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

Living by our Faith

Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4).

Habakkuk has been complaining to God about the sinfulness of Judah. God tells him about the terrible enemy that He is raising up against them, the Babylonians, and the fate that awaits Judah. It is not a pretty picture; one wonders how anyone could survive or be saved in such circumstances!

God then makes a contrast between two sorts of people. There are those whose souls are puffed up inside of them. They have all sorts of confidence about their standing before God and their own “righteousness,” but their confidence is entirely unfounded. Their souls are not upright within them.

And then there are those who will live– those who are truly righteous. They are righteous because they live by their faith.

When Paul makes his grand theological treatise in his letter to the Romans, Habakkuk 2:4b is the centerpiece of his argument regarding justification by faith. The righteous shall live by faith. In the Roman letter Paul effectively demonstrates how no man or woman could ever be justified in the sight of God by their merits or their works since all have sinned (Romans 1:18-3:20). He demonstrates how Abraham received the promise through faith, and therefore those who inherit the promises are those who are children of Abraham by faith, sharing in the same trust in the One True God (Romans 4:1-25, 9:6-13). Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b again in the Galatian letter to demonstrate that no one has ever been justified before God on the basis of the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:11). Moses, David, and the prophets themselves lived by faith. Throughout time, therefore, those who belong to God and please Him are those who live by faith. It was not a matter of ethnic identity, as the Jews vainly believed; it was that trust in God, that confidence in His existence and His rewarding of those who seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6).

The righteous, indeed, will live by faith. Nevertheless, there is a minor detail present in the original Hebrew of Habakkuk’s words that was not carried over by Paul that remains important. Yes, the righteous live by faith. But “faith” is not just anyone’s faith. The righteous one lives by his faith.

We all know of people who are able to make it through life on account of the efforts of others. We often call this “riding on coattails.” Many children in this world will never have to worry about money or work; their parents are so unbelievably wealthy that they will never have to work. Many people rise to prominence less because of their own talents and abilities and more because of the fame of their parents or other such relatives.

There are some people who try to do this in their faith lives. They may have a parent or grandparent who was mighty in faith in God’s Kingdom, and they try to “ride their coattails.” They may start in life accepting what they have been taught. Sure, they believe in God; they have their own faith; just ask them. In reality, too many try to get by with their father’s faith or their grandfather’s faith. They have not yet made the faith their own.

Jacob is a great example of this. Few had his pedigree– the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. He certainly did not deserve to be the son of promise, but that was God’s choice for him (Genesis 25:23). When Jacob was fleeing to Paddan-Aram, God appeared to him in a dream and promised that He would be with him and that he would inherit the promises (Genesis 28:12-15). Jacob was astonished; he understood that God was present (Genesis 28:16-17). He certainly believed in the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. But notice his vow– if God will fulfill His promises, then He will be my God (Genesis 28:20-22). Jacob had faith in the God of his father– but he did not yet have his own faith.

In reality, while some people might get the luxury of “riding the coattails” of their parents, grandparents, or whomever else in their physical lives, no one can truly ride the coattails of anyone else spiritually. It will not work. The faith of your father, mother, child, spouse, preacher, elder, or anyone else cannot sustain you. It cannot stand up for you. Sure, it may remain for awhile, when it remains unchallenged and undisturbed. But then the day of adversity comes.

Maybe the adversity comes from a television show, a friend, or an educator who challenges the validity of faith in the God of the Bible and in Christianity. Maybe the adversity comes in the challenges of life– a harrowing illness, failure in various endeavors, unemployment, betrayal by others. No matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or do not have, regardless of our status in life, days of adversity will come that will cause us to question who we are and how we are to be sustained. And it is in those days that faith grows or dies (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7).

So it was with Jacob. He made it to Paddan-Aram and began working for his deceitful uncle Laban. He faced terrible adversity and there was no human that was there to advocate for him. He clearly perceived how it was the “God of his father” who sustained him, protected him, and blessed him throughout those twenty years (Genesis 29-31; cf. Genesis 31:5-9). As Jacob was returning home, having been delivered by God from Laban his uncle and petitioning for deliverance from Esau his brother, Jacob literally wrestles with God (in the form of an angel; Genesis 32:24-31). He is given the name Israel at that time. And after meeting with his brother Esau, Jacob/Israel moves to the area around Shechem. He builds an altar there, and names it El-Elohe-Israel: God, the God of Israel (Genesis 33:20). Jacob now had his own faith.

