Wrestles With God

And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Many stories in Scripture serve as representative concrete examples encapsulating greater truths or development. And so it is with Jacob and the angel.

“Jacob” meant “he cheats”; the name is an apt description for Jacob in his early years. He was quiet, dwelling in tents, not the outdoors type like his older brother Esau (Genesis 25:26-27). He had his mother’s affections, and probably not a little of her personality as well (Genesis 25:28). Esau was willing to give up his birthright for some stew, and was foolish to agree to it, but Jacob was the one who set such an extravagant price (Genesis 25:29-34). When his mother suggests the plot to deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob’s concern is not about ethics or morality but about logistics and challenges (Genesis 27:1-13). He thus cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36). Esau, predictably, is not a fan of this turn of events, and conspired to take out his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41); Rebekah hears of it and makes sure Jacob is sent far away to her brother Laban in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 27:42-28:2). God grants Jacob a vision of the ladder with angels upon it and promises the blessings of the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:10-19). He promised that if God would keep him and preserve him back to his father’s house, he would build a house for God at Bethel and give a tenth of what he had (Genesis 28:20-22). A cheater who makes demands of God; this is certainly not the story of a mature patriarch!

The cheater is then cheated: he works seven years for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel but is given the older daughter Leah instead; he then must work another seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob had to deal with the contentions among his wives (Genesis 29:31-30:25). Laban continually attempted to cheat Jacob, but the “God of [Jacob’s] father Isaac” preserved him and made him prosper (Genesis 30:26-31:55).

Jacob thus heads toward his father’s land after around twenty years of striving with Laban and others; he sends word to Esau and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:1-6). Jacob has overcome the challenges surrounding Laban but does not know how things will work out with Esau. In the middle of all this an angel of YHWH visits Jacob, and of all things, wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Jacob did not give up; neither did the angel. The end came when the angel displaced the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and day had come (Genesis 32:25). Jacob demanded a blessing; his name is changed to Israel, “wrestles with God,” because he strove with men and with God and had prevailed. Only then did Jacob realize he had wrestled with an angel and named the place Peniel (Genesis 32:29-30).

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob and Esau would then meet and things went well; Jacob return to the land of his father (Genesis 33:1-20); he fulfilled the vow he made to God (Genesis 35:1-7). But it is quite telling, and appropriate, that “Jacob” left the land of his father, never to return; “Israel” is the man who comes back to the land which will bear that name, with a full household who would become the tribes of the land.

Of all the characters we meet in Scripture, Jacob’s is one of the best developed. The Genesis author does so for good reason: Jacob becomes Israel and provides a paradigm for Israel. “Jacob,” as “he cheats,” was in no position to be a patriarch; he had to learn humility, and learned it by receiving plenty of his own medicine. And yet he prevailed. He wrestled with an angel, and yet he prevailed.

There is a little detail that can often be missed but is quite telling within this story of Jacob. Before Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with the angel, God is never “his” God; YHWH could only be his God if He provided for him (Genesis 28:21). God, to Jacob, was “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). But when Jacob/Israel has returned to the land of his father, and he builds an altar near Shechem, he names it El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). God is not merely the God of his ancestors. God is his God as well.

Such is the lesson of Jacob/Israel. Israel the nation embodied Israel the patriarch constantly throughout its history, striving with God, often falling short of His glory and holiness, and wondering where His promises had gone despite their perceived faithfulness (e.g. Psalms 44, 88-89). We can read the story of many of the men of faith who had to grow into their role, strove with God, and ultimately grew in character, faith, holiness, and in their relationship with Him. Each new Israelite and generation of Israelites had to wrestle with their situation, wrestle with their faith, and in some way wrestle with God so that He would not just be the God of their fathers but their God as well.

And so it is to this day. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Galatians 3:29, Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Those born to godly parents do well to consider that “Jacob” was born to godly parents as well; “Jacob” as such needed to grow into “Israel” to be the patriarch God intended for him to be, because only “Israel” considered God to be his God. We cannot expect to short-circuit the process, either: we must strive with God and men, wrestle with our faith and our situation, and through the experiences of life, some for good, many perhaps seeming to be to our detriment, we are to come to the recognition that God is not just the God of our fathers but our God as well. May we honor God as our Creator and our God, and serve Him through His Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Limits of Study

And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

The words of the Preacher had been recorded and presented; the famous conclusion is nearing, declaring that to fear God and to keep His commandments is the end of the whole matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Yet, sandwiched between some words about the Preacher and this conclusion we have this declaration regarding books and study. Whatever does it mean, and what is it doing here?

