sermon this morning will be that we find grace at the end of our rope; we find grace when we are at the end of our rope—or, when God has brought us to the end of ourselves. In order to make my case, I will make three main points: our resistance God’s grace in our lives, the Lord’s assertion of His grace in our lives, and the inevitable result of God’s grace in our lives.
Let us start with point number one: our resistance to God’s grace in our lives. Let us start with verses 22-23. Here we are jumping right into the middle Jacob’s story. If you know the story, then you know that Jacob is not in a good place right now; in fact, he’s stuck between what you might call a rock and a hard place. Jacob has spent his whole life running from his problems, and now all the consequences of his bad choices that he’s made over all the years of his life are finally starting to surround him, rendering him unable to escape them anymore. His chickens, you might say, are coming home to roost. Remember how Jacob was born? He was born struggling in the womb with his older brother Esau, and when he came out he was grabbing his brother’s heel (25:26); thus he was named Jacob, which means He takes by the heel, or, He cheats. It’s ironic though isn’t it? Because just a few verses prior, God had sovereignty promised that the older son, who would be Esau, would serve the younger son, Jacob; yet here is Jacob barely even out of the womb already trying to earn God’s blessing his own way, on his own terms, and in his own strength, that is, by cheating. Did he need to take Esau by the heel to get God’s blessing? No, because God had already promised that the older would serve the younger; all Jacob needed to do was simply be born and let God do what He had already promised—the blessing was already his! But this was not Jacob’s way. Because Jacob was born with a condition, as we all are, which is the condition of having a heart that says: “I’m not going to trust you, God; I’m not going to obey you; I’m not going to do it your way. I’m going to do it myself. I am up for it; I am strong enough; I am virtuous and moral enough; I don’t want your help and I don’t need it; I am going to do this myself.” Can this disposition ever cause us trouble? Yeah. Did it cause trouble for Jacob? Oh yes, and for most of his life.
Though he certainly never earned the grace of God, he certainly earned the name that his parents gave him. Instead of trusting God to give him the blessing that God had already promised him, he stole it from his older brother Esau by deceiving his father Isaac, who by then had become blind, into thinking he was Esau—in other words, by cheating. Having dressed himself up like Esau he tricks his father into giving him the blessing; so he got for himself what God had already promised to have providentially given him—but at what cost? The cost was that his brother Esau, quite unsurprisingly, turns against him and seeks to kill him, thus forcing Jacob to flee for his life. He goes to his uncle Laban who, as it turns out, is a cheater and a deceiver just as Jacob is; he tricks Jacob into marrying his daughter Leah who had weak eyes, since he could not have married her off any other way. As JI Packer puts it, this is a case of the “biter bit.” The deceiver gets deceived; the cheater gets cheated. Experiencing a taste of his own medicine, Jacob realizes the error of his ways and turns humbly to the Lord and trusts Him—except he totally doesn’t. Feeling cheated and swindled, Jacob manipulates the breeding of Laban’s cattle at huge gain to himself and huge loss to his uncle, resulting in Laban’s anger at Jacob, forcing Jacob to once again get up and leave in a hurry with his two wives.
Anyone seeing a pattern here? Jacob has a knack for ticking off his family members with his bamboozling, and by the time we meet him here in verses 22-23, he has nowhere to go; behind him is Laban, who after chasing him and catching up to him has clearly told him that he never wants to see Jacob again, and before him is Esau, who, according to the caravan that Jacob has just sent out to greet, is coming for him with four hundred men, presumably to kill Jacob for his treachery some twenty years before. Desperate, he splits his property in two, hedging his bets, thinking that if Esau captures one group then Jacob may still be able to protect and keep the other. Now he crosses the brook at Jabbok and separates himself from all his servants, children, and wives. He is alone and desperate.
Let me ask you this: what is Jacob’s problem right now? Is it his circumstances? Is Laban his problem? Is Esau his problem? No; his circumstances are the effect of his problem, but not the cause; the cause of his problem is himself, his sin, his uncircumcised heart. Two decades of doing things his way has ruined his life; it has separated him from his family and rendered him alone. Did God shield Jacob from the consequences of his sin? No, quite the contrary, for twenty years God let Jacob have his way and incur upon himself the just and natural consequences that his way brings: isolation, desperation, despair. But it is crucial to understand here that God did not allow this to happen to Jacob because God was angry at him, or because God is some kind of a sadist who enjoys watching his children languish and suffer. Rather, God’s dealing with Jacob in this way was an act of grace. How else was Jacob going to learn the consequences of sin? How else was Jacob going to be torn from his stubborn self-reliance? How else was Jacob going to come to abhor his own wisdom and come to see the wisdom of obeying God? Is God going to adopt Jacob, or us, into his family and leave us unchanged? Being a child of God comes with a price: God will change your heart; he will take a mirror to your soul and hold open your eyes and force you to see yourself morally and spiritually as you really are. This can be a terrifying and miserable experience, but it is an act of gracious love on God’s part.
