The Bible’s Wrestling Matches — Victor M. Eskew

This writer grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in the 60s and 70s.  One of the favorite sports in the city was wrestling.  Wrestling came on television every Saturday.  Every Monday night, wrestling matches were held at the Coliseum.  Some of the popular wrestlers were Tojo Yammamoto, Jerry Lawler, Jackie Fargo, Hulk Hogan, Spunik Monroe, Bill Goldberg, and Randy Savage.  The two main announcers in our area were Lance Russell and Dave Brown.  Wrestling continues to be very popular today.  There are matches on TV several times a week.  Wrestling still fills arenas with screaming fans.

Did you know that wrestling is mentioned four times in the Bible?  One was a literal wrestling match (Gen. 32:24).  Another wrestling match involved a relationship between two women (Gen. 30:8).  The other two places that mention wrestling involve spiritual battles:  against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12) and against those who oppose the truth (Jude 3).

This first wrestling match involved a patriarch named Jacob and an angel.  It is recorded in Genesis 32:22-30.  Jacob was returning to his home in Canaan after having been away many years.  As he traveled, he came to the ford Jabbok.  That afternoon, he sent his family across the ford, but he remained by himself.  “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of day” (Gen. 32:24).  It was a long bout.  Many things happened during that night match.  When the angel did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh “and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint” (Gen. 32:25).  Jacob would not let the messenger go until he received a blessing from him (Gen. 32:26).  Jacob’s name was changed from Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:27-28).  Jacob had power with God and with men and prevailed that evening (Gen. 32:28).  Jacob received a blessing (Gen. 32:29).  Jacob named the place Peniel (Gen.  32:30).  He chose that name because he had “seen God face to face,” and his life was preserved (Gen. 32:30).

In this wrestling match, we find a spiritual application to our prayer lives.  First, prayer can be likened unto a wrestling match.  We latch on to God and hold Him tightly as we pray.  We desire a blessing from Him and will not let Him go until He blesses us.  Second, prayer can take a toll on us.  We can spend long hours in prayer.  We wait for a response.  Before the response comes, we start to question and doubt.  We question God’s love for us.  We question our motives.  We question our faith.  It can also take a toll upon us because we do not always get the things for which we pray.  Third, when we pray we are changed into a different person.  Fourth, when we pray we are blessed.  Lastly, when we rise from prayer we, like Jacob, know that we have been in the very presence of God.

The second wrestling match was a struggle between two women who were married to the same man.  The women are Leah and Rachel.  Their husband was Jacob.  Jacob originally desired Rachel to be his wife.  He labored seven years to obtain her.  However, the custom of the day demanded that the elder daughter be married first.  Thus, he first received Leah as a wife.  When he agreed to work another seven years, he was given Rachel also.

The battle between these two sisters started when children were brought into the family.  Leah was able to conceive, but Rachel was not able at first.  Leah bore Jacob four sons initially:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.  “And when Rachel saw she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister…” (Gen. 30:1).  Rachel devised a plan whereby she could have children through her handmaid Bilhah.  “And she gave Bilhah her handmaid to wife:  and Jacob went in unto her” (Gen. 30:4).  Two sons were born to Bilhad, Dan and Naphtali.  It was Rachel who chose Naphtali’s name.  “And Rachel said, With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed:  and she called his name Naphtali” (Gen. 30:8).  The battle between these two sisters did not stop at that point.  They continued their struggle until eleven sons and one daughter were brought into the family.  Another son would be born later named Benjamin.  The years during which these children were being born were very tumultuous.  The struggles must have been difficult for all involved.  Remember, Rachel described the difficulties as “great wrestlings.”

Most of us have had to face struggles in our relationships while we on earth.  There are all kinds of struggles that we must face.  Husband and wives struggle.  Parents and children wrestle with one another.  We wrestle with our friends.  We have bouts with our co-workers.  Wrestling matches can even happen in the church.  The members can be at odds with church leadership.  Members have their battles one with another.  Sometimes members of the church will find themselves fighting against a false teacher.  From time to time, we may have to do battle with those in the community.  Relationship struggles are some of the most difficult.  They often involve those closest to us and those whom we love deeply.  We work our way through those battles.  Sometimes we come out wounded on the other side of the conflict.  Sometimes, however, our relationships are strengthened.

