Jacob’s Ladder, Part 3

Jacob’s Ladder, Part 3 January 11, 2024

Jacob's Ladder

Lastly in our reading this week, Jesus speaks to Nathaniel about seeing the heavens open. There is a reference to Jacob’s ladder, and to the apocalyptic Son of Man.

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(Read this series from the beginning at Part 1 and Part 2.)

The “heaven opening” language is the same language the synoptic gospel authors used to tell the stories of Jesus’ baptism:

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (Mark 1:10, italics added.)

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (Matthew 3:16, italics added.)

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened. (Luke 3:21, italics added.)

The synoptic gospel authors connected Jesus’ baptism to the imagery in Isaiah 42 that describes one who would establish justice in the earth and in whose name, as the Christmas carol “O Holy Night” reminds us, “all oppression would cease.” In undoing our systems of economic extraction, this “chosen one” would end violence and bring “peace on earth.” 

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)

John’s gospel connects this baptism imagery with imagery from Genesis of Jacob’s ladder:

He [Jacob] 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. (Genesis 28:12)

John’s author conflates the imagery of Jacob’s ladder with Jewish apocalyptic imagery of the Son of Man in Daniel chapter 7. In Daniel 7, the Son of Man would bring liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence of the world’s empires and bring about a new way of shaping human communities:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed… 

As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom

“But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Daniel 7:13-14, 21-22, 26-27, italics added)

These are ancient Jewish liberation texts in which the people long to be delivered from their imperial oppressors. 

What John’s Jesus is doing for Nathaniel in this week’s passage is connecting the images of Jacob’s ladder and the Son of Man and telling Nathaniel that he’s going to see it all! Jacob’s ladder assured Jacob, who longed for deliverance from his brother Esau whom he had wronged and from whom he was fleeing for his life. Jacob was on the run, an exile. After Jerusalem and her temple were no more, the people for whom John’s gospel was written felt like exiles too. So this passage offers them the same assurance once given to Jacob: that earth and heaven are still connected. All is not lost and the world can still be made right. Violence can end. Oppression can cease. And injustice can be made right. 

This leads me to a possible application for us in this new year, too. 

Are there places in our world where we’re struggling to believe there is hope for change? Where in our world do we need to be reassured that earth and heaven are still connected? Where do we still long for liberation from that which is causing harm? Whether we call it Jacob’s ladder, Jesus’ “kingdom,” God’s just future, or simply the way of justice and love, where are we longing for reassurance that a world of compassion and enough for everyone is still possible and still worth fighting for?

As 2024 begins, may we each take a moment to remember that earth and heaven are still part of one another. In this new year, may our daily lives be the lived prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)


Finding Jesus book coverHerb’s latest book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is now available at Renewed Heart Ministries.

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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