LESSONS FROM THE LIVES OF THE PATRIARCHS
GENESIS PART 2 | PATRIARCHAL HISTORY
JACOB: CHOSEN BEFORE BIRTH
- One of the most difficult aspects of biblical theology to understand is the intersection of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. It is quite clear in Scripture that God is completely sovereign over absolutely everything. He ordains, in one way or another, everything that has ever come to pass. He is in control of his universe. He causes kings to rise and fall. He raises up Pharaohs in order to show his wrath. He forms and dissolves nations. He allows sin and yet condemns sin. If God is God then God is sovereign. If he is who we know him biblically to be, he is in absolute control of the tiniest details of existence.
- It is equally clear in Scripture that men and women are individually responsible for their own actions. We are not cosmic robots with no capacity to act on our desires. We are free agents. This means that we do what we do because we want to do it. Our own desires dictate our actions.
- How these two truths interact and compliment each other can be a tricky thing to figure out. And one message on the topic is not going to adequately answer all of the questions that arise when we discuss these issues. However, I do want to attempt to do the topic justice, so we will have a somewhat lengthy look at Scripture today. There are some basic, fundamental truths that we need to understand from the life of Jacob today. In the life of Jacob God’s sovereignty is on clear display. And the New Testament writers pick up on this point and teach us how the sovereign God of Jacob is the sovereign God of you and me.
- We are going to start with Jacob himself. How does God reveal himself to be sovereign in the life, particularly today, the birth, of Jacob? What does this tell us about God in general? Then we will move on to the New Testament commentary on this passage. How does God reveal himself to be sovereign in your life and my life? What does the New Testament use of this passage tell us about God specifically?
- So, we begin with Jacob:
[READ GENESIS 25:19-28]
- Of course, the promises of God to Abraham and his son Isaac sit as the backdrop for this passage. God is continuing to work out his covenant with the patriarch as Isaac begins to start his own family. The story of the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac that we addressed last time serves as a kind of transition in the text. Abraham ends his part of the story triumphantly with an amazing act of obedient faith. Now the focus has turned to Isaac. Isaac marries Rebekah, and here we are looking at the birth of Isaac’s first two boys.
- Here is the scene. Rebekah, Isaac’s wife is barren; she is struggling with the inability to have children. We need to be reminded that in this culture barrenness was a disgrace of the highest order. As a woman, if you could not bear children you endured a tremendous amount of shame. In the minds of many, barrenness was a sign of disapproval by the gods. Even Isaac, when seeking to deal with Rebekah’s issue turns to the LORD his God. They had a tremendous understanding of the miracle of life in that culture. Our knowledge of how human beings are formed and born has in many ways striped us of the joy of why we are born and who we come from. But I digress.
- The LORD hears Isaac’s prayer and answers him by allowing Rebekah to conceive. Once she conceives, she feels something going on inside of her. Now it seems like to this point she is unaware that she is carrying twins. Perhaps she felt her stomach doing some unusual things. And maybe she thinks something is wrong. So she says, “Why is this happening to me? I waited so long to become pregnant and now something is amiss!” So she asks God what the matter is. That’s when God comes to her to explain what is going on.
- God’s explanation for the turmoil going on in Rebekah’s womb is what we will concentrate on today.
- Here is what he says: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” There are two key components to that statement that I want us to recognize. There is what we might call the corporate component and there is the individual component. Let’s unpack what I mean. First, the corporate component:
GOD CHOSE TO BLESS THE NATION THAT WOULD COME THROUGH JACOB OVER THE NATION OF ESAU BEFORE EITHER OF THEM WERE BORN
- God says that two nations were in her womb, and two peoples would be divided from within her. The Abrahamic covenant was, on one level, about a nation being formed out of the offspring or seed of Abraham. This aspect of that promise is being addressed here. You remember the promise: I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. Initially, not primarily, but initially that is fulfilled in the forming of the nation of Israel.
- In essence what God is saying here is that the blessed offspring promised to Abraham and subsequently to Isaac would come through Jacob and not Esau. The blessing would pass through the descendants of the younger rather than the older; while the blessing of the oldest son would have been the norm. So what’s so important about that?
- The importance lies in the fact that God is making this statement before Jacob and Esau are born. It would be assumed that if the oldest son was a legitimate heir, all of the familial blessings and responsibilities would be primarily his. God flips this notion upside down before the party even starts. The nation that comes from the younger Jacob will be the nation of promise.