Contextually, we do well to remember the situation of the day. There is no such thing as a printing press yet; a scroll (which was used then) was first hand written and then hand copied. Every time a scroll would begin to wear out it would have to be copied again. If there was a need for additional copies of a scroll, it would have to be hand copied for each. Any text that was not continually copied was destined for the dustbin of history– save for the few texts we have recovered from archaeological excavations, the reason that we have any text before 1450 is due to the copying of manuscripts generation after generation. There would certainly seem to be no end to this process!

As you can imagine, studying scrolls would be a difficult task, and it would not be any easier when sitting in rooms that might be a bit too warm or too cold, bereft of the “comforts” of a lot of modern pieces of furniture. There were no computers for fast searches or even concordances or anything of that sort. There were no swivel leather chairs. To devote oneself to study was going to involve much physical discomfort– that is the warning this man is providing for his son!

But this message is not just true for any other book of the Bible or regarding study in general; in fact, it is probably more true for, say, the 150 psalms, or one of the major prophets, than for the 12 chapter book of Ecclesiastes. So why is this message here of all places?

The whole book of Ecclesiastes does well at showing that no thing, when taken to the extreme, really provides the answers we seek in life. Pleasures– women, money, houses, plantations, servants, drink, etc.– do not ultimately provide any lasting and enduring satisfaction (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Knowledge and wisdom has the same end; death comes for the knowledgeable as well as the ignorant, for the fool just as the wise (Ecclesiastes 2:12-15). Many of the challenging questions about the “fairness” of it all and the prevalence of evil are reckoned as absurd, without sufficient answer to be discovered by man (Ecclesiastes 8:14, 17). When it comes to this life “under the sun,” we cannot point to any one thing and say that it will really provide all the answers, solutions, or purpose for life, no matter how hard we try.

It is quite appropriate, therefore, for Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be appended upon Ecclesiastes, for the messages are consistent. Just as there are limits to the value of pleasures, knowledge, etc., so also there are limits to the value of books and study.

We can only imagine what the author of this declaration would think about the world today. How many millions of books are out there on any number of subjects? Books, magazines, papers, and especially electronic media today run the gamut from highly simplified to highly technical, very general to quite specific, regarding any and every subject under the sun. 200 years ago there were many people who could be termed “Renaissance men,” having a conversant understanding of almost every subject. These days it is almost impossible to plumb the depths of the knowledge and studies regarding one particular topic! How many times have we heard that the sum of all knowledge in this world has doubled? And yet how much more is there left to learn?

This is a very important and serious subject on a spiritual level. We constantly hear how important it is for us to study the Scriptures, and indeed, it is very important to study the Scriptures (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Yet what is the point of studying the Scriptures– merely to increase knowledge of what God has said? We can study and study and will never entirely plumb the depths of God’s message. There is always more to learn; our understanding can always improve. Bible study is a critical part of learning about God in Christ, and even though we will never learn everything, we must still keep learning (2 Peter 3:18).

Yet, as with pleasures and knowledge, so with Bible study– it is not the ultimate purpose of our existence, and it can become weariness to the flesh. Learning of God though Scripture is reckoned to be a part of the life of the disciple, the lessons of which are intended to be taken into life and applied (cf. Hebrews 5:14). We are to study the revealed Word to learn more about the Incarnate Word in order that we might look more like Him (cf. Romans 8:29)!

We have unprecedented access to the revealed Word of God today– different Bible versions, Bible computer programs, and an ever growing body of writing that helps to make sense of the Bible. We ought to be thankful and take full advantage of these resources so as to learn the message of Scripture better. But if we learn about God in Scripture and it just remains an academic and intellectual exercise, and it does not lead to a life that better reflects the image of the Son, then the whole exercise has been entirely futile, absurd, and without profit in eternal terms. Let us remember that Bible study is a good thing– but it is not the ultimate thing. Bible study is designed to lead us to godly living and the practice of the Christian life. Let us study so as to live, and not live merely for study!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Endurance

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Sporting events featuring displays of endurance are rarely as glitzy as their faster counterparts. It is much harder to keep the audience’s attention for a 26 mile race than it is for a 100 meter dash. Preparation and training for the two types of events are also entirely different. One cannot use the same strategy to win a marathon as he or she would in order to win a 100 meter dash.

Our life of faith is comparable to the endurance walk or run– a long hike or a marathon (cf. 1 John 2:6, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2). Those who burst out of the gate with an unsustainable pace tend to burn out (cf. Matthew 13:20-21). We are supposed to understand Christianity as the long haul– there will be ups and downs, moments of happiness and distress, peaks and valleys in faith and strength. That is why we must hike the path or run the race with endurance!

