Day 29, Chapter 28 (Part 2): The Face
Yesterday, we discussed the possibility of being Christians without actually developing a close relationship and friendship with God. We looked at Jacob and myself as examples. Today, we will see how God resolved this in Jacob.
Two decades after his encounter with Yahweh at Bethel, Jacob had a second encounter with Him. This amazing meeting was so personal and powerful that Jacob named the place Penuel, meaning “the face of God.” Overwhelmed and radically changed, he declared, “I have seen God face to face“ (Genesis 32:30). What a difference between Bethel and Penuel. Bethel, a “house of God“ relationship, allows one to know the blessings of salvation without ever experiencing the pleasure of His company. At this level of relationship Jesus is more a Savior than a friend, and God is more of a distant ruler than an affectionate Father. A Penuel, face-to-face relationship, on the other hand, changes everything. Jesus becomes our Friend (John 15:15), God becomes Abba/Papa (Romans 8:15), and Holy Spirit becomes our indwelling Helper (John 14:16).
Let’s take a deeper look at Penuel. The name comes from paneh, the Hebrew word for “face.” It is interesting and revealing that paneh is also the word for “presence.” Turning the face towards someone, as in face-to-face encounters, obviously requires being in their presence. Thus, the word for “face“ became the word for “presence.” When the Scriptures speak of individuals having face-to-face encounters or relationships with God, or that God’s face shines on them (Numbers 6:25; Psalm 80:3, 7, 19), they aren’t implying we’re supposed to literally see His physical face. Rather, we’re being reminded we can live in His presence, experiencing an intimacy so strong and personal it’s akin to a face-to-face meeting with a friend.
The circumstances leading up to Penuel, the beginning of Jacob’s face-to-face, presence-driven walk with God, are important to see. Jacob is about to go home, where he will face his brother, Esau, out of whom he had swindled the coveted firstborn birthright inheritance twenty years earlier. On the journey, Jacob moves ever closer to a confrontation with powerful Esau, who has heard of his approach and is on his way to meet Jacob with four hundred men. For Esau, revenge would be sweet.
True to form, conniving Jacob devises a plan to appease his still-offended brother, sending a series of gifts ahead. As he continues on his way, he ultimately sends everything he owns to Esau, including his servants. Though I’m sure he hated to lose them, it was better than death. Eventually, he even sent his family. It must have been a painful site as he watched them cross the stream called Jabbok, wondering if he would ever see them again (see Genesis 32:22).
Jabbok means “pouring out,” and what an irony it is that this is the place where all of Jacob’s accomplishments and wealth - the blessings promised at Bethel, the house of God - were poured out from him. God is determined to deepen the relationship with Jacob and realizes that to do so He’ll have to empty Jacob, at least temporarily, of all that matters more than Him.
What a scene this became. Jacob, who has spent his entire life conniving his way around and through every obstacle in his path, is wealthy – very wealthy - and has proven he is at the top of the food chain when it comes to manipulating circumstances.
Or so he thought.
God had an appointment scheduled with Jacob here at Jabbok, and in a day everything was gone, poured out to the brother he had swindled twenty years earlier. All in all, forty years of hard “heel-grabbing” were gone in a day.
The next verse sums up Jacob’s circumstance and sets the stage for what is about to occur: “Then Jacob was left alone” (Genesis 32:24). Jacob has bought and connived his way out of trouble and into prosperity for the last time. He isn’t yet aware of it, but Esau has become the least of his worries – he is once again alone with God, and this time it isn’t for sweet dreams, as it was at Bethel! As preposterous as it sounds, Jacob and God will spend the night wrestling (see v. 24).
Wrestling with God doesn’t sound like fun!
Jacob’s heavenly adversary begins by dislocating his thigh. Sometimes we have to be broken in order to be fixed. In Scripture, a person’s thigh represents his or her strength. Not only have Jacob’s possessions and family been “poured out,” God has now removed his strength. But there are not many people who could be as stubborn as Jacob. Still he fought.
“I won’t let you go unless you bless me,” he says to his opponent, whom many scholars believe was an Old Testament, preincarnate appearance of Christ Himself. And what is this “blessing” Jacob wants? Protection from Esau, of course. The Lord, however, is about to bless this conniver with something so much greater than physical protection!
God’s initial response to Jacob’s statement is so bizarre it almost sounds like a verse or two have been omitted. “What is your name?” He asks Jacob (Genesis 32:27). Try to picture this: two men fighting, one limping painfully but holding on for dear life while demanding a blessing; and the other – who obviously knows His opponent – demanding to know his name. It could actually come across as humorous, if not ludicrous, if you didn’t know what God was doing.
