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The Dream of Bethel

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 19, 1999

Genesis 28:10-22

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Genesis 28:10-12

The Dream of Bethel

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Genesis 28. We’ll begin in the 10th verse, as we continue the story of Jacob. We saw all the way back in Genesis 25 the birth auricle that was given to Rebekah which told her that by God's own will, by His own decree, that Jacob would be the master of his brother, Esau. In that same passage, we saw the beginnings of Jacob's plan to take the birthright from Esau. We have seen the aftermath of the stealing of the blessing from Isaac, and we've seen in the passage that we looked at the end of chapter 27, the consequences of Jacob's sin. And then in the first nine verses of Genesis, chapter 28, we've seen Isaac's parting words of blessing given to Jacob. Tonight, then, we come to Jacob's journey itself. Let's hear God's word:

Genesis 28:10-12

Our Father, this is Your word, and even as we study this so well-known story in the life of Jacob, we ask that You would bring it to life in our own hearts and minds. Speak to us directly by Your word, applying that word by Your Spirit to our hearts and our own circumstances and situations that we should see Your hand of providence and Your electing mercy and love. And above all, O God, that we would apprehend the grace that You have towards us in Jesus Christ and would respond by embracing it and by growing up into maturity through it. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.

You know our salvation is first and foremost about what God has done, and only secondarily about our response to what God has done. I can't think of many passages in the Bible which make that more clear than the passage that we are looking at tonight. You see, it's only when we realize that our hope rests on God's free grace, that our hope will be firm and our hearts assured. And that's a lesson that Jacob, the deceiver, Jacob, the cheat, Jacob, the supplanter, Jacob, the conniver, needed to learn. He was a man who was used to getting what he wanted by his own schemes. And he needed to learn that the way one relates to the Heavenly Father is not dependent upon the schemes of one's heart, but ultimately is dependent upon God's free grace, his electing love and his unfathomable mercy. And we’ll see that even in this passage tonight. I'd like to look at it in three parts. If you look at verses 10 through 12, you’ll see the setting of the passage, where Jacob was when the Lord met him on the way. And then in verses 13 through 15, you’ll see the specific words of promise that God graciously gave to Jacob. And then in verses 16 through 22 you’ll see how Jacob responded to this unexpected, this unsought after blessing. And let's look at the passage then, together.

I. Jacob's encounter with God.

In verses 10 through 12 you see the setting of this encounter with God. And we learn the first thing of this passage, and that is that the grace of God is seen even in the circumstances of this meeting. Jacob had departed after receiving Isaac's instructions and Isaac's blessing. Isaac had freely confirmed the blessing which first Jacob had stolen, and yet Jacob is in a difficult situation. He's on his own now. He's solitary, he's isolated, he's homeless, and he is surrounded by danger. Richard says, “Afraid that his brother would kill him, Jacob fled to his mother's relatives in Haran. On the way, alone and at night, he lay down in the dirt with only a stone for a pillow. How Jacob must have missed his family then. How alone and frightened he must have felt. But there God appeared to him and confirmed the transmission of the covenant promises.”

Now it's very important for us to recognize the circumstances in which God comes to Jacob. Jacob is not much of a spiritual pilgrim at this point. He's making his way back to Haran in obedience to his father's instructions, which, of course, was an idea that his mother had originally come up with. And I doubt that Jacob used this journey as a spiritual pilgrimage. He doesn't see it as a journey on which God is going to teach him many things about himself, and many things about God's grace. He's simply doing what's necessary in order to survive a brother who hates him and would like to kill him. And Jacob is not a prodigal son return home, repentant for his son either. Jacob hasn't seen his sin to the bottom yet. He's just starting on a journey which is going to reveal his own heart to himself. And so he has not come to that point of cleansing, of catharsis. He hasn't even come to the point of self-awareness. He doesn't realize how simple a man he is yet. And yet in God's unfathomable grace, in this very circumstance, God comes on His own initiative and meets him. And this is an example of God's grace, His initiative and His lavish provision. Jacob does not seek for God here and yet he's found by God. He doesn't ask for God's blessing, but he receives it. And it's even striking to me that God comes to Jacob while he is asleep. This stresses the passivity of Jacob in this whole experience. Jacob is asleep, but God is pursuing him. Jacob can look back on this for the rest of his life and know that it was the Lord who sought him first. It was the Hound of Heaven who pursued him before he ever thought of pursuing the Lord.

