Recently I was asked to contribute to a preaching series on the life of Jacob. I’m posting my notes below in the hope that they might be useful to you in your Christian walk and discipleship.

The reading can be found here :

This morning we’re going to spend a few moments considering a passage from the book of Genesis, a short episode from the life of Jacob.

Jacob, we know, was the younger of twins, a brother to Esau, both sons of Isaac and Rebecca, and right from the very start of the narrative we learn that this wasn’t going to be a heart-warming story of brotherly connectedness. God’s words to Rebecca, even during her pregnancy, spoke of separation rather than unity, of enmity rather than love. The writer of Genesis records these words, ‘… the LORD said to her … two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated … one people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger …’ (Genesis Ch.25 vs.23). And, even from the outset God’s words started to bear fruit, since, at the moment of arrival into the world the younger twin Jacob was born grasping hold of the older twin Esau’s heel, trying to pull the older back, striving to gain personal advantage and predominance, desperate to be first.

Jacob’s name is a play on the Hebrew word for heel and it literally translates as twister or deceiver, an apt name, so it transpired, since the story goes on to tell instances of Jacob’s deceit and scheming, firstly by out-witting Esau into selling him the birthright that legally resided with the elder twin in exchange for a bowl of soup,  and then secondly, with help from his mother Rebecca, Jacob tricks his almost blind father Isaac into laying hands on him so that he might be in receipt of the family blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.

Philosopher George Santayana describes family life as ‘… one of nature’s masterpieces …’, but this family is something quite different, instead of being a masterpiece, all we see here is a mixed up jumble of unconnected pieces that will never be interlocked without the help of the Master, God Himself.

And so it was that when the deception was exposed, Jacob had no choice but to run away from the family home. Yet despite the mess he was in God met with Jacob through two dramatic circumstances, one, by way of a dream that he experienced the first night of his journey running away from home, and the second, by way of a wrestling match that occurred the night before he returned home – a return that would eventually find him reunited with his brother Esau – a wrestling match, with none other than God Himself.

Some twenty years separated those two encounters with God and we know from reading the story in Genesis that Jacob returned home a wealthy married man with two wives, Rachel and Leah, with a growing family, comprising of ten sons, and a whole assortment of possessions, livestock and servants.

But, if we were hoping that Jacob’s life story would turn out to be a happy one from here on in then Genesis Ch.34, the very next chapter, brings us up with a start. Because it’s a twisted, mangled train-crash of a chapter, and whilst we aren’t going to read from it together this morning, it does provide an important backdrop to the passage we are going to read, because whereas Ch.34 makes no mention of God, the first fifteen verses of Ch.35, in contrast is full to the brim with God, and it’s here that we find Jacob, having first returned to the family of his earthly father Isaac, now returning to his heavenly Father, to God Himself, as once more God speaks to him.

Wherever we look in the unfolding story of the good news of the Bible we find a stream of evidence reminding us that God, at the very heart of His character – is a relational God. Time and time again we see God’s patience working within the lives of individuals – patience that reveals His restorative grace, as God seeks to draw people back to Himself. Jacob, like all of us at some time or another, finds himself spiritually distant from God. Jacob, as we can see time and time again in the unfolding story seeks to gain advantage through self-reliance. Jacob believed that his timing was better than God’s that his actions alone, separate from God’s will, would bring the results he was looking for. In reality the whole catalogue of stories that are bound together to form Jacob’s life story up to this point reveal a chain of poor choices that reaped their inevitable consequences – and yet, as we commented earlier, God wasn’t finished with Jacob.

The verses we read together have as their starting point a fresh revelation of God to Jacob – and we find that in the introductory phrase, since despite the bleakness of the situation that was threatening to consume Jacob and his family in Shechem this is what we read, ‘… then God said to Jacob …’ (vs.1).

Let’s consider for a few moments something of the substance of what God has to say to Jacob, words that lead to repentance and renewal. But let’s not merely limit our thoughts to the outworking of those words within the structure of this well-known story but rather let’s see if we can draw encouragement and hope from the lessons they teach – lessons that are just as relevant for us today in our encounters with the same God, the God of Jacob.

Firstly, I want you to notice that …

  • God speaks about PLACE

‘… go up to Bethel …’ (vs.1)

God’s first words to Jacob are by way of a reminder to him that he was living and worshipping in the wrong place. At the end of Ch.33 we read that Jacob, soon after his reunion with his brother Esau, bought a plot of land from the sons of Hamor, at a place called Shechem, rather than returning to Bethel the place of his first encounter with God and the place where he had vowed to God that he would return. And so we learn that despite knowing what God required from him he stopped short in his obedience. I guess for many of us we can find ourselves in similar circumstances to that of Jacob. God’s call upon our lives is one of obedience, and the evidence of God’s word and the reality of the indwelling Spirit within us confirms God’s leading to be essential for our spiritual lives, and yet, because of our self-reliant nature we, at times, believe we know better and we chose self over God – and as a result we find ourselves living in a spiritual wilderness, a place where we have chosen to live, rather than where God desires longs for us to be.

Yet even when we find ourselves spiritually in the wrong place God persists in working to draw us back to Himself, not physically of course, to a geographical Bethel, but rather we are directed towards the cross of Jesus Christ. Because there, for all of us who know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, is the place to which we need to return. If our spiritual walk with God has come to a halt then we, like Jacob, need to find our way back to the place of our first encounter with God – return to the place where we made a vow to follow Him, the place where we made a choice to accept Him as Lord, that place of faith and trust – and that place, for us, is always the foot of the cross.

