Get A Grip! (Wrestling With God, Part 1)


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I’d like to explore a short Bible account with you because of the anthropomorphism of God’s “hand” from the last few pieces.


It’s about a remarkable event where God’s hand gripped a person, literally.


To set up this piece, we have first to read a section of scripture (Genesis 32:24-30) followed by a brief look at the context.


24 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not defeat him, he struck Jacob’s hip socket as they wrestled and dislocated his hip. 26 Then he said to Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 “What is your name?” the man asked.

“Jacob,” he replied.

28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said. “It will be Israel (Heb. he struggled with God) because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.”

29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

But he answered, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.

30 Jacob then named the place Peniel (Heb. Face of God), “For I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun shone on him as he passed by Penuel—limping because of his hip.


Okay, got all that? Good. Here’s the context. Jacob is returning home to Canaan after a twenty-year hiatus with his Uncle Laban (his mom, Rebekah’s brother) in Aram (modern-day Turkey/Syria).


After twenty years, Jacob is still concerned his brother, Esau, is mad about Jacob “taking” the birthright and blessing from him. Truth be told, Esau did plan to murder Jacob (Genesis 27:41) before his little brother beat feet outta town to Uncle Laban’s place for two decades.


In his own strength, Jacob “wrestled” the birthright from Esau (Genesis 25:29-34) and the blessing from his father, Isaac (Genesis 27). In his own strength, Jacob wrestled Uncle Laban for a wife (but got two!) and a salary (changed multiple times!) but was bested by the conniver until the Lord stepped in and gave His guy (Jacob) the strategy to beat Uncle Laban.


It seems Jacob has been wrestling everyone for everything his whole life. But did he have to? God had already promised great things to him before he was even born (Genesis 25:23)! So with whom was Jacob really wrestling?


Our scripture opens with Jacob standing all alone at the Jabbock River ford. He’s just divided his family into two groups, prayed intensely to the Lord, and sent across numerous gifts of livestock to hopefully appease Esau. Now he awaits the dreaded face-to-face meeting with his brother. Since Jacob “wrestled” the birthright and blessing from his brother, he figures he’s now going to have to wrestle with Esau to keep it (or at the very least his life).


We get a clue that something’s afoot, something uniquely spiritual because Jacob saw angels just after he arrived at the Jabbok (Genesis 32:1). The last time Jacob saw God’s angels was when he was “gittin’ outta Dodge” away from Esau, and he stopped at Bethel (Genesis 28:19). There Jacob saw a ladder from earth to heaven with angels walking up and down on it. God immediately revealed himself to Jacob and gave him the same covenant promises He had given to Jacob’s dad (Isaac) and grandpa (Abraham).


Now the angel thing is happening again. And where God’s angels are…?


Twenty years earlier, Jacob left his family “empty.” Now he returned “full,” laden down with his God-given prosperity. But at this moment, Jacob releases everything to send it ahead. Jacob is empty once again, and there’s nothing between him and what’s coming. Is it just a coincidence that Jacob’s self-emptying occurs at the Jabbock River? The root word of Jabbock, baqaq, means to empty, lay waste, make void.


But Jacob’s emptiness isn’t an endpoint for him. It’s a preparation for what’s ahead.


Much to my extreme disappointment over the years, I’ve learned that fat does not equal muscle. Fat adds no strength and actually works against wrestlers. Fat bulks up a wrestler and forces them to fight at a higher weight class where their opponent weighs the same, but it’s due to muscle, not flab. That’s why wrestlers work so hard to shed the extra bulk to wrestle easier. For that same reason, wrestlers wear minimal stretchy suits to move freely. Contenders know this. Contenders position themselves for maximum effort. Jacob is preparing for his coming match.


Not only is Jacob “empty,” but he’s also alone, and there is now nothing and no one between him and what’s coming. Jacob is ready to rumble, and he thinks it will be Esau.


But someone else shows up first. Initially, we’re not sure who this person is. But what lonely traveler decides to wander the wilderness hoping to score a bout of wrestling? But some clues reveal the “man’s” identity. Since Jacob’s opponent changes Jacob’s name, refuses to give his own name, and Jacob declares he’s seen God’s face, it’s clear it’s God in human form.


Imagine, after a lifetime of wrestling, Jacob now has to come to grips with God! Why? Because the only person with whom Jacob has ever wrestled is God as the Lord worked on him through his circumstances.


Before formal introductions are made, the man launches at Jacob, and the two are into a no-holds-barred, All-Star Wrestling match with Jacob already anxious and exhausted.


There’s no backing out now. Sadly, verse 24 doesn’t do the story justice because Jacob’s wrestling match wasn’t as short as reading this one verse. The battle lasted all night! I can’t even imagine that, can you? Did Jacob consume a case of Red Bull© before the contest? Had he mainlined espresso? Or was he just a dude with remarkable natural strength and stamina?


