Sunday, March 19, 2017

Securing the Blessing (Genesis 25-28)

Important words can get overused and misused, causing them to lose the thrust of their original meaning. A few days ago, I was talking with someone about the word “pious.” At one time, this was the highest compliment that one could hope to receive. A pious person lives a faithful, godly life in the fear of the Lord. But today, if someone said that you are pious, you would probably not receive it as a compliment because it has come to refer to self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism. This is most unfortunate when it happens to important biblical words. I find that one of the most overused and misunderstood words that is tossed about today is the word “blessing,” or its derivatives, like “blessed” (which is customarily prefixed with a hashtag these days, #blessed).

When we speak of God’s blessings in our lives, we often apply the term very selectively. We refer to material, physical, and earthly prosperity as being “blessed,” but we tend to overlook the biblical categories of blessedness, found for example in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. There Jesus says things, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” and “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you.” We see bumper stickers and vanity plates on luxury cars that speak of being blessed, but we do not see them on broken down jalopies barely making it down the road. There are 112 New Testament references to being “blessed,” and none of them have anything to do with material prosperity.[1] So this notion that being blessed means having nice things, or having a lot of things, or having the right things, is missing the point of the Bible, and that leads to going to great lengths in the wrong direction in order to obtain that status of “#blessed.”

One of the central themes of the Bible is God’s intention and desire to bless humanity. When God blesses, He pronounces favor upon a person – not necessarily because they deserve it, but because He chooses to. In His blessing, He empowers the one He blesses to do whatever it is that the blessing entails. Among the 600 times that the Old Testament refers to blessing, there are cases in which one human “blesses” another, but in these cases, the “blessing” consists of a prayer or promise of God’s blessing being extended. When it comes to the family of Abraham, we have a very special case. Abraham was promised an unusual and unique blessing from God, and that blessing was promised to him and his descendants. So from one generation to the next, the blessing of Abraham would be passed down by a father to his son. That blessing bestowed upon each successive generation a privileged position, the protection of God, and participation in God’s purposes. As we examine how this blessing is transferred from one generation to the next, we come to understand something of how and why God blesses His people. Since we all long to experience the blessing of God, the subject is relevant and of interest to us today.

Through the lengthy portion of Scripture we have read, we discover first of all, that …
I. God’s blessing is not secured by worldly means.

We live in a culture that ingrains in us the idea that if you want something, you just go out and get it by any means necessary. If you want it, you should have it, and have it now, no matter what it takes to get it. While that kind of determination and drive may accumulate much in this world, it will never bring about the blessing of God. We find this throughout the story of the sibling rivalry between Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob.

Notice that God’s blessing is not granted on the basis of human standards. By most human  considerations, Esau is a far more commendable character in this story than Jacob. He is the firstborn son, and in that day and culture, this carried a lot of weight. One of the most fundamental threads in the fabric of society in the ancient world (and in many cultures still today) was what was known as primogeniture, or the rights of the firstborn. Though Esau and Jacob were twins, Esau emerged from the womb first, and was technically the firstborn. The firstborn son typically held a position of honor in the family. He was to be the leader and protector of the family when his father became invalid or died. The firstborn was expected to receive both the blessing of his father and the birthright of a double portion of his father’s estate. If a man had nine sons, his estate would be divided into nine portions, and the firstborn would receive two of those portions, with the other eight sons dividing seven portions among themselves. In the case where there are only two sons, as here, the firstborn would receive everything, and the younger would receive nothing.

Esau was a real “man’s man.” He was born covered in hair, with red skin or red hair (the Hebrew is hard to tell the difference). He grew up to become a skillful hunter and a man of the field. He was a great outdoorsman. And because Isaac had a taste for wild game, Esau was his favored child. By human standards, it seemed only natural that he would inherit the blessing of Abraham that God had promised, passed down from Isaac. But God does not operate by human standards, nor is His blessing granted that way.

