One has divine identity, the other a deceptive nature
AS WE celebrate Christmas, it is important to remind ourselves of the identity and character of Jesus, the one whose birthday we celebrate. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus – His earthly family tree (Mt. 1:1-17). If you were to look at the list, you will find a name near the beginning of the list. I am thinking of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.
You may remember that the name Israel was given to Jacob by God. That name has since become the corporate name for the Jewish people. The modern state of Israel derives its name from Jacob’s other name. This man Jacob lived about 2,000 years before Jesus, who was born as a Jew, as an Israelite. In doing so, Jesus came as a new Jacob, to begin a fresh and reordered kingdom of God, a new people who lived according to a new covenant.
While Jacob is a type of Jesus, that is, a biblical character who represents Jesus in some ways, we can immediately note the deep differences between Jacob and Jesus.
Jacob was a man who was plagued by anxiety and a deceptive nature. His sinful nature was evident even at birth. He was the twin brother of Esau, and at their birth, it is recorded that soon after Esau was born, “his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob” (Gen. 25:26). That name had a double meaning: literally, it meant “he grasps the heel” but figuratively it meant “he deceives”.
What an appropriate name, for this same Jacob later deceived his own father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn that was meant for Esau. When Esau found out, Jacob’s father, Isaac, sadly told the inconsolable Esau: “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing” (Gen 27:35).
Jacob’s grasping nature was evident for a large part of his life; it led him to all kinds of problems and heartaches.
Jesus is the total opposite of Jacob. Of Him it is said: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:5-7). While Jacob was born grasping, Jesus was born not grasping; Jesus instead had emptied and given Himself to His Father’s will and purpose.
The giving hands of Jesus were later nailed to the cross, and His bleeding hands became the eternal symbol of the generous giving nature of God. Totally empty of all the things that Jacob and his descendents (and all their earthly cousins) had grasped in their deceived and deceiving lives, Jesus, the perfect Israelite, showed hands that gave away everything out of sacrificial love – the only hands unstained by the sinful and destructive habit of grasping. While Jacob stole his brother’s blessings, Jesus came to take away the curse that hangs over every human head. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written:
‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).
There are also other differences between Jesus and Jacob that we need to take note of.
The deceived father gave Jacob his blessings, saying: “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29). This man Jacob would be made a lord and many would bow before him.
It is interesting that similar thoughts are expressed about Jesus in the ancient hymn recorded in the second chapter of Philippians (2:9-11):
Therefore God exalted him to the
highest place and gave him the
name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every
knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and
under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Though some words in the blessing in Genesis and the hymn of praise in Philippians are similar, the reality is vastly different. Jacob is reduced into insignificance by the immensity of who Jesus is. While Jacob would be a leader of men to be feared and perhaps respected, Jesus is the Saviour of humankind, very God Himself who deserves to be worshipped. Notice that
those who bow before Jesus include the residents of heaven and those “under the earth” (even the demons and the dead). There is no place where the kingship of Jesus will not be experienced and acknowledged.
The divine identity of Jesus becomes clear when we realise that the words of the hymn echo the words in Isaiah 45:22- 23 – “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other … Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” In other words, the hymn in Philippians, while it may echo Jacob’s blessings, really looks back and draws its majesty and power from what God has said of Himself. The very words used of Israel’s God are used for Jesus. Jesus is not only superior to Jacob-Israel, but He is Jacob’s God.
Jacob got his blessings from his father through deception. Jesus, on the other hand, received honour and blessings from His heavenly Father by “becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The heavenly Father,unlike Jacob’s earthly father, could see everything, and He exalted Jesus, His Son, and “gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).
Jacob, too, was given a name by God. It came after an intense struggle between Jacob and God. Jacob had spent his life grasping at success, prosperity and fame, and when he felt that his life was about to end tragically, he turned his grasping hands to God and found a profound difference between grasping God and anything less than God. He held on to God for a divine blessing. God asked him for his name, re-playing an earlier scene when Jacob pretended to be Esau when he sought his father’s blessings (Gen. 27:19). This time, though, Jacob realised that God could not be deceived and told the truth and gave his real name; God responded by saying:
“Your name will no longer be Jacob but Israel (meaning “he struggles with God”) – Gen. 32:28. God gave him a new name to show that He was changing not only Jacob’s external circumstances, but also his internal character. A new name comes Through Jesus’ holy Name all can be saved with promises, and when God is the one giving the new name, the promise is rock solid. Jesus clung to His Father and His will (Mt. 26:39) not so much to squeeze a blessing out of Him, but to please and glorify Him. It meant He had to cling to His cross and receive humiliation and pain. Jesus is the perfect expression of self-emptying and sacrificial love. And the Father was pleased with Him and gave Him the best and highest name (Jesus means “God saves”), so that through His holy Name, the Jacobs of this world can be saved and transformed.
Christmas points us to the One who came with the open hands of sacrificial love offered to a world of grasping Jacobs. He is very God Himself, at whose name, every knee must bow. All those in the genealogy of Jesus, including Jacob, will get up from that list and bow before Jesus. And so will all who have come after Jesus, including ourselves.
Christmas is a time to celebrate with our knees and voices – in worship of the One who is above all. He came to give Himself so that we too may have a new name and become like Him.