Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | February 11, 2008

What is the significance of Jesus equating Himself with Jacob’s ladder? (Lesson 5: Question 8 Answer)

8.  What is the significance of Jesus equating Himself with Jacob’s ladder?

We now encounter the culmination of our text in the last three verses where our Lord alludes to the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis.  We will be examining the significance of our Lord’s statement where He explicitly equates Himself with the fulfillment of this vision.  In order to perform this task we will be focusing on the final three verses of our text as follows:

49Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he 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 response our Lord gives to Nathanael certainly strikes a chord within him, which causes him to respond in exclamation.  Although, some may seek to speculate what Nathanael was doing beneath the tree that our Lord was referring to, without any biblical data on the matter we will refrain from pursuing such considerations.  The response of Nathanael indicates that after this short encounter with our Lord, he is prepared to acknowledge Him as the Messiah.  This is evident in his use of the term King of Israel, however the fact that he uses the term Son of God is an interesting one.  The term is clearly an acknowledgment of Jesus’ divinity, as the Jews would later accuse Jesus of making Himself equal with God by the use of this term (John 5:18).  Moreover, Nathanael’s use of the term at the beginning of his acknowledgment of the Messiah suggests that he derived this idea from the old covenant Scriptures.  In passages such as Psalm 110, the astute Israelite would have had the expectation that Messiah was not only the Son of David, but the divine Son of God (Matthew 22:41-45).

When our Lord promises Nathanael that he “will ‘see’ greater things” he uses the verb ψη, which is the future passive of οράω. The verb being in the passive voice infers that Nathanael will not be the one seeking out the greater thing, but he will be a passive recipient of this vision.  In the next verse the same verb is used when our Lord says “you will see heaven opened”, however switches from singular to plural along with the plural pronouns (from σοι to ὑμῖν).  This suggests that our Lord is no longer speaking to just Nathanael in the final verse, but is addressing all the people around Him.  More than likely it is the other disciples who were with Him at the time.

In His response our Lord does not use the same phrase that Nathanael uses to refer to Himself (i.e. Son of God).  He refers to Himself as the Son of Man, which is the first use of the term in this Gospel.  This term, however seems to be used by our Lord more than any other in the other synoptic Gospels.  It seems that our Lord is not affirming Nathanael’s acknowledgment of His divinity by changing the title from Son of God to Son of Man.  Although, some may think that this is referring to our Lord’s humanity rather than His divinity, it also is a reference to His divinity.  When our Lord uses this term He more than likely is appealing to Daniel 7:13-14, which is another acknowledgment of His divinity.  This is substantiated when He uses the title before the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 22:67-70, and based on their response confirm the divine meaning of this title. With the use of this term our Lord is clearly referring to His glorification that will occur upon His ascension into heaven, which is what the vision in Daniel is describing.

As we’ve already indicated in our opening comments our Lord’s comments here bear the fingerprints of the vision of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-18).  This would have also been evident for the disciples who would have no doubt been familiar with the story.  In Jacob’s vision he sees what is called a ladder in the text, which more than likely would have been steps on a stairway.  These would have been akin to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), which would probably have resembled the ziggurat towers of the Near East.104  Ziggurats were an ancient Mesopotamian pyramid-shaped tower with a square base, rising in stories of ever decreasing size, with a terrace at each story and a temple at the very top.  In his vision Jacob sees angels ascending and descending upon this “ladder” with the Lord of glory at the top.  Jacob then names the place where he had the visionבּית (bayith) אלהים (‘ĕlôhîym) or “house of God” what would become known as Bethel.  Although, we can affirm that our Lord is referring to His glorification in heaven, it seems reasonable to conclude that He is also alluding to His being the fulfillment of this vision and the temple itself. 

The temple was, during the Israelite theocracy, the only accessible place on earth to enter into God’s presence for centuries.  This, however, was only a shadow of the reality to come in Jesus Christ who would become the “gate of heaven” for all.  He would be the only one worthy to ascend into the presence of the Lord through His descent to the earth to accomplish His foreordained mission (John 3:13). The significance of this route is astonishing, since it is completely antithetical to methods developed in man-made religion.  As a result, the common reaction of men would be to conclude that it is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:22-25), which we will attempt to explain why in the following.

The example referenced above of the Tower of Babel is indicative of the philosophy employed by fallen man in religion.  In his development of religion man’s innate tendency is to ascend into the “heavens” through his own efforts.  The goal is to achieve a higher level of being, to reach God in His glory splendor or achieve connection with the Other (world soul).  If the Ziggurat towers were descended from the pattern employed at Babel we could assume that it would have had a temple at the very top.  Thus, through his own efforts and wisdom man was seeking to create his own “gate of heaven”.  This innate tendency was later manifested in apostate Israel who could not resist the temptation of seeking God in the “high places” (2 Kings 17:8-10) rather than the place He prescribed.  

This innate tendency of the natural man took form in philosophy through the Greeks.  Although, with the Greeks we do not find the urge to reach the “gate of heaven” through architecture and building, they did seek to acquire a higher level of being.  This acquisition was performed through the implementation of the “pure form” of ideas.105 This was articulated by the philosopher Plato whose impact on ideas and thought are manifested throughout history into our own day.  The Platonic view introduced a dichotomy between the body and soul, which develops into a dualistic distinction between spirit and matter.  This dualism has left its mark on religion in many forms. Nonetheless, it was most evidently seen in the extremes that were implemented in the various forms of Gnosticism.

