Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:1-22

Where were you when you met the Lord? How did it happen? Perhaps some of you, like me, grew up going to church. My mother was a true believer in Christ and my father always went to church too and I believe he also later came to a personal faith in Christ.

I remember going to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and church camp. I attended confirmation class and professed to have believed in Jesus Christ. I remember praying with my mom for Jesus to come into my heart at a young age. Was I saved then? Probably not, but these things laid the foundation for faith that would become real and personal for me in my college years. My later years of high school and beginning of college were proof enough that my profession of faith was not real. My hidden sin and depraved heart became more open and unrestrained.

In my second year at the Air Force Academy a fellow cadet invited me to Bible Study at the Baptist Student Union in Colorado Springs. There I met some young people who seemed to be really living out their faith in Jesus Christ, like my mother had. They seemed to have the real thing, something I was sorely lacking. My sin became even more evident to me in that light. One night after hearing the BSU director, Don Gurney share the gospel message, my friend told me about how he had trusted Christ. That night, realizing my sin and my need for a Savior, I met the Lord Jesus Christ for real as I repented of sin and believed in the Lord. And my life was changed forever.

Your story of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ may not sound exactly like mine, but wasn’t there a point in your life when you can truly say that the Lord called you to believe in Him and you responded in faith? Our journeys of faith are as varied as there are people here. But one thing is sure—coming to know the Lord changes you. At that point you may not yet be all that God will transform you into, but you are also not the same as you were before either.

In Genesis 28 Jacob has an encounter with the Lord God. Those of you who have been with us in our study of the book of Genesis know that Jacob comes from a heritage of faith. His grandfather Abraham was called by God and blessed to receive a covenant from the Lord. God promised to bless Abraham, to make of him a great nation, and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. Through his promised seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham believed the Lord and was accounted righteous by faith. Abraham passed on the covenant to his son Isaac. The Lord was with Isaac, blessed him, and gave to him the same covenant promises. Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Before they were born, the Lord chose Jacob over Esau. God will continue His covenant with Abraham’s descendants through Jacob.

But prior to Genesis 28, I don’t see much evidence in Jacob of a life of faith in God. Yes, unlike Esau who despised his birthright, Jacob desired it. He even went to the extreme measure of deceiving his aging father to receive his blessing. But his coveting and lying revealed a selfish motivation. In Genesis 27:20 Jacob referred to the God of Abraham and Isaac as “the LORD your God,” not his own God that he knows and trusts. That will change in this chapter.

Genesis 28:1-9 sets the stage for Jacob’s encounter with the Lord. Here we see,

 1. Jacob’s Farewell & Esau’s Folly (28:1-9)

Remember from Genesis 27 that Esau was deeply resentful after Jacob stole the blessing from their father and planned to kill his brother. In Genesis 27:41-46 Rebekah formulates a plan for Jacob to escape the hateful intentions of Esau. She would arrange for him to spend time with her brother Laban in Haran (Gen. 27:43). The Genesis 27:46 describes the skillful manipulation of Isaac by Rebekah, leading him to the inevitable conclusion that Jacob should be sent away to Haran, the city of her brother Laban: And Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth, like these who are the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?” She never told Isaac what to do; she just spelled things out in such a way that Isaac could reasonably do nothing else. It’s little wonder then that Isaac did what is recorded in Genesis 28:1-2,

1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, and said to him: “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. 2 Arise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and take yourself a wife from there of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.

Then in Genesis 28:3-4 Isaac pronounced a blessing upon Jacob before he leaves for the region of Padan Aram. There Isaac speaks to Jacob, saying,

3 “May God Almighty bless you, And make you fruitful and multiply you, That you may be an assembly of peoples; 4 And give you the blessing of Abraham, To you and your descendants with you, That you may inherit the land In which you are a stranger, Which God gave to Abraham.” (Gen. 28:3–4)

Isaac was no longer determined to give the blessing to Esau, but intentionally passed on the covenant blessings of Abraham to his younger son, Jacob. Isaac’s gave his first blessing to Jacob not willingly and knowingly, but by deception. It is not as if that first blessing didn’t count. Isaac clearly thought that it counted. But Jacob may have wondered if he was really blessed of the Lord, given the way that he got the blessing. 

