Let me set the context for where we are in the flow of the greater story:
Genesis 28:10-11, “Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep.”
Don’t forget Jacob is in a dicy situation. First off, he’s not an outdoorsman. Jacob is used to the comforts of “tent life” so surviving in the wilderness was not exactly his forte. Case in point, using “stones” as a pillow was not exactly the smartest idea. Bear Grills Jacob is not!
Secondly, Jacob’s wilderness excursion wasn’t a relaxing vacation… Instead it was one of pure necessity. Jacob is in this situation because he’s fleeing for his life. His brother Esau is angry and wants to kill him, which carried with it an understandable measure of trepidation.
Remember, Esau was a man of the land. Not only was he an expert marksman, but he was a savvy hunter. Esau was used to tracking his game and waiting for the ideal moment to go in for the kill. I can only imagine how terrifying this first night had to have been for Jacob!
Please understand… Jacob’s entire life has been completely upended. As a result of the actions of one day he now finds himself sent away from his home, away from his mother and father, away from all the comforts therein. Though Jacob is headed to Rebekah’s family in Haran, he’s never been out of the promised land yet alone met any of these relatives.
Jacob’s life and his future are uncertain at best. Will Esau hunt him down and kill him before he makes it to Haran? If he does survive the journey will he be able to find Laban? Is Laban still living in Haran? Is he well? Would he believe his story and take him in? The context for what happens next is that everything Jacob finds familiar has been stripped from his life.
Genesis 28:12-15, “Then Jacob dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’”
Before we look at the substance of what God says to Jacob, let’s first examine this dream. First off, while we’ve seen God communicate to humanity in a number of different ways, this is the first time He does so using a “dream.” The Hebrew word “chalam” indicates that Jacob was fully asleep and that this wasn’t a vision, some kind of moment of ecstasy, nor was it a literal event that could have been witnessed by anyone other than Jacob.
Though dreams are commonplace, you should also note this particular dream was different because it wasn’t rooted in the manifestations of the neurological connections of Jacob’s subconscious mind, but was instead God-induced and thus revelatory. The Lord was behind the dream and the underlying purpose was to reveal three important truths to Jacob.
Truth #1: God is accessible. Notice what Jacob first sees… He sees “a ladder set up on the earth” so that “its top reached the heavens.” In the original language this word “ladder” would be better translated as a wide stairway that rose from the earth into the heavens.
The point of this was to help Jacob understand there was way more to his reality than what he could physically see. There was indeed an access point between heaven and earth… A way for mortal man to approach the infinite God. You see the Lord of heaven was letting Jacob know He was not only accessible, but desired a relationship with him. Note: This dream is the very first recorded interaction Jacob has with the God of his fathers.
Truth #2: God is actively involved with the affairs of this life. Aside from there being this connecting point between heaven and earth, upon this stairway Jacob also sees “the angels of God ascending and descending” from earth to heaven and from heaven to the earth.
Once again the point of this was to reveal to Jacob the important truth that God was not only accessible, but was actively involved in the affairs of this life - mainly the affairs of his life.
Finally, aside from seeing the stairway and the angels, Jacob sees “the Lord standing above it” all. As Jacob is processing everything he’s seeing, the focal point of this dream slowly comes into view as his gaze turns upward… The Lord was not only accessible and active, but ultimately (Truth #3) all heavenly blessings descend from God to man.
While there seems to be ample evidence Jacob possessed a hunger for higher things demonstrated by his deep longing to receive the birthright (which was only fostered by the stories of how God had worked in the lives of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham)…
And though there is no doubt Jacob knew God had chosen to bless him before he was ever born (something communicated by his mother Rebekah), it’s evident Jacob’s struggle was understanding how he was to attain the blessing he knew he’d already been given.
Isn’t this in many ways the great struggle of the believer? We come to Christ. We understand we’ve been forgiven. Our sins atoned for at Calvary. That we’ve been made righteous before God. We understand something radical has happened within. That we’ve been regenerated. That our core passions and desires have changed. That a new Spirit has made us alive!
Additionally, we understand Jesus saved us for more than eternal life. That salvation is just as relevant in the here and now as it is to the great beyond. That Jesus intends to change our lives today and that a process has begun whereby good and Godly fruit is produced.
We understand the blessing of salvation isn’t just a future reward, but carries with it very practical results today. That our right-standing in heaven yields a substantial blessing in the present. And yet, while we as believers understand all of this, our great struggle, like Jacob, is figuring out how exactly this work and God’s promises come to fruition.
Remember why Jacob was in this very situation? He’d schemed to procure something only God could give him. For years Jacob had been working and striving to attain the birthright. He’d sold a bowl of soup to his dying brother and then when that deal wasn’t honored Jacob proceeded to trick his blind dad into giving him the blessing unknowingly.
Though it’s true the object of Jacob’s desire had been right (the birthright and therefore the blessing of God was to be desired), the way Jacob pursued this blessing was all wrong.
The core idea behind this stairway and these angels ascending and descending from God all while Jacob slept was to hammer home the reality that Jacob didn’t need to strive to attain a blessing only God could give him. God had given him access and was actively involved in the affairs of his life. Jacob didn’t need to help God out. He didn’t need to take the reigns to speed up the process. God was at work and that work would yield the blessing!
Friend, the same reality is true in your life. God’s work in your life can only occur as God works in your life! His blessings flow from His grace, not from your efforts. His love, not your deservingness. The sacrifice He made, not the ones you promise. His work, not yours.
“So Pastor Zach what am I supposed to do?” Seriously… Absolutely nothing! Spiritual transformation resides not in the things you do, but in a relationship you have. Your growth and therefore God’s blessings are yielded through Jesus, not earned by you!
In John 15:4-5 Jesus was very clear what your role was to be. He said, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
Note: The only job you really have is to “abide in Jesus.” What this means is that your sole focus, passion, and energies should be on the development of your relationship with Jesus - knowing that it will be through this relationship that God’s work in you will be accomplished.
With all of this in mind, God speaks to Jacob and specifically addresses his two central fears. First, though Jacob rightly wondered if the events of that day may have discredited him from receiving God’s blessing, the Lord makes it abundantly clear the same promises He made to Abraham and Isaac were also being extended to him as well. God says, “In you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Secondly, as it pertained to Esau’s murderous plans as well as Jacob’s uncertain future, God meets these fears by reaffirming to him, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Though Jacob’s actions had revealed a lack of faith in God’s ability to fulfill His promises - in His timing - and in His way, God was still faithful to work in his life anyway.
This entire story is rather amazing when you consider that God didn’t respond to Jacob as a seeker. Instead, God revealed Himself to a man on the run… An outlaw literally between a rock and a hard place… Jacob wasn’t crying out to God for deliverance. He wasn’t praying or making an impassioned appeal. And yet, God chose to reveal Himself to Jacob anyway.
The point which should provide all of us great encouragement is that God was more than willing to met Jacob right where he was! In what can only be described as yet another example of God’s amazing grace, He revealed Himself even though Jacob wasn’t looking.
The reality is through this dream the Lord was trying to awaken Jacob to higher realities… To move his eyes from his precarious situation and unto the providential God. In this moment of great uncertainty and fear Jacob needed to look up and see that God was still at work…
In the midst of a rocky and lonely place Jacob needed to look up and see that God was still ever present… In the place of failure and doubt Jacob needed to look up and see that his favor was secure because God’s grace was not based upon his performance or merit - it was based in the solid truth the covenantal God never fails to make good on His promises!
Before we move on I want to turn your attention to a story recorded in the first chapter of John’s Gospel that has an interesting parallel to Jacob’s dream. In an exchange with one of His disciples Jesus said, (John 1:51) “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Sound familiar? I hope you know there is a Stairway that not only provides you access to God, but is the very avenue by which God’s favor (His grace) descends to you and by which your worship rise back to Him. Most incredibly, this Stairway even has a name - Jesus!
Look back at our text because I want to point out a subtle detail you might have missed… We read, “Then Jacob dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
The implication is that this Stairway which provided access to God would not descend down from heaven to earth, but would be “set up on the earth” so that it extended to heaven. How interesting that Jesus came as a man, lived among us, only to provide us such access!
