Jacob's Ladder –
Sermon 4 of 11 from the Journeys with Jacob (Genesis 25-50) series
September 1992 – A long journey, a hard pillow, a guilty conscience, a heavy heart. These are the things that make men dream.
It had been two days since he had left home—
Esau seething in the background
Isaac waving goodbye.
Two days on a journey of 500 miles. Jacob is on his way from Beersheba to a place called Haran in a land called Paddam Aram. To get there you traveled north, then east across the Jordan River, then north again toward Damascus, then east to Tadmor, then a sharp turn north for the final leg of the journey, crossing the Euphrates River, finally arriving in Haran, which was located not far from the southern border of modern-day Turkey.
It was a journey backward in time for Jacob, backward because he was retracing the steps of his grandfather Abraham who came from Haran to the Promised Land many years ago. But Abraham left behind him a settle-ment of people, a clan that grew and prospered over the years. So it was natural that Rebekah would think of Haran when she cast about for a safe haven for her wayward youngest son.
It was far enough that Esau wouldn’t follow him there.
Yet there was family there, so Jacob wouldn’t be alone.
All in all, Haran was a sensible suggestion.
Rebekah’s plan was simple. By sending Jacob to Haran, she was putting him in a safe place for a few months until Esau’s anger passed away. Then she would send word for Jacob to come home. In the meantime, she hoped that her son would marry one of his relatives in Haran and eventually return home, bride in hand. It was a good plan, and in fact it came to pass, but not exactly as Rebekah envisioned.
On the Road to HaranAll of that was in the future when Jacob set out on his lonely journey to Haran. He’s been on the road now for two days.
Two days to walk.
Two days to think.
Two days to ponder.
Two days to wonder what might have been.
He left home so quickly. It wasn’t the beautiful send-off he wanted. No, he hurried out of town lest Esau should decide to take matters into his own hands. Jacob was running for his life, relationships broken, family ties destroyed.
Now, on the evening of the second day, as the sun sinks over the western horizon, Jacob stops for the night. He’s come to the outskirts of a city called Luz, a place unknown to him, a city filled with strange and possibly dangerous people. So filled with fear was Jacob that when he came to Luz, he dared not enter the city, even though night had fallen.
Outside the town, on a hillside strewn with rocks and boulders, Jacob made his bed. In that part of the world, night comes quickly. In the gathering darkness Jacob rests his head upon a large, flat stone.
I imagine he had a hard time sleeping that night. As he reminisced in his mind, I wonder if he thought about his family. Did he worry about his aging father? Did a silent tear slip down his cheek as he remembered waving goodbye to his mother? Did his face turn crimson in the darkness as he replayed his shameful deceit? Did a bullet of fear strike his heart as he thought about Esau’s pledge to kill him?
I’m sure he thought about all those things, and much more, as he tried to sleep on a rocky bed under the stars with a stone for a pillow. As the stars came out, and the strange sounds of night filled his ears, Jacob realized that for the first time in his life he was truly alone.
Did he not say to himself that night, “How did this ever happen to me?” Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, bearer of the promise of God, now running for his life. How did it happen?
A Stone PillowHe had only himself to blame. That much is sure. And I’m sure he didn’t argue that point at all. For he was the one who cheated his brother. He was the one who lied to his father. He was the deceiver. He was the scoundrel. He was the one who broke up his own family.
“Jacob, you fool. No wonder you sleep uneasily tonight. No wonder you dream strange dreams. Your heart is heavy because your conscience is guilty. Your hands are not clean. No wonder you can’t sleep tonight.”
Jacob got what he wanted. That night alone on the hillside, outside the city of Luz, resting his head on the stone pillow, he could only reflect on the terrible price he paid for the thing he wanted so much.
I pause to mention a point of some interest. They tell us that if you visit this area today, it doesn’t look much different than it did in Jacob’s day. Barren, strewn with rocks, it looks like a bleak moonscape. It was not the most likely place where a man would go to have an encounter with God. In fact, it’s the kind of place you might go if you were running from God.