The scene in verse 12 which is described as stairway on which the angels are ascending and descending, this is a picture of God's providence. Jacob himself understood this. If you look at verse 16 and verse 20, it's very clear that Jacob understands that this vision is an assurance to him of God's watch care over him, of God's providence. And indeed it is. The stairway symbolized the genuine and uninterrupted fellowship between God in heaven and His people on earth. And the angelic messengers ascending and descending are a constant reminder of God's watch care. And so here is Jacob, all alone, isolated, without a home, on his way on a journey that he doesn't know a whole lot about right now, and God meets him and reminds him of his providential care.

You know, Jacob is most conscious in this passage of God's providence. The fact that God has His hand on him and is going to protect him. But when we look at this passage, we see not only God's providence, we see God's election. And consciousness of God's election and consciousness of His gracious providence is the foundation and the fountain of a robust assurance in the Christian life. Jacob, we can see here, is a man who needs to learn a whole lot more about his own sin, and a whole lot more about God's grace.

And so what's happening here is not only a sign to him of God's concern for his life and His concern for his protection, but it's a reflection of God's concern for Jacob's soul. God is drawing Jacob to himself. He's already begun to discipline Jacob. Jacob is already having to pay some very severe consequences for his own heart, for his own sin. But God comes to him sweetly with words of assurance in this passage. Isn't it amazing how God the Father, God the loving Heavenly Father, knows the perfect balance of discipline and assurance for His children. He knows when Jacob needs to be encouraged and He knows when he needs to be disciplined. So in this passage we see a picture of God reaching out in electing love towards Jacob, just as surely as we see God surrounding him with providential protection.

Now, we have a number of wonderful hymns in the hymnbook that sing of exactly this experience in the Christian life, and I'd like you to look at a couple of them with me. First, if you would, turn to 471. Four hundred and seventy-one is a hymn that we don't know as well, but it's written by a very well-known hymn writer, Josiah Conder, and it goes like this. Four seventy-one is called ‘Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee.’ “‘Tis not that I did choose thee, for, Lord that could not be; this heart would still refuse thee hadst thou not chosen me. Thou from the sin that stained me hast cleansed and set me free; of old thou hast ordained me, that I should live to thee. ‘Twas sov’reign mercy called me and taught my op’ning mind; the world had else enthralled me, to heav’nly glories blind. My heart owns none before thee, for thy rich grace I thirst; this knowing if I love thee, thou must have loved me first.” Now Jacob had not experientially grasped the last two lines of that final stanza. But God was teaching him the first part of this hymn so that one day he would be able to understand experientially the last part of this hymn. God in our experience often meets us in circumstances where we are not reaching out for Him. And yet He is reaching out for us to do business with our hearts. And that's exactly what He's doing with Jacob here. And it's a measure of His grace and of His love.

II. The content of God's revelation and promise to Jacob.

In verses 13 through 15 we see the specific content of God's revelation and promise to Jacob. And we see the covenant being confirmed to him. And here again we see that God's grace is seen in the content of his words of assurance. It's not only the context in which He comes to Jacob that manifests His grace, it's the content of what He says to Jacob. When God speaks to Jacob here, there is no harsh rebuke, there are no commands for Jacob to obey. In fact, there are only words from God of promise and assurance. Jacob was solitary and isolated and homeless and surrounded by danger. But now as God speaks to him and as he sees this vision in the dream, he is conscious of the presence of God, though he's isolated. He's conscious of the providential care of God's angels, though he is solitary. He is conscious of this promise of a lasting homeland, though he himself owns no land and is an wanderer, a veritable nomad. And he's conscious of the providence of God, even though he's in the midst of danger. God's promises here to Jacob confirm the original oracle given to Rebekah, and they confirm the first blessing given by Isaac under deceitful circumstances, and they confirm the second blessing which Isaac gave willingly when He was sending Jacob on his way. But now, these words come directly from the lips of God Himself.

