“Grow up!” Some of us can recall with a measure of embarrassment being told these words following an incident in which we displayed less than mature behavior. Jacob is growing up, and it has been a long and painful process. In order for him to grow upwards, he must in fact grow downwards in his estimation of himself. Humility has never been a characteristic of Jacob!
Genesis 33 recounts the much-anticipated reunion of Jacob and Esau after twenty years. Moses has carefully told the story in such a way as to create a sense of anticipation: Jacob is deeply suspicious that his brother’s anger has not subsided over the years, and his attempt to mollify Esau with gifts from his herds has all the marks of, “This is never going to work” written all over it!
God has been preparing Jacob for this encounter, making him trust Him more than he has done in the past by removing every prop that he had used. He had been hobbled, his hip being set out of joint, in an attempt to urge him to lean on God in the same way he now leant on his walking stick. Derek Kidner has summarized it this way: “The great encounter with God came when Jacob knew himself to be exposed to a situation wholly beyond him. The threat of it had already driven him to prayer, and both his renewed desire to be alone, and the form that the night struggle took, indicate a hunger now for God Himself; a hunger which was awakened by the crisis but not determined by it.”
Jacob had met with God the night before, and now he is facing his brother, Esau. And he bows before him seven times in a manner that would have been appropriate for a king. The one who has been exalted by God is caused to bow low before his brother and pay him homage. Before exaltation comes humility.
Over the years, commentators have seen in this incident a pattern throughout Scripture that is descriptive of the Messiah. There is something Jesus-like here. It was an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that Peter could not understand. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus announced the pattern of His ministry as the Savior: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). And Peter, you will recall, took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Imagine it! The response from Jesus was sharp and decisive: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).
Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter will balk again. Even after being warned of his catastrophic failure, and after Peter has vehemently denied that he would ever do such a thing, he denies the Lord three times (Matt. 26:69–75). His weeping at the end of the chapter is indicative of the fact that before he could grow up he had first to grow down into self-abnegation. What Peter could not accept for his Savior — he was governed by an earth-bound epistemology (a “this world” as opposed to a “things of God” perspective) — Jesus is saying, was more accurately a refusal to accept his own need of it. Unless the Savior humbles Himself, Peter cannot be saved from his sin.
There is, then, a line from Jacob to Jesus that is suggestive of the pattern of true discipleship: self-denial and cross bearing, as John Calvin would summarize it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Self-denial is a summons to submit to the authority of God as Father and of Jesus as Lord and to declare lifelong war on one’s instinctive egoism. It is a willingness to bow low and then lower still in the interests of giving all the glory to God. It is painful and “against the grain” of our natural predisposition. But without it, we will not find entry into future exaltation. Jesus demands self-denial as a necessary condition of discipleship. We are all born with a desire to make ourselves gods — our minds are perpetual idol factories, Calvin said. This must be mortified — crucified for Jesus sake. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And he was surely right.
As Jacob falls prostrate before Esau, we see a picture of what God calls us to do: renounce the idolatry that is our own exalted self-estimation and allow God to work through us as we follow in the footsteps of the Savior who “made himself nothing” on our behalf (Phil. 2:7). However painful this task may be — and the process of self-denial is never a painless one — it is what Jesus calls upon us to do.
It is said that Robert E. Lee, somewhere in Northern Virginia, was handed a young baby by its mother in order that Lee might pronounce a blessing upon the child. He took the infant in his arms and looked at it and then at her and slowly said, “Teach him he must deny himself.”
It is the way the Master went,
Shall not the servant tread it still?
— Horatius Bonar.