When we were last together, we discovered that as God brings us closer to Himself, it is He who cultivates our hearts. In response to God’s work within us, we are always observing our own priorities and, hopefully, rearranging them in a way that honors and glorifies God, whose image people were created in. Our priorities are developed in our minds. We decide what will be most important in our lives and in our ministry based on God’s work in our life in this moment. These priorities lead to our action. What will we decide to do and what will we decide not to do? The priorities we set determine what activities we will be involved in, and what expectations that others have we might meet.
One thing that I notice as I observe the complexity of this life is that there is simply not enough time for anyone to accomplish everything that is expected of them. At home, there are responsibilities. At work, there are tasks that need to be completed. At school, there is always another assignment or test. At church, sometimes people have expectations of us. There is always something to do and always a way in which we are behind or trying to catch up. The priorities that we set, hopefully according to the text of Scripture and the leadership of the Holy Spirit, informs what we will choose to do and what we will choose not to do. This, of course, brings up the question of obedience. What does it mean for us to be obedient to God? What is the result of obedience?
Genesis 35:1-15 HCSB
God said to Jacob, “Get up! Go to Bethel and settle there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”
So Jacob said to his family and all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods that are among you. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. We must get up and go to Bethel. I will build an altar there to the God who answered me in my day of distress. He has been with me everywhere I have gone.”
Then they gave Jacob all their foreign gods and their earrings, and Jacob hid them under the oak near Shechem. When they set out, a terror from God came over the cities around them, and they did not pursue Jacob’s sons. So Jacob and all who were with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. Jacob built an altar there and called the place God of Bethel because it was there that God had revealed Himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.
Deborah, the one who had nursed and raised Rebekah, died and was buried under the oak south of Bethel. So Jacob named it Oak of Weeping.
God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him:
Your name is Jacob;
you will no longer be named Jacob,
but your name will be Israel.
So He named him Israel. God also said to him:
I am God Almighty.
Be fruitful and multiply.
A nation, indeed an assembly of nations,
will come from you,
and kings will descend from you.
I will give to you the land
that I gave to Abraham and Isaac.
And I will give the land
to your future descendants.
Then God withdrew from him at the place where He had spoken to him.
Jacob set up a marker at the place where He had spoken to him — a stone marker. He poured a drink offering on it and anointed it with oil. Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
God sanctifies Jacob
In this current chapter, we witness God giving Jacob instruction. In verse 3, as Jacob relays God’s instruction to his family, we get to see that Jacob’s obedience to God’s instruction is a response to what God has already done. God had answered Jacob in the day of his distress and was with him wherever he went. We see one example of this distress in chapter 32, when Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau after betraying him, stealing his birthright, and conning his father into giving him the family blessing when it was to be given to Esau. As his is returning to see Esau, who I believe to be the pre-incarnate Christ actually wrestles with Jacob through the night for the purpose of Jacob’s sanctification. Jacob was sanctified, and received God’s blessing. God has used everything in Jacobs life up to this point in the text for the purpose of His sanctifying work in Jacob’s life. He has continuously cultivated Jacob’s heart. In response to this cultivation, Jacob is lead into deeper obedience to God.
God instructs Jacob
As God sanctifies Jacob, He also instructs Jacob. God desires to see us mature in Him. He also desires that as we mature, we will be led into deeper obedience to Him. God instructed Jacob to move. When Jacob went to relay this instruction to his family, he instructed them to let go of everything that would hold them back from following the Lord’s instruction. There were idols in Jacob’s house that needed to be buried. Jacob buried those idols and God provided safety as his family moved.
There are two things, then, that I notice about God’s instruction:
1. God’s instruction requires us to bury our idols.
The evangelist Billy Graham states this about idols in our modern day, and I find it to be true: “You deliberately bring on your own spiritual death… by going on with the evils of the world; the lust, the greed, the hate, the prejudice, and the materialism… That’s why it’s hard to follow Christ in the modern day. It is harder to be a Christian in the western world than in any other part of the world… You call yourself a Christian, but your not really a Christian…”
An idol might be defined as anything in our lives that takes precedence over the things of God. Personal piety, expectations, material wealth, our opinions, our preferences, and our religion can all be idols if we are not careful. Idols bring about spiritual death. The greatest idol in our age is self. We wonder why our churches aren’t able to do the work of God. We wonder why we are not growing in the grace of our Lord. We wonder why God seems so far away. It is because many have chosen not to bury their idols.
