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Lesson 50: Trading Your Soul- For What? (Genesis 25:27 34; Heb. 12:16-17)

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The close of another year reminds us that we have just exchanged another year of our lives for something. Life is a process of trading one thing for another. We’re all given a certain amount of time and ability which we exchange to gain other things, such as money, food, shelter, relationships, leisure, and pleasure. The scary thing is, it’s easy to fritter away your life, exchanging your time and abilities for things that really don’t matter, or even worse, for things that cause you and others great harm. Sometimes the bad bargain you make is so pivotal that it affects the rest of your life, and even has eternal consequences.

For example, a man decides to trade family time for business success. He loses his wife and children. Bad bargain! A Christian leader decides to exchange some of his time for sexual pleasure outside of his marriage. It costs him his ministry, a lot of family pain, and greatly damages the cause of Christ. Really bad bargain! It costs far more than it provides.

Every day you’re trading your life‑your soul‑for something. The question is, For what? When it’s all over and you’ve cashed in all the time and abilities which have been allotted to you, what will you have to show for it? If you trade it in for fleeting pleasure, to gratify your immediate needs, you’ll come up empty. But if you trade your life for God’s kingdom and righteousness, to fulfill His purpose, you’ll be satisfied with that which no one can take from you.

Esau’s life is the story of a man who traded his soul for fleeting pleasure. He sold his birthright, which included not only material benefits and family privileges, but spiritual blessings as well, for a bowl of soup. It says that “he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way” (25:34). He didn’t have a second thought about what he had done. He did it, it felt good, and only much later did he come to regret it.

Someone has said that the difference between school and life is that in school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test which teaches you a lesson. A lot of times those tests sneak up on you and are over with before you realize what happened. In life, the teacher doesn’t come into the room and announce, “The next few minutes are going to be an important test. Please think carefully before answering, because the results of this test will affect you for years to come.” Instead, you’re into the test situation, you make some decisions based on your thinking and behavior up to that time, and you come out of the test without realizing immediately what just happened. Time reveals the results.

Esau’s decision to sell his birthright to Jacob was like that. My guess is that this wasn’t the first time the matter had come up. On other occasions Jacob had sounded him out: “Hey, Esau, how much would you take for your birthright?” If Esau had said flat out, “It’s not for sale for any price,” that might have ended it there. But he had left the door open a crack. Jacob could tell that it just wasn’t that important to Esau. Esau’s motto in life was, “If it feels good, do it!” He was a good times guy. His conniving brother was shrewd enough to spot that, and he used it to take advantage of him. He waited for Esau to come in from the field famished. As his brother, Jacob should have gladly given Esau a bowl of soup. But instead he used it to take away Esau’s birthright. The story shows that if you trade your soul to satisfy your flesh, you’ve made a bad deal.

Living for instant gratification will rob you of spiritual blessing.

There are four lessons that we need to think about and apply from this Scripture which was written for our instruction:

1. You can lose great blessings if you do not appreci­ate them.

Esau was born into a situation with great blessings. He wasn’t born into a pagan home, where his parents worshipped idols and abused him. He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, grandson of Abraham, the friend of God. No doubt, during the first 15 years of Esau’s life, while Abraham was alive, his grandfather had taught him about God and His covenant promises. Surely that teaching had been reinforced by Isaac and Rebekah. Esau had great spiritual privileges. But he threw them away because he didn’t appreciate them.

Esau may have had some excuses for disregarding these privileges. He could have blamed God: “God predestined me to do it!” After all, the Lord had told his mother while he was still in the womb that the older shall serve the younger (25:23). But that would have been a cop out. While God is sovereign, men are responsible for their sin. The text assigns the blame to Esau when it says that he despised his birthright (25:34).

He might have blamed his parents for their errors in raising him. They did make some serious mistakes, although their mistakes do not absolve Esau of his wrong choice. We read, “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28). What a tragic sentence! It covers untold grief and conflict in that home. When parents play favorites with the children, it breeds bitterness and hatred. Chapter 27 tells how Esau wanted to kill Jacob. Jacob later played favorites with his sons, so that they wanted to kill his favorite son, Joseph. Rebekah’s fondness for Jacob pitted her against her husband, Isaac, and led her to deceive him in order to help Jacob against Esau. No doubt Isaac often defended his adventuresome but godless son by telling Rebekah, “Get off his back! The boy just likes to have some fun in life.” It wasn’t a perfect home!

Two applications: First, for us who are parents. We need to realize that our sin affects our children, and we need to deal with that sin. We aren’t free to excuse it by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” If we explode at our kids, we need to confess it to the Lord and ask forgiveness from our kids. If they see us bending the truth, we need to admit our sin, and make it right by being truthful. If they see us argue as a couple, they need to see us seek one another’s forgiveness and talk through our differences in gentleness and love. If our kids don’t see genuine Christianity‑ repentance, brokenness, the fruit of the Spirit‑worked out in our daily lives, they probably won’t be eager to follow the Lord.

The second application is for us who are children (including adult children): We can’t blame our disobedience to God on the way our parents treated us. They may have acted piously on Sunday and like pagans the rest of the week. They may have been abusive. They may not have loved us as they should. They may have played favorites. But if I walk away from the Lord and the spiritual blessings He offers me in Christ, God will hold me accountable for despising my birthright.

At best, even the most godly parents are imperfect. Child rearing is not a matter of plugging in a formula. Every child, even among twins, is different from the womb. Note how different Esau and Jacob were. They looked different, even though they were twins. They had different temperaments, interests, and values. Esau liked the outdoors; Jacob liked to hang out in the kitchen. Esau liked physical activity; Jacob liked to use his head to outsmart others. Esau was impetuous and lived for the here and now; Jacob was more goal‑oriented. He thought about how to gain advantage for himself down the road.

The tricky thing for parents is that loving your children equally doesn’t mean treating them equally. It’s wrong to play favorites, but not playing favorites isn’t a matter of equal treatment, because every child is different. As a parent, you’ve got to study each child and do all you can to help each one come under the lordship of Christ. While there are solid principles for parents in the Bible, it requires a lot of wisdom. And you don’t get the experience you need for the job until the job is over!

The point is that even though our parents‑even Christian parents‑were at best imperfect or at worst wrong in the way they raised us, God holds us accountable if we despise our spiritual heritage and walk away from Him. Sinful parents need to deal with their sin, but sinful kids need to deal with their sin, too! The fact is, each of us has great spiritual privileges: We’ve heard the gospel. We have the Bible. We live in a free country where we can attend a church where the Bible is taught, where we can get to know other Chris­tians who can help us grow in our walk with God. But, like Esau despising his birth­right, we can forfeit all these spiritual blessings if we don’t appreciate them.

2. Small choices can have drastic consequences.

As I said, teachers don’t walk into the room of life and announce that the most important test of your life is about to begin. Warning signs don’t always flash. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it’s a critical moment, and your deci­sion can shape the rest of your life. Maybe it’s an offer from a friend to try drugs. Perhaps it’s an occasion to go to bed with your boyfriend, or to cheat on your marriage. It may be a chance to make a lot of money in a wrong way. Often, you’ve got to make a quick decision. The decision you make may turn around and make or break you!

Esau’s decision was impulsive, and yet it stemmed from years of disregarding spiritual things. Hebrews 12:16 calls Esau a godless (= profane) person. He lacked God’s perspective on life. He was not concerned about spiritual matters. He lived for the here and now. “Who needs a birthright?” he thought. “After all, I may be dead tomorrow. What I need now is a good meal. What good is a birthright if I starve to death?”

Those who cast off God’s moral standards often excuse it by saying that they had to meet their “need.” We’re buying into the notion that our needs take priority. In fact, I’ve heard that if you don’t love yourself first, you can’t love God and others! But Jesus says, “God knows your needs and you can trust Him to take care of them. Your real need is to seek first His kingdom and righteousness” (see Matt. 6:31‑33).

What’s frightening about Esau’s impulsive decision is the lasting consequences. Hebrews 12:17 says that “afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” Later he felt badly about what he had given up. He could see that his decision had been foolish and hasty. But even though he felt badly, he had operated so long on the principle of living for immediate gratification, he couldn’t turn from his selfish ways to God. He later wanted what God could give him, but he didn’t want God. That would mean yielding his life to God, and that was too big a price to pay. The series of small choices over the course of his life had drastic consequences.

Some people think that God is like a shopping mall. If you decide you don’t like something, just bring it back for a full refund. They buy into living for themselves. When the thought of eternity comes up, they push it away by thinking that when their time to die comes, they’ll take all their selfish living into God’s store, ask for a refund, and buy into eternity then. But it doesn’t work that way! We all face eternity every day, and we need to make daily decisions in that light. Otherwise, we may find that, like Esau, we come to the place where we want God’s blessings, but we can’t yield our lives to God.

Thus, you can lose great blessings if you don’t appreciate them. Small choices can have drastic consequences.

3. It’s easy to mistake as essential that which really is not.

Esau thought that he needed food. That sounds like an essential need, but it isn’t. His essential need was to obey God and seek His purpose. Esau mistook as essential that which really was not, and he shrugged off as not essential that which really is. Spiritual matters were nice, but not necessary, for Esau. So he traded his soul for a bowl of soup.

The people to whom Moses was writing were in danger of doing the same thing. They had left slavery in Egypt and were headed for the promised land. God had taken them on a detour to teach them to endure hardship and warfare so that they would be ready to conquer the land. But a lot of them grumbled. They thought they needed good drinking water, food, shelter, and protection from their enemies. Those are essentials. If Moses couldn’t provide those things, they would go back to Egypt. They were willing to give up their spiritual heritage of God’s promises to Abraham in order to gain the comforts they lacked. But Moses is showing them that the essential thing is that they do the will of God, even if it’s difficult. If they will do His will, He will take care of the other essentials of life.

We get mixed up in our ideas of what is essential and what is not. To look at our hectic lives, you would think that it’s essential to make a lot of money. We work long hours to make a few extra bucks‑and ruin our families and our health in the process. We spend hours watching inane TV shows, but don’t have time to nurture our souls or serve the Lord. Some people endanger their health and even their lives through drugs, drinking, and sexual promiscuity, because they put feeling good right now as essential, but feeling good throughout eternity as secondary.

Each one of us needs to think carefully about what is really essential in life in light of God’s Word. Write it down. Then periodically evaluate your life against those few essentials. I don’t agree with everything Jerry Falwell has done, but he went up in my esteem when I read his response to the question, “What do you want to be remembered for?” He has some impressive achievements. At that time he was the head of the Moral Majority, with a $100 million budget. He is the founder and president of Liberty University, with over 5,000 students. He is the pastor of a church with over 20,000 members. He has a large TV ministry, and speaks all over the world. His answer was, “I want to be remembered as a godly husband, father, and pastor, in that order.” Those things are the essentials! The rest isn’t.

There’s a final lesson:

4. It’s easy to grab for the right things for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.

Here my focus turns from Esau to Jacob. Jacob was right to want the birthright. He was wrong to want the birthright for the personal advantages it would bring him; and, he was wrong to take it in the way he did.

I’m sure Jacob would protest: “I bought that birthright fair and square! Esau didn’t have to agree to the deal. Besides, he didn’t really want it and I did. Everything was done out in the open.” But Jacob went after the birthright for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. He took advantage of his brother’s impetuous personality and hungry condition. He should have waited on the Lord to fulfill His promises. As we’ll see in future studies, God dealt with this deceiver by giving him a dose of his own medicine. Jacob was always scheming to work things out for his own advantage. He needed to learn that God could work things out if he would trust Him.

The people Moses was writing to faced the same problem. Many of them weren’t even sure they wanted to conquer Canaan. Of those who did, my guess is that many wanted Canaan for the comfortable lifestyle it would provide them. They were willing to fight to get it, but they weren’t thinking of God’s purpose to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants. They wanted the homes and vineyards and other amenities Canaan would provide. They wanted a right thing for the wrong reason. And some tried to obtain that right thing in the wrong way, blunder­ing ahead when God said to wait (Num. 14:39-45).

We face the same temptation. Frankly, some of you are here, not because you want to see God fulfill His purpose through His people, but rather for what being a Christian will do for you. Don’t misunderstand‑being a Christian has wonderful benefits! God gives peace and joy. He puts broken marriages together. He gives you wisdom for raising your children. There’s hardly an area of life where God’s Word will not have a positive impact if you apply it.

But God doesn’t make us happy and comfortable so that we can live for ourselves. He blesses us because He wants to use us to fulfill His purpose of blessing all nations through the Seed of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’re into Christianity just for what it can do for us, then we’re grabbing a right thing for a wrong reason. We need to pray, “Lord, bless me so You can use me in Your purpose of reaching all nations.”

Even though it was God’s will for Jacob ultimately to have the blessings of the birthright, he grabbed it in the wrong way, by taking advantage of his brother. In the same way, we need to be careful to go about God’s work in God’s way. Methods are just as important as the results. American Christians, especially, are highly pragmatic. If it works, it must be right. But it’s important that we wait on God and do God’s work in God’s way.


As we face the New Year, ask yourself, “What am I living for?” If I’m living for good feelings in the short run, I’m missing God’s purpose for my life. I’m selling my spiritual birthright for a mess of pottage.

A world‑class runner entered a 10‑K race in Connecticut. On the day of the race she drove from New York City, following the directions, or so she thought, given over the phone. She got lost, stopped at a gas station, and asked for help. She knew only that the race started in a shopping mall parking lot. The attendant also knew of such a race scheduled just up the road. When she arrived she was relieved to see that there weren’t as many runners as she had anticipated.

She hurried to the registration table, announced herself, and was surprised at the race officials’ excitement at having so renowned an athlete show up for their event. No, they had no record of her entry, but if she would hurry and put on this number, she could be in line just before the gun would go off. She ran and won easily‑four minutes ahead of the first man! Only after the race did she learn that the race she had run was not the race she had entered earlier. That race was being held several miles farther up the road in another town. She had gone to the wrong starting line, run the wrong course, and won a cheap prize (told by Bruce Lockerbie, Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-Mar., 1986], p. 8).

We only get one shot in the race of life. We need to make sure that we’re not wasting our lives by running in the wrong race. If you’re living for what meets your immediate needs, just using God for what He can do for you, you’ll end up losing the spiritual blessings which count for eternity. You’re trading your soul for the wrong things. But if you’ll live to further God’s purpose of blessing all nations through the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be eternally blessed.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it legitimate to present Christ to people from the angle of what He can do for them? Support your answer from Scripture.
  2. What is the difference between “using God for self-help” and yield­ing everything to God even if I die as a martyr?
  3. Is repentance always an option, or can a person harden himself beyond repentance?
  4. Some say that we are free to choose whatever methods of evan­gelism or church growth are effective. Why is that not correct?
  5. What is the most important factor in being a Christian parent?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Failure, Rewards, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 51: How God Uses Ordinary People (Genesis 26:1-35)

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Have you ever felt that God couldn’t use you to serve Him because you were just too ordinary? When I was in seminary, I heard a parade of gifted, dynamic, successful pastors and Christian leaders. Sometimes I would think, “I’ll never be where they’re at, because I’m not that gifted.” Sometimes you wished they would bring in Joe Average, pastor of the Podunk Bible Church!

One reason the story of Isaac is in the Bible is to show us how God can use an ordinary person. Isaac was the ordinary son of a famous father, and the ordinary father of a famous son. Alexander Maclaren began a sermon on Isaac by noting, “The salient feature of Isaac’s life is that it has no salient features.” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 1:202.) Although he lived longer than Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, Isaac’s life is pretty much covered in one chapter whose most exciting feature is some squabbles over some wells. You might say that Isaac was the Calvin Coolidge of his day. As you know, “Silent Cal” wasn’t noted for much other than being quiet and sleeping eleven hours a day. When someone reported to Dorothy Parker the news that Coolidge had died, she replied, “How can they tell?”

Isaac was kind of blah. He wasn’t bold like his father Abraham, who made a daring raid against the kings of the east. He wasn’t shrewd like his son, Jacob, or a gifted leader like his grandson, Joseph. Yet God used him to work out His covenant promises. His life shows us that there’s hope in the Lord for all us ordinary people!

Moses wrote Genesis 26 mainly to show the nation Israel how God was faithfully working out His covenant promises. Isaac lagged behind God, even as his son Jacob tended to run ahead of God. Yet in spite of Isaac’s slowness—and even sin—God blessed him because of His covenant with Abraham. Abraham’s descendants would be blessed because of their relationship to him; but, like Isaac, they had to grow in faith and obedience. As God’s blessed people, they were to become a blessing to others.

Christ has promised that He will build His church. In spite of our slowness—and even sin—God will bless and use us to fulfill His purpose of blessing all nations through Christ, because of our relationship to the Father through the Son. But we need to grow in faith and obedience. So the emphasis of the chapter is on God’s working out His purpose through ordinary people who obey Him.

To accomplish His purpose, God uses ordinary people who obey Him.

1. God uses ordinary people.

Note how Isaac was an ordinary man with ordinary problems:

A. Ordinary people have ordinary trials.

Isaac had ordinary trials. Verse 1 tells us that “there was a famine in the land.” Critics argue that Genesis 26 is some editor’s confused combination of the stories about Abraham’s going down into Egypt during the famine or of his going to Abimelech (see Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18). But the text is careful to distinguish this situation from the earlier famine, and many details differ, so there’s no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of these events.

But the interesting thing is to note that there was a famine in the land. Which land? The promised land! The land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, later described as flowing with milk and honey. There was a famine in that land. While God easily could have supplied Isaac with plenty of food in spite of the famine around him, He did not do that. God’s chosen man had to suffer along with all his pagan Canaanite neighbors.

Trials are the ordinary lot of God’s people; they always have been and always will be, until Jesus returns. Isaac did not question, “God, why are You allowing this famine in the promised land?” Isaac didn’t rebuke the famine in the name of the Lord. Granted, he didn’t respond properly. But this wasn’t the first nor would it be the last trial of this sort to come on God’s people in the promised land.

Trials are the normal experience of God’s people, even when they’re right where He wants them to be. Somehow we’ve picked up the notion that if God has called us to a place or to a certain ministry, we won’t encounter any problems. Everything will be milk and honey. When the road gets rough, we wonder what’s wrong. “Maybe I’m not in God’s will.”

Former Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, once said to his frustrated, impatient daughter, “My dear, if you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you.” Our Sovereign God has always used trials, even with His servants who are in the center of His will, to drive us to greater dependence on Him. I encourage you to read missionary biographies and learn of the trials that these dear saints have endured for the kingdom of God. When you read of what Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and others have gone through, it helps put your “famine in the land” in perspective. Trials are the ordinary experience of God’s people.

B. Ordinary people have ordinary fears.

Isaac had ordinary fears. What do ordinary people do when trials hit? They panic. What did Isaac do? He panicked. It would be wonderful to read, “There was a famine in the land, so Isaac sought the Lord.” But the text plainly states, “So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines.” And it’s clear that he wasn’t planning to stop there. He was heading toward Egypt, when the Lord intercepted him at Gerar.

You also see Isaac’s fear when he pawns off Rebekah as his sister (26:7), following in the footsteps of his father. Why do such a despicable thing? He was afraid for his life. And, after a section which describes repeated quarrels about wells with the local shepherds, the Lord appeared to Isaac and said (26:24), “Do not fear, for I am with you.” The Lord never says, “Do not fear” unless somebody is afraid. Isaac had many fears.

Do you have any fears? If you say “no,” you’re like the guy in a Dr. Seuss book we used to read our kids. He meets a pair of pants which walks around with no one inside them. He says, “I do not fear those pants with nobody inside them. I said and said and said those words. I said them, but I lied them.” We ought to take our fears to the Lord in prayer, and be open to ask for prayer for our fears. The people God uses are ordinary people with ordinary fears.

C. Ordinary people have ordinary sin.

Isaac had ordinary sin. I’m not implying that it’s all right to tolerate a little bit of sin in your life. We should confess and forsake all known sin. But we need to remember that the only people God uses are redeemed sinners. Sometimes the enemy gets us thinking that God can’t use us as long as we’re such a mixed up bundle of good and evil. One minute we’re in church singing “Holy, Holy,” and the next minute a horrible thought pops into our minds, and we think, “Maybe someday I’ll be holy like the preacher [yeah, right!], and then God can use me, but that day is a long way off.”

