A Theology of the Sabbath (2): John Owen on the Sabbath Command in the Covenant of Works

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

All quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980.

For a summary of Owen’s argument, see HERE. For part 1 of this series of posts (Owen on the Moral and Mosaical elements of the fourth commandment), see HERE. For part 3 (Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and its Mosaical Elements) HERE. For part 4 (on the New Covenant Sabbath) see HERE.

Owen contends that the fourth commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,’ is rooted in the original creative work (six days) and rest (one day) of God. The ‘rest’ of God on the seventh day is not primarily a cessation of activity, according to Owen, but instead marks the satisfaction of God that his works were indeed “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God was completely satisfied with his work:

God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands…(p. 266, emphasis added).

He later clarifies this interpretation:

And the expression of God’s rest is of a moral and not a natural signification; for it consists in the satisfaction and complacency that he took in his works, as effects of his goodness, power, and wisdom, disposed in the order and unto the ends mentioned. Hence, as it is said that upon the finishing of them, he looked on “every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” Gen 1:31, —that is, he was satisfied in his works and their disposal, and pronounced concerning them that they became his infinite wisdom and power; so it is added that he not only “ rested on the seventh day,” but also that he was “refreshed,” Exodus 31:17, —that is, be took great complacency in what he had done, as that which was suited unto the end aimed at namely, the expression of his greatness, goodness, and wisdom, unto his rational creatures, and his glory through their obedience thereon, as on the like occasion he is said to “rest in his love,” and to “rejoice with singing,” Zeph. 3:17 (p. 334).

In light of God’s action in creating the world, and his satisfaction with his creation, which is called his ‘rest,’ God mandates the observance of a sabbath for all mankind, in Adam, as a part of his original Covenant of Works. The Westminster Confession (which shares much in common with Owen’s teaching), describes the Covenant of Works in this way:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (7.2).

Owen writes,

God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands, so to be a day of rest and composure to themselves, and a means of their entrance into and enjoyment of that rest with himself, here and forever, which had ordained for them (p. 266, emphasis added).

Later, he puts it this way:

For the Sabbath was originally a moral pledge and expression of God’s covenant rest, and of our rest in God…(p. 390).

The sabbath command, in relation to the Covenant of Works, entails the principle that through his continued obedience, in his perfect state, he was, after a time, to enter into the perfect blessing and rest of God (shabbat, shalom):

Thirdly, Man is to be considered with special respect unto that covenant under which he was created, which was a covenant of works; for herein rest with God was proposed unto him as the end or reward of his own works, or of his personal obedience unto God, by absolute strict righteousness and holiness. And the peculiar form of this covenant, as relating unto the way of God’s entering into it upon the finishing of his own works, designed the seventh day from the beginning of the creation to be the day precisely for the observation of a holy rest (p. 338, emphasis added).

And again,

…Whereas the covenant which man originally was taken into was a covenant of works, wherein his obtaining rest with God depended absolutely on his doing all the work he had to do in a way of legal obedience, he was during the dispensation of that covenant tied up precisely to the observation of the seventh day, or that which followed the whole work of creation. And the seventh day, as such, is a pledge and token of the rest promised in the covenant of works, and no other…(p. 345, emphasis added).

And then,

Hence did he learn the nature of the covenant that he was taken into, namely, how he was first to work in obedience, and then to enter into God’s rest in blessedness; for so had God appointed, and so did he understand his will, from his own present state and condition. Hence was he instructed to dedicate to God, and to his own more immediate communion with him, one day in a weekly revolution, wherein the whole law of his creation was consummated, as a pledge and means of entering eternally into God’s rest, which from hence he understood to be his end and happiness (p. 346, emphasis added).

As such, the sabbath in the Covenant of Works has a threefold purpose:

First, That we might learn the satisfaction and complacency that God hath in his own works…And our observation of the evangelical Sabbath hath the same respect unto the works of Christ and his rest thereon, when he saw of the travail of his soul and was satisfied…Secondly, Another end of the original sabbatical rest was, that it might be a pledge unto man of his rest in and with God; for in and by the law of his creation, man had an end of rest proposed unto him, and that in God…Thirdly, Consideration was had of the way and means whereby man might enter into the rest of God proposed unto him. And this was by that obedience and worship of God which the covenant wherein he was created required of him (pp. 335-336).

