How does God work in our lives? What I have discovered more than anything else is that He works through our dark times, our hardships, struggles and reverses. This is a truth you can find through your own experience or through Scripture—both will lead you to the same place: that in the hard times, in the dark shadows—that’s where you meet God and that where real life transformation takes place.
We could illustrate that from many places in Scripture and from the lives of many people, but today I'm talking today the Old Testament patriarch Jacob. The story of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament. It reveals so much to us, and so much that speaks to all of us about God’s work in our lives.
The part I’m referring to in the story of Jacob is when he returns from his 20 years in Aram, where he had married Rachel and Leah and had his many children. That was 20 years away from home, 20 years gone because he’d deceived his brother Esau and he feared his reprisal; 20 years in exile from the land of promise. And now he returns, and now he’s afraid that Esau was going to clean his clock, to get his vengeance for what Jacob had done to him two decades before when he cheated Esau from both his inheritance and his blessing.
20 years away; 20 years in which his faith, which was so incomplete, so simple, so basic, so far from the faith of his grandfather Abraham. Jacob’s faith, compared to his grandfather Abraham was so unformed; it was like the faith of a child; a grown man with the faith of a child—not childlike faith, but childish faith.
If you know the story, you’ll recall that when Jacob was fleeing the land of Canaan, he slept one night and had a dream of angels ascending and descending on a staircase. Jacob says, ah this place is it, the place when heaven and earth touch, the house of God, Beth-el. And he wakes up and says, hey God, if you do all these nice things to me then I’ll let you be my God and I’ll even tithe to you. Isn’t that great of me? Such is the state of Jacob’s unformed, immature faith.
So he goes off to Aram. Now even his name, Jacob, means cheater. And to Esau, he’d been a cheater. So God puts and even bigger cheater in his way, this man named Laban. Laban was Jacob’s uncle, and he seems to have the same slick deal gene that Jacob had. Jacob wants Rachel for his wife; Laban manipulates Jacob into marrying both pretty Rachel and not so pretty Leah. Yeah, work seven years for the one, and seven for the other. Wake up the day after the wedding with the one you don’t want. Well, that’s often how it works—be a schemer and God sends an even bigger schemer into your life to straighten you out—you reap what you sow, right?
Yes, if we manipulate, we are manipulated; if we cheat, God sends us a cheater—maybe so then we can begin to understand what that sin does to someone else. God rebukes and corrects us with someone who is even better (or worse) at our vices than we are.
And Laban’s manipulation went on for two decades, and by the end, Laban’s own daughters have had it as well; they’re ready to run away. But to run away from Laban was to run toward Jacob’s brother Esau.
In the meantime, Esau had become a powerful man. He has 400 men who worked for him, his own little army. As Jacob’s caravan approached the home country, word gets to Jacob that his brother and the 400 are ahead of him; news of Jacob’s return travels fast. He doesn’t know if his brother was “over it” or if he was in a vengeful mood (evidently he’d never “friended” Esau on his Facebook account!).
And just as he’d seen a divine vision on his way out of the land (the staircase and the angels), he sees the divine presence on his way into the land. Genesis 32:1-2 says,
Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.
Isn’t Mahanaim a great word? It sounds so Middle Eastern! In Hebrew it means “two camps” and it seems that Jacob called the place “two camps” because to him it seemed that there were indeed two camps there—his own and God’s own. The earthly and the heavenly, just like that staircase that he’d seen 20 years before had its foot on earth and its top in heaven.
Jacob is dazzled by that vision, but I think he drew the wrong lesson from it. Read a little farther in Genesis 32, vs. 7-8:
7 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. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”
Consciously or unconsciously, he attempts an earthly duplication of the divine pattern. I'll have two camps too, just like God does. I’ll divide the caravan in two sections—and he sends everyone else on ahead.
Then he further insulates himself. He stays behind both of the camps and he’s the last one left on the far side of the little brook called the Jabbok. And it's there that God meets him here and does more to change his life in one night than in the previous 20 years.
Now, as we read this story, and a lot of Bibles have a title over it saying something like, “Jacob wrestling with the angel.” We maybe have seen a Sunday school picture like this or an engraving like this [see powerpoint]. But is it wrestling with an angel? Take a look at the text closely. Who is this Being who wrestles with Jacob?
In Genesis 32, he’s simply called “a man.” But this is one unusual man. First of all, He can wrestle all night! But more important, if you look at the cues, He’s even more than just an angel.
There are places in the Bible that talk about “just” angels—lesser created beings that serve God. The word “angel” just means messenger. But here, the being he encounters is the Angel of the Lord—in Hebrew ha Malach-Yahweh. That means so much more. He is The Messenger of the Lord.
We think angel and we think of angels announcing the birth of Christ, or angels were present at the creation. But there are places in the Old Testament where “the angel of the Lord” is not just another angel. For example, in Genesis 19, there’s a place where Abraham has a conversation with God. It starts by saying that there were three angels, but one begins to speak as if He were the Lord Himself. Then only two angels go on from there to destroy Sodom. In the Book of Joshua, Joshua encounters an angel with a drawn sword who also speaks as if He were God Himself.