Thank God He uses us while we’re growing, before we’ve arrived! Look at the mixture of sin and obedience in Isaac’s life. He starts off for Egypt without consulting the Lord. The Lord graciously appears to him and tells him not to go any farther. He obeys. The Lord even reaffirms the covenant which He had made with Abraham, and applies it to Isaac. But the next thing Isaac does is to lie about Rebekah because he’s afraid he’ll get killed!

There’s a humorous word play in the Hebrew of verse 8, which says that the Philistine king saw Isaac “caressing his wife Rebekah.” The King James Version quaintly translates it, “sporting with his wife Rebekah.” The word comes from the same root word translated “Isaac,” which means “he laughs.” Here it clearly has a sexual connotation. Howard Hendricks said in our marriage class in seminary, “Whatever this sport was, it’s obvious that you don’t play it with your sister. And Isaac was a real pro at the sport—in fact, the sport was named after the guy!”

The nuance of the word play is not that it was wrong for Isaac to be “sporting” with his wife, but rather that his faithless behavior made a mockery of the great promise of God embodied in his name. Abraham and Sarah’s laughter of doubt was changed to the laughter of faith as God fulfilled His promise in Isaac. But now Isaac was sporting his lack of faith in God’s protection before this pagan king.

Just like his father, Abraham, before him (who did it twice), Isaac lied about his wife to protect his own hide and was rebuked by a pagan king. Critics say that it’s the same story repeated with different names. But you don’t need to look very far to see how true to life this is. Years ago I was going somewhere with our firstborn behind me in her car seat. I rounded a blind curve on the mountain road just below our house to almost rear end a car that had stopped in the road to admire the scenery. I hit the brakes and the horn and yelled, “You jerk!” From the back seat came a sweet little voice, imitating dad, “You jerk!” A knife went into my conscience! The sins of the fathers ...!

Again, the point is not that we tolerate our sin, but rather that we not despair that God cannot use us because we wrestle with sin. The ordinary people God uses are ordinary sinners just like you and me, but, as I’ll show in a moment, sinners who are working at obeying God.

D. Ordinary people have ordinary hassles.

Isaac had ordinary hassles. The chapter shows the repeated hassles he had with neighboring shepherds over his wells. The Philistines had stopped up the wells which Abraham had dug. Isaac dug them out again. He dug some new wells, only to have the Philistines hassle him by claiming that the wells belonged to them.

Do you think Isaac ever wondered as he was covered with sweat and dirt from digging out one of these wells, “What does all this have to do with the purpose of God?” The purpose of God sounds so glorious, so spiritual! But Isaac spent his time hassling with neighbors and digging out wells they had stopped up. That doesn’t seem very glorious!

Do you know how God was using these hassles? Each one forced Isaac to move a bit closer to the promised land, until finally he was so close to Beersheba that he decided to move back there again. The same night he moved to Beersheba, in the land of promise, God appeared to him and reconfirmed the promises made to Abraham (26:24). If Isaac hadn’t had any hassles in Gerar, he probably would have been content to stay there all his life. God used the hassles to move him back where he was supposed to be.

Have you ever thought about why God allows hassles in your life? Maybe it’s a hassle with your car, or with the plumbing in your house, or a hassle at work. If you’ll submit to the Lord and be teachable, you’ll discover that He uses everyday hassles to move you closer to the place where He wants you, the place of His blessing. Isaac never built an altar until the Lord got him back to Beersheba. But when he got there, after all his hassles, he built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord (26:25).

So Isaac had ordinary trials, fears, sin, and hassles.

E. Ordinary people have ordinary family problems.

Isaac had ordinary family problems. The chapter ends by telling of Esau’s marriage to two pagan women who brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah (26:34-35). These verses are inserted here to tell us the bent of Esau’s life and to prepare us for the next chapter, where Isaac stubbornly persists in his desire to give his blessing to Esau. But there are years of heartache capsulized in the few words of verse 35. Here is the chief family on the face of the earth as far as God’s purpose went, and yet they had problems. They were far from being a model family.

Again, I’m not suggesting that it’s okay to shrug off your sin. If you are sinning toward your family, you need to deal with it. But I do want to encourage those whose homes are not perfect—and that’s all of us! Many come to church every Sunday with smiles on their faces and sorrow in their hearts. We see the smiles and assume that their homes must be perfect Christian homes. But our home is hurting. So we mask our hurts and prevent the healing that could take place if we would learn to bear one another’s burdens in Christian love. The Lord shows us here that the patriarch Isaac had trials and fears and sin and hassles and family problems. Yet the Lord was pleased to use Isaac as he learned to obey the Lord.

2. God uses ordinary people who obey Him.

Isaac’s growth in obedience was slow, and it was never perfect. As an old man he was still partial to blessing Esau over Jacob, in spite of Esau’s godless ways. But, in spite of his imperfection, you can see progress in obedience, and the Lord responded to it. When the Lord first appeared to Isaac to tell him not to go to Egypt, the Lord emphasized Abraham’s obedience (26:5). The next verse reports Isaac obedience. It wasn’t automatic. Remember, there was a famine. To obey, Isaac had to trust the Lord and change his plans. But he did it. When the neighbors contended with Isaac, he didn’t fight for his rights. He sought peace by yielding his rights and moving on.

When Isaac finally moved back to Beersheba, where Abraham had lived, the Lord appeared to Isaac a second time, reconfirming His blessing and protection (26:24). The peace treaty with Abimelech and the news of water being discovered were two more evidences that Isaac was where God wanted him, in the place of obedience, where Abraham had obeyed the Lord. Beersheba means, “Well of the Covenant.” If you have been wandering from the Lord, come back to the place of obedience and the Lord will bless you and confirm His promises to you.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Why did God bless Isaac immediately after Isaac disobeyed God?” (26:12-13). There are two answers. First, it shows us that God’s covenant promises are based on grace, not on works. God wants us to obey Him, and He blesses those who obey. But at the same time, He wants us to remember that His sovereign purposes do not depend on our obedience, but rather, on His sovereign grace.

Second, note that while God blessed Isaac materially, the very blessing was also a source of chastening, because it made the Philistines envy Isaac and stop up his wells (26:14-15). This chastening served to move Isaac back toward Beersheba, where God wanted him. The main point is how God was sovereignly working to accomplish His purpose through this ordinary man, Isaac. If it had been up to Isaac, he would have been content to stay in the land of the Philistines. But God graciously used the blessing as a chastening to move Isaac to the center of His will.

3. God uses ordinary people who obey Him to accomplish His purpose.

God’s purpose is the theme of this chapter. He repeats it to Isaac in verses 3 & 4: “... I will be with you and bless you, ... and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s purpose involves blessing His people and using them to bless others through the Seed of Abraham, the Savior. The wells which played such a central role in Isaac’s life were a tangible symbol of divine blessing. Abimelech, the foreign king, saw this evidence of God’s blessing in Isaac’s life, and sought peace with him so that he could share in those blessings. So this chapter shows God slowly but steadily working behind the scenes with this ordinary man who was the son of Abraham to bring about His plan of blessing the nations.

It was not an instant process. Frankly, I’m not sure how much Isaac understood concerning God’s plan for history. It would be 2,000 years before the Savior would be born as the descendant of Abraham. But through it all, God was steadily moving history forward according to His sovereign plan, using a bunch of ordinary people to bring it all about.

Today, we need to see ourselves in the stream of what God is doing in history. He has blessed us, not just so that we’ll be blessed, but so that we can become a blessing to others. We can’t bottle it up. He wants us, ordinary though we are, to be His channel for taking the message of the Savior to all nations. That sounds glorious, but all too often it involves hassles as mundane as digging wells and contending with aggressive people. God didn’t give the land to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob in one magic swoop of His divine wand. Those to whom Moses was writing had to go through the battles of taking Canaan bit by bit.

And we have to struggle inch by inch, hassle by hassle, in taking God’s message of salvation to those in Flagstaff and in every part of the earth. So remember to view the hassles of your life in light of God’s bigger plan for history. If you’ll obey Him, He will use those everyday problems that you, His ordinary child, go through, to accomplish His purpose of blessing all nations.


Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary is an extraordinary man who has had a worldwide impact for Christ. The beautiful thing is, God used an ordinary man who obeyed Him to reach Dr. Hendricks. Howie was from a broken home, raised by his grandmother in Philadelphia. He often wandered from tavern to tavern, looking for his alcoholic grandfather. A man named Walt, who taught a Sunday School class, came upon young Howie and some other boys and invited them to his Sunday School class. Howie didn’t know what Sunday School was, but since it sounded like school, he wasn’t in favor of it.

But Walt took an interest in those boys, challenged them to a few games of marbles, beat them at it, and then taught them how to play better. Eventually, there were 13 boys off the streets of Philadelphia who attended Walt’s Sunday School class. Nine were from broken homes, five were Roman Catholics.

Even though Walt never went beyond high school, 11 of those 13 boys went on to vocational Christian service, becoming pastors, missionaries, and seminary professors. God was accomplishing His purpose by using an ordinary man who obeyed Him.

God wants to use you like that. If you struggle with trials and fears and sins and hassles and family problems, you qualify, as long as you’re also growing in obedience. As God blesses you, commit yourself to be His channel of blessing to others.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where do you feel most inadequate as a Christian? How can God use you at the point of your inadequacy (2 Cor. 11:30)?
  2. Why does God’s blessing not necessarily mean a hassle-free life? Discuss in light of Gen. 26:12-21.
  3. What current hassles or problems in your life could God want to use to help accomplish His purpose through you?
  4. How can we achieve the proper balance between accepting our imperfections without excusing them?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Hamartiology (Sin), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 52: My Way Or God’s Way? (Genesis 27:1-46)

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Frank Sinatra’s well-known song, “I Did It My Way,” was shocking for its blatant ungodliness. Of course what Sinatra stated plainly in that song, “I did it my way,” is true of every person who does not submit his life to Jesus Christ. Most people just aren’t as open as Sinatra in stating the controlling force of their lives.

In Genesis 27, four people sing Sinatra’s song. Isaac does things his way by trying to bestow the family blessing on Esau, in opposition to God’s revealed will. Esau tries to take back what he had already sold to his brother Jacob. When he is foiled, he plans to kill his brother. Rebekah deceives her aging husband into giving the blessing to her favorite son, Jacob. And Jacob lies to his father and outsmarts his brother. Rebekah and Jacob could argue that they were only trying to bring about the will of God, since God had told Rebekah that her older son would serve the younger. But I’m not persuaded by those who attribute high motives to Rebekah and Jacob. I think that what you have here are four self-centered people seeking their own advantage. They all did it their way, not God’s way. In the end they all came up empty and paid a high price for their selfishness.

Every person must have as a theme song in life either “I Did It My Way” or “I Did It God’s Way.” You would think that the lines would be clearly drawn: Every person outside of Christ would sing, “I Did It My Way”; every Christian would sing, “I Did It God’s Way.” But I find that many who profess to believe in Christ are really just living for themselves, often using God as the means to self-fulfillment. But the genuine Christian life is a matter of God’s confronting our self-centeredness and enthroning Christ as Lord in our hearts. While the process takes a lifetime, I question whether the person who is not involved in the process of dying to self is truly a child of God. Genesis 27 teaches the principle that ...

When we seek our own way, we never get what we wanted and we pay a high price.

It is presented as a drama with four characters. First (27:1-4), Isaac comes on the stage with his selfish desire, based on his appetite, to give the blessing to Esau, who goes off to comply with Isaac’s plan. In scene two (27:5-17), Rebekah, who was eavesdropping, hatches her plot to deceive Isaac and get the blessing for Jacob. In the third scene (27:18-29), Jacob successfully carries out his mother’s scheme. In the fourth scene (27:30-40), Isaac and Esau discover they have been deceived. Isaac can only give a lesser blessing to Esau. In the conclusion (27:41-46), we see the consequences: Esau plans to kill Jacob, while Rebekah plots how to divert that crisis. Each of the characters illustrates the theme: Each seeks his or her own way; each is frustrated in not getting what he sought; and each pays a high price.

The drama is marked by some undercurrents which run through the chapter. The first is haste or urgency. Isaac seems to be near death’s door when he summons Esau to his bedside. Actually, Isaac, who was 137, lived 43 more years. But you get the feeling that he has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel—Esau needs to get on with his mission. While Esau is gone, Rebekah quickly summons Jacob, and there is a flurry of activity as they prepare to deceive the blind old man before Esau returns from his hunt. Jacob barely makes it out the door before Esau comes back. There is haste in Rebekah’s urgent words to Jacob, “... arise, flee to Haran ...!” (27:43).

There is often a sense of haste when people are trying to pull off their own schemes, even if it’s under the guise of doing God’s will. If you’re not trusting God to orchestrate circumstances for you, then you work under the false impression that you’ve got to pull your own strings. So you rush around like a one-armed man putting on a show with 50 dancing marionettes, trying to keep all the strings going at the right time. There are exceptions, but generally when you’re trusting God to work things out in His time and way, you aren’t running around in eleventh hour haste, trying to rescue the situation.

A second undercurrent which runs through the drama is deception or conspiracy. In the famous words of Sir Walter Scott, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive.” There is an air of secrecy when old Isaac calls Esau to his bedside. Normally, the blessing would have been given before the entire family (see Genesis 49). It was an oral will which legally determined the disposition of all the father possessed. But Isaac calls Esau without Rebekah or Jacob. He knew that Rebekah would oppose his move; she always had favored Jacob. So Esau is sent out secretly.

But, Rebekah was secretly eavesdropping on Isaac’s meeting with Esau. So she secretly calls Jacob and works out her plot to deceive her blind husband. Later, when she thinks that Esau will kill Jacob, Rebekah schemes again by telling Isaac that she is tired of living because of Esau’s Hittite wives. If Jacob marries women like these, life will not be worth living (27:46). So without telling Isaac of the real reason, she secures his blessing on Jacob before he sends him away to Haran to find a wife from Rebekah’s relatives. Throughout the whole drama is this web of deception, conspiracy, and secrecy.

A third undercurrent is mistrust. You can’t carry on secrets and manipulative plots in a family without eroding trust. Isaac didn’t trust Rebekah or Jacob or he would have included them in the plan to give away his blessing. Rebekah didn’t trust Isaac or she wouldn’t have gone to such elaborate lengths to deceive him. Jacob knew that his father wouldn’t trust him, as seen in his comment to his mother, “Perhaps my father will feel me, then I shall be as a deceiver [mocker] in his sight; ...” (27:12). Neither Jacob nor Esau trusted each other. It was a family riddled with mistrust because it operated on the basis of deception and secrecy instead of honesty and openness.

Each character illustrates the theme: When we seek our own way, we never get what we wanted and we pay a high price.

1. The theme is illustrated with Isaac.

This is not a pretty picture of Isaac. Some try to excuse him by saying that maybe he didn’t know or had forgotten about God’s prophecy to Rebekah, that the older son would serve the younger. But surely Rebekah would have told and have frequently reminded Isaac of that prophecy, especially when she sensed Isaac’s favoritism toward Esau and wanted to assert her own favoritism toward Jacob. Isaac knew.

This is a premeditated plot on Isaac’s part to overthrow the revealed purpose of God. Sadly, Isaac’s reasons were based totally on the flesh: He had a taste for Esau’s game (25:28; 27:3-4). Here, on what Isaac thought was his deathbed, he can only think of indulging himself once more with his favorite meal prepared by his favorite son. He was gratifying his sensual desires in opposition to God’s plan. It’s a sorry picture.

The picture grows even darker when we read (in 26:34-35) that Esau had taken two Hittite wives. Abraham had been emphatic that his son Isaac should not take a wife from the Canaanites (24:3-9). He knew that those pagan women would pollute God’s plan to bless all nations through his descendants. Isaac’s charge to Jacob not to take a wife from the Canaanites (28:1) shows that he knew the importance of the heir having a godly wife. Why hadn’t he given both sons this charge years before? Yet he set aside that requirement when he made up his mind to give the blessing to Esau.

Isaac wanted his way, not God’s way. He liked Esau and his game over Jacob. No matter that Esau was a godless man, that he had despised his birthright, that he had married Canaanite wives. Isaac liked him, so he planned to give everything to Esau, as is clear from the mistaken blessing on Jacob (27:28--29, 37-38).

But did Isaac get what he wanted? Instead of wild game, he got spiced up goat. Instead of blessing Esau, he put him under a curse, because he ordained that whoever cursed Jacob should be cursed, and Esau planned to kill Jacob. His family was riddled with rivalry and his sons were separated from him. He and his wife were at odds and didn’t trust each other. Isaac sought his own way, didn’t get what he wanted, and paid a high price.

2. The theme is illustrated with Rebekah.

Rebekah wanted God’s choice (Jacob), but for selfish reasons. He was her favorite. He was her pawn in her power struggle against her husband. So even though on the surface she could claim, “I just want God’s will,” the claim was a pious fraud. Rebekah wanted her way. She was willing to deceive her blind husband and to draw her son into deception to gain her goal.

Of course, Rebekah could have rationalized: “What could I do? If I hadn’t acted as I did, God’s promise wouldn’t have been fulfilled. The whole Messianic program was at stake! You can’t just sit back and trust God at a time like that. You have to take decisive action. Besides, it worked! God’s blessing through Abraham and Isaac came to Jacob, just as God ordained.”

The fallacy in that line of thinking is that deception was the only alternative. Rebekah could have sought the Lord and then appealed to Isaac based on what he knew to be God’s purpose. Having done that, she could have left the matter with God, trusting that if He needed to, God could reverse Isaac’s wrong action.

That’s the fallacy of situation ethics. It poses a false dilemma, then tells you that you have no choice except to violate God’s moral absolutes. There’s often time pressure. I can imagine Rebekah thinking, “If I don’t act now, God’s plan will be thwarted. I don’t like lying, but I have no choice.” But, almost always, there are other choices. I will grant that, in a fallen world, there are some ethical dilemmas; but they are really rare. Almost always, there is a way not to sin.

Did Rebekah get what she was after? On the surface, yes, Jacob got the blessing. But in the end, no. What she feared (27:45) happened when she lost both her sons. Jacob fled to Haran and Esau moved to Edom. She sought to get the inheritance for Jacob, but he had to leave it behind and flee for his life. She sought to make Jacob the ruler over all that Isaac had; instead, Jacob became the indentured servant of Laban.

And what about the cost? Rebekah calculated that the whole thing would blow over soon (27:44-45): “Stay with him a few days, until your brother’s fury subsides, until your brother’s anger against you subsides, and he forgets what you did to him. Then I shall send and get you from there.” The “few days” turned out to be 20 years, and Rebekah probably never saw her favorite son again. When he returns, Isaac is mentioned, but not Rebekah. In the only other mention of her name in Genesis, Jacob on his deathbed states that they buried Rebekah in the cave of Machpelah (49:31, implying that he was not there). So Rebekah spent her final years bereft of her sons, emotionally estranged from her blind husband. She sought her own way, didn’t get what she wanted, and paid a high price.

3. The theme is illustrated with Jacob.

Again, I must disagree with commentators who exonerate Jacob. Some say that he was valuing spiritual things and, after all, he was only obeying his mother. But remember, the man wasn’t a teenager—he was probably 77 years old! He should have rebuked his mother for her deceptive scheme. Clearly, Jacob is not a spiritually-minded man. He does not fear God or His moral law; he only fears that the scheme might not work and he might get cursed instead of blessed. He wanted the wealth and advantage which went along with the blessing. Like Rebekah, Jacob was seeking his own way under the guise of seeking God’s way.

Note the extremes he was willing to take to get what he wanted. His blind old father asks, “Who are you, my son?” Jacob flatly lies, “I am Esau your firstborn; I have done as you told me” (27:18-19). When Isaac questions how he could have returned so quickly, Jacob crassly gives God the credit (27:20)! But because of Jacob’s voice, Isaac still has doubts. So he calls Jacob to him so he can feel his skin. After feeling the deceptive goatskins on Jacob’s arms, he asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?” And Jacob baldly lies again, “I am” (27:24). He caps the whole thing off with a kiss! Where is Jacob’s conscience?

