En route to his Uncle Laban’s to get away from his murderous brother and to find himself a wife, Jacob has a dream. But this isn’t just any dream about finding yourself naked at work or eating an enormous ice cream cone. This dream is one to write home about.
“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (28:12). There is some debate as to what precisely this “ladder” was. The ESV footnote tells us this word could also be translated a “flight of steps.” In other words, Jacob dreams the Led Zepplin hit several thousand years before it made the Billboard charts.
Most commentators agree that, given what Jacob would have been used to seeing in the pagan culture around him, he most likely would have been seeing a ziggurat. These pagan temples were built in tiers that looked like enormous staircases on which their various gods could come down to meet their worshippers. The whole temple was built like a god-sized staircase so that humans could meet the divine.
But in Jacob’s dream, rather than see some pagan deity, he sees the Lord, the God of his fathers Abraham and Isaac, at the top of the stairs, and his angels ascending and descending upon the stairs. The Lord reaffirms his promises to Abraham and Isaac by giving them anew to Jacob. Jacob is amazed at what he’s dreamed and responds, “‘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'” (28:16-17).
What was it that Jacob saw there? What was this staircase, this way up to heaven that the Lord was showing to Jacob? Jacob clearly walked away bewildered at the sight, unsure what he saw. What was that stair that led to the Lord?
It was Jesus. God gave Jacob a picture of his great-great-great… grandson that night at Bethel. Jesus said in John 1:51, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The stairway to heaven isn’t something that can be bought or sold, earned or constructed. That stairway is Christ himself.
How do we ascend to God? How does God come down to us? How can we possibly know there is a God or be sure that he love us? The answer that God gave to Jacob (who wasn’t sure he wanted to follow his father’s God; 28:20-22) was Christ. And that answer still hasn’t changed.