Praying With Boldness

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Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
How often do you pray? Young people, do you pray and talk to God? In our house we pray several times a day, most conspicuously at meal times, and at bed time. Do you children pray at home before bed, and before meals? It would seem as though that is a common habit of Christian families. What about other times? Do you pray when you wake up in the morning? How about before you start school, or studying? Or after your lessons? Is God near to you, or far away from you? If he is nearby, shouldn’t you be speaking to him as often as you speak to your brothers and sisters? Your mom, dad, teacher, or friends?

You may speak to God often—I certainly hope you do—and when you do you should have the proper attitude, which attitude begins with a grave humility, the kind of humility that your father Jacob expressed in verse 10 of this chapter, saying: “I am unworthy of all the loving-kindness and of all the faithfulness which you have shown to your servant.” Certainly, honesty would have called forth from Jacob’s mouth and heart such an admission. You are aware (no doubt) of the great and varied sins of this man’s career. So it must be the case that sinners like Jacob must never presume upon the grace of God, but always acknowledge that for God to hear us at all (that is, to listen to us and not ignore us) it is important that we understand that such attention is an effect of his electing grace.

God’s initiative brings you into a covenant relationship from one of enmity. But because of that covenant, we can and ought to come, bringing all the forms of prayer. Perhaps you are familiar with the acronym ACTS (one simple way prayer is sometimes explained). Prayer may be in the form of: ‘A’ adoration, or ‘C’ confession, or ‘T’ thanksgiving, or ‘S’ supplication. But with a right humble attitude, we will not treat God as though our servant to be commanded. But there is a further lesson in prayer to be gathered from this chapter. It is a lesson that might seem, at first, to contradict the first principle. As the title of the message reads: God’s elect are to pray with boldness, as well as humility. How on earth does that work? Let us take a look at our text.

My burden for you today is: You should come to God resolved to have your pleasure from him, in him, and in his will. Here is our basic outline this morning: 1) God Gets Jacob Alone, 2) God Takes Jacob to the Ground, 3) God Puts Jacob on his feet.

I. God Gets Jacob Alone
Let us begin where we left off in the previous message, as Jacob makes preparation for his imminent meeting with his brother. We noted last time that prayer is not a substitute for action. The prayer of the believer comes out in the midst of a life of faith. Jacob doesn’t wait for God to brush his brother aside with a supernatural breeze, or to cloak the holy family with invisibility, but he sets his God-given mind to the task. He employs some more military-type strategy, the principle of force-dispersion. And further, he sends embassies ahead of him to encounter Esau and to present him with gifts of peace. We can look at these gifts in two ways: they could be viewed as bribes or tribute, as something sent by the weaker to the stronger. And viewed from the vantage of the earth, they certainly appear as such. Jacob is evidently concerned with his family’s wellbeing, with their very lives, as he senses his brother’s approach. The earthly fills Jacob’s thoughts, and crowds out the heavenly.

But let us not forget who is the stronger brother. When the men were much younger, it was Jacob who, in the flesh, wrestled the birthright and blessings away from Esau. God’s hand was certainly in it, his will was certainly done; but that is just it—Esau’s advantages are never what they seem. Is Jacob unprotected? Is he without an army of his own? You know the answer to that. You were standing there with him as he met the angels, and named that place Mahanaim, the “two camps”: one his little band, the other the martial presence of the heavenly host. From the vantage of heaven, then, Jacob’s presents are not appeasement, they are magnanimity. It is God’s elect sending handsome presents to his foe or rival, as a gesture of independence and power. Jacob feels like a meager character facing his brother again. Has he forgotten that he is God’s ambassador to the world?

This, you see is always your challenge, as one of God’s elect. On the one hand, you face a world that seems so full of advantages over you—whether in money, or authority, or influence, or you name it. And especially when your own moral stance has been weakened by sin and folly, you may have forgotten who you are. Even in your prayers, you may have forgotten. In your own eyes you appear like grasshoppers. When your thoughts are full of giants, you are tempted to wonder if you can enter the land. Or you are like Peter standing on the water, looking at the wind and waves, beginning to sink. Peter cries out to Christ. Jacob cries out to Jehovah.

But God wants more from you than for you to be humble, and to know your need and to cry out in full recognition of your destitution. There is, dare we say it, more glory to be had by God than when he saves the desperate who feel their need of him. There is the glory of God in his saving those who not only look to him as their only hope, but who so look to him over the heads of their foes; or who so fearlessly face their foes, with God not in their sight at all, but as utterly convinced he stands behind them, or comes as it were upon their heels, so that they have nothing to fear from those whom they face. For these believers have been emboldened. Their prayers have been the occasion of such spiritual empowerment, that their enemy is confounded.

