A Place Called Face to Face

The consequence of wrestling with the Lord is 1) dominion with God, and 2) dominion with men. Its significance also reveals your most compelling need, which is to be face to face with God.

In Gen. 32 we find Jacob back on track and heading home to Canaan Land, the place of promise for Abraham and Isaac, where the blessing is. He’s been with Uncle Laban for twenty long years. It was big price to pay for taking advantage of his brother Esau, stealing his birthright and blessing. He gets sent to Uncle Laban. During this time Jacob is learning to trust God. Beginning with his first night away from home he encountered God for himself and for the first time, occasioned by a prophetic dream about a ladder reaching to heaven, the angels ascending and descending on it, and God at the top repeating the promise made to Abraham and Isaac, calling Jacob to the same promised land. Over those years this would cause a real struggle for Jacob: will Jacob have Laban’s plan or God’s? Because of the specificity of promise with the coming of descendants, the coming Seed, and its exact location (Canaan) of which God would not negotiate about, Jacob names this place Bethel or House of God. It turns out that the ‘House of God’ is not about a structure of stone. It’s a place and time of revelation from God.

Now the offence of Esau, who has lost both his birthright and his father’s blessing to Jacob, has yet been festering these twenty years. And now Jacob receives news that Esau knows Jacob is passing through and is coming to ‘meet’ him with four hundred men.  In dread of this Jacob divides his people into two groups, and while the sun sets he seeks out a lonely spot to spend the night solo. The full weight of his desperation about Esau, about regrets, is at a critical high. He knows that neither the stolen birthright nor blessing can help him now. Suddenly, to add to this intense moment, out of the darkness, mysteriously, and out of nowhere, a Man suddenly is discerned and advances in the flickering fire light. This is not at all what he wanted to see. He doesn’t say, Can I come in? or Howdy, or Evenin’, or anything. He just violates Jacob’s space and launches himself upon the shocked Jacob, wrestling him to the ground. Jacob has no choice about the matter; he must wrestle. Worth noting is that the Hebrew Text makes clear that the Man is wrestling ‘with him’ (cf. (עִמּוֹ but not ‘against him’ (cf.עַלֹֹּוֹ).

Somehow the match goes on and on through the night. Doesn’t this Guy know when to quit? And Jacob must be totally blown. He now realizes Who he has been grappling with; but with hip out of joint yet hanging on, the match continues. It seems that a life time of shame, despicableness, unbelief, and emptiness must have come crashing down on him.  For a long time Jacob has been a ‘crooked guy’ as his name implies, always grasping at Esau’s heel (cf. Gen. 25:26). But now, at the same time he is also so drawn, even riveted to the glory of his Opponent. . . his Savior! The fear, the honor of wrestling with him!  How can this be happening? And finally he concludes at last: ‘Only the blessing of God can help me now.’ He longs for it like nothing else he’s ever coveted before. And suddenly, as a hint of dawn approaches, the silence is broken. The Wrestler said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh” (v.26). It is precisely at this point that out of Jacob’s mouth issues both a command and an ultimatum to his Man: he answered back, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (v.26).

Here comes the blessing, which just stuns Jacob. “What is thy name? (like he needed to ask?). . . Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (v. 28). For the Heavenly Wrestler to explain the meaning of Israel (יִשְׁרָאֵל) it took six English words to translate one Hebrew word (cf. ַשָׁרִיתָ which comes from the root שָׁרַר ‘he has dominion’.) This new name revealed a destiny for Jacob that no would have thought possible. It also put in motion the same promise for an entire nation called Israel. Question: When did Jacob exercise dominion with God, as his new name said? Answer: He did that when he said to the Lord, ‘I won’t let you go unless you bless me!’ The license to demand this of God streamed from being ‘face to face’ with God while wrestling. Jacob named this place, ‘the face of God’ (פְּנִִיאֵל) “for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (V. 30).  And this is exactly what led to “power with God and with men.”