The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot ride the coattails of our spiritual ancestors. Time would fail us if we talked about how for every Gideon there was an Abimelech, for every Hezekiah a Manasseh, and for every Josiah a Jehoiakim. Sadly, the children of some of the most righteous people in the Bible end up being some of the most wicked. The faith of their parents could not save them.

Instead, we must be like Jacob. We must make the faith of those who came before us our own faith. We must believe in God and His truth because we have made our investigations and our inquiries and we have been satisfied (Acts 17:11-12). We must be able to make our own defense of our own hope that should be in us (1 Peter 3:15). We must have our own belief, deeply rooted within our own being, so that when we are shaken by trial, we have the resources of faith within us to continue to turn to God for sustenance.

The spiritual world around us is littered with the corpses of those who never developed their own faith, and their profession of acceptance of the faith of their ancestors failed them when the difficult times arose. Let us not be like them, but develop our own faith, and live by it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Children by Faith

But it is not as though the word of God hath come to nought. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel: neither, because they are Abraham’s seed, are they all children: but, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
That is, it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God; but the children of the promise are reckoned for a seed (Romans 9:6-8).

People have a passion for family. Pride in children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren is a common denominator among all types of different people– even regardless of the conduct of those descendants. We also can appreciate our genealogy. How many have spent time in archives learning more about their ancestors! For some reason, if we are able to discover long-lost relatives who either participated in momentous historical events or just lived in a particular historical era, those past events and times become more meaningful and personal to us. That they knew nothing of us and that our knowledge of them may be little is irrelevant; they are our ancestors, we are their descendants, and there is power in that relationship.

The Jews very much felt this power. They have Abraham for a father (Luke 3:8). The genealogies of the Old Testament, far from being the “boring parts” of the story that we often gloss over today, were a source of pride, for all Jews could find somewhere in that genealogy some relatives who took part in their national story. Ultimately, they could all trace their ancestry back to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and that was the reason for their distinctiveness. Everyone on earth could trace back their history to Noah and Adam, but the Jews were the ones who inherited the promises. They were the ones to whom the One True God revealed Himself; He gave them the Law of God; from them would come the Deliverer of mankind (Romans 9:4-5). They could feel like they were part of God’s purposes for mankind in ways that the other nations just could not understand.

All of this was true, but it was not properly directed. Too many Jews took comfort in their genealogy. They became blind to their sin, convinced that since they were children of Abraham that their place in God’s Kingdom was already reserved (cf. John 8:33). They thought it was their status– their election– that would save them.

Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case– He speaks out candidly about how the Jews were following after their father the Devil, not Abraham (John 8:34-47), and declared how many “sons of the Kingdom” would be cast out into the outer darkness (Matthew 8:11-12). As can be imagined, the Jews did not take too kindly to this.

It is Paul who drives the point home in a way that should have truly shamed Israel into obedience. Paul points out that there were other children of Abraham (Romans 9:7)– they just were not the children of promise. History would be quite different if the Muslims were right and that Ishmael was the child of blessing!

Paul’s point is that the promise was received through faith, and that the children of the promise do not merit that promise by anything they could have done, and does it all through Genesis. By working backward we can start with Jacob. Did he deserve the promise? He was the younger, and by all rights, had no claim on anything. Esau “should have” been the child of promise since he was the eldest, and yet God had foreordained that the elder would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23, Romans 9:10-12). Neither Esau or Jacob had done anything yet, but God made His purpose known in a providential way. Where would the Jews be had God not made such a provision, and Esau became the inheritor of the promise?

What did Isaac do in order to obtain the promise that he would pass along to Jacob? Absolutely nothing. He was just born, and none of us gets to choose the circumstances of our birth. The circumstances of his birth were quite miraculous and amazing (cf. Genesis 21:1-7, Romans 4:13-25). In fact, had Abraham gotten his way, Isaac would have never needed to come into existence or to receive the promise, for Abraham desired for Ishmael to live before God as the child of promise (Genesis 17:17-18). If God had honored Abraham’s wish, where would that have left Israel and the Jews?