This strengthening, therefore, this confidence in God, this assurance, this blessing—this is the other half of the double aspect of prayer that last time I mentioned was the vital core of this chapter. God wants his elect to approach him boldly, so that they can face their problems boldly. But I want you to notice the first thing about this prayer, and that is its individuality. In the event that takes place in our chapter, at the brook Jabbock, Jacob had spent one night resting, and the following day sending forth his present. Once again, night fell, and after but a short while, Jacob arose, bestirred his wives and children, and sent them across the stream. Why does Jacob do this?

I’m a former soldier, so I tend to read these events with something of a soldier’s eye. My explanation is because Jacob believes his brother intends to attack him with those 400 men. If so, then his scouts may have discovered Jacob’s camp by now. So, they would have seen Jacob’s family bedding down for the night. They would be able to see the absence of any defenses, they could mark each tent, they might prepare for an attack. Perhaps the attack would come at first light. You can imagine the scene, I’m almost certain the family had lain to rest wearing their traveling gear. So in the dark they arose, with the least light to alert any watchers to their movement, they stole down to the water’s edge, splashing quietly across. Now they went up into the territory on the far side, secreting themselves. In the dark the few remaining servants strike all the tents, picking up everything movable, and tote everything away to the far side. And nothing is left at the camp except for Jacob, alone. If Esau attacks in the morning, he will find nothing here, no one except for Jacob.

That, it seems to me, is Jacob’s plan. But God has another design entirely. God wants Jacob alone for himself. God wants Jacob to meet Esau but in a completely different frame of mind than his present, fearful condition. Jacob should not be fearing Esau; Esau should be fearing Jacob, and the God of Jacob. There are times when we come together into times of prayer: this morning in worship, on Wednesday prayer meetings, or whenever we pray with others. But the measure of your prayer is not made in those times, but when you are alone, individually, in the presence of God. You cannot measure your own strength by your participation in a tug-of-rope contest. So Jacob needed this moment alone with God so that he might be emboldened for his meeting. So what happens is, Jacob’s physical, solitary state becomes a picture of his individual meeting, his private audience with God in prayer.

How do we know that the focus of this incident is prayer? Because that is what the holy record tells us, Hosea 12:3ff. “In his maturity [Jacob] contended with God, Yes he wrestled with the angel … he wept and sought his favor… even the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his name.” I hardly feel the need to teach or prove further to you that we have no dealings with God apart from prayer. B. M. Palmer in his book on the Theology of Prayer, calls prayer “the language of worship,…for what worship can the most exalted creature offer which does not cast itself into the mould of prayer?” So, we do not come to the exposition of the passage with a kind of uninformed naiveté, a pretend ignorance of the true nature of this encounter, which only might come to light in some reflective conclusions. No, but we shall begin with Jacob at prayer. The intermingling of the bodily and spiritual elements highlights the typological nature of this event. And it is possibly the most significant event in the life of a man, whose entire life, along with his father’s and grandfather’s, was filled with events of extraordinary magnitude.

II. God Takes Jacob to the Ground
So, Jacob is alone, in the dark. Everyone is gone. All his belongings are once again taken from him. He is left with nothing but his thoughts. Is it any wonder that in this dire moment he prays to God? We cannot know what he prayed, but we certainly do know some of his concerns: 1) the safety of his family, 2) his own personal safety, 3) the Seed of Promise, 4) the covenant with Abraham and Isaac, and now himself, 5) the nature of his brotherly relation. He must have been reckoning with his own sinfulness and wretchedness, considering how his own faithlessness was the direct cause of the present situation. These subjects we can gather from his actions and from his earlier prayer we looked at last time.

But what is interesting about the text itself, is that as soon as Jacob is left alone, the next words we read are: “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” So, apart from considerations about prayer, what we are immediately confronted with is a desperate struggle. You be Jacob for just a moment. There you are alone in the dark, afraid, crying out in your heart to God, anticipating an attack when suddenly out of the dark a body strikes yours, grappling, struggling, fighting to put you down. Has Esau found me in the dark? Is this my death hour? This is not just a little contest Jacob. As far as you know this is a life and death moment. If he gets above you, and behind you, he can get your neck, and then its all over. The wrestling goes on and on and on. Your opponent is powerful, and skilled. It takes every ounce of concentration and strength you’ve got to counter his moves. Can you outlast him? Already the minutes and hours are slipping by. This is taking superhuman ability, superhuman strength to wrestle like this.

