When I was in seminary, I had a boss who took his family on a vacation to Boston. They wanted to go visit the ship Old Ironsides, but had not been able to get to it. Finally they found a policeman and asked him how to get the place. He pointed and said, “Do you see that building right over there. That is what you are looking for.” And my boss replied, “Officer, we’ve been able to see it for the last 2 hours, but what we need to know is how to get there!”
I suspect that is how some people may feel with respect to heaven. People know all about heaven and about God, but how do they get to heaven? The story of Jacob in Genesis 28 taught Jacob something very important about his relationship with God. This same story teaches us something very important about God and our getting to heaven. More specifically, this story reveals something about our Lord Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a few weeks. Over the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at a few passages from the Old Testament which describe the coming of the promised Messiah. These passages will help us especially realize what kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. Let’s read Genesis 28:10-22.
The story may be very familiar to many of you from when you were in Sunday School. However, the ladder is probably the most vivid thing of this story. There is the song, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.
Climbing up from earth to heaven, soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross.
Sinner do you love my Jesus, soldiers of the cross.
If you love Him why not serve Him, soldiers of the cross.
Rise, shine and give God glory, soldiers of the cross.
The picture this song brings to mind is of battle weary soldiers struggling up this ladder to heaven motivated by their great love for Jesus. The underlying message seems to be: If you work hard enough at it and know the right place to climb, you can get to heaven. That song, catchy as it is, completely misses the point of this story. Still the idea of there being a direct route to heaven that you can climb yourself by being good enough is very appealing. Moreover, others take this story and apply it to when they die and envision angels coming down and escorting them up a grand staircase to heaven.
The dream’s significance begins to make sense by looking at the events leading up to it. God first came to Abraham and promised him that he would make a great nation from him and promised to give Abraham a land, a place to live. God also promised Abraham that he will be a God to him and all his descendants. Later on all these promises are also given to Isaac, Abraham’s son. God then told Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, that her son, Jacob, will be the one to receive all these blessings. It is important to note that God says this before Jacob is even born. Clearly God is the one who is giving and making sure that all the promises are being fulfilled.
However, with Jacob the pattern of God giving and man receiving is altered significantly. Almost immediately Jacob and Rebekah try to work things out on their own. Jacob bribes his brother Esau to sell his “birthright.” The birthright enabled the holder to have twice as many possessions and to be second in power in the family after the father. Jacob knew that he would receive this from God, but decided to take matters into his own hands anyway. Later on Jacob tricks Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau in order to receive the blessing that God had already assured Jacob would receive. However, while Jacob has his father’s blessing, he is now running for his life. What good is a blessing if he is not even home to enjoy the benefits?
Now it is at this point in this story that God comes to Jacob in a dream. Up to this point, Jacob knew all about the promises that God had made to him because his mother had told him all about them; but he had not received them directly from God. Now God personally assures Jacob that God will give him the promised blessings. However, the fact that God tells him this in a dream forces Jacob to realize that he really has nothing to do in receiving these promises. We have little or no control over what we dream and, in fact, we are passive and helpless within our dreams. There is no room for Jacob to think that he will be the one to get these blessings. Jacob was totally passive in receiving this message from God.
God wanted Jacob to know that God would fulfill his promises and it would depend on God’s actions, not Jacob’s. Jacob’s actions had been like that of Annie in the musical of the same name. Annie is chosen to spend some time at Daddy Warbucks’ house so she can benefit from his incredible wealth. She, however, cannot grasp that all the benefits can actually be for her. When she arrives, she is asked what she would like to do first. She replies that she will begin scrubbing the walls and then the windows. She didn’t understand that her visit there was not for her to work but to benefit from Daddy Warbucks’ wealth. Jacob too needed to realize that his blessing would not come from his work but from God’s grace.
What God will do is seen first in the words that God speaks in verses 13-15. Again these are the familiar promises, but now they are given to Jacob directly. God promises the land Jacob is sleeping on and promises that Jacob’s descendants will become a great and prosperous nation. Moreover, Jacob and his descendants will be a blessing to all the earth. Sometimes these promises become rather familiar but this was very heady stuff. You who have children, imagine that God would somehow come to you and tell you that your child will become a great leader; that would be thrilling! This is what God did, only God promised that Jacob’s children would become an entire great nation! But God doesn’t stop there; he also includes great personal promises to Jacob. In verse 15, God says, “I am with you wherever you go and will watch over you and will bring you back to this land and I will not leave you until I have done all I have promised.” All these great things will happen to Jacob because of God’s work, not Jacob’s deceitful planning.