It is vital that the presence of the sabbath command in the Covenant of Works be understood for at least three reasons: 1) it grounds the command primarily in the principle of God’s rest apart from specific applications made to the Israelites in the Mosaic covenant, 2) as such, it establishes the primary intention of the sabbath as a pledge and picture of God’s offer of rest and satisfaction and blessedness in him, and 3) it sets the ground for Christ’s work of re-creation which is the basis for the transfer of the day of rest from the last day of the week to the first in order point to the rest that may be found in him as Lord of the Sabbath.

In the next post, we will deal with Owen’s argument for Christ’s fulfillment of the sabbath as a principle of the Covenant of Works, of his fulfillment of the Mosaical (ceremonial/civil) elements of the fourth commandment in principle. From there we will take up Owen’s argument that, having fulfilled those elements of the Covenant of Works and Mosaic Law, Christ, entering into the rest of God, establishes a new sabbath for his people. These points will be vital 1) for a proper understanding of what is offered to us in the gospel, 2) for a proper understanding of the purpose of the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, and 3) in light of those points, for guarding us against keeping ourselves under the sanctions of the Covenant of Works. As Owen puts it:

And those who would advance that [the seventh] day again into a necessary observation do consequentially introduce the whole covenant of works, and are become debtors unto the whole law; for the. works of God which preceded the seventh day precisely were those whereby man was initiated into and instructed in the covenant of works, and the day itself was a token and pledge of the righteousness thereof, or a moral and natural sign of it, and of the rest of God therein, and the rest of man with God thereby (pp. 345-346).

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Death and Resurrection: The Story of God and Man in a Garden

After God created Man, He placed him in a garden in a placed called Eden (literally, Paradise or Delight). There God communed with Adam, promising him life for obedience and death for disobedience to his commands. After the Fall, Genesis records,

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden (3:8).

There is debate about whether or not the English phrase ‘cool of the day’ is a proper translation. Some scholars have argued that the phrase should actually be rendered, ‘And they heard the sound of the Lord God in the garden in the wind of the storm…’ That’s quite different from ‘in the cool of the day.’ You can read about the translation issues HERE. If the phrase, ‘in the wind of the storm’ is accurate, it only serves to emphasize the judgement that was impending for Adam and Eve.

That judgement included the several curses listed in Genesis 3, along with expulsion from the garden:

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (3:24).

From the flaming sword of Genesis 3, thousands of years, and the entire Old Testament, pass before God is seen again walking with man in the garden. That brings us to John’s Gospel and Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples (John 18:1-2).

Jesus Christ, the man who is God, met with his disciples in a garden called Gethsemane; it was there that he wrestled with God over the judgment that was to be poured out upon him at the cross. It was there that he sweat, as it were, drops of blood for the sake of sinners:

For me it was in the garden he prayed, ‘Not my will but thine.’
He had no tears for his own grief, but sweat drops of blood for mine.

That wasn’t the last we would see of God in a garden. Somewhere near Golgotha he was laid to rest in a garden tomb:

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there (John 19:41-42).

And because he was laid to rest in a garden, he was resurrected in a garden. In fact, the first eyewitness of the resurrection, Mary, mistook him to be a gardener:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

She mistook him for the gardener of that particular place at that particular time, but we make no mistake in realizing that he is the great Gardener. His resurrection opens the doors to paradise for all those who rest and trust in him as he is offered in the gospel. G.K. Chesterton comments on this passage:

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but of the dawn (The Everlasting Man, p. 214).

The resurrection begins the new creation, and each of us who trust in that resurrection are already a part of it, awaiting its ultimate consummation. John’s Revelation points to the consummation of the new creation in a city; but assuredly it will be a garden-city, for in it is Eden’s Tree of Life:

…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).

