10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 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. 12 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! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “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. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” 
A few weeks ago, we saw God’s promise to be WITH Isaac. And we noted how it’s possible for us to misinterpret that promise by thinking of God in terms of physical distance. God is actually everywhere all at once. He holds and surrounds the entire universe in such a way that there is no place where he is not. We can think of a bucket sunken in the ocean. The bucket is both full of water and surrounded by water. The water isn’t “near” or “far,” it’s everywhere all at once. When God promises to be “with” the patriarchs, he is promising them his special presence, not spatial presence. He is conferring upon them the gift of divine intimacy. “I will be your God. You will be my people. I will dwell (tabernacle) with you.” God comes and restores to his people the intimate fellowship Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden prior to their rebellion. He does this because he alone is good.
What Moses has taken pains to show us is that God does NOT give his covenant loyalty because the patriarchs are “good” people. In fact, they are ordinary folks – full of self-centeredness. They are as curved in upon themselves as any one of us. Isaac, the prophet, rebelled against God’s will that Jacob would bear the line of the Promised Seed and schemed with Esau to give him the blessing instead. Rebecca schemed against her husband and oldest son to get the blessing by deceit for her favorite son, Jacob. Jacob took advantage of his brother’s ravenous hunger to buy his birthright for a bowl of vegetarian chili. He lied to his father, God’s prophet, in order to go against his father’s wishes. Esau turned to the religion of works by taking a third wife from Ishmael’s family, rejecting any understanding of the person and work of the Promised Seed. No one in this family is righteous. No, not one.
JACOB’S RUN (10-11)
Did Jacob have any of the truths we’ve just mentioned in mind as he slunk off into the wilderness on his way to Haran? Probably not. He was most likely thinking of all the privilege and attention and luxury he left behind and fearing the unknown unknows ahead. He was already homesick and wondering if he would ever return. “10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.” I wonder if it bothered Jacob that his only brother, his twin, hated him enough to kill him. Jacob treasured the family birthright and the patriarchal blessing but what good were they to him now, alone in the wilderness with nothing but his clothes and his brother’s target on his back?
Moses writes Jacob, “came to a certain place.” The verb chosen emphasizes the randomness with which Jacob chose this place. The place simply represents the end of daylight hours for Jacob and nothing more. The place is not yet “Bethel” or “Luz.” It is just the spot where the sun goes down and Jacob is so spent from his rapid flight from his brother that he is out of gas and needs some sleep. He has been running on the fumes of fear and sadness and his tank is empty. He is profoundly alone in this dark wasteland at the mercy of hostile wildlife and humans.
JACOB’S DREAM (12-15)
Jacob fled Esau but left with an even stronger blessing from his father, “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (28:3,4). But Jacob is all alone. He has no wife and no children, and he is fleeing the land God promised to him. Luther writes:
These matters in the divine administration are undoubtedly foolish and absurd to our eyes, namely, that the heir who is destined to be the stone at the head of the corner is rejected by the builders (cf. Ps. 118:22; Matt. 21:42).
By divine authority, Jacob had been destined to be the ruler of the Abrahamic household and the church. But here he is in the wilderness fleeing his household and the Promised Land. Observation concludes God’s words were meaningless. He gives Jacob a blessing on the one hand and takes it away with the other. Meanwhile, cursed Esau remains in the house and the land with his pagan wives and children and rules over Isaac’s estate. Revelation and observation are often vastly different things. Jacob, stretched out on the bare ground with a rock for a pillow, looks ANYTHING but blessed. Esau looks anything but cursed.
King David was anointed king (1 Sam. 16:13) and yet lived in exile for ten years before taking Israel’s throne. He too, like Jacob, must hold out in faith until the circumstances match the promises. God’s revelation must trump human observation; that is the essence of faith. Luther again:
This is the constant course of the church at all times, namely, that promises are made and that then those who believe the promises are treated in such a way that they are compelled to wait for things that are invisible, to believe what they do not see, and to hope for what does not appear. He who does not do this is not a Christian. For Christ Himself entered into His glory only by first descending into hell. When He is about to reign, He is crucified. When He is to be glorified, He is spit on. For He must suffer first and then at length be glorified.
At this low and lonely point in Jacob’s flight, God appears to him in a night vision. “12 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! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it….” Was this a stair-stepped ziggurat or a runged ladder? There’s no way to know since this word only appears here in the OT. It really doesn’t matter. Angels don’t need either stairways or ladders. This was a surreal dream stairway allegorically connecting heaven and earth and angels were climbing up and down it.
Few people have ever seen angels in all their glory the way Jacob did. There have been a few: Elisha’s servant at Dothan, Daniel, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the women at the tomb of Christ, Paul, and John. But with the possible exception of the experience of Elisha’s servant in seeing the mountains filled with the hosts of God round about Elisha, no experience ever showed the closeness of heaven to earth or the interest of heaven in earth more vividly than Jacob’s vision. The Bible says that there are “thousands upon thousands of angels” (Heb. 12:22) and that these are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). Jacob saw a vast number of them that night and was assured by them, and by the Lord himself, that he was not alone but was under the protection of the Almighty.