Point two: the assertion of the Lord’s grace into our lives. Well, Jacob is left all alone, and suddenly at the river Jabbok, out of nowhere, a mysterious man shows up and tackles him, and the two of them begin to wrestle “until the breaking of the day.” They wrestle and wrestle, and the text says that the man sees that he cannot prevail against Jacob. Now, just really quickly, do you think that this means that the mysterious man physically could not compete with Jacob, that Jacob was somehow stronger or more determined than this mysterious man, or that Jacob’s technique was too advanced for this man to handle? Obviously not, since, immediately after realization, the man touches Jacob on the hip and puts it permanently out of place for the rest of Jacob’s life—just with a touch of the finger. So clearly this mysterious man is very powerful, and so if he is wrestling with Jacob, he must be doing it only to make some kind of point; after all, what is the use, from the man’s perspective, in wrestling Jacob at all if all he has to do to bring him down is simply to touch him? It would almost seem that, from the mysterious man’s perspective, the whole wrestling match—which he himself initiates by the way—is an act of condescension, an act of stooping down to Jacob’s level; this man is not trying to prove something to himself, but rather trying to prove something to Jacob. What is that, do you think?
Well, with his hip permanently out of place, Jacob is forced to cling desperately to this man, and the man tells him to “Let me go, for the day has broken.” What is the significance to this, do you think? Well, no one can look God in the face and live, and the day is about to break, so clearly this man is God Himself; think about that for a second. God Himself has come down to wrestle with Jacob. In this light, how should we read the text that says that this mysterious man—God incarnate—could not prevail against Jacob, thus forcing him to break his hip? I think the plain answer is that the power of Jacob’s flesh—that is, his sin nature, his hell-bent insistence on doing things his way and trusting only in himself—was so strong that he would have never ceased wrestling with God unless God had sovereignly ended it, which He did when he touched him on the hip. Notice that there is a sudden change in tone here for Jacob from now on. He no longer wrestles with God or struggles against Him or resists Him, but instead he is now clinging to God, realizing that now the Man he is fighting against is his only hope. You think he knows this is God? You bet. God tells him to let Him go, for the sun is coming up; in other words, God is saying, “Jacob, if you don’t stop clinging to Me, you’ll see My face and die.” But Jacob, now effectively crippled and weakened, now sees the hopelessness of his life and situation without God’s strength. He realizes in that moment that if he lets God go, he’ll be as good as dead anyway; thus he says “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
Has Jacob learned his lesson yet? It seems that he has. God had to allow Jacob to have his way and dig himself into a pit for two decades, and then permanently hobble him for life to get Jacob to stop doing things his way and to start doing them God’s way. God had to bring Jacob to the end of himself before Jacob would be willing to yield. This is how God brings grace into our lives—not by sheltering us from our flaws and our sins, or from experiences of moral or spiritual weakness, but by exposing us to them so as to drive us to despair; it is then that we—who like Jacob are born with a stubborn, rebellious, and faithless heart—become willing, even grateful, for God’s help, his strength, and his holy presence. Grace is the means by which God draws us to Himself and severs us from our sin. I really like what JI Packer says here; he writes:
“This is what all the work of grace aims at—an ever deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself. How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast.”
I can’t help but think about Peter here. Peter was one of the most confident, bold, and outspoken of all the disciples; he thought of himself as a strong leader and warrior, someone who was courageous, someone who had attributes that put him amongst the most spiritual elite. But what does Jesus tell him? He says, “Peter, Satan has demanded to have you, to sift you like wheat.” And then what does Jesus say? “But don’t worry, Peter, I told Satan to keep his hands off of you”? No. He says “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have recovered, go and strengthen your brothers.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “Satan demanded to tear you down and devastate you, and I gave him permission.” Why would Jesus allow this to happen? Why allow Peter to go through that terrible night of the soul? It was for the same reason that God let Jacob cheat his way through life for two decades: so that he could fail, so that he could see his moral weakness and his desperate need of a savior. Peter, like Jacob, had to be brought to the place where he saw and understood that he needed God; God didn’t need him. He had to understand the difficult truth that he wasn’t strong, courageous, or moral as he thought he was. You cannot live a holy life that is pleasing to the Lord and be haughty and arrogant; salvation comes to the humble. As wicked and as pathetic as Peter’s failure was, I am inclined think that God could not have used him to establish the church if such a terrible night had not been allowed to happen.
