Do you ever feel like you’re just getting beat up and you don’t know why?
Do you ever go to church, at a time like that, just looking for a little blessing?
Do you ever then feel like things didn’t get better, but maybe even worse?”
At times like that, TV preachers make me wonder if I’m even a Christian. But then, I’ll remember that my name is “Israel,” and what I thought was wrong turns out to be the very thing that’s right. “Christian” is a name we gave ourselves (Acts 11:26). Israel is a name that God gave to us (Genesis 32:28). Israel means “Wrestles With God.”
In Genesis 25 we begin to read about Jacob. Jacob was a twin, born second, but grasping his brother’s heal. Jacob means “heal grabber” or “cheat.” Jacob cheated his brother out of his birthright using a bowl of soup. Later he cheated his brother out of his blessing by pretending to be his brother, Esau: the firstborn.
When Esau plots to kill Jacob, Jacob flees to live with his uncle in modern-day Iraq. On the way, God unconditionally promises to bless him with all the blessings of Abraham. Technically, one might say that Jacob is “saved;” but he still needs to do some wrestling.
His uncle cheats him, and he seems to cheat his uncle, as his wives and slave girls cheat each other and give birth to the nation of Israel. After twenty years he flees from his uncle and journeys back to the Promised Land for God promises to bless him and be with him. At the edge of the Promised Land, he receives word that his brother Esau is coming with 400 men, an Army. Jacob devises a plan, and then is left alone in the dark—I suspect that he was having an anxiety-produced, desperation quiet time.
Suddenly—perhaps as he sang the refrain to “In the Garden”—a man jumps him in the dark and they wrestle all night long. And at some point, Jacob realizes that the man is also God. Jacob “endures” and even “prevails,” but it’s rather obvious that this God/man lets him, for as the sun rises, the God/man touches him and dislocates Jacob’s hip. At that point, all that Jacob can do is cling to the God/man and beg him for a blessing. I think that’s what the God/man wanted—a clinging, defeated Jacob.
That’s why I used to take my girlfriend to scary movies, so that she’d cling to me and yearn for me to bless her with my presence. That’s why I used to take my kids camping, and why they loved to go camping—they’d snuggle close to me in the tent as we listened to sounds in the forest; camping exposed their weakness, and I became their strength. I suppose that’s also why they used to love to wrestle.
But sometimes we’d wrestle when they didn’t want to wrestle; we call that, “discipline.” We each wrestle with ourselves: goodwill against bad will. A good parent will help a child wrestle. If a child always gets whatever they think they want, they can no longer want anything that they get, for they render themselves incapable of receiving the one thing that they truly want, and that thing is Love. You can’t take Love, Jacob, you can only receive Love. God is Love. We’re all born ignorant of Love.
“Then he [the God/man] said, ‘your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and have prevailed [or ‘endured’] (Genesis 32:28).”
That’s a pretty good definition of a healthy relationship. All of those whom I love the most are those with whom I’ve wrestled the most; we didn’t flee, didn’t cheat, but hung on and endured.
#1 God wrestles you with circumstances. He’s not evil, but he has arranged for us to encounter evil, and, as Martin Luther said, “Even the devil is God’s devil.” God wrestles you with the circumstances all around you and #2, with his Word spoken into you. And #3, God wrestles you with the God/man.
“Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.” But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So, Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered (Genesis 32:29-30).’”
“No man can see my face and live,” said God to Moses. Jacob must’ve died with the God/Man and risen with the God/man, no longer Jacob, but Israel.
Jacob/Israel then lifts his eyes and sees Esau, who doesn’t kill him but kisses him. And Jacob says, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me (Genesis 33:10).”
Jacob now thinks that Esau looks like the God/man. And we look like Jacob, don’t we? Do you remember why we crucified Jesus? We were jealous. We wanted the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn—“firstborn from the dead” and “firstborn of all creation.”
“Jacob, I loved, but Esau I hated (not ‘hate,’ but ‘hated’),” said God fifteen hundred years later through Malachi. And yet the prophets already revealed that God had also “hated” Jacob (Hosea 9:15, Jeremiah 12:8). According to David God has “hated” all evildoers (Psalm 5:5). Know any? Perhaps it can only be said that God has “hated” you, because he can’t stop loving you, and you are your own worst enemy.
Once in a garden, God wrestled with God, until the God/Man said, “nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.” In the Garden, God descended into Mankind to help Mankind wrestle with himself, that is God . . . and Man, the God/Man. Do you see what hangs on the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden, Garden of Calvary, and Garden on Mt. Zion? It’s the God/Man. Jesus is the God/Man.
And now the story has really gotten trippy: Jesus looks like Esau, and Jesus is in Jacob helping him wrestle, for the blessing now belongs to Jacob and the blessing is the Promised Seed of Abraham who is Jacob’s super great-grandson, Jesus. Jacob is wrestling his own blessing.
Do you realize that God wants to give you the blessing far more than you ever wanted to take the blessing? But you cannot receive the blessing if you’re under the illusion that you have stolen the blessing, earned the blessing, created the blessing, or obtained the blessing by any means other than absolute Grace. God himself is the blessing, and all things are your birthright.
An old fisherman named Giuseppe Pennesi once caught something in his fishing nets that almost sunk his boat. The old fisherman looked over the edge of his fishing trawler to see what it was that he had been wrestling when right next to his boat surfaced the USS Parche—Nuclear Attack Submarine.
Perhaps you’ve prayed a prayer, or gone to church, fishing for a little blessing, and now you’re experiencing some wrestling. Well, God is not a small blessing. Don’t cut bait; Hang on, and praise God for your blessing. You have been predestined to inherit God and all things with him. Your name is “Israel.”