Publication: Pastoral Letter, April 2015
Dear Friend in Christ:
I grew up thinking of the church building as the “House of God”. When I was young, it was the place that I often got into trouble and received numerous spankings for misbehavior. Often, I dreaded going to the House of God. I had to sit still, be quiet and pay attention. Looking back, I suppose that it was all good for me in the long run.
As I got older and even became a pastor, the idea of the “House of God” being the church building stayed with us. Many adults, children, and even ministers still refer to the church building as the “House of God.” Ideas and concepts die hard!
Recently, I completed a long journey by car, 3300 miles, visiting a variety of dear friends and churches. I noted a church sign “Bethel” which means “House of God”. Bethel is a good name for ministries and churches. It is a very important name for Jews and Christians. It was a place where sacred things happened: Abraham built an altar there as did Jacob. Rachel died in childbirth and was buried there. Joshua fought battles there. Though Bethel had a sacred history, something went wrong later on, and I’ll share why I think that it did.
Genesis chapters 25-35 tell us a lot about Jacob; his story is picked up later in the story of Joseph, his son. Jacob was the youngest of twins, Esau the older. His name means “supplanter” or “heelgrabber” because even before birth, the two struggled in their mother’s womb. When they were born, Jacob was holding Esau by the heel.
The Lord had spoken to their mother, Rebekah, that the older would serve the younger. This, of course, was contrary to tradition. Esau was “hairy” from the beginning; he got his name from that. He grew up to be an outdoors man. Jacob was close to his mother; the Scriptures call him a “mild man”. The two could have hardly been more different. The conflict between them and their descendants lasts even until today—especially today!
There was another difference, a major one. Jacob wanted his father’s spiritual blessing; Esau was flippant and casual about spiritual matters until it was too late. One day when Esau returned home from the fields, he actually agreed to sell his right to the first born’s inheritance to Jacob for some soup.
Before their father, Isaac, died, he actually blessed Jacob thinking he was blessing Esau. Isaac was blind. Jacob deceived his father and stole Esau’s blessing. Jacob lived up to his name, “supplanter”. Of course Esau was enraged, even though he had made the deal. He vowed to kill Jacob. Jacob left home to go back to Haran where his mother’s relatives lived, but something unexpected happened on the way. He was weary when he got as far as a small village called Luz, and as the sun was setting, he lay down and placed his head upon a rock. After falling asleep, he had one of those unforgettable dreams!
He saw a ladder reaching from where he was all the way up into heaven. Angels were ascending and descending upon the ladder; the Lord stood above the top. Then the Lord began to speak to Jacob, “I am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; I will give this land to you and your descendants.” The Lord went on to tell him the spread of his future descendants and that in his seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
The Lord promised to go with Jacob, to bring him back to the land, and to fulfill His word to Jacob. Jacob woke up having received the same covenant that had been made to Abraham and to Isaac. And upon awakening, he said, “The Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” He became afraid (the fear of the Lord). Then he said, “This is none other but the House of God, and the gate of heaven!” So he called that place “Bethel”, House of God. Jacob continued to anoint the rock with oil and make vows to God.
There is a lot more to Jacob’s journey, but let’s jump ahead nearly 2000 years later. Jesus is calling disciples and one of them, Phillip, is bringing his friend, Nathanael to meet Jesus. As Jesus sees Nathanael he says, “Look, an Israelite in who there is no guile.” Nathanael said, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Phillip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (Jesus knew him before he knew Jesus. It’s always the case.)
Nathanael was undone by the simple fact that Jesus knew him and immediately exclaimed, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus seemed surprised and said, “You believed because I said I saw you? Hereafter you will see heaven open and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” This is no doubt a reference to Jacob at Bethel.
What was Jesus saying? Nathanael would see an open heaven? Yes, but more. I believe that He was saying that Nathanael would see Jesus as the fulfillment of Bethel’s covenant with Jacob and, if I may say, he would understand that Jesus is the anointed Rock, the House of God. The ‘house” was no longer a place but a person. It was no longer a place but a family that would bless and fill the earth as God had told Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There can be no doubt that Bethel was a special place. But 1000 years after God met Jacob there, something else happened there. When Jeroboam rebelled against King Rehoboam and took away ten tribes, he set up a golden calf, an idol in the house at Bethel. Jeroboam did so to turn people from God, as Israel had done in the wilderness.
