Faith of Jacob: From Jacob to Israel - breaking of the natural man

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Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith Hebrews 11

Faith of Jacob -From Jacob to Israel - the breaking of the natural man.

by I Gordon

Hebrews 11:21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Jacob is the next hero mentioned here in Hebrews 11, the hall of faith. Jacob had an eventful life and he is a very colorful character to say the least. He was the son of Isaac obviously and was a patriarch of the Israelite nation. So he is obviously a strong man of faith right? Well... not so fast... let's not go that far just yet. It is interesting that the writer of Hebrews, in selecting an example of Jacob's faith goes right to the end of his life. I'm not saying he didn't have faith before this, for that is not true. But the fact is that for long periods of his life he is somewhat of a rascal. There is no doubt though that he was a completely different man in his later years than he was at the start.

C. H. Mackintosh sums it up nicely (and poetically as is often his way):  'The close of Jacob's career stands in most pleasing contrast with all the previous scenes of his eventful history. It reminds one of a serene evening after a tempestuous day: the sun, which during the day had been hidden from view by clouds, mists, and fogs, sets in majesty and brightness, gilding with his beams the western sky, and holding out the cheering prospect of a bright tomorrow. Thus it is with our aged patriarch. The supplanting, the bargain-making, the cunning, the management, the shifting, the shuffling, the unbelieving selfish fears, - all those dark clouds of nature and of earth seem to have passed away, and he comes forth, in all the calm elevation of faith, to bestow blessings, and impart dignities, in that holy skilfulness which communion with God can alone impart.' 

So what was Jacob's end like? Many people, when they are dying, are fearful of what is coming. Some look back with disappointment on a wasted or unfulfilled life. Some are even bitter towards God thinking that they haven't been dealt with as they deserve (when in actual fact they should be amazed that they weren't dealt with as they do deserve!) But here is Jacob, in his last moments, and we read that: 1) By faith 2) He blessed 3) And worshipped. Faith, blessing people, and worshipping God. And then he died. Not a bad combination to go out on. Not a bad way to end. Especially for a man that spent most of his life ducking and diving, dealing and conniving, looking after number one. It seems that an aged Jacob, or Israel as he was now known, had learnt a thing or two.

So why talk about Jacob? Who is Jacob? In a very real way, we are Jacob. His story is our story and that's what makes his story so interesting for us. Watchman Nee once wrote a book called 'Changed into His likeness' - a book focusing on the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Nee pointed out that each life teaches us something about our own walk. Abraham's life is characterized by faith. Isaac on the other hand represents the importance of grace as he inherits all the wealth of his father Abraham. He is given, by grace, all that he needs. So we have Abraham (faith), Isaac (grace) and they both speak to us of how we live. But then we have Jacob. Jacob, Jacob, Jacob. Tricky, wheeling' n dealing', shrewd Jacob. Someone has said that  'Jacob is the kind of the kind of guy who follows you into a revolving door and comes out ahead of you."  'Hey... what the?' And that's about right. Naturally strong and resourceful, that same nature gets him both into, and out of, a lot of problems. Yet he nearly always finds a way to get ahead. Jacob teaches us about the natural man and the process we often go through to see God's work and life come through in our life. And really all that Jacob learnt came through dealings!

Now the life of Jacob is very rich and we could easily spend many weeks doing a full series on this man. This sermon is not that! But to understand how he got to this place of faith and rest that Hebrews talks about we need to go on a little journey through Jacob's life and look at specific events that lead up to the time when, as an old man, Jacob displays the character of his new name, Israel.

So we'll look at four main events:

1) His birth (a sign of things to come)

2) His first encounter with God (the art of bartering for less than what you had!)

3) His wrestling with God (the first sign of progress - blessing through brokenness)

4) His surrender and rest in later life - (Jacob finally bowing to God when God boxes you in!)

