This is Ascension Eve, and we are celebrating the ascension of Jesus Christ above all the heavens. But what does it mean “to ascend”? The symbolic value of high and low is obvious to us—heaven is up and hell is down. Exaltation is up, and humiliation is down. Kings ascend to the throne, and the worshipers of God in Scripture sang songs of ascent as they approached God to worship Him in the
But more is involved than simple altitude. The apostle Paul tells us that in God’s economy, ascension presupposes a prior descent (Eph. 4:9-10). Resurrection and ascension presuppose death and burial. The exaltation that God has given Him is a glorification of the Lord’s prior obedience unto the point of death. Therefore God has highly exalted Him, and given Him the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:8-9).
And we also discover that Scripture weaves a pattern of descent and ascent together from the very beginning.
“And Jacob went out from
Jesus refers to this striking episode in the gospel of John, telling us what it means. Jacob had apparently been given a vision of Jesus Christ Himself.
“The day following Jesus would go forth into
The parallels between these passages are striking, but let’s begin with the parallel that ties the two together authoritatively. Jesus tells Nathanael (called Bartholomew elsewhere) that he, like Jacob, will see heaven open. He, like Jacob, was going to see angels ascending and descending. But instead of the ladder that Jacob saw, Nathanael was going to see them doing this on the Son of man—meaning that Jesus is identifying Himself as the ladder which Jacob saw, the connection or bridge between heaven and earth.
Jesus greets Nathanael by telling him that he is a true Israelite, in whom there was no guile. Now
And it also apparently had something to do with Jacob and his dream, because Jesus brings it up as something Nathanael has not yet seen, and promises that he will see it. Indeed, Philip had already brought Nathanael to Jesus, and Nathanael had already seen and confessed Him.
Now if Jesus is that ladder, what can we say about it? In Genesis, the ladder was “set up on the earth.” It was grounded; it was secure. It was anchored on this end. At the same time, the top of the ladder reached to heaven (Gen. 28:12), in the way the
It is a commonplace to say that Jacob was converted at Peniel, the way Saul was on the
At the same time, the name Jacob does mean Grabby or Supplanter, and although he and his mother were justified in deceiving Isaac, it was guile nonetheless. They were protecting him from rebelling against the prophecy he had received in Gen. 25:23, which Isaac was actually going to attempt, but it was still guile. Esau points out the significance of Jacob’s name (Gen. 27:36), but we don’t have to trust Esau alone—remembering that he is perhaps not a reliable guide. But the prophet Hosea also points to the significance of Jacob’s supplanting tendencies (Hos. 12:2-3).
So Jacob is not evil or wicked, but outwitting a profane brother and manipulating a father who is being foolish is not where the promises of God are ultimately headed. When Jacob is told that all the families of the earth would be blessed, the context of this, remember, is the family of Abraham divided into Isaac and Ishmael, and the family of Isaac divided into Jacob and Esau. Jacob receives this promise concerning families while on the run from family. So Jesus calls Nathanael a true Israelite, and does not call him a “true son of Jacob.” And the Lord says that Nathanael will see Jacob’s vision, only in the time of its fulfillment.
Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus was born of a woman, born under the law. The ladder is anchored on earth, established forever in the Incarnation. The ladder reaches successfully to heaven, and can never be knocked away. And so the ladder of Jacob gathers the families of earth, while the failed
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.