The Amplified Bible gives the clearest explanation I’ve seen or heard regarding this scenario. It translates Jacob’s response to the question this way: “And [in shock of realization, whispering] he said, ‘Jacob [supplanter, schemer, trickster, swindler]!’” (verse 27). Jacob was acknowledging and confessing his true nature: “I’m a conniving schemer.”
Jacob was pursuing one thing; God was after something altogether different. And He needed this humility and repentance from Jacob in order to get it. Jacob was seeking another blessing - protection. God was seeking Jacob. “It isn’t your possessions, servants, or family I want, Jacob,” He was saying. [The Lord gave all that back.] “It’s you. You can con everyone else, but you can’t con Me. I want you to realize, once and for all, that your strength is not what I need from you. I need for you to acknowledge your weakness – who you really are. Only then can I pour it out from you, delivering you from yourself. I want a far deeper relationship with you, one accessing your heart, not some ‘deal’ we cut involving temporal, earthly benefits. And since I’m God, by the way, I could kill you, but I’d rather just conquer your heart. Then we can dream together and I can use you to help Me save the world.“
The fight was over the moment Jacob acknowledged and confessed his true condition. God’s goal wasn’t to win a fight but a friend. And what did He do next? Demonstrating His matchless grace, after changing this former heel-grabber’s nature, He changed his name: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel” (v.28).
Don’t misunderstand this. If Jacob is your name, you don’t have to change it! The Lord continued referring to him as Jacob after this. He was simply telling this particular Jacob that the negative symbolism the name had carried for him was gone. Now noble, patriarchal Jacob could emerge. In a matchless display of his grace, wisdom, and persistent love, God transformed this conniving swindler into a prince and patriarch...just as He intends to do with each of us. His sovereign actions made clear the bigger picture: “Now we can get on with the dream I gave you at Bethel, Jacob. Because the dream wasn’t just for you; it was for Me, as well. And for the generations to follow! I told you I would bless all the nations of the world through you. I not only want you to see My face; I want you to reflect My face. I need a nation through whom I can demonstrate to the world My ways and heart, and through whom I can bring the Messiah. You are going to birth that nation for Me, and you’re going to do it from Penuel - My presence.”
When God wrestled with Jacob, He was fighting for the heart of a man and warring for His dream of redeeming the human race!
Israel, leaving the fight with a life-altering limp, decided to name the place Penuel. Twenty years earlier Jacob entered Bethel, “the house of God,” and found a dream. This day he had seen “the face of God“ and found the Dream-giver. He would never be the same.1
On the heels of this experience, there’s one more scene too powerful to leave out. Jacob built an altar and gave it a name. In his day, altars were often monuments, a way of commemorating important events. In a sense they gave permanence to them. The name he gave the altar, El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:20), was a magnificent statement. The phrase means “God, the God of Israel.” Remember, Israel was not yet a nation; it was Jacob’s new name given him at Penuel. He was referring to himself. The monument was his declaration: “I’ve made my choice. Yahweh is not just my father’s God - He’s mine.”
A Bethel – “house of God” – relationship won’t sustain you in the tough places of life. Just as importantly, it won’t fulfill the portion of your heart created by God for the purpose of knowing and enjoying Him. You were made for Penuel – a face-to-face relationship with your Maker. Being a part of God's household, having a church home, or being in a family where God is served and honored is important and wonderful, but not enough. Sooner or later you’ll need to graduate from His house to His face; from knowing Him as someone else’s God to experiencing Him as your own. Only then will the promise of His company in heaven become the pleasure of His company here on earth.
Don’t wait another day – find your Penuel.
Pray with me:
Father, we are grateful that we can meet with other Christians where we learn of You as Savior, Provider, and Lord. But from there, we want to move toward Penuel – the place where we meet You face-to-face.
Deliver us from self-centered thinking that keeps us focussed only on the things You can provide us. We choose to empty ourselves of arrogance, self-sufficiency, and performance based religion that causes us not to seek out Your full heart. Holy Spirit, take us deeper; we want a greater revelation of Abba. We want to know and be known by our God, face-to-face.
We don’t want our lives of Christianity to be in name only. We want to experience it, knowing Your heart and Your ways. We desire that our lives be lived enjoying the pleasure of Your company, conversing with our Best Friend and Papa, face-to-face.
In Christ’s name we ask for this. Amen.
Watch prayer here:
Adapted from Dutch Sheets, Dream (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2012), pp 146-148.