And again, it's all the more striking that Jacob doesn't ask God to come and confirm these things. We don't find Jacob in the wilderness on his knees begging God to come visit him with a word of assurance. We find Jacob sleeping, and God comes to him without Jacob having asked. And specifically God reiterates the covenant promises, promises that had been given to Abraham many years ago, confirmed to Isaac and had now been passed on to Jacob.

Look at the five things that God says in verses 13 through 15. First of all He says, “I am the Lord.” That reminds Jacob of the covenant name of God. Moses is going to meditate on that with us in Exodus, chapter 6. But we’ll save that for when we get to Exodus. He reminds Jacob of his covenant name because it reminds him of his covenant promises. And that's designed to give Jacob assurance.

Then again in verse 13 He says, “I am the God of your Father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” That phrase connects Jacob to the past promises of God. Isn't it interesting. Here's a man alone in the wilderness separated from his family, and God is reminding him that God was with his family, with his forbearers before him.

Then again, he says, “The land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” That is a promise which reiterates God's promises to Abraham. And God is confirming to Jacob with His own mouth that He is going to fulfill those promises to him.

Then again, He goes on in verse 14, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth and you will spread out to the west and the east and to the north and to the south and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Again, this sets forth the two-parts of the Abrahamic blessing. Abraham's line was going to be blessed by God in order that they would be a blessing to the nations. And the same thing is confirmed to Jacob.

And then finally in verse 15, we see a fifth thing. “Behold I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” This is a beautiful confirmation of the presence of God with Jacob, and of God's providence with Jacob. And I think that it probably was special for Moses when he wrote those words down. Because you will remember there was an incident in his life, in Exodus, chapter 3, verse 12, when he was very afraid and God said to him, “Moses, I am with you.” I would have loved to have been there the day that Moses had to write down these words for the first time in the like of Jacob. And in the very act he would have remembered how God had been faithful to him in that day before He sent him on that eventful journey that led to the bringing of the children of Jacob out of Egypt, and making them into a great nation and possessing the land of Canaan.

At any rate, again in this passage, God makes His word and promise central to Jacob's life. We saw this in the confirming blessing of Isaac in verses 3 and 4 of Genesis 28. It's the promise which is going to be the anchor of Jacob's hope. In his wanderings in the years to come, he's going to have to hang on to God's word and promise when there's nothing else to hang on to.

Now God Himself repeats that promise because it's going to be central to Jacob's life and hope. That's how faith grows. The way faith grows is by anchoring itself on the promise, trusting God and holding on. Derek Kidner has a beautiful description of this scene before us, and I want to share it with you. He says, “This is a supreme display of divine grace, unsought and unscented. Unsought because Jacob was no pilgrim or returning prodigal, and yet God came out to meet him angelic retinue and all taking him wholly by surprise. Unscented for there was no word of reproach or demand, only a stream of assurances flowing from the central I am the Lord. To spread from the past to the distant future; from the spot where Jacob lay, to the four corners of the earth; from his person to all mankind. It was also immediately appropriate, meeting his solitary homeless and precarious condition by assuring him of the covenant with his forebears, allotting him a landed inheritance, and promising him safe conduct.” God's word was exactly what Jacob needed, even though Jacob hadn't sought it. Now are you in the same condition tonight?

Is God's word just what you need, even though you haven't been seeking it? If so, you Jacobs, take heart. God is going to minister His word to you, and it is by His word and by your appropriation of it that your faith will grow. And that is what he's going to do in Jacob's life. It's going to take some twists and turns, because Jacob is not going to be consistent along the way. But God's word is going to triumph in his life. Then we see the grace of God in Jacob's response, too. Jacob responds in verses 16 through 22 to God's revelation and to His promise. And again, Jacob's response shows a mixture of faith and uncertainty.