Jacob’s actions seem incredible—until you get honest with yourself. If you know your heart, you can see yourself right there in Jacob’s sandals, doing the same thing. Haven’t you ever bent the truth when you were under pressure or when you thought it was for a good cause? And once you tell the first lie, it’s harder to bail out. So you dig yourself in deeper and deeper.

Did Jacob get what he was after? On the surface, yes, he got the blessing. But it didn’t quite do for him what he was expecting. He had to flee from his brother who wanted to kill him. The blessing stipulated that he would be master of his brothers (vs. 29), but before Esau bowed to Jacob, Jacob would bow before Esau and call him lord (33:3, 8). He thought the blessing would put him in a position of influence, but before that it forced him to become the indentured servant of a man who deceived him. Later the sons of this deceiver would deceive their father concerning his beloved son, Joseph, telling him that the animals had killed the boy. For 20 years he mourned for that son, thinking him to be dead before he found out the truth. So Jacob sought his own way, didn’t get what he wanted, and paid high installment payments for years to come.

4. The theme is illustrated with Esau.

While we may sympathize with Esau, there is no doubt that he was seeking his own way. Granted, he was the older brother, so the birthright and blessing should have been his. But he had made a legal agreement with his brother to sell his birthright. It was not true, as Esau laments, that Jacob took away his birthright (27:36). Esau gave it up. Here, he was in cahoots with his father’s secretive plan to get the blessing for himself; he just happened to get outsmarted. As a godless man, not concerned about the spiritual promises God had given to Abraham, Esau was clearly seeking his own way, not God’s way.

His tears (27:34, 38) may make us feel sorry for him. But remember, Esau wasn’t truly repentant, ready to turn from his self-seeking ways to follow God’s ways. He was just sorry he didn’t get what he was after. He was like the guy who heard at work that his neighbor’s house burned down. Since they didn’t get along too well, he shrugged and said, “Too bad!” Then he drove home and found out that his own house had burned down, too. If he started wailing, you wouldn’t assume that he was sorry for his neighbor or for his own bad attitude. He was just sorry for himself. Esau wasn’t truly repentant toward God; he was just sorry his scheme hadn’t worked.

Clearly, Esau didn’t get the blessing he desired. He ended up estranged from God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. He became the father of the Edomites, who lived to the east of the Dead Sea and were later subjected by several kings of Israel. They finally succeeded in casting off Israel’s rule, even as Isaac prophesied (27:40). They sided with Nebuchadnezzar in his overthrow of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and were overjoyed at its destruction (Ps. 137:7; Lam. 4:21, 22; Obadiah 10-16). Esau, like Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, sought his own way, didn’t get what he wanted, and paid a high price.


Let me draw four concluding lessons from this drama:

(1) If we sow to the flesh, we’ll reap from the flesh. The law of sowing and reaping is as true for God’s people as it is for unbelievers. If you live for the pleasures of the flesh, you will reap from the flesh corruption (Gal. 6:7-8). If you live for the things of this world, you may get them, but you’ll be poor before God.

Some may protest: “But we’re under grace, not law!” But remember, Paul warned about sowing and reaping in the very letter where he strongly argues for the grace of God--Galatians. You can’t plant spinach and harvest sweet corn. While sin may taste sweet in your mouth, it will be bitter in your stomach and you’ll wish you had never tasted it! That’s true for believers under grace.

(2) You can’t thwart the ultimate purpose of God, so why not work with Him, not against Him? It is utter futility to fight God. It may seem as if you’re going to be able to get away with your plan. But “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4). Man’s sin can never thwart God’s purpose. It may appear that things are not under God’s control and that the forces of evil are going to turn world history to their own ends. It’s only an illusion. Even the wrath of man will bring ultimate praise to God (Ps. 76:10). God, not man, determines history. You can either smash yourself to bits trying to fight against God or you can submit to His purpose. As the apostle Paul and millions of others can tell you, life is a lot more pleasant when you don’t kick against the goads.

(3) Godly ends do not justify wrong means. Was it God’s will to give the blessing to Jacob? Yes! Was it right for Rebekah and Jacob to gain the blessing through deception? No! Methods do matter! Wrong methods don’t become right just because they work, even when they help accomplish God’s purpose. We live in a pragmatic culture, and many Christians have bought into any method that works. Just because a marketing scheme brings people into the church does not make it right. God’s work must be done in His way.

(4) The way to find your life is to lose it for Christ’s sake. Hebrews 11:20 states: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.” How can that be, when it seems that he was acting in the flesh? The answer is in Genesis 27:33, where a trembling Isaac realizes that he has really blessed Jacob, not Esau, as he intended. He admits, “Yes, and he shall be blessed.” At that point Isaac realized that he and Esau had been fighting against God and they had lost. God pinned him to the mat, Isaac admitted defeat, and submitted to God’s sovereign way. So Isaac gives up his theme song, “I Did It My Way.” He lost his life, only to find real life in God.

That’s the key, by the way, to family harmony—when each member dies to his own selfish way and lives for God’s way. What is God’s word to wives? “Submit to your husband.” Many Christian wives hate that word! It grates on the flesh. But it is God’s Word to wives! Before you husbands start gloating, remember God’s word to you: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” The Bible never tells husbands to get their wives to submit. It tells us to seek the highest good of our wives by dying to our own selfish ways. God’s word to children is, “Obey your parents” and you will be blessed. To parents (especially fathers) He says, “Don’t provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22-6:4).

Many Christian counselors are telling hurting people, “Assert yourself! Stand up for your rights! Don’t be codependent! You’ve got a right to some happiness in life, so go for it!” But God’s Word is clear: If you seek your own way, you won’t get what you want and you’ll pay a high price in family conflict. If you’ll die to your way and seek God’s way, He will give you the desires of your heart. You’ve got to decide which will be your theme song: “I did it my way,” or, “I did it God’s way?”

Discussion Questions

  1. Someone may fear, “If I yield my rights and go God’s way, I’ll get trampled.” How would you counsel them?
  2. Does seeking God’s way mean always doing what I don’t like and not doing what I enjoy? How do I know when I’m doing things God’s way?
  3. Can a wife be submissive to God and to her husband and yet confront him with his sin? How?
  4. Is total honesty always the best policy? What about when honesty would hurt someone’s feelings?
  5. Are there situations where we must sometimes break one part of God’s moral law in order to keep another part? If so, when?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1997, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Rewards, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 53: How God Begins With Us (Genesis 28:1-22)

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Harold Ross started The New Yorker magazine years ago in small offices and with little equipment. They operated on a shoestring budget at first. One day in a restaurant downstairs he met Dorothy Parker, one of the magazine’s first writers. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Why aren’t you upstairs working?”

“Somebody was using the pencil,” she explained, “so I came down for some coffee.” (“Bits & Pieces,” 6/84.)

Great things often start with humble beginnings. Ross Perot launched his multi-billion dollar fortune with a $1,000 investment. McDonald’s worldwide hamburger chain began with one little stand in San Bernardino. Apple Computer started in a garage with a couple of young guys who had an idea.

It’s often the same way spiritually. If we each could share how God began with us, we’d probably marvel at the ways He broke into each of our lives. Years ago, a Sunday School teacher walked into a Boston shoe store and spoke about Christ to a teenage boy who worked there. That boy accepted Christ but was so ignorant of the basic teachings of the Bible that he was refused membership in a church for a year and a half until he could gain that knowledge. His name was Dwight L. Moody; he went on to become the most powerful American evangelist of the nineteenth century.

God’s beginning with Jacob (Genesis 28) was like that. If you look at Jacob at the start, you can hardly imagine that here is the great patriarch, the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel. He was a 77 year-old mama’s boy, a cheat who had to flee for his life from his angry brother. And yet by His grace, God began to work in Jacob’s life. There weren’t quick changes; the process took a lifetime. But God’s breaking into Jacob’s life made the difference.

The chapter raises a question we all need to face: How can God break into my life and begin a work in me? Some of you may not yet have trusted Christ as Savior and Lord. You wonder, “Is there any way God can begin with me, with all my problems and sin?” Thank God, there is! Those who are Christians need to ask the same question. If you have trusted in Christ, then God has already begun a work in you. But it’s easy to grow complacent in your relationship with Him. Your spiritual life is on auto-pilot. You need a new beginning with God. How can that take place? Genesis 28 shows that ...

God begins at my point of need with His grace, and I should respond to Him.

1. God begins at my point of need (28:19).

In problem solving, the first step is to recognize and define the problem. Often our problem is that we don’t clearly see the problem. We aren’t aware of our great need, so we aren’t open for God to move into our lives to begin working on the problems. Many times it takes a crisis, where we are brought to the end of our own abilities and schemes, for us to be able to see our need and be open to God’s breaking into our lives.

This is a helpful principle when you’re dealing with others, whether you’re trying to share the gospel or give counsel of some sort. Before a person will be receptive to the solution, he’s got to be deeply aware of his problem. If he’s not aware of his great need, he’s going to resist any intrusion into his life. So you have to build your relationship with the person and wait for the time when God yanks the rug out from under him and he recognizes his need. Then he’ll be ready for God’s solution.

You don’t have to read too much between the lines to see that Jacob has just had the rug yanked out from under him. Put yourself in his sandals: You’ve just lied to your blind, old father to cheat your brother out of his family blessing (“inheritance”). Your brother is so mad that he’s threatening to kill you. Even though you’re “early middle age” (Jacob was 77, but lived to 147), you’ve never been out of sight of mama’s tent. Your idea of adventure is trying out a new recipe.

But now you’re being sent off alone on a 500-mile journey through dangerous, foreign territory to a pagan city to try to find your mother’s relatives. You don’t know whether you’ll even make it there safely. Your brother would be much more suited for this kind of adventure. He’s spent many a night in the wild, stalking game. But you’ve never even camped out in your own back yard. But now you’re alone, on the road, with no motel. The sun has gone down, so you find a rock for a pillow and lay down under the canopy of the stars.

As you lay there listening to all the strange sounds of the night, you think about your past. You’re confused. You finally had finagled your way to get what you’d always wanted—your brother’s birthright and blessing. You thought that once you got that, you’d have it made, but here you are on the run, with nothing but meager supplies (32:10) and a very uncertain future. So you’re confused.

You also feel guilty. You cheated your brother. You lied to your blind, old father, used the name of his God, and even kissed him in your deception. And then, in spite of all that, he has sent you off with the true spiritual blessing of your grandfather, Abraham (28:3-4). At this point, God is the God of Abraham and He is the God of your father, Isaac (27:20). But He is not yet your God (28:21). And yet the burden of the blessing of the God of Abraham is on your shoulders. As one of the “Peanuts” cartoon characters says, “There’s no greater burden than having a great potential.” You’re loaded with guilt and anxiety about the future.

Do you see how Jacob must have felt? Until now, he has always schemed his way out of tight spots. But now he’s fresh out of schemes. He’s on his own for the first time, wrestling with a guilty, confusing past, and facing an anxious, uncertain future. It’s significant that God begins working with Jacob at this point in his life. It’s the first time the Lord got Jacob’s attention. Jacob saw his great need.

One way or another, God has to bring each of us to that point before He breaks through in our lives. Often, as was the case with Jacob, it’s when we first leave the shelter of home. I remember that even though I trusted Christ as a young child, God didn’t begin to work in my life in a significant way until I was in college. I was still living at home, but being in the environment of a secular university, where the Christian faith was under attack, made me realize that either I had to make my parents’ faith my own or I needed to discard it. It was only at that point that my relationship with Christ began to develop.

If you’re in high school or college, you’re at a critical point in life. If you realize your great need before God and turn to Him, your life will go in the right direction. But if you ignore your need for God and choose the human wisdom that is offered to you at school or in the world, you will start down the path that leads ultimately to destruction. If you’ve been raised in a Christian home, it’s vitally important for you to recognize your own great need for God and to begin to make your parents’ faith your own.

Esau never did that. He’s a pathetic figure in many ways. His mother favored his brother. His father loved him because he liked the game he hunted (25:28). Now he’s been tricked out of his father’s blessing. When he hears Isaac send Jacob off to find a wife from his mother’s relatives, he realizes for the first time (after 37 years of marriage) that his two pagan wives were not pleasing to his father.

Isaac was the classic passive father. Why hadn’t he instructed his sons concerning the proper marriage partners when they were young? Why hadn’t he talked openly to Esau years before, when he was considering taking these women as wives? And now, when Esau discovers that his marriages weren’t pleasing to his dad, he goes to Ishmael’s descendants and takes a wife, thinking that he might earn his father’s approval by marrying within the descendants of Abraham. How sad! Esau had a need, but he went about meeting that need in a worldly way, instead of seeking the Lord. And God never broke through in Esau’s life.

How about you? Are you at a place where you see your great need for God? Are you, like Jacob, out of schemes? Are you, like Esau should have been, but wasn’t, out of worldly solutions? Are you at a place where you’re confused and guilty about your past, anxious and uncertain about your future? Then maybe you’re at a place where God can break through into your life. He won’t give you magical, instant solutions, but He will begin to work when you come to the end of yourself and admit, “Lord, I have a need I can’t deal with by myself. I need You!” That’s the place where grace—God’s unmerited favor—can take effect. You’re at Bethel, the house of God, where God comes down to earth and earth’s problems are carried up to heaven.

2. God begins with His grace (28:10-15).

At Jacob’s point of need, God gave him a strange dream. God often has used dreams to communicate with people, but we need to be careful not to put too much stock in our dreams, because they are open to so many subjective interpretations (as you’ll discover if you read a few commentaries on Jacob’s dream!). In the dream, a ladder, or stairway, went from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. How should we understand this? I’m using two guidelines: (1) How would Jacob have understood it, especially in light of what God said here? (2) How is it interpreted elsewhere in the Bible?

Jacob understood this dream as God breaking into his life: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16). Jacob had not personally encountered God until this point. But now this ladder into heaven, with the angels going back and forth between Jacob and God, showed him that the God of Abraham and Isaac could be his God, too. God was concerned about him in his place of desperate need, and there was a bridge of access to God to seek His help and from God to receive His help. God specifically applied His promises to Abraham and Isaac to Jacob. That’s how Jacob must have understood the symbolism of this dream.

We can gain further insight into the meaning of this ladder because of an incident recorded in John 1:45-51. Philip reported to his friend Nathaniel, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel sardonically replies, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip wisely replies, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathaniel coming and said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Also, Jesus revealed that He had seen Nathaniel under the fig tree before Philip called him. This supernatural knowledge was enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Jesus went on to say, “You shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus knew supernaturally that Nathaniel had been meditating on the meaning of Jacob’s ladder as he sat under that fig tree. Jesus is saying, “I am that ladder, the promised Seed of Abraham!” Jesus is the bridge between God and man. He is the one who opens the way for man, in his desperate need, to have access to God in heaven. As He would later say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).

So we can understand something Jacob may not have been able to grasp: That Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, is the Mediator between God and man. Christ is the bridge between us in our desperate need because of our sin, and God with His abundant mercy. The angels, who bring God’s help and protection to those who are needy, come to us through Christ.

In Jacob’s dream, the Lord stood above the ladder and applied the promises given to Abraham and Isaac to Jacob (read 28:13- 15). What fantastic words! Can you imagine how those words must have hit Jacob? If you had done what Jacob had done, what would you have expected God to say to you? If He had said anything, I would have expected God to have said, “Steve, I had planned to use you in My purpose of blessing all nations through the seed of Abraham. But because you’re such a deceiving crook, I’m going to have to change My plan. I can’t use you.” At the least I would have expected a severe rebuke. But God doesn’t say a word about Jacob’s failure. Instead, He assures Jacob about his future and promises him that He won’t leave him until He’s done everything He’s promised. Jacob thought he had to use manipulation and scheming to gain God’s blessing, but here God freely gives him everything while he’s asleep. That’s grace—God’s unmerited favor!

Jacob didn’t understand grace at this point. His response was fear (28:17). This was more than proper reverence; Jacob realized that he was dealing now with a God he couldn’t connive against or cheat, a God who had his number, a God who had taken him thoroughly by surprise. I wonder if John Newton had this text in mind when he wrote, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

God always deals with us in grace. This means that the primary reason you came to God was not because you decided to follow Jesus. Before you did anything, and knowing that you would only do evil if left to yourself, so that God alone could be glorified for your salvation, He chose you (Rom. 9:11). He is always the initiator. When He breaks into your life, it’s His doing, not yours. If God operated on the merit system, He would have picked Esau, who was a much nicer guy than Jacob. But God, based totally on His grace and not at all on anything we do, breaks through in our lives at a point of our great need and says, “I’m going to bless you!” God always begins at my point of need with His grace. It’s a totally humbling experience!

What am I supposed to do when God begins at my point of need with His grace?

3. When God begins, I should respond to Him (28:16-22).

Frankly, I don’t think Jacob knew what to do. He babbles on about this place being awesome, the house of God, the gate of heaven. Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jacob felt the need to fill the dreadful silence with some kind of noise. But beyond that, Jacob responded to the Lord as best he knew how.

He got up in the morning and set up a pillar with his stone pillow and poured oil on it, as an act of consecrating it to the Lord. Then he made a vow to the Lord (28:20-22). Commentators are divided regarding Jacob’s vow. Some say that it was a wonderful response of faith. They interpret the “if” of verse 20 to mean, “since.” Others say that this is another instance of this self-seeking schemer trying to bargain for his own best interests. My understanding is that while Jacob’s response was immature at best, at least it was a response, and God met him there.

A number of factors reveal that Jacob’s response was immature (I am indebted to James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:296-299, who develops these in more detail). Jacob does not express any awareness or confession of his many sins. His focus was not on God and His purpose to bless the nations, but on himself and what he could get out of the deal. The translation “since” rather than “if” (28:20) doesn’t fit Jacob’s focus on himself here. God has just promised to do all these things for Jacob and he turns around and says, “If You’ll do what You just said, then You can be my God.” Jacob’s vow sounds like the same old pattern he used when he bargained with Esau to get the birthright. He wasn’t concerned about the other party; he was out for the best deal for himself. God isn’t too impressed with such deals!

Jacob should have responded, “You alone are God! While I deserve Your condemnation for my many sins, You have shown me Your grace! I surrender myself and everything I have totally to You!” But instead, he tells God that if He will come through as He has promised, Jacob will make Him his God, set up a house for Him at Bethel, and give Him ten percent. Big deal!

Jacob’s response shows that he doesn’t understand God’s grace. God’s promises to Jacob are all unconditional; Jacob’s promises to God are all conditional. Thank God that He deals with us on His unconditional terms, not on our conditional terms! But all this reflects where Jacob is coming from. He was used to working out deals, so he’s responding to God by trying to work out a deal. It was immature, at best, but at least it was a response.

The significant thing is, God didn’t rebuke Jacob: “You’ve got to be kidding! If you can’t accept My word, the deal is off.” Instead, God let it go and graciously kept working with Jacob. It would take 20 hard years with Laban, a night of wrestling with the angel of God, and a traumatic encounter with Esau, to knock a lot of rough edges off Jacob, but God kept at it. Though it was an inadequate response, God took it and began to shape Jacob into the kind of man he needed to be.


That’s how God begins with you and me. He begins at my point of need with His grace, and I should respond to Him. As I think back over my experience with God, I recognize how gracious He has been to take me where I was at and work with me, in spite of my inadequate faith and my self-centered response to Him. The main thing that caused me to yield my life to the Lord was that I saw a young Christian couple who had a great marriage. I said, “Lord, if You can give me that kind of marriage, I’ll give my life to You.” I realized that the best deal for me all the way around would be for me to let God control my life, since He knows what is best and He loves me.

That was selfish. It was a bargain for me. It didn’t have any regard for God’s purpose of blessing all nations through Christ. I wasn’t thinking about how my life could be used to bring glory to God. I was just out for His blessing so that I could be happy. But, praise God, He took me there, overlooked my immaturity, and said, “It’s a response.” He began to teach me about His unconditional grace and that I need to live for His glory.

