A Parting of Ways


Our struggle to be sanctified can leave us discouraged at times, but we should not lose heart, for the Lord will indeed make us holy.

“So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth” (Gen. 33:16–17).

- Genesis 33:12–17

Though Jacob shows sorrow for the way in which he has treated Esau (Gen. 25:29–34; 27) in his willingness to make amends for his thievery (33:1–11), it is soon clear that Esau does not inherit the favored status. True, Esau accepts the gifts his younger brother offers him (32:13–21; 33:11b), but his actions in this passage demonstrate his willful rejection of the Lord’s promises. Instead of residing in the land promised to his fathers, Esau is intent on going to Seir, a place in the land of Edom (v. 16). God has kept his favor on Jacob, as evident in his refusal to go away from Canaan with his brother (v. 17).

Jacob’s desire to return to the Promised Land indicates the Almighty’s grace remains upon him, but his deeds reveal this grace has not yet perfected him. First, he claims his clan is too large to make the journey in one day and pledges to follow Esau until he comes to his “lord in Seir” (v. 14). This phrase leaves the timing of Jacob’s visit up in the air. Jacob also refuses his older brother’s offer to leave some people with him for assistance (v. 15). Jacob could be turning away from Esau because he fears their relationship will change. Maybe his entourage really is too large to make the journey. Regardless of his motivation, the old Jacob is rearing his ugly head. At no point does he say something directly, such as “No, Esau. I must fulfill my vow to worship God in my country” (28:10–22). Again he plays fast and loose with the truth to accomplish his purposes.

Jacob depicts the “two steps forward, one step back” reality of our growth in holiness (sanctification). Unlike justification (God’s once-for-all declaration that we are righteous in His sight), sanctification is a process. We will not conform perfectly to our Father’s gracious verdict in this life; we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12–13), sometimes caving in to sin (Col. 3:5). Like Jacob, our former selves rise up as we pursue righteousness.

However, Jacob also shows the hope we have, by the Spirit, for personal holiness. Isaac’s younger son does get to his destination (Gen. 35:1–15), and so too will we one day arrive at ours — perfect holiness — when Jesus consummates all things (1 Cor. 15:42–49).

Coram Deo

Our struggle to be sanctified can leave us discouraged at times, but we should not lose heart, for the Lord will indeed make us holy (Rev. 19:6–8). As long as we are, by faith, making use of the means of grace, we will progress in righteousness. In addition to hearing the preached Word and receiving the sacraments, other means of grace such as prayer, Christian fellowship, service, and private worship will help us become conformed to the image of Christ.

Passages for Further Study

  • Ezek. 36:25–26 
  • Joel 2:19 
  • Phil. 1:6
  • James 1:2–4
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