DeWayne Nichols is the pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas.
“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. 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: 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. 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. And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother. But Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth. And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padanaram, and blessed him. And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Bethel.” (Genesis 35:1-15)
For each of us that have travelled the road of sorrow, misfortune, and sin,
There is a wonderful place of courage and hope called the Land of Beginning Again.
There our mistakes, like lessons well-learned, may help us to set a new pace.
The 1,001 little thoughts that we have will depart in this wonderful place.
There hope like a cloak that wraps us around, making stronger our purpose to win
And love, truth and faith are easily found in this Land of Beginning Again.
Our own selfish thoughts we leave far behind and give to each person his due.
Our promise we keep and we do not forget the things we intended to do.
No grudge in our heart, no malice, no strife, no words that are ever unkind,
But a smile and a laugh and a loving hand-clasp, in the land of beginning, we find.
The heartaches and griefs that discourage us so, when we try our poor lives to amend,
Will all pass away like a cloud from the sky in this Land of Beginning Again.
I believe that one of the great keys to the Christian life is understanding that we have a need for, and that God in His mercy and His grace and His goodness has provided for, a place of beginning again, if you want to call it that, a place of starting over, a place of a fresh start, a place of rededication, a place of revival if you please. Bethel was that place for this man, Jacob.
In the Christian life, at least I’ve noticed this is true in my Christian life, there is always a need to return to Bethel. I’m talking about that place of commitment, that place of dedication, that place of personal experience in meeting with God, that place where God and His presence was real to us, that place of first love for the Lord Jesus Christ. In Proverbs 24:16 the Bible reminds us, “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again:...” I’ve often thought about how different that is than if I had been the one who had written it. If I wrote it, I probably would have said something like, ‘The just man doesn’t fall.’ Yet when God had it written down in His Bible, that’s not what He said. God said, “For a just man falleth...” Not only does the just man fall, but He said the just man falleth seven times, maybe once for each day of the week. Then He said though a just man falleth seven times, he riseth up again. The just man may get away from his Bethel, but eventually he always returns. We read the account in Genesis 35 of God calling Jacob to come back to Bethel and of Jacob’s obedience in returning to this sacred and holy place. In order to clearly understand what was involved in Jacob returning to Bethel, we need to see what it was about this place, Bethel, that made it such an important, significant spot in Jacob’s life in the first place.
Let’s look at the Scripture, Genesis 27, verses 41-46. “And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob. And these words of Esau her elder son were told to Rebekah: and she sent and called Jacob her younger son, and said unto him, Behold, thy brother Esau, as touching thee, doth comfort himself, purposing to kill thee. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; arise, flee thou to Laban my brother to Haran; And tarry with him a few days, until thy brother’s fury turn away; 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: why should I be deprived also of you both in one day? And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?”
You know the story, how Jacob had tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the fatherly patriarchal blessing that had been intended by Isaac to go to Jacob’s brother, Esau. Now we know that God’s plan was for the blessing to go to Jacob, and the sad thing about this episode is that, in reality, Jacob didn’t have to resort to dishonesty or trickery. God had already planned that he would be the one to receive the blessing, and God would have seen to it in His providence that Jacob got the blessing anyway. He didn’t have to resort to trickery and deception, but he did. Jacob’s deception enraged his brother, Esau, and Esau determined to kill Jacob, and therefore their mother, Rebekah, in order to protect Jacob from Esau went to her husband, Isaac, and began to complain to Isaac about the wives that Esau had chosen. She talked Isaac into sending Jacob away to find a wife among her people over in the land of Padanaram.
So then Isaac, in response to Rebekah’s wishes, sends Jacob away as we see in the first five verses of chapter 28. “And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother. And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham. And Isaac sent away Jacob: and he went to Padanaram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.” Here is Jacob leaving home as a very troubled man with the death threats of his brother, Esau, hanging over his head.
On down in chapter 28:10-22 the Bible says, “And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” Here we see Jacob at this place that he names Bethel, and it’s to this place that God directs Jacob to return in Genesis 35, some 25 to 30 years later.
I want us to think about going back to Bethel, and point out two things primarily. First, I want us to have some reflections on Bethel. Then I want us to consider returning to Bethel.
Let’s call our attention to some reflections on Bethel and notice some things about Bethel that made it such a special and significant and important place in Jacob’s life and experience, some things that made Bethel the place to which Jacob needed to return in order to renew his closeness and his fellowship with God.
