19 “According to this word speak to Esau when you find him; 20 and you will say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is drawing near behind us.’ ” For he said, “I will atone his face with the gifts that are going before him, and after this I will see his face, for perhaps he will welcome my face.” 21 So the gifts went on before his face, but he slept that night in the camp.22 After rising up that night, he took his two wives and the two maidens and his eleven children, and he crossed over the ford of Jabbok. 23 And he took them and crossed over the brook and carried across all his things. 24 Jacob remained alone, and a person wrestled with him until the morning. 25 The man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, and he touched the broad part of his thigh, and the broad part of Jacob’s thigh became numb when he wrestled with him. 26 And the man said to Jacob, “Send me away, for the dawn has come.” He replied, “I will not send you away, if you do not bless me.” 27 The man said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” 28 And he said to him, “No longer will your name be called Jacob, but your name will be ‘Israel’ because you prevailed with God, and you are mighty with people.” 29 Jacob asked and said, “Reveal to me your name.” And he said, “To what end do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 And Jacob called the name of that place “Form of God,” for “I saw God face to face, and my life was spared.”
Now I know I would never be good at wrestling, because I’m too tall and skinny. But I know some people who were, and from what we’ve seen, Jacob is one of those good wrestlers. After all, he was grabbing Esau’s heel from the womb.
But by the end of this message, I hope you’ll see that we all have a bit of wrestling that we’ve done and that we’ll likely continue to do throughout our lives.
First of all, I want to point out the beginning of this chapter: Gen 32:1: And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
So even before Jacob wrestles with the mysterious man, he’s seeing angels. Pretty cool, just a side note.
Let’s jump to v24, And Jacob was left alone (without his crew of people and stuff); and there a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. – Genesis 32:24
So what’s the significance of qualifying for this wrestling match? Even before He enters the ring? Let’s first look at Ambrose of Milan
Therefore Jacob, who hadpurifiedhis heart of all pretenses and was manifesting a peaceable disposition, first cast off all that was his, thenremained behind aloneand wrestled with God.For whoever forsakes worldly things comes nearer to the image and likeness of God.
So what’s the first step in the spiritual wrestling matches we can all be apart of with God? Casting off the cares of the world. In that situation, Jacob let his whole livelihood, his family with their children and stuff, go on ahead of him. And there’s a natural progression of the things of the world in a forward direction, isn’t there? It’s difficult to press pause and let everything else progress forward as we stay back with God. Now what can bring us to that state? I’m sure you can think of a few things: Gratefulness, wonder, breathing, enjoying; which are all things that get choked in our pursuit for more. Now you may not see staying back and, “wrestling with God”, as a good thing yet, but let’s keep reflecting on this until we do.
What is it to wrestle with God other than to enter upon the struggle for virtue, to contend with one who is stronger and to become a better imitator of God? (-Ambrose of Milan)
So what does it mean, Jacob’s wrestling and refusing to let go? The Lord says in the Gospel, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and those who act violently plunder it.” This is what we were saying earlier on: struggle, wrestle, to hold on to Christ, that is, to love your enemy.You hold Christ here and now if you have loved your enemy. – Augustine of Hippo
So both Ambrose and Augustine have the same realization here: wrestling with God is to get closer to God and the imitation of Him, especially one of the hardest goals: loving our enemies. As we wrestle with God, it can be an endless pursuit, til daybreak, as Augustine says: Morning only fully comes at the Day of Christ’s return, but at the very same time, we have moments of daybreak that occasionally arise in our hearts.
Cyril of Alexandria reminds us of that daily pursuit,
“You see how he does not continue fighting at daybreak. In fact, there is no fight for those who already live in the light. It is fitting for those who have been brought to such magnificence to say, “God, my God, I watch you from the light.” And in addition, “In the morning you shall hear my voice, in the morning I shall wait on you, and you will see me.” When the light of justice, that is, Christ, rises in our mind and introduces his brilliance into our hearts, then we also will be waited on as noble souls and will be made worthy of the divine attention. “The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous.” At daybreak the fight ceases, -Cyril of Alexandria
And as we approach God, there are two reactions to wrestling with Him according to Augustine, “those who live evil lives belong to the hollow of Jacob’s thigh that was touched, and they have withered. Yet the touch of the Lord is the hand of the Lord, (both) chastising and giving life”. (Remember, the same hand that blessed Jacob also gave the limping to Jacob).
Then in v28, he says, Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince you have wrestled with God, and with men have prevailed. – Genesis 32:28
And if Israel is a man who “sees God,” then the Lord was showing in an elegant manner that he who wrestled with Jacob was not only man but also God. Undoubtedly Jacob saw God with whom he wrestled, though it was a man whom he held in his grip. That there might not remain any doubt, he himself gave the interpretation when he said, “For you have prevailed with God, and with men you are powerful.” For he saw God with whom he wrestled, as though he were wrestling with a man; but while as if victor he held the man, as an inferior he asked a blessing of him, as one would of God. Thus he wrestled with God and with man. – Novation
So we see this dichotomy between God and man, strength and weakness playing out. Ephrem the Syrian comments more on verse 29,
“He overcame the angel and was overcome by the angel so that [Jacob] learned how weak he was and how strong he was. He was weak when the angel touched the hollow of his thigh and it became dislocated, but he was strong, for the angel said to him, “Let me go.” It was to show how long they had been contending with each other that [the angel] said, “Behold, the dawn is rising.” Then Jacob sought to be blessed in order to make known that it was in love that they had laid hold of each other. Then the angel blessed him to show that he was not angry that an earthly being had prevailed over him. – Ephrem The Syrian
John Chrysostom too reminds us of the love of God in the midst of the wrestling match:
Do you see how the Lord shows considerateness for our human limitations in all he does and in arranging everything in a way that gives evidence of his characteristic love? Don’t be surprised, dearly beloved, at the extent of his considerateness. – John Chrysostom
So the big beauty and mystery is this: in our wrestling matches with God, when we leave behind (or in Jacob’s case, ahead!) the cares of the world, He meets us. Our will strives against His will because we aren’t perfectly compatible yet. But that’s okay, because God is not really wrestling us, He’s letting us wrestle Him, with His arms around us, embracing us in love. Just because we’re not perfectly aligned with God doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us close to Him. It’s the same with my 1 year old. She could be tumbling all over me, essentially beating me up, but I’m just glad she wants to be with me. And I know I could tell her everything that she should be doing and be one of those parents with a big rule book of some kind of how they want things to be done, or I could just seek God, demonstrate God, and watch her imitate me as I imitate Christ. Now I’m not saying that I’m there yet by any means, but that should be the goal for each one of us: wrestle with God, grow closer to God, and then have others we are with see God in us. That way people’s eyes don’t have to glaze over when we say certain things over and over, they see the goodness flow out of us and naturally want to imitate that as we imitate Christ.
It’s a great mystery but a lifelong image for how to seek God, and I feel like that’s a good place to end: Leave your cares ahead of you like Jacob, wrestle your will with God’s will as you align yourself to Him and His purpose for you, let yourself be chastised in your leg-the parts of your life that need some work or numbing, let God’s blessing come to the parts of your life He favors, and remember that as you’re wrestling with God, He’s embracing You. In your weakness, He meets you with His strength.
If you’re ever at a point that you’re not wrestling God, you’ve either achieved perfection or settled for not becoming who you were made to be. My guess is all of us have some wrestling to do.
“So God, we submit our cares first and foremost to You, asking that You would help us daily to find times to let the things of the world sprint forward with our crew and then remain back with You. Teach us to be content in the struggle of becoming like You and all the while remember that You are embracing us. In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit we pray. Amen.”