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Mandy (Kay Holbrook)
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The Story of Jacob
Jacob's Ladder
Genesis 28
I'm not asking you to raise your hand or answer audibly, but I wonder if anyone here ever had to leave home because of bad circumstances? If so, you can probably identify with where we find Jacob in Genesis 28.
Jacob left home with his mother crying, his brother angry with him and his dad waving goodbye from his deathbed. In chapter 28, he is at the beginning of a 500 mile trip to a place called chapter 28, he is He is on a 500 mile trip from Beersheba to a place called Haran in a land called Paddam Aram.
To get there you traveled north, then east across the Jordan River, then north again toward Damascus, then east to Tadmor, then a sharp turn north for the final leg of the journey, crossing the Euphrates River, finally arriving in Haran, which was located not far from the southern border of modern-day Turkey.
It was a journey backward in time for Jacob, backward because he was retracing the steps of his grandfather Abraham who came from Haran to the Promised Land many years ago. But Abraham left behind him a settlement of people, a clan that grew and prospered over the years.
So it was natural that Rebekah would think of Haran when she thought about a safe haven for her wayward youngest son.
It was far enough that Esau wouldn’t follow him there. Yet there was family there, so Jacob wouldn’t be alone. Haran made a lot of sense in a lot of ways.
And Rebekah’s plan made sense also. By sending Jacob to Haran, she was putting him in a safe place for a few months until Esau’s anger passed away. Then she would send word for Jacob to come home. In the meantime, she hoped that her son would marry one of his relatives in Haran and eventually return home, bride in hand. It was a good plan, and in fact it came to pass, but not exactly as Rebekah envisioned.
All of that was still off out in the future when Jacob set out on his lonely journey to Haran. And when we pick up the story in verse 11, he was about fifty miles from home. He’s been on the road now for a couple of days and that means he's had two days to think and ponder and wonder what he should have done differently.
He left home so quickly, and it sure wasn't the beautiful send-off the son with rightful heir to the birthright and blessing deserved. Instead, he hurried out of town for fear his offended brother would decide to even the score. And he is now running for his life, with relationships broken and family ties destroyed.
And now, 50 miles away from home, as the sun sinks over the western horizon, Jacob stops for the night. He’s come to the outskirts of a city called Luzl, a place unknown to him, a city filled with strange and possibly dangerous people.
So filled with fear was Jacob that when he came to Bethel, he dared not enter the city, even though night had fallen.
Outside the town, on a hillside strewn with rocks and boulders, Jacob made his bed and used a rock for a pillow. I would guess he had a hard time going to sleep that night. As he reminisced in his mind, I wonder if he thought about his family. Did he worry about his aging father? Did a silent tear slip down his cheek as he remembered waving goodbye to his mother? Did his face turn crimson in the darkness as he replayed his shameful deceit? Did an arrow of fear pierce his heart as he thought about Esau’s vow to kill him?
I’m sure he thought about all those things, and much more, as he tried to sleep on a rocky bed under the stars with a stone for a pillow. As the stars came out, and the strange sounds of night filled his ears, Jacob realized that for the first time in his life he was all by himself. And to make matters worse, he is homeless, penniless and helpless.
Don't you know he must have said to himself, “How in the world did this ever happen to me?” Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, bearer of the promise of God, now running for his life.
So how did it happen? Most, if not all the blame should be laid at the feet of Jacob. And I would guess if you talked to Jacob, he would admit that.
After all, he was the one who cheated his brother. He was the one who lied to his father. He was the deceiver. He was the scoundrel. He was the one who broke up his own family.
His mother was involved and instigated a lot of it, but Jacob did it. And I don't read about Rebekah being involved when he cheated his brother out of his birthright.
So it's hard to come up with any sympathy for Jacob. He deserved what he got and it's no wonder he's not sleeping too well out among the rocks. His sleep was restless because his conscience was guilty.
