[K:NWTS 2/3 (Dec 1987) 23-30]

Bethel: House of God

Genesis 28:10-22

William D. Dennison

I am sure you are familiar with the fact that Jacob had deceived his brother Esau on two occasions: 1) the stealing of Esau's birthright (Gen. 25:19-34); and 2) the theft of Esau's blessing (Gen. 27:1-40). Esau is absolutely right when he notes that Jacob is a deceiver because that is what Jacob's name means (cf. Gen. 27:36). But in light of his own deceptions Jacob must flee from the presence of Esau because he fears that Esau will kill him. Thus, his mother, Rebekah, devises a plan to preserve the safety of her beloved son, Jacob. She asks Isaac to permit Jacob to go to uncle Laban's house in Haran in order to find a wife. In this way, Jacob will not have to marry one of the Hittite women who, Rebekah claimed, were disgusting. Isaac consents to Rebekah's request. But even as Isaac consents to Rebekah's plot to preserve Jacob's life, something is happening much deeper in the providence of God with Jacob. In reality, Jacob is being cut off from the covenant circle because of the sinful way he obtained the blessing of Isaac. Jacob is a deceiver; he plotted and connived in order to receive the blessing, the promise, the inheritance of the covenant. But as he leaves for Haran, he is not in the land; he is not in the place where the inheritance of the promise is to be fulfilled. He is being presently withdrawn from the covenant! The question that often comes to the mind of the Christian at this point is: "how could the Lord form a bond of salvation with Jacob who was such a terrible sinner?" The answer is quite simple. God could only form a bond of salvation with Jacob for the sake of the promise of the covenant–Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that any sinner receives the benediction of God's saving grace. Jacob is no different. Furthermore, God remains faithful to his covenant in spite of Jacob's present unfaithfulness. It is through the covenant that God manifests his commitment to save his people. God's commitment will always remain faithful in spite of his struggles with his people (interestingly, Israel means "he struggles with God").

In light of the deceptive character of Jacob, we must express extreme caution in viewing Esau as an innocent bystander. This seems to be the tendency on the part of many Christians; and yet, the Scripture does not present such a view of Esau. After Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, the Scripture is clear concerning Esau's attitude toward his birthright. The Scripture states that "Esau despised his birthright" (Gen. 25:34c). Esau is not the good guy in this story. In other words, Esau despised the covenant of promise which was tied to his birthright, i.e. he hated God's way of redemption which would have its completion in Christ. This is not something that is pictured as unusual in the covenant community; and yet, it is something that is very sad. It is sad that some people who are raised within the covenant, such as Esau, really hate and despise the religion of their parents. Yet, during their youth they make it seem like they enjoy the religion of their parents and faithfully embrace the covenant. When they get older and are on their own, they expose what has been in their hearts. They no longer embrace the religious commitment of their parents nor do they confess the God of the Scripture or the true confessions of the church. The day that the child manifests this before his parents and the church is a sad day indeed. It must have been a very sad day for Isaac as well. Esau was a covenant-breaker, not a covenant-keeper.

God Shows Himself to Jacob

How did God show himself to be the God of Jacob? It was in the dream of the ladder. As we have noted, Jacob was to go to uncle Laban's house in Haran to find a wife. On his journey, he stopped in the city called Luz. At Luz he took a stone, put it under his head and fell asleep. While he was sleeping he had a dream. In that dream he had a vision of angels descending and ascending upon a stairway that reached into heaven itself. What was God showing Jacob in this vision? It is important not to read too much into this event. Quite simply, God is showing Jacob that he is going to be in continuous communion and fellowship with him. In other words, God is in covenant union with Jacob. The angels climb up the ladder carrying the life of Jacob into covenant union with God, while at the same time, angels climb down the ladder declaring the covenantal blessings of God to his child. And the God of covenant stood at the top of the ladder and spoke to Jacob. And notice where God begins his conversation. He does not begin by appealing to a crisis experience in Jacob's life–not even to the crisis experience of the vision that he is now having. In God's first appearance to Jacob he does not even begin with the question concerning where Jacob is going to spend eternity. Rather God begins with covenant! He begins by renewing his covenant with Jacob that he made with Abraham and Isaac (cf. Gen. 28:13-15). Indeed, God renews his covenant of promise with this wretched sinner, Jacob. Jacob and his offspring are going to receive the land, the blessing, the inheritance that was given to Isaac. But it is not going to be received by deception. No, now Jacob is going to have to be totally dependent on God in receiving the inheritance–the land. Why? Because Jacob is now cut off from the land; we see him in the place of the inheritance of the covenantal promise. He is on his way to Haran. Thus the only way that Jacob is going to experience the covenant promised to him is by God's sovereign grace. It is only by God's sovereign grace that the Lord will bring Jacob back into the land.

Jacob's Response

When Jacob woke up, he was shocked that the Lord had sought him out. God's grace always goes beyond what one expects, especially when the sinner becomes conscious of the presence of God. Thus, for the first time in his life, Jacob fears the Lord. Also, he is in awe of the place where he slept. Why is he in awe of the place where he slept'? Because in that place God directly revealed himself from heaven itself, and thus, the place where Jacob slept becomes for Jacob the house of God, the gate of heaven. Jacob has actually seen the entrance place of heaven; he has seen the God of the covenant of promise standing before him! What does he do? He sets up a pillar. Is it to be an object of worship, an idol? No, it is a memorial to God's revelation of himself to Jacob. Jacob calls the place "Bethel" which means "house of God". At that point he makes a vow of covenant to the Lord: if the Lord will take care of him on his journey, then he will set the pillar up to be God's house and he will give a tenth of all he has (cf. 28:22). As we come to the end of our text, the question is whether Jacob kept his vow.

Jacob's Vow

After living with and serving uncle Laban for fourteen years for the hand of Rachel, Jacob now has Leah and Rachel as wives, two servant-girls, and eleven children as he flees from Laban and makes his way back to the land. But wait–there still remains an obstacle–Esau! How is he going to get to the land when Esau is still in his path? Just before the confrontation between Jacob and Esau, Jacob sent Esau some gifts hoping to appease him (cf. Gen. 32:13-21). Although it may be said that Jacob's gifts helped soften the heart of Esau, nevertheless, the confrontation of God and Jacob at Peniel played a much more significant role in Jacob's meeting with his brother Esau. The night before Jacob and Esau met, God and Jacob had a wrestling match at Peniel (Gen. 32:22-32). In that wrestling match a very interesting thing occurs. God allows himself to be overpowered by Jacob. See the picture; the sovereign almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth permits himself to be outmaneuvered by a mere man! If you will, Jacob has the almighty God pinned to the ground! Remember, Jacob attempted to obtain and possess the covenant of promise by deception, by his own strength–if you will, by works. Now, in his strength, he has the God of the covenant overpowered. What is Jacob going to do? Is he going to rely on his own strength, and thus will he go out and meet Esau in the might of his own human power? Or will he surrender himself to the power of God? Oh yes, in the moment of Jacob's great exhibition of human strength, he tells the Lord that he will not let him go until he blesses him. Jacob realized, even in his strongest moment, that the inheritance of blessings of the covenant are solely dependent upon the grace and mercy of God. Only through the blessings of God could Jacob meet Esau and enter the land of the promise–the land of salvation. Thus, by the providence and grace of God, peace reigned at the meeting of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his family entered the land of his father, Isaac.

The Lord kept his promise concerning the return of Jacob to the land. Furthermore, God provided for his necessities while he was away from the land of his father. It is in light of these events that the Lord requests that Jacob take his family to Bethel in order to worship him. In gratitude, Jacob responds to God's grace and care. Indeed, he kept his earlier vow (Gen. 28:22). He takes his household to Bethel; he builds an altar and worships the Lord with his whole family (Gen. 35:1-7).

Bethel's Revelation

Oh people of God, Bethel is the treasured revelation of God to Jacob. It is the revelation of heaven itself and its God–the God of the covenant who fulfills his promises to his people. Jacob experienced God's covenantal faithfulness. Jacob is back in the land and the land will be given to his descendants. But just before Jacob dies, he and his sons are taken from the land once again. Because of the famine that struck that part of the country, they had to go and live in Egypt in order to survive. Interestingly, in the providence of God, there is a parallel between the life of Jacob and his descendants at this point. Just as Jacob was taken from the land (to Haran) because of the sinful way he attempted to obtain the blessings of God, likewise his sons are taken from the land in light of their sinful act of selling their brother (Joseph) into slavery. Just as Jacob had to learn that the inheritance of the land (the covenant) is dependent solely on the grace of God, likewise the sons of Jacob will have to learn that their inheritance of the land is dependent solely on the grace of God. Although it takes over four hundred years for God finally to execute his plan, nevertheless, he brought the descendants of Jacob back to the land of Canaan with a mighty and outstretched arm–the powerful arm of his grace. As you can see, the sons of Jacob live the same life-pattern of their father: they engage in sin, and thus, they are taken from the land; their return to the land is secured only by God's grace.

But the question still remains: how could Jacob leave the land in his final years? As he leaves the land and makes his way to Egypt, he is afraid and he offers a sacrifice on the border of Beersheba (Gen. 46:1-3). God reveals himself there and he promises to bring him back to the land. God's revelation puts peace in Jacob's heart; it reminds him of how God has continually guided his life through each revelation of himself. Thus, I would like to suggest that Jacob's mind returns to Bethel as well. Jacob can leave Canaan because God has revealed a better country to him (cf. Heb. 11:15,16). God has built the faith of Jacob upon the foundation of the revelation of his eternal inheritance! That better country is Bethel, the house of God; it is nothing less than heaven! Yes, Jacob and his sons will dwell in the eternal land of heaven. How? It is through the grace and mercy of God who keeps his covenant by sending his Son from heaven. But his Son does not come as an angel who is ascending and descending on a stairway. No, this time God sends his own Son; Jesus Christ descends to the earth as the holy incarnate Son of God–greater than any angel! He comes descending with the blessings of God's covenantal grace to his people. And he returns to heaven through his death, resurrection and ascension, bringing the lives of his people into continuous and everlasting fellowship and communion with their God. Jesus Christ is the covenant of promise who descends to make the wretched righteous and ascends in order to bring his people into a better country. It is a land that truly flows with milk and honey; it is Bethel–house of God; it is heaven itself!

Furthermore, people of God, do you know what Jesus is presently doing for you in heaven? Jesus tells us that he is building you a mansion, a home (Jn. 14:l-4). Jesus is building you a permanent place of residence so that you will never be separated from him. It is only through God's grace in Christ that Jacob and his sons will have their residence in Bethel; so likewise, church of Jesus Christ, it is only through our beloved Savior that we have our eternal residence in the everlasting glory of the revelation of Bethel.

Now, we understand the longing of the Psalmist, David, when he writes: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Ps. 23:6). Also, when he writes in Psalm 27:4: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." Although it is true that David goes on to write about what he saw in the earthly tabernacle, nevertheless it is evident by the end of the Psalm that David realized that the earthly tabernacle was the image of the eternal tabernacle–heaven! As you can see, it was Bethel, the house of God that David also sought all the days of his life: it had a place of primacy in his life. It is there that he wanted to dwell forever and ever!

Oh people of God, God's revelation to Jacob is God's revelation to you. It is the revelation of the inheritance of the covenant and its God, i.e., it is the revelation of Bethel and the God who sits upon his throne in the sanctuary of his house! And yet, oh people of God who live in the New Testament church, we even have a greater revelation than the one given to Jacob. For we are not witnesses to the angels descending and ascending on a stairway, but we are witnesses of the fact that Jesus Christ descended and ascended to secure the final redemption of his people, who have been bound by his grace to Bethel! And do not forget that Jesus is presently building your permanent home in the heavenly places so that you will have your residence with him in everlasting glory.

Grand Rapids, Michigan