God will do that with you. Wherever you’re at, He will begin at your point of need with His grace. He will say to you, “I am the Lord; ... I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go; ... I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” He wants you to respond by saying, “Yes, Lord! Begin your work in me.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways we can help a person who doesn’t see his need for Christ to see it?
  2. It doesn’t seem fair that God would work with a scoundrel like Jacob but not with a nice guy like Esau. Your response?
  3. How much and what kind of faith does a person need for God to save him? Give some Scriptural examples.
  4. Should a Christian under grace make vows to God? Defend your answer biblically.

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Spiritual Life

Lesson 54: God’s Boot Camp (Genesis 29:1-30)

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At 3 a.m. you’re awakened from a peaceful sleep when the lights come on and you hear a maniac screaming, “All right, you scum-bags! I want you out of the sack and in formation in five minutes! And your beds had better be made or you’ll be sea-bagging for two hours!”

Ah, the joys of boot camp! You arrive thinking of all the benefits the military has promised you, the valued recruit. When I was in boot camp, a recruit arrived with his fishing pole and water skis--the honest recruiter had told him that the base was located where you could fish and water ski. I suppose a person could do those things. But when a mean drill sergeant starts screaming in your face you learn that a recruit isn’t a person! Reality sets in quickly!

In Genesis 28, we saw God’s beginning with Jacob. At his time of great need, the Lord broke into Jacob’s life, promised to bless him and to fulfill with him all of His covenant promises to Abraham (28:13‑ 15). In 29:1, the Hebrew says that Jacob “lifted up his feet,” an expression which means that he had a new bounce in his steps as he continued his journey. God was with him, his guilt from the past was gone, his fear of Esau had subsided. Things were looking up!

What Jacob didn’t realize was that he had just entered God’s boot camp. He was in for a difficult 20-year term under God’s unwitting drillmaster, Laban. God would use these trying years to knock a lot of rough edges off Jacob. Ultimately, yes, God would bless him. But part of the process involved breaking Jacob of his selfish ways.

God promises to bless each person who trusts in Christ. Like Jacob, we say, “Sounds like a great program! Sure, I’ll let You be my God if You’ll bless me!” But we don’t read the fine print that tells us that God’s blessings always come through His discipline. To bless us and use us to bless others, God has to break us from our dependence on the flesh and shape us into the image of His Son, who learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). So God enrolls us in His boot camp. It’s a tough program that lasts many years.

Moses’ readers were there. They had followed him out of slavery in Egypt, expecting to move right in to their luxury condos in Canaan, with milk and honey flowing from the tap. Instead, they had endured 40 difficult years in the wilderness and now faced the frightening prospect of fighting the giants who occupied those condominiums. It wasn’t quite what they had signed up for. Jacob’s story shows that ...

God graciously uses circumstances, consequences, and difficult people, over time, to shape His people.

1. God uses circumstances to shape His people.

Note the fortunate circumstances which Jacob encounters on his trip. He happens upon a well where there happen to be some shepherds, who happen to be from Haran and happen to know Laban. Just as Jacob is talking to them, Rachel happens to come along. What luck!

Or is it luck? At first you might think so, because the Lord isn’t mentioned in 29:1‑30. Unlike Abraham’s servant who went to Haran in search of a bride for Isaac, who prayed and was led by the Lord to Rebekah (24:27), there is no word that Jacob prayed. How do we know that God ordered Jacob’s circumstances?

There are three clues in the context, plus the teaching of the rest of the Bible, to tell us that God was behind all these events. First, in 28:15 God promised Jacob that He would keep him wherever he went and would not leave him. God was with Jacob even though Jacob may not have acknowledged it. The second clue is in 29:2, where “behold” occurs twice [NASB margin], indicating the amazing providence of God in leading Jacob to the very spot he needed to be at the moment he needed to be there. The third clue is in 29:31, where we read, “Now the Lord saw ....” God wasn’t asleep, even though He isn’t mentioned in verses 1‑30. He was watching, arranging the circumstances to shape Jacob into the man He wanted him to be.

Besides the context is the teaching of all the Bible, which shows that God sovereignly works out His purpose in the circumstances of history. He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). David proclaims that in God’s book were written all “the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Ps. 139:16). God ordains all our circumstances and uses them to break us of dependence on the flesh and to shape us into the image of Christ.

I can’t be dogmatic, but if I read the first part of this story correctly, Jacob is still trying to arrange his own circumstances for his own advantage, not realizing how God is superintending the whole process. Remember, Jacob is coming to his uncle with only the clothes on his back (32:10). He doesn’t have any gifts, as Abraham’s servant brought, so he needs some bargaining power. These shepherds seem somewhat lazy and passive. So Jacob sees his opportunity. When Rachel arrives, he moves into action. He rolls the large stone from the mouth of the well and waters her sheep. While she’s trying to figure out this hero, he kisses her, breaks into tears, and then introduces himself. It’s a blitzkrieg approach!

Why did Jacob weep? It was probably an overflow of emotion that hit him when he realized how well everything had worked out‑‑he was safely in Haran with his mother’s relatives, and that this particular relative happened to be a strikingly beautiful young lady. Perhaps she reminded him of his mother (“mother” occurs three times in 29:10). While Jacob may not have planned his tears, it added to his opening advantage. The point is, even though Jacob is still his old self, trying to arrange everything for his advantage, God was there behind the scenes, ordering everything. God would use these circumstances to shape Jacob in ways Jacob couldn’t yet imagine.

2. God uses consequences to shape His people.

Things went well for Jacob for one month. He fell head over heels in love with Rachel. Going to watch over the sheep with her had given the shepherding business a whole new dimension for Jacob. Life was taking a turn for the better. His past was behind him. Uncle Laban seemed to like him‑‑even called him “my bone and my flesh” (29:14). He was part of the family. Until now, it would look as if Jacob had skated away from his past sins. Rebekah’s scheme seemed to work. Jacob received the blessing. Esau’s murderous anger had been thwarted. Jacob had arrived safely in Haran and had met beautiful Rachel. And Laban was treating him like a son. Besides, God had forgiven him. So Jacob shrugged off his past.

But God never lets us sin and walk away without consequences. He forgives the eternal penalty of our sin when we trust Christ, but He doesn’t remove all the temporal consequences. If He did, we’d take sin lightly and not deal with its roots in our lives. It may take a while for the seeds we’ve sown to sprout, but they will come up.

After a month, Uncle Laban comes to Jacob with what sounds like a generous offer: “Because you are my brother, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (29:15). But don’t be fooled! Laban is a shrewd operator who always has his eye on his own advantage. He’s actually serving notice that Jacob isn’t going to freeload indefinitely. He’s going to have to work for his keep. While the wily Laban calls Jacob his brother, he also makes it clear who is serving whom (“serve me”). Laban craftily put Jacob under his thumb!

So Jacob begins to reap some of what he’s sown. He’s never worked for anybody in his life. No doubt he had helped tend his father’s flocks and done household chores. But he was the son of a rich man. Servants had served him. If he hadn’t deceived his father and brother and fled for his life, he would have had ample resources. Like Abraham’s servant securing Rebekah for Isaac, Jacob could have offered his gifts, taken his bride, and been on his way. But because of his deception, he didn’t have anything. He would have to work for his bride.

So he tells Laban that he will serve seven years for Rachel. Laban agrees to the deal, but doesn’t tell him the catch: His seven years for Rachel will follow seven years’ work for her older sister, because they had a custom that the older girl had to be married first. So Jacob has to work seven years for a woman he wouldn’t have served seven days for if he had his choice.

Finally, Jacob’s seven years are up. He has to remind Laban of that fact (29:21). You can be sure that both men were counting (for different reasons), but Laban wasn’t going to remind Jacob if he could get a few extra days of work out of him. Jacob was ready for his wedding night (29:21), but he wasn’t ready for Laban’s treachery. The text delicately puts it, “So it came about that in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” It was dark when Jacob took her into the tent. Leah was veiled, probably dressed in Rachel’s clothes and sprinkled with her perfume. She must have been about the same size as Rachel. There is debate about what “weak eyes” (29:17) means; probably, she didn’t have the sexy sparkle in her eyes that Rachel had. But in the dark, the unsuspecting, overanxious Jacob didn’t notice the finer points. But when he rolled over in the morning to embrace his bride, he got the shock of his life!

So the deceiver is deceived! He’s met his match in Laban. There are obvious parallels between Jacob’s deception of Isaac and Laban’s deception of Jacob. Jacob deceived his blind father; he gets deceived in the dark. He deceived his father; he is deceived by his bride’s father. He cheated his brother out of the rights of the firstborn; he gets cheated because of the rights of the firstborn to be married first.

Jacob’s “reaping” doesn’t end here. Laban later would take advantage of him by changing his wages (31:41), even as Jacob had taken advantage of Esau with his birthright. Jacob deceived his father with regard to his favorite son (Esau) by covering his hands with goat skins. Jacob later would be deceived by his sons regarding his favorite son (Joseph) when they dipped his robes in the blood of a goat (37:31). Jacob had sown deception; he would reap deception. God uses the consequences of sin to shape His people.

3. God uses difficult people to shape His people.

God doesn’t just use circumstances; He uses people like Laban to be His drill sergeants. That doesn’t excuse Laban’s sin. He was a self‑centered money-grubber from the word go. Later, his two daughters, who didn’t agree on much else, agreed that their dad was using them for the financial gain he could make from them, and consuming the profits on himself (31:15).

But it’s that kind of person that God often uses in the lives of His people to sandpaper off their rough edges. It may be an employer or fellow employee, a family member, or a neighbor. He or she may or may not claim to be a believer. Laban had some knowledge of the Lord, but he also had his idols (30:27; 31:30). But God will use him to drive us to depend on Him. In His boot camp, God uses circumstances, consequences, and difficult people to shape His people. But notice also:

4. God takes time to shape His people.

When Jacob’s mother sent him away, she told him that he would be in Haran for “a few days” (27:44). Jacob wasn’t expecting a 20-year boot camp, but that’s how it turned out. For 14 of those years he didn’t earn anything except board and room and two wives, one of whom he didn’t even want. Yet God didn’t seem to be in any hurry to push Jacob ahead into His program to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants.

God always takes whatever time He deems necessary to train His servants. Joseph spent his twenties in an Egyptian jail. Israel spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt. Moses spent 40 years tending sheep in the wilderness, and another 40 in the wilderness with a stubborn nation. David spent his twenties running from the mad King Saul. Even the apostle Paul spent about ten years after his conversion in obscurity before his ministry began to take off. God has an eternal perspective. His boot camp has no nine-week courses. It takes the long haul to shape His people into the image of Jesus Christ.

All this may sound rather gloomy, and I suppose in one sense it is. “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful” (Heb. 12:11). But even during the pain of God’s discipline, there’s a strand of grace that lightens the burden.

5. God weaves grace into the process of shaping His people.

God graciously uses circumstances, consequences, and difficult people, over time, to shape his people. God’s grace shines through in these events in Jacob’s life. There is no record of Jacob’s seeking the Lord in this passage, even though he is facing some crucial decisions. Abraham’s servant stopped to seek God’s guidance when he went looking for a bride for Isaac, and he paused to thank the Lord when he received it. But here Jacob never seeks God’s guidance, but is graciously guided to the very spot he needs to be just when he needs to be there. Jacob doesn’t bother to express his gratitude to the Lord or to praise Him in front of others, as Abraham’s servant did.

Jacob commits himself to seven years of work for Laban without asking the Lord’s will. He commits himself to marry Rachel without seeking God’s guidance on that most important decision. He accepts a polygamous situation without getting God’s approval. Later, he takes his wives’ handmaids, as Abraham had taken Hagar, without a prayer. Yet in spite of Jacob’s spiritual immaturity and self‑directed life, God graciously gave him the woman he loved, blessed him with 12 sons and some daughters (46:7), blessed him financially in spite of Laban’s tricks, and returned him safely to the land of Canaan, where his brother received him without a trace of revenge. That’s God’s grace!

Jacob’s trials were especially softened by his love for Rachel. It seems to have been a case of love at first sight. The seven years of waiting seemed like days to him because of his love for her. Although he seems to have been more attracted to her looks than to her spiritual qualities, it seems to have been a lasting love, not just infatuation. On his death bed, about 50 years after her death, Jacob recalls his sorrow at burying Rachel when he returned to Canaan. Jacob’s love for Rachel was God’s gracious provision to soften these hard years of boot camp.


Let me mention five lessons to apply this section of Scripture:

1. Recognize and submit to God’s hand in the daily events of your life. Things don’t just happen to you. You haven’t had a spell of bad luck. God arranges your circumstances to shape you into the image of Jesus Christ. We all tend to see God’s hand in the big crises, but we need to see His hand in the little irritations‑‑car trouble, the sick child who forces you to change your plans, interruptions. I find that if I will recognize God’s hand in those things and submit to Him, I can grow through it. But if I grumble, I’m “regarding lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Heb. 12:5), and I’ll miss the opportunity for growth.

2. Submit to God when you reap the consequences of your sin. God uses the consequences of our sin to shape us. He doesn’t do this to get even or because He is cruel. He does it out of love to teach us how serious our sin is. We all tend to excuse ourselves and blame others for our sin. A deceiver doesn’t think deception is all that bad‑‑until he gets deceived! Jacob is truly shocked that Laban could pull such a dirty trick on a nice guy like him! There’s nothing like a dose of our own medicine to help us see how our sin hurts others and displeases God. So God lovingly allows us to suffer the consequences of our sin so that we will see ourselves accurately and turn from our sin.

When the consequences hit, our tendency is either to accuse God of being unfair or to try to skate out from under things through some new scheme or sin. But God wants us to submit to Him. David responded properly when the child he had sinfully conceived with Bathsheba died: He worshiped the Lord (2 Sam. 12:20). Later, when David’s kingdom suffered because of his sin, he didn’t blame God or scheme to turn things around. He submitted to his affliction and to God’s sovereignty as to whether his kingdom would be restored (2 Sam. 15:25‑26, 16:11‑12). We need to be careful not to malign the Lord and to acknowledge, publicly if need be, that God is just and that we deserve all and even more than is happening to us.

3. Don’t run from the difficult people in your life until God gives you the okay. If you’re married to the difficult person, God isn’t giving the okay! But with Jacob, the day came when God told him to leave Laban and return to Canaan. Then it was okay. Before then, Jacob would have been wrong to run. We all tend to run from the difficult people God puts in our lives to shape us. A teenager gets married to escape her difficult parents. Guess what? She marries a difficult husband! Or a teenager is fed up with his parents’ rules, so he joins the army. I’ve never been able to figure out that one! If you’ve got a difficult person in your life, rather than complaining about him and running from him, ask yourself what God is trying to teach you about yourself through this person.

4. Plan to persevere over the long haul. Christianity isn’t a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon. A lot of people want instant answers to their problems, and when they don’t get them, they bail out and go looking for some other solution. Years ago, I counseled a young mother who was a drug addict. At one point I described for her what a walk with God looks like in daily practice. I asked, “Have you ever done that?” She said, “Yeah, I tried it, but it didn’t work.” I asked her how long she had tried it. She said, “Two weeks.” She wanted easy, instant deliverance. She didn’t like the idea of a lifetime of disciplining herself for the purpose of godliness. When you become a Christian, you’re in for life, so don’t faint when you are reproved by the Lord (Heb. 12:5). Settle in for the long haul.

5. Thank God for the gracious blessings He bestows in spite of your sin. Although God was abundantly gracious in leading and protecting Jacob and in giving him the joy of love for Rachel, there is not one recorded word of gratitude on Jacob’s part (Gen. 47:9). Sure, the discipline hurts, but God only does it because He loves us as a father loves his children. With the discipline, He weaves in ample doses of grace, so that we can enjoy even the hard times.

Dr. John Hanna, one of my seminary professors told of how, when he and his wife were moving to Dallas to attend seminary, their VW caught fire. They were only able to pull to the side of the Interstate and watch helplessly as everything they owned went up in flames. What would you do at that point? He and his wife knelt down by that burned car and sang the doxology!

Instead of complaining because God doesn’t give you what you want, be thankful that He doesn’t give you what you deserve! He lovingly, graciously uses the circumstances of your life, the consequences of sin, and difficult people, over the long haul, “for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:10). It may be boot camp, but it’s a whole lot better than living apart from His gracious promises in Christ!

Discussion Questions

  1. If God uses difficult circumstances, when is it okay to try to change things for the better? Must we always be passive?
  2. Discuss: Does God ever lighten the harvest after we’ve sown to the flesh (Gal. 6:7-8)?
  3. Why is God’s usual method growth through discipline rather than instant deliverance from problems?
  4. How would you answer the charge that God condones polygamy, especially in light of this passage?
  5. Is it wrong to confront the difficult people in our lives? Must obedient Christians just be doormats?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Single Prepositions With Multiple Objects In Matthew 3:11 And John 3:5: An Exegetical Argument Running Amok?

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For many New Testament professors teaching Greek, one of the joys of ministry is to show students how the understanding of Greek enhances one’s ability to correctly interpret the New Testament in a way that a study of translations of the Greek text falls short. At the same time one must caution budding Greek scholars not to press the Greek beyond what exegetical information it can yield. The latter seems to be the case with arguments that keep working their way into quality published New Testament literature by experienced scholars relating to the exegetical significance of single prepositions with multiple objects when multiple prepositions could have been used. In short the claim is sometimes made that when a New Testament writer uses one preposition with multiple objects of that preposition which are connected by καί a conceptual unity is so closely made it must refer to one event or act. This argument at least in part traces back to the article by Murray J. Harris in the Appendix of the Dictionary of New Testament Theology (DNTT), which states:

Generally speaking, a preposition tends to be repeated before a series of nouns joined by kai more frequently in biblically Gk. (under Semitic influence) than in nonbiblical Gk. . . . Sometimes therefore, the non-use of a second or third prep. in NT Gk. may be theologically significant, indicating that the writer regarded the terms that he placed in one regimen as belonging naturally together or as a unit in concept or reality. Ex hydatos kai pneumatos (Jn. 3:5) shows that for the writer (or speaker) “water” and “Spirit” together form a single means of that regeneration which is a perquisite for entrance into the kingdom of God (= birth anothen, Jn. 3:3, 7). No contrast is intended between an external element of “water” and an inward renewal achieved by the Spirit. Conceptually the two are one. Similarly the phrase en pneumati hagio kai pyri points not two baptisms (viz., the righteous with the Holy Spirit, the wicked with fire), but to a single baptism in Spirit-and-fire, that may be interpreted either as the messianic purification and judgement that would be effected by the Spirit (cf. Is 4:4; 30:28) and experienced by all, or as the outpouring of the Spirit on believers at Pentecost that would refine and inflame them.1

While the above description has been qualified with statements like generally, tends, sometimes or may, the impression is given that one can and should take this as a valid exegetical argument, and commentators have done just that.2 For example, citing DNTT (and J. Dunn) Carson in commenting on Matthew 3:11 states, “There are good reasons, however, for taking ‘fire’ as a purifying agent along with the Holy Spirit. The people John is addressing are being baptized by him; presumably they have repented. More important [emphasis mine] the single preposition ἐν (“with”) is not repeated before fire: the one preposition governs both the Holy Spirit and fire that this normally suggests a unified concept. Spirit-fire or the like.”3 Likewise, Turner in his commentary on Matthew also cites the single preposition as part of his argument that one baptism is intended instead of two, and that baptism of fire is a “purifying baptism.” He writes, “Although some scholars (e.g., Bruner 1987; 78-79; Luz 1989; 171; Ridderbos 1987:55) see two baptisms here, one in the Spirit indicating salvation and the other in fire indicating judgment, it is preferable to see only one purifying baptism. The grammar of the passage supports this, since the verb ‘will baptize’ occurs once and the preposition ἐν occurs once with ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ as a compound object.”4

In John 3:5 DNTT is cited by Belleville to make the following statement: In v 5, ὕδωρ and πνεῦμα are governed by a single preposition (ἐκ) and conjoined by καὶ, indicating that the phrase is to be viewed as a conceptual unity, viz, “water-spirit.” We are dealing there with a water-spirit source that is the origin of man’s second γένεσις (v. 3).”5 More recently Köstenburger sees John 3:5 as refering to “one spiritual birth” based in part on the same argument. He writes, “Rather than referring to water and spirit baptism, two kinds of birth or a variety of other things, the phrase probably denotes one spiritual birth (Carson 1991:194). This is suggested by the fact that ‘born of water and spirit’ in 3:5 further develops ‘born again/from above’ in 3:3, by the use of one preposition (ἐξ, ex) to govern both phrases in 3:, [italics mine] and by antecedent OT (prophetic) theology.”6

Regardless of one’s position on both of these passages, the one preposition with multiple object argument is seen to be having an influence on interpretation in ruling out certain views and arguing for others. The purpose of this paper then is to question the value of the argument based on linguistic norms and flexibility of both Semitic and Koine syntax, and more importantly New Testament usage itself. In short, it appears the presence of a single preposition with multiple objects as requiring a close conceptual unity that would not be present if two prepositions were used should not be used as an exegetical argument giving much, if any, weight in interpretive decisions in the New Testament7.