III. Jacob's awareness of the presence of God.

In verses 16 and 17, Jacob is immediately aware of the presence of God. He's overwhelmed by it. How awesome is this place. Surely this is the house of God, he will say. Jacob knows the presence of God. And Jacob rightly and appropriately in verses 18 and 19 responds in worship. His instinctive response to God is to worship Him. And then again appropriately, in verses 20 through 22, he responds to God's promise by making a vow. Now, if you have just read this passage for the first time in a long time, it may strike you that Jacob's vow sounds a bit conditional. Lord, if You’ll do this for me, then You’ll be my God. And you’re right to pick up on that, but let me say a couple of things in defense of Jacob.

First of all, this is the first vow recorded in the Bible. Did you know that? First vow recorded in the Bible. Secondly, there's no hint at all by Moses that it was inappropriate for Jacob to make this vow. What a perfectly appropriate thing to do in response to God's promises to worship and to make a vow. In fact, our confession has a whole chapter on religious oaths and vows, and it makes it very clear. It gives us appropriate scripture references to back it up. It is an appropriate thing to do to worship God by making vows. We do that in ordination services. When ministers make vows before the Lord and when elders and deacons make vows before the Lord, we do that when members join this church. They take vows. That's a perfectly appropriate thing for people to do.

But I want you to also see that Jacob's vow is actually a response to what God had promised. I think you will misunderstand what Jacob is saying if you forget the order in which he makes this vow. Jacob does not come to God at Bethel and say Lord, if You’ll do this, then I’ll do that. And then God comes through with the promise. God promises Jacob His presence, and then Jacob vows that he will be indeed be his God if he is faithful to His promise of His presence and protection.

Now it's important to understand, if we're going to understand what Jacob has done here. Yes, there is a measure of uncertainty. And we might even argue some unbelief in the way that Jacob phrases his vow. After all, it was all that he knew to do or say at this time. He had a lot of growing to do, just like all of us do. But his reaction was correct. He pled God's promises, and he said, in effect, Lord, if You’re faithful to this free promise that You just gave to me, then You will indeed be my God. Yes, his words sound a little conditional. And yet there is response to what God has promised. And hasn't God asked us to pray to Him this way? To take His promises and to say to Him, Lord, You've made this promise to me in Your work. Now fulfill Your promise in my experience, because You've made the promise and to plead His promises. This is the secret to good prayer, is it not? And that's what Jacob is doing in this vow. Every time I see this passage I can't help but think of another hymn in our hymnal. Would you turn with me to 469. There are a whole series of hymns which are about God's grace. And this is one that we've sung as our Missions Conference hymn in the past, and as the hymn of the month, and it's quickly become a favorite of our congregation. I just want to remind you of it again, “How sweet and awesome is the place with Christ within the doors, while everlasting love displays the choicest of her stores. While all our hearts and all our songs join to admire the feast, each of us cries, with thankful tongue, ‘Lord why was I a guest? Why was I made to hear your voice and enter while there's room, when thousands make a wretched choice, and rather starve than come?’ ‘Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in; else we had still refused to taste, and perished in our sin.” Before we are able to join in those sentiments, before we are able to recognize that it was God's saving love and God's initiative that drew us into the kingdom, we have to begin to experience God's providence like Jacob experienced in this passage.

Isn't it interesting how God will often use His providence in our lives to open our hearts to seeing his electing love in our lives. And that is exactly how He was going to get to that cheat, Jacob. Through His providence He would show him His electing love. May He show you His electing love as well. Let us pray.

Our Heavenly Father, in all the cross-providences of our lives we ask that You would show us Your grace that we might apprehend Your saving favor in Jesus Christ and respond with praise and thanksgiving, both now and forever more. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.