- Esau and his descendants eventually develop into the nation of Edom; which was located to the east- southeast of the land of Israel. Conflict between Israel and Edom is a common theme later on in the Old Testament. Jacob and his descendants, of course, eventually form into the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people and nation. And God not only knew this would be the case, he ordained that it would be so. We will see more of that in just a moment when we turn to the New Testament.
- But there is, as I mentioned, also an individual component here:
GOD CHOSE TO CONTINUE HIS COVENANT THROUGH JACOB BEFORE HE AND HIS BROTHER ESAU WERE BORN
- Now, essentially we are saying the same thing we just elaborated upon. The emphasis now, however, is on the individual, Jacob, as opposed to his descendants and the nation that would come from him. God says: the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.
- All we are saying here is that because God is blessing the nation that would come through Jacob, he is by necessity blessing Jacob the individual over Esau. This is going to be important for us to understand when we come to the New Testament because Paul is going to use this account to teach us something very important about how God relates to us. We are not simply saying that God chose to bless the nation of Jacob over the nation of Esau. Included in that is the fact that God chose to bless the person Jacob over his older brother. You can’t have one without the other.
- Why do we need to remember that? Because if we are going to properly apply the principles being taught here, we need to understand what God is doing. Now some may read this passage and say to themselves, “What on earth does God choosing to bless Jacob and his nation over Esau and his nation have to do with me? I’m not a Hebrew or an Edomite. Why should I care?” Here is why you should care: turn to Romans 9.
- Here is the scene is Romans 9. Paul is writing to the saints in Rome concerning the core doctrines of the gospel. What is the gospel? How does the gospel affect us? What are its implications? What are the truths that make it what it is? These are some of the questions Paul answers. And in Romans 9 Paul turns to the topic of the nation of Israel. How does Israel fit into God’s saving plan? Has God abandoned Israel? What are the consequences of their unbelief? Here is what he writes:
[READ ROMANS 9:1-24]
- Okay, Paul is discussing a huge topic here. It is the topic of the sovereignty of God in our lives, especially our salvation. And he uses the example of Jacob and Esau (as well as others) to illustrate his point. I’ll give you an overarching statement about what I think Paul is teaching us here by referencing Jacob and Esau, we will work that statement out, then we’ll apply it personally. Here it is:
- In Romans 9 Paul, while explaining the rebellion of the Israelites against the gospel of Christ, teaches that both national Israel and certain individuals are beneficiaries of God’s elective love.
- Now that’s a big statement. Let’s break it down. The first thing we notice here is Paul’s anguish of Israel’s rejection of Christ. Paul’s concern in Romans 9 (and subsequently chapters 10-11) is to address the notion that God’s promises to Israel had failed. This concern fits within the larger and overall context of the gospel- centered theme of the letter. Allen Ross writes: The Gentiles have found salvation through grace, but the Jews seem to have been overlooked since the death of Jesus...[and] there seems to be a dilemma:…either the Gospel is true and the promises to Israel nullified, or the gospel is false and the promises are yet to be fulfilled. So the first century reader of Romans was probably wondering “What happened to the chosen nation of Israel?”
- The Apostle, himself a “Jew of Jews”, longed to see his kinsmen accept the gospel of Christ. He expresses this selfless desire as he begins to address Israel’s rejection of their Messiah. His longing for the salvation of his brothers according to the flesh caused him to wish that he was accursed and cut off from Christ for their sake. Such strong language reveals that this was not a trivial concern in Paul’s mind. Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation was at the forefront of his thinking. After all, Israel was the nation that received the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. Israel was in the lineage of the patriarchs, and from their race came Jesus Christ the Messiah.
- So how does he respond? Well, in answering the question of whether or not God’s promises to Israel had failed, Paul begins to teach his readers about God’s elective love. At the beginning of Paul’s argument is an understanding of the spiritual inheritance of the blessings promised to Abraham. He gives a less than complicated response to whether or not God’s promises were fulfilled: But it is not as though the word of God has failed. And what is his reason for such a plain statement? Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.
- Here Paul makes a distinction between physical and spiritual lineage. There is a difference between the number of Abraham’s physical descendants and the number of his spiritual descendants. Not everyone who is physically a part of the nation of Israel inherits Abrahamic promises.
- To illustrate this point Paul turns to the Old Testament. In Genesis 21:12 Abraham was told that through Isaac his offspring would be named. What does this have to do with God’s promises to Israel? He tells us: This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. There is a contrast being drawn between Isaac, the child of promise, and Ishmael, who is not directly named. Ishmael, remember, was the firstborn of Abraham. He was the result of Sarah’s meager attempt to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham herself.
