When Jacob Met Esau

Jacob Doubted God When he Returned Home to Face Esau

When did God surprise you?

Genesis 32: Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’” When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”

Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”

13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”

17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”

19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

Genesis 33 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.

Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.” Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down. Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.

But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” 10 “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. 11 Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it. 12 Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.” meeting-of-jacob-and-esau-1844 Jacob Meets Esau by Francesco Hayez (1844)

Jacob deceived his father Isaac, who was nearly blind, for the birthright. His twin brother Esau was furious over this deceit and Jacob left the land of Canaan where his grandfather, Abraham, had lived. He has been away from his family for 20 years and receives word that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, with a following of 400 men.

Jacob fears the worst and in his desperation turns to God in prayer. The first lesson he learned was that prayer is not a simple request but a persistent struggle with God. The story in the previous chapter describes a physical encounter with an angel of God with the dislocation of Jacob’s hip. It is a powerful story, similar to how Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane when He was faced with betrayal and death by crucifixion.

We learn in this picture the importance of humility and falling on our knees before God and other people we have hurt. We also learn of God’s blessing in that Esau accepted his brother Jacob and asked for no retribution; only love and acceptance. Hayez portrays the powerful Esau embracing his deceptive twin brother.

We learn the importance of having faith in God and trusting His wisdom over our cleverness – or the advice of Pastor Google and friends. This is such a powerful story for anyone who struggles with a broken relationship, medical issue, alienation, and loneliness. We might say that this story and picture is a powerful lesson about human behavior. In Luther’s lecture (commentary) on Genesis 33, he speaks directly to how God intervenes inwardly to change hatred into reconciliation and acceptance. Luther explains this as a miracle!

“Esau again inquires what these companies are than he may have an opportunity to converse more familiarly with his brother and to emulate him in mutual love and goodwill. It appears that he had not yet received the gifts sent by Jacob. One cannot say what the reason was. Whether it was that he was still burning with hatred and refused to listen to the messengers sent before he saw his brother actually humbling himself, or whether he refused to accept the gifts, moved by special kindness and mercy since he had become milder and had seen the companies offered by his brother, I do not really know. But it seems that he refused the gifts more out of goodwill than hatred.

I will interpret it so that it remains established that this victory worked the miracle that Esau’s heart was changed and placated. So it can be that while his anger was still hot, he set out with the 400 armed men to terrify and kill his brother. But when he saw him humiliated and sending gifts, the Lord’s hand intervened and changed his heart so that he said: ‘Why should I do violence to my brother? why should I take anything from a good and upright man, a needy exile? The Lord has blessed me more bountifully than He blessed my brother; it would be fair for me to relieve his need by the abundance of my possessions. Why, then, should I accept gifts at his hand?’

God works this inwardly through the Spirit, but outwardly through means, the respectful possession and the offering of gifts, although Esau does not seem to have accepted them because of the very great zeal and love with which he embraces his reconciled brother.” (Luther’s Works: Lectures on Genesis. pp.169-170)

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org

The Temptation of Christ

Do temptations always test our faith?

Matthew 4: 1-11: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.


The Temptations of Christ Fresco in Sistine Chapel 1480-1482 by Sandro Botticello

The Temptations of Christ depicts three scenes from the gospels. The story takes place in the midst of people rather than in the isolation of the desert. This application about sin and temptation in our daily lives would speak directly to the hearts of the people and to the clergy in the Sistine Chapel as it calls for repentance.

On the left, Jesus who has been fasting, is confronted by Satan who is disguised as a hermit, to turn the stones in the desert to bread. The second scene in the close-up below, Satan tempts Jesus to challenge God’s promise that the angels will protect Him. He tempts Jesus to jump from the cliff. In the third scene, Satan promises Jesus all the beauties and wealth of the world if He will deny God.

Temptation in Detail-Sandro_Botticelli

Close-up view of the upper right section of the painting

Luther, in his sermon in 1525 during the Peasants’ Revolt said: “But in spiritual matters this temptation is powerful when one has to do with the nourishment not of the body but of the soul. Here God has held before us the person and way, by which the soul can be forever nourished in the richest manner possible without any want, namely Christ, our Savior. But this way, this treasure, this provision no one desires. Everybody seeks another way, other provisions to help their souls.

The real guilty ones are those who would be saved through their own work; these the devil sets conspicuously on the top of the temple. They follow him and go down where there is no stairway; they believe and trust in their own work where there is no faith nor trust, no way nor bridge, and break their necks. But Satan makes use of and persuades them through the Scriptures to believe that the angels will protect them, and that their way, works and faith are pleasing to God, and who called them through the Scriptures to do good works; but they do not care how falsely they explain the Scriptures.