Semitic Background

Waltke and O’ Connor’s state that the normative situation in Biblical Hebrew is to repeat a preposition when there are multiple objects But they also say that it is “not rare” for one preposition to govern multiple objects, which they describe as “prepositional override.” 8An example of this is seen in 1 Sam 15:22 (Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices? [note that the preposition ב is not repeated here]):

החפץ ליהוה בעלות וזבחים (1 Sam 15:22)

Waltke and O’ Connor also note that in poetry a preposition may do “double duty” in which one preposition may have an object in one line and carry over to a second object in a second line (clause) without being repeated. An example of this is found in Isaiah 48:14 (he will carry out His good pleasure against Babylon, and His arm [will be against] the Chaldeans [note also here that the preposition ב is not repeated]):9

יעשׂה חפצו בבבל וזרעו כשׂדים (Isaiah 48:14)

The Syriac (e.g., later form of biblical Aramaic) appears to be the same as Hebrew. Nöldeke comments: “The relation of prepositions to what is governed by them is in Syriac, as in Semitic speech generally, that of the Constr. St. to the Genitive. In both cases the governed word must immediately follow the governing; although in both cases short words may by way of exception come between.”10 In other words since the governed word must immediately follow the preposition prepositions normatively are repeated to get the preposition right next to its object.

Examples in LXX as Compared to Hebrew11

Seeing how the LXX rendered some multiple-preposition phrases from Greek to Hebrew sheds a little light that the Greek may have reduced the number of prepositions or just left them in. Two examples will suffice.

Example of LXX Preposition Reduction: Exodus 9:3 behold, the hand of the LORD will come with a very severe pestilence on your livestock which are in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks.]

הנה יד־יהוה הויה במקנך אשׁר בשׂדה בסוסים בחמרים בגמלים בבקר  ובצאן דבר כבד מאד׃Exodus 9:3

Exodus 9:3 ἰδοὺ χεὶρ κυρίου ἐπέσται ἐν τοῖς κτήνεσίν σου τοῖς ἐν τοῖς πεδίοις ἔν τε τοῖς ἵπποις καὶ ἐν12 τοῖς ὑποζυγίοις καὶ [Preposition omitted] ταῖς καμήλοις καὶ [Preposition omitted] βουσὶν καὶ [Preposition omitted] προβάτοις θάνατος μέγας σφόδρα

Example of LXX Keeping the Prepositions with Καί: Genesis 40:2 And Pharaoh was furious with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker.

ויקצף פרעה על שׁני סריסיו על שׂר המשׁקים ועל שׂר האופים׃ Genesis 40:2

Genesis 40:2 καὶ ὠργίσθη Φαραω ἐπὶ τοῖς δυσὶν εὐνούχοις αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τῷ ἀρχιοινοχόῳ καὶ ἐπὶ [Preposition kept] τῷ ἀρχισιτοποιῷ

One can also refer to Turner’s analysis below of the LXX in Ezekiel to see how often it has multiple prepositions (84%) versus a single when multiple objects are present. This is the highest percentage of all the literature examined including the New Testament (the next highest is Revelation at 63%). In other words, the LXX uses multiple prepositions far more than the New Testament in spite of the Semitic background of most of the New Testament authors.

Greek Background

Nigel Turner and A.T. Robertson address single prepositions with multiple objects in their advanced grammars.13 Turner is most helpful in describing the situation in biblical and nonbiblical Greek in stating that in both cases repetition and nonrepitition is common. He writes, “Both repetition and omission of the preposition before two or more phrases connected by καί is found in Ptol.pap. and NT.” 14 In nonbiblical Greek, Turner states that Polyb. [Polybius (II-III BC)] is “fond of repeating the preposition” but “by far the greater majority of instances in the Ptol. Papyri, especially in the unofficial style of writing, the preposition is not repeated.”15 Repetition occurs when each word must be emphasized separately. He cites Thucydides’ book one in which out of 25 opportunities to repeat a preposition he does so 6 times for emphasis, which makes the emphasis necessary. He then cites various books in biblical Greek showing how many opportunities the authors had in repeating the preposition and how many times they did. He gives the following chart: 16

Table 1




































Changing the data from Turner into percentages gives a good perspective of on prepositional use tendencies by author and book. One can see that Luke-Acts and Thucydides repeat prepositions much less frequently than other authors, but not that far behind are Matthew, Mark and Paul. Since one highly doubts that Thucydides was influenced by Semitisms even though the sample was small, it does give some perspective of baseline for comparative purposes pointing out what everyone agrees are some measures of Semitic influences in the New Testament.

Table 2


Percentage of Repeated Preposition with καί when opportunity was there



Ezek (B-Text)








Gospel of John


Paul (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Pastoral Epistles)




Robertson also notes that when nouns are used with the same preposition in the New Testament, prepositions are more frequently repeated than in earlier Greek. He cites Winer’s view (see footnote 1) that the repetition only happens when the two nouns do not easily occur in the same category. But he states that this is only true within limits since there is “more freedom” in the later Greek. In other words sometimes it is true but other times not. He cautions that “one cannot insist on any ironclad rule” as he cites examples of two prepositions with nouns in the same category (e.g., Luke 27:27; e.g., Moses and the Prophets). He gives other examples noting that conjunctive combinations (e.g., καὶ . . . καὶ; τὲ . . . καὶ), disjunctive conjunctions, and rhetorical reasons may also be influencing whether one or two prepositions are used.17

Observations and Analysis

With this background as a starting point, there are several reasons not to take a single preposition with multiple objects as a good exegetical argument for conceptual unity that would not be present if two prepositions would have been used.

1. Since prepositional phrases frequently modify the verb18 and thus are adverbial in function there is always going to be some conceptual unity due to the fact that the same verb is being modified regardless of how many prepositions are used. This verb will have the same subject and direct object if there is one. For example if one says “I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” or “I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, the subject (I), verb (baptize) and direct object (you) are the same in either case. This produces a conceptual unity on one level whether or not one or two prepositions are used. But can one say with any certainty that the single preposition is putting the both objects (e.g., Holy Spirit and fire) into one category or event while conversely two prepositions would have put them into two categories or events?

2. The very nature of natural repetition of the preposition in Semitic idiom and natural lack of repetition in Greek idiom leaves one wanting whether an author is being more influenced by his Semitic background, translation issues of the Old Testament or speech, other written sources, or just natural Koine Greek. This is the crux of the problem with using single proportions to argue for single events or categories that would not be communicated with multiple prepositions. Yet the proof is in the pudding. One must inductively look at the New Testament itself to see that the NDTT argument cannot hold up with any measure of confidence.

3. There is a clear case in the New Testament where when referring to the same event(s) that a single preposition is used with multiple objects alongside a multiple preposition construction with multiple objects.

In 1 John 5:6 John writes: οὗτός ἐστιν ἐλθὼν δι᾽ ὕδατος καὶ αἵματος, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι μόνον ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι καὶ ἐν τῷ αἵματι· καὶ τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ μαρτυροῦν, ὅτι τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν ἀλήθεια (This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood). Here the first reference to the one coming in “water and blood” has the single preposition δι᾽but in the second part of the same sentence the water and blood are governed by two prepositions (ἐν). Since water and blood in both cases must refer to the same event(s), a single or double preposition cannot be determinative whether a single event (e.g., the blood and water pouring out of Jesus’ side on the cross) or multiple event (e.g., Jesus’ baptism and his death) are in view. Perhaps one could say that the second case is more emphatic, but this would not change the basic outlook that the same event(s) is in view.

4. There are cases in the New Testament where the same author refers to groups as prepositional objects linked with a single preposition and also refers to the same groups with repeated prepositions.

For example in John7:45 the “chief priests and Pharisees” are linked by a single preposition: Ἦλθον οὖν οἱ ὑπηρέται πρὸς τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ Φαρισαίους, καὶ εἶπον αὐτοῖς ἐκεῖνοι· διὰ τί οὐκ ἠγάγετε αὐτόν; (The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?”). However in John 18:3 the same two groups are referred to with multiple prepositions: οὖν Ἰούδας λαβὼν τὴν σπεῖραν καὶ ἐκ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ ἐκ19 τῶν Φαρισαίων ὑπηρέτας ἔρχεται ἐκεῖ μετὰ φανῶν καὶ λαμπάδων καὶ ὅπλων. (John 18:3 Judas then, having received the Roman cohort, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.) So in John 7:45 the chief priests and Pharisees are linked by the single preposition (πρὸς) while in John 18:3 the same two groups of people are linked by two prepositions (ἐκ) with no discernable difference in meaning of linkage or nonlinkage between the groups.

Also in Luke’s reference to the divisions of the Old Testament, single or multiple prepositions can be used. In Luke 24:27 he writes: καὶ ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ Μωϋσέως καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων20 τῶν προφητῶν διερμήνευσεν αὐτοῖς ἐν πάσαις ταῖς γραφαῖς τὰ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ. Then in Luke 24:27 he writes: Εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς· οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι μου οὓς ἐλάλησα πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἔτι ὢν σὺν ὑμῖν, ὅτι δεῖ πληρωθῆναι πάντα τὰ γεγραμμένα ἐν τῷ νόμῳ Μωϋσέως καὶ τοῖς προφήταις καὶ ψαλμοῖς περὶ ἐμοῦ. (Luke 24:44 BGT).21 Here the Mosiac law and the Prophets can be grouped by Luke with either one preposition or two.

5. A case in the New Testament where the same author refers to linked geographical areas as prepositional objects with a single preposition and also refers to linked areas with repeated prepositions.

In Matthew 2:16, for example, Matthew writes: Τότε Ἡρῴδης ἰδὼν ὅτι ἐνεπαίχθη ὑπὸ τῶν μάγων ἐθυμώθη λίαν, καὶ ἀποστείλας ἀνεῖλεν πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω, κατὰ τὸν χρόνον ὃν ἠκρίβωσεν παρὰ τῶν μάγων. . . while in Matthew 4:13 he writes: καὶ καταλιπὼν τὴν Ναζαρὰ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ τὴν παραθαλασσίαν ἐν ὁρίοις Ζαβουλὼν καὶ Νεφθαλίμ· In these examples both two prepositions and one preposition are used to describe geographical areas that could be considered linked by the proximity to each other. It would be difficult to say that Zebulun and Naptali have a special conceptual unity because of the single preposition while Bethlehem and its regions do not due to the use of two prepositions. One wonders if the πᾶσι may be influencing the use of the second preposition in Matthew 2:16.

6. Cases in the New Testament where the same author refers to distinct cities as prepositional objects with a single preposition and also refers to distinct cities with repeated prepositions.

Luke in Acts 14: 19-21 writes concerning distinct cities 19 Ἐπῆλθαν δὲ ἀπὸ Ἀντιοχείας καὶ Ἰκονίου Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ πείσαντες τοὺς ὄχλους καὶ λιθάσαντες τὸν Παῦλον ἔσυρον ἔξω τῆς πόλεως νομίζοντες αὐτὸν τεθνηκέναι. . . . 21 εὐαγγελισάμενοί τε τὴν πόλιν ἐκείνην καὶ μαθητεύσαντες ἱκανοὺς ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς τὴν Λύστραν καὶ εἰς Ἰκόνιον καὶ εἰς Ἀντιόχειαν. In these examples and one preposition is used in ἀπὸ Ἀντιοχείας καὶ Ἰκονίου, while multiple prepositions are used in εἰς τὴν Λύστραν καὶ εἰς Ἰκόνιον καὶ εἰς Ἀντιόχειαν. In the first case, Jews are coming from Antioch and Iconuim; in the second statement, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Later, in Acts 16:1, Paul came to Derbe and to Lystra described with two prepositions: Κατήντησεν δὲ [καὶ]22 εἰς Δέρβην καὶ εἰς Λύστραν. καὶ ἰδοὺ μαθητής τις ἦν ἐκεῖ ὀνόματι Τιμόθεος, υἱὸς γυναικὸς Ἰουδαίας πιστῆς, πατρὸς δὲ Ἕλληνος).

7. A case in the New Testament where the two synoptic authors in a parallel account refer to the event with prepositional objects one governed with a single preposition but the other with repeated prepositions.

In Matthew 4:25, Matthew uses one preposition (ἀπὸ) to govern a long list of areas from which people are following Jesus (καὶ ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ Δεκαπόλεως καὶ Ἱεροσολύμων καὶ Ἰουδαίας καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου. And great multitudes followed Him from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.)23 In the parallel passage in Mark 3:7-8, Mark uses multiple prepositions (ἀπὸ is used four times.) ( καὶ πολὺ πλῆθος ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας [ἠκολούθησεν], καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰουδαίας 8 καὶ ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰδουμαίας καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου καὶ περὶ Τύρον καὶ Σιδῶνα; and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and also from Judea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, and the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon.)

8. Lastly, there are Trinitarian references to the Father and Son with both single and multiple preposition constructions by different authors. Paul consistently uses one preposition in his saluations, while John can be seen to use two prepositions in his writings. NDTT and Mounce try to make a theological point on Paul’s use of the single preposition in these contructions. 24

A good example in Paul can be seen in Rom 1:7 where Paul writes: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. (Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; cf 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2 Gal 1:1, 3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem 3.)

However, John in 2 John 3 in the salutation uses two prepositions: χάρις ἔλεος εἰρήνη παρὰ θεοῦ πατρὸς καὶ παρὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν ἀληθείᾳ καὶ ἀγάπῃ. (Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. John also uses two prepositions referring to the Father and Son in 1 John 1:3 (καὶ κοινωνία δὲ ἡμετέρα μετὰ τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ μετὰ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ) and 1 John 2:24 (καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε; you also will abide in the Son and in the Father). In spite of two prepositions in these constructions, John through other explicit statements sees a strong unity between the Father and Son (e.g., “I and the Father are one” [John 10:30] or, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father ‘?” [John 14:9]).


While not an exhaustive study, these examples should give one pause in assigning exegetical linkage or distinction when interpreting objects of prepositions based on single or multiple preposition constructions. Anyone who has seriously tried to translate the Old Testament into English has felt the tension between being faithful to the Hebrew or Aramaic text and the very unnatural English expression that can be created by strings of multiple prepositions. The decision to leave them all or omit some is usually due to translation philosophy and how much the natural English is strained. When omission is done it is not to create a special conceptual unity to communicate the same event or category but to express a concept in natural idiom. Even if a translator or author would have a native Semitic background he would probably want to the best of his ability get the text into natural form of the receptor language whatever it was. It is hoped that the raising of this red flag would spur further research and discussion to better understand how prepositions are used in the New Testament and what they do or do not communicate. As A.T. Robertson cautioned, freedom rather than rule seems to govern this aspect of Greek syntax.

1 Murray J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (4 vols.; Ed. Colin Brown; Zondervan Grand Rapids, 1986) 3: 1178. In Harris’ more recent work on Greek prepositions, he makes the same points. Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 43-44. There is a similar statement with more examples in the older grammar by Winer-Lünemann. It states there “When two or more substantives dependent on the same preposition immediately follow one another joined together by a copula, the preposition is most naturally repeated, if the substantives in question denote things which are to be conceived as distinct and independent, . . . but not repeated, if the substantives fall under a single category, or (if proper names under one common class.” George Winer and , A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament (Revised by G. Lünemann and Edited by J. Henry Thayer; Warren Draper Publishers , Andover, 1869) 419-420.

2 In Harris’ in another place writes, “The repetition of a preposition with each noun connected by καί occurs so frequently in certain NT books as to be a feature of Biblical Greek attributable to Semitic influence. Of course in itself a repeated preposition need not betray Semitic practice, for any Greek writer may repeat a preposition with several substantives in one regimen in order to highlight the distinction between them.” Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, 37.

3 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary (Ed. Frank E Gaebelein; 12 vols.; Zondervan, Grand Rapids) 8:105. I note that in verse 12 Carson interprets the wheat and chaff as believers and unbelievers respectively with the fire and verse 12 referring to hell. While many English translations start a new sentence at verse 12 the Greek text starts with a relative pronoun which has to be attached grammatically to the previous clause αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί·12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ (Matt 3:11-12).

4 Turner then goes back and forth between one baptism with two aspects or a hendiadys in which the two objects communicate a single meaning, listing OT texts that associate the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit with cleansing water and refining fire. He summarizes, “So it is best to conclude that the one eschatological outpouring of the Spirit through which Jesus will purify and judge.” This he says is pictured with the following illustration of wheat and chaff. I would note that Turner’s full discussion is a little confusing and inconsistent if one keeps reading the commentary on the wheat and chaff analogy, which he appears to take as believers (wheat) and unbelievers (chaff). Is the baptism of fire a purifying judgment of believers or a judgment of unbelievers in hell? David Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker, Grand Rapids 2008) 115-116.

5 Linda Bellevile, “Born of Water and Spirit:” John 3:5, Trinity Journal 1 (Fall 1980) 135. Carson citing Belleville concurs that the single preposition in John 3:5 favors the single birth view. D. A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.; Baker, Grand Rapids, 1996) 42.

6 Andreas J. Köstenburger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker, Grand Rapids 2008) 123-124.

7 Harris does give the caution that one must make allowance for an author’s stylistic variation. He writes, “the exegete should not assume . . . . that the use or nonuse of the preposition in successive phrases or parallel passages always marks a change of meaning. A writer may merely wish to avoid repetition or vary his style.” Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, 40.

8 Van der Merve, Naude and Kroeze, essentially says the same thing using the same examples of Waltke and O Conner. Christo H.J. van der Merwe, Jackie A. Naude, and Jan H. Kroeze, A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 2000) 240.

9 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’ Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake Indiana, 1990) 222-223. For numerous examples on the extending of the one preposition to a second object in poetic parallelism see also F. H. W. Gesenius, Gesenius Hebrew Grammar. (Ed E. Kautzsch; Trans. A.E. Cowley; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988) 384. Joüon adds, “In a case of enumeration, when several nouns are logically governed by a preposition, this preposition is often repeated.” Paul Joüon, S.J. and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew Part Three Syntax (Editrice Ponificio Istituto Biblioco, Rome, 1993) 484.

10 Theodore Nöldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar (trans. James A. Crichton; Williams & Norgate, London, 1904) 191.

11 These examples were given by Joüon.

12 The τε και combination may be the reason this preposition is kept in Greek and not omitted as the following ones are.

13 Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek – Syntax (Ed. James Hope Moulton; 4 vols.; T and T Clark. Edinburgh, 1963) 3: 275. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Broadman Press, Nashville, 1934) 566.

14 Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek – Syntax, 275.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 566.

18 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 356.

19 The Byzantine manuscripts omit this preposition.

20 Perhaps the word πάντων is influencing Luke to add the second preposition here to make it a little more emphatic.

21Acts 28:23 Ταξάμενοι δὲ αὐτῷ ἡμέραν ἦλθον πρὸς αὐτὸν εἰς τὴν ξενίαν πλείονες οἷς ἐξετίθετο διαμαρτυρόμενος τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, πείθων τε αὐτοὺς περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπό τε τοῦ νόμου Μωϋσέως καὶ τῶν προφητῶν, ἀπὸ πρωῒ ἕως ἑσπέρας. (Acts 28:23 BGT) In this example the use of the τε . . και combination still does not lead Luke to add the second preposition.

