I first heard the colorful story of Jacob’s
Ladder as a young child in Sunday school. I still remember the teacher showing us pictures of angels descending and ascending on the ladder from heaven in Jacob’s dream as he slept on the ground and God appears at the top of the ladder speaking to Jacob.
God promises Jacob that he will stay with him wherever he goes and will eventually bring him back to the land where he is having this dream. Jacob realizes the significance of this astonishing visit from God and it wouldn’t be the last time God spoke so dramatically to Jacob in a dream.
As a child, it was an enthralling story to hear, but as an adult, I’ve learned God was speaking to all of his people who would later read of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28 and see how it could apply to their own life.
What Is the Backstory of Jacob’s Ladder?
When Jacob had the dream, he was running away from home to save his life. Through an elaborate scheme and lies concocted with his mother Rebecca, he managed to cheat his brother Esau out of his birthright as the firstborn son with a Jewish claim to inheritance and blessing. Jacob also deceived his own father Isaac (Genesis 27). Rebecca knew that Esau would be livid when he found out he had been played by Jacob and would try to kill him so she sent her favorite son away from the Promised Land of Canaan to stay with her brother Laban in Haran.
On the way, Jacob stopped for the night resting his head on a rock, and fell into a deep sleep. I always found it strange and seemingly uncomfortable for him to use a rock as a pillow, but in those days they were accustomed to sleeping on the ground and that rock would have significance in Jacob’s story.
As he slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway.
At the top of the stairway stood the Lord, and he said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.”
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” But he was also afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!”
The next morning Jacob got up very early. He took the stone he had rested his head against, and he set it upright as a memorial pillar. Then he poured olive oil over it. He named that place Bethel (which means “house of God”), although it was previously called Luz. Gen. 28:12-19 NLT
Even though Jacob had pulled off the ultimate caper by receiving the family line inheritance for himself, God wanted him to know that yes he was God’s chosen heir to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham to multiply his descendants into a great nation that God would call his own, but God was in charge, not Jacob. The plan would be fulfilled God’s way, not Jacob’s way. It would be awhile before Jacob fully understood this truth.
Here are four lessons from the biblical account of Jacob’s Ladder to both encourage and challenge us.
Lesson #1: God Uses Imperfect People
Like Jacob, we’ve all failed God and we’re all stained with sin. If God only used perfect people there wouldn’t be anyone serving him today. Isn’t that encouraging!
Jacob’s faith in the Lord was still immature when he had his first Devine experience with God and he would continue to scheme, lie, and manipulate for a number of years, but God was still working on him and Jacob did eventually mature into a godly man. At the end of his life, he was known as a man of faith, “It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.” Heb. 11:21
Never think that God won’t forgive and remake you into the man or woman he’s always wanted you to be.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. Rom. 3:23-24 NLT
Lesson #2: God’s Purpose and Plan Is Always Better than Ours
Early in his life, Jacob trusted his own plans rather than relying on God’s plans. Even after his prophetic dream, he went on to lie and cheat his uncle Laban, who he worked for, to get what he wanted when he wanted it. But then he had another encounter with God in a dream when he was traveling back to the land God had promised him.
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Gen 32:26-30
Jacob finally got it. He was a changed man with a limp that would always remind him that God was in charge. Sometimes we figuratively wrestle with God because we’re sure we know what’s best for us. But God says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Jer. 29: 11 NLT
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Lesson #3: God Wants to Get Our Attention
We may not see God in vivid dreams as Jacob did, or a burning bush like Moses, but God will get our attention in ways he knows will speak to us individually. If you’ve ever said, “I just knew God wanted me to do this,” God used some specific way that spoke directly to you to affirm it was from him. Maybe it was the peace you felt when you made a decision or took an action. Jacob used the rock he slept on in his first dream to mark the place where he first heard from God. That’s a good practice to get into, maybe writing in a journal thanking God for the clarity he gave you.
God will also let us know when we’re not doing what he wants. There will be a feeling of uneasiness or unrest. You know you’re stepping out of God’s will but you do it anyway. Be encouraged by Jacob’s story that God won’t give up on you or turn his back, but he will wait for you to turn your focus back to him and the ways he’s chosen for you.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Heb. 1:1-3
Lesson #4: God Wants Trust and Obedience
As impressed as Jacob was with the promises God gave him as he appeared at the top of the ladder to heaven, Jacob still put qualifiers in his response.
Then Jacob made this vow: “If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God. And this memorial pillar I have set up will become a place for worshiping God, and I will present to God a tenth of everything he gives me.” Gen 28:20-22 NLT
Jacob didn’t completely trust God in spite of this amazing experience and vision. He repeatedly trusted in his own devices instead of relying on God. God did protect and provide for Jacob and he eventually was able to return home many years later, but only after a wrestling match with God when God fully blessed him and Jacob finally understood the sovereignty of God.
How much easier our lives would be if we lived by trust in and obedience to God. Not by testing or wrestling with God in our spirit. If we didn’t challenge God to prove his faithfulness to us, but instead we received his full blessing because we believed fully that, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Heb. 11:1
How to Apply These Lessons to Our Lives Today
God often communicated with people in the Bible through dreams to provide them with critical information and give them directions for actions he wanted them to take. Today, he speaks to us through his written word, the Bible, which contains many stories like Jacobs and specific and clear principles by which he wants us to live.
God also speaks through the Holy Spirit as we pray, listen to sermons, songs, other believers, and in our quiet moments with him. The key is to not only read or hear the Word, but to do the Word.
The story of Jacob shows us that God doesn’t give up on us even when we disappoint him or fail to give him our complete allegiance. He’ll wait for us to turn our hearts and will completely over to him.
There’s a special foretelling of Jesus in Jacob’s Ladder confirmed in the New Testament by Jesus. Some theologians look at the ladder or “stairway” as a replica of Jesus coming from heaven to earth to save humanity. Jesus even refers to himself as the symbolic ladder in John 1:51 “Then he said, ‘I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.’” (NLT)