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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

Lesson 59: Broken, But Blessed (Genesis 32:22-32)

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It’s been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Even if you’ve never paid much attention to God before, a severe crisis has a way of turning you to Him. You realize that unless God comes through, you are not going to make it. And so you cry out, “Oh, God, help me!”

Some of you may be there right now. It may be a health problem; unless God intervenes, there’s no hope. Perhaps it’s a serious marital or family problem, a financial problem or a desperate need for work. It may be a personal problem, such as loneliness, guilt, anger, bitterness, or anxiety. It could be some life-dominating sin, such as alcohol, drugs, pornography, or gambling. But whatever the problem, you know that you need God, and you’re calling to Him for help.

In Genesis 32, Jacob faced that kind of crisis. He was returning to Canaan in obedience to God, but that meant he would have to face his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated 20 years before. Jacob didn’t know how Esau would receive him. When Jacob’s messengers came back and said that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob froze with fear. Esau could easily wipe out everything that was of value to Jacob, including Jacob! And so he prayed, “Oh, God, deliver me from Esau!” (32:9‑12).

What Jacob didn’t know, and what we often don’t realize in situations like that, is how God goes about helping us. What we have in mind is that God would somehow remove our problem or make our enemy go away. But God doesn’t do it that way. God answered Jacob’s prayer for protection from Esau by wrestling with Jacob until He left him limping as he approached his brother. His plan had been that if Esau attacked one camp, Jacob (in the other camp) could escape. But now he couldn’t run from Esau if he tried! He was totally dependent on the Lord.

The way God helps us is by breaking us of our inherent self-dependence so that we lean totally on Him. In that context, we can properly receive His blessings. Our problem, like Jacob’s, is that all too often we want to use God and His blessings to further our own ends. All his life Jacob had been using God and people to get what he wanted for himself. But now God brings Jacob to see that you don’t use God‑‑ you submit to Him. When we submit to God, He blesses us.

God must break us of our self-dependence so that He can bless us as we cling to Him in our brokenness.

Brokenness is the path to blessing. Before God can use a man greatly, He must break him, because we all have a built‑in propensity to trust in ourselves. Thus,

1. God must break us of our self‑dependence.

God’s wrestling match with Jacob was not a dream or vision--dreams and visions don’t leave a man with a wrenched hip. Jacob’s opponent was the angel of the Lord, Jesus Christ in a preincarnate form. It was a physical fight with physical injury inflicted on Jacob, and yet there were obvious spiritual lessons impressed on him through this unforgettable experience.

It must have been terrifying for Jacob. He was already nervous about Esau’s approach. He had sent ahead his elaborate gift of hundreds of animals. Then he tried to bed down for the night. But he couldn’t sleep, so he woke up his family and moved them across the ford of the Jabbok. Then Jacob went back alone for a final check, to make sure nothing had been left behind. It’s dark and spooky on the desert at night. Suddenly, out of the dark, a hand grabbed Jacob. Jacob must have just about had a heart attack! Who was this? A bandit, trying to rob him? An assassin, sent by Esau? Instinctively, Jacob began to wrestle with this mysterious assailant, struggling for his very life.

We need to be clear that God was the aggressor here. Jacob was defending himself. Some preachers develop this text as a fine example of wrestling all night in prayer with God. But that is not the lesson behind the struggle. Jacob wasn’t laying hold of God to gain something from Him; God was laying hold of Jacob to gain something from him, namely, to bring Jacob to the end of his self‑dependence.

All his life, Jacob had thought that Esau and Laban were his adversaries. He had struggled and schemed to get the blessings he thought these men were taking from him, blessings that God had promised to give him anyway. But now, at some point in the struggle, he discovers to his horror that none other than God was his adversary. Actually, Jacob was his own adversary; but God had to wrestle him into submission to reveal this to him.

We’re all like Jacob. We think that the enemy, the problem, is out there. “The problem is my wife ... my husband ... my parents ... my boss ... my poor circumstances. God, please take care of the problem for me.” But the enemy or problem isn’t primarily out there. The problem is in me, my flesh, my sinful, selfish nature that dominates my life. So God has to reveal to me the power of my flesh before I can be delivered from it.

A. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our flesh.

Obviously, God could have crippled Jacob in the first minute of this contest. When He finally wanted to, He just touched Jacob’s hip and Jacob felt excruciating pain as his hip was wrenched. So why didn’t God do it sooner? Why did He allow the match to go on all night long?

God wanted to show Jacob the power of his self‑will. If you’ve ever wrestled, you know how exhausting it is to grapple with an opponent of equal or greater strength. A few minutes is enough. But Jacob kept at it all night! The Lord kept waiting to see if Jacob would surrender, but he kept fighting.

At what point do you suppose Jacob recognized that his opponent was not a mere man? Later (32:30) he acknowledged that it was God. The text doesn’t tell us, but I’m sure that if he didn’t know before, Jacob knew as soon as the Lord crippled him. But the Lord didn’t use that power until He saw that Jacob would not yield (32:25). The flesh dies hard! Only God can tame it. Until God crippled him, Jacob wouldn’t give in. God let him wrestle all night so that Jacob could see how strong his self‑will really was.

To make sure that Jacob has learned the lesson, the Lord asks him a question which, at first, doesn’t seem to fit the context. Jacob is finally subdued, and he clings to the Lord and says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The Lord responds, “What is your name?” (32:27). Remember, the Lord never asks questions to gain information. He knew the answer. He wanted Jacob to confess not just his name, but his character. He had to say, “My name is Jacob‑‑the supplanter, the conniver, the schemer.” Only after Jacob acknowledged that could the Lord bless him.

Part of the process of knowing God involves knowing ourselves. Until God reveals the power of our sinful nature to us, we tend to think that we’re not so bad. I was raised in the church, so I’ve always known that I was sinner. But yet I didn’t know it. I was inclined to think, “I’m not a terrible sinner; in fact, as far as sinners go, I’m a pretty good sinner.” But the more I’ve grown in the Lord, the more I’ve seen, as Paul said, that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). Until the Lord reveals that to us (and He often has to do it through an all-night wrestling match!) we depend more on ourselves than on Him. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our flesh.

B. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our God.

Before the Lord touched Jacob and crippled him, Jacob probably thought that the fight was pretty evenly matched. But then in one light touch, the Lord wiped Jacob out. Suddenly he saw that God was the lion and Jacob was the mouse. God had just been playing with him!

Until God breaks us, so that we walk with a limp, we have a tendency to view Him as a benign old grandfather, nice to have around, but not very strong. Until that time, we view obedience to God as an option available to us. But we’re in control, directing things as we think best. We choose our careers, our lifestyles, and our schedules, all centered around what will make us happy. God is a nice, harmless grandfather to have around when you need Him. Then the lion roars and in one easy swipe, He cripples us. We learn His awesome power. We learn that obedience is not an option; it’s our only reasonable course of action.

The frailty of our bodies should make us aware of our weakness and of our need to submit to God. Every time we’re sick or get injured, or when we feel the aches and pains of older age, we should acknowledge, “I am not God. I am weak and frail. Only God is God and I must depend totally on Him and live in submission to Him.”

A few years ago, the popular Australian actor, Paul Hogan, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while he was lifting weights. Although he was in a semicomatose state for five days, he dismissed the attack as “just a freak thing that was wasted on me if it was supposed to provide some sort of revelation” (Newsweek [12/8/86], p. 79). Wake up, mate! You can be a specimen of fitness and health, but you’re only a heartbeat away from standing before Almighty God. If He touches your body, you’d better acknowledge your weakness and depend on His strength! You can either submit to Him and be blessed, or fight Him and suffer the consequences. But you’ll never win if you wrestle with God.

Some people resist God’s breaking process and grow bitter. Jacob could have gone that direction here. When the Lord crippled him, he could have angrily shouted, “Now look what you’ve done! I’ve got to go face my angry brother, and you’ve crippled me so that I can’t fight or run!” Jacob could have grown bitter, not better. But he didn’t. Instead, when the Lord said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking,” Jacob clung to Him and gave that marvelous reply: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:26). This shows that

2. God blesses us as we cling to Him in our brokenness.

Often our greatest victories come out of the ashes of our greatest defeats. As soon as Jacob was crippled, he was able to hang on to the Lord for dear life. He knew now that if God didn’t bless him, he had no hope. He couldn’t trust in himself any longer, because he was crippled. He had to cling to the Lord, and in clinging to the Lord in his brokenness, Jacob received the blessing he had been scheming to get all his life.

A. We won’t cling to the Lord until we’re broken.

There’s a paradox here, in that Jacob seems to have incredible strength in clinging to the Lord after he is wounded. Of course, the Lord could have loosened Jacob’s grip and gotten away. But the Lord loves it when His children cling to Him in their brokenness and say, “I won’t let You go until You bless me.”

But we’re all like Jacob: We won’t cling to the Lord with all our strength until we have to. As long as there’s an ounce of self‑dependence left, we’ll trust in ourselves. We can see this in the life of Peter. He was the natural leader of the twelve, always the spokesman. On a few occasions, he even had the audacity to correct the Lord. When Jesus predicted, “You will all fall away because of Me this night,” Peter set the record straight: “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33). Peter still didn’t realize the power of his sinful nature; he wasn’t weak enough to cling in dependence to the Lord. The Lord had to allow Peter to go through that dark night of the soul so that, crippled in himself, Peter would cling to the Lord in his brokenness. It was a broken, but dependent, Peter who boldly preached in the Lord’s power on the Day of Pentecost.

The same is true in coming to Christ for salvation. Many people don’t see their need to trust in Christ as Savior because they hang on to their belief in their own goodness. Their pride blinds them to their great need before God.

Andrew Bonar said that in the highlands of Scotland, sheep sometimes wander off among the rocky crags and get trapped on dangerous ledges. Attracted by the sweet grass, they leap down ten or twelve feet to get to it, but they can’t get back up. A shepherd will allow the helpless animal to remain there for days until it becomes so weak it’s unable to stand up. Finally, he ties a rope around his waist and goes over the edge to the rocky shelf and rescues the one that has strayed. Someone asked Bonar, “Why doesn’t the shepherd go down right away?” He replied, “Sheep are so foolish that they would dash right over the precipice and be killed if the herdsman didn’t wait until their strength was nearly gone.” (In “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980.)

So if you’re thinking, “I’m not a terrible sinner. In fact, I’m a basically good person,” God may have to let you go through some serious problems, until you see your desperate need for Christ. He came to save sinners, not pretty good people. Sometimes God has to let you hit the bottom, where you see that you cannot do anything to save yourself. It’s when God cripples us and we see how weak we really are that we cling to Him until He blesses us.

B. Even in clinging, we’re prone to use God, not to submit to Him.

After the Lord asks Jacob his name and gives him a new name, Jacob asks the Lord to tell him His name (32:29). But the Lord replies, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Again, the Lord wasn’t wondering about the answer to that question. He wanted Jacob to think about it, because the answer would teach Jacob something about himself.

I think that the Lord refused to tell Jacob His name because Jacob had the wrong motive in wanting to know. Jacob obviously knew that this was the Lord, as verse 30 shows. But the name reveals something about the Person. I think, in line with his lifelong tendency, Jacob wanted to know God’s name to get a handle on Him that he could use in the future. Even though he was now clinging to God, Jacob was prone to keep on using God as he always had done. But to keep Jacob submissive and seeking, the Lord refuses.

So even though we’ve had an experience where God has humbled us, we always have to be on guard against our tendency to use God rather than to submit to Him. The Lord is far above us, and while He graciously consents to reveal Himself to those who obey Him (John 14:21), He will remain distant to those who simply want to know Him so that they can use Him for their own purposes.

