The Face of God: Grace, Wrestling, and Reconciliation
Text: Gen. 33:1-11
…And Jacob said, “No, please, if I have now found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me. Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” So he urged him, and he took it.
Have you ever fought with your own family? All families have their disagreements, sometimes they step on one another’s toes, and they even go through occasional stressful period. But sometimes family things go past this and become outright feuds. Sometimes they involve a falling-out with one another, and they can be some of the most painful relationship losses in the world. It’s really hard to put a family back together after it’s gone through a painful separation, but if you can’t, then the pain stays with you forever.
That’s what makes this story from the life of Jacob so dramatic. It’s a picture of family forgiveness. Jacob is coming back to meet his brother, a brother with whom has bitterly fought with and who had promised to kill him. Amazingly, they are able to forgive one another and reconcile. And that’s why Jacob says what he says about their meeting, “In your face, it is as though I have seen the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).
The face of God, what a thing to say! What would it mean to tell someone that?
This morning we will look at the theme of seeing the face of God. We see God’s face in the gospel, in the face of Christ and His work for us. And because of that, we can see God’s face in t he grace and forgiveness of others. We can also show them God’s true face as we do the same. Reconciling brothers, family, friends, and even enemies is what God’s plan of salvation is all about. As we have seen God’s face in the gospel, let us show God’s face to others.
Jacob’s Long Road Home
The Jacob story is one of the most important stories in the book of Genesis. He goes through a lot. You all remember the story of Jacob, Esau, and the stolen birthright. After this occurred, Esau vowed to kill him (Gen. 27:41). That’s why Jacob had to run away.
From there, Jacob went to live with his father-in-law, Laban. But that didn’t turn out well. He ended up feuding with Laban, and Laban even accused him of stealing from him. After fourteen plus years of that unhappy relationship, Jacob decides to return to his homeland and his family. Just as he is preparing to meet Esau again, he encounters another fight. This time it’s with God. The famous scene of Jacob wrestling with Angel of the Lord occurs in Gen. 32:22-32. That’s when Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). Amazingly, the angel agrees, though He gives Jacob a limp.
So all of that has gone on to set the stage for Jacob’s meeting with Esau. He’s had a lifetime of fighting, capped off by this stupendous wrestling match with God, where God agreed to bless Jacob. He next approaches Esau, and what does he see? “Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men” (Gen. 33:1). Uh, oh. That doesn’t look good.
The Face of God
Jacob assumes, naturally, that Esau is prepared for battle. Why else would he need all those men? But Esau isn’t prepared for battle. He doesn’t try to kill Jacob. No, instead he shows him love and grace. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen. 33:4).
Instead of war, Esau—Esau!—offered peace. He received Jacob with grace and forgiveness, and the two brothers were able to reconcile. Then Jacob says that powerful line, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”
The face of God, what can that mean? The expression is astounding in its own right. “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God.” Hebrews did not believe that anyone could literally see God’s face. If so, they would die. You’ll recall that Moses asked to see God but was only allowed to see His back (Ex. 33:20-23). So what does Jacob mean by saying this about Esau? How is it that he is seeing God’s face?
Now, we can say that this is a figure of speech. Jacob isn’t literally seeing God’s face in Esau. That’s true. He means that Esau is showing him a sort of divine kindness. He is seeing grace. And this is a powerful testimony precisely because you can’t literally see God’s face. We conclude that when we show grace and forgiveness, we show a picture of God to others. This just is the way that people can see God, through the practice of love and reconciliation.
But I want to add one more layer to this. You see, Jacob did see the face of God. It’s a mysterious story, but it did happen, and Jacob did not die. He saw God’s face one chapter before the text we’re looking at today. He saw God’s face when He wrestled with the angel at the ford of Jabbok.
I described the story earlier, but I’ll give a brief reminder. In Gen. 32:22-32, Jacob was overtaken by a mysterious figure while he slept. At first this figure is called a man. Jacob wrestles with Him all night and appears to prevail. But he knows something special is going on, and Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” This shows that Jacob recognizes some source of blessing in his opponent. The opponent then renames Jacob to Israel, saying “For you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed!” (Gen. 32:28).
After the wrestling match ends, Jacob makes a concluding statement about what has happened, and this statement serves as the key for the whole event. “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved’” (Gen. 32:30).