1. In the first place, in the experience of Jacob, Bethel was a place of crisis. We see that over in Genesis 35, verse one. “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.” Down in verse three he declares it to be the place where God, “...who answered me in the day of my distress,...” I’m saying that Bethel in the life and experience of Jacob was a place of crisis. He was facing a crisis time in his life, when he first came to this place. He was fearful and troubled, and looking back into the past, he saw trickery and deception and scheming and plotting. As he looked into the future, he saw uncertainty. I’m saying that it was a place of crisis for Jacob.
It’s interesting to notice in the experience of God’s people how many times it’s been at some crisis point that decisions were made, which looking back on it later, it becomes obvious that this point of crisis was the defining moment in that person’s life. Things that take place in their lives thereafter can always be traced back to that crisis and decisions that were made at then. The place that Dwight Moody came to in New York City was a place of crisis.
For many of God’s people, that defining moment of their lives was the time of their salvation when they trusted Christ and got saved. For others, it may have been sometime after they got saved, maybe the point of consecration and total surrender. For yet others it may have been when they surrendered to some specific area of service. Maybe full time service, when they surrendered to preach, or surrendered to be a missionary, or something like that. It may have been some specific ministry that God touched their heart about, maybe to become a bus worker, a Sunday school teacher, or something of that nature. I’m talking about a crisis time, a defining moment, and decisions that are made at that point which determine much of the future in a person’s life as far as their relationship and usefulness to the Lord God of Heaven.
For Abraham, it was when the Lord called him out of Ur of the Chaldees and instructed him to go to a land that God would show him.
For Moses, it was an experience where God met him at a burning bush, that would not be consumed.
For Ruth, it was when she had to decide whether she would return to her pagan gods, or accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, into the land of God.
For Saul of Tarsus, it was on the Damascus Road, when Jesus appeared to him and he got saved and submitted himself to the Lordship of Christ by asking, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” I’m talking about a crisis time, a determining time, a defining moment in the life of the child of God.
I went to Dr. Vineyard’s school out in Oklahoma and this story stuck with me over the years. I remember Brother Vineyard telling that before he was saved he had been making a good amount of money in the business field, but then God saved his soul and God called him to preach. He entered the Indiana Baptist College under the great patriarch, Dr. Ford Porter. He talked about how he and his wife began to have financial trouble, and at one point during his college days, he decided that he’d get out of this training to preach and go back into business. I’ll be honest with you. I can’t hardly imagine Brother Vineyard thinking about quitting anything, but that is the story he told. He actually thought about leaving the college training behind and going back into business, but then he told about how he drove out to the grave where he and his wife had buried their young son, who had gone to Heaven when he was three or four years old. There at the grave of his young son, he decided in his heart and made the determination that he was not going to quit, but that he was going to go on in spite of the trouble that he was facing.
My friend, that crisis moment was the defining point or at least one of the defining points in his life and ministry that brought him through to what God allowed to happen for the cause of Christ and the glory of God during many years of ministry. This place, Bethel, in Jacob’s experience was a place of crisis.
#2. Not only was it a place of crisis for Jacob, but it was a place of revelation concerning the way to Heaven. Back in chapter 28:12 the Bible says, “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Now notice that the chasm that separates earth from Heaven, the chasm that separates man from God, is bridged by a ladder. Because of this ladder, there is a connection between Heaven and earth. There is interaction between Heaven and earth as seen by the angels of God ascending and descending on this ladder. What is this ladder that connects Heaven and earth, and on which God’s angels ascend and descend? In John 1:51 as the Lord Jesus Christ was talking to Nathanael, “And he saith unto him, 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.” So you see Jesus declares Himself, the Son of man, to be the connection, to be the ladder which connects Heaven and earth and upon Whom the angels of God ascend and descend. Yes, my friend, Jesus is the ladder to Heaven, the only WAY.