C. Clinging to God in our brokenness is the key to power with God and with others.

When Jacob clings to the Lord and demands that He bless him, the Lord gives him a new name. To the Hebrews, the name reflects the character. So God, speaking prophetically, gives Jacob a new character: Instead of Jacob, he is to become Israel. Instead of supplanter, he is to become a prevailer. The name “Israel” either means, “he who strives [or, prevails] with God,” or “God strives” [or, prevails]. Both meanings are true: Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed in the sense of hanging on until God blessed him. But, first, God prevailed over Jacob by crippling his stubborn self-dependence. Jacob’s prevailing with men is a prediction of how God will now conquer Jacob’s enemies (the most pressing being Esau) by His power rather than through Jacob’s conniving ways.

If we come into the proper relationship with God, of clinging to Him in our brokenness, then we have power with Him. We prevail with Him who has prevailed over us. And since God is over all, if we can prevail with Him, then we prevail over all others. As Jacob went limping to face Esau, he was more powerful in God’s strength and his own weakness than he ever could have been in his own scheming and strength.

So above all else, devote yourself to seeking God’s blessing. When you’ve got that, you’ve got everything! When you prevail with God through His prevailing over you, He will take care of your problems and enemies. Then you’re not using God to solve your problems; you’re submitting to God and clinging by faith to Him.

That was the lesson for Moses’ readers, the nation Israel, poised to enter the land of Canaan. They would not gain victory in Canaan in the usual way nations gained victory, but rather through prevailing with God. The Canaanites could not prevent Israel from God’s blessings in the land any more than Esau had prevented Jacob from entering the land. It was God who would defeat the Canaanites for them if they trusted Him. It was also God who would oppose Israel if they failed to submit to Him. Weak in themselves, they could lay hold of God’s strength, and no one could prevail against them.


Two concluding applications:

(1) Take time to get alone with God. It was when Jacob was left alone that the Lord came to wrestle with him (32:24). Calvin states, “Would we bring down the pride of the flesh, we must draw near to God” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 202). When you get alone with the Lord, ask Him to break you of your sinful self‑dependence, and then cling to Him in your brokenness until He blesses you. When He breaks us and prevails over us, then He will allow us to prevail over our problems.

(2) Use your victories which come out of God’s breaking you, to teach others. When Jacob’s family asked him why he was limping, he could have concealed the lesson to save face: “Just a little arthritis, I guess.” But he was willing to let us in on what he learned. In verse 32, Moses explains a Hebrew custom which even continues to this day among orthodox Jews. They do not eat the sinew of the hip of animals because that is where God touched Jacob. That custom should serve as an object lesson to God’s people of the truth Jacob learned, that God breaks us of our self‑dependence so that He can bless us. As the Lord teaches that to you, pass it on to others. Your greatest problems can become your greatest victories if, when God breaks you, you cling to Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Brokenness can be a key factor in restoring strained relationships. Discuss how.
  2. Some say we need proper self‑confidence to get things done. Is this biblical? Consider 2 Cor. 3:5-6; Phil. 4:13; John 15:5.
  3. If God wants us to know Him, why does He withhold knowledge of Himself (as He did here with Jacob)?
  4. So often we use the Bible as a problem‑solving manual. Is this wrong? What cautions do we need to have in this approach?

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, Spiritual Life

Lesson 60: Forward, Halt! (Genesis 33:1-20)

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My drill instructor in Coast Guard boot camp believed in the value of marching. We marched a lot. When you’re marching as a company, it’s not easy to be the one giving the orders. To do that, you’ve got to think on your feet and look ahead to know what you’re going to say. It’s easy to get flustered.

On one occasion, our recruit company commander was marching us along under the scrutiny of our drill instructor. He yelled out an order that was not correct. When you do that, the way to rescind the order is to say, “As you were.” But being already flustered by yelling the wrong command and seeing us begin to respond, this recruit forgot “as you were,” and yelled instead, “Cancel that order!” From the back, the deep voice of our drill instructor broke us all into laughter when he bellowed, “Cancel that order? What do you think this is, some blankety‑blank McDonald’s?”

If Jacob had been calling out marching orders to his family as they returned to Canaan, in Genesis 33 his orders would have been, “Forward, halt!” Jacob gets a bit flustered as he finally meets Esau and his 400 men. He has just spent the night wrestling with the Lord, where God broke Jacob of his self‑dependence. He’s walking with a limp as he approaches the dreaded meeting with his estranged brother. Under the pressure of the moment, he resorts to his old scheming ways and takes matters into his own hands, but it’s mixed up with some positive aspects of his newly discovered trust in the Lord. So the result is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that commentators and preachers have some different views of Jacob’s actions in this chapter. Some extol him as a godly man who models how we ought to be reconciled to our enemies and live by faith. Others chide Jacob as a sorry example of the life of faith, using chapter 34, which shows the results of his actions in chapter 33, as their proof. Who is right?

I take the middle ground. I think there are some positive changes in Jacob, but they aren’t complete. He’s still the same old schemer in many ways, but God is working on him. He’s changed as a result of Peniel, but he’s still unchanged in many ways. The flesh still dominates much of him, but he’s beginning to live by faith.

In this regard the Bible is realistic, because that’s how it is with most of us. I don’t know anyone who has been totally sanctified as the result of one dramatic spiritual experience. I know many who claim to be totally different, but you don’t have to be around them very long before you realize that they’ve got the same basic problems. A spiritual experience is fine, but, we need to recognize that Christianity is a lifelong walk with God, not a flash in the pan. As A. W. Pink writes (Gleanings in Genesis [Moody Press], p. 295), “It is one thing to be privileged with a special visitation from or manifestation of God to us, but it is quite another to live in the power of it.” So Jacob’s experience in Genesis 33 teaches us that ...

Having begun to live by faith, we must be careful to continue.