Neither is His blessing granted by carnal senses. As we all know, we have five senses. You know what they are: touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. These are gifts of God for our benefit, protection, and enjoyment, and by them, we perceive the world and the things in it. We are a sensory people. But when we live only for the gratification of our five senses, or are driven primarily by them, we are sensual people. Sensual people live for the satisfaction of our carnal, or fleshly desires, rather than for the glory of God and the fulfillment of His purposes. This is the way we all come into the world. Paul says that we all “formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph 2:3). Until we know God by personal relationship, the sensual is all that we know. The gratification of our senses brings us delight. But it does not bring the blessing of God. We see that in our passage as we look at Isaac’s interactions with his sons.

They say that when we are deprived of one of our five senses, the others are sharpened. In Chapter 27, Isaac is said to have become blind. His “eyes were too dim to see” (27:1). So, he sent out his favored son to bring him “a savory dish for me such as I love, … that I may eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die.” Deprived of his sense of sight, and driven by his sense of taste, he became deceived by his sense of touch and smell. Jacob came in, at the prompting of his mother, with a savory dish and disguised by goat skins which made him “feel” hairy and smell “gamey” like his brother. Interestingly, even though Isaac paused to inquire as to whether this was really Esau or not, he was so intent on the savory dish, that he ignored the dead giveaway. In 27:22, he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Hearing is regarded as the source of spiritual truth in the Bible. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Contrary to popular belief, we do not now live in the “visual age.” God speaks to us from His word and calls us to believe in what we cannot see. Isaac denied his sense of hearing, and allowed himself to be deceived.

So God’s blessing is not granted by human standards and not by carnal senses. We also see that it is not granted by deceptive schemes. This entire passage is like a museum of liars and cheats. We often envision Isaac as a hapless victim who is taken advantage of by a manipulative wife and a scheming son. But Isaac himself is also up to a deceptive game here. Without the context of Genesis 25, Genesis 27 appears to be about a father who wants to give a blessing to his firstborn son. What’s the problem? Remember, in Chapter 25, it was the Lord who said, “the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). God had already established that Jacob was to receive the birthright and the blessing. Isaac was plotting to undo what the Lord had decreed, as if that were possible. Isaac and Esau were secretly attempting to defy God’s plan. Rebekah and Jacob were secretly attempting to force God’s hand. All of them were deceptively scheming, and none of them were able to secure God’s blessing by their tactics.

All of this teaches us that we can never secure God’s blessing by worldly means. We cannot rely on cultural customs, genealogy, physical stature or material prosperity, carnal desires and pleasures, or dishonesty and deception to gain God’s favor. Right cannot be done wrongly. God’s will has to be done God’s way. And His way is not to grant His blessing according to worldly means. So how does God bless people?

II. God’s blessing is bestowed by sovereign grace.

Ever since the fall of humanity into sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, our natural born state has been utterly hopeless. The Bible describes our condition as “enemies” of God (Rom 5:10) and “dead” in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). As some have well said, the only thing a dead person can do is stink. If, according to the ancient Chinese proverb, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” then the journey to bring us to God from our sinful state must be infinite, and we are completely incapable of taking the first step. Therefore, whatever steps must be taken to bring the blessing of God into our lives must all be taken by God Himself. And this is exactly what the Bible declares and demonstrates from cover to cover, including in this story of Esau and Jacob.

Notice that before any action is taken by either Jacob or Esau, God chooses who will receive the blessing. Before they were born, the Lord said to Rebekah in 25:23, “Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.” As a demonstration of God’s sovereign choice of Jacob over Esau, when they were born, Esau came first, and Jacob “came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel.” It typified the struggle that would exist between them, and the preeminence that Jacob would have over Esau in fulfillment of God’s sovereign decree.

When Paul was describing God’s sovereign grace in Romans 9, he pointed to this passage as an illustration of it. He wrote, “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER." Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED" (Rom 9:11-13).

