THE MYSTIC MEANING
OF JACOB’S LADDER
Jacob’s ladder is a brilliant image that lights up the Torah with a view of
the faithfulness of God to His stumbling children. Jacob had just deceived his father in an attempt to receive
the birthright that was rightfully his. Older brother Esau was so furious that he vowed to kill Jacob.
His mother advised him to flee to Haran to save his life and find a wife. Along with the grief he felt
over separating from his mother whom he would never see again, he was oppressed with fear for his life
and guilt over his sin. He was afraid he had brought down God’s curse on his head. He had made a mess of things.
Exhausted from the flight, he slept on the bare ground with only a stone for a
pillow. Surprisingly, God appeared to him in a dream of a ladder that reached all the way down to
earth where he was, and all the way to heaven where God was. The angels were ascending heavenward,
suggesting that they had been down on earth with him all the way on his lonely journey. Heaven had
not broken off contact with him! And the Lord Himself appeared to him with the words, “I am
the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
Then the Lord said, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you
go.” Not only were the angels with him but God was with him too! The Lord recognized that
Jacob’s motives in craving the birthright were good, even though his method of obtaining it
was faulty. Esau had wanted only the material blessings -- the inheritance, the promise of prosperity.
Jacob craved the spiritual blessings -- intimacy with God, becoming the head of the Chosen People and
the progenitor of the Messiah through whom all the earth would be blessed. How much God loved Jacob!
As his life progressed through many heartaches and sorrows, God appeared to him many times.
When Jacob awoke in the darkness, he was thrilled to think that that lonely place
was “the gate of heaven.” Today when life gets difficult and God seems far away, the
“ladder to heaven” still reaches down to those who will look up. Every place can become
a “gate of heaven” to the one who trusts in God.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus suggested the meaning of Jacob’s ladder. He
had just met Nathanael, a future disciple, who had doubted whether anyone who grew up in Nazareth
could be the Messiah. When Jesus saw him, he said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom is no
guile!” When Nathanael acted surprised that Jesus knew about him, Jesus exclaimed, Are you
surprised that I know about you? “You will see greater things than these. . . . You will see
heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:47-51).
Here Jesus was claiming to be Jacob’s ladder -- the angels were ascending
and descending upon Him, the Son of man. What did He mean by this? He announced that through him the
lines of communication between earth and heaven were opened up.
John’s gospel claims that Jesus was God, that He was with the Father in the
creation of the world (John 1:1-3). As God, He was the Creator. But to be the Savior of the world
required that He be something more. Isaiah reveals that as “the Arm of the Lord,” He needed to bear the sins of humanity and die for them.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6).
He was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people
. . . he makes himself an offering for sin
(v. 10) . . .
. . . and he shall bear their iniquities
Moses had pleaded with God to bear the iniquity of his people:
“Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods
of gold. But now, if thou wilt bear their sin-- and if not, blot me, I pray thee out of thy book
which thou hast written” (Exodus 32:31-32).
As God, it was impossible for Him to bear the sins of humanity and suffer the penalty for sin,
which is death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19). As God He could not die. God is life, the source of life for all
creation. He had to become a human being -- “the Son of man” -- to die for human sin. And
so Isaiah predicted that God would be born in human flesh.
“Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name,
Immanuel” [God with us] (Isaiah 7:14).
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given; . . .
and his name will be called
“Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”
Jesus taught that he came down to earth to give his life for the salvation of the
world. The Son of man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28; see also John
As the God/man, Jesus was well able to be the Savior of the world.
If Jesus were just a man, he would have only one life to give -- totally inadequate
to assume the penalty for the world’s sins. But as the Creator of the universe, his life had value
far exceeding even the lives of all who have ever lived on this planet. As the Creator of an infinitely
huge universe, His life had infinite value. He was able to bear the sins of the world and die for them.
His death was more than adequate to pay the price.
Jesus’ humanity has another great value. As a fellow human being, he is able
to represent humanity in the courts of heaven. He is able to be our faithful high priest. A high priest
taken from among men is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset
with weakness (Hebrews 5:2). In the same way
we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one
who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw
near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews
If Jesus were God only, he could not reach all the way down to grasp the hand of
the lowest sinner. If he were human only, he could not lift sinners up to the throne of heaven. But
since he is both God and man, he is able to be the connecting link between earth and heaven. He is
1 Read the story in Genesis 28:10-22.
2 See Gen. 27:12.
3 How the God of the vast universe humbled Himself to identify
Himself this way! To be known (later) as “the God of Israel,” He risked being thought of
as a tribal God (as Chemosh was the god of Moab, Dagon the god of the Philistines, and Marduk the god
of the Babylonians). But He went further than that and called Himself the God of single individuals -
“the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac”!
4 Isaiah 53:1-2.
5 Commonly translated, “If thou wilt forgive their
sin,” the Hebrew word nasa’ has the basic meaning, bear or carry.
6 This verse initially applied to the birth of Isaiah’s
own son (see Isa. 8:3) who was a sign that Judah would be delivered from Syria and Israel (vv. 5-15).
But Isaiah’s child was a sign of someone else (8:16), the greater Child predicted in 9:6-7.