Satan usually doesn’t get us off track in one fell swoop, but by degrees. As with John Bunyan’s pilgrim, we wander slightly off into Bypath Meadow, thinking that it’s a pleasant route that will take us parallel with the road to the Celestial City. But it takes us farther and farther away, until we’re caught by the Giant Despair and wonder how we ended up in his dungeon.

If you look ahead, Jacob’s situation at the end of chapter 34 is terrible. His daughter has been raped by the prince of Shechem. In retaliation, Jacob’s sons have treacherously promised the men of Shechem a peace treaty, only to murder them all after they complied with the terms of the treaty. And Jacob is afraid that the other people of the land will destroy him and everything he has.

How did he get into that mess? It began in chapter 33, with little instances of disobedience. The events in chapter 33 probably add up to eight to ten years. Over these years, the little instances of unbelief and disobedience are gradually taking Jacob off the path. These events led to the catastrophe of chapter 34. To explain the text, I want to trace Jacob’s mixture of faith and the flesh in Genesis 33; then I’ll conclude with some applications.

1. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his reconciliation with Esau (33:1‑16).

As the sun rises on Peniel, Jacob comes limping from his wrestling match with the Lord. He looks up and sees Esau and his 400 men coming toward him in the distance. I wish that Jacob would have said, “Lord, You’ve crippled me so I’m helpless unless You intervene. You’ve promised to bless me. I’m trusting You to work.” But instead, the old Jacob takes over: He divides his children and wives, putting the least favorite in the front so that the more favored can possibly escape the massacre he still fears. Jacob is still relying on his own wits to get him out of another tight situation. If his trust had been completely in the Lord, he wouldn’t have had to resort to his escape plan.

Several commentators point out that after God changed Abraham’s name from Abram, the new name is used consistently. But after God gave Jacob his new name, Israel, the Holy Spirit, who superintended Moses’s writing of Genesis, saw fit after this to use the name Jacob 45 times, while the name Israel is used of him only 23 times, and it even has to be reaffirmed in chapter 35. While we probably shouldn’t put too much emphasis on this, it may hint that Jacob was not living up to his new position and privilege as a man who had prevailed with God.

Jacob’s scheming and lack of trust in the Lord is further seen in his groveling approach to his brother. Some commentators commend Jacob for his humble courtesy, but I think that he goes beyond proper respect. His obsequious “my lord, your servant” language is manipulative, at best (33:5, 8, 13, 14 [twice], 15). He meets Esau by bowing seven times, a greeting normally reserved for kings. All the wives and children bow down. There is a place for proper respect, but Jacob is going overboard. Esau didn’t expect that kind of stuff. He calls Jacob, “my brother” (33:9). He’s real; Jacob is the phony.

Jacob’s lack of trust in the Lord is seen also in his insistence that Esau accept his elaborate gift. It was a matter of custom that you didn’t accept a gift from an enemy, so Jacob wanted to make sure that Esau was not still at odds with him. But he was really trusting the gift to appease Esau (33:8). Some commentators say that this is a model of reconciliation, that sometimes it is not wise to bring up old hurts or talk about the problems of the past. I don’t agree. I think this was a superficial reconciliation at best, because Jacob never verbally confessed the wrongs he had committed against Esau, nor did he ask for forgiveness.

It’s like when a husband wrongs his wife. To make peace, he brings home some flowers and a gift. That may be a way of waving a white flag, opening the door for peace talks. But if the gift is all that’s done, there hasn’t been adequate reconciliation. The husband needs to specify how he wronged his wife and ask forgiveness. They need to talk about what happened so that they understand each other. Otherwise, she’s going to say to herself, “He thinks he can just run roughshod over me and then bring me a gift to make everything right. But he’s not willing to deal with the real problem.”

Jacob utters a truth beyond his understanding when he tells Esau, “I see your face as one sees the face of God” (33:10). What Jacob meant is that in Esau’s favorable reception, Jacob saw God’s favor. But beyond that, Jacob’s words point out the truth that when you’re at odds with your brother, he represents God to you. If you’re not right with him, it’s a pointed reminder that you’re not right with God. As John puts it (1 John 4:20), “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Jacob’s flesh also rears its head in his response to Esau’s offer to travel together (33:12‑16). It would not have been right for Jacob to go with Esau, since God clearly had told Jacob to go to Canaan, not to Seir. So Jacob was right to refuse, but he was wrong in the way he refused. He makes up an excuse about his children and flocks being too weak to travel at Esau’s pace. He pushed them hard to escape from Laban, but now he uses their weakness as an excuse to avoid going with Esau. He lies by telling Esau that he will follow him to Seir (33:14).

Some commentators come to Jacob’s defense, saying that he intended to go to Seir, and maybe he did, since the text is not comprehensive. I find that an overly optimistic view of Jacob, because as soon as Esau is out of sight, Jacob turns around, goes back over the Jabbok, and heads a few miles north to Succoth, where he settles for a few years. We’ve all been in similar situations, where we were asked to join an activity which would compromise our faith. In an effort not to offend the person asking, it’s easy to fall into deception. But the right thing to do is to be straightforward in a kind manner. Jacob could have said, “I appreciate your kind offer for me to go with you to Seir, but God has commanded me to go to Canaan.”

With so much of Jacob that’s of the flesh, you may be wondering if he did anything by faith. I see several things. First, Jacob goes out in front of his family to meet Esau (33:3). This represents a change from the night before, when he put his family across the Jabbok (toward Esau’s approach), while he returned to the more safe side. But after wrestling with the Lord and being crippled, he hobbles out in front of his family, which reveals his faith, mingled as it was with his faithless schemes.

Also, Jacob’s faith is seen in his witness to God’s grace in his life. When Esau asks about the children, Jacob is careful to acknowledge the Lord when he says that they are “the children whom God has graciously given your servant” (33:5). In reference to his gift, Jacob says, “Please take my gift ... because God has dealt graciously with me” (33:11).