- But although he was the firstborn, he was not the son through whom the promise would pass. The promise would pass through the son that God miraculously gave to Abraham and Sarah – Isaac. The point now becomes a bit clearer. Both Ishmael and Isaac were sons of Abraham according to the flesh. Only Isaac was a son according to promise. Likewise, every Israelite is a child of Abraham according to the flesh, but only a remnant are children according to promise. So, only a portion are truly children of God.
- Now there is a potential problem here. It would only be natural that the son of Sarah be chosen rather than the son of Hagar the servant. Who would choose the illegitimate Ishmael over Isaac? Perhaps sensing this objection, Paul uses another Old Testament example, the one we’ve looked at today – Jacob and Esau. Both of these men were born to Rebekah by Isaac. One would think that they would stand on equal terms before God, and if anyone had the upper hand it would be the older Esau.
- But we’ve already seen that this is not the case. God knew which child would receive his promises before they were born. The older Esau would serve the younger Jacob. And again, this was at odds with cultural norms. So if it was not culture that caused this, what was it? It was God’s purpose of election. To further his point concerning Isaac and Ishmael, Paul reminds his readers of the election of Jacob, the man from whom the entire nation gets its name. Jacob was loved by God, but Esau hated.
- Now emotional hatred is not in view here, but rather a lack of favor, blessing, and preference. To say that Jacob was loved and Esau hated is to say that Jacob was chosen and Esau was not. Jacob was given covenantal blessing and Esau was not. The reader is to then put two and two together. God has always dealt with people according to his sovereign freedom. It’s almost as if Paul is saying “Why are you so surprised t hat some Jews are being saved and some are not? Hasn’t God always worked through his chosen? Hasn’t there always been a remnant – a true Israel and a false one?”
- Bob Deffinbaugh sums it up well: Here, then, is the answer to the problem of Jewish unbelief. Israel’s unbelief was not a failure of the Word of God, but an outworking of the will of God…[God] is free to choose whomever He wills and to reject whom He wills. Such was evident from God’s previous dealings with the nation. Jews who would accept the gospel would do so because they were chosen out of the larger Israelite nation – just like Isaac and Jacob were chosen over their brothers.
- Now here is the turning point of the passage. Here is where we enter into the picture. Paul has made his point. God’s word to Israel had not failed. Only the spiritual descendants of Abraham would become children of God. And who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham? Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ the Messiah. That’s you and me if we know Christ as Lord. Here is a monumental point of application:
GOD CHOSE TO SAVE YOU BEFORE YOU WERE BORN
- That’s the point of Romans 9. God’s promises to Israel had not failed because he has saved every ethnic Jew he had intended to save; and not only Jews, but also Gentiles – us. He knew us all before we existed; and he has chosen to show his grace to us. Just a few paragraphs back in Romans 8 Paul wrote: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
- We were predestined to be made like Jesus. In Ephesians 1 it says that: he [God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.
- Or 2 Timothy 1:9: [God has] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. That is an amazing statement! If we know Jesus, we know him because God chose to save us. And he gave us, his chosen, the gift of his grace before the world existed. We were a part of his saving plan from the beginning.
- So just like Jacob was chosen by God to fulfill his promises, you and I were chosen by God to receive the promise of salvation. And just like it had nothing to do with what Jacob and Esau did or didn’t do (the choice was made before they were born), God’s election of us had nothing to do with our own works or goodness. You and I were chosen to be saved before we were born; in fact before the universe existed. But that’s not all. Not only did God choose to save you before you were born, but:
GOD HAS A BLESSED, PREDESTINED PURPOSE FOR YOUR LIFE
- God’s control of his universe is not limited to who is saved through faith in Christ. His sovereignty extends to all things. Paul goes on to write in Ephesians 1: In him [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
- Not only have we been predestined to receive an eternal inheritance, but God works every last tiny detail out according to his will. What does that mean for you? Here is a simple way to put it: God has a glorious plan for your life. Here is what Ephesians 2 says: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
- God knew you from all of eternity. He knew that you, like Adam, would rebel against him and be so deeply destroyed by your sin that you would never return to him. So he came to you. He saved you. He called you. And he has restored in you a glorious purpose for living. Had he not chosen you, your life would have been a meaningless path that ended in eternal punishment. But he predestined you, not just to salvation but to a life lived for his glory as you become more like his Son. In Christ, your life matters; my life matters.
- This is a tremendous comfort during difficult times of life. If our lives have no purpose, we will always wind up in despair. But we who know the Savior are not without purpose. We are not without hope. We know that he created us to be like him and with him forever. And everything that happens to us in this life is preparing us for that day. God knew Jacob. He had chosen Jacob. God knew you. He has chosen you.