You have to get to the New Testament to really make sense of these strange Old Testament encounters. There we meet the One who is the ultimate Messenger of God, God with us, the Word made flesh. Yes, I think that the One Jacob wrestles with in Genesis 32 is the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.
And when Jesus is present, He brings grace, and in His grace, He gives Jacob something precious: call it a beautiful breaking.
Let’s read Genesis 32:24-32:
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Remember that Jacob was prepared for a fight. The moment he was set on, he probably thought it was one of Esau’s men. But it was not; all night they wrestled and it was a dead even match. Then his opponent touched his hip and dislocated the hip—and yet Jacob fought on. You can almost smell the sweat and feel the dust being kicked up as they fought there by the stream, and you can hear the exhausted voice of Jacob. He’s come to realize this was no ordinary man; so he asks for his blessing. That’s an ironic request for someone who’d stolen Esau’s blessing, isn’t it?
He gives him that blessing, but in an unexpected way. What’s your name? Jacob? Not anymore. It’s Israel.
What does Israel mean? The simplest translation is “God fights.” This name will replace the name Jacob (“Cheater”); it’s both a promise from God—I’ll fight on your behalf--and a call for faith, for trust in the God who fights for you. In essence, the Lord was saying that Jacob would have victory and receive the promises because God would fight for him. Not because Jacob would have to fight and wrestle and scheme and cheat for them, but because God will fight on his behalf.
Jacob wasn’t complete; he still had some growing to do, but He gets it. He ends up naming the place where this grudge match happens Peniel, which means “Face of God.” “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” And Jacob limped away from Peniel a changed man.
It was a beautiful breaking; something changed that night for Jacob. God used this crisis to reach into his life and make a mark, an indelible mark on his life--not just his body, not just a dislocated hip, but a well dislocated ego. He began to learn that to be successful with God meant that he had to be crippled in his own self-sufficiency.
…Which brings this home for you and me. When we wrestle with God, when we hold on in the dark, God meets us there, shows us his face and touches us as well, to change us as much as He changed Jacob that night.
It’s significant that the wrestling match took place at night. In the night, you can’t see what’s going on. That’s also when many plants grow—not during the day, but at night. That’s where we grow too. When we hold on in the dark, in our pain to God and refuse to let go, that’s where we grow.
The thigh is perhaps the strongest part of the body. There must come a day when God dislocates that thigh, totally undermining and undoing our natural strength. Your strong point and mine may be quite different from Jacob's. Ambition, boasting, emotion, self-love—each of us has his own, but for each of us this dislocating work is a definite crisis of experience.
It is when our strongest part has been touched by God that we become what God truly wants us to be. Remember what Paul said—2 Corinthians 12. 10:
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In our natural strength we are useless to God. With no strength at all, we can hold on to Him. Then God could declare that Jacob had prevailed with God. This is what happens when we hold on and surrender, beaten, at God's feet.
Those touched by God do not know what has happened. When it really takes place, we don't know what it is. It’s difficult to define, but it’s sure real. Jacob only knew that somehow God had met him and that now he was crippled. The limp—the changed life—is the evidence, not merely the witness of the lips. We are to look to God to do the work in His own way and time. The result will be evident in us.
The question I pose to you today is—are you walking with a limp—with the evidence of a beautiful breaking? Or are you walking through life in your own Jacob-like strength, making your schemes and dealing your deal, trying to run life on your terms, not God’s?
The limp is good. This is a good weakness, a beautiful breaking.
Maybe if we fast forward to near the end of Jacob’s life we can see it best. After Joseph goes to Egypt, and after the time when the whole family comes into Egypt, Joseph introduces his aged father to Pharaoh. We read in Genesis 47:7-10:
7 Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed Pharaoh, 8 Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?”
9 And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” 10 Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence.
Not once but twice Jacob blesses Pharaoh. This old scruffy herder of flocks blesses the most powerful man on earth. Jacob, hardly even realizing, stands as the voice and hands of God to the mightiest ruler on earth, and blesses him. This is a far different man than the one who divided his caravan and hid by the Jabbok. This is a man in whom the peace of God dwells.
Once there was a 10-year-old boy who decided to study judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a car accident.
The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn't understand why, after three months of training, the master had taught him only one move.
"Sensei," the boy finally said, "Shouldn't I be learning more moves?"
"This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you'll ever need to know," the sensei replied. Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training.
Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals. This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened. "No," the sensei insisted, "Let him continue."
Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion.
On the way home, the boy and the sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind: "Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?"
"You won for two reasons," the sensei answered. "First, you've almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.
What had been his greatest weakness became the source of his greatest strength. Having conquered that, all else was conquered.
Let the Master train you as well. Let Him break the part of you that seeks self-exaltation, so that His glory can flow instead. For when you are weak in yourself, then you are strong in Him.