Jacob’s faith is probably also seen in his refusal to accompany Esau, even though his method of refusal was wrong. I say “probably” because it may be argued that Jacob didn’t trust his brother and was afraid that Esau would play along with the reconciliation for a while and then kill Jacob. But perhaps Jacob saw that since his brother was a secular man who had no concern for God’s purpose concerning Canaan, there could be no true fellowship between them. So he refused to go with him.

So Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith. In many ways, Esau is outwardly the better man. It’s sad that often non‑Christians, who have no interest in the things of God, are much nicer people than those who claim to be following God. Esau probably brought along the 400 men to meet Jacob just in case his brother was up to his old tricks. But when he sees that Jacob isn’t meeting him with an army, he leaps off his camel, runs to Jacob, hugs and kisses him and weeps. He doesn’t hold a grudge in spite of Jacob’s past treachery. And Esau isn’t greedy. Although he finally accepts Jacob’s gift, he says, “I have plenty, my brother. Let what you have be your own.” The trouble is, Esau was not at all concerned for the things of God. Spurgeon pointedly observes, “It is an awful contentment when a man can be satisfied without God” (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 5:354).

2. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his decision to dwell at Succoth and Shechem (33:17‑20).

As I said, the “by faith” part of Jacob’s turning back to Succoth was in not accompanying Esau. But that’s about as far as his faith went. For the most part, it was the old Jacob, living by the flesh. As Derek Kidner observes, “Succoth was a backward step, spiritually as well as geographically” (Genesis [IVP], pp. 171‑ 172). It lies to the east of the Jordan River, thus outside the boundary of Canaan. Thus, Succoth represents incomplete obedience on Jacob’s part.

In 31:3, the Lord had told Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” In 31:13, in repeating the command, the Lord said, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me.” It would seem that Jacob should have returned to that place of his vision and vow. In 35:1, after the disastrous events of chapter 34, the Lord specifically commands Jacob to go to Bethel. So it seems that at the least, God had wanted Jacob to return to Canaan but, more likely, to go to Bethel. But instead, Jacob settled at Succoth, and then bought land at Shechem.

The text doesn’t give us a motive for Jacob’s incomplete obedience, but it may hint at one. Verse 18 states, “Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem.” (The King James Version takes the adverb “safely” as a proper noun, “Shalem.”) Jacob may have felt safe there, but feared returning to the southern part of Canaan, where his father was, because of continuing fears of Esau, who frequented that region. In spite of Esau’s warm greeting, Jacob probably didn’t trust him. Those who are treacherous, like Jacob, often think others will be treacherous.

But while Jacob was afraid of Esau, he wasn’t afraid of staying in Succoth, outside the land, or of buying property in Shechem, where his family would be morally polluted. He was afraid of the wrong things! God had promised to protect Jacob if he obeyed; but Jacob felt he was more safe in a place of partial obedience than to risk trusting the Lord by obeying completely.

What about the altar Jacob erected in Shechem? Again, commentators are on both extremes. Some say it is a marvelous example of Jacob’s faith, while others condemn him for being hypocritical, living in disobedience while he puts on an outward show of religion by claiming that God is his God.

My observation of Christians (including myself) tells me that Jacob was doing what we all do. He was making an attempt to follow the Lord, but at the same time he was not obeying the Lord completely. By calling the altar “God, the God of Israel,” he was acknowledging his gratitude to God for bringing him safely back to the land. But by not going all the way to Bethel, he was catering to his fleshly fear of Esau. He was the new man, Israel; but he was still the old man, Jacob. We do the same thing. We begin by faith in the Lord, but then live by the flesh.


I conclude with four applications:

1. Be on guard to your own bent toward the flesh. We all have our unique areas of weakness. Jacob’s bent was his scheming. Abraham and Isaac were prone toward lying under pressure. Moses tended to take strong action, but in his own strength, as seen in his killing the Egyptian and later in striking the rock. David had a weakness for women. You and I have our own bent. It’s like the default mode on my computer‑‑it’s the mode you fall into automatically. You’ve got to be on guard, and cling to the Lord especially in that area. Be in the Word--it will reveal to you the thoughts and intentions of your heart (Heb. 4:12) so that you can be on guard.

Also, know your strengths. Usually our areas of greatest strength are related to our areas of greatest weakness. The Apostle Paul was strong as a man of purpose and conviction, but he tended to run over weak people, like John Mark. He had to learn to accept Mark, in spite of his desertion on the first missionary journey. Your strengths will show you your weaknesses, so that you can be on guard.

2. Even though you enjoy God’s protection, you must constantly seek His direction. Jacob came safely to Succoth and Shechem, under God’s protection. But he failed to seek God’s direction, and wrongly settled where he shouldn’t. Granted, Shechem was in the land of Canaan, but Jacob never asked the Lord if this was where He wanted him to live. He falsely mistook God’s protection for His approval.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how Christians make major decisions, like where to live, on the most trivial basis, without consulting the Lord. Often, the last thing they think about is the spiritual well‑being of their family. I’ve heard of Christians deciding to move to some isolated location because they want to get away from people. But is there a good church in this small town? Did they bother to find out if God was directing them to get away from people? As I recall, Christ died for lost people, not for deer and bear and forests. He may want some of His children to abandon the crowds, but I have a hunch that most Christians who head for the wilderness haven’t bothered to check with the Lord.

I once sold a car to a guy who was living in a tiny motel room next to Mother’s Bar in Sunset Beach, California. Since he was from the midwest, I asked him how he happened to settle there. He told me that he came west after a divorce and was driving down Pacific Coast Highway when he saw Mother’s Bar. He stopped in for a drink, liked the place, and decided to stay. What a way to pick a place to live! As believers, the Lord’s purpose and direction should be the major factor in determining where we live.

3. Be alert to spiritual danger, especially as it affects your children. Shechem was probably a trading center, a place where caravans stopped and exchanged goods. Jacob looked around and thought, “It’s as good as any other place.” So he settled there, but he didn’t think about how it would affect his children. The ten years or so he was there were the years his children grew up. Apparently he hadn’t warned Dinah of the dangers of mingling with the local young people. As a result, she got raped and her brothers took brutal revenge.

