“Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
Most of us have heard the phrase “Jacob’s Ladder” in one context or another. As a child, I always associated it with the game, Cat’s Cradle, because one of the string shapes created in that game is called “Jacob’s Ladder.” It wasn’t until I started reading the Bible that I realized the term actually comes from the story of Jacob, in the book of Genesis.
In that story, Jacob has a dream in which he sees a giant ladder extending from earth all the way up to heaven, with angels walking up and down on it. (Genesis 28:11-12) As he’s dreaming, Jacob hears the voice of God speaking to him, saying, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” (Genesis 28:14) This happens to be the exact same promise that God gave to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather (Genesis 22:17-18), and also to Isaac, Jacob’s father (Genesis 26:4). God spoke to all three of these men individually, promising each of them that all the families of the earth would be blessed through their descendants.
The story of Jacob is fundamental to the Jewish faith, and any Jew who was alive during the time of Jesus would have been very familiar with it. When Jesus said to his disciples, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” they would have known that he was making a reference to the ladder that Jacob saw in his dream. But I don’t know whether they realized the significance of it at the time.
So, what did Jesus mean when he said they would see angels ascending and descending on the “Son of Man?” First of all, we must realize that whenever Jesus uses the term “Son of Man,” he is talking about himself. But he didn’t mean that they would literally see angels walking up and down over his body. He was saying that the “ladder” in the vision symbolizes himself – that he, Jesus Christ, is that conduit between heaven and earth. And, by extension, he was also claiming to be the fulfillment of the messianic promise that was spoken to Jacob at the time.
There is no record in the gospels where any of these disciples actually saw heaven open and angels walking up and down on Jesus, but they did witness him healing the lame, restoring sight to the blind, and raising the dead. And, ultimately, they saw him lifted up on a cross where he died to make atonement for the sins of all mankind. This is where he truly became, and continues to be, that bridge between heaven and earth.