Christ in Genesis: wrestling with God, and seeing the face of God

Jacob lived with his cousin Laban and married Laban’s daughters. He gained a large family and became a wealthy man with large flocks and herds of livestock. The time finally came for Jacob to return home. He tried to slip away from Laban with his family and his livestock, but Laban pursued Jacob. Jesus personally warned Laban neither to bless nor curse Jacob. So the two men created a monument to mark a border between their two families, and they promised to leave each other alone.

Jacob was afraid that Esau would still be angry with Jacob. As Jacob once tried to bargain with God, now he tried to buy his brother’s love and forgiveness. He sent hundreds of animals ahead of him, telling the servants driving those animals that they were a present for Esau. Jacob even thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (Genesis 32:20). Jacob then sent his family and his remaining possessions across the stream and prepared to spend the night alone.

Jacob was not alone that night. Instead, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Although the man showed that he had the power to dislocate Jacob’s bones with just a touch, the man treated Jacob as an equal and did not defeat him. This man then changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying, “You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). When Jacob asked, his opponent refused to tell Jacob his name. Jacob knew the identity of his opponent, though, because he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30).

Jacob knew that he had just had a close encounter with God. Since “no one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side he has made him known” (John 1:18), we can be confident that the wrestling partner of Jacob was Jesus. Why wouldn’t Jesus tell Jacob his name? To know someone’s name is to have power over that person. Even after wrestling Jesus to a draw, Jacob could not have power over Jesus. Despite all his attempts to bargain with God (and with his brother Esau), Jacob was still powerless—he had to trust God to keep God’s promises. So, in the last book of the Bible, it says that Jesus “has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). What is the use of a name that no one else knows? It shows that no one else has power over Jesus.

While some people describe the body of Jacob’s wrestling partner as the “pre-incarnate Christ,” a special miracle body for that one wrestling match, I maintain that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, who was in his own true body. This body of Jesus had been conceived within the virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth. In that body he preached and taught, he gathered disciples, and he worked miracles. In that body he was arrested, beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified. That body was buried in Jerusalem, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven. At his ascension, Jesus filled all things (Ephesians 4:10), time as well as space. Because Jesus is God, he has the ability to leave time and space and enter them elsewhere, without needing a DeLorean or a Tardis. Jacob wrestled with the body of his Savior, a body which bore the scars of nails on his hands and on his feet.

After wrestling with Jesus, Jacob met his brother Esau. Esau forgave Jacob his sins and refused to accept his gifts. He ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, much like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When Esau tried to return Jacob’s animals, Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Genesis 33:10).

Jacob had seen Jesus face to face and had wrestled with him. He even said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Now Jacob says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God.” For Jacob, Esau was a picture of Jesus. Can he be any less for us?

Esau did not need gifts from Jacob, but out of kindness he accepted his brother’s gifts. God needs nothing from us, but out of grace he accepts our gifts. Not only the money we give to the Church, but also the good deeds we do for our neighbors, are gifts to Jesus. Jesus takes personally the things we do for people in need (Matthew 2534-40). Yet his love and his forgiveness do not depend upon what we do, for they have already been granted to us.

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Christ in Genesis: Jacob’s Ladder

When Jacob had deceived his father and claimed his brother’s blessing, he had to run away from home. Jesus willingly gives to Christians the reward that Jesus deserved for obeying his father’s will, but Esau plots to kill his brother Jacob. Rebekah sends Jacob to her family, a place of safety, until enough time has passed that Esau will have lost his anger.

His first night away from home, Jacob meets Jesus. He takes a stone for his pillow and lays down to sleep. “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). Jesus stood above the ladder and spoke to Jacob, renewing the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac. The same triple blessing is spoken: Jacob’s family will become a mighty nation, they will live on the land where Jacob was sleeping, and through that family on that land all the nations of the world will be blessed. (Again, the promise spoken by Jesus to Jacob is the promise fulfilled by Jesus when he comes to obey his Father and to sacrifice himself on a cross so our sins can be forgiven and we can be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.)