The key to any long-term hike or run is setting the appropriate pace. If one goes too fast, one will lose energy, and will not be able to finish. If one goes too slow, it is easy to get bogged down, and victory will be out of reach. God calls upon Christians to set their pace– not to attempt to grow or progress so quickly so as to lead to burnout, but not so slowly so as to lead to atrophy and complacency (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

While we are on the path, nothing is as important as the need to just keep going. Dory, in Finding Nemo, kept telling herself to “just keep swimming,” and that sustained her.

In previous days I did a lot of hiking, including 20 mile hikes. Yet few hikes were as memorable as one particular 10 mile hike. I and a few others had hiked ahead of the main group but lost the trail after a few miles. We stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. When we did continue hiking I began to experience terrible cramping and pain. The rest of the hike was miserable, and I was not sure that I was going to be able to complete the hike!

It was by no means the longest hike I ever attempted. Had we just pressed on I probably would have been fine. It was the stopping and then trying to continue that caused the duress!

So it is in Christianity. It is imperative that we never stop growing– never stop pressing on to the goal (cf. Philippians 3:13-14). As in anything that requires endurance, very short periods of rest may be in order. But if we rest for too long, we will find continuing to be that much harder, much harder than it would have been had we continued progressing without fail.

We must run the race, or follow the path, with endurance. As long as we are in the flesh there is further to go. Paul was still striving, despite being an Apostle and a Christian for thirty years (Philippians 3:13). We must never believe that we have reached the summit of the faith. Growth is often painful. Growth often costs us. Growth may lead us to have different troubles than we had at the beginning. But God makes it clear that if we are not growing we are dying (cf. Revelation 2-3). Let us press upward toward the goal with endurance!

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Beginning of Wisdom

And unto man he said, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).

The pursuit of wisdom has been one of the great pursuits of the ages. For generations, people have sought out wisdom and have attempted to preserve it for their descendants. Yet, unlike technology, advancements in knowledge, and other such pursuits. the pursuit of wisdom seems to begin anew with every successive generation. Why is it that we can learn about tools and information from those who came before us, but not wisdom?

For far too many, wisdom is considered as folly. We in the twenty-first century have “advanced” so much, and our forefathers were “ignorant” and “misinformed,” in their view, so what can we really learn from them? They may not have had cars, computers, cell phones, or quantum physics. In our new age, things are “different,” or so it is believed.

In reality, there are no greater fools than those who repudiate that which was learned by the experience of those who came before us. The fact of the matter is that while technology has advanced, nothing has really changed. Humanity is beset by the same woes that have always beset humanity: foolishness, sin, isolation, despair, temptation, and the like. The Preacher was quite wise in Ecclesiastes 1:9: there is nothing new under the sun!

One of the greatest tragedies of humanity is how each successive generation seems incapable of learning from the mistakes of their ancestors. Each successive generation either follows the paths of their fathers directly, or they decide to entirely repudiate that path and go to the other extreme. Parents make irresponsible financial or relationship decisions, and the children go and do the same. Parents raise children one way, and the children feel compelled to raise their children in the entirely opposite way. Neither of these reflect wisdom: our fathers made many mistakes that we would do well not to repeat, and over-reactions tend to produce different problems, but problems nonetheless, than the problem that was attempted to be solved in the first place.

Why is wisdom so hard to communicate? Job understands many of the difficulties as he reflects on wisdom in Job 28. Wisdom is not like precious metals or ore which can be discovered and mined (Job 28:1-2). Wisdom is not a faraway destination that requires great skill and an epic journey (Job 28:3-4). Wisdom is not gained by considering animals or nature, since it is not with them (Job 28:5-11). Thus, we cannot go anywhere to find wisdom, we cannot find the resources with which we could purchase wisdom, and we will not find it in death (Job 28:12-22)! The challenge of wisdom is that it cannot be obtained or discovered using the preferred means of human beings.

Instead, wisdom belongs to God (Job 28:23-27). Wisdom is not like knowledge– it cannot be forced upon anyone, and it requires a certain disposition to receive it. Wisdom must begin with a particular attitude and a particular perspective: the fear of God (Job 28:28).

This is why wisdom is so terribly hard to pass along to every successive generation. Wisdom is generally gained through hard learning. It is easy to give lip service to the “fear of the LORD” when one is young– the fear of the LORD is often gained through humbling experiences and challenges. We humans tend to insist on our own ways until we discover their folly and their end (Jeremiah 10:23). Until a person recognizes that they are the creation and not the creator, that they are in need of instruction and cannot figure everything out on their own, and that they need to trust in the LORD and His understanding and not their own, they can never obtain wisdom. Wisdom requires humility– the recognition that there is much to understand and learn that we do not understand and learn, and that we ought to keep ourselves in proper perspective.