Secondly, we see in the same verse that …

  • God speaks about PURPOSE

‘… go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God who appeared to you …’ (vs.1)

God’s intention for Jacob is clear. He isn’t merely asking him to travel as a sightseer to Bethel, but rather God is re-settling Jacob in a place of His choosing – Bethel is the place where God wants Jacob to both live and worship, and whilst there’s some uncertainty amongst scholars as to the exact geographical site of OT Bethel the reality is that both of the suggested locations, though disputed, are within only a few miles of Shechem. Jacob had come so far and yet he had missed out on finding God’s intended purpose for his life – because, he had stopped relying on God.

Discerning God’s will for our lives and His intention as to where He wishes us to live, work and worship for instance, is, I would suggest, never easy or straightforward, and maybe God’s guidance is only truly revealed in hindsight. However, what we do know for certain is that in accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour we have been given, by God’s grace, an eternal address in an eternal kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom with counter-cultural values and topsy-turvy principles to many that we see championed around us.

Thirdly, we see in the next few verses …

  • God speaks about PREPARATION

‘… get rid of the foreign Gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes …’ (vs.2)

It’s refreshing that in the next few verses we see Jacob taking the initiative within his household by relaying God’s message to them, as a family. Jacob recognises the seriousness of God’s words to him and he recognises his need to be reconciled with the LORD God. Rachel, Jacob’s wife, we discover back in Genesis Ch.31, had stolen her father’s pagan idols just before she and Jacob’s household has fled Paddan Arran, and it is clear from the reading that Jacob knew of the presence of other idols too, as well as the outward signs of idolatrous acceptance that the members of the household displayed publicly, such as ritual rings. The evidence of scripture shows, of course, that worshipping the god’s of the neighbouring pagan nations would always be a temptation for the children of Israel. Even despite the confirmed reality that there was no god that could possibly be compared to the LORD God, the children of Israel were time and time again seduced by the confidence and prosperity they saw around them – yet, such attractions were temporary illusions. Maybe even in these verses we glimpse reluctance amongst the people to truly rid themselves of idolatry. Why did Jacob choose to bury these things rather than destroy them ? Why leave open the possibility of uncovering again these tangible and seductive tokens of idolatry rather than ridding themselves of them for good ?

Being challenged by God to change the habits and patterns of our lives, those habits and patterns that are not God-honouring, can be deeply uncomfortable since what God demands from us is evidence of our faith and trust in His Lordship over and above any self-appointed position of rule that we proudly flaunt as being our right. So much of what our sinful human nature finds attractive – is ultimately destructive and so God strives, through His Spirit to reveal to us the true nature of such things. And, the good news of God’s provision for us through His Son is that not only that are we ultimately saved from the penalty that our sin deserves, through the vicarious death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but also, through the indwelling of His Spirit we are being changed, albeit very slowly in my case, towards Christ-likeness, as we allow the Holy Spirit to act through His sanctifying power. God’s intervention on our behalf to deal with the sin question was a costly one – and in response the question I have to ask myself time and time again is how serious am I about dealing with those areas of temptation that, if unchecked, have the potential of causing such great harm ?

The people put away their idols and signalled their willingness to follow God by washing themselves. Throughout scripture we find the action of changing clothes and washing revealed as a re-occurring motif signalling the start of something new. Old garments signify an old way of life, and just like dirt, sin spoils and defiles and must be washed away – repentance and faith go hand in hand and God reveals His power, in response to the people’s obedience, by providing safe passage to Bethel (vs.5) – a miraculous intervention when viewed in the light of Ch.34.

Lastly, we see in the next few verses …

  • God speaks about PROMISE

‘… I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number … a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body … the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you …’ (vs.11 & 12)

Back in Ch.28 God had promised to bring Jacob safely back to Bethel, and He kept His promise, since God is always true to His nature. And Jacob responded by keeping his part of the agreement He had made with God by building an altar and leading his whole household in worship. For Jacob Bethel was a special place, yet it’s important to see that in renaming again the place formerly called Luz he is careful to give God the pre-eminence – and he calls the place El Bethel. And then, in vs.9 God appears to Jacob once more and this time, unlike the story concerning the wrestling match where God refused to reveal His identity, this time God tells Jacob His name, ‘… I am God Almighty …’, here is El Shaddai  – the provider God, the God who is all-sufficient.

I’m sure this is a good place to finish our brief look at the life of Jacob this morning. Not only do we find Jacob reunited with his brother but now he is re-united with his God. Now he is in the place of God’s choosing, he has returned to God in an attitude of repentance and faith, typified by his sacrificial pouring out of a drink offering that speaks volumes about determined dedication – but also, the LORD God has spoken with him and God has re-affirmed his promises. Jacob, the deceiver and self-serving grasper has had his new name Israel re-affirmed to him. The name Israel means ruled by God – clearly God is at work in the life of Jacob.

As we close our thoughts about Jacob it’s important that we take a moment to consider individually where we are spiritually with God. Have we in faith and trust come to the foot of the cross in repentance ? Are we continuing in the way that God would wish us to go ? Do we daily acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and live in the reality of His Kingdom ? Are we allowing God to change us, removing those things that would damage the effectiveness of our Christian lives ?

The Christian life should be a thrilling and vibrant adventure. It’s not devoid of heartache and sadness, a fact that Jacob would discover again as the story of this chapter unfolds, but life with God is ultimately a secure life, a life held tight within the grasp of the covenant of God’s continued blessing – a blessing that stems from the person and work of Jesus Christ.