Likewise for Paul. Remember his thorn in the flesh? Three times he begged God to take it away, and three times God said “No, my grace is sufficient, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Did God teach Jacob that lesson? Oh yes. God gave him a limp in his flesh for the rest of his life to be a perpetual reminder of his dependence on God for strength, guidance, and salvation from his own wicked heart. And doesn’t God give us our own trials, either of our own making or from some other source in order to bring us low so that we will cling to God.
Lastly, point three: the inevitable result of God’s grace in our lives. So now Jacob has been successfully humbled; instead of clinging to his own self-righteousness and his own strength, he is now physically hobbled and clinging desperately to God, who all of a sudden seems very strong and dependable to Jacob. Jacob is now begging God for a blessing; God is willing to give it, but it comes with one condition. God asks, “What is your name?” And so Jacob replies, “My name is Jacob.” What is going on here? Jacob asks for a blessing, and so God asks Jacob his name. On the face of it, God’s question almost seems like a non-sequitur; but is it really? Remember what Jacob’s name means? It means cheater, lier, swindler, heel catcher. God already knows what Jacob’s name is; thus in asking the question, He’s trying to get Jacob to realize something. In asking what his name is, God is essentially saying “I will bless you, but on one condition: what is your sin?” And how does Jacob respond? He tells God his name; “My name is Jacob” he says. In other words, he is saying “I am a cheater, a lier, and a swindler.” Jacob has finally been brought low enough in himself to admit the truth about himself, that he is a sinner and a scoundrel—and it is on the condition of this confession, this act of repentance, that God finally gives Jacob the blessing he so desperately needs and gives him a new name, Israel, which means “One who strives with God.” Thus I believe that it is right here, clinging desperately to God, yielded, broken, and dependent, that Jacob is finally converted; to put it in NT language, it is here that Jacob becomes a born again Christian. He no longer has any delusions about himself; he no longer insists on doing things his own way; in fact now, clinging desperately to God as God personally humbles him, he begs God to do it His way.
Biblical faith is made up of two essential components: allegiance, and dependence. By allegiance is meant obedience; if you are God’s, you obey Him. By dependence is meant you trust Him with your life and your affairs. Do you think Jacob learned this lesson? The next day in chapter 33 he goes up to meet Esau, limping because of his hip. Think about that for a second. If Esau decides to go after Jacob, do you think Jacob will be able to escape? How is he going to outrun Esau when his hip is permanently out of place? So you see here that at this point, Jacob is forced to depend on God, to obey Him and trust Him with the outcome. Jacob is in God’s hands now, limping, but walking for the first time the walk of faith.
What can we glean from this story? I think first we see that God gives grace to the humble. Humility is a necessary condition for saving faith. God humbled Peter and Paul through painful experiences that were necessary to make them useful for God’s purposes; the same is true of Jacob, and it is true of us as well. Hebrews 12:6 says “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastises every son whom he receives.” Psalms 102:23 says “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.” And again in 119:71, the psalmist writes “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” God disciplines us to humble us; this is vital and necessary for all of God’s children to experience to some degree or the other. A second point is that God often uses trials to teach us about ourselves. Trials teach us what our idols are, what we hope in that isn’t God for meaning and fulfillment in life. It can also prepare us to help others; but primarily, or at bare minimum, trials always serve to humble the believer. John MacArthur once said that humility is the number one Christian virtue, and I think we would all do well to take that maxim to heart. Thirdly, I just want to quickly state that the reason why God can chasten us as believers instead of destroy us with his wrath is because His wrath was satisfied at the cross. Jesus came down and lived the perfect human life that we should have lived, obeyed the Father when it was agony to do so, so that He could be crushed for our iniquities; so, when a Christian is suffering through a trial, we can rest assured that it is only loving discipline from out Heavenly Father, who chastens us graciously for our good and His glory. He may wound us, like he did Jacob, but they are wounds of grace, so that we may learn to lean faithfully on Him. Let us pray.