The God of Peniel

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Certainly one of the strangest encounters in Genesis is the wrestling Jacob had with God at Peniel as he returned from Paddan-aram to the land of promise, the land of his fathers (Gen. 32:24–32). In the night before Jacob was to confront the enmity of his brother Esau, a Man came to Jacob and wrestled with him until dawn. Unable at last to prevail over Jacob, the Man disabled Jacob’s hip, the strength of a wrestler. Jacob, however, would not let the Man go until he had won His blessing. So the Man changed Jacob’s name, telling him he would thereafter be called Israel. When Israel then asked the Man His name, the Man did not answer him. Jacob recognized that he had seen the face of God in the Man with whom he had wrestled, and he marveled that his life had been spared. So he memorialized the name of the place as “Peniel,” or “the face of God” (Gen. 32:30). In the morning Jacob went forth limping, but he went forth as Israel (Gen. 32:31). It is instructive that once Jacob became weak in the flesh he became strong in the spirit. It was through this wounding that he became Israel. But afterwards the Jews refused to eat the flesh of the “sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket,” Moses reported, for the thigh represented the weakness of Jacob (Gen. 32:32).

In my exposition of Genesis 28, entitled, “The God of Bethel (March 2007),” I suggested that the grand climax of Revelation is developed through an elaborate figure of speech wherein the ladder or stairway of Jacob’s dream was seen once again in a vision given to the apostle John. Just as Jacob saw a stairway reaching from earth to heaven and upon which the angels of God ascended and descended, so John describes an elaborate stairway uniting heaven and earth and upon which are deployed three pairs of angels, one pair on earth, one pair in mid-heaven, and one pair in heaven (Rev. 17:1–22:6). At the top of the ladder that John described, where Jacob had seen the Lord God, the apostle saw the Lord Jesus. John’s description of the Lord is revealing, for it combines Jacob’s visions of Bethel and Peniel as they are fulfilled in Jesus. 

Let’s consider the language of John’s description of Jesus. He writes: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.… From his mouth comes a sharp sword…. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Rev. 19:11–16).

Just as John has unfolded a vision that recalls the vision given to Jacob at Bethel, so now at the very center of that vision he focuses on Jesus in terms that recall Jacob’s encounter with God at Peniel. In the context of Revelation, Jesus, like Jacob, has returned to His Father’s house and is to receive His bride (Rev. 19:6–9; 21:2). And so John describes the head of Jesus, and His eyes, and His mouth. In other words, John is portraying for us the “face of God” in the face of Jesus, that is, he is describing the true “Peniel.” And to confirm that he intends us to make this association, he describes the Lord Jesus astride a white horse and leading His armies to victory. John tells us that on His thigh Jesus wears a banner proclaiming that He is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). Interestingly, this is the only time the word thigh occurs in the New Testament. And John uses it to show that Jesus is greater than Jacob. How does he do this? For Jacob the thigh was the emblem of his weakness (Gen. 32:31–32), but for Jesus the thigh carries the banner of His great strength, proclaiming His sovereignty over all the earth.

Now Moses had written that the Jews refuse to partake of the sinew of the thigh, because it represented the weakness of Jacob (Gen. 32:31–32). This background is far more than merely an explanation of a peculiar custom of ancient Israel. John tells us that the Jews refused the flesh of the Savior (John 6:52) and that they especially refused to partake of Jesus’ kingdom (19:15). In other words, those Jews of Jesus’ day who refused His rule rejected the message of Jesus’ thigh, refusing to partake of the Savior’s kingdom. By such a manner, their customary refusal to eat the thigh had foreshadowed a national disobedience. Just as the high priest of Israel in offering up the Passover lamb had darkly portended the high priest Caiphas giving over to death the true Paschal Lamb, so it seems John would have us understand that Israel’s refusal to eat the flesh of the thigh darkly foreshadowed the rejection of Messiah’s kingdom. 

There is thus a terrible judgment in the midst of this most magnificent mercy. For at Peniel a godly man wrestled with God to win the blessing, and at Gethsemane the God-man wrestled with God to win our salvation. What a great drama is the mystery of our faith!

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.