Isaac prayed for three promises upon Jacob in this blessing. First was the blessing of many descendants. Second that God would give him the blessing of Abraham. And third, that his descendants would inherit the land of promise—the land in which Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob, were strangers. These are the same promises God made to Abraham and to Isaac—now passed on to Jacob.

Now in Genesis 28:5 Isaac sent Jacob away: “5 So Isaac sent Jacob away, and he went to Padan Aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau.

The mention of Esau at the end of Genesis 28:5 introduces a final contrast between Jacob and Esau:

6 Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Padan Aram to take himself a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan,” 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and had gone to Padan Aram. 8 Also Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan did not please his father Isaac. 9 So Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife in addition to the wives he had. (Gen. 28:6-9).

Esau finally figured out that his Canaanite wives were a grief to Isaac and Rebekah (a fact we have been aware of sin the end of Genesis 26). So he married a daughter of his uncle Ishmael. Esau seems unaware that Ishmael did not represent the spiritual line of promise. Again he is shown to be spiritually clueless, while Jacob is said to be obedient to his father.

That brings us to,

2. God’s Revelation to Jacob (28:10-15)

Genesis 28:10-11 set the stage for Jacob’s encounter with God:

10 Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep.

Let’s step into Jacob’s sandals for a moment. He had just lied to his blind, old father to cheat his brother. Esau is angry enough to kill. Jacob had gotten what he always wanted, the birthright and the blessing, but now he has to leave it all behind to run for his life. Wouldn’t you be feeling guilty over your past, confused about the present, and anxious about the future?

It’s significant that God reveals Himself to Jacob at this point in his life. This is the first time the Lord got Jacob’s attention. It happened at the point when Jacob was surely aware of his great need. One way or another, God brings each of us to that point before He breaks through in our lives. Often, as was the case with Jacob, it’s when we first leave the shelter of home. Listen, if you have been raised in a Christian home, there has to come a point in your life when you must believe in Jesus Christ yourself. No one gets to heaven riding on the faith of their parents or grandparents.

Here is where we see God break through in Jacob’s life:

 12 Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

At Jacob’s point of need, God gave him a strange dream. In the dream, a ladder, or stairway, went from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. The Lord spoke to Jacob from above. How should we understand this? I think it is best understood by considering three things (Deffinbaugh): (a) the words of God to Jacob; (b) the words spoken by Jacob; and (c) the words of our Lord in John 1:51.

Jacob saw and heard the LORD, who revealed himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. It does not appear that Jacob was pursuing the Lord, but the Lord pursued him and spoke to him. The words spoken by God are very similar to previous promises God made to Abraham and to Isaac. Isaac’s pronouncement that passed on the blessing of Abraham to Jacob (Gen. 28:4) was now confirmed by God Himself.

13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. 14 Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” (Gen. 28:13-15).

The LORD promised to always be with Jacob: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” The LORD was seen in heaven, but the ladder signified the LORD’s presence and activity upon the earth. Abraham and Isaac had enjoyed the presence of the LORD with them, now Jacob will have that assurance as well.  

The LORD also reassured Jacob of His special plan for the land of Canaan, which he was about to leave. God said to Jacob, “the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants” (Gen. 28:13) and “Iwill bring you back to this land” (Gen 28:15). The ladder had it’s top in heaven, but it’s base was set down in Canaan, indicating that that place was a special place. God’s would do a special work there in the years to come. The LORD would bring Jacob back to the land.

The LORD also reassured Jacob of His special plan for His descendants: “Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” As Moses writes Genesis the initial fulfillment of this promise through the birth of the nation of Israel, is coming to pass. Israel needs to know their destiny to possess the land and to bless the nations. Of course, we know that this promise finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who would come into the world through the nation of Israel. God sent His Son through Israel as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). It is by faith in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” There is no greater blessing than to have your sins for given and to be reconciled to God. Christ came to give that blessing, not only to Jacob’s descendants, but to all the nations of the earth.