The birth of Jacob - (a sign of things to come) 

Genesis 25:19-26 This is the account of Abraham's son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, (20) and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. (21) Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. (22) The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. (23) The LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger." (24) When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. (25) The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. (26) After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

For the first 20 years after their marriage, Rebekah was barren, just as Isaac's mother Sarah had been before her. But Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife and the Lord answered that prayer. In the course of her pregnancy, she started to feel the baby within her. A wiggle here, a wriggle there... 'Ooooh, I think I felt him move'. Then there was a wee boot. 'Ooo... I think he gave a little kick!' But before long things had escalated somewhat... 'Argh, that felt like a couple of jabs followed by an uppercut'. 'Oh now there is a full Olympic wrestling match going on! Oi... Stop it!.. What's going on down there?'

Rebekah was so disturbed by what was going on inside of her she had to ask the Lord. The response was clear:  'Two nations are in your womb and two peoples from within you will be separated.'  This jostling going on within Rebekah was just the start of a conflict that would actually carry on through the ages.  [1]  So we see right from the start, before he was even born, Jacob was wrestling and struggling to come out on top. He wanted to be 'numero uno'. No one was going to better him! Esau may have lined himself up to come out of the womb first, but there was Jacob, right at his heel... quite literally hanging on to his brothers foot and keeping as close as he can! He was born second but, as God said, the older will serve the younger. Jacob would find a way for that to happen!

The name Jacob means "trickster, supplanter, heel grabber". Esau means 'red' - He was red and hairy. As a side note imagine the visitors and friends coming to see the lovely different babies that God has blessed Isaac and Rebekah with and you've got this baby that is red and hairy all over... You can imagine the visitors struggling over the right words seeing Esau for the first time - 'Oh what a love... oh what a... argh, oh what a wonderful head, and argh, body, of hair he has!'

Jacob's first encounter with God (or the art of bartering for less than what you already had!) 

Let's talk about Jacob's first encounter with God. We pick up the story after Rebekah and Jacob have combined to deceive Esau out of his blessing. Jacob has had to run away fearing that the Esau would kill him. Quite possibly, being a bit of a mummy's boy, this is the first time away from the comforts of home.

Genesis 28:10-17 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. (11) When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. (12) He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (13) There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. (14) Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. (15) I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (16) When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." (17) He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

So Jacob lies down in a then unknown place and pulls up a stone for a pillow. I'm feeling a bit soft now for that's not exactly what I'd call comfortable! But God appears to him for the first time and introduces Himself through a dream: 'I am the LORD (Yahweh), the God of your father Abraham, the God of Isaac...' How amazing this would be! What an experience! And what grace the Lord approached Jacob with. Read what God said... there are no 'if's' in there. There are no conditions. Just straight promises of what God will do: 'I will give...', 'I am with you...', 'I will watch over you...', 'I will bring you back...', 'I will not leave you...' They are promises made on the basis of God's grace alone asking nothing from Jacob. They are promises that not only guarantee the blessing of God over Jacob's life but also those of his descendants, and even a promise to bless the world through Jacob's offspring. Not bad for a first up meeting with God! So how should Jacob respond to this? Did he say 'Who am I that the Lord God would think of me?' Not quite. Here is Jacob's response... It came in the form of a bargain (this is Jacob remember!)

Genesis 28:20-22 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear (21) so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God (22) and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."

But remember this is a picture of the natural man... trying to bargain a deal with God. And to be fair, this isn't Jacob at his sharpest moment for, as William MacDonald points out, '  He was actually bargaining for less than God had already promised!'  - But isn't that the way with natural man? They can't just rest and accept God's grace. Instead they can only think in terms of working for God's favor - 'if I do this and that, then God will do this'. Natural man gets that. All our lives are brought up on working hard and getting something in return. And then we come to God and try to apply the same earthly principles when He is saying 'come, sit down, and listen to what I have done - I have blessed you with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. I have given you my Spirit and I will never leave you.' Wonderful grace! But Jacob and many others can't grasp such grace so Jacob lays out five things that God has to do and if God does them then he, Jacob, will do two things. In so many words he says 'if you bless me, I'll follow you and I'll give you the privilege of being my God, plus you'll get 10% of what you bless me with on top of that.' He is quite the business man. But as J Vernon McGee says, God doesn't do business with us that way. Not then, not now. Jacob is a picture of us, the natural man, doing deals. But thankfully this is not where he will end!

