Publication: One-to-One, Summer 2009
WHY SALVATION COMES IN OUR MOST DESPERATE HOURS
Advice may be cheap, but success with God is costly. However, in the end it can be very rewarding. Everyone would like a few easy steps to fulfill their own dream, but in God’s Kingdom, the path is narrow and He stands in the way. If we are to fulfill the vision that He has for us, we must ultimately deal with Him, honestly, and face-to-face. This is the lesson of Jacob who became Israel.
Jacob met God at a place he called Bethel, “House of God.” It happened this way: Jacob had stolen his twin brother, Esau’s birthright by deceiving his blind father, Isaac, into believing that he was Esau. Esau, by virtue of being the oldest, was entitled to a larger share of the inheritance and becoming the family patriarch upon Isaac’s death.
But Esau was casual about his place and lost it to Jacob who was willing to lie to get Esau’s blessing. So, blind Isaac blessed conniving Jacob with the birthright blessing.
When Esau discovered he had been cheated, he was extremely angry, so Jacob fled to the East, toward his mother’s people. Exhausted and afraid, he laid down to sleep with his head upon a rock. In the night, the Lord gave him a dream i n which he saw a ladder extending into Heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. The Lord stood above the ladder and spoke to Jacob promising that he would return to his home land, and that Jacob would have descendants who would spread abroad, and a seed that would bless all the families of the earth (see Genesis 28:10-22).
When Jacob awoke, he named that place “Bethel”, anointed the rock with oil, and made promises that if God would do all of that, he would serve God and tithe. Then he left on his journey seeking to fulfill his dream.
Jacob’s journey led him east to his uncle Laban’s house, to marriage, and service to his uncle. It is a story of hard work, disappointment, conflict, and eventual wealth. To detail his experience is not our purpose here, but the Lord was with him as he struggled with Laban (who was also deceptive and demanding). After many years, the Lord told Jacob to go home. By then, he had acquired wives, concubines, and a lot of livestock. But going home would not be easy-Esau had not forgotten, and Esau was a strong man.
Jacob’s journey reminds us that God keeps His word and is with us even when we go into a “far country.” His faithfulness does not spare us difficulties, but it gets us through them even when we are not aware that He is with us. God’s ultimate purpose, however, is to bring us face-to-face with ourselves and with Him in order to fulfill His purpose.
COMING TO SELF
We hear a lot about “self-love”, “self -esteem”, “self-fulfillment”, and other self-oriented endeavors. But the Bible doesn’t paint a pretty picture of self. Humanism has enthroned the corrupt self. Jeremiah says, “The heart is desperately (incurably) wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). And Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” In Romans 3:23, we see that “all have sinned.” The Scriptures all full of passages that tell us we must be saved from ourselves. Jacob’s journey was a journey to self-discovery and eventual salvation from self.
In Second Chronicles 6:36-39, it says that when God’s people are taken into captivity in a far country and come to themselves and turn to God with their whole heart, He will hear their prayer. I have wondered if Jesus had this in mind when he told the story of the prodigal son who went into a far country, lost all he had, and while feeding pigs “came to himself” (see Luke 15:17). Coming to ourselves is the beginning of repentance and restoration. God’s vision for us is based upon death to self so that He can accomplish His will in and through us.
Many Christians have been to a place where God’s presence was, and heard Him promise to bless. But they never really have come to themselves. They are still striving to make their own way, or to make it happen in their own strength. Lt is one thing to see God in heaven above “the ladder.” It is quite another when He comes down from the ladder to wrestle with us…face-to-face.
Jacob was going home after many years to find the fulfillment of his dream. But first, he had to meet Esau whom he had cheated. Jacob means “heel grabber,” because at birth he was holding on to Esau’s heel. From birth on through his life, Jacob was grabbing…first Esau, then Isaac, then Laban. He was a striver.
On the way home, he became afraid, and rightfully so. Esau had heard Jacob was returning and was coming to meet him with four hundred men! Jacob stopped to pray at a place called “Mahanaim.” He pled with God for deliverance (see Genesis 32:9-12). He decided to send his flocks over to Esau as a gift. Jacob was always making a “deal”. But he found no peace.
Finally, Jacob sent his wives and servants on ahead to meet Esau. Genesis 32:24 says, “Then Jacob was left alone.” Prayer meetings and prayer partners are good, but sometimes we need to meet God alone. Seeking God’s face is a very personal matter (see 2 Chronicles 7:14).
We are told that Jacob wrestled with “a Man.” But Jacob said afterward that it was God. Was it a pre-incamation of Jesus Christ, a “Christophany”? I don’t know (see Joshua 5:13-15). Jacob was determined to receive a blessing from God, so he held on to God. In the struggle, God touched Jacob’s thigh so that ever after, Jacob would limp. Still Jacob held on!
