True Faith: Clinging to God

A sermon on Genesis 32 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 9/12/04

What is true, saving faith?

How can you tell if someone is truly saved?

How can you tell if YOU are saved?

Suppose you have a friend – call him George. George goes to church occasionally. He prays occasionally – especially during the crises in his life. George now has a job and owns a house, and he acknowledges that these are gifts from God.

Is George saved?

Does he have saving faith in Jesus?

How do you go about finding answers to such questions?

Our authority, the Bible, helps us to answer these questions in several ways. The pamphlet “How Do I Know if I am Saved?” (Word file, pdf file) uses Matthew 7 and 1 John to help us answer those questions. But the Bible also answers such questions through narrative.

This morning, we want to address that question by looking at the narrative of the salvation of Jacob. In today’s text, Jacob moves from being lost to being found; from someone who acknowledged God to someone who clings to God; from someone who tried to tap in to God’s power for his personal benefit to someone who wants to know God.

As we consider the salvation of this great man of God, I pray that God will open our eyes so that we might understand salvation itself much more clearly. I pray that He will open our eyes to our own position before Him. And I pray that He will grant salvation to anyone here who is not yet saved.

Recall what has happened so far in Jacob’s life: He is the younger twin, so although he is only a few minutes younger than his brother Esau, the older brother would normally receive the family’s birthright. In this case, the birthright implies not only the inheritance of the family wealth, but also the promise of Abraham – that all nations would be blessed through his offspring. God speaks to Jacob’s mother Rebekah during the pregnancy, telling her that the older will serve the younger. But instead of trusting God to bring about this prophecy, Rebekah and Jacob work together to force this outcome. First, Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s character faults to finagle the birthright from him. Then he and Rebekah deceive his father to make sure Isaac’s blessing is passed on to him.

But all this backfires. Esau becomes so enraged that he threatens to kill Jacob as soon as his father dies. Thinking that death might be imminent, Jacob and Rebekah conspire again, this time arranging for him to travel to Rebekah’s family 500 miles away. They lie again to Isaac to get his blessing on this journey, but Isaac – understanding, I believe, all that is going on – gives his blessing but withholds all financial support. So Jacob leaves home, fearing his brother and, for the first time in his life, without any wealth.

Jacob goes to the house of Laban, his uncle. And the deceiver becomes the one deceived. Jacob loves Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and works seven years for her. But on the wedding night, Laban substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel, forcing Jacob to work another seven years to pay for Rachel also. Once those fourteen years are over, Laban agrees to allow Jacob to take all the spotted and speckled goats and sheep as his wages – but then tries to trick him by removing all such animals far from the others. He also changes the wage arrangement multiple times. God nevertheless blesses Jacob, so much that Jacob in the end acknowledges that all he owns has come from God, not from his own intelligence and deceit. This is an important step along the way to Jacob’s becoming man of God – but he is not saved yet.

Jacob flees and Laban tries to pursue him, intending to do him harm. But God protects Jacob, and Laban returns home.

This brings us to today’s text. The threat from Laban is gone. But now the twenty year old threat from Esau looms large. So as we read earlier, Jacob sends messengers to Esau. Note how he addresses his brother: “My lord Esau.” And what does he call himself? “Your servant Jacob.” Jacob deceived his father and took advantage of his brother in order to make the prophecy of his brother’s subjection to him come true. But now Jacob is voluntarily cowering before his brother, calling Esau “Lord.”

The messengers return with the frightening news: “Esau is coming – with 400 men!” It looks like Esau has mustered a small army to come and fulfill his old vow.

So in verses 9-12 Jacob prays the longest prayer recorded in Genesis. Look at this prayer again:

Verse 9: “God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac.” By addressing God in this way, Jacob implicitly is depending on the promises God made to his father and grandfather.

“O Lord who said to me, “Return to your country.” Jacob is saying, “God, I’m obeying you! I’m doing what you said!”

Verse 10: “I am not worthy.” Last time we saw that he acknowledged that everything he had came from God. That was a key change from the past. But now he goes even further. Now he admits that he deserves nothing.

Verse 11: “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother.” Is this a good request? By all means. When we cry out to God for help, when we admit our weakness and His strength, we are worshiping God. Paul tells us to present all our requests to God; Psalm 107  gives several examples of those in desperate straits crying out to God in their distress. Indeed, last time we saw that this was the lesson Rachel learned. At first she was barren but demanded children from her husband. After many years she learned the lesson: Seek God’s help. She prayed, and God answered.

Verse 12: “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good.’” His introduction shows he is depending on God’s promises to his father and grandfather; this statement shows Jacob is also depending on God’s promise to him personally.