At length he drifted off to an uneasy sleep. While he slept, he had one of the most famous dreams in history. Genesis 28:12 tells us what he saw: “He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord.”
God had never spoken to Jacob before. For all the years of his life, God had never spoken directly to him. To his grandfather Abraham—yes. To his father Isaac—yes. But to Jacob—no. For his whole life he had lived on the borrowed faith of his father and grandfather. He was raised in their faith, was taught their faith, knew their faith, and even believed their faith, but he had never had a personal experience with the God of his father and grandfather. To Jacob it was all second-hand reality.
The amazing point is that God now speaks to Jacob at the moment of his desperation. All that has happened is prologue. Even his deception and trickery was used by God to bring him to this precise moment in life. Now that he is running for his life, now that he is leaving the Promised Land, now that he has disgraced himself, now that he finally reached the bottom, at that exact moment, God speaks to Jacob. C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure and shouts to us in our pain. Pain, he said, is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleeping world. Now God moves to rouse Jacob even while he sleeps.
Stairway to HeavenIt happens in the form of a strange dream. In his dream Jacob saw a stairway (the Hebrew word is sullam. It can mean “ladder” but more typically means “stairway.") descending from heaven to earth. The key point is that Jacob sees this stairway resting on the earth right where he happened to be.
On the stairway Jacob saw the angels of God going up and down the stairs. It’s worth noting that not many people in the Bible ever saw angels. Most people lived their lives and never once saw an angel. But here and there, at certain critical moments in history, God allowed a few people to see his angels at work. It’s as if God would draw back the curtains at a crucial moment to let someone see the angels of God at work behind the scene. Jacob is one of those lucky few.
What are the angels doing? They are taking messages from earth up to heaven and messages from heaven down to earth. They are heavenly couriers who report to God concerning the situation on the earth. They also carry out God’s will—answering prayers, giving guidance, providing protection, fighting for the people of God, fending off the attacks of Satan.
At the top of the ladder stood God himself. Just think about that. Jacob at the bottom, God at the top, a stairway filled with angels in between. What does it mean?
Is God Too Busy to Help You?Let me answer the question this way. There was a reason why Jacob was a cheater. He cheated because he thought God was far away from him. He has the same picture of God that a lot of people have today—a God in heaven who wound up the universe like a giant clock, set it running, and then busied himself with other things. To Jacob, God was too big, too vast, too magnificent, too almighty to ever be concerned about someone like him. It wasn’t that Jacob’s view of God was too small. Not at all. Jacob viewed God as entirely transcendent, so far removed from the earth that he had no time to worry about the details of human life.
We all feel that way sometimes. “Maybe God loves me, I know the Bible says he does. But’s it’s a big world, and everyone’s got problems, and he’s got to take care of 5 billion people. How can God have time to worry about me?”
But that kind of thinking leads to a faulty conclusion. If God is not personal, if he’s not concerned about your life, then you are left pretty much on your own. After all, you’ve got the rule book, you’ve got the Ten Com-mandments, but after that, it’s every man for himself. So if you have to bend the rules, so be it. Nobody is going to take care of you but yourself. That’s just the way life works.
It sounds appealing, and can even be made to sound spiritual. That’s the way Jacob had lived for all these years. He cheated because he thought God either didn’t notice or didn’t care or was too busy to help him out. So Jacob consistently took matters into his own hands.
Jacob reasoned this way: “If God were here, I wouldn’t have to do things this way. But God’s not here. So I’ve got to take care of myself.”
“I Will Go With You”But Jacob is wrong. The message of the dream is this: “Jacob, I’m nearer to you than you think I am. Although I am in heaven and you are on earth, there’s a stairway that reaches from me to you. And my angels are constantly watching over you. They tell me what you need and I send them back to earth with my answers. I’m not very far away. In fact, I’m with you wherever you go. When you travel, my stairway travels with you. I was with you in Beersheba. I was with you when you tricked Esau. I was with you when you deceived your father. I am with you tonight. And I will be with you in Haran. Everywhere you go, I will go with you.”