I did not wrestle in competitively high school, but we once or twice spent a portion of Phys. Ed. on the mats. Our teacher for the class was also the wrestling coach. And I think its fair to say that given the exertions required, its not hard to understand why the matches are measured in minutes, only a few minutes, and not quarter-hours, half-hours, and hours. So, there must have come a moment when Jacob realized that once again (if you remember the incident at the well when he rolled the stone away for Rachel) once again he was being sustained with supernatural strength. God was with him in this fight. Until… [v.25] A wrestler without use of his legs is whipped. When Jacob felt the man take his one leg out (I can’t imagine how much that hurt!) he must have come nearly to the end of himself. If the man slipped away now, it would be to circle around his helpless body and take him from behind. So Jacob does the only thing he can—he blocks out the pain and he grabs the man with his arms and hands, anything he can hold so as not to lose track of him in the dark. If the man gets free, Jacob is a dead man.

When did Jacob connect his prayer with the wrestling, realizing the one was an extension of the other? I do not know, But I do know for sure at which point Jacob had no doubts whom he was wrestling. It was the moment the man spoke to him. [read] Why? Because Jacob had heard that voice more than once in dreams. Can you imagine his thoughts as it dawns on him that he has been wrestling with God Almighty!? What started out in prayer for God’s deliverance from Esau, had become hope in God’s strength to wrestle for hours against an unknown assailant, which seemed to be lost in the move than threw his leg out, and had now been revealed as a contest with God himself. Life and death struggle! How could anyone be face-to-face with God, and live? And fight with God? Why wouldn’t God destroy anyone who opposed him? And Jacob had been contending with him all night. At this moment, I suppose Jacob had only one hope, and he uttered it: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” If God would promise to let him live, he could release his grip. Because this Jehovah kept his word.

Here’s the truth about prayer that you need to remember: if prayer is just easy and automatic, why is your prayer life weak? Why is our prayer meeting so sparsely attended? Why do we pray for the unconverted to come, but they stay away? Is there nothing at all you desire, nothing at all that you are willing to wrestle with God to attain? I’m not talking about your lusts. I’m talking about things this Word speaks of. You moan and groan about the way the country, state, or city are going down the drain; you SAY you want to see righteousness prevail. How many of you are wrestling with God for that? Marching for life is fine. Praying for God to close the abortuaries—how much time do you spend wrestling with him for that? Conversions—of loved ones, friends, neighbors—how much wrestling do you do for them? Victory over sin! Is sin so strong that you cannot do the right God commands? That secret vice in your life—“ah, I will never get the victory; I prayed about it but God won’t help.” NO! It is you who is not determined to get your answer from God, you who have yet to wrestle. “Oh no, I’ve wrestled,” you say. But you haven’t. How do I know that? Because if you had and not given up, you would have had your blessing. The night of wrestling may seem long and agonizing. But you can’t give up.

John Knox prayed his famous prayer, “Give me Scotland, ‘ere I die!” Once? Oh, I very much doubt that was a one time prayer. God would scarcely give a man a whole kingdom who had invested nae more tha’ five seconds in the asking! He spent years praying that prayer, wrestling. Wrestling gets you intimate with God, gets you face-to-face with God, and God is a rewarder of those who “earnestly seek him.” And the more earnest you are, the more you need to wrestle. Calvin’s words on this passage are sublime: “Who is able to stand against an Antagonist, at whose breath alone all flesh perishes and vanishes away, at whose look the mountains melt, at whose word or beck the whole world is shaken to pieces?... We do not fight against him, except by his own power, and with his own weapons… He both fights against us and for us… Such is his apportioning of this conflict, that, while he assails us with one hand, he defends us with the other… For while he lightly opposes us, he supplies invincible strength whereby we overcome.” God gave Knox an entire country. Can you not engage in a contest for a mere city? Can you not determine to wrestle heaven for one son or daughter, a brother or a sister, some loved one for whom you will invest in a struggle for their conversion? “I will not let you go until you bless me!”

Do you realize that even if God’s answer is “No,” you still will not have lost anything, but will certainly have gained for the effort? Here’s why: the burden of my message today, You should come to God resolved to have your pleasure from him, your pleasure in him, and your pleasure in his will. The specifics we put our hopes in may be different from God’s decree, but to assume therefore, that your labors were in vain, because they were spent on someone who died in their sin—that is faulty reasoning. Those spiritual labors bore spiritual fruit someplace, if not in that person, certainly in you, and likely in some other persons as well. NOTHING ever done for God’s glory is ever wasted or lost! It’s inconceivable. And if you pray wrestling for the things God has definitely promised, you shall certainly see those things come to pass without fail. They are in accord with his will.