Who these are, we have identified often enough and very fully, namely, work righteous persons and unbelieving hypocrites under the name of being Christians and among the congregation of Christian people. For the temptation must take place in the holy city and one temptation is seldom against another.

In the first temptation want and hunger are the reasons that we should not believe; and by which we become anxious to have a full sufficiency, so that there is no chance for us to believe.

In the second temptation, however, the abundance and the full sufficiency are the reasons that we do not believe, by which we become tired of the common treasure, and every one tries to do something through his own powers to provide for his soul. So we do; if we have nothing, then we doubt God and believe not; if we have abundance, then we become tired of it and wish to have something different, and again we fail to believe. There we flee and turn against want and seek abundance: here we seek want and flee from the abundance we have. No, whatever God does for us, is never right. Such is the bottomless, wickedness of our unbelief.”

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org


When Sarah Doubted God

Have you ever doubted God’s hidden presence in your life or experienced an “impossible dream” because of God’s love for you?

Genesis 18:1-15 (Sarah’s laugh) 18 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord,[a] do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”


Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt (1646)

Rembrandt is bold in his illustration of this divine encounter when God speaks directly to Abraham and Sarah regarding His promise of a son and His plan for salvation. He uses light and presents God as an angel in a very personal way. We see an elderly Abraham and Sarah (at the door) with expressions of disbelief. Rembrandt thought deeply about God’s interactions with people as told in the book of Genesis.

Martin Luther wrote in his lecture on Genesis 18 in 1539, “Sarah was now eighty-nine years old, and during so many years she ha been hoping for the blessing of the Lord. When she sees that her hope is futile, she submits everything to God. Yet she does not utterly despair. For this reason the Lord puts up with her weakness and is not offended by her laughter, which has its origin in her thinking about something that is impossible. For what further hope could there be for a barren and exhausted woman? Therefore the Lord brings her to faith with a very friendly reproof.

Furthermore, I stated that not only Sarah but also Abraham himself supposed that these guests of his were foreigners and that he had no thought either of angels or of prophets. Therefore when they promise a child, Sarah thought: ‘Who would be telling them this? They are not speaking from the heart; they want to ingratiate themselves, because they suppose that women hear such things with pleasure.’

These were Sarah’s thoughts when she laughed. But after she heard Him who sees and has before Him all things, new thoughts arise n her; for she notices that these are not ordinary men, but they are men full of the Holy Spirit, who sees the secrets of the hearts and reveals them.

Therefore this is a cheerful and friendly reproof. From it Sarah concluded that these were men from God and prophets, because they are aware of her laughter and her thoughts even though she is not in their presence.”

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org

Calling of Andrew and Peter

The Calling of the Disciples

How does one become filled with the Holy Spirit?

Matthew 4:18-21: 18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”[a] 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Calling of Simon and Andrew-2The Calling of Simon and Andrew by James Tissot (1886-1894)

James Tissot, a French artist sees Simon Peter and Andrew fishing in shallow water and close enough to the shore to hear the voice of Jesus. Tissot visited the Holy Land in 1880 and observed local fishermen wearing nets around their waste.

Calling of Simon and Andrew

The Calling of Saint Peter and Andrew by Bernardo Struzzo but more recently (2006) verified that this was painted by Caravaggio.

In this painting Caravaggio pictures a youthful Jesus without a beard leading two older brothers. Peter is holding a fish in his right hand and Andrew and Peter still appear confused about what they have just experienced regarding the large number of fish they caught after Jesus directed them to fish in the deeper water.

Martin Luther: In Luther’s sermon on Matthew in 1521, he marks the calling of the disciples as the time for grace to be preached throughout the world. The disciples will minister to people in need, preach to the heathen, forgive sinners, be witnesses that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

In his sermon on the Monday after Easter in 1525 (Luke 24:13-25), Martin Luther describes the disciples as ignorant fishermen who came to know Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

“‘The apostles likewise, being ignorant fishermen, learned to know the Scriptures, not in the schools of the great scribes, but through the revelation by which Christ led them into the Scriptures. Thus they were enabled to understand and to write on the basis of a single passage a book or a sermon the world cannot understand. And if I had the same Spirit Isaiah or Paul had, I could take this passage and develop from it a New Testament, if that were not already written.

 How did St. Peter know, or where is written in Moses that which he says in 1 Peter 10-11: “Concerning which salvation the prophets sought and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you, searching what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto?” Who told him that the Spirit of Christ existed and prophesied of Christ, before there were prophets and, above all, before Christ and the Holy Ghost were present? Are these the words of a fisherman, or of a learned, wise scribe? Nay, it is the revelation of the Holy Spirit who had also revealed it to the prophets before.’”

