Converge Bible Studies is a series of topical Bible studies based on the Common English Bible. Each title in the series consists of four studies on a common topic or theme. Converge can be used by small groups, classes, or individuals. Primary Scripture passages are included for ease of study, as are questions designed to encourage both personal reflection and group conversation. The topics and Scriptures in Converge come together to transform readers’ relationships with others, themselves, and God.
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Converge Bible Studies | Encountering Grace
By Joseph Yoo
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
WHEN GRACE CHANGES EVERYTHING
1 Jacob went on his way, and God's messengers approached him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is God's camp," and he named that sacred place Mahanaim. 3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau, toward the land of Seir, the open country of Edom. 4 He gave them these orders: "Say this to my master Esau. This is the message of your servant Jacob: 'I've lived as an immigrant with Laban, where I've stayed till now. 5 I own cattle, donkeys, flocks, men servants, and women servants. I'm sending this message to my master now to ask that he be kind.'"
6 The messengers returned to Jacob and said, "We went out to your brother Esau, and he's coming to meet you with four hundred men."
7 Jacob was terrified and felt trapped, so he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle, and camels, into two camps. 8 He thought, If Esau meets the first camp and attacks it, at least one camp will be left to escape.
9 Jacob said, "Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I'll make sure things go well for you,' 10 I don't deserve how loyal and truthful you've been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I've become two camps. 11 Save me from my brother Esau! I'm afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. 12 You were the one who told me, 'I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won't be able to count them.'"
13 Jacob spent that night there. From what he had acquired, he set aside a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty nursing camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He separated these herds and gave them to his servants. He said to them, "Go ahead of me and put some distance between each of the herds." 17 He ordered the first group, "When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, 'Who are you with? Where are you going? And whose herds are these in front of you?' 18 say, 'They are your servant Jacob's, a gift sent to my master Esau. And Jacob is actually right behind us.'" 19 He also ordered the second group, the third group, and everybody following the herds, "Say exactly the same thing to Esau when you find him. 20 Say also, 'Your servant Jacob is right behind us.'" Jacob thought, I may be able to pacify Esau with the gift I'm sending ahead. When I meet him, perhaps he will be kind to me. 21 So Jacob sent the gift ahead of him, but he spent that night in the camp.
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River's shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn't defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob's thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob's thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, "Let me go because the dawn is breaking."
But Jacob said, "I won't let you go until you bless me."
27 He said to Jacob, "What's your name?" and he said, "Jacob." 28 Then he said, "Your name won't be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won."
29 Jacob also asked and said, "Tell me your name."
But he said, "Why do you ask for my name?" and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, "because I've seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved." 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh. 32 Therefore, Israelites don't eat the tendon attached to the thigh muscle to this day, because he grabbed Jacob's thigh muscle at the tendon.
INSIGHT AND IDEAS
"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!"
While most of us have sung those words, many of us have not been soothed by the sweet sound of grace.
I heard a pastor preach, "Our history describes us; it does not define us." But for so many of us, we are imprisoned by our history because we believe that it does define us. Our past holds us prisoner from the future that God has in store for us. The deep rooted pain of what we may have done in the past or what has been done to us has turned into shame and often serves as the biggest obstacle that prevents us from moving forward. We may have deemed ourselves unworthy of a promising future; so we resign ourselves to a destiny of shortcomings, putting a limit on how much happiness we deserve. Grace ends up being nothing more than a word in a song. A concept. A theory. A nice sermon.
But grace is so much more than that.
As we begin to move forward in our conversations about encountering grace, perhaps the best place is to start is the past; because sometimes we need to go backward to move forward.
As we look back, I hope that you see that God's grace has always been an active presence in your life, that God's grace has always been with you, stirring your heart and drawing you closer to God. Through God's grace, we are more than the sum of our mistakes. No one's history is too dark or too far gone to be redeemed.
JACOB THE DECEIVER
For me, nobody embodies this more than Jacob. Jacob's story is a reminder that we're immersed in God's grace wherever we go, even though we may not be aware of it. But when our hearts are finally open to encounter it, we realize that God's grace has always been with us. And like Jacob, we come to the realization that "the LORD is definitely in this place, but I didn't know it" (Genesis 28:16).
Jacob was not the best of characters; yet, through God's grace, it was Jacob (not Esau) whom God chose to be the father of the twelve tribes.
