Jacob's Search for Acceptance
Passage: Genesis 32:1– 33:20
How do we find acceptance with God?
Have you ever seen a dog that did something wrong and it knows it did something wrong? You walk in the door and from the entry way you can see pillow stuffing all over the the living room. You gasp and as you turn the corner into the living room you see your dog sitting there with its tail tucked, ears back, hanging its head and slightly looking up at you with those sad, guilty eyes. The dog knows it did something wrong and now it has to answer for it.
We don’t always wear our emotions on our sleeves like dogs, but often have the same reaction going on inside of us. Have you ever done something wrong at work and dreaded seeing your boss walk into the office? Have you ever done something wrong at school and were struck with fear at hearing your name over the loudspeaker summoning you to the principal’s office? Have you ever hurt someone and your stomach was all in knots when it came time to see them again?
Let’s explore this question together. When you have wronged someone, what do you expect them to do when you see them again? In all those situations we just talked about, why are we filled with fear, dread, and anxiety? (right side of image)
This evening we are continuing our series called Beginning the Journey Home in the book of Genesis. For several chapters now, we have been following the life of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Just like Abraham, Jacob is on a journey of learning to surrender his life to God.
Jacob is a man who has done a lot of wrong in his life. In our passage today, he is on his return trip from a 20 year stay with his uncle. Why did he have to stay with his uncle? Because back home his brother wanted to kill him for the wrong Jacob had done to him. Jacob cheated him of both his birthright and his blessing, deceiving and tricking his father to do so. Jacob systematically worked to take away everything Esau had that he wanted. No wonder Esau wants to kill him.
But now as he returns home, Jacob knows he has to deal with the damage he did 20 years ago. In this story, we see Jacob at his most vulnerable. He knows he has done wrong to Esau and now he isn’t sure what Esau will do when they see each other again. As he tries to make things right with Esau, he learns an important lesson about acceptance.
The big question this passage answers is: How do we find acceptance with God? How do we find acceptance with God?
Let’s recap what we already read in chapter 32.
Jacob’s Desire for Acceptance (Genesis 32:1-21)
These verses show us Jacob’s deep desire for acceptance. For most of his life, Jacob has been able to handle almost everything thrown at him. He is a schemer. He makes plans and executes them to get what he wants. But in this passage, he is at the end of his resources. Even doing everything he knows that he can do, he still feels that it falls short. Jacob has met a problem he can’t fix.
His problem is his brother Esau. Before crossing into Canaan, Jacob pauses to make contact with Esau. Esau lives east of Canaan and south of where Jacob needed to travel to get home but he goes out of his way to reach out to Esau. Perhaps the old, selfish Jacob is beginning to melt away to a more loving Jacob.
Jacob sends messengers to Esau with these instructions:
“Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’” (Genesis 32:4-5)
Jacob desires to find favor in Esau’s sight. He humbles himself before Esau, calling Esau his lord and calling himself Esau’s servant. His whole life he has tried to get above Esau but now he humbles himself before him.
The messengers come back and report: “We delivered the message. Esau is coming with 400 men.” Jacob’s eyes grow wide and a pit forms in his stomach. We are told he was greatly afraid and distressed because he thinks Esau might be coming to attack him. He divides his people into two camps thinking that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. But for once, he looks to someone beside himself. He is doubtful of his own ability to get him out of this mess so he turns to God in prayer. Jacob saw angels as he left Canaan and those angels he saw as he returned remind him that God is with him so he reaches out to God. Let’s reread that prayer in verses 9 through 12:
9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” (Genesis 32:9-12)
Jacob prays God’s words back to him. He prays according to God’s will. God has told him to return to his country and has promised to do him good, bless him, and multiply his family. Afraid of Esau wiping out his family, Jacob prays according to God’s promises for deliverance from Esau. At the same time, he recognizes that he is not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and faithfulness God has shown him. Our best prayers come when we pray according to what we know to be true about God and desire his will not our own.
After his prayer for God to act, Jacob acts too. He puts together a gift for Esau and he presents it to impress. He sends his servants with animals for Esau in several waves so that as Esau comes, he meets wave after wave of livestock and with each one asks, “What’s this” to which the servants respond, “They are a gift from Jacob for you.” Verse 20 tells us why he does this:
For he 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 knows he has done wrong to Esau and that Esau has every reason to be mad. Jacob is afraid Esau is going to kill him when they see each other face to face. This gift to Esau is a repayment for what he has stolen. His desire is that Esau accept him because this gift appeases him.
This could be taken as a lack of trust in God. He asked God to deliver him from Esau but now he is taking matters into his own hands. Another way to look at it is Jacob doing what he is responsible for to make a good apology while also trusting in God. If you have hurt someone, you don’t just ask God to make them forgive you. You still need to go to them and apologize.
As Jacob waits to see Esau’s face and hopes he will be accepted, he sees someone else face to face.
