Although it is a masterpiece musically, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s “Stairway to Heaven” does absolutely nothing to help us understand this remarkable dream that Jacob has in the wilderness. Unless I’m completely missing the meaning of “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.”
This stairway between heaven and earth does cry out for explanation – which theologians have been happy to supply for more than two thousand years.
In the Jewish tradition, the ancient commentary known as the Midrash offers three interpretations. The first states that the ladder signified the conquests which the Jewish people would suffer before the coming of the Messiah. The first angel represents the 70-year exile to Babylon as he climbed “up” 70 rungs, and then fell “down”.
Then the angel representing the conquest by Persia went up a number of steps, and fell, as did the angel representing the Greek occupation.
Only the fourth angel, which represented the Roman Empire – whose roots go back to Jacob’s brother Esau – kept climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Jacob feared that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination, but God assured him that at the End of Days, the House of Esau would come falling down.
Another interpretation explains that Jacob, as a holy man, was always accompanied by angels. When he reached the border of the land of the future land of Israel, the angels who were assigned to it went back up to Heaven and the angels assigned to other lands came down to meet Jacob. When Jacob returned to the land of Canaan – as God promised he would – he was greeted by the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land.
A third interpretation teaches that the place at which Jacob stopped for the night was Mount Moriah, the future home of the Temple in Jerusalem. The ladder or stairway signifies the “bridge” between Heaven and earth, as prayers and sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple created a connection between God and the Jewish people. The ladder also represents to the giving of the Law as another connection between heaven and earth.
Similarly, in the Muslim tradition, Jacob’s ladder is interpreted to be the essence of Islam – which emphasizes following the “straight path” to Paradise.
Christians usually interpret the stairway in one of these last two ways. One of the early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, saw it as a symbol of our spiritual journey, moving progressively upward toward excellence in the Christian life. But our good friend John Calvin rejected that completely.
Calvin insisted it is a connection between heaven and earth – but not in the way offered by many Jewish scholars, which involved prayer, sacrifice, and following the Law. He says instead that the stairway is a person:
It is Christ alone, therefore, 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.
And I have to say that he nailed it. The stairway has to be Jesus. After Jesus called Nathaniel to be a disciple in John 1, He told Nathaniel, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And that’s exactly what the verse says: the angels will be going up and coming down upon the Son of Man.
But that’s not all that is involved in this dream. Certainly, they do God’s work on earth and bring blessings to people on earth. They may also take us to heaven when we die – as Jesus suggested in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.
But the angels are only secondary in this dream, because angels exist to worship God and to do His bidding. The connection – or bridge – between heaven and earth is what is important.
Especially since Jacob would be the ancestor of Jesus – and, as God promised him in his dream, that all the peoples of the world would be blessed through his descendants – and none would be greater than Jesus.
Jesus – who was both fully God and fully human – was the only one in all creation who could be that bridge. He had – as the expression goes – a foot in both camps. And as such, Jesus was the only one who could bring heaven and earth back together after sin ripped them apart. As Paul wrote in our passage from Colossians 1:
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
The Son of God was the one who was the principle agent of creation – and He continues to hold it together.
He loves His Creation – so much so that He gave His life to redeem it. Paul continues:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
So in Jesus, heaven and earth are reconciled – brought back together. He is the ladder, the stairway, the bridge that brings them together.
When people construct homes, they usually rough out the first story, then at least the floor of the second story – and then they build a stairway to give access from one to the other. Don’t bring up the new Health Plan building in Wheeling, where they built a separate elevator and stair tower – and then the rest of the building. Commercial construction only confuses the illustration.
As we talked about last Sunday, we now have direct access to God and God is always with us. That is because of the reconciling work of Jesus. Paul explains in Ephesians 1 that this connection is not perfect right now – there is still sin in this world that interferes with our connection with God – but at the end of time, it will be made flawless. As he put it: “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
So almost 18-hundred years before Jesus was born, God gave Jacob a vague but powerful image of the redemption that God would bring about through Jacob’s descendant, Jesus. That Jesus would be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. And we – as children of God’s Covenant with Jacob – are blessed to know Jesus.
This vision – this dream – was a great comfort to Jacob at the lowest point in his life. After the week we have experienced around here – with so much death and damage and destruction – we may have a hard time seeing the stairway. We see it as in a mirror dimly, but the day is coming when we will see it clearly – face-to-face. So let us put our hope and trust in Jesus, who is the only One who can bring heaven and earth together.