Think through the implications of your behavior on your children. You may do things which don’t damage you too much, at least outwardly, but it can wipe out your kids. Jacob’s settling in Shechem resulted in the tragedy of chapter 34. His showing favoritism to Joseph built resentment in his other sons, resulting in their selling him into slavery a few years later. We have to be examples of godliness to our kids both in word and deed, and warn them of spiritual dangers.

Your nonverbal actions send loud signals to your kids. If you act selfishly, your kids get the message and learn to be selfish. Even in little ways, you need to show your children that you care for them and want them to grow spiritually. Pray often with your kids. Turn off the tube and read good books to them. Give them your time and attention. Put down your newspaper and listen when they tell you about something that’s important to them. You can and should say “I love you,” but if you don’t show it by giving them your attention, they won’t feel it. If you model godly love, there’s a better chance your kids will hear your verbal teaching about spiritual matters.

4. Be careful of justifying partial obedience. Your little compromise becomes their flagrant disobedience. You can talk about God all day long, but if you don’t live consistently, your kids aren’t going to buy your advice. You can set up your altar in Shechem, even out of the right motives, but if God wants you in Bethel, it doesn’t ring true. And kids are experts at spotting phoniness! You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to live in reality with Jesus Christ, which means obedience, even when it’s not easy. When you sin against your kids, confess it to them and seek their forgiveness. Be real in your growing walk with God!

Everything I’m saying is summed up by Paul in Colossians 2:6, 7: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” You began with Him by faith in obedience to the gospel. Keep it up! Instead of “Forward, halt!” make it, “Forward, march!”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person know if he’s living by faith or by the flesh? What signposts can he look for?
  2. Is spirituality an all‑or‑none matter or a progressive matter?
  3. In restoring a broken relationship, should we always talk through past wrongs, or is it okay just to “forget about the past”?
  4. In declining an unacceptable social offer from a non‑Christian, must we be totally honest or are excuses sometimes okay?

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

Lesson 61: Fatal Attraction (Genesis 34:1-31)

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A few years ago, there was a popular movie called “Fatal Attraction.” I did not see it (because it was R-rated), but it was about a man whose involvement with a prostitute almost got him murdered. Genesis 34 is the original version of “Fatal Attraction.” A young man’s lust for a teenage girl results not only in his murder, but also in the murder of his father and all the men in his town. The script has lust, rape, anger, deception, greed, murder, and family conflict. Who needs the movies or TV--it’s all right here in the Bible!

You may wonder, “Why is a sordid chapter like this in the Bible?” If a Jewish writer, like Moses, had wanted to make the nation’s founding fathers look good, either he would have left this story out or doctored it up, because it isn’t a pretty picture. While Shechem’s date rape of Dinah was wrong, it was nothing compared to the treachery and brutality of Jacob’s sons, who even used their religion to trick these friendly men. After slaughtering them, they looted their goods and took their wives and children as slaves. God’s chosen people weren’t exactly being a channel for His blessing to the nations!

Since “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), this text has lessons for us. I think Moses included this chapter in all its repulsiveness to warn God’s people of the danger of becoming assimilated with the world. The nation Israel was about to go into the land of Canaan. The greatest danger facing them was not fighting the giants in the land. It was the danger of being seduced into blending in with the Canaanites. The same is true for us today:

Assimilation with the world is the greatest danger facing God’s people.

If Satan can get God’s people to act as bad or worse than those who do not know Christ, the world shrugs off the gospel. It’s even more tragic when Christians use the faith to take advantage of others, as Jacob’s sons did here. When believers are fatally attracted to the world, it is fatal for the world, which misses the gospel. Our text reveals three aspects about this fatal danger:

1. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it is a subtle danger.

The greatest dangers in life are always subtle, not frontal. With a frontal danger, you’re on guard; you’re not as vulnerable. But with a subtle danger, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, you’re not aware of it until it’s too late. When Jacob returned to Canaan, Satan didn’t use an army or a band of robbers to try to get him. Instead, he used Jacob’s fear of Esau to get him to settle in the north, near Shechem. It was inside the borders of Canaan, so Jacob could rationalize that he had obeyed God by returning to the land. But it wasn’t Bethel, where Jacob needed to fulfill his vow to the Lord. It wasn’t Hebron, where his father Isaac was still living. Jacob’s settling on the outskirts of Shechem reminds us of Lot pitching his tent near Sodom. Although Jacob built an altar there, he wasn’t where God wanted him to be.

The Shechemites were friendly toward Jacob. Although the young man for whom the town was named violated Jacob’s daughter, he wanted to make things right. He said he loved her and wanted to marry her. He was willing to pay a handsome dowry. He and his father offered to form a friendly alliance, intermarrying with Jacob’s people and letting them trade and own property (34:9‑10). The appeal was for Jacob to “become one people” with them (34:16, 22). It sounded attractive.

Jacob thought he was in great danger in facing Esau; actually, he was quite safe then, surrounded by a regiment of angels. Here, Jacob thought he was quite safe with these friendly people, but he was in great danger. If he had accepted the Shechemites’ offer, God’s people would have been absorbed into the Canaanite culture and would have ceased to exist. We pray for the church in countries where there is persecution, and rightly so. But the greatest danger to God’s people is not persecution; it’s assimilation. Persecution has a way of weeding out the lukewarm. We who are prone to blend in with our hedonistic culture are in greater spiritual danger than those who are persecuted.

I am convinced that the primary way Satan has seduced American Christians is through television. We average over three hours of TV per day per person. That’s almost one full day in seven spent watching the tube! American teenagers view about 14,000 sexual references a year on television. Weekend daytime programs for children portray an average of 25 acts of violence per hour. A decade ago, Newsweek (11/24/86, p. 76) reported, “Many social scientists think that television’s portrayal of family life may be the single most influential factor in how we conduct it.” They cited a study by the National Institute of Mental Health that “a majority of adults and children use TV to learn how to handle their own domestic roles.”

