Having been born and raised in Canaan, Jacob was forced to leave the only home he’d ever known[1] to take the same journey of over 500 miles[2]—the one requiring around three weeks that Abraham’s head servant had formerly taken[3]—in order return to the birthplace of his mother Rebekah and his grandfather Abraham. As we saw last week, the reason he had to make this journey was two-fold: First, because his brother Esau planned to kill him once their father died; second, in order to find a wife from his mother and grandfather’s ancestry rather than marrying a woman from the land of Canaan where he lived. Having seen Isaac send Jacob away on his journey last week, our morning’s passage focuses on an important event that took place along this journey.

Beginning with verse 10 we’re told, “10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.” Before going on, it’s perhaps worth noting that up until now the LORD had yet to appear to Jacob personally though he had personally appeared to his mother Rebekah[4] and his father, Isaac[5] who had blessed him twice.[6] In fact, when Jacob had disguised himself as Esau and brought Isaac the food his mother had prepared in order to receive his blessing, you’ll recall that when asked how he had found it so quickly, Jacob answered his father, “The Lord your God gave me success.”[7] But Jacob’s view of God was now about to begin to change as he obeyed his father and journeyed back to his mother’s homeland.

As in the past the LORD had at times appeared to his grandfather Abraham in a dream or vision,[8] so now he would appear to Jacob. For as stated in verse 12, it was as Jacob stopped to sleep, placing a stone under his head, that “he had a dream.” First we’re told what he saw in this dream: “a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” This stairway—or “ladder” is another possible translation—is a reminder that God’s angels are ever doing whatever he commands as they ascend to heaven and descend back to earth ever ready to do his bidding. For angels are God’s messengers who love him and are eager to serve and please the God who made them and everything else that exists. They are his servants not only in heaven but also on earth.

In verse 13 we’re further told, “There above [the stairway] stood the Lord”—and, again, another possible translation is “There beside him.” Whether the LORD stood above the stairway or next to Jacob, this part of the vision points to his presence and involvement with the work he is doing in the world he has made.

Next Jacob’s vision moves from a visual description to an aural one as he heard the LORD speak, saying, beginning in the latter part of verse 13,

I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

If you’re having a sense of déjà vu, it’s because numerous components of what the LORD told Jacob, were what he had earlier told Abraham and Isaac. And as the LORD had disclosed himself to Isaac as “the God of your father Abraham,”[9] so now he disclosed himself to Jacob as “the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac”—he is one and the same God. As we’ve previously noted,[10] we see a progression occurring in the way that God disclosed himself for he began by revealing himself in general ways[11] to increasingly tying his self-revelation to the people he was creating for himself: first Abraham;[12] then Isaac; and now Jacob. In a polytheistic society, it was important for God to be clear as to just who, exactly, he was. And one day, of course, this progression would come to fulfillment in his disclosing himself in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Next, God restated the promises he had made to both Abraham and Isaac as he affirmed that the messianic baton had now been passed to Jacob, stating (still in verse 13), “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.” What is more, in verse 14 the promise formerly made to Abraham[13] is now made to Jacob, that is, that his descendants would be “like the dust of the earth” that is “spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.” [14] What is more, God had promised both Abraham[15] and Isaac[16] that “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” Last, but certainly not least, in this vision God further promised Jacob, verse 15, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”—again, a promise God had also made to his father, Isaac.[17]

Now it’s when Jacob awoke from this vision that he began to acknowledge that the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac was indeed the LORD. As recorded in verses 16–17, Jacob thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” And out of his sense of fear and wonder he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Consequently, Jacob sought to commemorate God’s first appearance to him. As stated in verses 18–19, “18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.” Now whereas both Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s grandfather and father, had built altars after the LORD appeared to them,[18] at this point Jacob had yet to view God as his God. Therefore rather than build an altar, he instead poured oil upon a pillar.[19] Now Bethel means “house of God.” Naming a place on earth God’s house is an important reminder that though God transcends his creation he is also present within and throughout it. As the psalmist reminds us, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”[20] There is no place on heaven or earth that we can go to escape God for he is present everywhere—and, therefore, he is near to us at all times!

What occurs next is that Jacob began to identify with the LORD who had disclosed himself not only to his grandfather Abraham—and to his grandmother Sarah[21]—and to his mother Rebekah[22]—and to his father Isaac, but now also to him. Soon Jacob would come to view this very LORD not simply as the God of his ancestry, but as his God. Notice the vow he made beginning in verse 20, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” 22 Again, Jacob stated that if God did as he had promised him—to be with him, watch over him wherever he went, bring him back to this land, and not leave him until he had done all he has promised, verse 15—then Jacob would follow him. Only then would the God of his father become his God. And as a symbol of his agreement, Jacob took the stone that had served as his pillow and made it his pillar (verses 18, 22), promising that it would become the pillar of God’s house. What is more, he vowed to return a tithe, a tenth of all that the LORD would give him should all of these things come to pass.

