An oft-mentioned but little understood biblical reference is “Jacob’s Ladder.” It comes from a story about the patriarch of the nation of Israel, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. It is difficult to point to a more pivotal figure in the history of Israel than Jacob, the person whose name is changed to “Israel” and whose twelve sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The story of Jacob’s courtships and marriages reflects archaic practices and understandings that teach us little about family values, but Jacob’s journey and blessings from God teach us much about God and his plan for the redemption of humankind. In Genesis 28, Jacob leaves his mother and father (Isaac and Rebekah), fleeing from the wrath of his cheated brother (Esau) and journeys north to his relative Laban.
On the way, Jacob sleeps rough in the countryside. One night, he is given a marvelous dream in which the promise of the land and of a great nation originally given to Abraham is reiterated to Jacob, designating him as the chosen heir (not Esau). But this is not new. We have heard this promise several times before in Genesis. This time, though, the dream-vision reveals a staircase (or “ladder”) extending from earth to heaven. Jacob witnesses angels ascending and descending this hidden passage, moving freely from God to mankind.
He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Genesis 28:12)
In a little noticed encounter in the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus praises his future disciple, Nathanael, for his demonstrated faith. Nathanael responds with a Messianic confession,
Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel. (John 1:49)
Jesus, rather than basking in this praise, pushes Nathanael with a “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” moment, telling him,
You will see greater things … You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)
This is clearly an allusion to the vision of Jacob, the stairway to heaven full of angels. In Jesus’ interpretation, he himself is the ladder. Jesus is the connection between heaven and earth.
What does this have to do with Christmas?
Often, we understand the birth of Jesus as the descent of God to earth to dwell with men and women in human form. This is true, but there is more to the story. Jesus comes to us not simply as an emissary, but as a bridge spanning the gap between sinful humanity and holy God. In the English version of the 14th century Christmas song, In Dulci Jubilo, one of the verses has these words:
Good Christian men, rejoice,
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has opened the heav’nly door,
And man is blessed forevermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!
Prayer: Lord, may we not forget the door to heaven that was opened by Jesus, your Son. May we take joy in the spiritual stairway he provides, the great mediator between human beings and you, our Creator and Father. He was born for this! We thank you for this great gift. In his name we pray, Amen.
Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University