2. God’s instruction is not the instruction of people.
The plan that God gave Jacob was not the plan that Jacob prepared for himself or the plan given to him by his family or the plan given to him by the world around him. God’s instruction to Jacob was not the instruction of people. If God’s instruction is given and is at odds with the instructions we receive or the expectations placed upon us by other people, it is best to go with God’s instruction. This means that there are many times in our lives when we simply have to say, “No.” This is not because we don’t love others or because we don’t care about the input of others; it is about us honoring the priorities that God has led us to. We should always seek to obey God rather than other people. Consequently, we should always encourage others to obey God’s instruction, even if that means we must put our own expectations to the side.
Looking back on the last year or your life, how does your obedience to our Lord look now as compared to this time last year? There are three ways to answer this question: First, you can look at the past year and see that you are living in deeper obedience now than you were one year ago. This is good. It means that you are responding positively to God’s sanctifying work in your life. It means you are walking with God. Second, you are living in the same degree of obedience now that you were one year ago. This is a sign of a stagnant faith. God has been doing His sanctifying work within you, but you have not responded to that work. As a result, you are stuck in the same place spiritually and you have not matured. This is the point where God seems silent or doesn’t seem to be doing any work in your life. Third, you might look back one year and discover that you are less obedient now than you were one year ago. This is a sign that you have either grown apathetic in the faith or have actually been saved (brought into a relationship with Christ).
We are never fully mature. Even Paul, the apostle who penned most of the New Testament for us, admitted that he had not achieved the goal or grown fully mature (Phil. 3:12). If Paul had not grown fully mature in the faith even as he sat in prison writing to the Philippians, then it is unlikely that any of us have come close at all. One of the hallmarks of genuine Christian faith is sanctification leading into deeper obedience throughout all of life on this earth. We must put away our idols. We must seek to obey God’s instruction in a world where people try to lead us away from that instruction.
God sanctifies Jacob again
Jacob responded to God’s instruction positively. He grew deeper in his obedience to God in this moment. As he obeyed God, God continued His sanctifying work in Jacob’s life. God reissued the promise that He made to both Abraham and Isaac before Jacob and restated to Jacob the same purpose. Jacob and his family were to multiply. God would bless all nations through Jacob’s descendants. They would inherit the land.
As God cultivates our hearts, He gives us instruction. We mature in the faith as we obey God’s instruction. As we obey God’s instruction, God Himself leads us into greater maturity. A cultivated heart leads to a cultivated life, and we are never done growing.
At home, then, are we growing deeper in obedience to God with our families? If our obedience to God in the home is not growing, then our families are not maturing in the faith together. At work, are we growing deeper in our obedience to God? If our obedience to God at work is not deepening, then we have made an idol out of our work and it has caused us not to grow more mature in the faith. In school or in athletics, are we becoming more obedient to God? If not, education and athletics are tools that Satan is using to cause us to be stagnant in the faith. As a local church body, are we becoming more and more obedient to our Lord? If we are not, then we will plateau spiritually.
If obedience to God is lacking, so is our maturing in the faith. If obedience to God is deepening, so is our maturing in the faith!
Here, I want to pose a simple question. God reissued His purpose and promise to Jacob as Jacob obeyed. It is part of God’s sanctifying process. If we refuse to deepen our obedience in response to God’s sanctifying work, why would God bless us by continuing to accomplish His purpose and promise through us? If we, as a church, grow stagnant in our obedience to God, why would He bless us by continuing to accomplish His purpose and promise through us? If we choose to maintain our idols and follow the instructions of people rather than the instructions of God, why would God ever allow us to be a beacon for His great name?
The calling on our lives, here, is a simple one. We respond to God’s sanctifying work in our lives by obeying His instruction. It means we will probably disappoint more people. It means we probably have to say “no” more often. It means we have to deny ourselves. It means we must remain attentive to the Holy Spirit’s direction and respond positively to that direction. As God cultivates our hearts, let that cultivation result in deeper and deeper obedience in this life. As our obedience deepens, so will God’s cultivating work in our hearts. This is what it means to walk with God.