The story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32 is difficult to get a handle on. The narrative is interrupted rather abruptly by Jacob wrestling with this man who just appears from nowhere. It’s the only time that this word for “wrestling” is used and the only place where someone has this kind of physical encounter with God. What does this mean – wrestling with God? John Calvin wrote,
it is not said that Satan, or any mortal man, wrestled with Jacob, but God himself: to teach us that our faith is tried by him; and whenever we are tempted, our business is truly with him, not only because we fight under his auspices, but because he, as an antagonist, descends into the arena to try our strength…For we do not fight against him, except by his own power, and with his own weapons; for he, having challenged us to this contest, at the same time furnishes us with means of resistance… yea, inasmuch as he supplies us with more strength to resist than he employs in opposing us, we may truly and properly say, that he fights against us with his left hand, and for us with his right hand.
This wrestling also parallels Israel’s forty-years wandering in the greater Exodus story. Jacob has fled from his servitude under Laban with his wives and children and servants and animals and is preparing to meet his brother Esau before he re-enters the promised land. The difference at this point is that Jacob’s wrestling is wrestling with God in faith, clinging to Him to receive His blessing. Israel’s wrestling with God is constant complaining, rebellion, and longing to return to Egypt.
This is a life changing experience, to be sure. Jacob goes through a sort of death and resurrection that is common throughout scripture when men see God, though most others fall down like dead men and then are raised up again. His name is changed, which is a putting off of the old man and a putting on of the new, though in Jacob’s unique case both names are used interchangeably throughout the rest of the narrative.
Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ in Acts 9 is no less life changing. It is so significant that Luke records Paul’s retelling of the event in full in chapter 22 and again in chapter 26. Paul also makes allusion to it in his epistles. John Calvin again:
this history is of great importance to confirm Paul’s doctrine. If Paul had always been one of Christ’s disciples, wicked and froward men might extenuate the weight of the testimony which he giveth of his Master. If he should have showed himself to be easy to be entreated, and gentle at the first, we should see nothing but that which is proper to man. But when as a deadly enemy to Christ, rebellious against the gospel, puffed up with the confidence which he reposed in his wisdom, inflamed with hatred of the true faith, blinded with hypocrisy, wholly set upon the overthrowing of the truth, [he] is suddenly changed into a new man, after an unwonted manner, and of a wolf is not only turned into a sheep, but doth also take to himself a shepherd’s nature, it is as if Christ should bring forth with his hand some angel sent from heaven. For we do not now see that Saul of Tarsus, but a new man framed by the Spirit of God; so that he speaketh by his mouth now, as it were from heaven.