When we come to terms with our own weaknesses, and can learn to trust in God Almighty, we can truly begin understanding that which is wise. Its basis is in the fear of the LORD and turning away from that which is evil (Job 28:28). If we understand that God is our creator and that He seeks what is best for us, we will trust that all things contrary to His will are detrimental to us, and we will avoid them. We cannot do that until we have humbled ourselves and have come to the realization that blazing our own trail leads to death and destruction (cf. Proverbs 14:12, Romans 6:23).

It is natural for every successive generation to attempt to strike out on their own trail. That is why many wise fathers end up with children acting foolishly, but it also means that some foolish fathers may, despite themselves, end up with wise sons. Wisdom can only be gained and understood when we realize that no matter how things change, things stay the same, and that we are really no better than our ancestors or anyone else. Wisdom can only be gained when we realize that we are the creation, God is the Creator, and life can only be found through Him and His will. Let us seek after wisdom, having hearts prepared to receive it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maturity

But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).

Physical development, for the vast majority of people, is a given. Most children, as long as they are continually nourished, will experience physical maturation. Those are trying times for themselves, their parents, and everyone else who has contact with them! Nevertheless, the maturation process is essential if life will continue. Ideally, the child will be mentally and emotionally maturing while he or she is physically maturing. This is the process by which small children become responsible adults.

Spiritual maturity has the same imperative but is not a “given.” In fact, the Hebrew author is chastising the Hebrew Christians for not maturing spiritually as they should have– even though they should be teachers by now, they still need someone to teach them the basic truths of the faith (Hebrews 5:12-6:4)! It is entirely possible for a believer to live 20, 30, 50, or even 60 years without spiritually maturing.

But this is not what the Lord wants! We are commanded in 2 Peter 3:18 to grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. The servant who did nothing to advance his Master’s purposes in Matthew 25:14-30 was cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth– who wants to experience that fate?

Therefore, it is important for us to grow and mature spiritually. Unlike physical maturity, we must make the determination to mature and to grow in our faith. On the other hand, this means that a believer can mature more rapidly, and reflect a spiritual maturity “greater” than his spiritual “age” as reckoned by human time!

Spiritual maturity is a challenge. It requires us to know God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). How can we grow if we do not know how to grow? How can we learn to do the will of our Lord if we remain ignorant of His will? The growing and maturing believer in Christ will truly be His disciple, sitting at his Master’s feet, learning what he or she should do (cf. Luke 10:38-42).

Maturity requires much more than just “book learning.” Christianity is not a mere intellectual exercise– it is designed to be a lived belief. We demonstrate that we are of Jesus Christ by walking as He walked (1 John 2:6). As the Hebrew author demonstrates, we train our senses to discern good and evil “by reason of use.” It is one thing to know that Jesus teaches us to love our enemy, to turn the other cheek, to do good to all men, and so on (cf. Matthew 5, Luke 6); it is quite another to practice such things and to be enriched through our experience. Just as “hands on” work experience has practical value and provides lessons unable to be fully gleaned through “book learning,” so practicing Christianity has value and provides deeper understanding of what can be gained from studying the Scriptures.

Let none be deceived, however: spiritual maturity has its cost, just as physical maturity does. We grow in faith when our faith is tested– when we are called upon to defend our beliefs in front of a hostile audience (1 Peter 3:15), when we must decide whether we will succumb to temptation or escape (1 Corinthians 10:13), when we experience persecution or suffering (James 1:2-3, 1 Peter 1:6-8), and other such challenges. Sadly, many times we will fail (1 John 1:8); we must then get up, confess our wrongs, learn from them, and allow those experiences to help us grow (1 John 1:9). Furthermore, just as we obtain greater responsibilities as we mature physically, so more is expected of us as we grow spiritually (cf. Matthew 25:14-30, Romans 15:1). As we grow, we can see just how much more growth and maturity is required– there is never a point in this life when we can feel as if we have matured enough or grown up enough, for we can always abound more and more in the work of the Lord (cf. Philippians 3:13-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-9).

Growing and maturing in the faith is a challenge, indeed, but failure to grow and mature might very well lead to eternal torment. Growth and maturity come at great cost, but so did our salvation (Philippians 2:5-11)! Let us seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly striving to be more conformed to His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry