Jesus Crucified Is Jacob’s Ladder Between Earth and Heaven
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God” [Ephesians 4:17-18]. And earlier in Ephesians [2:1-2] we read, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world.”
How can the one who is dead in their sin – how can the one who is alienated from the life of God – be reconnected back to the life God? Your sin in thought, word, and deed brings death and hell and separates you from God. Is there now a bridge, or a ladder, that spans that divide between me and God? What is the ladder between the guilty person and an open heaven?
In our Old Testament reading, the patriarch Jacob sees that ladder. Jacob sees heaven opened and the ladder spanning earth to heaven. We read:
“Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 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! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.”
Jacob laid his head upon a rock. He slept. He saw this ladder spanning earth to heaven. Upon it, the angels of God were going up and down – ascending and descending – between heaven and earth. “And behold, the Lord stood above it.” Or, if you have a Bible with good footnotes, you’ll see that this might just as accurately say, “And behold, the Lord stood next to him (Jacob).”
The Lord was either standing atop the ladder, or down on the ground at the bottom of the ladder next to Jacob. Apparently, the language is ambiguous – it can go either way. And this is very fitting, either way, because, by means of this ladder, Jacob – who himself was at times devious and was a sinner – was with the Lord and the Lord was with him. The Lord was in that place [28:16].
Jacob, purely by God’s decision before Jacob’s birth, was the recipient and heir of the promise made to Abraham. Through Jacob’s offspring, the promised Savior would one day come. This was God’s doing, yet Jacob (whose name means “He cheats” [Gen. 25:26]) twice sought this blessing in less than honorable ways. Once Jacob bought his starving older-brother’s birth right for a bowl of lentil stew. Another time Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, whose eyesight was failing.
On this journey, however, Jacob has been sent by his father to seek a wife for himself from among the family tribe so that Jacob can raise up offspring for himself through whom that promise of the coming Savior would one day come.
Jacob himself is not necessarily out seeking God on this journey, yet God does come to him in that dream. In fact, after waking from the vision of the ladder, Jacob exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Jacob had not yet been aware that God was with him on this journey.
In fact, this passage continues past our reading today, and Jacob, a few verses down, says this: “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God” [Genesis 28:20-21]. It’s not completely clear that Jacob really, in heart, counted the Lord God as his God before this event. (In fact, once earlier, when speaking to his father Isaac, Jacob referred to God as “your God” – “the Lord your God” [Genesis 27:20].)
In the Church today – or, away from the Church today – there are many sons and daughters of believing parents who see God only as your God – mom and dad’s God – grandma and grandpa’s God – but they don’t yet see God as their God.
And, there are many more of us – you and I and them included – whose daily sins and sinfulness make us like the Gentiles – like the unbelieving world – and we ourselves become alienated from the life of God. Apart from the ladder between heaven and earth, upon which the angels descend and ascend, we would each indeed be lost to the darkness and despair of hell.
So, our question: What is that ladder that spans earth and heaven – that spans the divide between the sinner and God? Many centuries after Jacob had seen this ladder in his vision, our Lord Jesus Christ, while speaking to His soon-to-be-disciple Nathaniel, reveals what, or rather who, that ladder really is.
So, we’re fast-forwarding from Genesis to John 1:51. Just shy of 2,000 years after Jacob laid his head on a rock and saw this ladder, the man named Nathaniel sat under a fig tree in Israel. A little later, Nathaniel saw Jesus. And Jesus said, “I saw you under that fig tree, Nathaniel.” And Nathaniel is amazed and says, “You must be the Messiah!”
And then Jesus responds with these words: “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And then Jesus said to him, “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 ladder that Jacob saw is the ‘Son of Man’, Jesus Christ, who is Man and Lord, upon whom the angels of God ascend and descend between earth and heaven. Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ crucified on the cross – is the ladder that spans earth to a now open heaven for the guilty sinner. Jesus Christ crucified for you is the stairway that spans the gap from God down to you.
That is, for those whose dealings with others have been less than honest; for those who have deceived or manipulated; for those whose names could rightly mean “He cheats” or “She cheats”; for those who have engaged in the world’s sensuality or uncleanness; for those who have had corrupting talk come out of their mouths, instead of speaking what is good for building up [Ephesians 4:29]; …
… for those who have been ignorant of God in a darkened mind; for those who were not seeking God at all; for those who have so far seen God only as mom-and-dad’s-God, not their own God; and for many others – for all of you and me – for those who would repent of it all in the depth of their heart and who want to be better – the way back to God is always that God has already bridged that gap back down to you through Jesus on the cross.
God who stood atop the ladder now also stands at the bottom of the ladder – because the God-and-Man-Jesus is that ladder. The Lord became man – He has bridged the divine and the human – and, as the one who is God-and-man, He has carried man’s sin in Himself and has, Himself, died for man’s sin to put sin and guilt away for good. It is finished.
Your way to God, and God’s way to you, is that your sins are atoned for, forgiven, in the death of Jesus. Jesus Crucified is truly Jacob’s Ladder.
Jacob had a rock on which to lay his head in a certain place. He set that rock up and made it into an altar. And he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
You have a place, here, in your church, at your altar, where the bottom of that ladder sits on earth for you – where Jesus crucified is anchored into the earth for you. Where His Word is preached and where His Sacraments are given – that’s the place where the ladder reaches down. Rejoice every week that this place is “none other than the house of God” and “the gate of heaven” where Christ, your ladder, comes down to you. Amen.