The Breaking Point
October 25, 1992
In our study of the life of Jacob, we have come to a critical turning point. One might even call it the crucial moment of his entire life. Up until this point, Jacob has certainly lived up to his name—taking every advantage he can find to get ahead in life. Most of what he does is not objectionable in itself. Jacob is simply taking care of business the best way he can. Sometimes his ambition gets ahead of his wisdom and he does some unethical things.
But all that is about to change. How dramatic is it? Let’s put it this way: When the sun goes down, his name is Jacob. When the sun comes up again, his name is Israel. At 8 PM he is “The cheater”; by 6 AM, he is “The man who wrestled with God.” Before that night, Jacob was in excellent physical condition; ever after that he would walk with a limp.
That night by the Jabbok made all the difference. He met the Lord in a powerful way, and his life was changed forever.
It has been well said that a crisis never made any man; it only reveals what he already is. That statement, in my opinion, is mostly true or almost always true, but I do not think it is absolutely true. From time to time God brings certain people to crisis points that radically change the course of life forever. Before the crisis, a man looked at life one way; afterwards and forever, he sees the world around him in a different way.
Something like that happened to Jacob that night by the Jabbok. This is the crisis that not only reveals what Jacob is, it also transforms him into something different. When Jacob wrestled with God, he lost … and he also won. After all these years, Jacob meets his match at midnight by the Jabbok river.
I. The Setting
A. The Time This encounter with God takes place at the end of Jacob’s 20 years in Haran. As we have seen, those were not easy years. Most of the time was hard and difficult as Jacob chafed under Laban’s domination. Over and over again, promises were made and then broken. Wages were set and then changed. Demands were made, then changed, then made again. Many were the days when Jacob wondered if he would ever go home again.
But now at last he is free of Laban, the long humiliation is over, the lessons learned and the payment made. The hard times in Haran are but a distant memory. He’s almost home again.
B. The Place According to the text, Jacob was camping on the banks of the Jabbok River, which flowed from the east into the Jordan River. He is somewhere in the mountains of Gilead—literally on the border of the Promised Land. Twenty years earlier, as he was leaving the Promised Land, the Lord appeared to him near Bethel and said, “I will go with you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.” That promise is about to be fulfilled.
C. The Crisis For most of us, our deepest experiences with God are preceded by a personal crisis of some kind. Jacob is no different. His crisis can be summed up in one word: Esau. For 20 years he has lived with the memory of how he cheated his brother—not once, but twice. For 20 years he has wondered whether Esau still plans to kill him. For 20 years he has dreamed of going home, but each time his dream became a nightmare when he thinks of … Esau.
While he was with Laban, his mind was distracted with his slippery, conniving uncle. But Laban is history, a receding figure in the rear-view mirror. Laban is gone, and with his departure, Esau returns to the forefront.
Jot down this phrase by his name—”Unfinished Business.” Long years ago he had cheated his brother. Long years ago he had deceived his father. Long years ago he had caused the break-up of his own family. Through the hard times since then Jacob has grown rich and prosperous. He left penniless, but he returns a man of means, of influence, of substance.
There is only one niggling detail from his past that still haunts him—Esau! Now that Jacob has come home, he has to face his brother.
If you read Genesis 32, you can understand why he was worried. Several days earlier Jacob had sent messengers to meet Esau with a message of peace and reconciliation. When the messengers returned, they brought an ominous report: “We went to meet your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (32:6)
How would you feel? It doesn’t sound very promising. Maybe Esau has decided to get even after all these years. Maybe the 400 men are armed killers. Maybe he’s planning a little massacre to settle an old score with his brother.
No wonder Jacob is frightened. That was in the morning. Night has fallen on the Jabbok, and he is left to wonder what tomorrow will bring. In a few hours, he will come face to face with the brother he cheated so many years ago.
Unfinished business. Most of us know all about that. Maybe it’s a broken relationship you thought time would heal. Maybe it’s an unkind word you said and you hoped that if you ducked out low enough and long enough, they would forget about it. Maybe it’s a broken promise, a job unfinished, a task left incomplete, a lie you hoped would never catch up with you. You were counting on the fact that “time heals all wounds.” Maybe that’s true for flesh wounds, but time never heals the deep wounds—the ones that go clear to the bone.
Mark it down. Sooner or later you’ve got to go back and face your unfinished business. You’ve got to go back and confront your past. You’ve got to face the people you hurt, you’ve got to come clean about your mistakes, you’ve got to own up to what you did. You can’t just go through life hurting people left and right, saying, “It doesn’t matter because I’ve arrived at a higher level now.”