That in a nutshell is what this dream is all about about. It’s a message about the nearness of God.
In order to help Jacob understand it, God reaffirmed the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac:
1. I will give you this land. (13)
2. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. (14)
3. All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you. (14)
4. I will watch over you wherever you go. (15)
5. I will bring you back to this land. (15)
6. I will not leave you. (15)
If that seems unimportant, it’s only because we aren’t today where Jacob was that night. If you study these words carefully, it becomes clear that God is meeting Jacob at the point of his personal need.
Think of all the needs that these words address:
Shame: “I am the God of your father Abraham.”
Betrayal: “I am the God of Isaac.”
Loss of his homeland: “I will give you this land.”
Insignificance: “All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”
Loss of his family: “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”
Fear of the future: “I am with you … wherever you go.”
Fear of Failure: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
As the saying goes, that’s as good as it gets. Jacob now receives the very same promise God gave his grandfather and his father. In addition, God promises to be with him while he is in Haran and to bring him back someday to the Promised Land. This is exactly what Jacob needed to hear on the eve of his journey to Haran:
“My son, I know who you are and I know what you’ve done. Nothing is hidden from me. I also know how frightened you are. Remember this: When you go to Haran, you won’t be going alone for I will go with you. And when your time in Haran is finished, I will bring you safely back home again. You have my sacred word on that.”
Think about it for a moment. At this point Jacob feels
Guilty about his past
Fearful of the future
Uncertain in the present.
To all of that, God simply says, “I will be with you.” It’s a total solution to guilt, fear and anxiety. Through all of this Jacob is learning the lesson that there is no place he can go where God is not already there.
My Greatest Spiritual Discovery of 1992Do you know what that truth is called? Until a few months ago I didn’t know it had a name. But just after I returned from Belize, I picked up a newsletter from The Caleb Project. It was an article about something called “the prevenient grace of God.” That means “the grace that goes before.” You might define it this way: “In every situation of life God is already at work before I get there. He is working creatively, strategically and redemptively for my good and his glory.” Wow! So many times I tend to limit my thinking to the fact that God is with me as I go through life. True, but that’s only part of the story. He’s not only with me now, he’s already way up the road ahead of me.
Think about it this way: While I am struggling with the problems of today, God is hard at work providing solutions for the things I am going to face tomorrow. He’s already there, working creatively in situations I have yet to face, preparing them for me and me for them.
Or to say it another way: While I’m living in Tuesday, he’s clearing the road for me on Friday. That’s what Proverbs 3:6 means when it says that “he shall make your paths straight.”
Or to say it yet another way: God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet! That blows my mind.
Are you worried about next week? Forget it. He’s already there. How about next year? Don’t sweat it. He’s already there. What about that crucial meeting next week? Sleep well. He’s already there. What about that tough decision that looms up ahead of you? Fear not. He’s already there.
It would be enough if God simply walked with you through the events of life. But he does much more than that. He goes ahead of you, clearing the way, arranging the details of life, so that when you get there, you can have confidence that God has already been there before you.
That’s the prevenient grace of God. He goes before his people. He’s at work in the future while we live in the present. That’s what Jacob is discovering in his midnight dream.
You Don’t Have to Go to Church To Meet God PersonallySuddenly Jacob awakens with a start. What time is it? Sometime after midnight. He rubs his eyes, stretches, yawns, sits up, and then he remembers. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Or was it reality within a dream? Thinking, pausing, pondering, he begins to put the pieces together in his mind. “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ’Surely the Lord is in this place, I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ’How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’” The phrase “house of God” in Hebrew is the word “Bethel.”
What was it that Jacob discovered? He discovered the omnipresence of God—that God is everywhere present all the time. That’s why he called the place where he slept Bethel—the house of God. In years to come Jacob’s descendants would build a vast temple in Jerusalem and that would be called the “house of God.” But no building of brick and mortar—no matter how expensive—can contain the presence of the Almighty. When we call our church buildings houses of God, we simply mean they are dedicated to the worship of God. Some people think that God is more present in a building than anywhere else. Not so. What God is teaching Jacob is that anyplace can be a “house of God” for you if you meet the Lord there.