What’s Jacob telling us? He’s telling us that the “man” was actually God! How did that work? We don’t really know. Another verse in the Old Testament says that Jacob wrestled with “the angel” (Hosea 12:4). This is probably a case of God taking the form of an angel to appear on earth. Many Christian commentators have also said this was the pre-incarnate Christ. However it worked, the point is the same. Jacob wrestled with God. God agreed to bless him through this event. And so, in some way, Jacob saw God “face to face” and he did not die.
Now, that encounter happens at the end of Gen. 32. Jacob then wakes up and goes to meet Esau in the very next chapter. And in that chapter, just 10 verses into it, Jacob tells Esau that he has seen “the face of God.”
It’s too close to be a coincidence. Jacob is intentionally referring back to his experience wrestling with the angel. He’s seeing the same thing in Esau. He’s seeing a wrestling match that turned into a blessing. He is seeing Peniel.
Esau doesn’t know anything about all of that. We aren’t even sure if he’s a believer. Nevertheless, God is using him as an instrument to show “the face of God” to Jacob once more. God is using Esau as an instrument to continue to give out the blessing that Jacob had asked for. In fact, God’s blessing has already been given, and that is why Esau has been able to receive Jacob in peace and love.
The face of God is here the result of God’s grace. God has indeed blessed Jacob, just as Jacob asked, and that is now being seen in reconciliation. It’s being seen in the reconciliation of Jacob with his brother. Therefore, this happy meeting between Jacob and Esau is a picture of the gospel itself.
Seeing God’s Face Today
Jacob said two important things about God’s face. “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:30). And, “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me” (Gen. 33:10). God’s face is seen in life-saving grace, and this spills out into the reconciliation of human lives that were formerly bent on violence and destruction.
The gospel first reconciles man with God, and then it goes on to reconcile man with man. How fitting, then, that God chose to bring it bout through the sending of the godman, Jesus Christ. As the prologue to John’s gospel puts it:
And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:16-18)
It is ultimately in Christ that we see God’s face most clearly, and it is in Him that we know our greatest blessing, eternal salvation. He is the source of our reconciliation. He is our Peniel.
So, today, we see God’s face in Christ. We see it in the gospel, and that is why the preaching of the gospel must always be a “clear portrayal” of the cross of Christ (Gal. 3:1). If you wish to see God, look to Jesus.
But let me ask you this, can you also show the face of God to others?
Again, think about how astounding that Jacob and Esau meeting was. Esau was the one who showed God’s face! How was that possible? It certainly wasn’t because Esau was such a good person. It was because God took the initiative to act in and through Esau. God was keeping His promise, the promise He made to Jacob.
God will do the same through us. Through His Spirit, God will work out His love. What do we do then?
It starts with our own remembrance of the gospel. Know that you are loved, forgiven, and acceptance for no good reason of your own. It is all of God’s grace, because He chose to love you. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Then we should share that message with others and embody it, as much as possible, in the way that we treat them. We should forgive our debtors, and we should do it after the way that we wish God to forgive us. We should choose to lay down old grudges. We should drop our hostility. We should love our enemies.
Now, you will surely say at this point, this is impossible! Yes, you are right. This is indeed impossible. It’s impossible with men. But with God all things are possible! (Matt. 19:26). Let us make ourselves poor in the sight of men, trusting God that He will reward us beyond any treasure we could ever have on our own. Let us sacrifice in faith and trust God to make it work. Preach the gospel. Live the gospel. Show others the face of God.
This world is full of struggle. This is true. We are afflicted and suffer unjust burdens. Even our own families are broken and turn against us.
But this is not some new thing. This life we find ourselves in isn’t all that different from the lives that the biblical characters found themselves in. Even Genesis, way back then, with all of the majestic and overwhelming stories and creatures—even Genesis isn’t really that different. It’s about the same human drama, the same broken lives, the same effects of sin.
And the solution then is our solution now. We must have the blessing of God.
We must have God’s grace to fix any of our problems. And it is for this reason that we must always mind ourselves that God has promised to give it in Christ. He has shown us His face in Jesus, and we now have the gospel of reconciliation with is the promise of forgiveness and salvation for the world.
Let us pray.