Back when “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best” were the prime-time hits, the negative influence may have been negligible. Those days are long gone! This month TV breaks new ground by having the star of “Ellen” come out with the fact that she is a lesbian. Previous episodes have featured her and others on the show having promiscuous sex. The American Family Association’s Journal gives a brief synopsis of some of each week’s programs. I was going to read a few of these to you, but they are so gross I decided I should not. But popular programs such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Living Single,” “Burke’s Law,” “Frasier,” and many more, are pure raunch.

Studies have shown that those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians watch the same amount and the same programs as the society at large! I’m going to make a statement that may make you angry, but I will defend it: If you as a professing Christian watch that kind of programming on a regular basis, you are not a godly person and you will not raise godly children! You are being assimilated into our godless culture, whether you realize it or not. To watch such fare is to disobey Ephesians 5:3, 4: “But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”

So we’ve got to be on guard, because Satan is a subtle foe. He doesn’t usually saunter up and say, “Would you like to ruin your life and the lives of your family? Follow me.” He’s subtle, seducing us when we think there is no danger.

2. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it happens in the course of everyday family life.

Shechem may have been good for Jacob’s finances, but it was disaster for his family. His seed of disobedience in not going all the way to Bethel resulted in this harvest of shameful events in Shechem. And it all came about in the course of everyday family living. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, was about 14 or 15. Like any teenage girl, she wanted some girl friends, so she started wandering over to Shechem. As she hung out there, she scored big‑‑the prince, for whom the town was named, fell for her.

What 14 or 15 year‑old girl wouldn’t be thrilled by that? It would be like a freshman girl being asked to the homecoming dance by the captain of the football team. Dinah was probably a bit naive, so she allowed herself to get into a situation with Shechem where the two of them were alone. His passion got the best of him, and he raped her.

When word of what happened got back to Jacob, he didn’t know quite what to do. But his sons got mad, and then they got more than even! When Shechem and his father came seeking Dinah’s hand in marriage, Jacob’s sons told them deceitfully that if they and all the men in their town would be circumcised, Shechem could take Dinah in marriage. Shechem, who was highly respected, persuaded his townsmen to comply by convincing them that it would be financially profitable. When all the men of Shechem were at the height of their pain from the operation, Simeon and Levi took their swords, came upon the city unawares, and killed every male. Then Jacob’s sons looted the town and took all the women and children as slaves.

It was terrible revenge. Even though God would later command Israel to wipe out the Canaanites, He had not done that here. There is no way of justifying what they did. The whole incident was like an avalanche which begins with a little stone and ends up burying a whole town. It never would have happened if Dinah had not visited there, which would not have happened if Jacob had not settled there. And it all came about in the course of everyday family life. Perhaps as Dinah went out the door she called, “I’ll be back later; I’m going over to my friend’s house.” Little did anyone suspect the events which would transpire.

As God’s people, we’re locked into a life and death struggle with our enemy, the devil. When you think about spiritual warfare, you may conjure up images of missionaries confronting witch doctors or of evil governments persecuting Christians. But do you think of everyday family life? You should! The family is under attack from the enemy, and the battlefield is made up of everyday events like a teenager going over to a friend’s house.

My question is, why did Jacob and Leah let a girl of Dinah’s age go alone to a pagan city to be with pagan friends? Why no word of warning? And then, after the disaster of her being raped, it seems that Jacob was going to let her be married to Shechem. (He didn’t know of his sons’ evil plan.) Jacob’s father had warned him sternly not to take a bride for himself from among the Canaanites (28:1), but he doesn’t seem concerned that Dinah is going to be married to this Canaanite man!

Parents are responsible before God for where their kids go, what they do, and who they spend time with. Wrong friendships can lead Christian kids into terrible situations where they lack the wisdom or willpower to resist evil. Shechem was a pagan young man with no moral scruples living in a town that was just the same. What do you expect when you let your 14 year‑old daughter visit such a place alone? I think one reason Jacob wasn’t as angry about this incident as his sons were is that he knew it was as much his fault as anybody else’s.

I also suspect that Jacob didn’t have enough of a relationship with Dinah to have warned and corrected her anyway. She was Leah’s daughter, and Jacob wasn’t overly fond of Leah. In that culture, daughters weren’t as highly valued as sons. My guess is that Jacob hadn’t spent much time with Dinah. So when she wanted to go visit the girls in Shechem, either he didn’t know about it until after the fact or he didn’t say anything. His passivity was a major factor in his daughter getting raped.

All of us are influenced by our relationships. It’s normal and proper for teenagers to develop friendships with others their own age. But if they get in with the wrong crowd, it can have devastating results. That’s why it’s so important for parents to maintain a close relationship with their kids during their teen years. They need the influence of godly parents, and that influence is imparted through a close relationship.

“Impossible!” you say. A lot of parents expect their teenagers to rebel and they assume that they have to give up friendship with their kids during the teen years. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that common notion. It’s not inevitable that teenagers rebel against their parents. I didn’t‑‑I never felt a need to. If parents treat their teenagers with respect and love, there doesn’t have to be a rupture in relationship. The teen years are a critical time when kids desperately need the wisdom and counsel of their parents, to keep them from making some very damaging mistakes. Your parental counsel will be heard to the degree that your love is felt.

Thus, assimilation with the world is a great danger because it’s subtle and it happens in the course of normal family life.

3. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it is an aggressive danger.

It’s subtle, but it’s not passive. If you’re passive against an aggressive foe, you’ll lose. We’re engaged in warfare, and you don’t win wars by being passive. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” One writer put it, “Casual Christians will become Christian casualties.” (John Blattner, Pastoral Renewal [11/87], p. 15.)