22 Good support for the omission of the καί comes from a few good representatives of the Alexandrian text type (a, apparently P74) and most of the Western (D, latt) and Byzantine textual traditions. Support for the text comes from other representatives of the Alexandrian textual tradition (P45, B). Internally in support of the critical text it could be an accidental omission or in support of the variant an intentional addition influenced by the double preposition in some of the Alexandrian manuscripts (e.g., a double καί construction [both . . . and]). But in any case, two prepositions are used.

23 Turner also cites this passage to show how far the stretch of a single preposition can extend into multiple objects. Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek – Syntax, 275.

24 NIDNTT states on Paul’s salutation, “The fact that ‘God our Father’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ are joined together under the bond of a single prep. (apo) in all Pauline salutations (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:3) suggests that the apostle envisaged the Father and the Son as a joint source of ‘grace and people,’ rather than as distinct sources or as a source and channel (respectively). They sustain a single relation (not two diverse relations) to the grace and peace that come to believers.” Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3: 1178. Also in his first year Greek Grammar Workbook commenting on a similar construction in Galatians 1:3-4, Mounce writes, “Notice that ἀπὸ is not repeated before κυρίου. This is exegetically significant and present in Paul’s salutations. If Paul had thought of “God” and the “Lord” as two different entities, he would have had to repeat the preposition. The fact that he doesn’t shows that he views both as the same entity. It is probably pushing the grammar too far to say that Paul equates Jesus with God, but it does show that Paul views them working in absolute harmony with each other, both being a single agent of grace and peace to the Galatians.” William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Workbook (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2009) 148.

Related Topics: Grammar, Hermeneutics, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Scripture Twisting

Lesson 55: A Family At War (Genesis 29:31-30:24)

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A substitute teacher had been instructed by the school officials not to let students leave the classroom except in the most dire emergencies. One morning the substitute heard a seventh-grader shriek, “Oh, no!” She ran up to the desk, pleading, “I have to run down to Room 102 and tell my brother to eat peanut butter when he goes home for lunch today.” The sub replied, “Surely what your brother eats for lunch is not that important.”

The girl persisted, “Tommy has the first lunch and I have the last. If I don’t tell him before he gets home to eat peanut butter, he’ll have the roast beef that Mom is saving for Dad’s dinner. Then when Dad gets home he’ll say that Mom has to quit her new job because she didn’t have time to get his dinner ready again and Mom will call him a chauvinist pig and tell him to eat out again. Then he’ll come home really late and Mom will say she wants a divorce and she’ll sleep at Grandma’s again....” The sub let her go. (Reader’s Digest, 2/82.)

We may chuckle at the story, but family strife is no laughing matter. Sadly, even many Christian families are war zones. The Christian home should be the place, above all others, where God’s love and kindness are put into practice on a daily basis. Yet all too often, selfishness, bickering, anger, abusive speech, and even physical violence mark even Christian homes. We must obey the principles of God’s Word if we want families where there is peace, not war.

Family conflict is not a recent phenomenon. It has been with the human race since the fall. Our text shows us a portrait of a family at war. It’s startling when we realize that this was the family which God promised to bless and to use to bless all nations, the family from which the Savior would come. And yet a battle was raging. The story reads like a tennis match, with the advantage moving from court to court as the opponents desperately try to defeat one another.

While it’s a bleak picture, the theme of God’s grace runs through it as a strong undercurrent. Jacob wasn’t living in submission to the Lord at this time. His wives were thoroughly self‑centered. And yet God blessed Jacob with eleven sons and one daughter (the twelfth son is born later), forming the basis for the nation which numbered over two million in Moses’ day. Perhaps Moses included this story to humble the nation by showing them that God’s blessing on them was totally due to His grace, not to anything in them or their forefathers.

The story is a case study of a family at war. It is a powerful commentary on the problems of polygamy. While God tolerated polygamy, it was not His original intent, nor is it ever presented favorably in the Bible. While most Americans are not polygamous (we have our wives consecutively, not all at once), the story reveals family members violating God’s principles and paying the consequences.

If we violate God’s principles for the family, we will have strife.

To apply this story, I’m going to bring Jacob forward in time. If he came to me for counsel, I would ask, “Jacob, what’s the problem?” He would answer, “The problem, Steve, is my wives. They’re constantly bickering. All I want is some peace and quiet when I get home after a hard day’s work. I don’t want to listen to, ‘She said this to me,’ and ‘I said this to her.’ I just want some peace. And Rachel is always upset when her monthly cycle starts and she’s not pregnant. She blames me for it‑‑can you believe that? As if I’m God or something! And Leah’s always complaining that I don’t love her like I love Rachel. Give me a break: We’ve had six sons and a daughter together. What does she want, anyway?” Here’s what I would say to Jacob, in condensed form:

1. The husband should lovingly take responsibility for the direction of his family under God.

The Bible clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23), which means that he is given authority under God in the family. This concept is under attack in our day. But biblical authority does not mean barking orders like a sergeant. In biblical authority, the one in authority is always under the authority of Christ, accountable to Him. God grants authority for one main reason: the blessing and protection of those under authority. To use authority for personal advantage is to abuse it. Thus the main concept of authority is not power, but responsibility. God holds the husband accountable for lovingly taking the responsibility of leading his family under God’s authority.

I’m going to shoot straight, Jacob: You are passive. You’re blaming your wives for the problems for which God holds you accountable. You’re just taking the path of least resistance, doing whatever your wives want, to buy a moment’s peace.

Take Rachel’s inability to conceive. Why didn’t you take the initiative to pray for her, as your father Isaac did when your mother had that problem? When Rachel gave you Bilhah, her maid, you passively went along with the plan. Why didn’t you say, “That plan got my grandfather Abraham into a lot of trouble. We shouldn’t do it”? You did the same when Leah offered her maid, Zilpah. When Leah hired you for the night, why didn’t you call a family meeting and deal with the conflict? As your wives named each son to chalk up a memorial for her victory over the other, why didn’t you put a stop to it? You just let things drift as you were tossed from wife to wife at their bidding. I know you wanted peace. But,

A. A husband’s passivity buys instant peace at the price of long‑range problems.

I know, you’re thinking, “What could I do? I was caught in the middle.” I understand that every man wants some peace and quiet when he comes home from a hard day’s work. But part of the job of a leader is to help resolve problems. You can’t hide out at work and hope that the problems at home will go away. You come home late to an angry, frustrated wife, who has been dealing with the problems herself. She unloads on you. You either try to pacify her to get her off your back or you get angry and fight back. Either way, you’re not facing your responsibility to help solve the problems God’s way.

When Rachel saw her sister having children, she grew jealous. She was afraid she might lose your love. So she blamed you by saying, “Give me children, or else I die” (30:1). Rather than being understanding and gently leading her to seek the Lord and confront her sin, you responded in anger and blamed her: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (30:2).

But you need to see why Rachel was barren. God gave Leah children and withheld them from Rachel because you wrongfully neglected Leah (29:31)! You’ve been blaming others for problems which stem from your own passivity. You’re saying, “It’s not my fault! It’s Rachel’s fault or God’s fault, but I don’t have anything to do with it!” But Jacob, if there’s a problem in your family, it’s your problem! You’re responsible to deal with it, and you’d better not shrug it off by blaming your wife. Your anger and blame are just a cover for your passivity.

I know, Jacob, you had no way of knowing that the reason for Rachel’s barrenness was your poor treatment of Leah. I also realize that you can’t undo the past, where you were tricked into marrying two wives. But your entering into a polygamous marriage without ever seeking God’s will reflects your pattern of spiritual passivity. Your passivity got you into this mess, and your continuing passivity has only bought you momentary peace at the price of long‑ range problems. But, before you rush off and start barking orders at your family, you need to understand that the opposite of being passive is not being aggressive. Rather, it is active, biblical love:

B. A husband’s job description is to love his wife even as Christ sacrificially loved the church.

It’s obvious that Leah desperately wants your love. She tried to gain it by giving you sons (29:32, 33, 34), but it didn’t work. But a wife should not need to earn or deserve her husband’s love any more than the church has to earn Christ’s love. I know, Leah’s not as beautiful as Rachel, and you feel like you were trapped into marrying her. But the fact is, you are married to her, and the command is clear: “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” The church isn’t always lovely, but thank God, He loves her anyway. Your job is to love your wife with a view to her becoming all that God wants her to be. God’s grace toward us should be the model for how we treat one another in our families. Being the head of your home means that you should be first in demonstrating Christlike love toward each family member.

C. A husband should set the spiritual climate in the family by taking the initiative in seeking God’s solution to problems.

Isn’t it significant, Jacob, that “the Lord saw that Leah was unloved” (29:31), but you didn’t! The Lord sees every family and every problem in every family. As the head of the family, it’s your responsibility to seek the Lord for wisdom for His solutions to your family’s problems. It’s not just an interesting coincidence that both your grandfather, Abraham, and your father, Isaac, had barren wives, just as you did. God allows these kinds of problems to teach us to depend on Him and to seek Him.

As the spiritual leader, you need to take the initiative in helping your family depend on the Lord and gain His perspective on problems. You do that, in part, by leading them in prayer for whatever problems they’re facing. Prayer helps your family learn that we are dependent on the Lord. It helps them look to the Lord when problems hit. So you must often pray with them and for them.

But, also, you must instruct your family in the ways of the Lord and correct them when necessary. When Rachel blamed you for her barrenness, you could have helped her see her need to deal with her jealousy toward Leah and to seek the Lord who is the giver of life. Your anger prevented her from learning that. When she suggested that you take her maid, Bilhah, you should have told her about how your grandfather got into all sorts of problems by taking his wife’s maid, Hagar, and helped her to wait on the Lord for a child.

When your wives argued over the mandrakes and worked out a deal for you to sleep with Leah, you should have confronted their jealous quarrels. You should have corrected their silly notion that a plant could produce fertility. You should have confessed your wrong in favoring Rachel and neglecting Leah, and sought Leah’s forgiveness. But instead, you passively went along with their deal, without a word of instruction or correction. A husband is responsible to set the spiritual climate in his family and to lead the family to seek God’s solution to problems.

That’s a condensed version of what I would have told Jacob. But let’s suppose his wives came to me. When I ask them what the problem is, they say, “The problem is that passive excuse for a husband that we have. The man just won’t deal with problems. He goes to work early, comes home late, and wants dinner, peace and quiet, and to make lots of babies. He won’t listen when we try to tell him how we feel. He just gets angry and defensive. We don’t feel loved. If any problems are going to get solved, we have to deal with it ourselves; he won’t do anything.” Here, again in condensed form, is what I would tell Jacob’s wives:

2. The wife should submit to her husband as to the Lord, winning him (if need be) by her godly behavior.

Both of you are trying to manipulate Jacob into doing what you think he ought to be doing. But neither of you is facing up to your responsibility to submit to him and to model godliness before him. As long as you’re manipulating, you’re not submitting to him or to the Lord.

A. A wife’s manipulation buys short‑term results and long‑ term frustration.

Leah, you joined in your father’s scheme to deceive Jacob. I realize that you loved Jacob and wanted to be married to him. I know that you were obeying your father and going along with the cultural custom. But you were being manipulative. You got what you wanted‑‑you’re married to Jacob--but, it’s not what you hoped for, so you’re frustrated. You don’t have the love and intimacy you thought your manipulation would bring.

You’re like a lot of wives in our culture who are starved for the love they want from their husbands. Some of them manipulated their husbands into marriage by going to bed with them before the wedding. They thought that the intimacy of sex before marriage would secure them a husband. It did, but he’s not the man they bargained for. He’s wrapped up with his job and emotionally distant from her. She thought having children might help the marriage, but he just lets her take care of the work of raising the kids and can’t understand it when she is too tired for sex. She feels like getting a job herself and dumping the kids in day care.

And Rachel, you used manipulation in giving your maid, Bilhah, to Jacob to bear children on your behalf. You thought you won a great victory over your sister (30:6, 8), but as you know, it was a hollow victory. It didn’t get you what you wanted, even though it got short‑term results. Both of you need to stop the manipulation and submit to your husband as to the Lord.

I know what you’re thinking: “What about my needs? I need to feel loved. How will my needs be met?”

B. A wife must focus on pleasing God, not on having her needs met by marriage or children.

If you focus on meeting your needs, even by the good things God gives, such as marriage and children, you’ll come up empty, because your focus is wrong. In seeking to gain your life, you’ll lose it. But if, instead, you will focus on living in a manner pleasing to God, beginning on the thought level, moving outward to your words and deeds, God Himself will meet your deepest needs. If anything will change your husband, it will be when he sees your quiet spirit of contentment in God (1 Pet. 3:1-6). Your desperate attempts to get your needs met through your husband’s love are counter-productive. Focus on pleasing God.

As sisters, you’ve got to deal with your rivalry for what it is: sin. God’s command is clear: You must love one another, not compete with one another. You’re not loving your children when you use them to try to gain your husband’s love. If you’ll both learn to focus on pleasing God, you won’t have to use manipulation to gain your husband’s love and you won’t have to use your kids to try to fulfill your own needs. Instead, you can love them for who they are.

That’s what I would tell Jacob’s wives. Then I would call both parties together and tell them something like this (again, I’m condensing things and being more blunt than I would be in person):

3. The husband and wife must both submit to the practical Lordship of Christ in daily life.

Your family has a smattering of spirituality, but no one is living practically under the Lordship of Christ on a daily basis. Leah, at first you seemed to be seeking the Lord, as seen in the naming of your sons, especially Judah (“Praise”). But your rivalry with your sister took its toll on your walk with God, so that when you gave Jacob your maid, you left God out of the picture. You named her sons, “Lucky,” and “Happy” (30:11, 13). While you later acknowledged God in things (30:18, 20), you were just using Him for your own ends, not submitting to Him.

And Rachel, you mistakenly thought that God was on your side in your wrestling match with your sister (30:8). You both invoke God to help you in your battle against each other. But God is far from such petty selfishness and rivalry. Rachel, when God didn’t seem to be answering your prayers, you resorted to magical mandrakes, thinking that they could do for you what God wasn’t doing. You’re giving the Lord lip service, but you’re not bowing to His Lordship in your daily life.

And Jacob, you say you had a spiritual experience at Bethel a few years ago. But an experience with God is worthless if you don’t develop a daily walk with Him. You can’t drift for years and expect that experience to carry you. You need to be seeking God’s wisdom about the problems on your job and in your family. You need to be actively trusting Him concerning all these practical matters you face each day. You need to obey Him, not just talk about Him. You’ve got to quit being spiritually passive. Walk with God yourself and take the responsibility to help your family members walk with God. Each of you needs personally to submit to the Lord in these matters of daily life.


You’ve been eavesdropping on how I would counsel Jacob’s family. Even though you’re not in a polygamous marriage, maybe, here and there, you’ve picked up some parallels which you can apply to your situation. I conclude with a story and a Scripture.

A boy once asked, “Dad, how do wars begin?” “Well, take World War I,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.” Immediately his wife interrupted: “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.” The husband snapped back, “Are you answering the question, or am I?” Turning her back upon him in a huff, the wife stomped out of the room and slammed the door. When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the boy. “Daddy, you don’t have to tell me any more; I know now.”

The Scripture comes from James 4:1‑3 (Living Bible): “What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Isn’t it because there is a whole army of evil desires within you? You want what you don’t have, so you kill to get it. You long for what others have, and can’t afford it, so you start a fight to take it away from them. And yet the reason you don’t have what you want is that you don’t ask God for it. And even when you do ask you don’t get it because your whole aim is wrong‑‑you want only what will give you pleasure.”

If your family is at war, don’t apply this message to the other members of your family. Ask God to help you apply it to yourself!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a passive man change? Where would you counsel him to start?
  2. What is the significance of the fact that a husband is never commanded to be the head of his wife, but only to love her?
  3. What should a godly wife do when her husband abuses his authority by mistreating her and the children?
  4. When does a wife’s attempt to influence her husband spiritually cross the line into manipulation?
  5. Can a wife confront her husband when he is wrong and still be submissive? How?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Marriage

Lesson 56: How To Handle Prosperity (Genesis 30:25 31:16)

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Although it’s not as prominent since the fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker ten years ago, there are still many Christians, some here in Flagstaff, who teach that financial prosperity is the Christian’s divine right. “We’re King’s Kids,” they say, “and Kings Kids don’t drive old Volkswagens; they drive new Cadillacs.” They encourage people to claim by faith their right to financial prosperity.

On the other side of the spectrum, but much less popular, are those who argue that material wealth is incompatible with the Christian faith. Tony Campolo, for example, has argued that it is sinful to drive a Mercedes, because Jesus would never have done so. He and others of his persuasion champion the rights of the poor and urge believers to give away everything above a subsistence level.

These competing voices have created much confusion, guilt, and wrong thinking about the Christian view of prosperity. We need God’s perspective on how to handle prosperity. You may be thinking, “I’d love to have that problem!” But as Americans, even the poorest among us is prosperous by the world’s standards. We all need to understand how to handle the prosperity we do, in fact, have.

Our text does not provide a comprehensive biblical answer to this matter, but it does reveal Jacob’s life as God begins to prosper him. He had fled to Haran with nothing (32:10). Now, as he prepares to leave with his wives, children, and possessions, the text describes him as “exceedingly prosperous” (30:43). At this point the Lord appears to Jacob and directs him back to the land of Canaan, reminding him, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; ...” (31:13). If you go back to Jacob’s experience at Bethel, you find that God promised to give Jacob the land of Canaan and to multiply his descendants, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (28:13‑15). But God didn’t make these promises so that Jacob would be happy and comfortable. The goal of God’s promise to prosper Abraham and his descendants was that in them all the families of the earth would be blessed (12:3; 28:15). The blessed people were to become the channel for God’s blessing to all people.

So the prosperity which God gives His people is never to be squandered on selfish living, but rather to be used for furthering His purpose of blessing all people. In God’s reminding Jacob of his vow at Bethel and in Jacob’s wives’ words, “Now, then, do whatever God has said to you” (31:16), the Lord is saying to us:

Since God gives prosperity to be used for His purpose, the prosperous must listen to and obey the Lord.

This is a difficult text to understand. The danger with such texts is that in the attempt to explain things, we’ll lose the application that God wants to make in our lives. I don’t want to do that, so I’m going to try to explain the passage in the process of developing three observations about prosperity which stem from this text. While this is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject, I hope it will give us a perspective on prosperity which will help clear up some confusion.

1. Prosperity comes from the Lord.

America takes pride in the “self‑made man.” The American dream is that if you work hard and smart enough, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and make a fortune. But the teaching of the Bible is clear: Prosperity comes from the Lord, not from our ingenuity, hard work, or breaks. If we prosper, it is because God has prospered us. We don’t have anything except that which we’ve been given by the Lord (1 Cor. 4:7). All we have belongs to Him and must be used as He directs.

Jacob seems to have realized this principle‑‑in part. In 31:5 he tells his wives, “... the God of my father has been with me.” In 31:7 he attests, “God did not allow [Laban] to hurt me.” And in 31:9 he acknowledges, “Thus God has taken away your father’s livestock and given them to me.” Of course this could just be the common tendency we all have of thinking that God is on our side. But in light of Jacob’s Bethel experience, I sense that he really does see God’s hand on him over these difficult 20 years of working for Laban. In part he knows that his prosperity has come from the Lord.

I say, “in part,” because the scheming side of Jacob’s personality is still quite evident. He’s still trying to pull his own strings, to work things out for his own advantage. He finally out‑cons Laban, the con. Another pastor titled his sermon on this chapter, “Jacob Gets Laban’s Goat.” That’s what’s happening here as two schemers vie for advantage.

Rachel bore Joseph (30:25) toward the end of Jacob’s second seven years of indentured service to Laban. His obligation being fulfilled, Jacob began yearning for home, so he approached Laban about returning to Canaan. Laban was the type of guy who is all for the Lord as long as it means prosperity. But he also had his other gods for good measure, just to keep all the bases covered. He’s like people in our day who gladly add Jesus to their shelf of gods as long as He brings them success and happiness. So Laban says to Jacob, “Stick around a while, Jacob! I have divined that the Lord has blessed me on your account. Name your wages.” (30:27, 28).