You don’t have to go to church to meet God.
You can meet him on the freeway.
Or in a hospital waiting room.
Or at McDonald’s.
Or on a boat on Lake Michigan.
Or in a plane soaring over the Atlantic.
Or alone in a rocking chair.
Or riding a bus to school.
Or sitting on a park bench.
Or riding in your car.
God is everywhere. Wherever you are, there God is. And wherever God is, there is a stairway to heaven reaching down from God to right where you are.
You don’t have to have a “holy place.” Anyplace can be a “holy place” if you stop and listen to God’s voice speaking to you. Sometimes we have a deep spiritual experience, and we say, “I really felt the presence of God.”
God is with you whether you feel it or not.
God is with you whether you know it or not.
God is with you whether you see it or not.
God is with you whether you sense it or not.
Note the tense: “Surely the Lord is in this place.” “Is” not “was.” “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Jacob has just learned that God is always with his people whether they know it or not.
No Pit So DeepIt’s been my observation that relatively few people meet God on Sunday morning. You are much more likely to meet God on the bed of affliction, or when you lose your job, or when your children are sick, or when your friends betray you, or when your marriage collapses. You are much more likely to meet him after the accident than during the coffee hour on Sunday morning. You’re much more likely to meet him in the hospital than in the sanctuary.
Not because God is not here. He is here, and not just on Sunday either. Our problem is, God speaks but we don’t listen. It takes tragedy, it takes failures, it takes financial setback, it takes heartache, it takes illness, it takes the collapse of our dreams—then at last we look up to heaven and say, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I knew it not.”
A few weeks ago our family rented The Hiding Place —probably the greatest Christian film ever made. It’s the story of Corrie Ten Boom and her deliverance from a Nazi prison camp. I saw it when it came out years ago, but hadn’t seen it since. We rented it so our boys could watch it with us.
The film shows how Corrie and her sister hid Jews in Holland, were eventually arrested, and sent to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember that Corrie’s sister became deathly sick and Corrie tried to encourage her not to give up. As they sang Christian songs and recited Scripture, the prison guards came in and beat them. In the midst of that unspeakable degradation, Corrie and her sister wit-nessed for Jesus Christ. At the end of the film, Corrie recounted how in early 1945, through a clerical error, she was released from the prison camp. A few days later all the women her age were put to death. After telling that story, Corrie Ten Boom said, “For all these years, I’ve been going all over the world, with one message: There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
Even a Nazi prison camp can become Bethel—the house of God—and the gate of heaven.
You don’t have to go to church to meet God. Most of us meet him in the pitholes of life. It is there, in our extremity, that we discover what Corrie Ten Boom discovered at Ravensbruck: “There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
An Altar and a VowOur story is almost over. The next morning Jacob decides to set up a altar commemorating his remarkable dream. He called the place “Bethel"—house of God. Then he made a vow to serve God faithfully and to worship God on that same spot when he returned to the Promised Land. He also vowed to give God a tithe (one-tenth) of all his wealth (vv. 18-22). Some commentators have criticized this as a conditional, inadequate response, but I think that is somewhat unfair. Jacob’s vow means, “Lord, I am taking you at your word. I believe you will do what you said and therefore I am committing myself to you wholeheartedly.” I think this is a great statement of faith.
Looking at this whole story, it stands as a statement about the nearness of God at the moment of our personal need. It’s a story about how close God is in times of deep desperation. It’s a story about how God reaches down to us. It’s a story of the grace of God finding us right where we are.
The Ladder From HeavenOne more word and we’re done. Do you know where this story is referred to in the New Testament? I’ll give you a hint. It’s in the gospel of John. When Philip met Jesus for the first time, he was so excited that he hurried to tell his friend Nathanael. He called him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” That didn’t impress Nathanael because Nazareth was just a tiny village in Galilee. Nathanael asked the famous question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
Philip’s response is quite sensible. “Come and see.” No pressure, just make up your own mind. When Jesus saw Nathanael, he said, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” We might pass right over that statement, but it ties directly into our story. “Israel” was the name given to Jacob by God himself. If “Jacob” means “cheater,” then “Israel” means “a noble person who prevails with God.” In essence, Jesus is saying to Nathanael, “You are a true son of the man called Israel. There is nothing false in you.” To say it that way would remind Nathanael of the story of Jacob.