The more important question is, “What is this wrestling match about?”


Up to this point in his life, Jacob wrestled against outside forces to get what he wanted – God’s call on his life as Abraham and Isaac’s covenant heir, i.e., the family birthright and all that comes with that. Jacob wrestled with Esau, Isaac, and Laban to get God’s covenant blessing the Lord had already promised Jacob at Bethel, the “House of God.” Now Jacob wrestles the Man of the House, God Himself.


But did Jacob really have to strive so hard to get what God had already promised him? Perhaps not so much. Even though the Lord promises things to His servants, they often have to put in the effort to receive those promises. But this moment brings Jacob clarity and understanding.


At this moment, it is and always was Jacob wrestling with God, face to face.


By facing God, Jacob ends up facing himself, who he is inside. I don’t see Jacob’s whole struggle as “will I reach my God-ordained destiny?” but “how will I reach my God-ordained destiny?” By his hand or God’s hand? A short scan of his life shows that Jacob initially thought it was by his hand. But in the end, it has to be by God’s hand.


Jacob had to learn in whose strength and by whose way will God’s “Bethel promise” of “land, uncountable descendants filling the land, blessing the whole earth” be fulfilled? Is it by pulling others back (Esau) or letting someone else push him ahead (Rebekah), or painfully learning how to let God push him ahead (Laban)? Jacob discovers it’s not about Esau, mom, or Uncle Laban.


It’s about surrendering his will to God.


Sure, Jacob struggled against man, but it was really the Lord he was contending with all along in the background. The matter had to be settled right here, right now. Before Jacob could come to grips with Esau (his feared enemy), he had to come to grips with God (the Fear of Isaac, Genesis 31:42, 53).


Jacob’s wrestling/leveraging/contending nature had to be subdued for him to fulfill God’s plan for his life. Does Jacob have what it takes to become what God has told him he would be? Will Jacob continue to be guided by self-will or God’s will? The Lord wants a willingly submitted servant who will partner with Him in His work.


So Jacob comes to grips with His God as God gets a grip on him, “When the man saw that he could not defeat him, he struck Jacob’s hip socket as they wrestled and dislocated his hip. Then he said to Jacob, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’” (Genesis 32:25-26).


There are two things to note here – Jacob’s persistence and God’s absolute control. Though God grappled Jacob as hard as he could stand, He couldn’t defeat him. Really? The Lord God Almighty can’t overpower and escape from a human’s grasp? Of course, He can! This wrestling match isn’t about strength. It’s about persistence! It’s about holding onto God until the end, until Jacob gets Yehovah’s blessing, even though he’s at the end of his strength, empty and alone.


The Lord couldn’t turn Jacob away from his goal – to get the Lord’s blessing! Jacob still wouldn’t let go of God despite pain and exhaustion, and he wouldn’t surrender.


And that’s what the Lord wants! The Lord was looking for a person with a persistent, iron will who would pursue God’s desires, but God’s way, not their way. A person with a persistent iron will set on God can split oceans (Exodus 14:21), call down fire (1 Kings 18:37-38), capture entire armies (2 Kings 6:18), and defeat death itself (John 20). But it must be on God’s terms alone.


So, God came to Jacob in a form with whom Jacob could physically wrestle. But God also had to show persistent Jacob He could disable Jacob at His will. This dislocation proved to Jacob who was really in control (and it wasn’t him). Though Jacob was empty, alone, devoid of strength, and now disabled, he didn’t have to “defeat God” to gain what the Lord planned for Him. Jacob just had to have the inner strength of a persistent, surrendered iron will to hold on until God blessed him.


There’s a big picture reason why the Lord had to build this kind of submitted strength into Jacob. It was so he could pass it on to his descendants.


  • It was so Israel could keep their grip on Yehovah through their oppressive Egyptian sojourn and Exodus and return to their Promised Land as God’s people.

  • It was so Israel could keep their grip on Yehovah through the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles and return to their Promised Land as God’s people so that the Messiah could be born, die, and live again to bless all nations.

  • It was so Israel could keep their grip on Yehovah through the 2,000-year Roman exile, endure Muslim invaders, Christian Crusaders, Pogroms, and Holocausts, and return to their Promised Land as God’s people. The Jewish people truly are Jacob’s offspring (I write admiringly!)


After the all-night wrestling match, Jacob has finally reached the end of himself. His body’s bruised, but his persistent, surrendered iron will is intact. It’s not broken, but it’s finally turned in the right direction, away from himself and directly toward his God.


Through the many years Jacob was persistently contending with people and God, this final event finally reveals the reforged nature upon which God had been incessantly hammering. The divine-human wrestling match opens up Jacob to reveal his new nature.


We’ll look at that next time.


Pastor Jay Christianson

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