From one angle, the Bible is the story of Paradise, Paradise lost, Paradise regained, and Paradise restored. And it tells us that in order for that restoration to happen, man has to pass through the flaming sword of God’s judgment (Gen. 3:24). Beginning with Gethsemane, to the cross, Jesus did precisely that. Adam forfeited his life in the garden when he ate the forbidden fruit, Jesus gained it back for us when he took the foreboding cup of God’s wrath. Adam betrayed God in a garden, Jesus was betrayed by Judas in a garden (for the sake of the children of Adam). Then he was buried in a garden to rise in a garden that he might open the doors of paradise for all who would trust in him.

Everyone desires paradise. Eden is programmed into our system. Whether it’s a snow-capped mountain, a warm beach, a cabin on the lake, or a rock concert, we all want it, and we all know that it is lost. We may have glimpses from time to time, but we can never lay hold of it. Jesus in the garden of resurrection assures us that when the Christian thinks about paradise, it is not simply a tragedy of the past, lost and almost forgotten; rather it is our hope for the future.

In Order to Wrestle You Must Embrace

If you’ve ever watched a wrestling match, you’ve seen that the very nature of the sport is grappling. The competitors hod, twist, pin, and muscle each other around until one of them gives. They are forced to embrace each other in order to wrestle.

– Anonymous, Embracing Obscurity, p. 86.

I had a long post on this quote planned, but I can’t quite wrap my head around all of the implications at this point. Hence what follows is a hodgepodge of semi-related thoughts.

As I read this passage, I initially thought of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism and Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. They both stressed the need to get out of the way and let a book have its way with you. Lewis called this ‘receiving’ a narrative. Embrace the narrative before you begin to judge it. If you cannot sympathize with a story in some way you do not truly understand it. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:

When the Professor is told by the Polynesian that once there was nothing except a great feathered serpent, unless the learned man feels a thrill and a half temptation to wish it were true, he is no judge of such things at all (The Everlasting Man, p. 101).

I also thought of Jacob’s wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 32. Jacob was in some ways forced into this match to be sure. But as he embraced the struggle, he had to make a commitment to hang on. It was through that commitment that the event became a wrestling match rather that a mere beat-down. One must commit before the true wrestling begins.

This line of thinking picks up on clear lines of thought as old as Augustine and Anselm:

As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo).

Another line of thought related to this quote is covenantal: commitment comes before intimacy.

Light Before Sun, Idea Before Incarnation

In an essay on Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton picks up an interesting line of thought. He notes the fact that the Book of Genesis records the creation of light occurring before the creation of the sun (Gen. 1:3-19).

To many modern people it would sound like saying that foliage existed before the first leaf; it would sound like saying that childhood existed before a baby was born. The idea is, as I have said, alien to most modern thought, and like so many other ideas which are alien to most modern thought, it is a very subtle and very sound idea.

Chesterton then delivers this sound meditation on the creation narrative:

Whatever be the meaning of the passage in the actual primeval poem, there is a very real metaphysical meaning in the idea that light existed before the sun and stars. It is not barbaric; it is rather Platonic. The idea existed before any of the machinery which made manifest the idea. Justice existed when there was no need of judges, and mercy existed before any man was oppressed.

Like Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, he relates the idea to literature:

The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as a mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book or before even the details or main features of the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic rapture. He wishes to write a comic story before he has thought of a single comic incident. He desires to write a sad story before he has thought of anything sad. He knows the atmosphere before he knows anything. There is a low priggish maxim sometimes uttered by men so frivolous as to take humour seriously – a maxim that a man should not laugh at his own jokes. But the great artist not only laughs at his own jokes; he laughs at his own jokes before he has made them.

He continues,

The last page comes before the first; before his romance has begun, he knows that it has ended well. He sees the wedding before the wooing; he sees the death before the dual. But most of all he sees the colour and character of the whole story prior to any possible events in it.

(G.K. Chesterton on The Pickwick Papers, from In Defense of Sanity, pp. 127-128)

I do not know if there is a better illustration for the foreknowledge of God than the mind of the writer, the mind of the maker. I saw an interview with J.K. Rowling a while back in which she discussed how she first created the Harry Potter character. As she rode in a train, he essentially just appeared in her imagination, and she knew his destiny right away. C.S. Lewis wrote of his recurring vision of a fawn with an umbrella carrying parcels in the snow. They knew their own characters before they ever set pen to paper. God did too.

