As a church struggles—and every true church must struggle—heaven’s stairway joins her to heaven and all heaven’s mercy and safety. The stairway is not built by our faithfulness, but God’s promise. The stairway is not our obedience and steadfastness, but the person of Christ come down to rescue us from our sin and rebellion.
Weeks after winning my license, I crashed my car. It was a wet night and my friends and I decided it would be fun to drift around corners with wheels spinning. I lost control, the front of the car hammered into a high curb, and the steering was wrecked.
I limped the car home, too ashamed and embarrassed to tell my parents. I drove it first thing in the morning to the repairers in town. The mechanic hoisted it up and showed me how I’d bent the wheels and steering arms. Repair would be very costly.
I remember pacing the wet streets car-less, wondering where on earth I would find the repair money and still too ashamed to tell my family. For just a few hours I felt unusually helpless, almost nauseous with worry and loneliness. Looking back, I see how unnecessary my suffering was. All the help in the world was all around me, and I was blind to it.
So it is with Jacob in the book of Genesis.
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran (Gen. 28:10).
What tragedy we read in these few words. Jacob was born into a rich and loving family. But he tricked his twin brother out of his birthright (Gen. 25) and then pulled a seriously devious and nasty deception on his blind father, tricking Isaac into giving him Esau’s covenant blessing (Gen. 27). So now Jacob is fleeing Beersheba, his home in the south of the Promised Land, to Haran in the strange and distant north: beyond Galilee, beyond Syria and Damascus, right up near Assyria and the Euphrates River.
Jacob means “Grasper.” Grasper had betrayed his family. And by lying and cheating and dishonoring his father, he had also dishonored God. What had he accomplished? A family in humiliation and disarray. He himself running, alone, and far, far from home.
Remember, this is the father of Israel. According to the principle of corporate identity as explained in Hebrews 7:1-10, the entire nation was physically latent within him at that moment. Jacob is Israel. Grasper personifies the church. What is true of him is true of the church.
What is true of Jacob is true of the church.
And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep (Gen. 28:11).
After fleeing all day, night falls with no motel or friendly house nearby. In verse 20 Jacob prays for “food to eat and clothes to wear.” So we see a lonely, guilty, destitute man. He lies in the open air with a rock for a pillow. He is exhausted physically, morally, spiritually, and relationally. This by nature is you. This by nature is your church.
Sleeping on rocks gives anyone strange dreams. God gives Jacob a vision. It is a kind of apocalypse; God pulls aside the curtain to show Jacob what is going on behind his desolate circumstances.
God showed Jacob a staircase joining heaven and earth.
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Gen. 28:12-13a).
God cast our rebellious parents, and thus us, out of Eden. Cherubim wielding blazing swords barred the way back (Gen. 3:24). Humanity, and not least Jacob at this point, live within the desolation of that separation. But God showed Jacob a staircase joining heaven and earth.
The people of Babel attempted something like this, to build a tower to reconnect heaven and earth, to manufacture greatness and security (Gen. 11:1-9). But it was human-made and prideful, and God razed it. If God separated humanity from heaven, what can we do to bridge the gulf?
We cannot reach up to God, but he can reach down to us. That is the staircase.
Why are angels dashing up and down it? “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14). They rush down with God’s word and salvation (Heb. 2:2), and rush back up with our prayers (Rev. 8:4). The staircase establishes communication between Jacob and heaven. It is a conduit of help—of salvation.
The One who speaks to Jacob is “the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” He made that unbreakable promise to Abraham:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen 12:1-2)
At that point Jacob must have doubted those promises. “Land? Great nation? Great name? Blessing? I’m an exile from the land. My ‘great name’ is Grasper. I’m cursed, not blessed!” Jacob had betrayed family and God and had lost everything. Yet God was working right then even in Jacob’s betrayal and desolation to fulfill his promise. God was there, heaven and earth were joined. God’s ministering servants rushed up and down for Jacob.