And in the end, Jacob got what he wanted out of his daddy. So that night, alone on the hillside, outside of Luz, resting his head on the stone pillow, he could only reflect on the terrible price he paid for the thing he wanted so much.
He finally managed to drift off into an uneasy sleep and while he slept, he had one of the most famous dreams in history.
Genesis 28:12-15
Now as far as we know, God had never spoken to Jacob before. For all the years of his life, God had never spoken directly to him. He had spoken to his grandfather Abraham and to his father Isaac, but not to Jacob.
So for his whole life he had lived on the experiences of others. His faith was a borrowed faith. He was raised in their faith, was taught their faith, knew their faith, and even believed their faith, but he had never had a personal experience with the God of his father and grandfather. To Jacob it was all second-hand reality.
  1. now, at perhaps the lowest point in his life, when you would think God would be far away from him, God speaks to him. God does that a lot of times. He will bring you to a point of desperation, so that once He has your undivided attention, He can speak and be heard.
So through all the deception and trickery, God now has him at a place where he will listen. Now that he is running for his life, now that he is leaving the Promised Land, now that he has disgraced himself, now that he finally reached the bottom, at that exact moment, God speaks to Jacob.
C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure and shouts to us in our pain. Pain, he said, is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleeping world. Now God moves to rouse Jacob even while he sleeps.
Now this message from God happens in the form of a strange dream. And in this dream, Jacob saw a stairway. The Hebrew word can mean “ladder”, but it generally used to reference a stairway. And this stairway reaches from heaven to earth. Now the key thing to notice is that Jacob sees this stairway resting on the earth right where he happened to be.
On the stairway Jacob saw the angels of God going up and down the stairs. It’s worth noting that not many people in the Bible ever saw angels. Most people lived their lives and never once saw an angel. But here and there, at certain critical moments in history, God allowed a few people to see his angels at work. It’s as if God would draw back the curtains at a crucial moment to let someone see the angels of God at work behind the scene. Jacob is one of those lucky few.
What are the angels doing? Why are they going up and down the stairs? We are not specifically told, but apparently, they are taking messages from earth up to heaven and messages from heaven down to earth. They are heavenly couriers who report to God concerning the situation on the earth.
They also carry out God’s will by answering prayers, giving guidance, providing protection, fighting for the people of God and fending off the attacks of Satan.
And at the top of the ladder stood God himself. Mow let that sink in for a moment. Jacob sees this stairway between heaven and earth and Jacob is at the bottom of the stairway and God is at the top and in between the two of them on the stairway are all these angels going up and down. What does it mean?
Let me answer the question this way. There was a reason why Jacob was a cheater. He cheated because he thought God wasn't interested in what he was doing. God was too far away from him. He had the same picture of God that a lot of people have today—a God in heaven who wound up the universe like a giant clock, set it running, and then busied himself with other things.
To Jacob, God was too big, too vast, too magnificent, too almighty to ever be concerned about someone like him. It wasn’t that Jacob’s view of God was too small. Not at all. Jacob viewed God as entirely transcendent, so far removed from the earth that he had no time to worry about the details of human life.
We all feel that way sometimes. “Maybe God loves me, I know the Bible says he does. But it’s a big world, and everyone’s got problems, and he’s got to take care of billions of people. How can God have time to worry about me?”
But that kind of thinking leads to a faulty conclusion. If God is not personal, if he’s not concerned about your life, then you are left pretty much on your own. After all, you’ve got the rule book, you’ve got the Ten Commandments, but after that, it’s every man for himself. So if you have to bend the rules, so be it. Nobody is going to take care of you but yourself. That’s just the way life works.
It sounds appealing, and with a little doing, you can even make it sound spiritual. That’s the way Jacob had lived for all these years. He cheated because he thought God either didn’t notice or didn’t care or was too busy to help him out. So Jacob consistently took matters into his own hands.
Jacob's reasoning went something like this: “If God were here, I wouldn’t have to do things this way. But God’s not here. So I’ve got to take care of myself.”
But Jacob is wrong.
And the message God is sending Jacob through this dream is, “Jacob, I’m nearer to you than you think I am. Although I am in heaven and you are on earth, there’s a stairway that reaches from me to you. And my angels are constantly watching over you. They tell me what you need and I send them back to earth with my answers. I’m not very far away. In fact, I’m with you wherever you go. When you travel, my stairway travels with you. I was with you in Beersheba. I was with you when you tricked Esau.
I was with you when you deceived your father. I am with you tonight. And I will be with you in when you get to Haran. Everywhere you go, I will go with you.”
That in a nutshell is what this dream is all about. It’s a message about the nearness of God. And in order to make sure Jacob understood it, God reaffirmed the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac:
1. I will give you this land. (verse 13)
2. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. (verse 14)
3. All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you. (verse 14)
4. I will watch over you wherever you go. (verse 15)
5. I will bring you back to this land. (verse 15)
6. I will not leave you. (verse 15)
If that seems unimportant, it’s only because we aren’t today where Jacob was that night. It's easy to think that way sitting in a church thousands of years later. But if you study these words carefully, it becomes clear that God is meeting Jacob at the point of his personal need. Think of all the needs that these words address:
Shame: “I am the God of your father Abraham.”
Betrayal: “I am the God of Isaac.”
Loss of his homeland: “I will give you this land.”
Insignificance: “All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”
Loss of his family: “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”
Fear of the future: “I am with you … wherever you go.”
Fear of Failure: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
As the saying goes, that’s as good as it gets. Jacob now receives the very same promise God gave his grandfather and his father. In addition, God promises to be with him while he is in Haran and to bring him back someday to the Promised Land. This is exactly what Jacob needed to hear on the eve of his journey to Haran.
God personally says to Jacob, “Jacob, you are My son, I know who you are and I know what you’ve done. Nothing is hidden from me. I also know how frightened you are. And I want you to remember something. I want you to remember that when you go to Haran, you won’t be going alone for I will go with you. And when your time in Haran is finished, I will bring you safely back home again. You have my sacred word on that.”
Think about all the emotions and feeling that must have created in Jacob's mind. He must have felt guilty about his past and he must have been fearful about the future. I wouldn't be surprised that he felt uncertain about where he was in the present. And to all of that, God simply says, “I will be with you.”
That is the total solution for guilt, fear and anxiety. Through all of this Jacob is learning the lesson that there is no place he can go where God is not already there.
Do you know what that truth is called? I didn’t know it had a name until I was studying for this message. Theologians call it “the prevenient grace of God.” That means “the grace that goes before.” And simply put, it is divine grace that precedes human decision.
That means in every situation of life, God is already at work before I get there. He is working creatively, strategically and redemptively for my good and his glory.
And if you are like me, I tend to limit my thinking to the fact that God is with me as I go through life. And that is true, but that’s only part of the story. He’s not only with me now, he’s already way up the road ahead of me.
Think about it this way: While I am struggling with the problems of today, God is hard at work providing solutions for the things I am going to face tomorrow. He’s already there, and He is at work in situations I have yet to face, preparing them for me and me for them.
Or to say it another way: While I’m living in Tuesday, he’s clearing the road for me on Friday. That’s what Proverbs 3:6 means when it says that “he shall make your paths straight.”
Or to say it yet another way: God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet! That blows my mind.
Are you worried about next week? Don't worry about it! He’s already there. How about next year? Don’t sweat it. He’s already there. What about that appointment with he doctor next week? Sleep well. He’s already there. What about that tough decision you've got to make? It'll be okay! He’s already there.
It would be enough if God simply walked with you through the events of life, but He does much more than that. He goes ahead of you, clearing the way, arranging the details of life, so that when you get there, you can have confidence that God has already been there before you.
