Scripture - John 1:43-51
Let us pray. We are here, God, waiting to hear your word. Help us recognize your voice as we listen for your guidance. Search our hearts & open them to your call. We are ready for your word of love. Amen.
Jacob was a schemer, a liar & a cheat. All his early life he had one eye on the main prize, especially if it meant getting one up on his older twin, Esau. In fact, even the story of how they were born included a crucial detail: Jacob was born holding on to his brother’s heel. Trying to trip him up, even in the womb! And the scheming continued. He tricked Esau out of his birthright, & out of his father’s blessing. Eventually the tables turned, & Esau tried to kill Jacob. It was time for Jacob to leave in a hurry. The story of this dysfunctional family, fresh & vivid from millennia ago, can be found in Genesis 25-28.
When Jacob was running away, without a penny to his name & nothing but the clothes on his back, he had a dream. He saw a ladder with its foot on the ground & its top reaching to heaven. God’s angels were going up & down on the ladder. The Lord himself stood beside Jacob & promised him he would bring him back to this land in peace & prosperity.
It is this passage that Jesus seems to be referring to when he says to Nathanael that he & the other disciples – you in v. 51 is plural – will see heaven opened, with the angels of God going up & down upon – the Son of Man. This is a very strange picture, & to begin with it is hard to see what Nathanael & the others might have made of it, what John thinks we should make of it, & truly what Jesus might have meant by it. Since it is obviously important within the gospel, concluding the first chapter of John, in which so many of the gospel’s great themes have been introduced, we had better look at it a bit more closely.
The point about Jacob’s ladder was that it showed that God was right there with him, in that place & time. Jacob called the place Bethel, that is, ‘God’s house.’ After he had come back to the land, & when, much later, his descendants had been established in possession of it, Bethel became one of the great sanctuaries of Israel, one of the places where early Israelite worship was carried on. The tradition of Jacob’s dream, of the angels going up & down on the ladder, would become connected with the belief that when you worshipped God in His house, God was really present, with his angels coming & going to link heaven & earth.
This is probably the connection we are looking for. A great deal of John’s gospel has to do with the
way in which Jesus fulfills the promises made concerning the Temple - & also goes beyond them, pioneering the new way in which the living God will be present with his people. This was hinted at in v. 14: The Word became flesh & made his home among us. When John says that the Word became flesh & made his home among us, the word translated made his home is a word associated with the presence of God tabernacling or pitching his tent in our midst. The thought of a tent in which God lived would send Jewish minds back to the tabernacle in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus, & from there to the Temple in Jerusalem where God’s presence was promised.
Verse 51, then, seems to be a tightly-packed & evocative way of saying: “Don’t think that all you will see is one or 2 remarkable acts of insight, such as you witnessed when I told you that I knew about you before you even appeared. What you will see from now on is the reality towards which Jacob’s ladder, & even the Temple itself, was pointing like a signpost. If you follow me,” Jesus is saying, “you will be watching what it looks like when heaven & earth are open to each other. You won’t necessarily see the angels themselves, but you will see things happening which show that they are there all right.”
The earlier part of our reading is meant, I think, to be funny, almost as comic relief right before the solemn & serious promise at the end. Nathanael, who comes from Cana – yes, that Cana, where the water is turned into the finest wine – he cannot believe that anything good would come out of the rival village, Nazareth, just a short distance up the hill. Can anything from Nazareth be good? This Nathanael is a wiseacre, & he makes a wisecrack here. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? And I think he probably laughed at his own joke. But Philip did not laugh. He just said, “Come & see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him & said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” In other words, here is an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob. Although Nathanael is a jokester, he is not deceitful or cunning. There is nothing of the old Jacob in him. He is an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob.
The Lord Jesus had 2 doubters among his apostles. The one at the beginning was Nathanael; the one at the end was Thomas. Nathanael the skeptic, this one who wonders whether any good can come out of Nazareth, confesses before his introduction is over that Jesus is the Son of God & the king of Israel.
When Nathanael confessed that Jesus is God’s Son & the king of Israel, he revealed that something incredibly good & especially important did come out of Nazareth!
And Jesus more or less rebukes him & asks whether it was just because he saw him under the fig tree that he believed. Jesus promises him that he will see greater things. Indeed, during the next 3 years, Nathanael did see much greater things than these.
Jesus said to him, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” – no Jacob. Now he picks up that reference to Genesis & says that the ladder was himself. You will now see the angels of God ascending & descending upon the Son of Man. The angels ministered to him, & the angels were subject to him. He was given charge over the angels. He could send them as messengers to heaven, & they would return also. So, Jesus says that Nathanael will see heaven opened & the angels of God ascending & descending upon the Son of Man. He is going to see that the Father from the top of that ladder will speak of this One, saying, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
The ladder is Christ, & only by him can you & I make contact with God. Jesus says later in John’s Gospel, “I am the way, the truth, & the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He is the ladder – not one that you climb, but one that you trust. One that you rest upon & believe in. That is the important thing to understand here.
What matters is that something much greater than a mere Messiah is here. When you are with Jesus, it is as though you are in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God’s angels coming & going, & God’s own presence is there beside you.
That promise, the assurance of God’s presence with you, remains as true today as it was then. That is why John wrote his gospel in the first place. And it is why God wanted you to hear it today.
Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.
This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.