Four Pillars of Jacob
by Harry Foster
"Then God said to Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother. And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone. Then God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name. So He called his name Israel. Also God said to him: I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land. Then God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. So Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel." (Gen. 35:1-3; 9-15).
This is the third of the four pillars which Jacob erected in the course of his pilgrimage. Each of them represented a spiritual crisis, not merely of Jacob's resolution but by reason of God's gracious intervention in his life. The first one, which we called the Pillar of Revelation, was certainly the outcome of such a Divine visitation; the second, the Pillar of Separation, was also produced by the Lord's initiative; and now we are to consider the third, when once again God broke into Jacob's life. God met him and made him a changed man. Nevertheless, the raising of the pillar shows that from his side Jacob was quite as definite with the Lord as the Lord had been with him. He set up that which would fix his position in an irrevocable way, so that it was not a vague transaction which could be gone back on later, but a final committal by a man who was dealing with God in earnest.
The Return to Bethel
The action took place at Bethel where the first pillar had been put up. Jacob had called the place 'Bethel,' for there, many years previously, he had seen a vision of the House of God. He had caught a glimpse of the blessedness of a life in the realm of God's own House - a realm where the Lord is everything, for all is for Him and all is from Him. He had thought that he would like to live there, and had determined one day to come back and do so, though he recognised that at the time he was not fit for such a sacred place. The House of God would mean an experience in which life was no longer governed by the thoughts, the ways, the plans, the efforts, the ambitions and the glory of man, but only and altogether by that which was according to God. Jacob was not suitable for such a life, but he appreciated the blessedness of the revelation, and in erecting his first pillar committed himself to the Lord to be made suitable. Bethel was not a passing idea which came to Jacob, nor was it merely personal to him, but rather the revelation from heaven of an abiding principle, the possibility of spiritual fulness in fellowship with God. In the very first chapter of John's Gospel we find the Lord's promise to Nathanael, and not to him only but to those who were with him, that they too should come in spirit to Bethel where they would see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
Fitness for Bethel
But such a realm means that those who live in it must be conformed to it, they must be like it. The House of God is not an outward matter of places, of customs and manners, of beliefs or procedure; it is not that which we can bring about or maintain by our own activities. It consists of a living experience of Jesus Christ where everything is from Him and unto Him. We have to be constituted anew to partake of that experience. Jacob must become Israel if he would live at Bethel. Thus it was that the Lord Jesus said of Nathanael, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile." At first He could not say that of Jacob. Much had to be done in Jacob before that would be possible. But now the time had come when the Lord could assure even Jacob that there was a place for him at Bethel. The vision could be realised at last, for the old Jacob was dealt with, and it could be said of him, "Behold, an Israelite Indeed!" God called his name Israel.
That is precisely what God has done for us in Christ, and He calls us, like Jacob, to be quite definite in faith's appropriation. This is the explanation of the third pillar. God took it upon Himself to say, 'You are no longer Jacob, unfit for My House, but you are now Israel, the man who can rightly dwell there.' Jacob's pillar was a token of faith's acceptance of what God had said.
It needed all the wisdom and power of God to effect that transformation. The opening verses of our chapter reveal that the house of Jacob was far from being the House of God. When the Lord commanded Jacob to arise and go up to Bethel this sad contrast became a matter of conviction to him. He knew that for the Lord to be truly honoured all impurities and contradictions must be repudiated: he could not take strange gods up to Bethel. So he called his household together and told them that they must put away all their false gods and cleanse themselves, for Bethel demands a state which corresponds to the holiness of God. Well, there were all sorts of defilement in Jacob's household, and they had to be put away and cleansed. Jacob could do that himself, and he did so.
Inward Conformity to Bethel
But there had been depths of defilement which only God could deal with. Jacob's own natural life was the greatest contradiction of Bethel. For years he had not appreciated his true nature, but even when he did so he had no power to change himself. It is so with us. When God speaks to us about the place of His glory and reveals Himself to us in the holy Person of His Son we are made aware of features of our lives which are unseemly and unholy. We realize that these must be put away, and that it is our responsibility to purge ourselves from these defilements. But what so many of the Lord's people fail to realize is that when everything has been done in the way of removing the idols and cleansing the garments there still remains an inward nature which is unseemly and unacceptable in the House of God. While under the powerful influence of the Spirit's conviction many sins may be brought to the light, confessed and put away, with a resultant experience of great relief and joy often called revival, there still remains the fact of the old nature which is essentially evil. Wholehearted dealing with the Lord concerning all conscious wrong is most important, but after all it is still only things which are being dealt with, and those things are the outward expressions of a nature which is too much for us. God looks deep into the heart, and He knows that the real trouble is not only the harbouring of false gods and the unclean garments defiling Jacob's household, but that the real problem is deep down in Jacob's own being.
This is true of us all. When sins have been confessed and cleansed there still remains the sinful nature which is quite unfit for the House of God. God must deal with it, for only God can. Jacob can put some things away, but he cannot put himself away. When Jacob erected this pillar it was with the Divine assurance ringing in his ears, "Thy name shall not be called any more Jacob." Praise the Lord! God had been dealing with Jacob for years to this very end. This is the explanation of so much frustration and disappointment in his life. Poor Jacob now sees the goal of all the painful years of discipline. A great transformation has taken place, for the Lord, looking upon him in grace, can affirm 'No more Jacob'! Only God could say that. It would have been useless for Jacob to say it. Jacob did not give himself that name; it was given to him; and Jacob could neither rid himself of it and of the nature it implied, nor give himself a new name and a new nature. But the Lord could, and did. This pillar, therefore, speaks of the great work of Calvary in putting away the old man ("not... any more Jacob"), and bringing in the new man ("Israel shall be thy name"), and of faith's appropriation of that work.