Throughout this chapter, Jacob is passive. He never warns or stops Dinah before it’s too late. When he hears of her defilement, he is silent. He doesn’t give any direction to his sons as to how they should deal with things. He’s passive in dealing with Hamor and Shechem, letting his sons do all the talking. It seems he would have let Dinah marry Shechem after he was circumcised, even though he still would have been as pagan as before. Although he rebukes his sons, it’s based more on his own fear of retaliation than on moral principle (note the emphasis on “me” and “I” in verse 30). If he was grieved over Dinah’s defilement or his sons’ godless revenge, it’s not recorded. At least his sons grieved over what happened to their sister (34:7).

One of Satan’s most aggressive schemes for wiping out God’s people has been intermarriage with unbelievers. Let me state it plainly: It is sin for a Christian to marry a non‑Christian. I’ve had girls tell me, “But I’ve prayed about it; I have a peace about it.” But you don’t need to pray about whether you should marry a non‑Christian any more than you need to pray about whether you should commit adultery. I’ve seen Christian girls neutralized by marrying nice non‑Christian guys. Often they get involved sexually, just as Dinah did. True, she was raped; but why was she alone with a guy like Shechem in the first place?

Whenever a Christian girl goes out with a non‑Christian guy, she is on the defense; he is on the offense, trying to see how far he can get sexually. Any football fan knows, you don’t win if you are always on the defense. It’s only a matter of time until the guy will wear down her resistance and she will lose her purity. (This applies just as much to Christian guys as to girls.) So don’t even date a non‑Christian! And choose friends of the same sex who want to follow Christ. Nobody plans the kind of disaster we have in Genesis 34. It began when Dinah went out to visit her worldly girlfriends.


How do you fight the subtle, yet aggressive danger of assimilation with the world, especially as it seeks to undermine your family life? Here are three commitments that will help:

First, commit yourself to proper separation. As God’s people, we are not to live in monasteries. But there is a place for proper separation from evil people, evil activities, and evil environments. Paul warned, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’“ (1 Cor. 15:33). If you want to be godly, don’t choose ungodly people as your best friends. If you think you’ll influence them and not vice versa, then you’re deceived and you’re disregarding the apostle’s warning.

Paul also wrote, “I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (Rom. 16:19). Not many of us could claim to be innocent in what is evil! I’ve heard Christian parents say, “My kids are going to find out about the world sooner or later, so I’m not going to shelter them.” That’s tragic! I can hear Jacob and Leah saying the same thing as Dinah trotted off to Shechem. Read the Bible to your kids and they’ll find out all they need to know about sexual immorality, lust, greed, and every other sin. But they’ll learn about it in a context where the results of sin are clearly spelled out.

I’ll shoot straight: Some of you watch TV shows and videos which neither you nor your kids should watch. Some of you have magazines in your home which belong in the trash. In the context of mental lust, Jesus said, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out and throw it away .... If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it away ...” (Matt. 5:29‑30). He used those radical images to make the point that we dare not dally with sin. God wants us to be holy in our thought life. And that means that we’ve got to separate ourselves from the things which defile us and hinder our fellowship with our holy God.

Second, commit yourself to proper insulation. By this I mean that we need to wrap our minds with the Word of God so that our thinking and attitudes are shaped by God, not by this evil world. Unless our minds are steeped in the Word, we’re going to be swayed by the world. If you read your Bible 15 minutes a day, and watch TV for 3 hours, guess which will influence you the most!

Take, for example, the worldly view of sin. You can see it here with Shechem and his father. Neither one admits that Shechem’s rape of Dinah was wrong. He’s just a red‑blooded young man! Boys will be boys! That’s a worldly view of sin: “Teenagers will be teenagers! Every generation has to sow some wild oats!”

Or take Jacob’s sons’ actions. It was right to be angry about the sin, but they were angry for the wrong reason: They were not concerned about God’s glory. Their family pride was offended: “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” While they were bothered by Shechem’s sin against Dinah, they were oblivious to their own sins of deception, vengeance, murder, and theft. In their deception, they are truly Jacob’s sons (34:13). Years before, Jacob should have been dealing with his own and his sons’ sins.

My point is, if we pick up our values and how we relate to others from the world, especially from TV, we will justify sins like pride, envy, anger, deception, and sexual immorality, because the world shrugs off all those sins. Our kids will learn to be defiant to authority, because TV portrays parents as a bit slow, at best. We will learn to relate to others by selfishness and put-downs, because that’s how they do it on TV. It is only when we turn to the Bible that we learn how to please God in our thought life, our words, our actions, and our relationships.

If you’re a father, I urge you to read the Bible to your family on a regular basis. Every Christian needs to memorize verses that tell us how to think, how to speak, and how to relate to one another. Properly insulated with godly thoughts and attitudes, we can be in the world without being of the world.

Third, commit yourself to proper intention, or purpose. Jacob’s sons had the wrong purpose: They were out to teach the Shechemites, “Don’t mess with us!” Things would have been different if they had been focused on God’s purpose‑‑to be a channel of His blessing to all people! This situation should have been an opportunity for witness on behalf of their covenant‑keeping God. Instead, they used God’s covenant sign (circumcision) as the means of deceiving these lost men and sending them to a godless eternity!

When we go out into the world, we’ve got to keep our purpose uppermost in our minds. We’re not there to judge the world. We’re not there to cavort with the world in its sin. We’re there to represent our Savior, who came to seek and to save those who are lost. Go into the world with the proper separation from evil, the proper insulation of biblical thinking, and the proper intention of witness for Christ, and you won’t be assimilated into it. The world won’t be a fatal attraction for you, or you for it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much should Christians separate themselves and their kids from the world? Where do we draw the lines?
  2. Agree/disagree: Teenagers need not rebel?
  3. How should Christians respond to a crime against a family member such as rape? Is it wrong to seek justice? Vengeance?
  4. Why do Christians who seek not to be worldly often seem weird?

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: Spiritual Life, Temptation