  • For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…(Rom. 8:29).

Or as one translation puts it:

  • For those on whom he set his heart beforehand, he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.

The Sinner’s Bones

[The humble man] sees that sin is so bred in the bone, that till his bones, as Joseph’s, be carried out of the Egypt of this world, it will not out.

-Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, from Works vol. 3, p. 28.

Sin is so deep that until our bones be brought out of the grave and into the Promised Land they will never truly have rest. We’ll go to the grave in this world, but we will not be content to let our bones remain there. And we must have a greater Joshua (Joshua 24:32) to finish that work and plant us where we belong.

  • By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones (Hebrews 11:22).

Except Your Brother Be With You

An humble soul knows that since he broke with God in innocency, God will trust him no more, he will take his word no more; and therefore when he goes to God for mercy, he brings Benjamin, his Jesus, in his arms, and pleads for mercy upon the account of Jesus.

-Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ from Works vol. 3, p. 20.

  • And Judah spake unto him, saying, The man did solemnly protest unto us, saying, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you (Genesis 43:3).

As the brothers of Joseph could not come before him without Benjamin, so we will not come before the Father without Jesus as our Brother.

Myths About the Bible: Noah was Mocked?: The Fight Against Apathy

I’ve seen someone mention it in a Facebook post. I’ve heard more than one famous preacher pound the point:

‘There was Noah, in faith, building the ark. The world was mocking, “What are you doing Noah? You’re crazy Noah!” Noah was being ridiculed and laughed at, but he just kept on building.’

The problem is that you won’t find this anywhere in the Bible – not a whiff. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Noah was mocked.

I remember several years ago, after hearing a very famous preacher hammering away about Noah being mocked and relating it to persecution, and how everyone who obeys God will be mocked, I got out of my car, went straight into the house, pulled up BibleWorks, and did an exhaustive word search on ‘Noah.’ I couldn’t find one mention of him being mocked. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover many times since then and still haven’t found it.

In fact, if you consider Jesus’ words about Noah, this was likely not the case at all:

  • Matthew 24:37 As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

The fact of the matter is that the people of Noah’s day didn’t realize what was happening. They were too busy with other things to really care even if they did. That’s the point of Christ’s words. And so it goes with the ungodly. They continue not to care.

Now there are those who are mocking God’s people to be sure. But the fact that they were not mocking in the days of Noah should be an encouragement to us in some sense. As a preacher, this is encouraging. There was Noah, setting Christ before the world in the form of a type or shadow in the ark. And the world was indifferent. Preachers learn quickly that it is apathy, rather than ridicule, that gets to you. You can fight ridicule. It is hard to fight apathy. Indifference is one of our great enemies, and it has always been this way.

  • Hebrews 11:7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

If we are to get a ‘moral’ from Noah, it is that we must persevere through apathy. Will we be mocked as Christians? I don’t doubt it. But more often people just won’t care. We must stand, even if we stand alone and no one cares, or even notices, that we are standing. God cares, and that is what matters. The world doesn’t care if we are becoming heirs of the righteousness that comes through faith. Yet we stand forgiven.

Some Reflections on Halloween – I am what I am

I’ll be the first to admit that Halloween bothers me. Frankly, I don’t see anything positive about it. Yet I try not to be smug about it, especially when talking to my children. I’ve been in the presence of such anti-Halloween smugness and I don’t like it. Some said to me recently that my talking about the anniversary of the Reformation (which began on October 31, 1517) offended him.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because I’m an atheist,’ answered the offended party.

I could have gone on to defend myself. I wasn’t really talking about God, per se. I was only talking about Martin Luther. Is the name Martin Luther a great offense? But I didn’t defend myself. I went on the offensive instead.

I replied, ‘I don’t particularly care for Halloween, but I’m not offended by the fact that your a grown man who wants to dress up like a little kid.’

You see, I’m not offended by Halloween. I get it. I understand. But therein lies the problem.