Jacob Experiences Acceptance from God (Genesis 32:22-32)
Restless in the night, Jacob takes his family across the Jabbok River then crosses back to the other side for the night. Sitting in the dark, fearful, distressed, and alone, a mysterious man begins wrestling with Jacob. They wrestle until the sun is about to come up. Let’s pick up the story in verse 25:
25 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.” 27 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.” 29 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. (Genesis 32:25-29)
At the beginning of this encounter, Jacob does not know who the man is. But by the end, he knows he has wrestled with God himself. Under the cover of night so Jacob can’t see him, God comes to Jacob in physical form. I kept asking myself, “Why? Why is this nighttime wrestling match the way God chose to reveal himself here?” So far in Genesis, God has used dreams, visions, and angels to reveal himself, but why in this way at this time in Jacob’s life?
Throughout his whole life, Jacob has been wrestling with everyone around him to become blessed: with his brother, with his dad, with his uncle Laban. But now he sees that the one with whom he has been wrestling this whole time has been God.
In this night wrestling, Jacob is unwilling to yield just like he has been unwilling to yield to God throughout his life. He has been unwilling to depend on God, to trust God, to fear him above all else, to surrender to him. But in this moment against an opponent who can so easily subdue him by putting his hip out of joint, Jacob realizes he is not the source of blessing in his life: God is the source. He holds onto God until he will bless him. Just like he sees that he is at the mercy of Esau, calling him his lord and calling himself Esau’s servant, he sees that he is at the mercy of God.
The blessing of this encounter is the name change. God says, “You will no longer be called Jacob. You will be called Israel.” Jacob came out of the womb grasping his brother’s heel and that is why he was given this name. But the other meaning of it is “he cheats” and Esau says Jacob is rightly named that because he is a cheater. Jacob the cheater, the liar, the deceiver, who will hurt anyone to get what he wants.
But now he will be “Israel.” There is little clarity about the exact meaning of the name Israel but what is clear is why God gives it to him: because you have striven with God and with men, and prevailed. At first glance, the name seems to imply that Jacob has bested God and men. Jacob has fought with God and beat God. But that is not at all the case. Look at what he names the place in verse 30:
30 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.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:30-32)
“Peniel” means “face of God” and he names it that because he saw God face to face and yet his life was delivered. In other words, he should be dead and yet he is not. Every person is unworthy of seeing God face to face and Jacob is totally aware of how unworthy he is as expressed in his prayer but somehow beyond his explanation he has seen God face to face and yet God delivered him.
Jacob walks away from this wrestling match with a limp, but alive. But why? Is it because he bested God? Is it because he outwitted God? Is it because he is stronger than God? No, it’s because God allowed him to. Why does Jacob prevail when he wrestles God or men? It’s because God has let him, God is on his side, God is with him and for him. His name change would forever remind him of this experience where he realized that his whole life he thought he was wrestling with other people for blessing but the only one he was wrestling with was God. And since God can take out his hip with a touch and since he deserves death in his sight, God must be the source of the blessing and not Jacob’s schemes or strength.
With this, we focus back on Esau.
Jacob Experiences Acceptance from Esau (Genesis 33:1-20)
No sooner than this wrestling match ends, Jacob lifts up his eyes and sees Esau approaching in the early morning light. He divides up his children with their mothers and he himself stands at the front. He walks toward Esau, bowing to the ground seven times as he does so and when they come nearly face to face, Esau surprises him.
Remember what we talked about at the beginning When we have wronged someone, what do we expect them to do when we see them again? Jacob expected Esau to be mad and possibly even attack him and his family and kill them. What does Esau do instead? Look at verse 4 of chapter 33:
4 But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)
How do you think this reaction made Jacob feel? (left side of image)
After their embrace, you can see a fresh perspective from Jacob. Esau looks at Jacob’s four wives, eleven sons, and one daughter and asks, “Who are these?” Jacob says, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then they each bowed before Esau.
Next Esau asks about the waves of gifts Jacob sent. Let’s pick up their conversation in verse 8.
8 Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” 9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 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. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it. (Genesis 33:8-11)
Jacob wanted to find favor in Esau’s sight. He wanted to be accepted by Esau even though he should be dead when he sees him. But Esau doesn’t need anything Jacob sent. But Jacob insists on him taking the present, only now it is because he has found favor in Esau’s sight and because Esau has accepted him. Instead of the reason for acceptance, his present is now a response to it.
The big question this passage answers is: How do we find acceptance with God?
Acceptance in this passage is deliverance from death. Jacob has done wrong after wrong. He has committed sin after sin. He has lived selfishly for his own desires. He has not loved God or other people. He stands before God and Esau unworthy of acceptance and deserving death.
Jacob should be dead from seeing God and yet he is delivered. When Esau accepts him, Jacob says it is like seeing the face of God because Esau has accepted him. Jacob should be dead from seeing Esau and yet he is delivered. So here are two truths about acceptance from this passage: 1) We deserve death in God’s sight because of our sin; 2) God needs nothing from us. Just like Esau needs nothing from Jacob, God needs nothing from us. In fact, everything we have is from him anyway.
The price of acceptance is higher than we could ever afford and we need it from someone who needs nothing from us. So how do we find acceptance with God? Here’s the answer: Acceptance with God is a gift from God paid for by God. Acceptance with God is a gift from God paid for by God.