Conclusions – How do you get the blessing of God? By faith get face to face with him.  The NT components about this are clear. This is what the Cross makes possible. In II Cor. 4:6 we read, “For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Here we have access to his face, and as far as getting into the very presence of God we read that we have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Christ” (Heb. 10:19). And like Jacob, this wrestling, this face to face, this abiding, this communion with Christ makes for dominion. An example of our dominion with God is manifest in the place of prayer where we partner with Him and get real with Him. Our dominion with men is given us in the Great Commission of Matt. 28:19, power to ‘make disciples’. These are examples of our authority or dominion, which are really powered by Christ. As Jacob was told in the last clause of Gen. 32:28, ‘you have been made to prevail’, by the same One who he wrestled with, so Christ makes us to ‘overcome.’ Cf. Rev. 3:5 – “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment.” But God was getting Jacob ready for Esau.

The Heavenly Wrestler is Christ. And you are Jacob. But will you become Israel? Your pressing existentialist issues are not what they seem, that Esau is coming with 400 men to destroy you. The Wrestler comes to change your perspective on your predicament. A greater crisis is upon you. Like: you don’t have the blessing of God upon your life. You’ve cut a deal with Uncle Laban and now you have no peace. You thought you could just waltz into the promised land on your own terms. But, you must desperately lay hold of God, ‘his Kingdom come, his will be done’ – or be overcome and perish. There is no avoiding the Heavenly Wrestler. Note: being face to face with God is an eschatological subject. This means that being before his face is a subject that belongs to the end of the age and the age to come. But Jacob got a foretaste of it ahead of time, which describes the awesome level of communion our Lord has for us. This interaction is what gave Jacob a new name and a new beginning. And he survived it.

But look once more at Jesus the Heavenly Wrestler. He refused to follow Satan’s side show of turning stones into bread or jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. Instead he wrestled with God and eternity to redeem us. At the last supper he wrestled with the fact that he was leaving his disciples. At Gethsemane he wrestled with God to see if there was any other way. On the Cross he wrestled with sin, sickness, and the Devil. He wrestled for you. O to be like that! Will you be face to face with him?

It’s hard to close down this subject, the face of God. David writes, “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15).  He’s talking about perceiving God’s face, and that this inspires understanding in his righteousness. This ‘satisfaction’ or pleasure comes from awaking to realization that you are indeed becoming like God. Character transformation is connected to seeing God’s face. This is exactly what happened to Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel to reflect that transformation. Surprisingly, this is very much like what Paul wrote in II Cor. 3:18 – “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” This ‘beholding’ of the Lord is happening as one gazes into a mirror, to see he’s becoming like Him. Or we could say, as I behold Him, I begin to reflect Him in the mirror and I change to be like him. We do not change to be like Him without seeing Him. This is critical to understand. David when on to write,

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lift up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob” (Ps. 24: 3-6). 

The Prophet is instructing us about who God will receive into his presence: the man who has purity of hands and heart, doesn’t give himself over to empty pursuits, and is a man of his word – that man will receive the blessing of the Lord and the righteousness of God (but notice, not his own righteousness). There is a whole ‘generation’ of people like this, who are on-going through history, brothers and sisters who are specially grouped in their time because of one specific thing that they share: they seek the face of God.  Jacob did just this in Gen. 32 and David made mention of it in Ps. 24:6 and made him the prototype and the first of a generation of those that seek the face of God. 

Finally, David wrote again, “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek” (Ps. 27:8). So important to David was the face of God that he pleads with God ten times in the Psalms, “Hide not thy face from me” (v. 9) and asks six times throughout the Book to “Make thy face to shine upon thy servant” (Ps. 31:16). David is befuddled and confounded without the Face, but is in heaven when he has it. We ‘make due’ so often without any perception of His dynamic presence, the face of the Lord, but remember, it was God that came to Jacob to wrestle face to face with him. This sanctifies to us that God wanted Jacob to know his face and us as readers to know it as well.  

Or skip it. Make the Scriptures a museum piece, appoint the Face to the Bible alone and make it untouchable, that we should not get distracted with the Face, and make it the official position of the thinking and sane people.  Is this how you read the Word? Is this how God wants you to read his Word? Jesus put the equivalent this way in Matt. 6:33: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness”, this in response to all your pressing needs (like Esau coming after you), the same which the Prophets put as ‘seeking God. . . face. . . to. . . face’. Have nothing less.       

Tim Halverson

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