Some people try to climb to Heaven on the ladder of good works, but that ladder is too short. It doesn’t reach to connect earth with Heaven. Some try to climb to Heaven on the ladder of baptism, and some on the ladder of church membership, and some on the ladder of morality -- not many of those anymore. Some attempt to get to Heaven on the ladder of performing religious ceremonies, but the only ladder to Heaven, the only entity that bridges the chasm between God and man and connects Heaven to earth is the Son of man, Jesus Christ. It was at Bethel that Jacob saw clearly that, while there is a chasm that separates God from man, thanks be unto God there is also a ladder that bridges that chasm. One can ascend that ladder right into Heaven. This was made plain to him there at Bethel, that man can ascend to where God is by means of this ladder, the Lord Jesus Christ. So Bethel then, in our life and experience, is that place of full realization, that place of full recognition, that our relationship with God and ultimately our going to Heaven is because of Jesus, Who is the ladder to Heaven.
#3. Not only was this place, Bethel, a place of crisis for Jacob; not only was it a place of revelation concerning the way to Heaven, but it’s the place where Jacob had his first personal experience of meeting with God. You see it there in Genesis 28:16. “And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” Oh, my friend, Jacob had heard his father, Isaac, bless him in the name of the Lord, but here at Bethel, he met God himself. Here at Bethel, he learned that the God about whom he had heard his father speak was real and God wasn’t just someone that people talked about, but He was a real living person, Who would manifest His presence to His people.
Do you remember, child of God, that point in your Christian life when Jesus became real to you? Maybe it was in your prayer closet. Maybe it was as your read and studied His Book. Maybe it was at some preaching service. Maybe it was somewhere while you were witnessing or preaching the Gospel and God came in power. Maybe it was after you had given your tithes and offerings and then you faced a need and saw God meet that need. I’m talking about that point where the Lord Jesus Christ became, not just a far off figure that you talked about and heard somebody preach about, not even just the Saviour who gave you everlasting life, but He became your Friend and you basked in His presence and He became real to you. That’s what Bethel was in the life of Jacob.
#4. In Jacob’s life, Bethel was the place of God’s assurance and promise. There in chapter 28:13-15, after telling us about the dream of the ladder in verse 12, verses 13-15 says, “And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.” Here God passes the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant down to Jacob and gives Jacob the assurance that everything is going to be all right. What a blessing this must have been for Jacob in this time of turmoil and trouble in his life. Do you remember, child of God, that point in your life when God met with you? It may have been a time of difficulty and a time of problems and trouble and turmoil, but God gave you assurance down in the depths of your soul that everything is going to be all right. That’s what Bethel was to Jacob.
#5. In the life and experience of Jacob, Bethel was the place of God’s house. There in chapter 28:17-19 the Scripture says, “And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.” Bethel, the place of God’s house. That’s what the word, Bethel, by definition means. Beth-house, el-God, the house of God. So Bethel was the house of God for Jacob. Later when God forged Israel into a nation, the house of God for them was first the tabernacle and later the temple. In this New Testament age, this age of the Holy Spirit, I Timothy 3:15 tells us that the house of God for you and me today is the local New Testament church. My dear friend, if you want God’s presence, you find His presence right here in the house of God. It’s amazing to me how many saved people in this day and age don’t understand something that I understood even before I got saved, that one cannot have a right relationship with God without also having a right relationship with God’s house.
I heard somebody recently point out that this generation is unique in this way. Every generation prior to our generation; we talk about Moody and remember the great meetings of J. Frank Norris and all of these great meetings of the past. Back in those days, it was understood that when a person got saved, they might have called it getting religion or something else, but it was understood that when a person got saved and got right with God, it meant that they would identify themselves with some local church and begin to have a part in that church through their attendance and giving and service. If your town is anything like San Antonio, I promise you that you can go out and talk to 50 people and you’ll find that at least half of them claim to be saved and yet they have no identification at all with any church, and in some cases are downright hostile toward the church. This shows, not only the deterioration in Christianity, but it also demonstrates the lack of understanding on the part of God’s people that God’s presence and God’s house go hand in hand. Jesus walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, in the midst of the churches. That’s where you find the presence of God. This place, Bethel, in Jacob’s life and experience was the place of God’s house.
#6. It was the place of decision and commitment concerning the things of God. There in Genesis 28:20-22 the Scripture tells us, “And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” You see, here at Bethel, Jacob makes a three-fold commitment in light of God’s promise to be with him and bless him. He makes the commitment, number one, that the Lord God will be his God. He makes the commitment, number two, that this place, Bethel, would be the special house of God for him. He makes commitment, number three, that he would tithe on everything that God put into his hand. A person who claims that they’ve had some great experience of meeting with God, but it didn’t affect their giving, they have no understanding of the presence of the God of Heaven. All of these things entered into the significance and importance of Bethel in the life of Jacob. It was this special place of truly meeting with God and making commitments and being dedicated to the Lord God of Heaven.