Life doesn’t work that way. Jacob is learning that truth the hard way. As the memories of the past float back to condemn him, as his fears of tomorrow overwhelm him, God is preparing him for the decisive encounter that will change him forever.
II. The Struggle 22-26
“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone.”
Jacob is alone. Perhaps I should say, “Alone at last.” God has at last gotten Jacob exactly where he wants him. It’s just Jacob and God. Everyone else is on the other side of the river. Now God is ready to speak to Jacob.
When was the last time God spoke to Jacob in a deep way? Twenty years earlier—at another point of crisis—when he was fleeing from Esau. Back then he was scared to death, and he was all alone. Twenty years later, he’s still fleeing from Esau, but this time there’s no place to run and hide. And in that desperate moment of loneliness, God begins to deal with Jacob.
Slowpokes Get Run Over
The greatest problem God has with most of us is getting us to slow down long enough to hear his voice. We’re always on the move, always talking, never stopping just to listen. Here in Chicago we’re constantly going through life in high gear. That’s how you survive in the big city. You rev up early in the morning and you don’t stop till it’s time to go to bed. That’s life. That’s what you have to do to make it here. Slowpokes get run over. Get in gear or get out of the way.
We’re scared to death to slow down because we feel the pressure from the people right behind us. And when God speaks to us, it’s like listening to a faint radio signal—you only catch every fifth word because of the static. We hear so many other voices that God’s voice fades in and out.
God’s number one problem is that he can’t get us to slow down long enough to speak to us. And he can’t get us alone to have our undivided attention. I’ve been in homes where they had to have two TVs and a radio on at all times because they couldn’t stand the silence. How many of us have to turn on the TV because we have to have noise around us to help us relax?
So what does God do? If we won’t slow down on our own, he’ll step in and slow us down. With a pink slip. Or a midnight phone call. Or a visit to the emergency room. Or a family crisis. Or a financial disaster. Or a serious illness. Or any one of a thousand other crises that break into our little routine and force us to stop what we are doing and begin to listen to God.
That’s what’s happening to Jacob. God has arranged the circumstances so that he can get Jacob alone at a moment when he feels completely helpless.
From Parts Unknown
What happens next has fixed itself in the imagination of Bible readers for 3000 years. “A man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.”
Here is a bizarre scene. Jacob is alone with his thoughts, watching the stars overhead and wondering what tomorrow will bring when a man suddenly appears before him. Who is he? Jacob doesn’t know and the man isn’t saying. Suddenly the man grabs Jacob and begins to wrestle him to the ground. Jacob fights back desperately, thinking it might be a bandit or possibly an assassin sent by Esau. On and on the men wrestle—grabbing, struggling, rolling around in the dust, always aiming for some advantage, looking to pin the other man to the ground. They do not talk to each other. Jacob is battling for his life. The other man—who is he and where did he come from? He is like those mystery wrestlers who come “from parts unknown.”
Hours pass as neither man is able to gain an advantage. Jacob is exhausted but he dare not stop or show any sign of weakness. What time is it? One o’clock passes, then two o’clock, then three o’clock, then four o’clock. Sunrise is not far away. At length, just as the first rays of light are streaking over the hills of Gilead, the mystery man reaches out and touches Jacob’s thigh, dislocating it immediately. The text uses a word which means to “touch lightly.” Just a touch, and Jacob feels his thigh bone pull out of its socket. Huge pain and incredible weakness.
Later on Jacob will discover that the “man” was really God himself (see verse 30). I believe the mystery man was really a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. If so, why couldn’t the “man” subdue Jacob? He could, and he did just by touching his thigh. The “man” wrestled with Jacob all night to demonstrate to Jacob that no matter how much strength he (Jacob) had, he was no match for God.
But why did he touch Jacob’s thigh? Because that is the largest and strongest muscle of the body. By touching his thigh, the man was deliberately crippling Jacob at the point of his greatest strength. It was an acted-out parable, a lesson whose moral Jacob could not miss: When you wrestle with God, you always lose.
God Doesn’t Play By Our Rules
In one sense, this is an “unfair” fight because at the end God cheats. He cheats! Touching Jacob’s thigh was “unfair.” At least that’s the way it looks from the purely human perspective. According to the rules of wrestling, that isn’t “fair.”