Let’s now examine two more wrestling matches mentioned in the biblical text.  These are spiritual matches.  Let’s begin by looking at Ephesians 6:11-19.  The apostle Paul writes about the Christian armor.  His wise counsel is to put it on!  In the course of this discussion, he tells us why this armor is so important.  “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness is high places” (v. 12).  Paul let us know clearly that the warfare in which the Christian is engaged is spiritual in nature.  We do not wrestle against flesh and blood.  We wrestle adversaries who are in the unseen realm.  The names by which he refers to them express their exalted status and power:  principalities, powers, rulers, and spiritual wickedness in high places.  These enemies will try to destroy our happiness in this life, but their special mission involves the destruction of our souls.  They tempt us to sin.  They lead us in false ways.  They try to get us to doubt God and blame him.  They desperately desire for us to become the servants of Satan.

All Christians must constantly be aware of these combatants.  They are skilled in their craft.  They understand our weaknesses.  Sadly, many Christians are adversely impacted by them every day.  Gossip runs wild in churches.  Members are not steadfast in their faithfulness.  Children of God are tempted and yield to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  These evil beings reach into our financial lives.  They tempt God’s people to cheat on their taxes, commit extortion, and to refuse to pay their bills.  They bring hardships into our lives that cause many to doubt and to blame God.  They try to lead us away from God by tempting us to believe that worldly and mundane things are more important than spiritual things.

Paul’s counsel is simple:  “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.  Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil…Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand, and having done all to stand.  Stand therefore…” (Eph. 6:10-11, 13-14).  He tells us that this armor is composed of six things:  loins girt about with truth, a breastplate or righteousness, our feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:13-17).  In addition to our armor, he also reminds us to pray.  “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance of supplication for all saints” (Eph. 6:19).  Being diligent to have these on at all times will ensure our protection against our Satanic foes.  We will be strong.  We will be able to stand.

Our second spiritual wrestling match is highlighted by Jude.  In verse three of his one-chapter book, he writes:  “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”  In our English translation, we do not read the word “wrestle” in the text.  The translators have used the word “contend.”  The Greek word involves an intensive contest.  One of the contests of the Greek games was wrestling.  These were severe struggles between two powerful men who were trying to pen one another to the mat.  Jude uses that word and exhorts his readers to contend earnestly for the faith.

The faith is the system of faith or body of truth revealed by the inspired penman.  It involves the totality of New Testament teaching.  The reason we are exhorted to contend for the faith is because of false teachers who seek to lead the church astray.  “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).  Peter had warned about this same group of false teachers in 2 Peter 2.  He said they proclaim “damnable heresies” (v. 1) and “feigned words” (v. 3).  Listen to what else he has to say:  “And many shall follow their pernicious ways…” (v. 2).  Just one following these ungodly men is too much, but Peter reveals that “many” will follow them.  For this reason, the faithful must be willing to wrestle with them.  We must know the truth well enough to be able to lock arm in arm with these individuals and prevail over their fanciful, man-made imaginations.  All those who proclaim messages that oppose the knowledge of God must be conquered.

Jude reveals five things that we can do to prepare ourselves for this wrestling match in Jude 20-23.  First, we must build up our most holy faith.  We do this through a diligent study of God’s word (Rom. 10:17; 2 Tim. 2:15).  Second, we must pray fervently according to the dictates revealed by the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:17; James 5:16).  Third, we must keep ourselves in the love of God.  We do this through our obedience (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3).  Fourth, keep our hope in mind.  Jude put it in these words: “…looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”  This is what our life here is all about.  Fifth, we must rescue others.  Some will fall victim to the false teachers.  Some will be easy to rescue.  Others will require more effort.  Either way, we want to pull “them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.”  If we will do our part, God will do His to keep us safe (Jude 24-25).

Wrestling matches we see on TV and in the stadiums are fun to watch.  Too, we cheer for our favorite wrestlers, but the winner is of no real significance.  This is not the case with the wrestling matches we have studied.  They are not fun.  They are difficult and extremely serious.  Too, we MUST win.  Winning these wrestling matches brings the following: answered prayers, strengthened relationships, overcoming sin, and convicting the gainsayers.  Our ultimate victory will be in the hereafter.  Eternal life in heavenly realms will be ours to enjoy.

Victor is a graduate of the Memphis School of Preaching, University of Memphis, and Ambridge University.  He is married to Kathleen, and they have three children and six grandchildren.  He preaches for the Oceanside congregation in Atlantic Beach, FL.

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