Jacob's wrestling with God (the first sign of progress - blessing through brokenness) 

You may remember how the story continues... Jacob, after deceiving his father Isaac and Brother Esau, went to stay with his Uncle Laban and get's a dose of his own medicine. The art of deception obviously ran in the family for Laban, after Jacob works seven years for the love of his life Rachel, tricks Jacob and at the last minute swaps Jacob's bride on the night of his marriage for Leah, Rachel's sister! And Jacob doesn't even know till morning! (Scratch head) How he didn't know, I do not know... But there you have it. Tricked! His whole stay with Uncle Laban is one long battle of wills with someone as tricky as he was! But finally, after 21 years, Jacob leaves and through selective breeding, deceives Laban out of nearly his entire herd as he high tails it back to the land of his fathers.  [2]  So let's pick up the story in Gen 32:22. Esau is coming with 400 of his men so one very fearful Jacob sends out three waves of servants each bearing great gifts for Esau in an attempt to appease him. But just in case that doesn't work, Jacob himself crosses over the ford of Jabbok with his wives. There he will again encounter God.

Genesis 32:22-28, That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. (23) After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. (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."

The meaning of Jabbok in interesting in the context of Jacob's life. It means 'he will empty' and this was what was happening to Jacob. He was about to be emptied, through a series of events, of his natural strength so that he could be useful in the hands of God. And what an odd scene this is! When Abraham met God, they fellowshipped and ate together. When Jacob meets God they wrestle... and right through the night! When it becomes clear that Jacob isn't about to give up, this man just touches Jacob's hip socket and puts it out. Jacob can't fight anymore... all his natural strength is gone and all he can do is hold on. But even then Jacob won't give up and asks for a blessing. The blessing will come but only when Jacob says who he is. He has to say his name. He has to acknowledge who he is. What is your name God asks him? '...Yeah, I am Jacob. I'm the supplanter, the trickster, the cheater.' You see Jacob had thought that the enemy was someone else... It is Laban! It is Esau! It is someone else. Now he saw that the real enemy was his own nature. It's not a bad revelation to receive. And on the basis of that, God said 'Good... and now I have a new name for you. You are no longer Jacob. You shall be Israel.' Israel means either 'Prince with God' or 'Prevails with God'. Some say 'God prevails'.

Remember - Jacob is a picture of the outworking of God in all of our lives. I think we confuse what the blessing of God is. We think the sign of God's blessing is prosperity and ease... a trouble free existence. If you asked Jacob what the sign of God's blessing is he would have pointed to his walking stick and said 'there it is. I'll now walk with a limp for the rest of my life.' But that night was the blessing of God. This 'touch of God' touched his natural strength so that he learnt to hang onto God. Do you walk with a limp? Not physically necessarily but are there weaknesses or annoyances that you just wish were gone so you could be naturally strong and on top of everything again? Don't despise your weaknesses and difficulties.  [3] 

Charles Spurgeon said:  'I bear willing witness that I owe more to the fire, and the hammer, and the file, than to anything else in my Lord's workshop. I sometimes question whether I have ever learned anything except through the rod. When my schoolroom is darkened, I see most.' 

Jacob, Israel and the prophetic fulfillment of his night of wrestling 

Before leaving this passage, I just want to say something quickly about Jacob and Israel. The emphasis of this message is not on the end times or the prophetic implications but I'll mention it quickly. As goes Jacob, so goes the nation that came from him - the Jewish nation of Israel. They are an incredibly strong people who always find a way to come out on top... just like Jacob. But they too will have their night of wrestling with God where their natural strength will be touched and broken to the point where all they can do is hang on and cry out to God. This passage in Genesis is a prophetic pointer to what is still to come. What's to come is called the day of Jacob's trouble. It will be the nation of Israel's darkest hour. But a blessing and a new Israel will come out of it. We can't go into it but it is interesting to note that it was only after this time of wrestling and brokenness by God that Esau and Jacob were finally reconciled. And so shall it be. At the moment it is never ending conflict and tension between Israel and her neighbours. But the nation of Israel will have their Jabbok and experience blessing through brokenness.

