Stairway to Heaven; Genesis 28:11-22
The Abrahamic covenant is the foundation of God's relationship with Israel as a unique people. In the second half of Genesis 28 we see this covenant reconfirmed to Jacob at a crucial time in Jacob's life.
Genesis 28:11, "And he came to 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." He is not using this stone for a pillow. The Hebrew indicates that he moved rocks around to lean up against. It is not that he put the rock at his head but by his head, so he is moving the rocks around to create something of a place of comfort in order to sleep. The he dreams.
Genesis 28:12, "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." This is a theophany. He is going to have a vision here where God is going to reveal Himself to Jacob. The ladder sets up on the earth and goes to heaven, it doesn't descend from heaven. The text says the angels were ascending and descending. The ladder goes from the bottom up, and the angels are going up and down the ladder in that order.
This is called Jacob's ladder. The Hebrew word that is translated "ladder," sullam, is more accurately translated and understood to be a stairway. So this is a stairway to heaven. What is going on here? He has this vision and then God is going to speak to him. In the next chapter he meets Leah and Rachel. After that when he tries to get away from Laban we have this whole episode where he makes this deal about the striped and spotted animals. We see God blessing him, and then he comes back with all of his wives and children and concubines and there is the episode at Bethel where God appears him again, and where he wrestles with the angel of God. God strikes him on the hip so that he is crippled at that point and he receives a new name, Israel, prince with God, because he wrestles with God. So what are these events all about? The Holy Spirit is not just giving us stories, He is demonstrating certain things about God and the outworking of His plan in these episodes. To give us a clue as to what this is all about we need to turn to the New Testament. There is a direct allusion to this episode, Jacob's ladder, given in John chapter one.
In John chapter one John is introducing us to the Lord Jesus Christ. He begins at the beginning of the chapter by introducing Him at the eternal LOGOS [logoj]: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Then in verse 14 we are told: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." Interwoven with the introduction of the LOGOS and the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ we have the introduction of the primary witness, John the Baptist. Then we find that John has a couple of disciples and they are with him when Jesus comes down to the Jordan to be baptized. It is at that point that John the Baptist announces: "Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world." Immediately these two disciples, one of whom is John the apostle, leave and follow Jesus. A couple of days later Jesus departs to go to Galilee and there he discovers another disciple, Philip—v. 43. Verse 44: "Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter." And then Philip went to find his friend, Nathanael. He found Nathanale and said to him: "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." He is identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Verse 46: "And Nathanael said to him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip said to him, Come and see." Verse 47: "Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!" This is a statement that related to the personal integrity of Nathanael, that this is someone who is truly seeking the Messiah and has been studying the Word. Verses 48, 49: "Nathanael saith unto him, How do you know me? Jesus answered and said to him, Before that Philip called thee, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you. This indicates the omniscience of Jesus Christ. This is the Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity utilizing His divine attributes—not for the purpose of solving His own human problems but in order to demonstrate that He is who He claims to be, the eternal second person of the Trinity. Nathanael answered and said to him, Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." Verse 50: "Jesus answered and said to him, Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, you believe? you will see greater things than these."
What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree? Nathanael it seems is either reading or he is meditating and thinking about a particular incident in Scripture, and the Scripture that he is focused on and trying to wrestle with and understand is the episode of Jacob's ladder in Genesis chapter twenty-right. We know that because it is the only thing that can make sense of the next statement from Jesus. "And he said to him, Verily, verily, I say to you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." Notice the similarity between Genesis 28 and this verse. The only difference is that Jacob in his dream saw the angels ascending and descending on a ladder. What replaces the ladder in Jesus' statement is Himself as the Son of Man. Son of Man is a title for the Messiah that comes out of Daniel chapter seven. It is clearly a messianic title. In Daniel chapter 7 we see the historic flow of the kingdoms of man in their bestiality. Then the Son of man comes in the end times and He destroys the kingdom of man and establishes His kingdom. So Son of Man is this messianic title. But it is the Son of Man now who is the mediator, the go-between, between earth and heaven that replaces the ladder of Jacob.
Jacob in his dream is looking at the fact there is earth and there is heaven. God is at the top of the ladder. He as the representative of the people who will come from him is at the bottom of the ladder. Ascending and descending on the ladder are the angels and we have to fit that within the structure of what angels do. Angels are involved in the administration of God's plan for history. The administration of God's plan for history is a ladder that comes to Bethel on the earth, to the land that God has promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This ladder is coming right to Jacob. He is the individual that is the focal point of the plan of God for human history and the plan of God's blessing for human history at that point in time. But Jacob as the seed is only a foreshadowing of the ultimate seed who is the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is the Lord Jesus Christ who is the seed through whom all nations will be blessed. So the fulfillment of the type that is seen there in Jacob's ladder is that this stairway is replaced by the true mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Timothy 2:5, 6, "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." It is Jesus Christ as someone who is true humanity that takes this place and takes a stand between man and God. The word "mediator" is the translation of the Greek word MESITES [mesoithj], one who unites parties or who mediates for peace. He is the go-between. He must have something that relates to both sides, He is trusted by both and He stands between God and man. This relates to His high-priestly ministry. In the Old Testament typology this is grounded in the Abrahamic covenant, which is the basis for this imagery in Genesis chapter 28.
He comes to this place at Bethel. Bethel is up to this point called Luz, the ancient Canaanite name. Bethel means "house of God." The angels ascending and descending have to do with their carrying out of the plan of God on the earth. What we see happening here is that this young man comes face to face with God's plan for his life. That doesn't happen any more in this way. We can't reduplicate this experience because what God is doing is something special and unique within His program for human history in establishing and calling out this new nation. It is not going to happen that way today in people's lives. God doesn't appear this way. The way we are confronted with God's plan for our life is with His Word. At some point after we are saved—it is different from person to person—we all come face to face with God's plan for our life and we have a decision to make. Are we going to follow God's plan for our life or are we going to continue to run our lives on our own agenda, seeking our own desires, or somehow trying reach a balance where it is partially what God wants and partially what we want? Eventually through divine discipline and various other tools that God uses He finally whacks us on the head long enough He finally gets our attention, or takes us out under divine discipline, that we need to align ourselves with His plan. And that is what God is doing with Jacob. We see this event takes place where Jacob, maybe for the first time in his life, really has a serious confrontation with God's plan for his life and what it means to be the one who inherits the blessing from his father Isaac.
So God is standing at the top of this staircase at Bethel. We have Bethel at the beginning when Jacob is leaving the land and heading back to Haran. He is going to be there for twenty years or more, and then when he comes back he is going to have another confrontation with God sat a place called Penuel, which means to meet God face to face.
The first point in comparison is that Jacob has life-changing events when he is confronted with the plan of God for his life. This is what happens with people and why they sometimes think of it as a "religious experience." Frequently it is a time when God simply takes out a 2 x 4 and hits us over the head. We get our bell rung with divine discipline and God confronts us with the fact that He has a plan for our life, and it can be an overpowering experience. It can just happen one day when you are sitting in Bible class taking notes and all of a sudden you realize, "This is talking about me. God really does have a plan for my life. This is serious, and what I am hearing is that I have to make doctrine my life." There are no flashing lights, suddenly you realize that this is all about you and your spiritual life. It happens in different ways with different people. With some people it is more of a crisis than in others. But in most people's life they just reach that point where they realize that this really is God's plan for my life and they need to do something about it because the consequences are serious. That is what happened to Jacob at Bethel.
So the first vision at Bethel is on his way out of the land. And what is God doing here? God is reiterating the Abrahamic covenant to him but He is specifically saying, "I am going to be with you wherever you go. You are headed out of the land. It is okay for you to go and I am going to be with you wherever you go, and I will bring you back."
The second experience like this occurs when he comes back into the land at Penuel. As he comes back into the land God appears to him again and reiterates the covenant to him and the fact that He is going to protect him, even in this confrontation with Esau.
