Jesus: Jacob’s Ladder or Something more? (John 1:51)

Was reading through Genesis 28 tonight with Helen and was struck by something I hadn’t considered before.

Then Jacob went out from Beersheba and went to Haran.
And he arrived at a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head and slept at that place. And he dreamed, and behold, a stairway was set on the earth, and its top touched the heavens. And behold, angels of God were going up and going down on it.
And behold, Yahweh was standing beside him, and he said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you were sleeping I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, and to the east, and to the north and to the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and through your descendants. Now behold, I am with you, and I will keep you wherever you go. And I will bring you to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Yahweh is indeed in this place and I did not know!” Then he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is nothing else than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!
(Genesis 28:10-17, LEB) 

Jacob’s Ladder

This passage is clearly reference by Jesus at the climactic end of John’s Gospel chapter 1:

On the next day he wanted to depart for Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.)
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one whom Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets wrote about—Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!” And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see!”

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Look! A true Israelite in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “From where do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you[r] were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these!And he said to him, “Truly, truly I say to all of you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51, LEB) 

Typically when I’ve studied this passage or heard it preached, the link has been made between “Jacob’s ladder” (or “stairway”) and the role of Jesus. Jacob in his dream saw a connection between heaven and earth, divine and human, supernatural and natural, demonstrated by the ascending and descending angels. Jesus fulfills this by being the link between heaven and earth, as the divine/human God-man. That’s why figuratively (I say that because the Gospels never record it happening), the disciples will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, as the nexus between the earthly and heavenly realms.

But it got me thinking that there could be more to it than that. What if the allusion to Genesis 28 doesn’t stop at the ladder, but includes Jacob’s theophany encounter with Yahweh? In Genesis, Jacob doesn’t just see the vision of the ladder, but immediately afterwards Yahweh Himself is standing beside Him. Could Jesus be saying that if the disciples continue to follow Him and watch Him closely, they won’t merely have a vision of angels, but an encounter with Yahweh themselves?

It certainly matches well with Jesus’ later exchange with Philip:
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Am I with you so long a time and you have not known me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ (John 14:7-9, LEB) 

I don’t want to get too excited, because I recognise that if we get the takeaway point that Jesus is the connector between heaven and earth – it already implies His divinity. But it interested me that there were parallels like Jacob being filled with awe that He had been in Yahweh’s presence and Nathaniel’s astonishment that He had met the “Son of God”; and Jesus calling Nathaniel a “true Israelite” (or we might say “Jacobite”?). It made me wonder whether the disciples had any inkling that Jesus was promising them their own personal divine encounter and if it prolonged their sense of awe and amazement.

If my little theory is correct, we have powerful statements of Jesus’ divinity in the beginning and end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Could it be that the Gospel which begins with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1), finishes with a promise that followers of Jesus will indeed behold God in and through Him?


One thought on “Jesus: Jacob’s Ladder or Something more? (John 1:51)

  1. Thanks Yarran. I think you are on to something though I wonder does John mean what you are saying to come about through Jesus as the fulfillment of the Temple, the “house of God” (which is what Bethel means). In the earlier verses of chapter 1, John has explicitly described Jesus as the Word who ‘tabernacled’ among us and the one who’s ‘glory’ we have seen. This hearkens back no doubt to God’s glory and presence dwelling in the tabernacle with Israel after bringing them out of Egypt and to the Temple that Solomon built. And the rest of the gospel again and again shows how Jesus fulfills the purposes of the temple in himself (John 2:19, forgiving sins, denouncing the temple, etc.). The temple was the place where the veil between heaven and earth was taken away and God’s presence and glory was manifest. Nathanael who couldn’t believe anything good could come out of Nazareth, is won over by a word from Jesus about his whereabouts and Jesus I think is surprised as if to say, seriously is that all it took? You will see greater things. Indeed you are not wrong to affirm that I am the Messiah, but someone greater than the Messiah is here. When you are with me, you are in the Temple the place where Heaven and Earth is unveiled, indeed when you are with me, you are in the very presence of God Himself.

    I want to add that this isn’t merely saying that God dwelt in or with Jesus in a special but non-divine way, but that God became human and dwelt among his people in, through and as Jesus the Messiah.

    Regarding Nathanael’s comment, I’m not fully convinced that when he called Jesus the “Son of God” that he meant the eternal Son of God or deity. I am more inclined to believe (at this stage of the story) that he understood “Son of God” as a Messianic title and is confirmed I think by what he says immediately following, “you are the king of Israel”. This doesn’t mean that John as the author didn’t mean for a deeper meaning to come through as is so often the case in his writings.



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