In the book of Genesis, we read the story of Jacob conniving his father Isaac into giving him a solemn, patriarchal blessing that Isaac fully intended to give to Jacob’s brother Esau. In order to gain this blessing, Jacob proceeded to put on a costume. He dressed as his older brother in order to deceive his nearly blind father.

Isaac asked, ‘Who are you, my son?’ To which Jacob replied, ‘I am Esau, your firstborn’ (Gen. 27:18-19).

Years later, Jacob had an encounter with another man from whom he wanted to receive blessing. But this man was of a different sort. In some sense he was no man at all, though he appeared in the form of man. After Jacob came to recognize this man he would say that he was none other than God in the flesh (Gen. 32:30).

Jacob wanted this man, who was God, to bless him. He wanted what he had had to trick his father into giving him. He was so desperate for this blessing that he wrestled with it until his hip was disjointed, still refusing to tap out.

‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ Jacob said. And the man, who was God, asked him a familiar question: ‘What is your name?’ (Gen. 32:27).

What was Jacob’s answer? Would he continue his lies? No, this time he would own up: ‘I am Jacob,’ he said. And from that moment on he would be called Israel (v. 28). Jacob, in finally owning up to who he was, was becoming a new man. That’s what an encounter with Jesus Christ does to you – it causes you to finally own up, and then transforms you.

Halloween is the primary day in the year when our need to put on costumes and play the part is most clearly expressed. We do it every day of our lives. On Halloween we pretend to be a cartoon character to get candy. Other days we pretend to be sensitive and kind so we can get the girl. On Halloween we pretend to be a witch to scare our little brother. Other days we put on an angry face so that our employees will fear us. On Halloween we put on a clown face to get a laugh. The rest of the week we act like a clown so people will think we’re funny. On Halloween we put on a princess costume to say trick or treat. Other days we try to look like princesses so that a handsome prince might notice us.

The Bible teaches that man has an innate propensity to put on airs and play-act, that man is like a wax nose that will become whatever he feels he needs to be in order to be blessed. And Halloween is just one living parable, one striking illustration of this phenomenon.

I understand that for many Halloween is just ‘innocent’ fun, but let the example of Jacob hit home – you will never enter the Kingdom of God if you cannot own up to who you are. Our culture is full of people who are constantly trying to play the part – to dress like the latest fashion icon, to sound like the latest pop star, to be the type of person who is accepted by those whom we deem praiseworthy. Perhaps we should spend Halloween dressed as ourselves. That’s scary enough.

Can you see who you are? Better yet, can you accept it? Can you say to God, ‘Here I am Lord, warts and all’? Can you say, ‘I know my sin, it is ever before me’? If you can, then you’re not far from the Kingdom. You’re not far from being able to say with the Apostle, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’ (1 Cor. 15:10).

You feel the innate, and powerful, need to cover up your nakedness. But why? Is it because God’s grace is not sufficient? Is it because Jesus’ love, and Jesus’ atoning work, is too weak? Jesus’ death was horrific because he was dying for horrific people. Does that offend you? The cross is a stumbling block because we are prideful.

If you can’t understand why Jesus had to die such a horrific death it is because you have not owned up to who you are. Maybe it’s time to stop playing dress up.

Or perhaps if we’re not dressing up today we’re spending our night being scared to death by horror movies. Something in us makes it enjoyable to see villainous, hateful, superhuman monsters and vengeance, slaughter, hellfire and brimstone. We like it because it’s not us on the receiving end. It’s always the other guy that gets his head chopped off.

The Bible tells such a horror story in one sense. Doom is impending. The winnowing fork is in hand. But it is no monster who holds it. It is God Almighty the righteous:

Psalm 7:12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; 13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.

The good news is that the other Guy – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, stands in our place and takes to arrow shot for us. That’s what should exhilarate us! And it’s no movie. It is a living drama that we get to be a part of. If we have eyes to see.

But you’ll never see if you don’t own up to your part in the story. You’re the villain, because you put him on that cross by your sins. You want to be the hero. That’s why you dress up like Superman. But you’re not.