Jacob, which can mean "grasper of heel," got his name because he was born holding on to his brother's heel, as if he were trying to pull Esau back into the womb so that he (Jacob) would be the first born. Grabbing the heel was also a Hebrew way of saying that one was deceiving.
In Jacob's culture, people's names revealed the essence of their soul—who they are and who they will be. You could know a lot about a person (and how he or she should behave) if you knew only his or her name.
But in our culture, you can't tell that much about a person by his or her name. My name is Joseph. That doesn't really tell you anything about me or who I am. Today we tend to make a judgment call on a person based on what he or she does, not on his or her name. For example, if I tell you that I'm a pastor, you begin to know a little bit more about me (and how I should behave). If you were to meet a Jennifer for the first time, you'd know more about her if you learned that she is a doctor than from learning her name.
For the Hebrew culture, everything was in a person's name. People were probably wary around Jacob simply because of what his name meant. And boy, did Jacob live up to his name! (Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.) For a good portion of his life, Jacob would spend his time and energy tricking and deceiving people, taking what rightfully belonged to them. At one point, after being conned, his brother Esau even screams, "Isn't this why he's called Jacob?" (Genesis 27:36).
ADMITTING WHO WE'VE BEEN
Really, at heart, Jacob was nothing more than a con man—a snake oil salesman. And I have to believe that deep down, Jacob knew this about himself. He tricked his brother out of his birthright. He tricked his father into giving him Esau's inheritance. He conned his father-in-law out of livestock and credited God for his abundance (Genesis 30:37-43).
It is in this context that we find Jacob locked in a grappling match with God (Genesis 32:22-32). And in the midst of the wrestling, God wants to know the name of his opponent. But this goes beyond, "Hey, what's your name?" (After all, God should already know Jacob's name, right?) I believe that God wants Jacob to confess his name—confess the essence of his soul, who he really is; confess his manipulating and conniving ways; confess that he is a shady character; confess that he has wasted his life by devoting his energy and purpose to manipulating others.
And for Jacob to confess—to come clean—was probably more painful than death itself. What does a liar have left when he has no more lies to tell? What is a con man when his ruse is unveiled for all to see?
In the presence of God, Jacob bares all that he is, a deceiver, by admitting that he is Jacob (verse 27). As readers, perhaps we sort of expect punishment to come. I mean, up to this point, what was redeeming about Jacob's character? Jacob has done so many shady things, hurt so many people. He needs to face the consequences of his actions. And now that he has admitted to it all (and to God the judge, no less) justice should be handed out.
FACE TO FACE WITH GRACE
Except, what God says next is not really the justice that we had in mind. When Jacob confesses his name and who he is, God responds by saying, "Your name won't be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won" (verse 28).
Wait, what? Jacob went from a deceiver to someone who "struggled with God and with men and won" (emphasis mine). That sounds like the furthest thing possible from justice and punishment, the furthest thing from something that Jacob deserves. In fact, it sounds more like a promotion.
And that's the nature of God's grace. God sees you. Not what you have done but who you are. Not your past mistakes but your potential. God doesn't see your shortcomings but your capacity to love. God knows you and calls you by name. Your real name.
I say, "real name," because we all have different names for ourselves—names that others have given us whether we deserve it or not. (Many of the kids from my youth group called me "Pastor Jerk"—although I'll admit that I proudly earned that name). Or more damning, we have names—ugly names—that we call ourselves because we think that we deserve them.
What are some of the horrible names that you've given yourself? Often, we give those names too much power over us—so much power that they shape, reshape, limit, and even cripple our future.
This was not the first time Jacob was asked who he was. Earlier in Genesis, Jacob was confronted with the same question. At that time, Jacob replied, "I'm Esau your oldest son" (Genesis 27:19). And so Jacob continued his life as a con man.
Perhaps he was tired of running from his past. Perhaps he felt that he would die the next day anyway, since he was confronting the brother he'd wronged. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by the presence of God. For whatever reason, the second time Jacob was asked his name, he confessed, "Jacob."
But when we confess those names to God—when we let grace in—we find that the chains that have been so tightly imprisoning us loosen their grip. We begin to find freedom in God's grace. Once we bring the darkness of those names and expose them to the Light—what "was so powerful while it was in the dark [is] now being exposed and weakened by the light."