Later on Nathanael says, “You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” Jesus responds by saying, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51) Where did Jesus get a picture like that? What is he referring to? He’s referring to our story in Genesis 28—the story of Jacob’s ladder.
Jesus is Jacob’s LadderWhat is the New Testament application of Jacob’s ladder? In the New Testament, Jacob’s ladder is not a what; but a who. In the gospel of John, Jesus is the ladder to heaven. In Genesis 28 God was at the top and Jacob was at the bottom. In John 1 Jesus the Son of God is at the bottom of the ladder. What does it mean? It means that in the person of Jesus Christ, God has come down the ladder to join us on the earth.
Jesus Christ is himself the stairway that leads back to heaven. If you want to go to heaven, Jesus is the stairway, he is the ladder, that will take you from here to there. That’s why—later in the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) Jesus is “the way” to heaven. Without him, there is no other way.
Jacob’s ladder is Jesus Christ himself. He came down from heaven to earth so that we might have a way to go from earth to heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard it said this way:
The Son of God became
The Son of Man
So the sons of men
Might become the sons of God
Now that Jesus has come, we know that God can never be far away from us. He is the ladder that leads to heaven, he is the bridge that crosses the great gulf, he is the stairway that leads to paradise, he is the way to eternal life.
Lessons for Today and TomorrowLet’s summarize the teaching of this great story in four simple statements:
1. Since God controls the details of life, he is just as much the God of tomorrow as he is the God of yesterday and the God of today.
2. God’s plan for your life inevitably includes times of suffering, difficulty and discouragement.
3. Those times of difficulty and discouragement are part of God’s preparation for greater things to come.
4. Since God has promised to be with us, we need not fear an uncertain future.
There are no guarantees in life—for Jacob or for us. Except this: God has said, “Wherever you go, I will go with you.” Jacob still faces twenty years of hardship in Haran—but he’s not going alone. Now he knows that God is going with him. It is better to go to Haran if God will be with you than to stay at home in luxury and miss the presence of God.
“Grace For People Like Me”
Bethel is the place of new beginnings. It is the place where you can start all over again. This week I received a phone call from a man I had never met. He lives a long distance from Chicago. As he told me his story, he began to weep. After many years of marriage, he foolishly committed adultery. He tried to hide it, but he couldn’t live with himself. For months he hid it. For months he made excuses. For months he lived in agony. Finally he decided to come clean a few days ago. His wife hadn’t suspected a thing. With his voice breaking, he said, “Pastor Ray, I thought she was going to throw me out. I thought she would tell me to pack my bags and get out. I thought she would say, “I’m through with you.” Then he said, “But she didn’t. She told me she still loved me and wanted to save our marriage. I’ve never experienced anything like that in all my life.” Two days ago he went in to tell the people where he worked about what had happened. He also gave them his resignation. “They didn’t condemn me. They put their arms around me and said, ’We want to help you. We want to see you restored.’”
Then his voice broke completely. “All my life I’ve heard about the grace of God. But I never really experienced it until this week. Now I know that God has grace even for people like me.”
That’s what Bethel is all about.
There’s a grace of God for cheaters.
There’s a grace of God for liars.
There’s a grace of God for thieves.
There’s even a grace of God for adulterers.
“There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.” Jacob’s ladder reaches all the way down from heaven, down to the bottom of the pit of your sin. And the minute you are ready to come clean with God, you can start climbing Jacob’s ladder back up to heaven.
The Bethel Prayer
I need a fresh start.
I need a new beginning.
I tried to do it on my own and it didn’t work. Forgive me for thinking I didn’t need you. By your grace, I have learned that I cannot live without you.
Lord, if you are willing, I am ready to start over again.
But this time I want you to lead the way.
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