Few things are as moving and touching as seeing a person surrender themselves to God for the very first time. To make a decision once and for all that they are going to put their faith in the living God Who loves them and making Him their Lord. In that moment of pure and genuine devotion, we behold the end of one way of life and the beginning of a new. That person is born again in a moment of time and they become a new creation who has never before lived.
Yet those of us who have at one time stood in their shoes know that this is not the end of God’s work in their life, only the beginning. We know that the journey is just starting out and that a lifetime of growth, sometimes very painful growth, awaits them. We are overjoyed by the heartfelt words of a new child of God: declaring and vowing what wondrous things they will do for their new found Savior. Such powerful zeal and emotion touches us deeply and inspires excitement in our own hearts toward the service of our Heavenly Father. But with this excitement comes the memories of what things we experienced between that moment of first commitment and the place where we now stand.
Few of us have any real understanding whatsoever of just how much our commitment to Jesus Christ will cost us. The expression Death To Self seems to be more of a pious axiom than an actual process which God will require us to undergo. Not that we would hesitate for an instant to agree to even the harshest terms of surrender to the Lord at the moment of our re-birth; so great is the power of God’s Spirit upon our hearts at that time. But it is the very rare Christian who can accurately see exactly what things stand between where he is and where God wants him in that blissful hour he first believes.
Jacob, or rather Israel, walked now as a broken man. Since that fateful night beside the Brook Jabbok, where he wrestled with the Lord until daybreak, he had learned to trust in God’s strength rather than his own. Without a doubt, he walked away from that place the next morning a changed man. But there remained some things in Jacob’s life and things which he tolerated in the lives of those in his household which kept him from the fellowship and walk with God that the Lord intended. They were things which were keeping him from being the person God had called him to be. So the Lord called to him again telling him to return to Bethel; to return to where he had first encountered God. Jacob and his family put aside those things that were standing between them and God and went to where the Lord was telling them to go.
God calls all of His children back to Bethel at one point or another. But we, like Jacob, must leave some things behind when we answer that call. When the Lord calls each of us into a closer fellowship with Him, when He calls us to walk nearer to Him, when He draws us into a deeper communion with Himself, we, too, must respond as Jacob did. Let’s take a closer look at what he did:
Going Back To The Beginning
“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” (Genesis 35:1)
It is significant that God is calling Jacob back to where he first encountered Him. Go back to the beginning, He is telling him. So often we feel that we must press ever forward; to go to new places and try new techniques, new programs in order to come closer to God. But God desires a purity of faith and a contrition of heart, a “childlike faith” like we had when we first met Him. Jacob vowed a vow that first morning in Bethel, so many years ago, after his dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:20-21). The Lord shall be my God, he promised, if He takes care of me. Well, God had certainly taken care of Jacob. The time had come for Jacob to make God his Lord indeed.
Putting Away The Strange Gods
“Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments:” (Genesis 35:2)
Jacob himself does not seem to have been indulging in the worship of idols, but he tolerated it in his household. We know that Rachel had brought her father Laban’s idols with her when they left Haran (Gen. 31:19) and, judging by what Jacob says here, it seems that he found out about it eventually. Why did he allow the idols to stay? The first step in coming closer to God is the laying aside of everything which competes with Him for our affection. We may not worship “images” like Jacob’s household did, but what things do we tolerate in our own lives which compete for the love and devotion which rightfully belongs to God alone? What strange gods do we bow our own knees to? Possessions, money, lust? We can never walk in the place where God wants us until we lay those “gods” aside.
The next step is being washed clean from the sins which ensnare us. Jacob tells his company after instructing them to rid themselves of their foreign idols to be clean. James tells us in the same context of submitting to God and drawing near to Him to: Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded (James 4:8). We simply cannot come closer to God without being cleansed from sin. We cannot walk nearer to Him and continue to walk in sin. We must be clean before we can enjoy fellowship with God.
Changing Our Garments
Be clean and change your garments, Jacob instructs his household. Our garments, our clothes, refer to our daily practices and our way of life. Our clothes identify who we are and what we do. There are some things we are doing that must change before we can come closer to God. Our habits, routines, and day-to-day activities must be conformed to what pleases Him. There are some things that we must stop doing and other things we must start doing if we are going to live a life truly pleasing to God. Not only must we ourselves be clean, but our clothes must be too.
Recognizing And Honoring God
“And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.” (Genesis 35:3)
Jacob is giving glory to God and making plans to build an altar honoring Him. We cannot walk near the Lord until we learn to recognize Him for Who He is and honor Him accordingly. Jacob did not complain about the 20 wasted years in Haran and how mean Uncle Laban was to him. He did not talk about his regrets over the misfortunes of his life, no, he praised the God Who was “with me in the way which I went.” To be able to recognize that we have never taken a step which God did not have His hand upon us is to give the Lord the glory that He deserves. We are not going to fellowship with Him if we are not praising Him.
Burying The Earrings
“And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.” (Genesis 35:4)
Earrings in the Bible symbolize idolatry, but they also symbolize slavery. Deuteronomy 15, speaking of master/slave relationships under the Law of Moses, gives a stipulation whereby a slave who loves their master may indenture themselves voluntarily to them forever (Deut. 15:16-17). A slave volunteering to remain with his master was to be marked in his ear and this earring would be a sign of whom he belonged to. When the members of Jacob’s household relinquished their earrings to him, they were declaring that they were no longer beholden to the false idols they had been serving. They were changing their allegiance from the “gods” they served to the living God. They would belong to God alone henceforth.
So must we do in order to walk in fellowship with the Lord. We cannot wear the earring of another “master” and walk in service to God. The household of Jacob did not just put their idols and earrings in their back pocket, nor did they pack them away in their luggage before the trip. They let go of them and they were buried away out of their sight. The break was clean and, for all intents and purposes, irreversible. The time had come where they must choose who they would serve and which god they would worship. Just as the children of Israel would be compelled to do hundreds of years later at the word of Elijah (1 Kings 18:21), the household of Jacob could not stride the fence any longer: they had to decide who would be their god.
God is calling all of those who belong to Him to walk with Him and fellowship with Him. But we must put away our own strange gods, be clean, change our garments, honor and recognize God for Who He is, and bury the earrings which marked us as slaves to another. When we do this, we can return to Bethel like Jacob did and meet God in that spiritual place where we first encountered Him.