Please understand. God is just and right in all he does. He never cheats. But sometimes it appears that God is unfair in the way he treats us. How many of us have gone through a hard time and seen life crumble around us, and we’ve cried out, “God! That’s not fair.” And the answer comes down from the Almighty, “My child, I’m not playing by your rules.”
That’s such an important lesson to learn. God doesn’t play by your rules. That’s why things happen in your life that on the surface appear to be unfair. God is never unfair in the absolute sense. But in order to accom-plish his greater purposes, he is willing to do things in your life that may appear to you to be unfair. God’s answer is always, “My child, I love you more than you know, but I’m not playing by your rules.”
III. The Conversation 26-29
Now that the sun is rising, the mysterious visitor is about to leave. But before he goes, he and Jacob have a brief conversation—the first words that have passed between them. In this conversation, we discover four new things about Jacob.
A. A New Determination 26
“The man said, ’Let me go for it is daybreak,’ But Jacob replied, ’I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” That’s a new determination. Up until this point in Jacob’s life, he used all his strength and ability to achieve his own ends. For the first time, he’s come to the end of his own resources. Before this night, Jacob was running the show. Now he realizes that without God, he’s nothing. All his huffing and puffing has brought him to realize how helpless he is when compared with the strength of God. Whereas before he used his wits to deceive Esau and trick Isaac, now he is learning the great lesson of Zechariah 4:4, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”
So he is determined that this man will bless him. You see, somewhere during the long hours of fruitless wrest-ling, Jacob realized that this “man” was no mere man. He was really the “angel of the Lord.” That’s the same thing as wrestling with God himself. But Jacob is wrestling now. He’s holding on for dear life. If he can’t win the fight, he’s not going to give up until he gets a blessing.
So it is that when our greatest energies are surrendered to God, our lives are radically redirected.
That which was used for evil now is used for good.
That which was used for trivial pursuits now is used for the kingdom of God.
That which was used for earthly gain now is used for eternal profit.
It really doesn’t matter if you’ve been wasting your life this week on things that don’t matter. All you have to do is say, “Lord, I’m turning away from that and I’m giving my life back to you. Use me for your kingdom.”
B. A New Confession 27
“The man asked him, ’What is your name?’ ’Jacob,’ he answered.” Mark it down. This was the turning point, the crucial moment, the breaking point of Jacob’s life. Why did the man ask his name? Didn’t he know who Jacob was? Yes, of course he did. The question is, “Jacob, do you know who you really are?”
The name “Jacob” means “heel-grabber,” “cheater,” “deceiver” and “supplanter.” It had come to stand for the basic reality of Jacob’s life. He was a man who fully earned his own name. He was “Jacob” through and through.
So when the angel says, “What is your name?” he is really asking, “Are you ready to admit who you really are? Are you ready to confess the deep truth about yourself?”
That’s always hard to do, and most of us will do anything to avoid the hard truth about the way we live. You’ve heard it said, “The truth will set you free,” but let me add a little phrase: “The truth will set you free but it will hurt you first.” If you are willing to be hurt by the hard truth about who you really are, then you can be set free. The hardest truth is the truth about yourself. If you ever dare to face that truth, then Jesus can begin to set you free.
C. A New Name 28
“Then the man said, ’Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.’” The Hebrew text contains a fascinating word-play. In the older versions the word “Israel” is translated as “one who prevails with God,” but literally it means the opposite—”God who prevails with man.” It means not that Jacob struggled with God and won, but God struggled with Jacob and won.
Who won the match that night? God. Who lost ? Jacob. But who really won? Jacob! That’s the paradox of life. When we wrestle with God, we always lose. But when we lose, we win! Did not Jesus say something very similar?
“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” (Mark 8:35)
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Mt 20:26)
“Whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:27)
“The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16)
In God’s economy, the values of the world are completely reversed. The way up is down and the way to save your life is to lose it. Strangely enough, when you fight with God, defeat leads on to victory and the road to the kingdom goes by way of the cross.
So what does “Israel” mean? It really has a double meaning and carries a double message. God is continually bringing you to a place where you will surrender your will to him. But in that act of surrender you obtain the only victory that really matters. In losing, you win!
D. A New Blessing 29
“Jacob said, ’Please tell me your name.’ But he replied, ’Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there.” The blessing meant that from now on Jacob would be God’s man through and through. No longer would he be known as a cheater and deceiver. From now on he would be remembered as the man who wrestled with God.
