The Meaning Behind: “Angels Ascending & Descending on the Son of Man”

Monday, 18 Feb 2019

Jean from Blackburn, England, writes:

Hi Shane!  We are really enjoying the programmes on John’s gospel. Have just listened to the one on Jacob’s ladder, however, we did not find an explanation of the last verse (Jn 1:51). Please, can you explain what Jesus meant when he said, “you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of man.” When did this happen, and why is it in the future tense? Did they actually see angels ascending, etc??

Thanks for the great question, Jean! The overall point we were trying to make on this week’s WHI episode was that, by alluding to the story found in Genesis 28, Jesus was effectively claiming to be Jacob’s ladder, that is, he’s the ultimate bridge between heaven and earth. But of course, much more can be said on this topic. Let’s start by looking into the meaning of Jacob’s original vision. In The IVP Bible Background Commentary to the Old Testament, we read:

The ladder or stairway that Jacob sees in his dream is the passageway between heaven and earth. The comparable word in Akkadian is used in Mesopotamian mythology to describe what the messenger of the gods uses when he wants to pass from one realm to another. It is this mythological stairway that the Babylonians sought to represent in the architecture of the ziggurats. These had been built to provide a way for the deity to descend to the temple and the town. Jacob’s background would have given him familiarity with this concept, and thus he would conclude that he was in a sacred spot where there was a portal opened between worlds.

I think this historical background helps us to get a better grasp of the true significance of Jacob’s dream. Earlier in the book of Genesis, you’ll recall, men attempted to bridge the gulf between heaven and earth through their own efforts by building the tower of Babel, and as a result, God ended up frustrating their plans. But in chapter 28, God revealed to Jacob the true stairway to heaven, and this at time in which he wasn’t even looking for it in the first place (thus providing the same contrast that Paul mentions in Romans 11:5-7). Furthermore, as we discussed on the program, Jacob isn’t doing anything in this passage, and isn’t even attempting to climb the ladder at all. He’s just there at the bottom of the ladder, fast asleep.

In the ESV translation of Gen. 28:12-13 we read, “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the LORD stood above it…” It turns out that the first part of verse 13 can also be rendered “the LORD stood upon it.” In fact, this is the way the passage was translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). So if this option is correct, then Yahweh himself would be the one who bridges the gulf between heaven and earth, and the angels of God would then be ascending and descending on him. This seems like a good fit, since this is precisely what Jesus seems to be saying in John 1:51 when he says “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Now, fast-forward to the time of King David. In 1 Chr. 21:14-20 we discover another one of these scenes featuring the mysterious figure known as the angel of the Lord (literally, “the messenger of Yahweh”). In this account, David sees “the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem.” Without going into too much detail about all that’s happening in this passage, it is enough for us to point out that the place in which this angel stood ended up becoming the site of the Jerusalem temple. So here we find a number of parallels to Jacob’s famous vision, since in both cases we encounter a bridge between heaven and earth which causes the location to be identified as “the house of God” (Gen. 28:17). In the first vision, the gulf was bridged by Yahweh standing upon a ladder, and in the second vision, the gulf was bridged by the angel of Yahweh.

So after thinking about all this Old Testament background, I believe that in John 1:51, Jesus is not necessarily pointing to something that Nathaniel will see with his eyes sometime in the near future, but instead is pointing him back to these crucially significant moments throughout Israel’s history, to the end that he would perceive Jesus’ true identity and mission. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus will claim to be the ultimate temple (Jn. 2:19-22); in chapter 4 he’ll be presented as one greater than Jacob (Jn. 4:12) who renders the Jerusalem temple obsolete (Jn. 4:21-24); in chapter 10 he’ll describe himself as the door through which the sheep enter and find life (Jn. 10:7-9); and in chapter 14 he’ll claim to be “the way, and the truth, and the life,” adding that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). In other words, Jesus is the ultimate “house of God” and “gate of heaven” hinted at in type and shadow, all the way back in Gen. 28:17. He’s also the ultimate sacrificial lamb (Jn. 1:29), the true bread of heaven (Jn. 6:35), the life-giving water (Jn. 7:37), as well as the final prophet, priest and king (Jn. 1:49, 6:14, 17:17-19).

When we take stock of all the Old Testament references that are being made throughout this text, it becomes increasingly clear that it was written by someone who assumed his audience would be able to catch the significance of all these allusions. In other words, quite unlike the Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of John appears not to have been written for a Greek audience, but for those who were thoroughly steeped in the Jewish Scriptures.

Finally, the words of John Calvin provide a fitting conclusion to this brief survey:

It is Christ alone…who connects heaven and earth: he is the only Mediator who reaches from heaven down to earth: he is the medium through which the fullness of all celestial blessings flows down to us, and through which we, in turn, ascend to God. He it is who, being the head over angels, causes them to minister to his earthly members. Therefore, (as we read in John 1:51,) he properly claims for himself this honor, that after he shall have been manifested in the world, angels shall ascend and descend…[T]he similitude of a ladder well suits the Mediator, through whom ministering angels, righteousness and life, with all the graces of the Holy Spirit, descend to us step by step (from his commentary on Genesis 28).

Shane Rosenthal
White Horse Inn

To submit questions related to our year-long series on The Gospel of John visit whitehorseinn.org/john.

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