In 19th-century America, a generation of oppressed slaves sang a spiritual about “Jacob’s Ladder.” The repetitive, rhythmic lyrics about climbing higher and higher helped them envision themselves on a hard journey to a better place.
The original story is about a great ladder reaching up to heaven, and it’s as down-to-earth as the man who dreamed it. According to Genesis, Jacob is not the kind of person you’d want to do business with. Nor is he someone we’d want around the family table. Described by the Bible as a born liar, Jacob’s early years are marked by fraud and deceit. After boldly lying to get his father’s blessing, he leaves home to avoid being killed by the older brother he has cheated.
On the run, however, Jacob’s life takes a surprising turn. When night comes, he makes a pillow out of a rock, falls asleep, and dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. On this ladder, he sees angels going up and down (Genesis 28:10-12). Above the ladder, Jacob sees one who identifies Himself as the God of his fathers Abraham and Isaac.
As the dream continues, God tells Jacob that He is going to give him the land on which he is sleeping. That, however, turns out to be the local news. The global part of the dream promises that through Jacob’s children all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 28:13-14). Then, for the road ahead, God promises to be Jacob’s ever-present protector and provider (Genesis 28:15).
When Jacob wakes up, he is overwhelmed with the sense that he is in the house of God and at the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:16-17).
With that background, let’s go forward 2,000 years. Rumor has it that the long-awaited hope of Israel has come. A few Jewish fishermen of Galilee, living in the lakeshore village of Bethsaida, have come to the conclusion that they have found the long-awaited Savior of Israel. One of these men, Philip, finds his brother Nathanael and says, “ ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ And Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’ ” (John 1:45-46 NKJV).
What happens next surprises Nathanael. As he approaches the teacher from Nazareth, he hears Jesus say, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” (John 1:47 NKJV).
What did Jesus mean? Why would he refer to a common man like Nathanael as an Israelite who wasn’t lying?
At this point, it might help to imagine Nathanael’s ancestor Jacob, the father of Israel, standing quietly in the background. As if to match Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus seems to say something like, “Well, look at this, an honest man from the likes of Jacob.”
Jesus makes a point to affirm Nathanael as someone who says what he thinks. Then seemingly to tease such candor, the Teacher says things about Nathanael that a mere man would not have known (John 1:48). Nathanael hears enough to show that he understands why his brother has brought him to Jesus. “Rabbi,” he declares, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 NKJV).
In different ways, both Jesus and Nathanael help to show the wonder of a God who can use some of the most unlikely people and places to show His love for all of us. That is what God had done with Jacob, and Jesus goes on to show that He wants Nathanael to make that connection. Working with Nathanael’s sense of wonder at having found the Son of God, Jesus promises that in the future Nathanael would see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51 NKJV).
Just as Jacob dreamed of a ladder bringing heaven to earth, Jesus predicts that Nathanael will see heaven coming to earth in “the Son of Man.”
Finally, in Jesus, we understand the meaning of Jacob’s ladder. From the beginning, God planned to show His grace to a world of people who are more like Jacob than we’d like to believe. In Jesus, the truth of heaven would come to earth to offer mercy and forgiveness to people who are born with bad blood running through their veins. Jacob’s dream foreshadows how far God would descend to bring people like Jacob and us into His family.
Father in heaven, in the story of a born liar and a great ladder, You have enabled us to see our own hearts—and the inexpressible grace of Your Son. In the rhythm of our days and in the hardness of our ways, we join Nathanael and Jacob in the wonder that You know and love us—far better than we know or love You.