We then get back to Abraham himself. What did he do in order to merit the call? As far as we can tell, his family was idolatrous, and Abram would have no reason to know that it was Yahweh who would call him or that Yahweh was the One True God (Genesis 11:27-32, Joshua 24:2). What stature, therefore, did Abram have before God? None whatsoever. If God had not bothered calling Abram out of Ur, what would have been Israel’s fate?

Paul’s entire point here is that God elected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob according to His will and His purpose, not based on any kind of past or intrinsic merit or the Law or any such thing. Therefore, the Jew has no reason to “boast” in his Judaism, as if his ethnic identity provides him merit or status in God’s sight. God could have just as easily chosen another nation, and Israel would have been entirely out of luck!

Why, then, did God choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The choice was based in God’s knowledge of their faith (cf. Romans 8:29-30, James 2:14-26). God knew that Abraham would go to Canaan, to believe in Him, and be willing to even sacrifice Isaac if so commanded (Genesis 12-22). God knew the type of person Esau would turn out to be, and He knew how Jacob would be the man of faith (Genesis 25-35). They received the promises because they trusted in God and obeyed His voice (Genesis 22:15-18, 26:2-5), and God was willing to be known as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (cf. Matthew 22:32).

Paul makes it clear, therefore, that the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not necessarily those who are genealogically related to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is not the way the promise works. The promise is inherited by faith, and therefore, all who believe and trust in God through His Son Jesus Christ are reckoned as children of Abraham (Romans 4:11-13, 9:24, 30-32, Galatians 3:29). They have the same “spiritual heritage,” joined not by blood that decays but by a shared obedient faith in God that endures forever.

Thus we can see that God is not unjust by casting off those who were unfaithful in Israel and bringing in those who would obey in faith among the nations. In fact, this is precisely what should have happened, and it represents God’s persistent message throughout time. Believers should learn from Israel’s example. We cannot place our trust in things. We cannot trust in status, ethnicity, parents, children, genealogy, or any such thing. Instead, our trust must be in God Himself, and we must be His obedient servants (Romans 1:16-17, 6:1-23)!

No one deserves salvation because of their ancestry, their status, their identity, or for any such reason– no one ever has or ever will. God’s choices say more about God accomplishing His will than they do about the persons chosen, and all must obey to receive the inheritance. Let us be children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by faith, and represent the Israel of God today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relating the Father

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him (John 1:18).

In both the Gospel and the first letter that bear his name, John affirms that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12, 20). This seems to be a most baffling statement considering everything else that John is trying to teach, and, for that matter, what has been revealed in the Old Testament. How can John say that no one has ever seen God after saying that the Word was God and the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14)? Didn’t Jacob wrestle with God (Genesis 32:28-30)? Didn’t Moses see God’s back (Exodus 33:18-23)? This is a conundrum indeed!

We should not believe that John is terribly inconsistent and ignorant of the Old Testament. He understands what he has written earlier in the Gospel, and he knows what is revealed in Genesis and Exodus.

Instead, John is trying to get us to understand a profound truth. As Jesus says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In that form, as He truly is, no man has seen Him nor can see Him. Humans have only seen manifestations of God– His glory, His power, and/or His messengers, the angels. Jacob most likely wrestled with an angel. Moses, no doubt, saw God’s glory. Jesus the Word is truly God in the flesh, but no man can see the spirit in Him.

But if no man has ever seen God, how can we know about God? This is the focus of John’s statement in John 1:18– even though we have not seen God, we can know all about God, because we can know about Jesus the Word.

John says that the Son, Jesus, has “declared” God. The word translated “declared” involves the idea of relating or telling a story (cf. Acts 10:8, 15:14, 21:19). According to John, therefore, the very nature and essence of God is related to us through Jesus.

But how can this be so? Jesus explains it for us in John 14:6-11. He boldly declares that if you have seen Him, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). The Father is “in” Jesus, and the words Jesus speaks and the deeds Jesus does are from the Father (John 14:10-11).

As Paul will say, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). If we want to understand what God is like, all we need to do is consider Jesus. As God is love, so Jesus loved (1 John 4:8, John 13:1). As God is just, so Jesus will be the judge (Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-10). As God is the Creator, so through Jesus were all things created (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17).

A lot of people have a very negative picture of God the Father. They imagine Him as a cantankerous old man with a long white beard who sits in Heaven all day trying to figure out new and inventive ways of smiting people and condemning them. Yet many of these people have a much more favorable view of Jesus, picturing Him as the loving Savior of the world, the Good Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep.