Finally the Lord said “Let me go, the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” The Lord said, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” God knew Jacob’s name; He wanted Jacob to say it. “I am Jacob; Heel-Grabber.” Then the Lord said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (Prince with God), because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Jacob named that place “Penuel,” which means “Face of God.” Jacob said, “I have seen God face-to-face, and my life has been preserved.” Meeting God preserved Jacob’s life.
God blessed Jacob with a new name and a new position-ruler. This was not because Jacob was worthy, but because he was willing to struggle with God and with himself. That is the primary issue in seeking God’s face-it’s our willing ness to wrestle with God, and the truth about ourselves. That is not easy, but it is necessary if we are ever to reign with Him and reign over ourselves and our enemies (see Proverbs 16:7).
What could have been a disaster became a reunion. Instead of a war between brothers, Esau fell upon Jacob’s neck and kissed him. They wept together. Esau returned the gifts that Jacob had sent him. They went their separate ways, and Jacob built a house and settled in peace.
Then the Lord sent Jacob back to Bethel with instructions to remove all foreign gods from among his people, purify themselves, change garments, and build an altar. Along the way, “other gods” get into our lives, impurities come in, and “our righteousness” becomes filthy; we need a fresh garment of His righteousness. Then, there is the new altar of sacrifice to be built.
Jacob returned to sacred Bethel, but he was not the same person who had the dream years earlier. He was a man who had now seen himself and God-face to face.
I recently met a man who had left our church many years ago. He did so because his pastor had moved to another city. In disappointment, he left the church. His business prospered but he lost his family and friends. Then I saw him back at church. I went over to greet him; but he fell on my neck and wept. I wept with him; he was home.
I have a friend who works with the homeless. He told me that 80% of them once went to church and had some experience with the Lord, perhaps a dream … but then they “went into a far country” and lost all they had. My friend meets them where they are and tells them that they can return home. He leads them back. Returning can be a struggle, but Father God will meet them and bless them in mercy. They can go home again!
ANATOMY OF STRUGGLE
Why is it so difficult to seek God’s face? It is so easy for a child to come to Christ because they have much less time and conflict to face; less of which to repent. But most of us, like Jacob, have a lot to deal with.
We are not told much about Jacob’s conversation with God at Penuel, but we are told that it took all night. Some might ask, “What could one talk to God about all night?” But those would be people who have never been face-to-face with God and with themselves.
The struggle is about who we are without God, where we have been, what we have done, and where we are going. It is about what will happen if God doesn’t bless us. The struggle is about the dream that sometimes becomes a nightmare.
For some of us the struggle is about our children and grandchildren. What will happen to them if God doesn’t bless us? For others, it’s about our church and its mission. And for all of us in the United States, it is about our nation and its direction. What will happen if God doesn’t bless America?
A friend of Billy Graham told this story: He entered Graham’s room to find the great evangelist flat on the floor crying out to God, “Lord, don’t take the Holy Spirit from me; you can take (he named some names) …but don’t take the Holy Spirit.”
We have all seen Graham’s success, but few have seen his struggles. There would have been no crusades without desperate struggles. There are no cheap seats in the Kingdom arena.
Many years ago, I preached at a conference in a distant nation. My message was well received and many responded. As I sat in the car waiting for the driver to take me back to the hotel, a little voice spoke, “That’s the real you-that is how it would always be if people would just listen.” I knew it wasn’t the Holy Spirit, but it sounded good.
The next night, the message fell flat-no one responded. I couldn’t leave the building quick enough! As I sat in the same car awaiting the driver, another voice spoke, “That was the real you-the one without the Holy Spirit.” I have never forgotten it.
OUR DEPENDENCE ON HIM
We are never more safe than when we are humble before Christ and realize our total dependence upon Him. We are never in greater danger than when we walk in pride. Martin Luther said, “God created the world out of nothing, and as long as we are nothing, He can make something out of us.” God made something great with conniving Jacob because he dealt honestly with God at Penuel.
Perhaps the most humbling realization for me has been that I cannot change my own heart, let alone the hearts of others. Coming to a place of recognizing my spiritual poverty is the key to God’s blessing and receiving His Kingdom into my life.
I pray for an awakening in our nation. It will begin in personal humility before God and a willingness to struggle with Him for His blessing. Emptying ourselves, getting alone, and seeking His face can save us, just as it did Jacob.
Scripture Reference: Genesis 28:10-22; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23; 2 Chronicles 6:36-39; Luke 15:17; Genesis 32:9-12, 24; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joshua 5:13-15; Proverbs 16:7;