Jacob takes this dream to indicate that he has been sleeping in the house of God and at the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). He sets up a landmark to remember the place. Then he does what sinners so often do: he tries to bargain with God. Although God has made unconditional promises to Jacob, Jacob offers God a deal—if God will keep his promise to take care of Jacob, then the Lord will be Jacob’s God and the landmark Jacob made will be God’s house. Moreover, Jacob promises God one-tenth of Jacob’s wealth. God did not ask for any of this. He blessed Jacob because God’s nature is to love, to bless, and to show mercy. God’s plan, as described in his promise, is much bigger than the fortunes of Jacob. Yet Jacob takes this promise personally, thinking only of what’s in this promise for Jacob.

Not only did Jacob see Jesus at the top of the ladder; in the ladder itself he saw a picture of Jesus. We know this because of the words of Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is the only Way to the Father, the only way from this sinful earth to God’s perfect new creation. Jesus is the ladder, although if escalators had been invented when the book of Genesis was written, they would have been an even better picture of Jesus, bearing us up to heaven at no effort to ourselves.

Christ in Genesis: Abraham, the Father of Faith

Abraham is called the Father of Faith. The apostle Paul and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews both stress the faith of Abraham, the fact that he trusted God even when the son God had promised appeared increasingly unlikely every year. The two actions that demonstrate Abraham’s faith are these: in obedience to God, he traveled to Canaan; and, in obedience to God, he prepared to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering.

Between these two acts of faith, probably more than thirty years apart, Abraham often demonstrated the weakness of his faith. During a time of famine, Abraham left Canaan and traveled to Egypt, evidently doubting that God would take care of him during the famine. In Egypt, he persuaded Sarah to call herself his sister rather than his wife, evidently doubting that God would protect Abraham and his family in Egypt. Although he believed that God would provide him a son, he also tried to help God keep this promise. First, he suggested that he would adopt his servant Eliezer to produce a son for God. Later, he accepted Sarah’s suggestion that her maid Hagar be a surrogate mother to produce a son for God. God had to insist to Abraham that neither Eliezer nor Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar) was the promised son. Then, in the land of Gerar, Abraham once more persuaded Sarah to say that she was his sister, not his wife, evidently still doubting that God would protect Abraham and his family from the power of King Abimelech.

One day Jesus and two angels were traveling towards Sodom, and they stopped at the tent of Abraham. Abraham recognized Jesus and insisted that the group stay for a meal. He ordered a calf slaughtered and fresh bread made, and Jesus and the angels enjoyed his hospitality. During the meal, Jesus told Abraham that by that time next year, Sarah would have a son. Sarah overheard the promise and laughed, but when Jesus asked why she was laughing she lied and said, “I didn’t laugh.”

After Jesus had sent the angels to Sodom, Jesus told Abraham that he was investigating Sodom and that he would destroy the city if things were as bad there as he had heard. Abraham knew how bad things were in Sodom, and so he began to bargain with God (always the sign of a weak faith). He had Jesus promise not to destroy Sodom if fifty righteous people were living there. Then, step by step, Abraham worked his way down to ten righteous people. Each time Jesus agreed, even though Jesus knew that not a single person in Sodom was righteous. Knowing the intention of Abraham’s prayer, Jesus did something Abraham hadn’t asked: he had the angels remove Lot and his family from the city before burning sulfur fell from the sky to destroy Sodom and the sinners who lived there.

Abraham’s faith was weak, but it still was saving faith, because it was faith in the right God. Our faith can be as weak as Abraham’s faith. We say we believe God’s promises, and then we do things our way rather than his way. We say we believe his promises, and then we struggle to make them come true by our efforts. We say we believe his promises, and then we try to bargain with God instead of trusting that his will is good. Yet when we put our trust in God, even though our faith is weak, God saves us by his grace through faith. Abraham is our father because we are like him: clinging to Christ with a feeble faith, but saved all the same by the strength of Christ’s work. J.