We haven’t seen God. Nevertheless, it should be clear that God is not a cantankerous old man, but instead a loving Father who wants to bless His children (cf. Romans 8:1-39). We know this because we can see Jesus through what is revealed of Him in the New Testament, and when we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. We know of God because Jesus has made Him known. Let us praise God for His great love and care, and seek to reflect His attributes in our own lives (cf. 1 John 2:3-6)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Home

And as they went on the way, a certain man said unto him, “I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.”
And Jesus said unto him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58).

People tend to have an attachment to what is called their “home.” Many times that “home” involves the location where they were born and/or raised. “Home” may mean their current location, or the location of their immediate family. Nevertheless, the appreciation of one’s “home” transcends cultural, religious, and geographical lines. How many have been willing to give up their lives, after all, for their “homeland”? This impulse is extremely strong!

Yet God calls upon those who would believe in Jesus Christ to consider Heaven their “homeland” (Philippians 3:20-21). Christians are to recognize that while they are at “home” in the body, they are absent from the Lord, and that it will be much better when we are absent from the body and at “home” with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).

This is a difficult challenge. The challenge evokes the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, men whom God called to live as sojourners in a land that was not theirs (Hebrews 11:8-16). Even though they knew that God would give the land to their descendants, these men could never really feel at “home” there. The people around them had sinful customs, and there was great danger in intermarrying with them. Whenever they had disputes with the “locals,” they were always at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, they believed in God’s promise, and for their faith they obtained the heavenly country.

While God may not call us to sojourn in a different country today, He does ask that we look at our lives on this earth as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw their lives in Canaan (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). We should not get too comfortable, and should not really “feel at home” while in the world (Romans 12:2, Romans 8:19-23). We must recognize that many people around us have sinful customs, and must always be concerned about how their customs may influence us and our families (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). It very well might be that because we are sojourners on the earth that we are at a disadvantage against our fellow man.

Yet, in the end, if we recognize that our true citizenship is with Jesus Christ and His Kingdom, and we reflect the values of the Kingdom and not of this world, we will obtain the reward that awaits us (Hebrews 11:39-40, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Revelation 21-22). In short, if we feel “at home” in this world, we will not have the opportunity to feel “at home” with God; but if we recognize that this world is not our home, and live accordingly, we will have the opportunity to truly be “at home with the Lord” one day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The (Imperfect) Men of Faith

Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. For therein the elders had witness borne to them (Hebrews 11:1-2).

Hebrews 11 enshrines the men of faith from the old covenant.  Yet consider these men:

Noah (Hebrews 11:7): got drunk, exposed himself in a tent (Genesis 9:20-21).

Abraham (Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19): deceived rulers, took an additional wife without God’s consent (Genesis 12:10-20, 16, 20).

Sarah (Hebrews 11:11-12): laughed at God’s promise, lied about it (Genesis 18:9-15).

Jacob (Hebrews 11:21): cheated his brother, deceived his own father (Genesis 25, 27).

Moses (Hebrews 11:23-30): attempted to reject God’s call, at times did not give God the glory (Exodus 3-4, Numbers 20:1-13).

Rahab (Hebrews 11:31): lied to cover for spies (Joshua 2:3-6).

Gideon (Hebrews 11:32): made an ephod, caused family to go astray (Judges 8:24-27).

Samson (Hebrews 11:32): visited a prostitute (Judges 16:1-3).

David (Hebrews 11:32): committed adultery with a faithful servant’s wife, schemed to have that servant killed (2 Samuel 11).

These are the men whom God commends for their faith?  How can this be?

We must recognize that God is not commending these men and women for being perfect, because no one is perfect save Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8).  God is not commending them for their sins and character faults.

They receive commendation for their faith– their trust in God at difficult moments, their willingness to do what God tells them to do even if they did not entirely understand or if the situation looked hopeless.

Being a man or woman of God does not mean that we are perfect.  It means that we place our trust in God and strive to follow His will in all things, even if we do not understand or if our situation looks hopeless.  Yes, it also means that we must confess our sins and repent of them (1 John 1:9), but let us not be deceived into thinking that God can only use perfect people.  The “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is full of imperfect people who trusted in a perfect and holy God.  Let us strive to be as them, and run the race set before us!

And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him (Hebrews 11:6).

Ethan R. Longhenry