  1. the prevenient grace of God. He goes before his people. He’s at work in the future while we live in the present. And that’s what Jacob is discovering in this midnight message from God.
Well, suddenly, as we see in 16, Jacob awakens with a start. What time is it? Sometime after midnight. He rubs his eyes, stretches, yawns, sits up, and then he remembers. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Or was it reality within a dream? Thinking, pausing, pondering, he begins to put the pieces together in his mind.
verses 16-17
By the way, the phrase “house of God” in Hebrew is the word “Bethel.” And we'll see in verse 19 that the place previously known as Luz will now be known as Bethel because of Jacob's dream
So what was it that Jacob discovered about God in this message that came through a dream? He discovered the omnipresence of God. He found out that God is everywhere all at the same time. That’s why he called the place where he slept Bethel, the house of God.
In years to come Jacob’s descendants would build a vast temple in Jerusalem and that would be called the “house of God.” But no building of brick and mortar, no matter how expensive, can contain the presence of the Almighty.
When we call our church buildings houses of God, we simply mean they are dedicated to the worship of God. Some people think that God is more present in a building than anywhere else. Not so. What God is teaching Jacob is that anyplace can be a “house of God” for you if you meet the Lord there.
You don’t have to go to church to meet God. You can meet him on out on the highway or in a hospital waiting room. You can meet Him at McDonald’s or out on Lake Murray. You can meet Him in the plane to Malawi or alone in your living room. He's on the bus to school and out on the park bench or riding in your car. God is everywhere.
Wherever you are, there God is. And wherever God is, there is a stairway to heaven reaching down from God to right where you are.
You don’t have to have a “holy place.” Any place can be a “holy place” if you stop and listen to God’s voice speaking to you. Sometimes we have a deep spiritual experience, and we say, “I really felt the presence of God.” I want you to know something:
God is with you whether you feel it or not. God is with you whether you know it or not. God is with you whether you see it or not. God is with you whether you sense it or not.
Notice what Jacob says in verse 16, and pay particular attention to the tense in which he says it: He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place.” “Is” in this place, not “was.” “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
Jacob is testifying to the fact that he has just learned that God is always with his people whether they know it or not.
It’s been my observation that very few people meet God for the first time on Sunday mornings. They are much more likely to encounter God in a real way in hospital beds and doctor's offices or when they lose their job, or when their children are sick, or when their marriage collapses.
We are much more likely to meet God him after an accident or disaster or tragedy than we are sitting at a table in Sunday School drinking coffee and eating a donut.
Not because God is not here. He is here, and not just on Sunday either. Our problem is, God speaks but we don’t listen.
It takes tragedy, it takes failures, it takes financial setback, it takes heartache, it takes illness, it takes the collapse of our dreams to get our attention. And once God has out attention, it's amazing how much more clearly God speaks. And it's then when we finally look up to heaven and say, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I knew it not.”
Back in 1975, Billy Graham's production company, Worldwide Pictures, produced a movie called "The Hiding Place". It’s the story of Corrie Ten Boom and her deliverance from a Nazi prison camp.
The film tells the story of how Corrie and her family hid Jews in Holland. They were eventually arrested, and she and her sister were sent to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
If you’ve seen the film or the read the book upon which it was based, you’ll remember that Corrie’s sister became deathly sick and Corrie tried to encourage her not to give up. As they sang Christian songs and recited Scripture, the prison guards came in and beat them.
In the midst of that unspeakable degradation, Corrie and her sister witnessed for Jesus Christ. At the end of the film, Corrie recounted how in early 1945, through a clerical error, she was released from the prison camp. A few days later all the women her age were put to death.