Well we shouldn't think that life was all blue skies and gentle winds for Jacob from this time on. No... But it was the starting point of trusting God. Going forward he is sometimes called Jacob and sometimes Israel. And we are a bit like that. You will probably remember that the next big event in Jacob's life is that he, the previous deceiver, is himself deceived. His own sons come back to him and tell him that Joseph (whom Jacob loved) has been killed after they had actually sold him into slavery. What is the old saying?  'What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!  ' His previous deceptions are coming back to haunt him as his children practice the very same thing... and on him! Deceit never ends well.

Evidence of the new Israel - Jacob's rest 

Finally I want to look at what is probably Jacob's biggest test. Joseph has become the ruler under Pharaoh in Egypt, when a great famine forces Joseph's brothers, without Benjamin, to go down to Egypt to seek food. Benjamin is Jacob's favourite following the apparent death of Joseph so Jacob won't let him go. In Egypt Joseph recognises his brothers and tricks them, accusing them of being spies and arrests Simeon. The only way they are allowed back for more food and to have Simeon released from prison is to bring the youngest, Benjamin, back with them. So the other brothers make it back and tell their father Jacob. Do you think this will go down well?

Genesis 42:36-38 Their father Jacob said to them, "You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!" (37) Then Reuben said to his father, "You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back." (38) But Jacob said, "My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow."

Eeek. Ok... so that didn't go so well. We need to remember that Benjamin is Jacob's most cherished possession. This is asking for that which is closest and dearest to his heart. The love of his life, Rachel, has died. She had only given birth to two children - Joseph and Benjamin...and died giving birth to Benjamin. And Joseph (in Jacob's mind), is dead. Only Benjamin remains as a descendant of his beloved Rachel.  'No, no, no, no! If anything happens to him you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow! No!'  It's funny what the natural mind does. It normally latches onto the worst possible outcome and wallows in that without faith or God. So in Jacob's mind this request not only means the death of Benjamin but his own death as well! 'No, no...NO!'  But remember that this isn't the old Jacob anymore. He has been touched by God. He's been broken by God. He walks with a limp which in an odd way is a reminder to him of the blessing of God. Nature says 'No, don't let go! Don't give him over.' But learning to trust God in even the hardest times, Israel can hear that new voice saying 'let go... trust me.' The man who could wiggle out of any predicament must now take his hands off and rely on the will of another... whatever that outcome may be. It is the hardest test of all.

Genesis 43:1-14 Now the famine was still severe in the land. (2) So when they had eaten all the grain they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, "Go back and buy us a little more food." (3) But Judah said to him, "The man warned us solemnly, 'You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.' (4) If you will send our brother along with us, we will go down and buy food for you. (5) But if you will not send him, we will not go down, because the man said to us, 'You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.' " (  6) Israel asked, "Why did you bring this trouble on me by telling the man you had another brother?"  (7) They replied, "The man questioned us closely about ourselves and our family. 'Is your father still living?' he asked us. 'Do you have another brother?' We simply answered his questions. How were we to know he would say, 'Bring your brother down here'?" (8) Then Judah said to Israel his father, "Send the boy along with me and we will go at once, so that we and you and our children may live and not die. (9) I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life. (10) As it is, if we had not delayed, we could have gone and returned twice." (11) Then their father Israel said to them, "If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift--a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds. (12) Take double the amount of silver with you, for you must return the silver that was put back into the mouths of your sacks. Perhaps it was a mistake.  (13) Take your brother also and go back to the man at once. (14) And may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you. As for me, if I am bereaved, I am bereaved." 

While this is a long passage so that we see the whole context and story, I'll only comment on a couple of important parts of it. We see in verse 6 the last wee outburst from a man dying to his own will. In his mind he is pouring over the ways to get out of this... but there are none. God has seen to that! This is a God designed test that has only one way out - a death to self. But imagine if he had just dug his toes in and not surrendered to God. What a blessing he would have missed! They never would have gone back down to Egypt. They never would have known that Joseph was still alive. They would have missed the blessing that God had for them all that came in Jacob's later life in seeing his beloved son once again.