Jacob was sure to get a blessing from the Lord—he had, in effect, earned it. But God first needs something from Jacob. Listen to his response, “What is your name?” God wants more than Jacob’s identity. He knows who Jacob is, better than he knows himself. He wants a confession from Jacob. About 10 years ago on a Ligonier Ministries tape I first heard evangelist Ravi Zacharias tie the Lord’s question of Jacob back to blind Isaac’s same question, “Who are you?” Back in chapter 27 Jacob lies and says he’s Esau. Now, God wants the liar to answer truthfully. And he does: “I am Jacob,” meaning: “I am the Supplanter, and in my life I’ve lived up to my name: liar, sneak, scoundrel, cheat. And because I am Jacob, and utterly undeserving of your blessing, I need it from you all the more.” God’s response is grace, once again. “You are a sinner, Jacob, but you recognize that, which makes all the difference. And I am going to bless you.”

III. God Puts Jacob on His Feet
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel.” Jacob’s new name is more than a new label. It is a new identity, one that expresses his relationship with the God of the covenant. Jacob had fought for this blessing, he had won it through conquest. I want you to note a couple things about the name. The likely meaning of “Israel” is “God strives.” Jacob received the name because he struggled with God, but remember the key element of the struggle is not Jacob’s strength but God’s in Jacob. Jacob’s apparent invincibility, whether he’s contending with men or God, is only explainable on this basis: that God fights for him. So, when we move past Israel, the man, to Israel the nation, to the purpose behind both entities, it becomes clear that this name is a testimony, a witness that God is the one striving, battling, an ultimately prevailing in the Seed of Promise. We are more than conquerors, through him that loved us (Rom. 8:37).

Along with this name, Jacob is blessed through the bestowal in a couple other ways. By boldly striving with God, Jacob’s sense of confidence is perked. Note Psalm 56:11: “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Your worries of this life will seem trivial, after you have wrestled with God in prayer. Jacob, it seems fair to say, was cured of his fear of Esau this night. And, along with the name God gave the renewed awareness that it was as God’s elect representative on earth that he was meeting Esau, not as a milquetoast man, cowardly paying tribute to his mighty brother. By way of comparison, think of the Lord Jesus who never stopped being the divine Son of God, never stopped holding the entire world in existence, but who (as Phil. 2:8 puts it) nevertheless “humbled himself.” Were his miraculous signs attempts to buy favor with the people or their leaders? Certainly not. For his part, Israel’s presents are signs of the divine provision, blessings that Esau can only enjoy temporarily, but ultimately will not share.

God again makes mention of this name “Israel” later in Gen 35:10, a reminder to Jacob of his identity as God’s representative. In the meantime, and even after that time, this man continues to go by both his names. I explained in a previous message that part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that the two names are often used to express two relations God’s elect sustains, one man-ward, the other God-ward. We may also say that this dual use shows that this name of God’s elect representative was not meant only for Jacob, but intended for all God’s elect people to share. Jacob donates his special name to his children. And Moses brings this out by using the phrase for the first time, “sons or children of Israel” in v.32. This regular eating habit was a customary reminder of the event that engendered their name.

Now once this blessing has been given, you see there Jacob sort of hesitantly asking this “man” what his name is. The sense is that Jacob is asking for a comparable self-disclosure on God’s part, not that Jacob was unaware of his contestant. The answer is returned [read], in other words: “Do you really have to ask?” God’s self-disclosure comes in Israel’s reflection and meditation upon the incident. Thus he gives him a farewell benediction, and is gone. Israel had been face-to-face with God. Children of Israel, when you go to prayer, you are by degrees face-to-face with God. And when you wrestle with him, you should expect an unforgettable encounter.

Jacob names the place “Peniel” meaning “Face of God.” When the struggle began, I’m sure he wondered if he’d live til morning light. And now that the sun was risen, he must have regarded the sight as pure miracle. He was limping, his worldly weakness before his brother would be even more apparent. But now I doubt he considered it for a moment. He was nothing anyway. The only reason he was anybody was because God elected him. But since that God had elected, he was bold. He was God’s ambassador. He had won through to blessing, striving with God. He found of God his pleasure. You should come to God resolved to have your pleasure from him, in him, and in his will.
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