Great Moments in Bible History
“I Am With You”
It was a lonely scene. The sun was going down. A solitary hiker was looking for a place to camp for the night. He had been on the road for several days, but his journey had barely begun. It would take him several more weeks of constant hiking before he would reach his goal. Years earlier—before he was born—his mother Rebekah had made this same trip—only she had traveled with a group of people riding on camels. Jacob was traveling alone on foot. He was going to visit his mother’s family whom he had never met.
The idea for this trip had come about quite suddenly. The original need arose because his brother Esau was angry with him and wanted to kill him. Esau had reason to be angry. At Rebekah’s urging Jacob had deceived his father and managed to get the blessing his father had promised to Esau. Now Esau hated him. That was his mother’s reason for urging him to make this trip. But she had not mentioned that reason to her husband Isaac. Instead, she presented a second reason. Jacob needed a wife and there were no suitable candidates in Canaan where they were living. The Canaanites were ungodly people. A Canaanite wife for Jacob would be disastrous, constantly pulling him in the wrong direction. So Isaac called Jacob and instructed him to go visit his mother’s family and find a wife there.
Jacob quite suddenly found himself alone on a long journey, not knowing how long it would be before he saw his family again—or even if he would ever make it back. As our story begins, he found a place to sleep for the night near a place called Luz. He took one of the stones in the field, put it under his head, and lay down to sleep (Genesis 28:11).
That night he had a vivid dream, one that he would remember for the rest of his life. “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!” As the dream continued, Jacob saw God standing above the ladder. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” This was very similar to what God had promised to his grandfather Abraham many years earlier (Genesis 12:1-3). God continued, “Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed .” That last part—about all the families of the earth being blessed in him—was exactly what God had promised to Abraham. At this point in Jacob’s life it certainly seemed unlikely. He was just a poor, lonely travelor. But God explained, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (verse 15).
What a wonderful encouragement that was to Jacob! Wouldn’t you be encouraged if God told you, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go”? Can you imagine any better gift than that?
When Jacob woke up and thought about that dream, he was awestruck. He said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He named the place Bethel, which in Hebrew means “house of God.” He took the stone that he had been sleeping on, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on it. It represented God’s house.
I’m sure if you had met Jacob before he started this trip and asked him if he was a worshipper of God, he would have said “Yes”—and he would have been telling the truth. Yet he had a long way to go to truly know God. He had been living more by his wits than by his faith in God. No doubt he thought he was helping God out with such behavior. It would be years before he came to understand that God didn’t need such sinful “help.” This trip was the beginning of the change that he needed to make. Because of his lack of faith in God, he had lied to his father to get what God had already promised him. Now he was all alone and running for his life. At this most vulnerable time, God came to him and promised him, “I am with you.”
How many of us today are like Jacob? We know we believe in God, yet our behavior does not show it. Sometimes we too need a real low point in our lives. We need to get to the point where we understand that God is not the one who needs us. We need Him.
Does God Need a Ladder?
In the dream that God gave to Jacob, why did it include a ladder? Hundreds of years after this event, Jesus commented on this dream and placed special emphasis on the ladder. (Jesus did not use the word “ladder,” but He clearly referred to it. See the next article for details.) If Jesus considered the ladder especially important, then it is worth asking the question what it represented and why it was needed.
Angels were going up and down the ladder. It is easy for us to recognize their role in the dream. They were bringing God’s blessings down from heaven to earth. Angels have appeared a number of times already in the book of Genesis. For example, when Abraham sent his servant to get a wife for his son, he promised him that God “will send his angel before you” (Genesis 24:7). In that story, we did not actually get to see the angel, but it was obvious that he was working, because the servant’s mission was amazingly successful. Clearly, if angels need a ladder to get down to us to help us, we want them to have a ladder!
The ladder in the dream implies that there is a distance between us humans and God. This cannot be a literal physical distance, since God is everywhere at once. Jesus said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God (Matthew 10:29). Nevertheless, there is a very real distance separating us. That separation first appeared in the Garden of Eden. Right after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit they knew they were not allowed to eat, they became afraid of God. Sin had created a distance between them and God. That distance increased after God punished them for what they had done. He kicked them out of the garden and placed armed guards at the entrance to prevent their return (Genesis 3:24).
We sinful humans have trouble grasping the fact that God can have nothing to do with sin. He is holy. We are sinful. And that separates us. We are so used to sin that it hardly even bothers us. We tolerate sin in those around us (at least some of the time). Surely God can tolerate the little bit of sin we see in ourselves. The reason we think that way is because we do not know God. We simply imagine Him to be what we would like. Instead, we need to go to His word to learn who He really is.
The apostle John said that the message he learned from Jesus is “that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5-6). In John’s vocabulary, “darkness” means sin. There is absolutely no sin in God. God cannot be a partner (“have fellowship”) with a sinner. Our sins have created a very large gap between us and God. No ladder on earth is long enough to bridge that gap.
The ladder in the dream is something that God was promising to create—something that would be able to bridge the gap between us sinners and Him. Jacob was one of the people God was going to use to create that ladder. That’s what God meant when He said, “in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14). All the families of the earth were going to be blessed by the ladder God was promising to build.
The Ladder Turns Out to be a Person
It will take over 1,000 years, but God will keep His promise to Jacob. In John 1 Jesus met Nathanael, who would become one of His earliest disciples. Jesus showed him that He knew things about him that only God and Nathaniel knew. Nathaniel was astonished and said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49) Jesus replied that Nathaniel would see greater things than that. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (verse 51). That was a reference to Jacob’s dream, only Jesus changed one important detail. Instead of angels going up and down a ladder, Jesus said they would be going up and down on Him! (The phrase “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to Himself.)
So Jacob’s dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth was actually a dream of Jesus. He is the one who has bridged the gap between us sinners and God. We have to read the rest of the New Testament to learn how He did that, but the short answer is that He did it by laying down His life as a sacrifice for our sins. Today God can have fellowship with those who are “in Christ” by means of that sacrifice. Those people are receiving the blessings pictured by the angels in Jacob’s dream. They are the most blessed people on earth.