Somewhere in history, the rock had become a building. Jeroboam succeeded and the people kept on going to Bethel, even with its idol. It was of course idolatry; it was ritual without revelation. In Jacob’s day, it would have been unthinkable! Yet over time and spiritual decline, the unthinkable became “reasonable”. After all, they were going to the same place, just a different god and different future.
When people lose their history, they lose their God and their future. But people do love their habitats sometimes more than their God. In Jesus’ time, He was outside, along the way, seeking those “without guile.” Most of the priests and rabbis were tending to their habits. I am sure that in some cases, the religious leaders were looking for the “ladder”, an open heaven. John the Baptist had warned them. Nicodemus was one who came to Jesus seeking answers; but many perished when Jerusalem did. Old habits and golden calves cannot save us from a malignant evil. When God is not in the place, it is time to do some serious soul searching.
There are numerous lessons in the story of Jacob; here are a few ….
God Chooses. “Not that we first loved God but that He first loved us.” (See 1 John 4:10.) God chose Jacob long before Jacob chose God. The Scriptures tell us that God chooses before we do. As it was when Jesus saw Nathanael or when God surprised Jacob, so it is always (see Ephesians 1:4). I think that what profoundly affected Nathanael was, Jesus saw him first. God had noticed him. What a humbling thought (see John 15:16)!
To be honest, I would not have chosen Jacob, “supplanter”, “deceiver”, “heel grabber”, “Mama’s boy”. My friend and pastor Ken Sumrall once told me, “I have a confession to make to you; you are the last person I would have picked to receive this (baptism in the Holy Spirit).” I replied, “Thank God!” “Why?” he asked. “Thank God you were not doing the picking!” We don’t do the picking; God does.
God Chooses the Time and Place. God met Jacob at Luz; it was “nowhere”. There was no synagogue there. Running away from his brother, and on a rock, no less? Don’t tell God where He can meet people! He has met them in a bush, a field, a barn, a vineyard and, yes, in church (see Romans 9:25-26; 10:20.) I have seen many meet God in a hotel ballroom or house group. Remember this: God is in charge of the time and place to open heaven. Our call is to pray for mercy.
Wherever He meets us is the House of God. For Jacob, the “House of God” was a rock. The Lord’s presence sanctifies any place where He reveals Himself. Recently, for me, it was a restaurant where I was dining with a friend. The presence of God was palpable; no, not for everyone, but for my friend and me.
After all, the earth is the Lord’s; all of it. Wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He will be there (see Matthew 18:20). He told His disciples, “I am with you always….” He just wants our attention.
God Comes with Promises. God desires to be with us and to be recognized, and He has some good news to tell us, some promises. Those could pertain to our future, our children, or His overall purpose for our lives. That is what He had for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and millions of others with whom He met. If you study what God said to Esau and what He said to Jacob, you will see how His words affected them and their future. You will see how it affects us even now (see Genesis 27:39-40; Genesis 28:10-15).
God Keeps His Word. I hope that I do not need to prove that point; surely you know. When I study the prophetic word, I wonder how anyone could doubt God.
The Word was for the Journey. Jacob did not stay and build a house at Bethel. The revelation and the promise of descendants was the house that God would build for Jacob. The revelation was for the journey that would bring it all to pass. God doesn’t reveal Himself so we can build tabernacles (see Matthew 17:1-5). The revelation was for our future, just as it was for Jacob and the rest.
Jacob eventually became “Israel”, a prince and father of the 12 tribes. More revelation came to Jacob as he journeyed. I pray that we can learn from Jacob a little bit more about the One Who has chosen, called, and sent us on this journey. Isn’t it exciting? What a trip! I love the House of God!
Charles V. Simpson
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Scripture Reference: Genesis 25-35; 1 John 4:10; Ephesians 1:4; John 15:16; Romans 9:25-26; Romans 10:20; Matthew 18:20; Genesis 27:39-40; Genesis 28:10-15; Matthew 17:1-5
Charles Simpson is an internationally-known author, Bible teacher, and pastor, serving in ministry since 1955. He is also Editor-in-Chief of One-to-One Magazine and ministers extensively throughout the United States and the nations.