Our 20th Anniversary
Lessons From Jacob’s Twenty Years Away From Home

It’s been just over twenty years since Pilgrim Covenant Church had its first worship service on the Sabbath of the 4th of July 1999 at 10:30 am in Skyline Building. The Lord has been pleased to preserve and sustain our congregation over these past two decades, for which we are very thankful and grateful.

How long is twenty years? Objectively, we could say that it is about 1040 weeks or 7300 days or 175,200 hours etc. Subjectively, some might say that twenty years seems like a very long time while others might say that it is but a short while. Much depends on how things went for him or her during that period. Biblically, we know that twenty years was half the time that the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness (Num 32:13). It was also the length of time that Samson served as Israel’s judge (Jdg 15:20, 16:31) and the time that Jacob spent away from his home in Canaan (Gen 31:38, 41).

For Jacob, those twenty years probably felt like a very long time. When he first left home because his brother, Esau, wanted to kill him, his mother, Rebekah, told him to flee to her brother’s home in Haran and to stay with him for a few days until Esau’s anger subsided (Gen 27:43-44). She then said to him in Genesis 27:45, “Until thy brother's anger turn away from thee, and he forget that which thou hast done to him: then I will send, and fetch thee from thence:”

Little did Jacob realise, those “few days” away at his uncle’s place became a few weeks, then months, then years, and eventually two whole decades passed before he finally returned. In the meantime, he did not receive any word from his mother instructing him to come home. Most likely, she passed away during this period and Jacob never saw his beloved mother again, at least not on this side of eternity.

As we commemorate our twentieth anniversary, let us learn three lessons from Jacob’s twenty years away from home.

First, we learn that no matter where we go and no matter what our circumstances may be on this earth, the LORD will be with us, and He will bring us safely to our heavenly home.

Jacob was a lonely fugitive because of his sin and he was forced to leave not only his beloved home but also the land of promise. This was, no doubt, a very low and dark point in his life. In Genesis 28:11, we read, “And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set…” The mention of the sun setting when he arrived at Bethel is not merely incidental. It is also a fitting description of his situation. The sun had set. Jacob was entering into a long and dark night of exile from the Promised Land.

From the perspective of the narrative, the sun would not rise again for him until he returned to the land twenty years later. In Genesis 32:30-31 and after a whole night of wrestling with God, we read, “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him…”

These two night encounters with God – the one at Bethel just before he left and the other at Peniel just before he returned – mark the two ends of his exile from Canaan. They bracket his time away. But all throughout those twenty dark and difficult years, the LORD was with Jacob and He never forsook him. And right at the beginning of that period, the LORD graciously appeared to him and assured him of His presence and protection, and promised to bring him back again. 

Perhaps some of us are feeling just like Jacob that night at Bethel. Perhaps you feel alone or abandoned by everyone, or perhaps you have become ensnared in a certain sin and you feel that God has forsaken you. And try as hard as you may, you cannot seem to find the way back. May this story of Jacob give us great hope and encouragement. What the LORD said to Jacob about His continual presence and protection and promise to bring him back to the Promised Land (Gen 28:15), He says to all of us.

And we know that it applies to all of us because we all share the same mediator between God and man, even Christ Jesus. In John 1:51, Jesus said to Nathanael, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” Christ is that ladder or link between heaven and earth. Because He is our Mediator, who ever lives to make intercession for us, we are assured of God’s presence and protection at all times.

Before His ascension, the Lord Jesus said, “and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Mt 28:20) And we are assured that we will someday arrive safely in our heavenly home for He said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (Jn 14:2-3).

However dark and difficult our circumstances may be, remember that we are never on our own in this evil world. Jesus, who is Immanuel or God with us, is indeed with us every step of the way on our pilgrim journey. No matter where we go and no matter what our circumstances on this earth may be, the Lord will be with us and He will bring us safely to our heavenly home. May we, like Jacob, respond to the precious promises of God with awe and reverence, worship and commitment (Gen 28:16-22).

Second, we learn that the promises of the Lord never fail. The Lord promised to be with Jacob and to bring him back to the land of Canaan. Throughout those twenty years, He was indeed with Jacob, even though at times, it seemed as if He had forgotten him. In many wonderful and unexpected ways, the Lord led and preserved Jacob.

When Jacob first left Canaan, he did so with only a staff in his hand, but twenty years later, he returned with a great multitude of livestock, male and female servants, and very importantly, offspring. The LORD was beginning to make his seed as the dust of the earth that would someday spread out into all the world and become a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Ultimately, God’s covenant promises to Jacob are fully realized in the Lord Jesus Christ. Unlike Jacob, who left Canaan empty handed and came back with great wealth, Jesus left all the wealth and glories of heaven and came into this world to live as a very poor man. And throughout His life, He suffered many trials and temptations, and He met and interacted with men who were even more deceitful and wicked than Laban and who eventually had Him crucified. The Lord Jesus did all that so that we who are sinners might be saved and reconciled with God.    

Praise God for His faithfulness in keeping His promises to His people, and especially for giving us His only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life and someday return safely to our eternal home.

Third and finally, we learn from Jacob’s time away the lesson of resting on God alone for our salvation.

In Matthew 19, the Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:23-26)

Why is it so exceedingly hard for rich people to enter into the kingdom of God? Is it not because they tend to be self-absorbed, self-sufficient and self-dependent? They have no need for God and His grace. They think they can make it on their own. Not all rich people are like that, of course, but the Lord is really warning all of us against the dangers of becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant.

In many ways, Jacob was like that as he returned from Haran after twenty years. He was a self-sufficient and self-made man for much of his life up till that point. He had acquired immense riches in a relatively short time, and he was hoping to buy off Esau’s anger with a gift that was fit for a king!

But Jacob was not ready to enter the Promised Land. And so on the brink of Canaan, the Lord met him and literally broke him in that night encounter. Jacob needed to be broken, not only physically, but especially, spiritually, before he was allowed back into the land. The Lord transformed Jacob – that self-made, self-sufficient, self-reliant man, into Israel – one who relied upon God for everything.

The Promised Land cannot be earned or merited by one’s wealth or efforts or resources or wisdom. It must be received as a gift of God’s grace. The Bible teaches us in many places that salvation and entrance into God’s kingdom is by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is no place in God’s kingdom for those who are self-sufficient and self-dependent.

Jesus said in Luke 18:17, “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” And how does a little child receive anything? Is it not in utter dependence and reliance on his parents or caregivers? That’s the picture or model that the Lord gives us for entrance into the kingdom of God. Not pride and arrogance and reliance on self but humble dependence and trust in the person and work of Christ. Unless a person receives the kingdom in that way, he will never enter in.

The Israelites in the wilderness during those forty years needed to hear that. The story of Jacob’s wrestling with God at Peniel and his transformation into Israel prior to entering the Promised Land served to remind them that only those who trusted and relied on God rather than on themselves would be able to enter the land. Likewise, we today, who are travelling on the road to the Heavenly Canaan, need that reminder.

Truly, salvation is all of God’s grace, for even the strength to seek salvation and to strive for His blessing comes from Him. Praise God for His marvellous grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

May the Lord enable us to learn these lessons well as we press on in our journey together as pilgrims!

Blessed 20th Anniversary!

—Linus Chua