That statement of God’s “hatred” of Esau troubles many readers, but we must understand that the contrast of love and hate in contexts like this has to do with a preferential choice. And that preferential choice was made on no other basis than God’s sovereign grace. It had to be! After all, both Esau and Jacob proved themselves to be unworthy of God’s blessing. Esau is not an innocent victim here. Though God had already decreed that Jacob would have preeminence, neither Esau nor Jacob knew this. Both presumed that the birthright belonged to Esau as the firstborn. So Jacob, on one occasion, tricked Esau into trading the birthright for a bowl of stew. Genesis 25:30 says that Esau was famished – meaning that he was dying of hunger. Jacob should have been hospitable and generous and given him the stew, but he was shrewd and tricky, and offered it to him in exchange for the birthright. Esau said, “I am about to die; so of what use is the birthright to me?” But the Bible says of Esau’s end of the bargain that he “despised his birthright” (25:34). Following his own physical desires, he dishonored his father and family by such a bad trade. And he continued to be driven more by carnal desire than spiritual insight. Chapter 26 tells us that he married, not one but, two Hittite women. This was a compounded sin – polygamy was bad enough, a complete rebellion against God’s design for marriage and family. But it was compounded by the fact that he married women from a pagan culture who worshiped and served idols instead of the true and living God. Spiritual compatibility is required for a God-honoring marriage, and Esau showed no concern for this. These women caused his parents much grief, and later, we will read that he adds another wife to the harem, this time from the Ishmaelites – another pagan people. It is no wonder that the book of Hebrews calls Esau “immoral” and “godless” (Heb 12:16).

But it is not as though Jacob was any better. Not knowing that the blessing and birthright had already been decreed to him by God, he went to deplorable lengths to defraud his brother and deceive his father in order to seize them. He was guilty of hardhearted greed, evil trickery, lies and even blasphemy as he covered up his lies by appealing to God granting him favor in 27:20. Who deserves the blessing of God in this passage? None of the above! And none would have it were it not for God taking sovereign initiative on the basis of His glorious grace and mercy.

The grace of God in blessing people who are undeserving is a scandalous and offensive thing to many. In fact, it always has been. It seems unfair for an unrighteous person to receive the blessing of God! In response to this, we must make three points of clarification. First, when all are completely undeserving, it is not unfair of God to allow some to get what they deserve, and others to get better than they deserve. This is Paul’s point in Romans 9, where he says, “What shall we say then? There is no injustice in God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (Rom 9:14-15). If I put a stack of hundred dollar bills here on the steps, and say, “I am willing to give every one of you a hundred dollar bill if you will come here and receive it,” that is my right. And if every one of you decides not to come here and receive it, but to walk away, am I being unfair if I chase down one of you and say to you, “I insist that you take all of the money!”? Not at all! It is mine to do with as I wish, and when all have rejected my offer, no one is deserving of it. But I still may choose one to give the whole sum to one. It is not unfair. It is an imperfect analogy, surely, but it illustrates the point. God desires to extend His blessing to all mankind. But all have turned away from His blessing in sin and rebellion. No one deserves it. How could it be unfair of Him to choose some and insist on them receiving more than they deserve? In sovereign grace, this is how He blesses some and not others.

The second clarification we must make is that God’s blessing in no way removes the temporal consequences of sin. Jacob sinned, and was blessed anyway. But the blessing of God did not prevent him from reaping what he had sown. He will suffer alienation from his family, threats from his brother, and in a subsequent passage, he will be deceived by Laban in his selection of a wife. So we must not think that grace provides us with a license to sin without consequences.

The third clarification is this: it ought to greatly encourage us that God chooses to bless otherwise undeserving people. This is not unfair – it is our only glory and ultimate hope! All of us, like all those in this passage, are undeserving of God’s favor! None of us can attain it on our own. One of the most encouraging things in the Bible to me every time I read it is how good God is to people who do not deserve it, and how He uses people who are deeply flawed with imperfections! If it were otherwise, I would live in utter despair! But the overarching message of the Bible is that God is willing to shower grace on undeserving people, and therefore there is hope for us all. And that hope is found in the ultimate demonstration of God’s blessing upon undeserving people: the gift of His Son Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.