The Call to Faith
We might expect that in the ensuing narrative the name Jacob would never again be mentioned, but that is not so. The two names are now used. Sometimes it is Israel, and then it is Jacob again. At first sight it would appear to be the most satisfactory experience of sanctification, both for Jacob and for us, that at a certain point the old nature should entirely cease to be, while the new nature automatically expressed itself in all things. Well, that will be one day, for at the time of the redemption of the body we shall see Christ and be like Him (1 John 3:2); but meanwhile our greatest need is for positive faith in the matter. We are commanded to "put away the old man" and also to "put on the new man" (Eph. 4:22,24). What God has done for Jacob is to bring him to the place where he can be Israel, and need not be any more Jacob: in the language of the New Testament, "no longer I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). Jacob is what I am in myself. Well, as we read on we find that Jacob can still be something in himself. Israel is what I am in Christ. Thank God for the blessed power and glory of living in that realm! But one chapter can be one realm, while the next chapter is the other, and indeed they can both be found in the same chapter. How well we know it!
Jacob's pillar is a call to faith. The life which we now live is a life of faith. Where would be the call to faith if the old nature had ceased to be and the life of Christ worked in us automatically? Sanctification does not make us independent of God but leads us into a life of utter dependence. Not what I am - that will still be Jacob; even in the holiest place and the most zealous attempts to serve the Lord, I shall still be Jacob in myself. 'Not what I am, O Lord, but what Thou art' - it is in such language that faith expresses its appropriation of the Divine act of transformation which has set aside Jacob and brought in Israel.
The Negative Side
Of course, it was a painful experience for Jacob. There are two sides to this transformation, and so we find that the Lord's word was spoken to Jacob on two occasions. The first was after the terrible night by the brook Jabbok, when the Lord said to him, "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel" (Gen. 32:28). The experience at Jabbok was the side where, by the Cross, the strong, ungovernable old nature was smitten and crippled by the touch of the Lord. God broke Jacob at Jabbok, and so made way for the new man. That is the negative side, the side with which we all sympathise when we too are made to know the Lord's verdict upon our own natures. Like Jacob, though, we can be amazingly strong in our resistance to the Lord in this matter. Jacob wrestled all night, as indeed he had been wrestling for twenty years, but at last he was brought to the breaking point, where God blessed him and gave him the promise of transformation.
In the Cross the Lord Jesus has not merely dealt with our sins; He has also condemned to death what we are, for He knows that what we are in ourselves is the greatest menace to His interests in the House of God. Jacob's pillar, then, means that we accept the verdict of the Cross upon what we are by nature.
The Positive Side
But even more, it points us to the positive side of Calvary. For the second time the Lord spoke the same words to Jacob, assuring him that there was a new name to take the place of the old. When Jacob raised his pillar he was saying in effect, 'God has called me Israel, so I am Israel. I have not made myself Israel, and cannot do so; but the Lord has done so, and I stand upon His word.' It is thus that the spiritual meaning of Bethel is made possible. The negative side is only a half of the transaction, and must be accompanied by the positive reckoning of faith.
Perhaps it is here that we fail so often. We are afraid to raise the pillar, afraid to commit ourselves in faith. Jacob might have waited a while to see how it worked out; he might have demanded sufficient evidence in his own life that he really was Israel before he could accept the fact. In that case there would have been no pillar. He had to stand in faith for what God had called him. And what has God called us in Christ? He has called us holy, He has called us His children, He has called us members of His Son, He has called us His House. All this will be worked out in proportion as the Cross is allowed to work and then as we set up the pillar of faith, saying, 'Well, I do not feel like it, but God says it is true; I would like more evidence of it, but I begin, not by demanding proofs in myself, but by standing on the word of the Lord.'
What a need there is for this direct speaking of the Lord to our own hearts! Jacob did not hear theories and explanations; he heard the authoritative voice of God saying to him, 'No more Jacob, thy name is Israel,' and he believed God. The Lord did not urge him to try to be a better man, but rather convinced him that all his trying was vain. Jacob had striven hard to get the blessings of Abraham and Isaac which were given to him on this occasion, but he found that all his efforts only resulted in trouble, difficulty and disillusionment. When he gave up striving, when he accepted the Divine decree that there was to be no more Jacob, then all the blessings were freely given to him in grace. The Lord does not appeal to us to try to be less like Jacob and more like Israel; He commands us to believe that the old man is crucified, to give place to the new man in Christ. Our response - like Jacob's - must be a definite committal to the word of the Lord.
And then Jacob said, 'This is Bethel!' Precisely! This is the true Church, this is the House of God. It is the realm where man has no standing, it is the place where all that man is by nature, all that he can bring, all that he can plan, all that he can offer, is set aside - 'no more Jacob.' And it is the realm where a full place is given to the Lord, that everything may be of Him. What a transformation! It is made possible by the Holy Spirit, as represented by the wine and the oil with which Jacob anointed the pillar. Moreover the voice from heaven assured him, "I am El Shaddai." He had not heard that name since he left his father's house twenty years before. Since Jacob has taken this new ground of Israel he may now count on the complete sufficiency of the Lord. God assumes responsibility in a new way for this life. He had never left Jacob, but He had never been able to commit Himself wholly to him as El Shaddai. All that, however, is now changed, for the Lord has no reserves towards those who live on the new ground of Christ.