And only through confessing was Jacob able to learn the truth—who he was in God's eyes. Everyone else knew him as deceiver, but God knew him as Israel.
PUTTING THE PAST BEHIND US
We tend to put so much weight on our past that it holds us back from moving forward. We try to escape from our past, only to realize that we are running around in circles.
But when we open our heart to God and encounter God's grace, we learn that grace was never an elusive thing that couldn't be obtained, but that it was always there.
Wherever you were, grace was there. Wherever you are, grace is there. Wherever God calls you, God's grace will go with you. Where can we go to escape the grace of God? "If grace is an ocean, we're all sinking."
May you open your heart and find yourself immersed and in the ocean of God's grace. May you let go of all of the names that have held you captive. In Christ, like Israel, we too have been given a new name—a new identity. For "if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). God is calling you son, daughter, beloved.
May that realization help shape and guide your journey!
1. Who are God's messengers (Genesis 32:1)? Why are they approaching Jacob?
2. Why does Jacob send his own messengers ahead to meet Esau? Why is Jacob terrified at what they tell him when they return (Genesis 32:3-6)?
3. How is Jacob's prayer to God humble? How is it bold (Genesis 32:9-12)?
4. What does Jacob do to prepare for his meeting with Esau (Genesis 32:13-21)? How does this relate to the prayer Jacob prayed earlier?
5. Why does Jacob want to spend the night away from his family and servants (Genesis 32:22-23)?
6. Who is the mysterious stranger who wrestles with Jacob until dawn (Genesis 32:24)?
7. Why can't the stranger defeat Jacob (Genesis 32:25)? What theological challenges might this passage present?
8. How does the stranger's strength and power compare with Jacob's strength and power (Genesis 32:25-26)?
9. What is the significance of the breaking dawn (Genesis 32:25)? Why does the stranger want to be let go?
10. Why does Jacob want a blessing from the stranger? What does he do to get this blessing (Genesis 32:26-29)? How can we apply this as a principle today?
11. Why does the man ask for Jacob's name but answer with a question when Jacob asks him for his name (Genesis 32:27-29)?
12. How does this wrestling match change Jacob? How are we changed when we wrestle with God?
13. Does Jacob get what he deserves in this story? Why, or why not?CHAPTER 2
RETURNING TO GOD
GRACE, REPENTANCE, AND SELF-IMAGE
11 Jesus said, "A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the inheritance.' Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 "When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have more than enough food, but I'm starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands."' 20 So he got up and went to his father.
"While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
25 "Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, 'Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.' 28 Then the older son was furious and didn't want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, 'Look, I've served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you've never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.' 31 Then his father said, 'Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.'"
INSIGHT AND IDEAS
As my wife and I were leaving Staples Center after a Los Angeles Clippers victory (Go, Clippers!), lining the sidewalk outside were people holding picket signs next to a little girl who was speaking through a megaphone. What in the world could they be protesting, I wondered. After I read a few signs, I realized that they were picketing me. Well, not just me but all of the people leaving the arena.
"You are nothing more than sinners!"
"You're going to hell!"
"The only thing you can do is repent!"
The scene was made slightly eerier by the small girl vocalizing with her sweet, little voice the things written on the signs: "If you don't repent, you will go to hell!"
I had just left the Clippers game. It wasn't like I'd attended an event that was full of evil and soulless people. I would've gone to a Lakers game if I'd wanted that!
MOTIVATED BY FEAR
You see, these folks were trying to motivate me to believe in God out of fear. And unfortunately, fear can be an effective motivator—for a time. The problem is, if it's fear that motivates us into relationship with God, it will probably be fear that is the driving force in the relationship. And a fear-based relationship isn't what God has in mind for us. God's covenant with us isn't built upon fear, but love. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18a). It isn't fear of God's wrath and the fire of hell that should lead us to repentance. Paul wrote, "Don't you realize that God's kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life?" (Romans 2:4b).
As we made our way to our car, I began to wonder which came first, grace or repentance?
I assumed that for the picketers, repentance came first then came salvation from the flames of hell—or "grace." But I believe that grace comes before repentance. We don't repent to receive grace; repentance is a response to God's grace.
Excerpted from Converge Bible Studies | Encountering Grace by Joseph Yoo. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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