The Hebrew text doesn’t actually say YHWH was standing at the top of the ladder. The majority of English translations read God was standing either beside Jacob or above Jacob (NAB, NEB, NRSV, HCSB). Both are correct since Jacob is laying down on the ground. The Lord stands next to him and over him to speak his promises of land, seed, and divine nearness. If the sight of angels coming and going, conducting the Lord’s business between heaven and earth was startling and amazing, think of how much more was the sight of the pre-incarnate Son of Man standing right next to Jacob. But more than simply making an appearance, the Promised Seed speaks the Abrahamic Covenant promises to Jacob. Jacob has become a prophet of God, one to whom God speaks face to face, as a man would speak to his friend.
This appearance was the first of at least seven revelations Jacob would receive in his life (Gen. 31:3; cf. vv. 11–13; 32:1–2, 24–30; 35:1, 9–13; 46:1–4). God said, 13 … “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. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 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.” Each of the elements of God’s covenant promise corresponds to a great need in Jacob’s life.
The greatest element, the one that ties all the others together, is God’s promise of divine intimacy, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will never leave you.” This ministered to Jacob’s sense of hopelessness and loneliness. All Jacob’s life he had been at the center of a great company of people. Abraham had hundreds of slaves to which Isaac added more. Jacob grew up in a large tent city with hundreds of people whose only job was to keep him safe and happy. But now God himself has shown up. It is now up to Jacob to live out a life of trust that the presence of God is greater than even thousands of devoted slaves. Jacob must begin to live by revelation, not observation. He cannot do that out of his own resources. God himself must grow Jacob’s faith.
As Jacob lay with the ground for his bed and a rock for his pillow, he saw an entire army of heavenly servants, replacing all Isaac’s slaves. And he saw his future descendant, the Promised Seed, standing watch over him as he slept. When Jacob stretched out on the ground that night, he was leaving behind the only home he had ever known and headed over 500 miles to the home of a man he knew nothing about, other than he was a calculating and grasping man. What a wonderful, unconditional promise to sooth Jacob’s fears! God didn’t command Jacob to be with him or walk more closely with him. He simply promised HIS covenant loyalty love and divine presence.
If you wonder whether this is actually the pre-incarnate Christ standing watch over Jacob, I think Jesus himself answers that in Matthew 28:20. There Jesus restates his covenant promise of presence in almost exactly the same “I AM” language that contains the name of YHWH, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As we’ll see shortly, Jesus is also the stairway upon which the angels are traveling.
The constant, moment-by-moment question for you who trust into Christ is, “Do you really believe this great promise?” Most of the time, we live as if what we really need is all of Isaac’s great wealth and an army of devoted slaves to carry out all our wishes and dedicate their lives to making us happy. “Thanks for claiming to be with me, God, but what I REALLY need is to have my wants fulfilled my way. I need this person that’s upsetting me to behave the way I want them to. I need a better job, more money, stronger health, compliant children, nicer parents” – on and on goes our list of discontentment. We are discontent because the promise of divine intimacy – that upon which all God’s revelation turns, the very purpose of the universe –is simply not enough for our inwardly-curved sin nature.
Second, Jacob receives the land promise given to Abraham and Isaac. Here God promises (13b), “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south….” This promise spoke to Jacob’s worries about his current state of poverty. Jacob would receive the land, but only through his seed. His grandfather and father lived by the oases of Hebron and Beersheba. They grew rich off of trade with the Near Eastern caravans. All that wealth was promised to Jacob. But he is now alone and poor.
Jacob had another problem. Not only was he poor and completely alone, he was dishonored among men. Winners write the history. Esau stayed behind and Jacob fled. Esau got to write the story among all the inhabitants of Isaac’s camp and all the Canaanites. His brother was a con man, a cheat, a swindler, a thief. He was scuttling off under a righteous death sentence. To the disgraced Jacob, the Promised Seed ministers honor, “in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (14b).
This was a great promise because it demonstrates that however badly we may have acted in the past—and however ashamed we may be by it—God is always able to begin with us where we are and use us as a channel for blessing in the lives of others. Are you ashamed of the past? Are you devastated by something you have said or done? If you are, God is able to start over with you right where you are. Nothing is too hard for God. Nothing causes him to give up. Simply confess the sin that troubles you, allow God to forgive and cleanse it, and then go on in whatever direction he sets before you. He is far more ready to give blessing than you are to receive it.