Jacob has dealt with this guy for 14 years, so he’s not naive. He first builds his case by listing how much he has done for Laban; but the time has come where Jacob needs to provide for his own family (30:29‑30). So Laban says, “All right, what’s the bottom line?” Jacob makes a proposal that sounds to Laban too good to be true. He says, “I’ll keep pasturing your flock for a while. What I want out of the deal is all the spotted, speckled, and black sheep and all the spotted and speckled goats.” Apparently these animals were more rare. Laban knows a good deal when he sees one, so he quickly agrees to it, thinking that he can’t lose. But to make sure that he doesn’t lose, he goes to the flock and removes all these kinds of animals and puts them in charge of his sons, three days’ journey away from Jacob and the rest of Laban’s flock.

Already Laban is changing the deal, because Jacob thought that all those sheep would be his that day (30:32). But Laban says, in effect, “Right, later on today, after I’ve removed them all, you can have what’s left.” (Some understand the flock entrusted to Laban’s sons to belong to Jacob, but removed by Laban so that Jacob couldn’t use them for breeding.) Laban later would change the terms of the deal every chance he got (“ten times,” 31:7‑8, an expression meaning “many times”).

Jacob wasn’t one to sit around bemoaning a setback. So he went to work implementing the latest scheme of animal husbandry which he’d read about in one of the farming journals. He took some fresh tree branches and peeled the bark away from part of them, so that they were striped, exposing the white wood underneath. Then he put them in front of the watering troughs where the sheep and goats mated. The theory was that a visual impression on the mother at the time of conception would affect the appearance of the animals conceived.

It’s like the women who were chatting. One of them said, “The day my daughter was conceived I had been painting with red paint when a red fire engine drove by. I knocked over the paint can and got red paint all over. Sure enough, my daughter was born with red hair.” Another woman in the group said, “That’s ridiculous. My mother told me that the day I was conceived she dropped and broke a whole stack of phonograph records, but it didn’t affect me, affect me, affect me, affect me ...”

Well, that’s the idea behind Jacob’s breeding scheme, and it seemed to work. He also used some sort of selective breeding, separating out the speckled, spotted, and black sheep and then breeding the strongest of the flock for himself. He wasn’t being dishonest, but he was looking out for himself. Both Jacob and Laban were out for their own advantage. This time, Jacob won.

If you’d asked, Jacob would have said that his success was due to a combination of hard work, ingenuity, his own integrity, and the Lord’s help. But the key to the story is the dream in which the Lord reveals to Jacob that his prosperity had nothing to do with Jacob and everything to do with the Lord. In the dream, the male goats which were mating were the striped, speckled, and mottled goats (31:10, 12). The Lord calls this to Jacob’s attention as if to say, “It’s not your crazy scheme which is working. I’m the one who is causing these goats to mate, because I see how Laban has been treating you.” God determined that the type of sheep and goats which Laban had agreed to pay to Jacob would multiply according to natural genetic laws. Jacob’s peeled branches had nothing to do with it.

Neither did Jacob’s hard work or integrity, as important as those factors are. Jacob was a hard worker, and hard work often brings financial success. The Bible commends hard work. But even when we work hard, we need to realize that any success we enjoy comes from the Lord, not from our hard work. Let’s face it, some people work hard all their lives and never get rich. And while integrity is important for our testimony as God’s people, rather than fostering success, integrity often militates against it. The scoundrel often prospers, while the man of integrity misses out on some easy money. So the bottom line is always the same: Prosperity comes from the Lord alone.

Moses’ readers needed to understand that. There were some parallels between Jacob’s situation with Laban and their situation in Egypt. Jacob went to Haran without anything, just as Israel went to Egypt without much. Jacob became prosperous as God gave Laban’s wealth to him, just as Israel became prosperous when God gave Egypt’s wealth to them. They needed to remember that any prosperity they enjoyed, whether from Egypt or after they entered the promised land, came from the Lord, not from themselves.

This applies to us as well. It’s the principle of stewardship, that we are not owners of anything, but only managers. God owns it all and as owner, He directs how it should be used. We tend to think that whatever we have is ours because we worked hard for it, and so we have the right to spend it as we please. If we’re real generous, we’ll give God ten percent. Then we squander the rest on ourselves. But that’s not God’s perspective on prosperity. All prosperity comes to us from the Lord. Thus,

2. Prosperity must be used for God’s purpose.

When God gives prosperity, it’s not for our enjoyment alone. He gives prosperity so that those He blesses will bless others. God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants so that they would be His channel of blessing to all nations. That’s why God reminds Jacob, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth” (31:13). The Lord is calling Jacob back to His purpose. He’s saying, “I’ve kept My part of the deal. I protected and blessed you. Now, you keep your part of the deal by returning to the land which I’m going to use in My purpose of blessing all nations through your descendants.”

I’m not sure to what extent Jacob understood this. My guess is that he was pretty foggy on God’s purpose. He was inclined to enjoy the blessings and forget that those God blessed were to become a blessing to others.

Moses’ readers were in the same place. They had come out of Egypt after spoiling the Egyptians. They were now ready to go into the promised land and live in cities and houses they hadn’t built, to drink from cisterns they hadn’t dug, to tend vineyards and olive trees they hadn’t planted. Moses’ warning to them was to beware, lest in their prosperity they forget the Lord and think, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth” (Deut. 6:11, 8:7‑18).

We’re right there, too, aren’t we? God has blessed Americans with more material prosperity than just about any nation in history. Even the poorest of us are rich by world standards. You only have to drive about 300 miles south of here to discover the contrast. It’s incredible what a difference it makes to drive across an imaginary line that separates the United States from Mexico! When you cross that line, you are no longer middle class; you’ve just become rich.

The question is, Are we being good stewards with the wealth God has given us? God’s purpose is to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham, who is, ultimately, Christ. Those of us who know Christ are to be channels of God’s blessing. But if we squander the prosperity God gives us on ourselves, while the Scriptures go untranslated and nations go unreached because of a lack of funds to take the gospel to them, we’re not being good stewards. I’ve never heard of a mission agency that says, “We’ve got more money than opportunities right now. Please don’t send any more money until we have more opportunities.”

I must add a caution: We’re all prone to judge the guy who has more than we have and decide that he is living extravagantly, while I’m sacrificing for Jesus. The truth is, we’re just envious of his success. Each believer answers to the Lord, and we are not to judge our brother. Nor are we to impose legalistic standards, so that the most “spiritual” are those who drive the most beat up cars and live in the most run-down houses. God’s command to the rich (which is most of us) is not to be conceited or to fix our hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. We are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:17, 18).

While it’s wrong to judge my brother, it is right to judge myself. Am I managing what God has entrusted to me so that I am a channel of His purpose of blessing the nations through Christ? Or could I be squandering God’s blessings on myself, while the nations perish for lack of money to send out workers and supplies to spread the gospel? Prosperity comes from the Lord and must be used for His purpose.

3. Prosperity requires that we listen to and obey the Lord.

As far as the text reveals, the Lord didn’t speak to Jacob during the 20 years he struggled under Laban. But as soon as Jacob “became exceedingly prosperous” (30:43), the Lord told him to return to Canaan (31:3; verse 3 is probably a synopsis of the dream which Jacob relates more fully in 31:10‑13). To his credit, Jacob listened (“Here I am,” 31:11) and obeyed, after getting his wives on board.

There are two dangers with regard to prosperity. The first is that before the Lord prospers us, while we’re struggling, we will think that God doesn’t care about our problems. Jacob could have wondered what happened to God during his 20 frustrating years under Laban’s thumb. The Lord didn’t tell Jacob until that time was over that He had seen all that Laban had been doing (31:12). When you’re struggling financially, it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care, because He doesn’t seem to be answering your prayers. But He uses the difficult times to teach us to trust and obey Him. He always cares for His people!

The second danger with regard to prosperity is the inherent danger of wealth. Money itself is not evil, but when mixed with sinful human nature, it’s always dangerous. When you’re prosperous, it’s easy to grow independent and forget the Lord. There is the danger of using God as long as He gives us what we want, but discarding Him if He doesn’t, as Laban was doing. We’re all prone to greed and covetousness, wanting what others have, even though we’ve got plenty. Before Jacob came, Laban and his sons didn’t have much (30:30). Yet when Jacob grew rich, they accused him of taking away their father’s wealth, which was due to Jacob’s labor in the first place (31:1)!

That’s another danger of wealth--family conflict. Laban and his sons grew hostile toward Jacob when his wealth increased (31:2). Jacob’s wives were angry at their father, who used them to better his own financial position (31:15). Laban wasn’t as worried about losing his daughters and grandchildren when Jacob moved away as he was about losing his wealth. The greed that lurks in every sinful heart can create bitterness and conflict in a family.

Because prosperity carries with it these built‑in dangers, we who are prosperous must be careful to listen to and obey the Lord. It would have been easy for Jacob to get comfortable in Haran and forget about the land of promise. Maybe God put Laban and his sons there so Jacob wouldn’t get too comfortable! It’s easy to get comfortable in our abundant prosperity and forget about God’s purpose of blessing every people and nation through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who became poor for our sake, that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). We need to listen to and obey Him who has blessed us so that we will become a blessing to others.


John Wesley preached the sensible formula, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Some wag pointed out that many modern Christians have concluded that two out of three is not bad! In 1991, among nine U.S. denominations, the highest per capita giving was $887 among the Episcopalians; the lowest was $241 by the American Baptists. If these church members were tithing, it means that their annual incomes ranged from $8,887 to $2,410! Other studies indicate that in general, conservative Protestants in America give about 3 percent of their income. Mormons give about 6 percent. Theologian Carl Henry noted that even among the Southern Baptists, who are noted for their extensive missionary programs, the average is less than $10 per member per year for missions giving. He wrote, “Think of it--less than it takes for a restaurant meal on bargain night to save a world without Christ, a world of over four billion people, half of whom have yet to hear the gospel” (in “Pulpit Helps,” 2/89).

I can’t tell you how much to give or judge you on the matter. But I am telling you that you need to judge yourself as a steward of God’s blessings who will give an account to Him someday. If you have squandered on yourself what He has entrusted to you, then you have not been a good steward and need to change some habits. If you’re in debt because of poor spending habits, you’re not being a good steward and you’re not free to give generously to God’s work. C. S. Lewis said, “I do not believe I can settle how much you ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditures on comfort, luxuries, amusements, etc. are up to the standards common among others with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.” (Source unknown.)

God has given us prosperity to be used for His purpose. We each need to hear what the Lord is saying to us (not to our fellow Christians), and obey Him. That’s how we should handle our prosperity.

Discussion Questions

  1. How should an American Christian determine how much to spend on himself and his family versus how much to give away?
  2. Is it wrong for a Christian to live in luxury? How do we determine what luxury is?
  3. Do Luke 12:33 & 14:33 apply to all Christians or just some? What does Jesus mean?
  4. Should all Christians adopt a “missionary” lifestyle (living on the same income level most missionaries do) and give the rest to the Lord’s work? Why/why not?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Finance, Spiritual Life

Lesson 57: Between A Rock and A Hard Place (Genesis 31:17-55)

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A farmer went to the Farmer’s Market each week to sell, among other things, the cottage cheese and apple butter made on his farm. He carried these in two large tubs from which he ladled the product into smaller containers for the customers. One day he got to market and discovered that he had forgotten one ladle, so he tried to use the same ladle for both products. But before long the two tubs were so mixed together that he couldn’t tell which was which.

As Christians we are supposed to be distinct from the world, but many professing Christians have blended in with the world so much that it’s hard to tell the difference between them and it. I admit, it’s not always easy to relate to the world in a Christian manner. I’ve often felt like I was between a rock and a hard place, not knowing quite how to act or what to say in some situations. I’ve often blown it. But it’s comforting to know that as long as I’m seeking the Lord, He will protect me when I’m between that rock and hard place and will work patiently with me as I’m in the process of maturing.

In Genesis 31, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He has left Haran and is heading back to Canaan in obedience to the Lord. Behind him is his crafty father‑in‑law, Laban. Before him is his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated and run from 20 years before. Jacob, in a blundering sort of way, is attempting to break away from Laban and to get back to the place God wants him to be, which means facing Esau. So Jacob is trying to obey God, but he’s caught between the rock of Laban and the hard place of Esau, both of whom represent the world. But in spite of Jacob’s immaturity and mistakes, God’s protective hand is on him. So there are two themes in this story: (1) God’s protection of His people from the world in spite of their blunders; and, (2) The need for God’s people to separate themselves from the world, as seen in Jacob’s separation from Laban and return to the place God wants him.

God protects His people as they seek to live separately from the world.

There are parallels between Jacob’s situation and that of Moses’ readers. Just as God protected Jacob in his departure from Haran to return to Canaan, so He had protected the nation Israel in its departure from Egypt to return to Canaan. Just as Jacob and his family still had a lot of rough edges, so Israel had many shortcomings and sins. Yet God graciously had His hand on both Jacob and the nation. And He graciously has His protective hand on us as we seek to live separately from the world, in spite of our blunders.

1. God graciously protects His people from the world.

We need God’s gracious protection for two reasons:

A. We need God’s gracious protection because the world is a cunning enemy.

Laban represents the world, and he is a crafty fellow. He’s the kind of guy who gives you a friendly slap on the back and takes your wallet at the same time. He tosses around spiritual language as if he believes in the Lord, but obviously he’s a polytheist who will use whatever god suits his current advantage. He’s a pious hypocrite who would have you believe he’s the world’s most loving father, when really all he cares about is his own pocketbook.

Jacob had noticed Laban’s hostile attitude toward him lately (31:2, 5). He had desired to return to his homeland (30:25). God had confirmed that desire with a specific command for Jacob to return (31:3, 13). But Laban wasn’t the sort of guy you just tell, “Bye, Laban, it’s been nice knowing you!” Jacob knew that parting wouldn’t be easy because Laban knew that Jacob was largely responsible for his prosperity. But now Jacob sees his opening: Laban has gone three days’ journey away to shear his sheep (30:36). So Jacob hastily loads his things and heads south.

Three days later, Laban hears about it. He knows where Jacob is headed, so he and his men take off after him. It takes him seven days to overtake him, and by then Jacob is almost home. Since he had gone about 300 miles in ten days, Jacob was making tracks! Probably Laban was planning to use force with Jacob, but God intervened by telling Laban in a dream not to harm Jacob. Not to “speak to him either good or bad” (31:24, 29) is a Hebrew expression that means, “Don’t use either flattery or threats to try to persuade Jacob to return” (see also 24:50). If the Lord hadn’t stopped Laban, Jacob probably would have returned home empty handed, at best.

Laban’s opening salvo is to accuse Jacob of kidnapping his daughters (he doesn’t call them “Jacob’s wives”). With great bombast he claims that he would have sent them away with a joyous party. At this point, perhaps Jacob and his wives rolled their eyes as if to say, “Yeah, right!” So Laban changes tactics and bullies Jacob by claiming that he could hurt him if he wanted to, but, he admits, God had intervened, so he decided to be nice and back off. He’s trying to take credit for being Mr. Nice Guy, when really, God forced it on him! Next he condescendingly says, “You’ve left because you were homesick.” Then he acts hurt by asking, “But why did you steal my gods?” (31:30). What a manipulative deceiver!

Jacob is confident that no one has stolen Laban’s gods, so he lets him search all his belongings. When Laban doesn’t find the hidden idols, which Rachel is sitting on, twenty years of Jacob’s pent up anger boils over. After Jacob’s angry defense, Laban sees he’s beat. But he never admits it. Instead, he plays the wounded hero by falsely claiming that Jacob’s wives, children, flocks, and everything in sight are not Jacob’s, but Laban’s (31:43)! But, he’s going to be bighearted and let Jacob have it all, as long as he agrees to a treaty. Finally, he kisses his sons (= “grandsons”) and daughters, blesses them and returns home. G. Campbell Morgan deflates Laban by observing that “the last sight we have of him is the interesting spectacle of a man kissing his sons and daughters, after having wronged them through all the long years” (The Analyzed Bible [Baker], p. 196).

What a picture of craftiness! But that’s the world, isn’t it? The god of this world is a master of deceit and treachery. Those who serve the god of this world are like Laban: self‑ seeking, out to do whatever they have to do to get what they want, and sounding both threatening and pious in the process. The world accuses those in the church of hypocrisy, but they are no better and usually much worse. Because the world is such a cunning enemy, we could not survive without God’s gracious protection.

B. We need God’s gracious protection because we are so much like the world.

We need the Lord to protect us from ourselves! Yes, Laban was a con artist, but so were Jacob and Rachel. Rachel stole her father’s household idols and nearly got herself killed when Jacob stupidly blustered to Laban, “The one with whom you find your gods shall not live” (31:32). Jacob unknowingly almost lost his favorite wife!

Why would Rachel steal her father’s idols? Probably she still mixed idolatry with her worship of the Lord, and she didn’t want to go to a strange new land without covering all her bases. The gods may come in handy if Yahweh didn’t come through in some future situation. Also, the Nuzi tablets, discovered in that region, dating from about 400 years after Jacob, indicate that the possessor of the father’s household idols was the heir to his estate. By stealing the idols, Rachel may have been trying to secure the inheritance which she felt her father had wrongfully taken from her (31:14). This would explain Laban’s anger over the matter and Jacob’s extreme penalty for the culprit.

The point is, Rachel was acting just like the world. She was about to be separated from Laban, the embodiment of the world; and yet she was trying to take the world’s security blanket along on the trip, in case God didn’t come through. Before we condemn her, we need to see that when we use God to make us happy, and mingle the world’s wisdom, such as psychology, with our faith as if trusting in the living God were not sufficient, we’re acting like Rachel.

For his part, Jacob wasn’t honorable in the way he left Laban. He should have politely, but firmly, stated his intentions and followed through, trusting God to protect him. While Rachel stole her father’s idols, Jacob stole Laban’s heart (literal, 31:20, 26). Jacob is still the schemer, trying to pull his own strings and get himself out of another tight situation.

In spite of all this, God graciously protected both Rachel and Jacob. God used this situation to get Laban to initiate a peace treaty with Jacob, which served to establish a northern border for Jacob, so that he never was tempted to return to Haran. It slammed the door on that part of his life and locked him into the forward course toward Canaan, in spite of his fears of Esau.

When our kids were younger, they enjoyed playing in the waves at the beach. They didn’t realize how powerful some of those waves can be. They were so excited with the fun they were having that they were oblivious to the danger. But what they didn’t know was that Marla and I never took our eyes off of them. We were always watching to protect them from the waves.

God watches each of His children that way. I think that when we get to heaven, God is going to replay some scenes from our lives so that we will see how, time and time again, He graciously protected us from situations where we could have destroyed ourselves because, like Rachel stealing Laban’s idols, we were so much like the world.

So in spite of Jacob’s blundering obedience and Rachel’s theft and deception, God graciously protected them. You may wonder, “Why?” Donald Grey Barnhouse observes, “If we are perplexed by the blessing of God in the midst of the most sinful environment, we must remember that there would be no blessing whatsoever if human merit were the prerequisite to God’s display of power and bestowal of blessing. Here we see the grace of God manifest in utmost splendor. In spite of thievery and deception, God protected His own” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:109).

That shouldn’t lead us to tempt the Lord. J. Vernon McGee once told of a man who had become so caught up with the idea of God’s sovereign protection of the believer under every circumstance that he said, “You know, Dr. McGee, I am so convinced that God is keeping me no matter what I do, that I think I could step out into the midst of the busiest rush hour traffic and if my time had not come, I would be perfectly safe.” Dr. McGee replied, “If you step out into traffic at rush hour, brother, your time has come!” God protects us, but we can’t presume on His grace. That leads to the second lesson in our text:

2. God’s people need to seek to live separately from the world.

Jacob is slowly learning. His natural tendency, as we’ve seen, is to trust in his own schemes instead of the Lord. Here, he flees in fear of Laban (31:31), but at least he’s going in obedience to the Lord, in spite of his fears of facing Esau once he got back to Canaan. We might call it, “blundering obedience.”

