Abraham’s grandson Jacob encountered God in a very unusual manner. It was nighttime. Jacob was alone. Tomorrow he would see his brother Esau for the first time in twenty years. Esau had wanted to kill Jacob when he left home two decades earlier. Had Esau changed his mind?
Then it happened. In a rugged area not far from the Jordan River, some miles north of the Dead Sea, Jacob was attacked. Suddenly a man began wrestling with him. And they wrestled all night.
Neither one could seem to gain the upper hand in this nocturnal wrestling match. So as dawn approached, the man touched Jacob’s hip, which was immediately and permanently disjointed. After a brief conversation, the mysterious man changed Jacob’s name to Israel and then he was gone.
With whom did Jacob wrestle that night? Was it Esau? Was it an angel? As the sun rose and Jacob went limping away, he realized that he had encountered God face-to-face. And he lived to tell about it.
This was not Jacob’s first encounter with God. Twenty years earlier when he left home, God appeared to Jacob in a dream. In the dream, Jacob saw God high and lifted up, standing over a ladder which reached from heaven to earth. But now God comes to Jacob as a man, wrestling. Why?
Jacob could stand in awe when God stayed in heaven overseeing that ladder with angels ascending and descending on it. He could be amazed and astonished at God, but Jacob could not relate closely to such transcendence. God-in-flesh, however, was easier for Jacob to understand, to get his hands on, to draw close and relate.
Jacob’s encounter with God was a foreshadowing of Bethlehem. More than a thousand years after Jacob’s wrestling match, God’s Son Jesus stepped down from the throne in heaven and took on the very nature of a man, God-in-flesh. In Jesus Christ, God condescended.
But if the man who wrestled Jacob was God-in-flesh, then why could he not instantly overcome Jacob? Why did he prolong the contest? Because God did not step down from heaven and wrestle Jacob in order to destroy him. God came to mold Jacob and to build him up. God fought Jacob so Jacob could have the victory.
A similar question occurs when Jesus becomes God-in-flesh. How could he die on the cross at Calvary? Can God really die? Yes, Jesus can die and he did, so that we can be saved from sin and have eternal life. God became like us so that we can become like him. This is the mystery of God among us.
Jacob had no way of knowing that his wrestling match that night in the dark east of the Jordan River anticipated the momentous day when the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). Jacob’s encounter with God was a hint of Christmas future.
Jacob’s pre-Christmas encounter with God-in-flesh left him a changed man. Not such a silent night, but it was surely a holy night. He had a new name and a new walk. Our encounter with the God-Man Jesus has also changed us forever. We have a new identity and a new life. Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Praise God that he is with us and for us,
Brother Richard Foster