Let’s put it all together. In the great wrestling match of his life, Jacob lost. But in losing, he won! When that long night is over, Jacob knows something he didn’t know before. He now knows that God knows him through and through, and loves him anyway. What a revolutionary discovery that is for all of us. When you realize that God sees right through your hypocrisy … and yet loves you anyway, that truth will change your life forever. God sees right through your cover-up and he loves you anyway. He’s willing to take you right where you are.
God is saying to Jacob, “My son, I know more about you than you do about me. That’s the way it ought to be. You don’t have to cheat anymore. You don’t have to manipulate people anymore. Now you and I are going to walk together. Those other days are behind you forever.”
IV. The Epilogue 30-32
We can summarize the end of the story very quickly:
A. Jacob names the place Peniel. 30
“So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ’It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’” Peniel means “face of God.” Jacob now realizes that he has had an encounter with God!
B. Jacob now walks with a limp. 31
“The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.”
C. The nation remembers this night. 32
“Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.” Not only did Jacob never forget what happened by the Jabbok, neither did his descendants. When Moses wrote these words, 400 years had passed since that night. Yet it made such a major impression on the Israelites that they voluntarily abstained from eating the tendon attached to the socket of the hip.
The next morning, when Jacob crosses the Jabbok, he is walking with a limp, one leg dragging behind the other. It’s a half-walk and a half-shuffle. There is pain in his face, but a smile plays across his lips. As his sons crowd around him, they say, “Daddy, what happened? All you all right? Why are you limping? Did you have an accident?” To which he replies, “Boys, sit down. I’m going to tell you the strangest story you’re ever going to hear.” That story was told and re-told and passed down across the generations—the night when Jacob wrestled with God.
Jacob would live many more years after this night. But he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. It was a perpetual reminder of what God had done that night by the Jabbok.
V. Lessons From the Jabbok
A. God brings us again and again to crisis points where our persistent self-sufficiency is shattered, and we are forced to yield ourselves to God in a brand-new way.
It happens to all of us eventually. The doctor says, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.” You get a phone call in the middle of the night, and your children are in terrible trouble. You thought you had the job for life. Then the boss walks in and says, “I’m sorry. We’re downsizing and we don’t have a place for you anymore.” And you stand in the rubble of a broken marriage that you thought would last forever. You cry out, “God, why is this happening?” One answer is that God allows these things to happen so that, like Jacob, we find our self-confidence shattered and we are forced to trust in God in a new and deeper way.
B. Until we are “broken” by God, we can never be greatly used by God.
God brings us again and again to breaking points. Why? Because God can’t really use a self-reliant man. But a broken and contrite heart, he will not despise. When you are broken, you’ll be ready to listen and ready to obey. Then—and only then—can God greatly use you.
C. Until we admit the truth about our condition, we will remain as we are.
What is your name? Until you can say, “My name is bitterness,” you can’t be healed. Until you can say, “My name is greed,” you can’t be healed. Until you can say, “My name is deception,” you can’t be healed. Until you say, “My name is unfaithfulness,” you can’t be healed.
What is your name? Whenever you are ready to come clean, God can make you clean. But until then you will stay just as you are.
D. Once God breaks us, we will look back on that experience with gratitude.
Up until this point, Jacob has limped on the inside—a cheater, a cunning manipulator and a deceiver. But now God has intervened. He who once limped on the inside now limps on the outside—a reminder of the man he used to be.
Here’s a crucial insight: Although Jacob limped for the rest of his life, he never once complained about it. He got the message loud and clear that this was God’s way of breaking him so he could be used by God.
Limping Across the Finish Line
It is better to limp through life trusting God completely than to strut in our self-confidence because that leads only to certain defeat. I can only tell you that I have learned this lesson the same way many others have—through hard and bitter experience. I like strutting. Strutting is lots more fun because strutting puts you out in front of the parade where everybody can see you. But those who strut through life are eventually brought down.
And the people God really uses are the ones who limp across the finish line.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) That night on the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob picked up his cross and limped after his Lord.
If you are limping today, you have nothing to apologize for. The greatest saints have limped through life, struggling to follow Jesus. You’re not a victim, you’re a trophy of God’s grace.
You’re not a victim, but you’ve been deeply hurt. And out of that hurt God will do something wonderful in your life if only you will let him.
What seems today like humiliating defeat, in the hands of God will be transformed into a glorious victory.
Father, our greatest need is to believe what I have just said—that from defeat you can bring forth victory. We know it is true, yet many of us have our doubts. We know that you can take the wounds of this life and transform them by your grace. Do it, Lord. Touch us with your transforming power. Help us to embrace the cross of Christ, to pick it up and to follow after our Lord, limping as we go. Amen.