But oh what blessings would come to Jacob and his family by dying to self. The only way forward was to commit and trust. Finally, in verses 13 and 14, coming to an end of himself, Jacob lays aside his will and let's go of that which is closest to his heart. Like Esther going before the king unannounced saying 'If I perish, I perish, God take the consequences!' so Israel can only say 'If I am bereaved, I am bereaved. God have mercy!' This is a fantastic story and rich in its lessons!

Conclusion - What he learnt

Hebrews 11:21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Let's conclude with some points from the verse in Hebrews. We've taken a long time to survey parts of Jacob's life that lead up to this final scene. In my mind I picture him at the very end of his life, leaning on his staff, surveying his life and being amazed at all that God has done for him. How is he pictured in Hebrews here?

  • Firstly, he is pictured in faith . It's a faith, as we have seen, that has been well refined, tested and purified that's for sure! But out the end has come a new man. Remember - Jacob is a picture of how God works with the natural man - dealings, tests and trials. God never told Jacob off in the biblical account but He did use events in his life to correct him. This is how we normally learn. We can learn 'things' through Bible study and sermons but true understanding comes through life dealings. Remember what Charles Spurgeon said '  I bear willing witness that I owe more to the fire, and the hammer, and the file, than to anything else in my Lord's workshop. I sometimes question whether I have ever learned anything except through the rod.'  Jacob would agree with Charles.
  • Secondly when he was dying, he blessed. After all that has happened, he's not bitter, not angry, not selfish... it actually wasn't about him anymore. He was used to bless others. This is a different Jacob. He was now being used by God and could speak prophetically over Joseph's son's lives - even swapping his hands and blessing the younger as if he was the elder because he was now hearing from God.
  • Thirdly, at the end of his life, he worshipped.  In the study of Abraham we saw that the word for worship has a primary thought of 'bowing down'. Jacob could 'bow down' while leaning on his staff because it was a heart attitude where he had come into the position of surrender to God. He's not fighting God anymore. He's not making deals with God anymore. He not tricking people anymore. He doesn't have to be number one anymore. He can bow down in his heart and praise God. He can look back and truly be amazed how God has protected, blessed and carried him through many trials.
  • Finally, he leans on his staff - He still needs the staff. He still walks with a limp. His natural strength was broken on that day he was 'blessed' by God and he has leaned on his staff ever since. But it's ok. He doesn't have to have it all together because through it he learned to lean on God as well. Jacob discovered, like Paul did, that God's grace is sufficient and God's power is made perfect through weakness. That is a lesson for the ages.

To conclude, do you walk with a limp? If so, it's ok. Always remember that with the life of Jacob, with the limp came the blessing.

[1] ↩  Jacob descendants would become the nation of Israel and Esau's descendants, the Edomites (who were later called the Idumeans and scholars such as Bill Salus and Chuck Missler believe they are some of the Palestinians of today). So the conflict that began in the womb of Rebekah continues today.

[2] ↩  Jacob was shrewd. They say that John D. Rockefeller, once America richest man, was shrewd. One story I read said '  After important negotiations with business leaders in his high-rise office building, He used to say goodbye to his visitors at the elevator. While the visitors filed into the elevator, an innocent looking man would slip in and ride with them to the ground floor. He would follow the group out the door and then cross the street. A few minutes later, the innocent looking man would go back to Rockefeller's office to deliver a detailed report of what the unsuspecting visitors talked about during their exit. John D. Rockefeller undoubtedly would have liked the Old Testament character, Jacob.' 

[3] ↩  I have some issues that I would just love to be gone but can't. Maybe you are the same? I went to bed the other day committing some of these things to the Lord and woke up the next day singing a song. This is not usual for me. In fact I can't remember waking up singing ever before. But I was singing 'This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it!' I believe that was God's answer. That is what God desires from us and works in us.