It is difficult to provide a concise definition of Gnosticism due to its diverse forms and strands that developed over time.  Although, Gnosticism is commonly referred to as Platonism “run wild” or “on steroids”, it is proper also to acknowledge that is an amalgamation of Greek and Near Eastern ideas.106   The important point for us to understand is that the dualism between spirit and matter introduced by Platonism takes a radical form in Gnostic thought.  In Gnosticism the goal was for the disembodied soul to ascend through the planetary spheres, “climb the ladder”, into the immaterial realm of eternal perfection and ultimately be absorbed into God. 107 This goal of the unmediated ascent into the presence of the majestic and glorified Lord is characteristic of the goal of the tower builders at Babel. 

Furthermore, the goal of being absorbed into the glory and majesty of God bears resemblance in the Eastern religion’s idea of Nirvana. Upon further examination of these forms of religion we also find dualism and the innate tendency for man to ascend through his own efforts.  In Hinduism and Buddhism the belief in Karma provides incentive for man to perform good deeds and ascend the reincarnation scale into higher forms of being until Nirvana or bliss is reached.108  The interesting component of these forms is that the person is advised to look to the “god” within, connecting with the world soul, and acquiring the ability to achieve the outward righteousness necessary to ascend. The tendency of self-salvation within man is another characteristic of the tower builders at Babel. 

We can summarize then that through all its shapes and forms the development of the religion of man share some common elements.  The innate inclination to take salvation into our own hands through our own efforts is an indelible characteristic in the religion of man.  Although, outwardly we can demonstrate the appearance of righteousness (Colossians 2:20-23), it is not indicative of our true nature (Jeremiah 17:9).  This works salvation approach to religion then initiates another common element, which is an inherent predisposition to ascend or erect towers into the heavens in order to “climb the ladder” rung by rung into the presence of God.  Unfortunately, those within the covenant community are not immune to these intrinsic tendencies that permeate our thinking in religion.  Later in this Gospel we will find Phillip, who was present in this text to hear Christ’s declaration, deny the efficacy of Christ’s words here with his appeal to “Show us the Father” (John 14:6-11).  

The religion of man, as demonstrated by the tower builders at Babel, incessantly seeks to ascend into glory through their own efforts.  As we will discuss in our next section, this vain attempt to “climb the ladder” cannot save us from our miserable estate.  This is where biblical religion is antithetical to the religion of man and considered foolishness to the unregenerate.  Rather than advocating an ascent into heaven, biblical religion focuses on the descent of the God-man.  Rather than glory, majesty, pomp and the beatific vision for the truly religious, biblical religion emphasizes a bloody splintered cross, weakness, and humiliation.  There is no dichotomy between spirit as good and matter as evil, when the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9).

Christ is the ladder of Jacob’s vision and Christ alone can provide access into heaven to fallen men (John 14:6).  He is God clothed in flesh (1 Timothy 3:16) who had to condescend or stoop to our level in order to accommodate us in our weakness.  In His incarnation, Christ was not born in the high tower of a royal palace among luxuries, power and honor rather in a lowly stable among straw, animals and humility (Luke 2:7).  Although, it was His birthright He did not seek to ascend to the throne, but was rather lifted on a cross (John 12:32-34).  He did not attain righteousness by seeking solitude or avoiding contact with those in the flesh rather He interacted with the people of His day blessing the common elements of daily life (John 2:1-12).  In His role as our mediator Christ demonstrated that the dichotomy between spirit and matter was false.  The fact that He assumed flesh is indicative that this distinction made in man’s religion was not true.  As our redeemer He obeyed every word of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20) accomplishing the perfect righteousness required for one to ascend into heaven.  Thus, we are not obligated to “climb the ladder” in order to meet with God, since God has descended to our level already to be with us in Christ.

As sinful rebellious creatures we are not qualified to be in the presence of God amidst His majesty and glory.  However, we meet God in Christ (John 1:18) who bridges the impassable gulf that stood before us and the holy God.   This is a paradigmatic shift, which is completely contrary to the elements of man-made religion.  The ramifications of this truth on the life of the Christian are monumental.  As a result, we will continue our examination of this aspect of our text in the next section.

104 The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary edited by Allen C. Meyers (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing 1987), 116-117

105 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) 332-333
106 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) 250
107 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) 314
108 Michael Molloy Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge and Change (New York; McGraw Hill, Third Edition 2005) 133



  1. Great post.

    The natural man is truly a Platonic, Gnostic, climber.

  2. Thanks Ed, stay tuned for part 2 on this topic which will complete Lesson 5 and John chapter 1.

    I started chapter 1 last June :O

  3. […] our last section we discussed the inherent tendencies of man-made religion, which is to seek God where He is not […]

  4. […] solely the ability and authority to ascend into heaven (Romans 10:4-10).  All attempts by men to ascend up the ladder into the heavens by works apart from Christ will fail.  Moreover, those who seek to […]

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