This is a great prayer – we would do well to model it. Nevertheless, this is a prayer that an unsaved person can pray. God has worked in Jacob’s life to bring him to understand his unworthiness and God’s goodness – but there is more to salvation than that.

Jacob finishes praying to God, but seems just as focused on Esau. He is so worried he sends numerous gifts to try to appease him: Imagine all these sheep, goats, cows, and camels making their way toward Esau and his 400 men. All Jacob can think about is Esau, Esau, Esau. Esau is the problem, “How can I save myself and my family from Esau?”

The rest of the chapter tells how God changes Jacob’s heart.

We’ll look at this section through the lens of four questions - four questions that will help us to see if we are saved:

Who are you?

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. Genesis 32:22-23 ESV

All his life Jacob has tried to gain wealth and status. For the last twenty years, he has worked for his wives, family, and possessions. And God has been gracious to him and given all this to him. But now, at the moment of crisis in his life, he’s on one side of the stream, and everything that is dear to him is on the other. Jacob is now alone:

All his life he has seen himself in relation to others. He was:

Laban has played all these roles. But now the question arises: “Who are you, Jacob? Who are you really? Who are you, when you are alone before God?”

Up to this point, Jacob has seen himself as strong, smart, and able. He may have admitted, “I need a little outside help and God has been gracious enough to provide it, but overall – I’ve pretty much got my act together.”

But that was never true, and now, left alone with God, Jacob has the opportunity to see himself as he really is. Did he take this opportunity? The Bible is not explicit on this, but I believe he did. Here he is, wondering if this is his last night on earth, left all alone. He must have reflected on all that had happened in his life, on all his foolishness. What did he see as he looked back? He saw that he had lost so much of what he loved most because of his stupidity:

So Jacob looks back on all these years, and he sees a man who has schemed and deceived – all for nothing. Not only has he failed to achieve anything by that scheming, in the end he has destroyed what he loved most.

What about you? Who are you – when you’re stripped of all the facades, all the spin, all the self-deceit: Who are you?

Martyn Lloyd-Jones says this is the question that confronts Jacob here: “Is this life you are living worthy of the man God intended and meant you to be?”

How would you answer that question?

What is Your Real Problem?

What does Jacob consider to be his major problem? Esau and his 400 men! So he prays, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother!” And we’ve seen the extraordinary measures Jacob takes to try to avoid losing everything: giving away huge numbers of animals to try to appease him, dividing his people into two camps, hoping at least one camp will survive.

Jacob thinks the problem is Esau

Earlier in his life he had a similar wrong focus:

But now, left alone, stripped of his possessions, stripped of his façade, Jacob finally realizes the nature of the real problem.

Verse 24: “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” We find out this man is God.

Sometimes this picture of Jacob and the man wrestling is misunderstood. Some interpreters have said Jacob is wrestling with God in prayer all night. But that is not what is happening. God comes to Jacob – Jacob doesn’t come to God. And Jacob tries to resist God by his own strength, all night long.

So what is Jacob’s real problem?


·        Not Esau

God is the problem.

But Jacob has not seen this before. He instead has seen God as a means to deal with all these other problems. And, indeed, God has aided Jacob in many ways. But God is not content with acting as a tool to help us fulfill our desires. God must be our all – or He won’t get the glory. So now, at long last, Jacob must deal with God Himself.

So God comes to Jacob, in effect saying: “Now is the time, Jacob: You must deal with ME.”

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, Jacob thinks the main problem is: “How can I be reconciled to Esau?” But the main problem really is, “How can I be reconciled to God?”

What do you see as your problem?

Some personal issue, perhaps?

Or perhaps you see some national issue as your real problem:

Or perhaps you some international issue as the real problem:

These are real problems – just as Esau was a real problem for Jacob.

But the main problem, the fundamental problem for Jacob is not Esau, but God. And the fundamental problem for YOU is none of the above: It is God.

Jesus says in Matthew 10:28: 

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

The Esaus of this world can kill the body. But God is the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. That’s our real problem, that’s our biggest problem. And if we fail to acknowledge that problem, all we do to deal with the other problems in the end is insignificant.

What do You Want Most?

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." Genesis 32:25, 26 ESV

All night long Jacob struggles against God.

All night long he uses his great physical strength to resist God.

All night long he pushes himself so that he might prevail.

And then what does God do? He simply touches his hip - and the contest is over!

Did God have to wait all that time to disable Jacob?

Could God have prevailed at any time?

Of course. All of Jacob’s resisting, all of his struggling, all of his fighting against God made no difference. God disables Jacob. That’s it. Jacob is beaten. He can resist no longer. He’s at the end of all his resources.

So what does he do? He grabs hold of God and won’t let go!

Even though the day has broken and Esau is on the way, Jacob won’t let go of God!

