Sunday, December 31, 2017



Age often obligates a man to use the aid of a cane as he walks. His footsteps are not quite so sure as they once were, and the extra support and steadiness of a staff offers him more security in his steps.

In Biblical times, the use of walking sticks was especially common because the staffs were not only for walking, but also used as a tool of shepherds and others.

Concerning walking canes, there is one particular verse in the book of Hebrews which, for some reason, has long been intriguing to me. It simply reads like this:

By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. (Hebrews 11:21 NAS) 

In that chapter of Hebrews we read of many men and women who had learned to walk by faith in God. About some of these, the writer of Hebrews has quite a lot to say. However, for Jacob, who has one of the most extensive biographies of anyone in the Old Testament, the writer has given only this single verse.

So much could have been written about Jacob. In his life, we have many examples of experiences from which to draw, both good and bad. Jacob’s journey to a life of faith had many ups and downs, many advances and many retreats. His life was not one of steady and continual improvements.  It is interesting to me that of all the things that the writer of Hebrews could have said about Jacob, what he mentions is that Jacob worshiped, “leaning on the top of his staff.” 

The Importance of Jacob’s Staff
Why was this significant? For a man about so much could have been written, the writer of Hebrews dedicates only one sentence. And, in that sentence, he has Jacob leaning on the top of his staff, as if for some reason that were unusual or important in some way.

After all, it was not as if it were uncommon in those days to see an elderly man leaning on his staff. Nevertheless, in the case of Jacob, I think this image is significant. In the mental picture that we have of Jacob leaning on his staff as he blessed his sons, we have illustrated for us much of what had occurred in his life. Although Jacob had many advances and retreats in his life, there was one point that was a very significant turning point for him. It came about at a brook called Jabbok. 

What Happened at the Brook
Jacob was returning home after an absence of many years. In his absence from his homeland, he had accumulated great wealth and a large family. Nevertheless, he was nervous about his homecoming. He had fled years before because he knew his brother Esau wanted to kill him, and Jacob did not know if Esau still felt the same. Jacob also knew that Esau was a strong man, and Jacob feared that his brother bore a grudge against him.

Now Jacob was returning home. The mother of the two boys, who had always taken Jacob’s side, was dead. As a precaution, Jacob had sent all of his possessions and even his family before him in an attempt to appease any anger that Esau might still hold toward him. After Jacob had sent all on ahead of him, he was left alone at the bank of the brook Jabbok.

In one of the most extraordinary passages of Scripture, we learn that on that night, a man came to where Jacob was camped, and the two men wrestled until daybreak. The Biblical account is as simple as that. It gives no explanation who the man was, or why he apparently arrived with the single purpose of wrestling with Jacob.

What the passage does tell us however, is that when the wrestling match had gone on nearly the entire night, the man, seeing that Jacob had stubbornly refused to give in during the struggle, finally dislocated Jacob’s hip and said to him, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”

Jacob, true to his personality and still looking for any advantage, answered, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man, after asking the name of his opponent said to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Striving With God
Jacob realized that this was no ordinary man. That Jacob had striven with men throughout his life, he himself was well aware. He had striven with his father, his brother, and with his uncle, with whom he had lived for years. However, his wrestling opponent at the river told him that he had also striven with God. More amazing than that, the man told him that in his striving with God, Jacob had prevailed!

Jacob did not take this as a compliment. He realized that his life had been in constant strife. His years had been, as he later told the Pharaoh of Egypt, “few and unpleasant.” He had had a lifetime of cunning and trickery. He had learned to strive and to win. But at that moment, in the very early hours of dawn at the brook Jabbok, Jacob began to realize that this life of trickery and deception was not the life he wanted.

Jacob, in return asked the man his name. But the man only said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” The man then gave Jacob the blessing for which he had asked.

Jacob rose from his place of struggle feeling the soreness of a hip that had been dislocated, and said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” He named the place Peni-el, which means “the face of God.” 

The Staff of Jacob
From that day forward, because of the soreness of his hip, Jacob walked with a limp. He needed a staff to support himself.

Thus it was, that as the elder Jacob was much later blessing his grandsons, we see him “worshiping, and leaning on the top of his staff.”

The staff that Jacob began using that day on the bank of the river was a constant reminder to him of his former manner of life. It was a reminder that he had been in constant competition throughout his life. He had competed against his brother and his uncle, and he had even competed against God. He could strive and he had learned to prevail.

However in the end, he discovered that this was not the life that he wanted. He discovered that he did not want to win; he wanted a life that was blessed!
The Thorn of Paul
The staff of Jacob was in some ways analogous to something that the Apostle Paul experienced in his own life. Jacob used his staff because of an infirmity in his body given to him by God. Paul, we learn, also suffered from an infirmity. Paul speaks of his disability as a “thorn in the flesh.” Some have suggested that this “thorn in the flesh” was an ailment with Paul’s eyes, which it may well have been, but we really do not know what the physical nature of his infirmity was. However, here are Paul’s comments on it:
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this, I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” 

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NAS). 

Paul came to view his infirmity as something allowed by God to keep the apostle from exalting himself. Paul’s infirmity was a “messenger of Satan” certainly, for it was the result of a physical body suffering the curse of sin. Nevertheless, without this messenger, Paul could see himself becoming proud of his own life and his accomplishment. Like Jacob, Paul had learned to strive and he had learned to win. But in the end, this is not what either man wanted. They wanted lives that exalted God.

They did not want to strive and to win. They wanted to be blessed by God.

Also like Jacob, Paul also learned that true worship was demonstrating a complete reliance upon God. If one were to depend upon one’s own strengths and resources, it would be a life of self-exaltation. It is only in recognizing one’s own weakness that the power of God is allowed to be revealed. 

The Strength of Weakness
It is for this reason that Paul told the church in the city of Corinth, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5 NAS).

True power is revealed when one recognizes one’s own weakness. Sufficiency in living does not come from the absence of infirmity. Rather, sufficiency to overcome comes from the grace of God. “My grace is sufficient,” God told Paul. 

Not to Strive, but to Worship
The staff that Jacob was obliged to use after wrestling with God was to him as the thorn in the flesh was to Paul. As the patriarch walked through the years of the remainder of his life depending upon his staff, he saw his need to depend upon the Lord. The old, self-reliant Jacob began to realize that a life of faith was really a life that recognized its dependence upon God. It is only in one’s conscious reliance and trust upon God that one can worship.

I have little doubt that as the elderly Jacob supported himself by his staff, from time to time he remembered the day when he prevailed with God. After that day he would continue to learn in his relationship with God, not to struggle against him, but to depend upon him.

Jacob became Israel—one who continued with God, not to strive and to prevail; but to worship. As the old man leaned upon his staff, he worshiped. God’s grace was sufficient.

The old man Jacob had finally learned to live in a new life with his Lord. 

Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.
Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. (Psalm 119:89-91 NIV)

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