After telling that story, Corrie Ten Boom said, “For all these years, I’ve been going all over the world, with one message: There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
I tell that story just to remind us that even a Nazi prison camp can become Bethel, the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
You don’t have to go to church to meet God. Most of us meet him in the pit holes of life. It is there, in our extremity, that we discover what Corrie Ten Boom discovered at Ravensbruck: “There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
The closing verses fo the chapter tell us what Jacob did the morning after his dream.
verses 18-22
The morning after he had the dream, Jacob decides to set up a altar in honor of his remarkable dream and it is then that he renamed Luz to Bethel.
It's interesting to read how some commentators are critical of what Jacob says and does. They say his commitment is inadequate and conditional.
But I think that is somewhat unfair.
After all, Jacob’s vow means, “Lord, I am taking you at your word. I believe you will do what you said and therefore I am committing myself to you wholeheartedly.”
I think this is a great statement of faith. And if you look at what he said and did in relation to who he was when he started, I think it reflects a lot of growth in a short amount of time. It's a statement about the nearness of God at the moment of our personal need.
It’s a story about how close God is in times of deep desperation. It’s a story about how God reaches down to us. It’s a story of the grace of God finding us right where we are.
One more I want to show you. When I study Old Testament characters, I always like to see if there is any mention of them in the New Testament, and if so, where do their stories show up.
These story shows up in the first chapter of John. When Philip met Jesus for the first time, he was so excited that he hurried to tell his friend Nathanael. He called him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” That didn’t impress Nathanael because Nazareth was just a tiny village in Galilee. And in John 1:46, Nathanael asked the famous question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip’s response is very direct, “Come and see.” No pressure, just make up your own mind. When Jesus saw Nathanael, he said, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” We might pass right over that statement, but it ties directly into our story because “Israel” was the name given to Jacob by God himself.
If “Jacob” means “cheater,” then “Israel” means “a noble person who prevails with God.” In essence, Jesus is saying to Nathanael, “You are a true son of the man called Israel. There is nothing false in you.” And when He said it that way, Nathanael was reminded of the story and history of Jacob.
Later on Nathanael says, “You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” Jesus responds by saying, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
That's in verse 51. So here did Jesus get a picture like that? What is he referring to? Obviously, He’s referring to our story in Genesis 28—the story of Jacob’s ladder.
So what is the New Testament application of Jacob’s ladder? In the New Testament, Jacob’s ladder is not a what; but a who. In the gospel of John, Jesus is the ladder to heaven. In Genesis 28 God was at the top and Jacob was at the bottom. In John 1 Jesus the Son of God is at the bottom of the ladder. What does it mean? It means that in the person of Jesus Christ, God has come down the ladder to join us on the earth.
Jesus Christ is himself the stairway that leads back to heaven. If you want to go to heaven, Jesus is the stairway, he is the ladder, that will take you from here to there. That’s why—later in the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) Jesus is “the way” to heaven. Without him, there is no other way.
Jacob’s ladder is Jesus Christ himself. He came down from heaven to earth so that we might have a way to go from earth to heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard it said this way:
The Son of God became The Son of Man so that the sons of men might become the sons of God
Now that Jesus has come, we know that God can never be far away from us. He is the ladder that leads to heaven, He is the bridge that crosses the great gulf, He is the stairway that leads to paradise, He is the way to eternal life.
Jacob still has a long way to go. He still faces twenty years of hardship in Haran—but he’s not going alone. Now he knows that God is going with him. It is better to go to Haran if God will be with you than to stay at home in luxury and miss the presence of God.
Bethel is the place of new beginnings. It is the place where you can start all over again. Jacob’s ladder reaches all the way down from heaven to where you are. And the minute you are ready to come clean with God, you can start climbing Jacob’s ladder back up to heaven.
Let's pray, and maybe I can suggest a prayer for you to use:
Lord Jesus,
I need a fresh start. I need a new beginning. I tried to do it on my own and it didn’t work. Forgive me for thinking I didn’t need you. By your grace, I have learned that I cannot live without you. Lord, if you are willing, I am ready to start over again. But this time I want you to lead the way.
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