The only outfit you need is Christ’s robes of righteousness. Admit who you are, in the presence of Christ, and see if he doesn’t transform you into a new person. He took the shot so that you could become a new person, made over in him image. ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’ – in Christ.

Snippets: The Wrestler

In the book of Genesis, the life of Jacob could very well be summarized as ‘the wrestler.’ From his mother’s womb, literally, he is fighting, scratching, clawing, cheating, wrestling his way to blessing. He grabs a heel hook in the womb, clutching at Esau’s leg. He plays the heel before his father’s death bed, lying his way into receiving the patriarchal pronouncement of blessing. He engages in a match of wits against his uncle Laban for the hand of his youngest daughter Rachel in marriage. And all this is summarized and epitomized in his great wrestling match of Genesis 32.

The wrestler, Jacob, is jumped from behind by a sneak attack in the pitch black of the night. He finds himself fighting for his life, only trying to cling and clutch to the one who was overpowering him. He wouldn’t let go. Until he received blessing. He wanted something he had been searching for, wrestling for, for his whole life – congratulations. He wanted to be praised, to be accepted, to be acknowledged. He wanted to be the one to have his hand raised.

His father wouldn’t congratulate him. He wouldn’t bless him. He had to pretend to be his older brother Esau to get Isaac’s blessing. The words of the man with whom he now wrestled resound: ‘What is your name?’ (32:27). He had been asked this question before. He had answered with a lie: ‘Your first born, Esau.’ But now he comes clean: ‘I am Jacob.’

Jacob was transformed in this encounter. He would walk with a limp the rest of his life. The sun would now shine on him. When he left his homeland for fear of Esau, we are told,

  • Genesis 28:11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.

But things were changing, and now,

  • Genesis 32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

He was hurt, but he was healed. He had finally admitted who he really was, only to be told that he was now a new person. He had always been the loser, but  now his hand was raised in victory:

  • Genesis 32:28 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.”

What can change a man’s life in such an astounding way? The true Wrestler, the great Wrestler.

The Hebrew word abaq, which we translate ‘wrestled’ in vv. 24, 25 literally means, ‘to get dusty.’ The implication is that one rolls around on the ground and his body is covered in dirt . This is what it takes for a man to be transformed in such a way – to be reborn, to be blessed, to be crowned with victory – God must become dirty.

Who was it that wrestled with Jacob that day? He tells us in 32:30:

  • 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.”

God, covered in dirt.

This is why the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ happened – so that we all could could prevail through his humanity. He was born in a dusty barn, plied in the dusty trade of carpentry, washed the dusty feet of his disciples, smeared mud on the eyes of the blind, died the death of the unclean upon the cross, so that in his wrestling, our hands might be raised. He is the Wrestler, and his crown is our salvation.

Do not let go of him until he blesses you.

Abraham’s Near-Sacrifice of Isaac

The absolute claim of God upon us and our children is greatly impressed on my mind from this account. Abraham’s child is shown not to belong to him but to God and it would appear that the same is the case for all parents. My children are not truly mine but God’s. Therefore he, having an absolute claim upon them, can do, or have me to do, with them as he wishes.

Generally this is also the case with all things. God has absolute claim upon all things he has created, including my children and me. If God should desire to consume the galaxies, darken the sun, thrown down the stars, flood the earth, or take my life, or the life of my loved ones, I can make no objections, for his claim on all things is absolute, he being the almighty Creator.

Yet while the claim of God is absolute I do not despair because the compassion of God is absolute as well. That is, while God is all-powerful and just and lays claim on our lives and existence, yet He is not wicked or cruel or unfairly demanding but rather compassionate and merciful. He lays claim to us yet ‘sees to it’ that his claims are met by his own power.

Thus, as he demanded much of Abraham, he also supplied Himself what he demanded. He demands sacrifice, yet he supplies the sacrifice by his own means. Hence the gospel is set forth not only in the picture of Isaac as an only beloved son to be slain pointing to Christ, the Son of God, but also in the words of Augustine, ‘Command what you will, and grant what you command.’

Therefore, we tremble under God’s claims, for they are absolute, and rejoice in his compassion for it is equally great.