Even though all his family and possessions are on the other side of the stream, even though they are all expecting him to come and prepare them for Esau, Jacob wont’ let go!

Even though this may be the last day of his life, and day is dawning, Jacob won’t let go!

At long last, at long last, Jacob sees that God HIMSELF is the only blessing that counts.

At long last, at long last, Jacob sees that God is not a tool to be used to achieve other objectives – but that God Himself is the objective.

So Jacob holds on to God, saying, “Lord, I want You! I want You above all else! I cling to YOU! I desire YOU!”

This is the nature of saving faith:

Jacob changes at this moment. He no longer wants safety, possessions, wives, or children most of all. Now, He wants God. He clings to God.

What about you?

God had to strip Jacob of his possessions before he would seek God above all else. God had to threaten Jacob’s life before he treasured God. God had to disable Jacob, to get rid of the human strength he was depending on, before he would see God as worth more than all the world had to offer.

Do you want God more than anything else?

What stands in the way of your seeing that God is the greatest treasure?

Who are You - Now?

And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 28 Then he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." Genesis 32:27, 28 ESV

God gives Jacob a new name, a new identity. Jacob has changed fundamentally – and his name will reflect that change. The name Jacob has stood for heel grasper, cheater, supplanter. And that has been an apt name for Jacob until now.

What does “Israel” mean? Here there is some difference of opinion. Most will say it means, “He prevails with God,” because of what God says in verse 28: “You have striven with God and men, and have prevailed.”

But James Montgomery Boice notes that in other names with similar constructions, ALWAYS “God” is the subject of the verb, not the object:

Furthermore, think about Jacob’s life. Has he struggled with men and prevailed?

No! He’s a huge failure!

So Jacob has not prevailed with men. What about with God? Did he prevail with God?

No! God just tapped his thigh – BOOM, contest over.

So the name is more properly translated “God prevails” – not “He prevails with God.”

Why then does God say in verse 28: “You have striven with God and men and have prevailed”?

I agree with Boice that this statement is ironic:

In his battle with God, Jacob suffers a reversal of his fortunes, which is actually his victory. He loses his wrestling match with God; God touches his hip and he is permanently wounded. But in the divine logic, which is beyond our full comprehension, this loss is Jacob’s victory. For at last Jacob surrenders himself. He wins by losing and is now able to go on in new strength as God’s man.

Jacob was striving all his life with men – and lost. He spent all night resisting God – and lost. But as Jacob realizes all this, as he sees the bankruptcy of all his efforts to fight with men and to resist God, he at long last sees that the true treasure is God Himself. And seeing God as his treasure – he, the loser, wins. He has saved his life by losing it. And so this loss is Jacob’s – Israel’s – victory.

And the last image we have of Jacob is seeing him limping forward to meet Esau as the sun is rising. He has lost his great physical power; he has lost all he used to depend on. But now Jacob is a man of God. Jacob is saved. Jacob values God above all else.

A new man. A new creation. No longer then old, deceiving, conniving Jacob. Now Israel – the one who knows that God prevails.


Note the progression in Jacob’s conception of God as he becomes a man of God:

At Bethel 20 years before: He considered God a way to achieve his objectives, so he bargained with God. He considered the vision God gave him an interesting spectacle.

During his first years in Paddam-Aram: Jacob ignored God. He did not express thanks to God, nor did he seek His help.

Upon his departure from Paddam-Aram: He recognized God’s hand on him, and he acknowledges that without God, he would have nothing.

At Penuel, before the encounter with God: Jacob now seeks God’s help in the face of great danger.

At Penuel, after the encounter with God: At long last, Jacob seeks God for Himself – all his other problems pale when he is face to face with God.

Where are you, my friends?

What is your conception of God?

Who are you?

What is your problem?

What do you want more than anything else?

Fundamentally, you, like Jacob, stand alone before God. No one can intervene on your behalf:

Ultimately, you stand before God, alone. He is your problem, not how you will pay the rent or what you need to do to be healthy or what will happen with your job. GOD is the problem.            He’s the one who can cast your body and soul into hell.

And yet – He too is the treasure hidden in the field. We are far better off giving up all that we have in order to know Him.

Jacob learned that lesson: Won’t you?

Won’t you seek your greatest joy – by clinging to Him and to Him alone?

Say to Him, “I will let everything else go, but I will not let you go! I will cling to you, Lord God, through the blood of Jesus Christ! I want you! Make me yours!”

The one who is saved loves God for Who He is.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 9/12/04. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ two sermons on this passage preached in 1947 are outstanding, and helped shape my thoughts. They are found in Old Testament Evangelistic Sermons (Banner of Truth, 1995). Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 2, Genesis 12-36, Baker, 1985, 1998) also were especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The Boice quote is found on page 820.

Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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