Publication: Pastoral Letter, March 2009
Dear Friend in Christ:
This letter expresses what I believe that the Lord is saying to me, and what I have done to try to obey. Recently, the Lord has been using the story of Jacob to speak to me, and I hope it will speak to you as well. Jacob’s amazing life story can be found in Genesis 25-35.
I cannot tell Jacob’s entire story in detail here in this letter, but I want to give some highlights and lessons that I believe are current. He was born to Isaac, grandson of Abraham, and Rebecca. He was the youngest of twins. Esau was first born and therefore entitled to “birthright” portions of his father’s estate and to be the future leader of the family.
The problem was, Esau took his role lightly and traded it away to Jacob, who wanted it to the point of deceiving his father in order to get the birthright blessing. His mother joined him in that deception. The amazing point in the story is that God had chosen Jacob from the beginning.
“Jacob” means “heel-grabber” because when Jacob and Esau were born, the baby Jacob was clutching Esau’s heel. That seems to have been the story of the brothers from the very beginning. Jacob wrestled for a better place; Esau was careless with his blessings. Esau was a hunter, an outdoorsman, loved by his father. Jacob was closer to his mother. So, when the time came to receive Isaac’s blessing, the sons were grown.
Rebecca and Jacob managed to convince Isaac, who was now blind, that Jacob was really Esau; in his blindness, Isaac blessed Jacob with the covenant blessing – the birthright. When Esau discovered Jacob’s deception, he was enraged, and Jacob had to flee – appropriately to his mother’s people in Haran. To spite his parents, Esau married a Canaanite woman, further proving his unworthiness. Marrying someone to spite someone else is a very bad decision.
Jacob fled east, and when evening came, he stopped to sleep outdoors at a place called “Luz.”Weary, he laid his head upon a rock, and there had a life-changing dream. He saw a ladder from earth extending upward into heaven; angels ascended and descended upon the ladder. Above it all the Lord stood and made a covenant declaration to Jacob – the same one He had made to Abraham and Isaac: He promised the land, a multitude of descendants, a seed that would bless all people groups, and that He would be with Jacob on his journey until He had brought Jacob back home and accomplished His Word.
When Jacob awoke, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven!” He called the place Bethel, House of God.
Then Jacob made a vow: “If you will be with me and keep me in the way that I am going, and give me bread and clothes, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then You will be my God…and of all that You give me, I will give You one tenth.” Jacob was still trying to make deals – even with God.
Bethel is the place where God revealed Himself to Jacob in a Sovereign, covenant encounter. From then on, Jacob’s journey would be different. But it was just the beginning. On the way, Jacob would come to know himself, the “heel grabbing deceiver,” but eventually, he would come to know the God who had called him.
The journey is a process, and those who are called are the ones being processed! Soon Jacob met beautiful Rachael and it was love at first sight. She brought Jacob home to daddy – Laban, the wealthy rancher. Jacob had nothing to offer, so Laban made an offer: “Work for me for seven years and you can marry Rachael.” Jacob accepted; he really loved Rachael. But Jacob was only a young amateur deceiver, Laban was a pro!
After seven years of hard work the wedding night came. When Jacob awoke in the morning, he had Leah, Rachael’s older sister. Laban had “forgotten to mention” the older sister had to marry first. Laban offered seven more years of work for Rachael, Jacob accepted. After many years of hard work, Jacob had two wives, concubines, eleven sons and one daughter. And…he was a lot smarter.
Jacob was ready to leave Laban, but Laban like Jacob’s work and naiveté so he offered another deal:“Stay with me and I’ll give you all the brown, speckled, and spotted livestock.” Jacob agreed. What a partnership: “Deceiver-Conniver, Inc.” To insure that he would get the best end of the deal, Laban went through his flocks and took out all the brown, speckled and spotted livestock and gave them to his sons, then sent them to distant pastures. But after awhile, there began to be a lot brown, speckled and spotted livestock among Laban’s flock and they seemed to be the healthiest. Jacob got them as per the deal. Soon Laban and his sons had enough of Jacob, so the Lord said, “It’s time to go.” Without telling Laban, Jacob took all that he had gained and left.
Laban pursued Jacob but was warned by God not to harm him. When he caught up with Jacob he took back his gods that his daughters had stolen and made a covenant with Jacob: “May the Lord watch between you and me while we are absent from one another.”
Jacob was headed home and Esau was headed toward him with 400 men. Needless to say, Jacob was terrified. He had to face his bitter brother. He devised a plan. He sent all he had over to meet Esau with instructions: When you meet Esau tell him, “We belong to your servant Jacob; it’s a present sent to my lord Esau, and behold, Jacob is behind us.”