If you’ve walked with the Lord for any time at all, you see yourself here. You’ve done things which, at the time you would have claimed, were done in obedience. But now as you look back on those times, you realize how blundering you were in your attempts at following the Lord. So even if Jacob wasn’t trusting totally, he was attempting to trust God by separating from Laban and heading homeward. Jacob teaches us two lessons about our need to live separately from the world:

A. Separation from the world requires a decisive break.

Jacob didn’t do it in the wisest way, but at least he made the decision and left Laban. I’ve never known anyone to drift gradually and unconsciously out of worldliness. It takes a decisive commitment and then a prolonged struggle. But it doesn’t just happen unawares.

I’m not sure that we teach this well enough to young believers. You cannot serve God and Mammon. There can be no partnership between righteousness and lawlessness. Light cannot fellowship with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14). When you commit yourself to following Jesus Christ, you must decisively make a break with this evil world.

That commitment should be expressed in baptism. Baptism is like a wedding ceremony, where a couple makes a public commitment to forsake all others and be faithful to one another. That is not to say that there won’t be temptations and, in some cases, infidelity. But when that happens, a person must come back to that original commitment and seek to restore the marriage relationship.

It’s the same way in following Christ. When you’re baptized, you’re making a public commitment that says, “I am forsaking this evil world and cleaving to Jesus Christ, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Yes, there will be temptations. There will probably be times when you are unfaithful to Him. But when that happens, remember that you made a decisive break with the world, turn back to Christ, and restore your relationship with Him.

The problem with many Christians is that they’ve never made that break with the world. They’re trying to get the best of both worlds, like Rachel heading for Canaan with her father’s idols. But that’s like having one foot on the dock and the other on a boat that’s leaving. You can only do that for a short while, and then you’re going to get wet.

I encounter many professing Christians who are acting like Rachel. They are “using God” to make them happy or help them, but they have not surrendered totally to His lordship. They keep their stash of idols to pull out in case God doesn’t work. But they’re actually following self, not Jesus as Lord. But biblical Christianity requires making a radical break from serving self to seeking first His kingdom and righteousness. Whether following Jesus makes you feel good or gets you nailed to a cross, a true Christian daily denies self and follows Jesus because He is the true and living God. It requires a decision to break from the world.

B. Separation from the world means reverencing God as the only Lord of your life.

There’s a humorous contrast here between Laban’s idols and Jacob’s God. Laban pursues Jacob to retrieve his gods. What good are gods that can be stolen? But in his pursuit to get his gods, the living God appears to Laban in a dream and warns him to leave Jacob alone. That should have tipped off Laban about the value of his idols. But the supreme irony is what happened to his gods‑‑they got sat on, and that by a woman claiming to be on her menstrual cycle! The satire of that would not have been lost on Moses’ readers, who viewed such a woman as unclean. And Laban never found them. He had to go home and make some new ones!

The covenant of verse 49 is not, as often used, a blessing for friends who are parting. It shows the mutual distrust between these men. They are calling on God to punish the man who violates the treaty. Laban sanctimoniously puts himself in a position of superiority over Jacob by invoking him not to mistreat his daughters (31:50). Jacob had not been mistreating them in the past, as that implies. It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

When they ratify the treaty, Laban calls on Yahweh to be the witness between him and Jacob when they are apart (31:49). You may think it strange that Laban, who was looking for his stolen gods, invokes the true God to make good on this treaty. But, it’s not, really. The Lord is just one of Laban’s pantheon. In verse 53, he invokes the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father. But their father was an idolater who didn’t worship the true God (Josh. 24:2). So Laban, the polytheist, is just covering all his bases, invoking all the relevant gods.

But Jacob shines at this point. He doesn’t go along with Laban’s invocation and swear by all Laban’s gods (which included the living God). Instead, he swears “by the fear of his father Isaac” (31:53, see also 31:42). That is a name for the Lord, whom Isaac had always reverenced. So Jacob is separating himself from Laban’s polytheism and affirming that he will reverence the Lord alone. At this point he is beginning to live separately from Laban and all he represents. Jacob is reverencing God as the only Lord of his life.


That’s the key to living in this world without being of it: To “set apart Christ as Lord in your heart” (1 Pet. 3:15). Instead of using God and whatever else works to make you happy, your focus should be to submit to God in everything, to please Him in every thought, word, and deed, and to die to self. Then, instead of drifting downstream with the American way of life, and even the American Christian way of life, you can evaluate it by God’s Word and resist it.

I wonder, to which of the three main characters in this story are you most spiritually alike? Some may be like Laban: You’ll use God as long as He helps you prosper, but if He doesn’t seem to be working, you’ll try something else. Self is really your God, and you need to turn from your idolatry and submit to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Some may be like Rachel: You may know the true God, but you’re carrying your idols from the old life with you. It’s kind of hard to tell whether you’re in Christ or in the world. You need to make a decisive break with the world and trash the things in your life that you know are not pleasing to God.

Others may be like Jacob: You’re seeking to obey God and extricate yourself from the ways of the world. You need to keep growing in the direction of reverencing God as your only Lord, and not go back to the things that formerly enslaved you. At times you’ll feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place in seeking to live separately from the world. But you’ll have the joy of knowing that the God of Jacob is protecting you as you do.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is a list of dos and don’ts not adequate in keeping Christians from worldliness?
  2. How can we emphasize the need to turn from sin at the outset of salvation without falling into a works-salvation?
  3. Often those who emphasize separation from the world end up being legalistic. How can we properly emphasize separation and yet avoid legalism?
  4. Is it possible for a Christian to fit in socially (on the job, in the neighborhood, at school, etc.) and yet maintain proper separation from the world? How?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Faith, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 58: When Fear Grips You (Genesis 32:1-21)

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Someone has observed, “A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.” (Peter’s Quotations [Bantam Books], p. 190.) We all have many recurring fears, but when those fears come to a head in a good scare, we learn a lot about ourselves and about life.

Most of us fear getting cancer. Frankly, I’d rather die suddenly. A few years ago I had a couple of lumps removed from my body. The doctor thought they were benign, but routinely sent them in for a biopsy. A week later, I called to see whether the nurse could remove my stitches or whether I needed to see the doctor. The receptionist put me on hold and then came back on the line to say, “The doctor wants to talk to you about the biopsy.” “Okay,” I replied weakly. I hung up and thought, “The only reason he would need to talk to me is if the biopsy revealed a malignancy. I must have cancer!” I was scared! As it turned out, nothing was wrong. But in the hours between hanging up the phone and seeing the doctor, I learned some things about my fear of death and my faith in God.

Moses’ readers needed to learn how to face fear. Years before, spies had brought back a report of giants who lived in Canaan, which God had promised to them. Because of their unbelief and disobedience, a generation had died in the wilderness. But the rumors of those giants had not died. They had grown bigger with the years. Now God’s people were on the verge of going into that land and facing those giants. They had to know how to deal with their fears. The story of Jacob’s fear in meeting Esau taught them and teaches us that ...

When fear grips you, rely on God’s provision, not on your plans.

Jacob here gets the scare of his life. Twenty years before he had fled for his life to Haran after taking his brother’s birthright and blessing. Now he was returning to Canaan in obedience to God. God had just preserved his family and possessions from the angry Laban. But every step he took in the direction of Canaan seemed to thunder in Jacob’s ears, “Esau! Esau! Esau!” Jacob knew that he would have to face his brother who had planned to kill him.

So Jacob sent messengers to Esau with a carefully worded message to let him know that Jacob wasn’t coming back to try to dominate Esau. He was coming as Esau’s servant, seeking his favor (32:4‑5). As he nervously waited for his messengers to return, he must have thought, “Surely Esau will be friendly by now. After all, it’s been 20 years. And, since God commanded me to return, He must have calmed Esau’s anger.” The messengers returned and said, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (32:6). Jacob froze with fear!

1. Fear grips us all at times.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of things in our world to be afraid of! To some extent, we all fear death‑‑either our own or the death of loved ones. We fear the unknown future. We fear for our children and their safety. We may fear being victimized by crime or by accidents caused by drunk drivers. Just when we sort of got over the fear of nuclear war, now they’re throwing at us the fear that our planet will be hit by a giant asteroid!

The first mention of fear in the Bible is just after Adam and Eve sinned. When God came looking for them in the garden, they hid themselves because they were afraid. Sin results in guilt and guilt causes fear toward God and toward the one we’ve wronged. We fear the retaliation we know we deserve. That was the root of Jacob’s fear. Even though 20 years had passed, Jacob’s conscience came stalking when he thought of facing Esau, especially when he heard that Esau was riding toward him with 400 men! He flashed back to that day when he tricked Esau and his father out of Esau’s blessing. He could hear Esau’s anguished cry as he discovered what had happened. He could remember the murderous looks his brother had given him before he fled to Haran. It all came back when he heard that Esau was coming.

We would like to think that if we just let our sin and guilt alone, that over time it will just fade away. But before we can enjoy the peace and promises of God, we’ve got to be reconciled to our brother (Matt. 5:23‑24). We’ve got to confess our sin to God and seek the forgiveness of those we’ve wronged. But what do we usually do when fear grips us? We usually do what Jacob did:

2. When fear grips us, our tendency is to rely on our plans.

Jacob, the schemer, is making progress: Here he not only plans, he also prays! It’s the first reference to Jacob praying and it’s a good prayer, as we’ll see. Because Jacob prays, many commentators argue that his planning is an example of prudent action, that he was just “trusting God and keeping his powder dry,” as Cromwell’s saying goes. But Jacob’s faith was mixed with fear, and his plans are more tied to his fear than to his faith.

One reason I argue this is that Jacob prayed for God’s protection, but he failed to pray for God’s direction. His plans were not in response to waiting on God. In fact, Jacob’s plan of dividing his people into two camps ignored God’s provision of the camp of angels to protect him. In verse 1, Jacob encounters God’s angels as he comes back to the borders of Canaan. It was not just one or two angels, but a whole regiment. It should have shown Jacob that Almighty God was guarding him. Jacob named the place “Two Camps” (“Mahanaim”), referring to his little camp and to God’s camp of angels.

But when Jacob hears of Esau and his men marching toward him, he panics and divides his own group into two camps (32:7, where the Hebrew root for Mahanaim is repeated), thinking that if Esau attacks one camp, the other might be able to escape. But he is forgetting about God’s camp of angels and substituting his own two camps for God’s two camps. With God’s two camps (the angels and Jacob’s), Jacob was perfectly safe. But Jacob’s two-camp plan had a major flaw‑‑it left God out!

The expected results of Jacob’s plan also show that it was not of the Lord. When Jacob had God’s two camps, he was perfectly safe. No one could have gotten past an army of angels to touch Jacob, his family, or his possessions. But when Jacob traded God’s two camps for his own two camps, the best he could hope for was that one camp would be wiped out while the other might escape (but also might not!). That’s the problem when we start planning without waiting on God. Our best plans, as clever as they may be, always fall short of God’s perfect provision.

Another clue that Jacob’s plans were not of the Lord is the groveling flattery that he uses to try to pacify Esau. He goes far beyond common courtesy or custom by repeating over and over the phrases, “my lord, Esau” and “your servant, Jacob” (see 32:4, 5, 18, 20). It’s more than ironic that the man who schemed and manipulated for so long to gain preeminence over his brother is now babbling, “my lord, Esau” and “your servant, Jacob” as he thinks about meeting him face to face! All his schemes for grabbing power and privilege over Esau have backfired.

There is a final reason to argue that Jacob’s plans were not of the Lord and that he was relying more on them than on the God to whom he prayed. In verse 21, there is a word play in the Hebrew text which causes the reader to flash back to verse 1. It says, “So the present (Hebrew = “hamminhah”) passed on before him, while he himself spent that night in the camp (Hebrew = “bammahaneh”). Which camp? Verse 1 reminds us: The camp of God, where an army of angels surrounded him. If Jacob had remembered that he was in God’s “mahaneh” (camp), he wouldn’t have needed his “minhah” (present). The word play makes the point subtly here, but it’s spelled out plainly in chapter 33, where we find that Jacob’s elaborate gift was unnecessary. Esau didn’t even want it. (This insight is from Alan Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:80.)

So while Jacob is growing in faith, as his prayer reveals, he’s still up to his old tricks, trying to scheme his way out of a tight spot. It’s not wrong to pray and then plan. There is a proper sense in which prayer without action is not enough. God expects us to plan and to take action. But the problem comes when we don’t seek the Lord concerning our plans and then we rely more on our plans than on the Lord. W. H. Griffith Thomas writes (Genesis: A Devotional Commentary [Eerdmans], pp. 298‑299),

The soul that is truly and fully occupied with God will never be at a loss to know the true relation between prayer and work, work and prayer; for in answer to prayer comes the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of a sound mind, the spirit of courage and fearlessness, the spirit of calm restfulness and equally calm progress. It will know when to “stand still” and when to “go forward,” because God is its all in all.

So it’s not wrong to plan; it’s wrong to plan without relying on God and then to rely on our plans. Instead,

3. When fear grips us, we must rely on God’s provision.

A. God’s provision is completely adequate for our needs.

If Jacob had kept his mind on God’s provision at Mahanaim, he could have confidently marched at the front of his family and flocks as he met Esau. He could have confidently thought, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). But as it was, he cowered in the rear, letting everyone else go first as cannon fodder.

Note three things about the adequacy of God’s provision:

(1) The when of God’s provision: Just when we need it. Jacob was between the rock of Laban and the hard place of Esau. He has just left Laban, who could have done him great harm, had it not been for God’s intervention. In a matter of days, he will hear the news of Esau’s threatening approach. But before Jacob even knows the magnitude of that problem, God graciously gives him assurance of His protection by sending His angels to meet him on the way. It’s a beautiful example of how God meets our needs before we even know we have them, but at just the right time.

God often provides at the eleventh hour. He has to bring us to that point, because so often we lean on our own schemes until that eleventh hour, when we’re forced to say, “If God doesn’t come through now, we’re doomed.” Of course! That’s always true, but we don’t realize it until every human prop has been knocked out from under us.

King Hezekiah was a godly man, but the Lord allowed Sennacherib to surround Jerusalem with his army to the point that it looked sure that the city would fall. The Assyrian generals were taunting Hezekiah’s trust in the Lord as a futile hope. But then, in response to his desperate prayer, the angel of the Lord in one night wiped out 185,000 Assyrian troops and delivered Jerusalem.

That’s when God provides‑‑just when we need it. George Muller, whose orphanages fed and clothed up to 2,000 orphans at a time without appeals for money to anyone except the Lord, and without any human source of funding, was often brought down to the very hour of need before the provisions came in from some unexpected source. God provides when we need it, not always before.

(2) The where of God’s provision: On the path of obedience. God’s angels met Jacob as he “went on his way” to Canaan in obedience to the Lord. God had just protected Jacob from Laban behind him; now He would protect him from Esau in front of him. God sent His angels there to show that He protects His obedient servants, no matter how threatening the enemy. This is not to say that all who obey the Lord never get harmed. There are some difficult and frightening situations even on the path of obedience. Both the Bible and church history show that sometimes God’s servants get martyred. But when that is His sovereign purpose, it is not because His protection was lacking. If we are obeying God, we can trust that either His angels will protect us or they will usher us into His presence.

In Peace Child [Regal Books], Don Richardson tells of the frightening reception the Sawi tribe gave him when he brought his wife and infant son to live among them. He had made earlier contacts himself, and had built a crude house for his family with the help of several natives, who seemed friendly. But he wasn’t quite prepared for the reception when he brought his family up the river for the first time.

The whole village turned out, their faces done up with garish white paint which made their eye sockets look like gaping black holes. They were waving their barbed spears and beating drums of lizard skin glued on with human blood, which trickled down the sides. They were wildly dancing and seemingly going crazy as they surrounded the Richardsons. Don wondered if he had miscalculated their earlier friendliness. Would he and his family be safe among these wild savages? He writes (p. 139), “Suddenly, in the blue glow of twilight, a Presence stronger than the presence of the multitude enveloped us. The same Presence that had first drawn us to trust in Christ, and then wooed us across continents and oceans to this very jungle clearing.” As he sensed the Lord’s presence and thought about why he had come to this people, in obedience to the Lord, he was flooded with God’s peace. That’s where you can count on God’s provision‑‑on the path of obedience to Him.

(3) The what of God’s provision: What we need in each situation. God knew that Jacob needed protection here, so He sent a regiment of His angels. Who needs to fear Esau and his 400 men when you’ve got the army of the Lord of hosts protecting you? I think the army of angels was just for show, to bolster Jacob’s weak faith. Years later, how many angels did the Lord have to send to wipe out Sennacherib’s 185,000 men? Just one! A single angel easily could have protected Jacob from Esau’s 400 men. So the Lord sent the regiment of angels to encourage Jacob.

But Jacob needed more than angels to shore up his sagging faith. Jacob’s problem, which most of us can relate to, was that he didn’t yet understand that the real battle is spiritual, not physical. Jacob was saying, “Angels! That’s nice! Now, let’s divide the camp into two sections so that if one gets massacred, the other will escape. Yes, let’s pray about it, too! Now, where was I? Oh, yes, let’s get a nice gift for Esau. How about 550 animals, arranged in groups, to appease him?” Jacob is a flurry of activity trying to get his plan together. And when he finally meets Esau, what happens? Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, kisses him and weeps. Then he says, “What’s all this stuff?” Jacob had wasted his time with his elaborate scheme. God’s provision was sufficient without Jacob’s frenzy of activity.

God’s provision is always directed toward our particular need. When Adam needed clothing, God provided it. When the problem was a flood, He directed Noah to make the ark. When Hagar needed water, God directed her to a well. When the Israelites later needed food, He sent manna. When they needed water, He caused it to flow from the rock. And, of course, God met our greatest need in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). You don’t have any need and never could have a need that God hasn’t already met in Christ. And He tailors the blessing to each situation, showing us how Christ is adequate for all of life. So when fear grips us, we must rely on God’s provision for us in Christ. How?

B. We rely on God’s provision through believing prayer.

Notice five aspects of Jacob’s prayer:

(1) He approaches God as Yahweh, the covenant God of his fathers. He could have improved things a notch further by praying, “my God,” but this isn’t bad for a first prayer. He is approaching God as the One who entered into a covenant relationship with his fathers, who can be counted on to keep that covenant. We approach God through the new covenant established by the Lord Jesus Christ.

(2) He bases his prayer on God’s word. Twice he reminds God of what He said (32:9, 12). He reminds God that he is obeying what the Lord told him to do. Based on that and on God’s previous promise to prosper him and multiply his descendants, Jacob asks for deliverance from Esau. God delights to have us take His Word and pray it back to Him, claiming the promises He has made to us.

(3) He appeals to God on the basis of grace, not merit. He admits his own unworthiness and thanks the Lord for all His past mercies and blessings. If you ever come to the Lord on the basis of how good you’ve been, you’re on shaky ground. We can only come to God because of His abundant grace shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

(4) He presents his request honestly and fervently from the heart. “Deliver me ... from the hand of Esau; for I fear him ...” (32:11). If Jacob had focused on the camp of angels, he wouldn’t have been fearing. But God didn’t scold him for his lack of faith. He accepted his troubled child into His arms and listened to his cry for help. You can bring your requests honestly before God, admitting, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” He knows your fears; He wants you to bring them honestly and fervently to Him.

(5) He prays for God’s purpose. He asked God to fulfill His promises concerning the seed of Abraham (32:12). Jacob is arguing his case based on the revealed purpose of God. The Lord is always eager to hear us pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If your prayer is aimed at fulfilling God’s purpose in Christ, you will gain a ready hearing in His presence.


Most parents have been awakened in the night by one of their toddlers who is afraid. When that happens, you assure the child, tuck him back into bed and pray with him. But a young child’s response is so natural: When you’re afraid in the dark, you go to Daddy. Whatever your fears, take them to your Heavenly Father. Rely on His provision, not on your plans. As Paul put it (Phil. 4:6-7), “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know whether a fear is a legitimate warning to be heeded or a feeling to be overcome by faith?
  2. When does proper concern cross over into sinful anxiety?
  3. How can we know whether we’ve gone too far in relying on our plans rather than on the Lord?
  4. How can we trust God with our fears if we aren’t sure He’s going to deliver us? After all, Peter was delivered, but James was beheaded (Acts 12).

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution