We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder


I. The Cruel Reality of Earth. Jacob was fleeing from Esau, a fugitive from revenge. Having traveled some miles, it became impossible for him to continue his journey due to darkness.

A. In the dark- Though the darkness is literal in this case, it reminds us that darkness denotes the impact of sin on spiritual sight (1 John 1:5, 6; 2:11). Fleeing from one whose hatred made him murderous, Jacob found the impediment of physical darkness to be a stark reminder that spiritual darkness had driven him here: “He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, but does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” The darkness, however, was not only Esau’s but a reality that plagues all persons, including Jacob. This experience in the dark began the enlightening of Jacob’s eyes. Before God takes us as his own, we walk in the “futility of [our] minds, having [our] understanding darkened, because alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:17, 18).

B. Among the stones – No soft pillows for rest of conscience in this dark world. The only solace offered by a world stricken by sin and groans as if in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22) is a rock for a pillow. We fool ourselves that we are well and can take our ease by opulent surroundings and material plenty, and are deceived that at any moment our souls could be taken from us. We would do well to recognize that no final comfort can be offered in this world, but, as Jacob soon would learn, only the grace of God can open a pathway to the light of heaven.


II. A Vision of Heaven and its immediate accessibility.

A. In the dream, Jacob saw a ladder set on the earth and reaching to heaven. For sinners to find a path to heaven, a way must be made on earth. We are sinners and we have rebelled against God. We are unrighteous and under condemnation; the problem with getting to heaven arises first from our own rebellion and culpability. The problem is on earth and the earthly problem must find resolution, here, in our nature, in our situation. The ladder reaching from heaven to earth is an early symbol of the incarnation of Christ who was made flesh, who, during the days of his flesh suffered trial without any disobedience (Philippians 2:8) and in these testings was “made perfect” and thus became the “source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5: 7-9). From earth to heaven included the incarnation in the womb of Mary, the life of obedience as seen in the temptations in the wilderness, the death on the cross of the just for the unjust, the burial in a borrowed tomb with a sealed rock over its mouth, the resurrection from the dead in victory over Satan’s schemes and in vindication of his flawless obedience and perfect propitiation, and in his ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father, and the placing of all enemies under his feet. Jacob saw that there was a way to heaven from earth.

B. Angels were ascending and descending. Jacob was not surrounded by the violent intentions of Esau, but was the recipient, by immeasurable and unmerited grace, of guidance and protection from the host of heaven. He was not the only creature who inhabited this dreary and desolate, rough and rocky, place. Angels hovered and ascended and descended the ladder. They were not excluded from heaven but freely, in accord with the purpose of God came from heaven and went back to heaven as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).


III. Verses 13-15 – In his dream, Jacob heard the voice of God. Since we always pervert and subdue the knowledge of God present in the natural order and conscience (Romans 1: 18:19, 28, 32), we are dependent on special revelation for any saving knowledge of him. Not only do we need words and propositions to gain cognitively that which would otherwise be unknowable to us (1 Corinthians 2:9-13), but we need a revelation of God’s holiness to the soul whereby we sense the loveliness and awesomeness of his holy presence (2 Corinthians 4: 3, 4). Jacob received this.

A. God identified himself. Jacob had heard of the promise made to Abraham, had without doubt heard of God’s intervention to save Isaac, his father, from the knife of Abraham (Genesis 22:9-19), and had heard of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac. Now, in this divinely-given dream, this God presents himself clearly to Jacob as the one true God, the same one who has guided his father and his grandfather and has providentially given him the rights of the first born and the covenantal blessing.

B. The Lord confirmed the promise of the land. Though he was leaving this land, God renewed the promise given to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, 7). The land would be important, for there God would institute a system of worship for the nation that would inhabit it and would give the offices of prophet, priest, and king as types of the redemptive work of the Messiah. The promise of the land also had typological significance in that the children of God will live forever with physical surroundings, in glorified bodies, in the “new heavens and the new earth” (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) concentrated in a vision of the “holy city, new Jerusalem” where “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21: 2, 3). Christians are children of the Jerusalem that is above that is free (Galatians 4:26).

C. The number of his descendants would be virtually incalculable. His descendants would be “like the dust of the earth.” As with Abraham, these descendants would include not only the physical seed but those of the faith of Abraham, and of Isaac (Romans 2: 28, 29; 4:16; Galatians 3:29). To Abraham God promised that his descendants would be like the countless stars of the heaven (Genesis 15:5 cf Romans 4:18) and to Isaac the analogy changed to the dust of the earth. Every generation since the coming of Christ has seen the expansion of the saving knowledge of the gospel in nation after nation so that millions and multiplied millions of the seed of this faith have passed into the presence of the triune God in every generation for 50 generations.

D. The geographical provenance (“spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south”) would expand far beyond that land to embrace the entire earth. Even as Zion laments the apparent minimization of its faithful adherents and mourns its losses through divine judgment, we hear the Lord say, “Lift up your eyes, look around and see; all these gather together and come to you. As I live, ‘says the Lord,’ you shall surely clothe yourselves with them all as an ornament, and bind them on you as a bride does. For your waste and desolate places, and the land of your destruction, will even now be too small for the inhabitants; . . . the children you will have, after you have lost the others, will say again in your ears, ‘The place is too small for me; give me a place where I may dwell.’ Then you will say in your heart, ‘Who has begotten these for me; . . . there was I left alone: but these, where were they?” (Isaiah 49: 18-21).

E. All families of the earth will be blessed. In addition, not only will the space be too small to contain them, but Isaiah 49 envisions a narrative of the Servant Messiah to gather Jacob back to him citing the language of the Father “Indeed, it is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49: 5, 6). Further he says, “Behold, I will lift my hand in an oath to the nations, and set up my standard for the peoples; they shall bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders. . . . All flesh shall know that I the Lord, am your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (Isaiah 49: 22, 26).

F. God promised his continual presence (verse 15). This is not just an affirmation of his omnipresence and immensity [all of God is everywhere at every instance], but a statement of his particular redemptive purpose operating covenantally through the life and line of Jacob. This is a presence peculiar giving substance to the promise of God (“I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”) Surely this includes his trip to the land of Laban, his service there of twenty years (31:41) having experienced the disappointment of a deceiving relative, his return home in the face of the hatred and vengeful intent of Esau, the deceit of his own children concerning Joseph, the trip to Egypt in his old age, his living to give a specific blessing to each child including the children of Joseph, and his burial as requested in the land of promise (Genesis 50:12, 13). But it included the completion of the substance of the promise “in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” The descendants, bound up in the one seed, Jesus the Christ, would spread blessing to all the families of the earth (Galatians 3: 7-9; cf Genesis 12:3).


IV. Jacob realized God’s Presence.

A. Verses 16, 17Jacob realized that the Lord was in that place of desolation and difficulty. He used several phrases to indicate how deeply this realization was set in his mind. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

  1. “House of God” indicates a place of worship, of affirmation of God’s redemptive intent, and the place for his presence among his people.
  • In Galatians 6:10 Paul referred to those “of the household of faith,” and in Ephesians 2:19 he pointed out the Gentiles that they were “no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
  • In giving instructions about qualifications for officers in the church, Paul wrote, “I am writing these things to you so that . . . you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
  • When Peter warned that trials would come to manifest the genuineness of the faith of Christians, he explained, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4: 17).
  • In the rebuilding of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah mentions the “House of God,” or of “the Lord,” or of “our God” 20 times, 9 of these being in chapter 10. In chapter 13, verse 14, Nehemiah said, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for its services.” David in Psalms refers to the “House of the Lord” as heaven saying, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Psalm 135:2-4 admonishes those “who stand in the house of the Lord” to praise the Lord and sing to his name, “for the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel as his own possession.”
  • Revealed to Jacob in this experience was the reality of his election, the election of his descendants for specific service, the election of the resultant nation as the context of revelation and worship in which the Messiah would be brought to earth, and the election to salvation of all those who would share his faith and deep sense of heartfelt worship of Jehovah.
  1. He saw this revelation of God to him in terms of God’s purpose of grace. This was “the gate of heaven.” As mentioned above, God’s covenant with him was a covenant through which he would bring a redeemer and accomplish all that was necessary for hell-bound sons of the earth to be made into heirs of heaven and “as living stones” to be “built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

B. Jacob sensed the awe-inspiring character of God. It is stated first, “He was afraid.” Several kinds of fear are indicated in our relation to God. Theologians have referred to both the “servile” fear of God and the “filial” fear of God. Jacob also sensed that the hard place of his lying down, was transformed into an “awesome” place by the presence of God.

  1. The first is a fear generated by a hatred of his holiness and his power. He looks upon God as opposed to him for God’s holy character is in itself a condemnation of his desires and activities. He sees himself as in the hands of a cruel taskmaster who can and will destroy him, yet this does not result in repentance or worship. So God described through Jeremiah, “Damascus has grown feeble; She turns to flee, and fearhas seized her. Anguish and sorrows have taken her like a woman in labor” (Jeremiah 49:24).
  2. Filial fear arises from a realization that one is in the presence of God as a redeemer. A true perspective on this inculcates a fear of great reverence and love, the kind of awe experienced by Jacob, in light of a sense of the great condescension of such a mighty one to take notice of such an inferior, and undeserving, one: “But you with you, there is forgiveness that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4). Jeremiah spoke of this kind of fear when he wrote about Judah, “I will cleanse them from all their iniquities by which they have sinned against me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against me. Then it shall be to me a name of joy, a praise, and an honor before all nations of the earth, who shall hear all the good that I do to them; they shall fearand tremble for all the goodness and all the prosperity that I provide for it” (Jeremiah 33:8, 9).
  3. Another fear arises from a sudden and startling confrontation with immortal glory and power in light of our feebleness and susceptibility to sudden death. When John saw the glory of the risen Christ in the “revelation of Jesus Christ, he fell at his feet as though dead, and Christ laid his right hand on John and said, “Fear not, I am the first and last, and living one. I died, and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1: 17, 18).

C. Jacob discerned that God’s presence for him carried a peculiarly redemptive purpose. Jacob anointed the stone in recognition that this ladder to heaven would come only by a special arrangement of a called and qualified person. An anointing of God would be necessary for this to be accomplished, but this was contained in the promise. Anointing of priests, kings, and prophets indicate that one would come who would embody all of these things: a revelation of the fullness of deity in bodily form (Colossians 2:3, 9), effectual sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14, 26; 10: 9, 10), and triumphant victory over enemies now crowned with glory and honor (Philippians 2:9-11; Hebrews 2:9; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22) This was the stone that the builders rejected that has become the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6-8). The Psalmist had this experience of Jacob in mind when he wrote, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118: 19-24). In verse 22, Jacob seemed to see this meaning in some degree when he said, “This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house.”


V. Jacob made a vow. The use of “If” does not indicate any doubt or bargaining on Jacob’s part. Naturally, he was willing to bargain in holy matters, but this experience removed that unholy propensity from him. The “If” could be stated as “since” or “In light of God’s gracious presence and promise.” Jacob reiterated the elements of God’s word to him.

A. God, as an indicator of the eventual appearance of Emmanuel, promised to be “with” him. None of the apparently fortuitous events of the next years, none of the sadness and challenge, should make him think that God had abandoned him or was not demonstrating special providences in every event of his life.

B. God himself had sent Jacob on this journey and so would make him prosper according to the redemptive purpose just revealed in his dream. The giving of a wife and the production of a posteritywere certain for him according to the promise.

C. The things necessary to sustain life would also come in their due season—“food to eat and garments to wear.” Paul noted to Timothy that one mark of a contented life in the Lord was, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). God gave him far beyond this, however, and as he left Laban, he was a man of great possessions.

D. In order for the “land on which you lie” to be his, he must return in safety, and have property in that place. He would be protected both from Laban when his attitude toward Jacob soured, and from Esau, whose anger may not have subsided. Eventually, however, we read, “Then Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan.

E. He recognized, that in spite of the idolatry of the land, and even of the family of Laban to whom he journeyed, that the Lord, the redeeming covenantal God of Abraham, was indeed his God and would prosper him and perform all that he had promised. What a blessing, to have the one true God as our God.

F. He also devoted a tenth of all that God gave him to services consistent with the worship of God and the lovingkindness shown to him as a wanderer and a stranger. He was to be dependent on the good will and compassion of others; so he would be mindful that in generosity to others, he would emulate the kindness of the Lord to him.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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