At its core, sin stems from failing to worship (or love) God exclusively and failing to love our neighbors as ourselves. Clearly Jacob and his family are guilty of both. After God calls on Jacob to fulfill his vow at Bethel (Gen. 35:1), Jacob wisely commands his entire entourage to “put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments” (v. 2). Removing any and all hindrances from the exclusive worship and allegiance to the one, true God of Israel is absolutely essential to keeping the covenant, even though it wasn’t until much later that this actual command was codified for the people (see Ex. 20:3–5 and Deut. 6:4–5). Jesus, too, thought it important, so much so that He considered it to be the greatest commandment of all, along with, of course, the “royal law” (James 2:8) of Leviticus 19:18: “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jacob, as his household’s representative before God, is obviously guilty of breaking the foremost commandment — his house was filled with idols and earring amulets associated with pagan deities. They were guilty of renouncing in practice the great confession of God’s people in every age — the shema (found in Deut. 6:4ff.).
Jacob was also guilty of breaking the second. His failure to swear sole allegiance to the one and only God led to his failure to love his household as himself. Instead of leading his family and all who served him into obedience and exclusive worship of the Creator God, he simply tolerated the idolatry in his midst, denying those under his care the very purpose for which they were created (to worship God).
Then God called him out to fulfill his vow in Bethel. And Jacob listened, as did his family (Gen. 35:4), showing that he finally recovered the spiritual leadership in his house after the sad events at Shechem recounted in chapter 34. His command to “put away the foreign gods” among them was nothing less than a call to repentance, a call to forsake one direction for an entirely different path. It was a call to cease and desist from pursuing God’s promises (involving His kingdom) in the manner they saw fit and to follow His program, on His terms. Far more than feeling regret or sorrow for this or that sin, Jacob’s call to repentance involved one’s entire life — to change one’s way of thinking and acting. We might think that Jacob, the very one who wrestled God face to face and lived (Gen. 32:30), would have understood this by now. But, then, we’re speaking of one who took well-nigh a century to prevail with God.
Jacob’s blessings were great, yet there was a prophet to come whose blessings were greater. This prophet also saw God face to face and lived. But unlike Jacob (Gen. 32:29), this prophet heard His name. Indeed, he was the greatest prophet — no, rather, he was more than a prophet, he was the immediate forerunner of the one to whom all the Law and Prophets pointed. Thus he prepared the way for the Lord more clearly than all those who came before him. In this, John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi (3:1; 4:5–6). But lest we think too much of this one, Jesus tells us that He is the greater (Matt. 11:11), despite His being younger and despite His preaching the kingdom after John. Usually we think of ourselves as “the least” in God’s kingdom. But it is not primarily about us, at least not directly. In short, “the one who is least” here is Jesus. Being “the least” is commonly understood as a negative thing. But in this context, “the least” is best understood as a reference to time; that is, though Jesus came later than John, He is, of course, as the Messiah who brings in the kingdom, greater than John. Jesus is here saying that He Himself, the one who truly represents God’s people, is the one who will enact what the prophets saw from a distance. In other words, if John “is Elijah who is to come” (v. 14), the last of the prophets who prepared the way for God’s coming judgment and salvation, then Jesus is the one, the Servant, who was to come, and the people need not look any further.
Yet we are included in this greater standing too, those who are in Christ, because “what is said of the Redeemer can also be said of the redeemed” (Reformation Study Bible, notes on Eph. 2:5–6). What a privilege to be considered great in God’s kingdom!
How could this be? Which of us has been the object of prophecy? Are we not those of whom the prophets spoke: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (Rom. 9:25, citing Hos. 2:23; see also 1 Peter 2:9–10)?
But which of us has held council, face-to-face, with God and lived? Are we not, by virtue of our union with Christ Jesus, “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6)? Indeed, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). And our access to divine council is assured: “…we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…” (Heb. 10:19).
So, all those in Christ are greater than John, because we actually participate in that which John and the prophets anticipated, and we point to Him, the Christ, more clearly than all of them. Is this mighty privilege taken for granted, we who stand in a greater redemptive time than Abraham, Jacob, David, and John? May we show our appreciation, then, by deliberately seeking God’s face in all we do, patiently and submissively waiting on and wrestling with our loving Lord. For we can be confident that our limping in this world will burst forth into unceasing praise and life in the kingdom to come.