Jacob’s Gate of Heaven and the Ladder of Jesus

Jacob’s Gate of Heaven and the Ladder of Jesus

Jacob’s Gate of Heaven and the Ladder of Jesus.

In Genesis 28 we find an exhausted Jacob on the run from his angry brother Esau who he had cheated. Jacob finally finds a place where he can lay his head and rest for a while. He finds a suitable stone that would serve as his pillow, and immediately falls asleep. And then something monumental happened.

“Then Jacob dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord Yahweh stood above it, and said, ‘I am Yahweh, God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants… Behold I am with  you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven!’ (Genesis 28:12-17).

So Jacob named that place Bethel, the House of God. Then he took the stone pillow and anointed it, thus establishing a memorial that enabled Bethel to remain an important religious site until well after Solomon. Little did Jacob know at that time that his dream was a picture of the messiah, and that it would be fulfilled by the Messiah Himself!

The Hebrew patriarch with the most chutzpah, for both good and ill, was Jacob. He displayed audacity right from birth, and then demonstrated it clearly when he cheated his brother Esau out of both his birthright and his father’s blessing. Somehow God continued to weave all of Jacob’s shenanigans into His overall plan for Jacob’s life. Jacob was certainly a very complex man, and yet was a major part of God’s plan for His Chosen People. God never gave up on him, and even used Jacob’s clever chutzpah in a redemptive way. God continued to meet Jacob wherever he went, especially at night.

The Jewish sages based each of the their weekday prayers on the character and actions of the patriarchs. Thus, the recommended daily prayers of Jewish believers were inspired by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham represents the morning prayer, since he often “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before God” (Gen. 19:2722:3). Isaac inspired the midday prayer, since he “went out to converse with God (or, to meditate) in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63). And Jacob represented the night prayer, since his powerful encounters with God were in the night, including his visions and dreams (Gen. 28 and 31) and his momentous wrestling with the mysterious “angel” (Gen. 28:11, 32:22).

Jacob’s unusual life inspired the night time prayer, the evening encounter with God that takes one’s own life into account at the end of the day. Jacob trusted in God and wouldn’t let go of Him, and his encounters with God left him transformed. “That is how Jacob found God – not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. If Abraham is originality, and Isaac continuity, then Jacob represents tenacity.” In our night time prayers, we would do well to remember the spirit of Jacob’s encounters with the Lord during his midnight travels. God was at his side for fresh encouragement and vision, with inspiration and courage, and ultimately peace. (Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, the Book of Beginnings, Rabbi Jonathon Sacks).

Here we are in the Gospel of John 1:45-51, and we come to Nathaniel, also known as the apostle Bartholomew, who was sitting under the shade of a fig tree one day in the region of Galilee. He was someone who was earnestly expecting and looking for the Messiah as prophesied in the Scripture. Nathaniel may have been in his special place of prayer under that tree. He may have been studying Scripture and meditating on the coming of Messiah. Sitting under a fig tree was an expression from the Hebrew prophets that was connected to waiting for the Messiah, as mentioned in Micah 4:4 and Zechariah 3:10. “Gathering figs” was also an expression that meant the act of studying Scripture. So we can only speculate what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree, but that tree was no doubt his private place where he could be alone in his thoughts and meditations. We know Nathaniel was anxiously looking for Messiah, or else why would his friend Philip rush to tell him about Jesus? Philip knew that this would be welcome news to Nathaniel. And sure enough, after Philip told Nathaniel to come and see for himself, Nathaniel did just that. Nathaniel had no hesitation to meet Jesus and find out if this man might be who he is looking for.

Nathaniel gladly accepted the truth about Jesus seemingly immediately. He did not hesitate to call Jesus “the Son of God and the king of Israel.” We are not sure why Nathaniel was so ready to welcome Jesus into his life. Was it because Jesus told Nathaniel a piece of supernatural knowledge, that Jesus had somehow seen Nathaniel studying and praying under a fig tree? Was it because Jesus seemed to know Nathaniel before they ever met, that Jesus read his heart and said that Nathaniel was a fellow Jew in whom there is no guile, no hidden motive, honest and sincere? Jesus saw Nathaniel and instantly knew he had no falsehood within him. Jesus seemed to overlook Nathaniel’s straightforward comment about Nazareth, that nothing much good can come out of that place. Nathaniel betrayed a bit of prejudice if not outright bias, and was skeptical that someone worthy of notice could come out of Nazareth. Jesus ignored that comment and perhaps saw it as something that can easily be changed.

Jesus seemed surprised that a simple miracle like seeing Nathaniel in a distant place under a fig tree would impress him so much. It has been speculated that Nathaniel was meditating on Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28 while under the fig tree. Do you think that’s a big deal, that I saw you and knew what you were reading, asks Jesus. You haven’t seen anything yet! You will soon be given the spiritual sight to see an open heaven, and I will join heaven and earth as the Son of Man. I will be just like Jacob’s ladder, Jesus is saying, when I am lifted up. You will see angels going up and down on this stairway, Nathaniel! You will see me join two worlds, heaven where God resides and earth where man dwells! I will turn Jacob’s ladder into my ladder, Nathaniel! I will become Jacob’s ladder myself!  Imagine that!

Jesus presents Himself in John 1:50 as that ladder of Jacob reaching to heaven. He is the One who brings heaven to earth, and earth to heaven. As that ladder, Jesus is able to be in heaven and earth at the same time. In Him, God and man are united, so it is He that connects heaven and earth, God and man. It is Jesus who opens heaven to see God at the top of the ladder. The ultimate fulfillment is when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross (John 3:14), Jesus and the Cross together forming the ladder of salvation being lifted up to God’s presence in heaven. In Jesus, heaven opened, whether at His birth, His baptism, the Transfiguration, or even His Ascension. As with Jacob’s ladder, heaven tends to open when Jesus is around.