Now I want to say just a few words about returning to Bethel. As we go over to Genesis 35, two to three decades have elapsed since Jacob had that sweet experience of God’s presence and God’s blessing at Bethel. These things needed to be renewed in Jacob’s life. So God gives the call to Jacob in Genesis 35, “Come back to Bethel.” Again and again, I’ve heard in my Christian life the voice of God calling out in my heart to come back to Bethel. Maybe there are some who need to come to Bethel for the first time, but I’m talking especially today to those who have known those times of God’s presence and God’s blessing, those times of sweet fellowship with God. Maybe they’ve slipped away a little bit and I’m saying to you that I hear the voice of God calling out to us today to come back to the place of blessing and come back to the place of fellowship and come back to the place of His presence. Come back to Bethel. Let me point out a few things about returning to Bethel.
#1. In Jacob’s life, returning to Bethel meant sanctification. You see that in chapter 35:2-4. “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: 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. 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.” To get back to Bethel entailed putting away some sinful things and items, maybe some sinful habits in the life of Jacob. How easy it is, child of God, to let that sweet sense of God’s presence and blessing escape us by allowing sin to enter into our lives. To return to Bethel required sanctification.
#2. Once Jacob made the move to return to Bethel, God helped him on the journey. You see it in verse 5 where it says, “And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.” This simply means that God protected Jacob from people who may have desired to do him harm because of the violence of his sons, that took place back in chapter 34. It is interesting that when Jacob got up and put away the idols and began to return to Bethel, then God showed up and helped him on the journey.
#3. Once Jacob returned to Bethel, the fellowship with God was restored and may have been even sweeter than it was before. You see it in verses 6 and 7. “So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.” Now it is not Bethel; now it is Elbethel. Beth-house, El-God, the house of God. Elbethel would be the God of the house of God. Now it’s not just a place, but the place has taken a back seat to the person. Now it’s not just the house of God, but it’s the God of the house. The fellowship was restored and may have become even sweeter.
#4. At Bethel, God met with Jacob and reassured him again of His blessings. Down in verses 9-13 the Scripture says, “And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padanaram, and blessed him. And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him.” My friend, maybe you’ve been a little bit away from God today, but I want you to understand that when you come back to God, the blessing of God will fall again. He reassures Jacob here in essentially the same terms of what He had told him in chapter 28, when he was at Bethel two or three decades before that.
#5. This is really the tragedy in the entire story. It took Jacob years to return to Bethel. Back in chapter 31, when Jacob was still over in the land of Paran working for his father-in-law, Laban, he is explaining to Leah and Rachel why the time has come that he needs to leave Laban’s land and go back to the land from which he had come. He tells them how the Lord had spoken to him. In chapter 31:13 Jacob quotes God as saying this: “I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred.” Read the next few chapters and what you’ll see is that Jacob did return to the land, but it was still several years after that before he actually went to Bethel. He settled at a place called Shechem. There he abode for several years and God again had to call him to go back to Bethel.
Child of God, it should not be the case with us, that it requires years and years of waiting before we return to Bethel, before we come back to that place of sweet blessing and fellowship with God. We ought to come now. It ought to be the dear desire of our hearts to enjoy that sweet fellowship and closeness with our God.
B.B. McKinney, the great song writer, wrote it in these words,
“Back to the Bible, the true Living Word,
Sweetest old story that ever was heard,
Back to the joy-life my soul longs to know,
Bethel is calling, and I must go.
Back to the beautiful path I once trod,
Back to the church and the people of God,
Out of the cold world of sin and its woe,
Bethel is calling, and I must go.
Back to the giving of money and time,
Back to the life of contentment sublime,
Back to protection the world cannot know,
Bethel is calling, and I must go.
Back to the prayer life in Christ I once knew,
Back to the beautiful life cleansing dew,
Back to help others to conquer each foe,
Bethel is calling, and I must go.
Back to Bethel I must go,
Back where the rivers of sweet water flow,
Back to the true life my soul longs to know,
Bethel is calling, and I must go.”
May it be said of us that, like Jacob, we come back to Bethel.