JACOB’S RESPONSE (16-22)
Jacob awoke the next morning in wonder and amazement. “16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Like all of us, he forgot that God was present everywhere all at once. God is present for each and every rebellious thought that not even your closest friends can catch you thinking. He is present when you try to flee from him (like Jonah). He is present when you forget about him being there. He’s present when you’re fighting with others. God is there and he is always loyal to his inconsistent people. When we come to gospel sanity and realize God is there, we find we too react like Jacob: “17 And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”
Fear and admiration mixed into awe. Jacob displayed a proper fear of the Lord and a wonder at his presence and his promises. The stairway full of angels made Jacob believe he had stumbled unknowingly into the “gate of heaven.” The presence of the Promised Seed standing watch over him made Jacob certain this desolate place was the house of God. The truth Jacob didn’t yet understand is that the gate of heaven and the house of God define all of creation, not simply this spot in the Palestinian wilderness. Yet, even with his imperfect theology, Jacob was right to respond in worship.
“18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel [House of God], but the name of the city was Luz at the first.” The pagans would call the place Luz, but Jacob/Israel and his eponymous nation-family would call it Bethel, a place where Father Abraham had built an altar long before Jacob came to rest there. Jacob took his stone pillow and planted it upright, making a memorial pillar, anointing it with oil to demonstrate his devotion to YHWH. His reaction so far is exemplary. But his subsequent vows – not so much.
Jacob says, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” As R. Kent Hughes notes, “‘if’ and ‘then’ are not the language of faith. Faith does not bargain with God, saying that ‘If God will do thus and so, then I will make him my God.’” Jacob, like you and me, is a work in progress. His naming of this place is commendable. His attempts to bargain with God are classic Jacob. But they’re also classic us. All of us spend our lives trying to understand the upside-downess of grace that is so opposite of our give-to-get nature.
Our “ifs” and “thens” may be more nuanced than Jacob’s, but they are still embedded in our lives. And, we are far more guilty than Jacob because we know who the Promised Seed is and what he has done for us. Jesus was and is the focus of the divine stairway. At the very beginning of John’s gospel account, we see Jesus’ response to Nathanael’s belief that he was the Christ. John writes in 1:50,51:
Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. 
When Jesus begins a statement with “Truly, truly,” he wants us to pay particular attention to it. What we learn is that the focus on Jacob’s stairway is not Jacob but Jesus, the Promised Seed. Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man,” a title that refers to his incarnate human nature and his pre-existence. It’s used 82 times in the gospel account and 81 of those are by Jesus himself. As the Promised Seed, Jesus is the true Jacob/Israel – the one upon whom the angels ascend and descend in his perfectly-obedient, law-keeping life, his blood-shedding sacrificial death for the sins of his people, his resurrection and his ascension to the throne of the universe.
Jesus also made it clear in John 1:51 that the angelic traffic would also be on him as the awesome “Son of Man” of Daniel’s vision. In fact, it is from that vision that Jesus took his designation “Son of Man:”
13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. 
The glory is that the resurrected and ascended Man in Heaven mediates all the transactions between heaven and earth. When God made Adam and Eve, he lived with them in the Garden of Eden. Heaven and earth were one inseparable thing because God dwelled with his people, and heaven is wherever God is. Adam’s sin split heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder was the promise of heaven and earth rejoined. Jesus states that his work as the Promised Seed is the fulfillment of that promise.
The Promised Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ, is no longer limited to being “just” in heaven or “just” on earth. He stands next to us and over us while seated on his throne as the Man in Heaven. As Paul says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2: 5, 6a). Christ, our “Son of Man,” is everywhere at all times, hearing our prayers and mediating the commerce of Heaven on our behalf. Think of this! He is at both ends of the ladder— as Jehovah at the top and Jesus (“Jehovah is salvation”) at the bottom. The incarnate “Son of Man” is the ascended “Son of Man” whose dominion knows no end. He is also called Immanuel (“God with us,” Matt. 1:23), the name that means heaven and earth rejoined! It only appears one other time in any NT text. In Revelation 21:3 John the Revelator writes of this age’s consummation:
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God With Them will be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 
So, in the final analysis, when reading the account of Jacob’s vision at Bethel, we should think of Jesus, just as we should with all the great Old Testament events. And the concluding question is this: Have you seen Jesus? Have you come to know that One who alone has bridged the gap between a holy heaven and a sinful world and who has promised to be all things to those who trust and love him? You may be lonely, as Jacob was. You may be impoverished and unemployed. You may be disgraced and dishonored. You may be fearful. Whatever you may be, I direct you to Jesus. He is the ever-present companion of the lonely. He is the wealth of the destitute, the glory of the base, the rock and fortress of the one who is afraid. He is God.
Today, I offer you all I can and everything I have. Heaven and Earth are opened up. Angels are ascending and descending before you. Jesus himself, the Promised Seed of the woman who has crushed the dragon-serpent’s head is standing beside and over you this morning. May you be given eyes to see him so that, like Jacob/Israel you can say, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 28:10–22.
 Hamilton, 2:238.
 Luther, 5:201.
 Id. at 202.
 Boice, 2:767.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 28:20.
 Boice, 2: 769.
 Hughes, 361. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 1:50–51.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Da 7:13–14.
 Hughes, 362. Kindle Edition.
 Re 21:3–4. Trans. mine. Emphasis added.
 Boice, 2:771.