Everything was gone and Jacob was alone and began a desperate prayer that lasted all night. He wrestled with God. As dawn came, the Lord asked, “What is your name?” He knew but He wanted Jacob to say it. “My name is Jacob” (heel-grabber).
The Lord replied, “You will no longer be called Jacob, you will be called ‘Israel’ (Prince) because you have struggled with men and God, and you have prevailed.” From then on, Jacob walked with a limp – and limped toward his brother. Miraculously, Esau was pacified, at least for then, though the bitterness never left him nor many of his descendants (the Edomites). Herod,who slaughtered the babies of Bethlehem, was one such descendant.
RETURN TO BETHEL (GENESIS 35:3)
It was after these and other troubling events that the Lord told Jacob to return to Bethel. He instructed Jacob to remove foreign gods from his people, to purify himself, put on new clothes, and build an alter at Bethel. Each of these instructions implies a renewal, or revival of awareness of God’s original purpose and Jacob’s original vision.
The journey is sometimes long and difficult. On the way, we can accumulate “other gods,” develop and manifest impure motives, and see the garments of our righteousness become unclean and filthy. We need to prepare in those areas before going back to Bethel. Bethel is a very serious place – the place of an altar. Jacob obeyed, remembered the covenant, renewed his vows, and the Lord gave him peace with his enemies (see Proverbs 16:7).
Early in this year, I believe that the Lord said to me, “go back to Bethel.” It led me to study Jacob again and to meditate upon what that meant to me. I decided to meet with some of my local friends and pray. I also decided to go back to a place where God had met me in a powerful way in 1964, my first pastorate, the Bay View Heights Baptist Church, in Mobile.
I often recall the days and nights of prayer in my office and upon the altar in the sanctuary. I had not been there in years. Unsure of why and perhaps uneasy, I went to the door, someone let me in and showed me around. A lot had changed but the memories were still fresh. My old office was now a “cry room” for babies, and I had shed tears there too. Many people had met the Lord there.
I didn’t stay long, but long enough to sense the Lord’s presence and encouragement at my feeble effort to obey. The thought occurred that I might pray there again with friends. When I asked, the leaders of that church agreed to allow me to use their facilities for prayer meetings. And so we settled on three sessions to seek God.
It is not my purpose here to fully describe the prayer meetings. They were informal and simply designed to seek and wait upon the Lord in humility and repentance. I took seriously the putting away of gods, purification, changing garments, and what those issues meant to me. The altar was a special issue_not just a place but a sacrifice. What do we place there? Everything. But specifically I sensed that if new things were ahead, my agenda needed to go to the altar.
Another thing that went on the altar was my lengthy prayer list. This is hard to explain, but the burden had become too heavy. I felt like Elijah who, after the great Mt. Carmel victory, ran from the evil Queen Jezebel. He was hated, forsaken by his servant, and exhausted after an 80 mile journey and fell asleep. An angel awoke him, fed him food and drink, and said, “Arise and eat; the journey is too great for you”(see First Kings 19). Sometimes the responsibility to pray through or resolve all of the issues is just too much for us. We need angelic and Divine food.
Can the Church go back to Bethel? Can it be brought back and reminded of its covenant purpose? Can it find peace amidst those who are bitter towards it? Is God calling it back to a place of simplicity, seeking Him and waiting on Him? I believe so.
But, the Church will not “return to Bethel” in some massive pilgrimage, to some place of idealism, or someplace where some exciting personality is on display. The Church’s return to Bethel is a call to individuals who have had a “Bethel Experience” to begin with, who have heard the Sovereign God and have built a real altar on some rock and made their own vows. When those people return to Bethel, others will go to Bethel for the first time.
Bear in mind, Bethel was not about an experience, it was about a purpose – God’s purpose. It was about His choice, to do His will, and about His declaration that He would see it through. Jacob didn’t always keep his vows – but God always does. A return reminds us that while we have often been unfaithful, God is faithful still. The vision is still there. One more thing: a return to Bethel reminds us that there is more journey ahead – it prepares us.
I pray that you have been to_and remember – your Bethel. If so, is God saying for you to return or at least remember it? If you have never had a Bethel visitation from God, get ready! The Lord speaks to us in Jeremiah 33:3 and says, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.”
P.S.I want to ask you to please continue to keep CSM in your prayers and in your giving this month. We are facing many opportunities_and challenges_during these days. We are preparing for our annual Gatlinburg Conference, April 22-24,and our theme this year is “A Call to Arms: Prayer & Action!” We would love to see you there. For more information, please visit us online at www.csmpublishing.org or call us at (251) 633-7900.
Scripture Reference: Genesis, Proverbs, Jeremiah