Finally we see,

 3. Jacob’s Response to God (28:16-22)

16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 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!”

Immediately Jacob was aware of God’s presence. He did not doubt it or question it. Having awaken from his sleep he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16). He knew God had been with Isaac and Abraham, but now he knows the Lord is with him, even in this place that is miles away from his father. Jacob had not known this about God before. He knew it now.

Jacob’s response to the presence of God was fear: 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!” (Gen. 28:17). This is the response of men when then behold the glory of the LORD. They often tremble with fear and fall down before the LORD as if dead (Isaiah 6:5; Matt. 17:6; Revelation 1:17). We are to worship the Lord our God with a godly fear, a holy reverence for His majesty. Moses said to the Israelites before they came into the promised land, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” (Deut. 10:12). The New Testament writer of Hebrews exhorts us, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” (Heb. 12:28).

What does Jacob do because he fears God and knows he has been in the presence of God?  First, Jacob set up a pillar:

18 Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. 19 And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously.  (Genesis 28:18-19).

The pillar was to serve as a memorial. It marked a place to which he would return to build an altar and worship God. When Jacob poured out the oil upon the rock it was an act of worship. He renamed the place Bethel, meaning house of God.

Next Jacob made a profession of faith:

20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, 21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.” (Gen. 28:20-21).

Some commentators thought that when Jacob says “if” here that it is like Jacob is trying to strike a deal with God. While Jacob’s faith is certainly immature at this point, I am inclined to view the “ifs” more in the sense of “since.” God had just assured Jacob of his presence with him, so Jacob responds, “If that’s so …  then the LORD shall be my God” I think the idea is that Jacob says, “If God has promised this to me … then the LORD shall be my God.” Jacob was professing faith in the promises of God.

Third, Jacob made a promise:

22 And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.” (Gen. 28:22).

Jacob planned to return, believing the word of God spoken to him. At that time he would build an altar and give a tithe to God. Jacob had a long way to go in his walk with God and many painful lessons to learn. But here was his start with God.

For our New Testament scripture reading we heard John 1:43-51. I chose this passage because there we find Christ’s interpretation of the vision that was shown to Jacob of the ladder to heaven and the angels ascending an descending upon it. In asking the question, “What does this vision mean?” we would be wise to pay careful attention the words of Jesus. Remember that in John 1 a man named Nathaniel was amazed because Jesus knew that he was sitting under a fig tree when Philip had approached him. Nathaniel responded to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Listen again to Jesus’ response to him. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Because I said to you, “I saw you under the fig tree,” do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And He said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” (John 1:50–51).

Jesus was clearly referring to Genesis 28 when He spoke of heaven being opened and of angels ascending and descending. But strangely, there is no mention of the ladder. And why is that? It is because Jesus claimed to be the ladder Himself! To Nathaniel he said, “you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”! The “Son of Man” was often Jesus’ way of referring to Himself. It reveals Him to be both human and divine (see. Dan. 7:13).

The ladder shown to Jacob in the dream signified Christ. It revealed to Jacob that God would provide a way for man to be reconciled to Him. God would provide a mediator—a Savior who would bridge the chasm of sin that separated God and man. Jesus Christ is that ladder, His is the door; He is the way; He is the narrow gate. He is the One who connects heaven and earth, Paul writes about Him, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1 Timothy 2:5–6).

Let me ask you today, “Have you come to Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life?” He said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). God is making His appeal to you today through His word. Turn from your sin, believe in Jesus—that He died for your sins on the cross and was raised from the dead. Trust in Him alone for salvation.

As we come to the Lord’s table today know this, Jesus Christ is in this place. Fear the LORD your God, worship Him, profess your faith in Him, confess your sins before Him, and come, receive the bread and the cup giving thanks for the once for all sacrifice for sins paid by Christ on the cross for you.  

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