We deserve death but God pays for us to live and see him face to face. He pays for it by dying in our place. Jesus, the Son of God, became a human to die the death we deserve in God’s presence in our place. He was our substitute. When we trust in Jesus as our King to save us from the death we deserve, we are accepted in God’s presence. It’s a gift received by faith, paid for by God.
Remember this truth today: God is the source of your acceptance with him. God is the source of your acceptance with him. If you trust in Jesus, God fully accepts you not because of anything you have done but because of all he has done to make it possible. We are not the source of any of it. There is nothing in us that makes God have to accept us or want to accept us. It all comes from him.
Perhaps the word “acceptance” doesn’t do much for you because you don’t really know what that means. We need to know what acceptance looks like and feels like from God. The reality is that we have all done wrong and we know we have done wrong. God sums up what he wants from us in just two commands. Just two. We just have to do two things if we want to be the source of our acceptance with him.
First, love him with our whole heart, mind, and strength. In other words, make him the center of your life. Make his desires your desires. Make his the most important, the top of the priority list. But we all fail to do that. More often than not, we are the center of our lives, living for our desires, and arranging our priorities according to what we want.
The second command is to love our neighbor as ourselves. In other words, treat others as we would want to be treated. I’m sure each of us and most everyone we meet would say this is a good life policy. The only problem is that while some of us may do this sometimes, none of us does it all of the time. And even when we do it, we will get frustrated when the other person doesn’t respond in the way we wanted them to when we treated them like we would treat ourselves.
We can’t even keep two commands. So what hope do we have of acceptance with God if we are the source of it? We have done wrong, we know we have done wrong, and what’s worse is that God knows ALL of the wrongs we have done including the ones we have forgotten about and the ones we wish we could forget about. God knows all of them. So when we see God, what should we expect from it? Probably what we wrote up on the whiteboard.
And yet, if you have trusted in Jesus as the source of your acceptance with God, he treats us like Esau treated Jacob. He runs to meet us, embraces us, and pours affection on us. We are unworthy of it. We don’t deserve it. We could never earn it. And yet we stand surprised and in awe of what God gives to us. That’s grace. Grace means undeserved favor. Grace means God is the source of our acceptance with him.
This is the wonder of grace: God has every reason to condemn you and reject you and yet he runs to meet you, embraces you, and drowns you with affection. The wonder of grace is that God should be offended, grieved, and outraged by your sin and yet he treats you as if you never did it. Not because he doesn’t care that you sinned, but because he paid for your acceptance out of his own pocket. The wonder of grace is that there is nothing loveable about you and yet God cannot love you any more than he does right now.
The problem is that we so often try to make ourselves the source of acceptance with God. One way is by focusing on the goodness of what we do. We offer our good deeds as the payment for acceptance. But what you have done will never be enough and it’s even worse than that. What you have done to earn God’s acceptance is only further proof of your desire to live independent and apart from him which is what got us into this mess in this first places. God says, “Trust in me. Depend on me. Rely on me. Rest in me.” But we say, “No thanks, I’ll do it myself.” When we try to pay for our acceptance with God through our good deeds, we are only digging the hole deeper.
The second way we try to make ourselves the source of acceptance with God is by focusing on the goodness of who we are. We are good just the way we are so we expect God to accept how we are. We say or hope that God will “Accept me for who I am.” In our minds, we don’t need to change and if God can’t accept us the way we are then he must not be loving.
The rest of Genesis chapter 33 describes what Jacob does after this moment with Esau. Esau invites Jacob to come to his place but Jacob says, “No, we can’t because the animals and kids are tired and will faint on the way. I’ll meet you there.” Then Esau says, “Ok, I’ll have some of my men stay with you for protection.” Jacob says, “No, it’s ok, we are good. You go on ahead.” So Esau leaves, but when Jacob leaves he doesn’t head toward Esau’s home. He goes west instead of south. What’s the deal?
Jacob shows us that it is hard to live in light of our acceptance. Esau just embraced Jacob and treated him as if he never did anything wrong and yet Jacob still doesn’t trust Esau. He still doesn’t place his faith and trust in Esau. He’s unsure about doing as Esau says. We can do the same thing with God. Even though we hear that we have been saved, forgiven, accepted, and are embraced in love, we can fail to fully trust God and follow him.
Write on your bulletin a list of good things you do. Over the top of it write: this is not the source of my acceptance. No matter how big or how small, that is not the source.
Write on your bulletin a list of wrongs things you have done this past week, this past month, over the course of your life. Over the top of it write: God does not love me less because of this.
God cannot love you any more than he does right now and he’s proven it! Whatever you have done to him, he already knows it and has paid for it. God never gasps in surprise when he sees our sin.
These characters in Genesis need to look to God as the source of blessing and acceptance. God wants to bless them to be a blessing, but until they are able to put their focus on God as the one who blesses and graciously and generously gives, they cannot be a blessing to the world. Until they are willing to see God as the source of blessing, love, and acceptance, they cannot be a channel of blessing from that source to the world.