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org


The Struggle of Nicodemus – A Bible Story About Doubt and Faith

The Struggle of Nicodemus 

Do you have unanswered questions about eternal life and faith?

John 3: 1-21:   Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Jesus-NicodemusJesus and Nicodemus, Crijn Hendricksz, Netherlands, 1645

There is limited information about Nicodemus in the Bible, except for the Gospel of John. Nicodemus was a Pharisee or educated religious leader, he likely had a position in the Jewish decision-making institution, the Sanhedrin, was a man who would be considered wealthy, and he is often pictured on a ladder taking Jesus down from the cross. His educational training in debate, inquiry, and reasoning created a struggle for him to answer the question presented by Jesus about being born again to enter God’s kingdom.

Crijn Hendicksz painted this shortly before his early death at the age of 40. He captures the scene in the opening verse that he came to Jesus in the night. (v.2) The gospel for the Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Trinity Sunday, is John 3, the story of Nicodemus followed by one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, John 3:16.

Luther: (Excerpts from Martin Luther’s sermon on John 3) Luther concisely applies the struggle of Nicodemus to our lives in his 1523 sermon to the congregation in Wittenberg:   “In this Gospel you see clearly what reason and free-will can do. You may see it distinctly in Nicodemus, who was the best of the best, a prince and leader of the Pharisees, and the Pharisees held first place in their day.

They were, however, in the highest things — in spiritual life — altogether blind and dead before God, however holy, wise, good and mighty they may have been considered by men. The longer Nicodemus associates with Christ, the less he understands Christ, although he is expected to understand only earthly things and the manner of Christ’s death. Reason is so blind that it can neither perceive nor understand the things of God, nor all things which properly belong to its own sphere. This is a blow to nature and human reason, which have been rated so high by philosophy and the wise men of this world; the wise ones have said that reason always strives to attain the best.

God has here given us an example showing that even the best in nature must fail. In instances where human nature is at its best it is blind, not to speak of its envy and hatred.

Now, Nicodemus, who is a pious and well-meaning man, cannot grasp the work and Word of God; how then would Annas and Caiaphas? He comes to the Lord at night, which he did from fear, not desiring to be

called a heretic by others. From this we may conclude that he was in nature an old Adam, cowardly seeking Christ by night, and that he did not yet possess the true light. If he had been a “new man,” he would have come in the bright light of day, fearing no one.

Because of his hypocrisy, the Lord deals sharply with him, cutting off his salutation and all further speech, as we shall see. Nicodemus approaches the Lord with these words: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him.”

Christ’s words are as if to say: No, my dear Nicodemus, I am not moved by your beautiful words. You must give up your old life and become a new man. You have not the faith which you say you have; you are still afraid. Although the natural man hears the Word of God, the Gospel, and delights in it, yet it does not enter the heart. Therefore, we must slay reason and experience the new birth. This is what Christ means when he says that we must be born anew. Reason cannot understand this, wherefore Nicodemus

replies: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”

Now, Christ speaks and destroys reason, saying: “Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things?” You should teach others the spiritual birth, that they might become righteous, but you yourself do not understand it. He defeats reason and the whole law and says: My friend, do you not know how these things can be? It is plain to me, as it was also to the prophets, who corroborate my words. Renounce your reason and close your eyes; cling only to my Word and believe it.

Again he says: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” As if to say: You presume to judge spiritual things by your reason, and

at the same time you cannot understand the simple things of nature. He calls Nicodemus’ attention to the wind. No philosopher or scientist has ever been able to comprehend and describe the nature of the wind —where it has its beginning or where it ends. We cannot see where the wind comes from, or how it blows past us, or how far it goes. Now, if we cannot by our reason fathom those things which we see daily in nature, much less will we be able to fathom with our reason the divine works which God accomplishes within us….

But if I believe in God and am born anew, I close my eyes and do not grope about. I am willing that the condition of the soul be changed entirely, and I think: O God, my soul is in thy hands; thou hast preserved it during my life and I have never known where thou hast put it. Neither do I wish to know, to which place thou will now assign it. I only know that it is in thy hands and thou wilt take care of it. Thus we must abandon the life of the flesh and enter into a new life, being dead to the old. This is a real dying and not merely a painful sensation, like the scratching off of a scab, as the philosophers have said; and they have compared the entering upon the new life with the rinsing of a pot by the cook. There must be a real change and an entire transformation of nature, for the natural state and natural feeling must be completely overthrown.”

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org