In both places there is the mention of the "angels of God." These are the only places in the Scripture that this phrase is mentioned. So there is something going on here. These angels are used to protect believers in the outworking of God's plan, they are used for judgment and blessing, and as we go through Genesis we see that the first appearance of angels is with the cherubs who surround the garden of Eden. They are given swords, and swords always picture the power of death. They had the delegation of judicial authority after man was expelled from the garden and if any man tried to get back in they would kill them. The next time we see angels is in Genesis 19 when the two angels are sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Then we see them in these two episodes with Jacob. So they have to fit within the biblical structure we have seen so far of the role of angels—the outworking of God's plan for mankind, especially in regard to blessing and cursing.
The key word that is used in both passages, here and in the one that comes later when Jacob is returning from Haran, is the Hebrew word pagar, which means to encounter, to meet, to reach, to entreat, to make intercession. There is a divine encounter here that occurs in both places. This word is used two or three times in each section. That ties this whole unit together. So he leaves the land here, goes to Haran, he has his various episodes there with Laban where they try to out-connive each other, and he is constantly manipulating, and when Jacob finally comes back to the land he is wrestling with God. We see that he wins that wrestling match, he is blessed by God, and he is given a new name: prince with God. From that point on we never see the Scriptures deal with him or relate these episodes with him as this conniving swindler trying to get the best deal from everybody kind of person. So there is a progress of spiritual growth there, and after that he reaches a level of spiritual maturity.
Genesis 28:13, "And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD [Yahweh, the name of God that is closely associated with His covenant, the Mosaic covenant specifically between Himself and Israel] God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed." The reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant to Isaac and Jacob is the foundation for the history of Israel, so right away we see that this is a foundational event for the nation.
Genesis 28:14, "And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." So there is a prophecy here that not only relates to them in the land but also long-range to the scattering of the Jews throughout the world. According to Genesis chapter three the ultimate meaning of that word "seed" in the singular is in the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is in the Lord Jesus Christ that all nations are blessed because He is the one who dies on the cross and pays the penalties for the sins of the world. It is through the Jews that all the nations will be blessed. So what God is doing here is separating out this new people through whom He will give His revelation, through whom His revelation will be preserved, and through whom the ultimate revelation in the Lord Jesus Christ will be given.
Genesis 28:15, "And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you again into this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of." The word "behold" in the Hebrew in hinne, and it is an attention-grabbing word. Pay attention, now I am going to say something important. What is going on here? Jacob is leaving the land, the land that God gave to Abraham, the land God reconfirmed to Isaac, the land He has just promised to Jacob, and He says wherever you go I am with you and will bring you back to this land. "I am with you," indicating His presence, His guidance. "I will keep you" is the Hebrew word which has the idea of guard, keep, watch, observe, watch over. And He will bring him back to this land. God is faithful, he is going to fulfill His promise. He is going to do for Jacob exactly what He promised.
Genesis 28:16, "And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not." He is probably very excited. He has had quite an encounter n his dream and he is aware that this is a special place where God has given him this unique revelation. Whenever we have an encounter with God's Word there is often some sort of emotional reaction. That doesn't mean we get emotional. Sometimes we read the Word of God and we are happy, sometimes sad, sometimes discouraged because we sense that we are struggling in the Christian life. When there is a personal encounter with God, and we see this in a number of instances in Scripture—for example, when Isaiah sees God he is scared to death—there are different reactions. In Genesis 28:17, "And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God [Bethel], and this is the gate of heaven." He was afraid. The word that is translated "fear" is the Hebrew yare, the standard word for fear. It means to be afraid, to be scared, to be terrorized, and it also has the idea of reverence, to be in awe of someone. Proverbs 1:7 tells us that it is the fear of the Lord—this attitude of overwhelming respect for His authority, His power, His righteousness—that is the starting point of knowledge." Without the fear of the Lord there is no humility. Without humility we can't learn, we can't row, we can't advance. There has to be a genuine humility on our part, realizing we are the creature, He is the creator, and that is the staring point for learning. "But fools despise wisdom and instruction." You can always spot somebody who is not teachable, who is operating in arrogance, because when they really mess up you can't tell them when they've messed up. They don't want to hear it. They don't want to be told that they are out of line, that they have failed, that they made a mistake, and the result is that they are going to keep making those mistakes and that arrogance will eventually be self-destructive.
Psalm 11:10, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endures for ever." We have to have that respect for God and His authority established in His Word before we are ever going to be able to grow and advance scripturally.
Psalm 34:11, "Come, you children, listen to me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD."
Proverbs 9:10, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy one is understanding." It is not academics as we stress academics that is the foundation for real knowledge, it is orientation to the authority of God and to the Word of God.
Proverbs 8:13, "The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogance, and the evil way, and the perverse mouth, I hate." So it is a sensitivity to evil and to sin.
Proverbs 10:27, "The fear of the LORD prolongs days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened." When we walk in obedience to God we are not going to come under divine discipline, we are not going to make a lot of foolish self-destructive decisions, and we are not going to make decisions that are bad for our health. So the general reality is that the fear of the Lord will produce a longer life.
Proverbs 14:26, "In the fear of the LORD is strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge." When we fear the Lord we recognize that He is the one who is in control of the details of our life, and so we can relax and take refuge in Him.
Proverbs 14:27, "The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to turn us away from the snares of death." This is related to the fullness of life that God has for us.
Proverbs 15:16, "Better is little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble therewith." It is more important to get your priorities right and your relationship with the Lord right and put doctrine first in your life, than it is to be an academic success, to be a financial success, and anything else. If you have to sacrifice your spiritual life in order to be a success in life then it is destructive.
Proverbs 16:6, "By mercy and truth iniquity is atoned: and by the fear of the LORD one keeps from evil."
Proverbs 19:23, "The fear of the LORD leads to life: and he that has it will abide in satisfaction; he will not be visited with evil."
Proverbs 23:17, "Let not your heart envy sinners: but be zealous to pursue the fear of the LORD all the day long."
So when we look at Genesis 28 and we see Jacob's response he is afraid. He realizes the power of God and he says, "How awesome is this place." These two words that relate to the fear and awe of God are connected together here as they are in many other passages in Scripture.
Genesis 28:18, 19, "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." That he set the stone up as a pillar indicates that this wasn't a small stone that was used as a pillow but it was a large stone that he was using to prop himself up so he could be more comfortable, because now he upends it as a pillar. Pouring oil upon it was a symbol of setting it apart to the use of God. "Bethel" is the "house of God." Then he makes a vow; this is his response.
Genesis 28:20-22, "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 you shall give me I will surely give the tenth unto you." His response to God is first of all fear. Secondly, he has a response of worship. Worship has two categories in the Scripture. There is individual worship and there is corporate worship. Individual worship is the response of the individual to the authority of God in his life and to the blessing of God in his life. So what Jacob is doing here is one element that can be part of worship. In the Hebrew the word for worship is shachah, which means literally to bow down and indicates in its core orientation to authority. It is humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that He can exalt us. The core of all worship is gratitude for God's grace. Corporate worship is the same thing. It is a group of believers who gather together to express their common gratitude toward God and praise to God. The focus is always on how God has graciously revealed Himself to us and blessed us, and worship therefore is a reflection of awe and fear towards God. That produces a response and we see that in Jacob's vow here in verse 20.
What did God promise? This isn't the typical if-then type of thing. He is not saying maybe He will and maybe He won't. There is an element of certainty here. God promised to be with him. In other words, if God fulfills what He just said then what happens is that when he comes back home he will take this stone which he had set as a pillar and it shall be God's house. He is going to establish it as a sight of worship, and he is going to give God a tithe. This is a free will offering, there is no mandate anywhere in the Old Testament up to this point on giving. Exactly to whom he would give this money isn't stated, there is no priesthood. It is simply that he would use that tenth of what God provides for him to maintain this sight as a place of worship. This is what he has chosen to do out of his own volition in order to express His gratitude to God for making him the beneficiary of this blessing. This isn't a mandate for tithing.