“…hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
Jesus frequently ended his discourses or parables with rather cryptic statements. Thus in Sunday’s Gospel we observe that when He finished speaking his words of revelation to Nathaniel, Jesus strangely stated, Truly, Truly I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. [Jn 1:51]. Though it appears Jesus is only speaking to Nathaniel, the “you” (I say to you) is in the plural; thus this saying is for all followers of Jesus. In good Lutheran fashion we ask, “What does this saying mean?”
It is clear that Jesus is referencing the Old Testament account of Jacob who fell asleep with a rock as his pillow, Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. [Gen. 28:12]. Various interpretations have identified Jesus as the new Jacob, Jesus as the rock, Jesus as the ladder, or Jesus as God who is standing at the top of the ladder. There are good arguments for each of these.
In this brief essay we will simply associate Jesus with Jacob’s ladder, for this is what the angels of God were ascending and descending upon in Jacob’s dream, and Jesus says that His followers will see the angels of God ascending and descending upon Him.
A ladder connects what is below with what is above. To climb on a roof one uses a ladder. So too Jesus is that which connects heaven and earth. Appropriately He would declare: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [Jn 14:6]. Jesus Christ is the only way—the only ladder—by which we can be connected to the Father who is in heaven. Saint Paul would explain: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus [1 Tim 2:5]. Jesus is the only mediator—only connecting ladder—between God and men, between heaven and earth. To behold angels ascending and descending upon Jesus is to realize and believe that He alone connects heaven and earth. As God, Jesus is of heaven; as Mary’s son, He is of earth. Appropriately He connects both.
How did Jesus establish a connection for us? First, the ladder was firmly set upon the ground—connected with the very dust of humanity—when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Irenaeus, a pastor who lived within a century of Jesus, identified the “ladder” with the cross of Jesus. Jesus upon the cross is truly that which reconciles and thus connects man with God.
Unfortunately a ladder connotes the ability to climb it to the destination above. Of course we know from Scripture that climbing this ladder is impossible for fallen humanity. However, the crucified, risen and ascended Christ has sent and continues to send the Holy Spirit through His Word. The Holy Spirit, who is bestowed upon us in our Baptism, testifies of and connects us with Jesus by faith. We are washed with water and the word, and as such the Spirit has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. [Eph 2:6]. By faith we are already established as citizens of heaven, already seated with Him in the heavenly places! And when we die the angels—who indeed ascend and descend upon the ladder—will carry our souls to Abraham’s bosom (that is, to heaven).
When our bodies are raised on the last day, heaven and earth will be blissfully united. The ladder—Jesus on the cross—will have permanently drawn together God and His people into eternity.