This brings us to the final truth of how God’s blessing is secured:

III. God’s blessing is secured ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Though Isaac had intended to try to circumvent God’s plan by blessing Esau instead of Jacob, and though Jacob had deceived him wickedly in order to obtain that blessing, Isaac finally surrendered himself to the will of God. The blessing that he gave Jacob in Chapter 27 from his blind deception is given in even clearer terms in Chapter 28, this time with clear understanding to the purposes of God. In 28:3-4, Isaac bestows on Jacob and his descendants “the blessing of Abraham” and all that this entailed. Then, as though to confirm the blessing and provide assurance of it, God Himself appeared to Jacob in 28:10-22. Jacob saw a vision in a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven to earth, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it, and God said to him, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” As He had done with Abraham and Isaac before, God blessed Jacob with the promise of innumerable descendants and the title deed to the promised land. And again God reiterated, “in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” We have seen over and over again in these patriarchal narratives how this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who brings the blessing of God to all peoples by rescuing humanity from the curse of sin.

It is only on the basis of what God will do for mankind in Christ that He can promise His everlasting presence and blessing on Jacob and those who come after him. All of God’s blessings to undeserving people prior to the cross pave the way for the cross where our redemption is completed. He is the blessing of Abraham that flows to Jacob in this account, and flows to us all in God’s saving grace. And how is Jacob to receive this blessing? By faith, the same as Abraham and Isaac before him, the same as all who receive the blessing of Christ here and now. Jacob’s faith in the promises of God was so significant that he went to great lengths – even improper lengths – to attain it. But it was not attained by those illicit means but in spite of them. It was attained by faith, based on the unchangeable sovereign decree of God’s grace to choose him. When God appeared to Jacob, by faith he erected an altar and called the place “Bethel,” which means “House of God,” and committed himself to walk with God in faith and obedience from that point forward. And we ourselves receive the blessing of God by faith as we are met by His sovereign grace and respond in faith and trust. As with Jacob, so with us – it is not based on what we have done or not done. It is based on the sovereign grace of God, who chooses to bestow blessings on the undeserving, and it is received by faith alone in Christ alone.

Jesus Christ is the true firstborn of God the Father who has inherited the birthright of the whole world and all it contains, and the Kingdom of God, that He may reign as Lord forever. He is the true “Bethel,” the house of God that God has established in whom all who come into His presence are gathered as one worshiping people of God. He is the ladder between heaven and earth, and the only means of accessing the presence of God. He said Himself, “You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” referring to Himself (Jn 1:51). And He is the greater Jacob who reigns over the greater Esau. Remember when Jesus was born, the Magi came from the East asking Herod, the king of the Jews, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). That very statement has its roots here in the story of the blessing of God passing down to Jacob instead of Esau. You see, Herod the Great, though he bore the title “King of the Jews” was not born King of the Jews, and was not even a Jew. In fact, Herod was an Edomite. Look at Genesis 25:30 again: “Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.’ Therefore his name was called Edom (which means “red”).” Where does the story of Jacob (also known as Israel) taking precedence over Esau (also called Edom) find its supreme fulfillment? In the birth of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, born King of the Jews, to reign as King of all kings! He was coming into the world, bringing the blessing of God with Him to bestow on all who receive Him by faith and commit themselves to Him as subjects to an almighty and everlasting King!

To Jacob, the Lord promised by His grace, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done I have promised you.” To those who belong to Him by faith the Lord Jesus makes even greater promises. Cleansing us from sin by the blood of His cross, and covering us with His righteousness, Jesus says to His own, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb 13:5). He says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He says, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (Jn 6:39). He says, “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:2-3). We could ask for no greater blessing than this! God has given us Himself in the person of Christ! Though we do not deserve it, by His sovereign grace, He extends His blessing toward us, and asks us only to receive it by faith in the Lord Jesus.

[1] Vaneetha Rendall Risner, “What Does it Really Mean to Be #Blessed.” Online: Accessed March 16, 2017. 

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