In this passage Jacob began to experience for himself God’s loving and caring nature firsthand. Though up until now we’ve seen him living by his wits—not to mention his manipulation and deceit—as he finagled the birthright, inheritance, and blessing from his older twin, Esau, now God began to disclose his grace to Jacob personally. I say this is God’s grace to him, for surely Jacob wasn’t worthy of receiving God’s promises, any more than his grandfather Abraham or his father Isaac were—or any more than we are. In the story of Jacob we see humanity’s dilemma and God’s solution to that dilemma played out. Sadly, God is reduced to working with frail, fractured, faulty, and fallen human beings. But happily—and surely this is the Good News that Scripture continues to shout out from the mountaintops time and time again—human fallenness is no deterrent to God’s graciousness. For what is happening with Jacob here is what had to happen with Abraham when God called him out of a household that worshipped false idols[23] to worship him, the one true God, instead. And it’s what he also did when he personally appeared to Isaac and reaffirmed the blessings he would give him.[24] For it is only by God calling and appearing to his frail, fractured, faulty, and fallen human beings that those human beings are able to receive the surety and hope of glory that can be found in and through him and him alone.[25] In our day, it is only by God’s hand upon our lives and the quickening of his Holy Spirit[26] that we can go from seeing Jesus, his Son, as “your” God to embracing him as Jesus the Christ, “my” God.

We’re provided another example of this transition, of this conversion from “your” God to “my” God in the life of Nathanael, one of Jesus’ disciples, related in our New Testament passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Earlier in this opening chapter, John has gone out of his way to establish who Jesus is:

He is eternal God;[27]

He is the Creator apart from whom nothing has been made;[28]

He is life whose life is the light shining in the darkness that cannot overcome him;[29]

He is the means of our being adopted as children of God;[30]

He is the One who has been sent to take away the sins of the world;[31]

He is God’s Chosen One, his Son;[32]

He is God’s Messiah, the Christ;[33]

Having established Jesus’ identity, the end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel turns to Jesus calling not only willing Philip—but also unwilling Nathanael.

When Jesus told Philip to follow him, Philip did so and he went and told Nathanael, verse 44, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip understood that Jesus is the one to whom all the Scriptures, that is, our Old Testament, pointed.[34] But Nathanael didn’t believe answering instead, verse 46, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Fortunately, his initial disbelief didn’t keep him from going with Philip when he answered him, “Come and see!”

Next, verse 47, “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’” Unlike deceitful Jacob, Jesus knew Nathanael was one in whom there was no guile or deceit. He knew what Nathanael had said about him and Nazareth. He knew that Nathanael had expressed disbelief in him. Yet upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael’s disbelief began to transform into belief as he asked, verse 48, “How do you know me?” When Jesus responded, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Nathanael’s conversion became complete as he truthfully exclaimed, verse 49, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus then pointed to his ministry to come saying, verse 50: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” The Gospels, of course, go on to record but some of the “greater things” that Jesus went on to do—from healing the sick,[35] to giving sight to the blind,[36] to raising the dead,[37] to rising from death himself.[38] But in verse 51 we find a fascinating connection with the passage from the vision of Jacob’s Ladder we’ve just considered as Jesus added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” In referencing the account of God appearing to Jacob in a dream, Jesus switched out the ladder on which the angels were ascending and descending with himself for Son of Man was his favorite self-designation.

As suggested earlier, in the progression of God’s disclosing himself to humanity, that disclosure has now come to its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. As Jesus later told Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”[39] As Jacob said his vision testified to its being “the house of God” and “the gate of heaven,” so, too, is Jesus. As the Christ, God’s promised Messiah, eternal Son of God who as God is one with God—along with the Holy Spirit he later sent to continue his work on earth through us, his people—he is the One who opens up the entry of heaven to us. Jesus is our ladder to God. He is the link between heaven and earth. He is the “mediator between God and mankind.”[40]

Dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is the way in which we can know God. It is by his sacrifice alone that we can now enter the Most Holy Place.[41] He is the way that God personally appears to us. He is the means of our experiencing the reality of who God is. He is the ladder to our heavenly Father. This is nothing less than what Jesus declared about himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[42] Jesus is the One who makes God’s presence real to us. He is the means by which all people, whether Jew or Gentile, can now gain access to our heavenly Father by his Holy Spirit.[43] For by his Spirit, he is ever present; by his Spirit he is ever near. And Therefore, Jesus is our Bethel; he is our House of God. And by his sealing[44] and indwelling[45] Holy Spirit, all who believe in and receive him are being built into his house. As Peter taught, “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”[46]

Therefore, dear ones, as God’s angels in Jacob’s vision ever do God’s bidding in heaven, let us follow the angels as we come to Jesus, the ladder to God, as we seek to proclaim and live out his heavenly Kingdom here on earth;

As God’s angels in Jacob’s vision ever do God’s bidding on earth, let us follow the angels as we come to Jesus, the ladder to God, as we seek to love him with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves as we proclaim his goodness to all around us;

As God’s angels in Jacob’s vision love God and seek to please him, let us follow them as we come to Jesus, the ladder to God, as we seek to learn and live out the Scriptures he has left us and remembering, as Jesus taught, that those who are being built into God’s house, who by the presence of his Holy Spirit are his holy temple will, like his angels, no longer die.[47] So let us follow them!

Let us pray.

 

[1] As did Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, before him. See sermon preached on August 30, 2020, Freedom in Christ, on Genesis 21:8–20.

[2] According to the Crossway ESV Bible Study note on Genesis 28:10–22, it was a 550 mile journey (also noted at Genesis 11:31).

[3] See sermon preached on September 13, 2020, God Knows before We Ask, on Genesis 24.

[4] Genesis 25:23: The Lord said to her,“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

[5] Genesis 26:2–5: The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”

[6] Genesis 27:27–29: 27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. 28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”; Genesis 28:3–4: 3 May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. 4 May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham.

[7] Genesis 27:20. Emphasis added. See sermon preached October 4, 2020, Jaco Deceived–Isaac Had Faith, on Genesis 27:1–40.

[8] Genesis 15:1a, 12–13a: 1 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…. 12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him….

[9] Genesis 26:23–24: 23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”[9]

[10] See sermon preached on September 27, 2020, Like Father, Like Son on Genesis 26:1–33.

[11] E.g. as the LORD in Genesis 12:1; Your shield and great reward in Genesis 15:1; God Almighty in Genesis 17:1.

[12] In addition to the above, see Genesis 15:7: I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.

[13] Genesis 13:14–17: 14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

[14] Isaac, too, had been promised a similar increase in descendants. See Genesis 26:23–24: 23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”

[15] Genesis 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 22:17–18: 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

[16] Genesis 26:3–4:Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed;

[17] Genesis 26:3, 24: Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you…. 24 Do not be afraid, for I am with you.

[18] In the case of Abraham, see Genesis 12:6–7: Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.; In the case of Isaac, see Genesis 26:24–25: 24 That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” 25 Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.

[19] Although later, out of obedience to the LORD, he would return and build an altar. See Genesis 35:1, 7: 1 Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau….” There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

[20] Psalm 139:7–10.

[21] Genesis 18:15: Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But [the LORD] said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

[22] Genesis 25:23: The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

[23] See Joshua 24:2: This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.” (emphasis added)

[24] Genesis 26:2–5: The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”

[25] 2 Corinthians 4:16–18: 16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

[26] Known as regeneration or “making alive.” See, e.g., Titus 3:5–7: he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.; John 6:63a: The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.

[27] John 1:1–2, 14: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

[28] John 1:2, 10: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

[29] John 1:4–5, 9: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

[30] John 1:11–13: 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

[31] John 1:29: The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

[32] John 1:32–34: 32 Then John [the Baptist] gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

[33] John 1:40–42: 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

[34] After resurrecting from death, Jesus made this very point to the disciples to whom he appeared on the Road to Emmaus as recorded in Acts 24:44: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

[35] E.g., Matthew 4:23–25: 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

[36] E.g., John 9. See especially his testimony concerning in verse 11: “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

[37] E.g., John 11. See especially verses 43–44: Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

[38] E.g., John 20:8–9:  Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead).

[39] John 14:9.

[40] 1 Timothy 2:5: For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,…

[41] Hebrews 10:19–25: 19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

[42] John 14:6.

[43] Ephesians 2:14–18: 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

[44] Ephesians 4:30: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

[45] 1 Corinthians 3:16: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

[46] 1 Peter 2:4–5.

[47] Notice Jesus’ answers to the Sadducees, especially verse 36, in Luke 20:34–38: 34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”