The stairway that Jacob sees in the dream reinforces the same theme. Many suggestions have been given over time as to what this stairway symbolizes. Some say it represents the Bible or is a symbol of God’s special providential care. Others say it represents personal communion and fellowship with God. However, God uses this picture to emphasize what he has been telling Jacob all along. Very simply, a picture is worth a thousand words. For example, I could tell you of the beauty of some mountains. I could describe the sparkling lakes and the dazzling snow-covered peaks. Or I could show a picture of the thing I am trying to describe. The picture will make a bigger impression than my words.
The stairway represents what God has been talking about; and that is the covenant. In the covenant, God gives blessings and benefits to his people. They in turn are to obey him and honor him. That two-way relationship between God and Jacob is seen in the angels. The stairway also shows Jacob where he is in relation to God. God is above as the sovereign ruler and mover; Jacob is below looking up at God. The stairway represents close fellowship with God, but within the right relationship of covenant.
Now what does that mean for us who are in the New Testament? This stairway anticipates what Jesus Christ did for us for our salvation. Man was expected to keep God’s law with perfect obedience. However, our sin separated us from God. Now Jesus bridges that gulf and allows us to have a close relationship with God. In fact, Jesus himself says he is that kind of mediator or stairway. In John 1:51, Jesus tells his disciples that they will see “heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In John 14:6, Jesus teaches that he alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one can come to the Father except through him. Jesus is the only way that we can have any relationship with God and receive the covenant blessings that God our Father is so eager to give.
III. Finally, what is the response to the dream?
How does Jacob respond when he awakens? Look at verses 16-22. First, he is filled with a great sense of awareness of God’s presence. This was not just an ordinary dream and he knew it. He knew that God himself was there and had truly spoken to him there. He then is immediately filled with a sense of fear and awe of God. He has personally experienced the great God and so he knows that he is not just receiving an inheritance, but receiving God’s powerful grace. So Jacob cries out that this place is indeed the house of God or Bethel. He recognized that the only way to share in the blessings of God was to be a part of God’s covenant, which is in fact the “gate of heaven.” He had to have a relationship with God on God’s terms not his own.
Our response to God this Advent morning should follow similar lines. First, let’s admit our tendency to do some “ladder-climbing” to get to heaven. We want our good works to count for something in our salvation. We go to church regularly; or we do something nice for someone that we didn’t have to do. We suffer a bit of abuse for what we believe or we live a very good life and do good things. When we do good things, we like to think that maybe we have just climbed up another rung on the ladder to heaven.
But we must remember that Christ alone saves us. In this case, God brings the ladder, so to speak. He stretched it down to us when he sent Jesus to die for our sins. And in Jesus’ resurrection, he takes us up the ladder to heaven. The point is that we don’t get to heaven based on what we do. If we think that we need to do some things to contribute to our salvation, then we are really saying that what Jesus did was not enough. Jesus is the only way to the Father.
And let us too stand in awe as we consider what Jesus did to save us. The facts of God’s great salvation cannot become commonplace. We must stand in awe of God’s great love and bow down in humble thanksgiving. However, let’s not just stand there in awe with our mouths open. As was true for the people in the Old Testament, we are to be a blessing to all those around us; God is using us to spread his love to many around us. And that includes being a blessing to our Muslim neighbors and other refugees who need help after fleeing from their war-torn lands.
As we work in this task, let’s realize that there are many around us who are looking for a ladder to get to heaven. The thought of spending eternity in heaven is appealing but they don’t know how to get there. Many think it is what they do that makes all the difference. Many are simply and falsely assuming that when they die they will be gently escorted up the stairway to heaven no matter what they did. We need to tell others about the only way to heaven in this Advent season. We are called to be witnesses to these people in our words and actions. Our task, no matter who they may be, is to lovingly show them that the only way to heaven is Jesus. He is the only mediator between God and man. That truth is very comforting for us; are we willing to share it with others?