Friend, you need to realize Jesus did more than simply show mankind a way to heaven… He did more than lead the way… Jesus is the way to heaven! In John 14:6 He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” It is through Jesus that God’s grace has been demonstrated to all of us, and it is by Jesus that we in turn have access to the throne room of God. None of this would be possible if not for Jesus!
Genesis 28:16-22, “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!’ Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.’”
What a moron! This phrase “Jacob made a vow” reveals the fact he completely missed the entire point of the dream! In response to everything God had just revealed to him Jacob replies in the most audacious of ways. “God, if you do all the things you’ve just promised to do for me I’ll let you be my God. Additionally, if you bless me I’ll give you back a tenth.”
Not only does Jacob’s immediate compulsion to make a “vow” to God reveal the fact he still possesses a complete misunderstanding of what God’s grace is all about - which was the purpose behind this dream, but Jacob’s promise to also “give a tenth of all that God gave him” was actually nothing more than a bribe meant on incentivizing God’s continued favor!
What’s interesting about this passage is that it’s the first time we run across the word “vow” in the Scriptures. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word “vow” as “a solemn promise or assertion by which a person is bound to act.” In some instances a vow can be selfless and proactive. A damsel makes a vow to save herself for a brave knight heading into battle.
Men and women make vows or pledges to one another when they enter the marriage union. They vow to love and cherish one another till death do them part. Elected officials or those in the military make a vow to uphold the constitution and defend her from enemies foreign or domestic. In any of these instances a vow bounds a person to act for the benefit of another.
And yet, this is not the kind of vow Jacob makes! You see Jacob’s vow is totally self-serving and conditional. Yes, Jacob is making a promise that will obligate him to a future action, but the vow itself is predicated upon God acting first. “Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘IF GOD!’”
Understand, Jacob’s compulsion to make a vow to God in order to prompt His continued favor, blessing, and protection was not only silly, but the reality is that it was insulting! Jacob was treating God like He was a shrewd merchant as opposed to a loving Father, as if his relationship with the Lord was transactional not doting.
Because God’s grace is based upon a covenant He’s made with you and not one you’ve made with Him, making such a vow in an attempt to receive His continued blessing completely discounts the sole sufficiency of Jesus’ work on the cross.
Now before you judge Jacob you should consider how often we approach God in the same manner. Understand anytime you pray, “God, if You do ________, I’ll do _________!” you’re making the identical mistake. And oh how quick we are to do such a thing when we really want God to act! When you loose you’re job and the savings is about depleted, how quickly you’ll hit your knees and pray, “God if You’ll give me a job, I promise I’ll finally start tithing.”
How about when your child or spouse get’s really sick and you’re utterly hopeless because there’s nothing you can do about it? You’ll hit your knees and pray, “God if You heal my child, I’ll never miss another Sunday - even if the Falcons have the early game in London.”
Or what about that girl or guy you’ve been totally crushing on but they haven’t even noticed you existed yet… You’ll pray something like, “God if You’ll cause them to fall in love with me, I promise I’ll dedicate my life to becoming a pastor or a missionary or something.”
What makes this approach so terrible is that you’re actually communicating to God that you really don’t believe He cares about you… That His favor isn’t unconditional… That grace isn’t real, but instead a manipulation technique God uses to get what He wants from you!
What you’ve implied through such a prayer is that God took your job away because you weren’t tithing… Or that He allowed your loved one to get sick because you haven’t made church attendance a priority… Or that the reason that girl hasn’t paid attention to you really boils down to the fact you haven’t been serious about your relationship with Him.
This is why such an approach to God is not only insulting but ultimately reveals you haven’t come to understand the incredibleness of His grace. God loves you unconditionally. You don’t have to bargain with a man who’s giving away everything in his store for free!
Though Jacob laid down to sleep near a town named “Luz” he awoke to call the place “Bethel” which literally means “House of God.” On one side of the coin I can understand why Jacob would react to such a dream in such a way… The language indicates Jacob literally concluded his encounter with God occurred because he’d stumbled upon a portal to heaven.
And yet, on the flip side to this, Jacob’s reaction does reveal a measure of ignorance. The truth is that the physical location had zero to do with his spiritual interaction with God. Jacob encountered God because the Lord came to him in a dream. The local mattered not!
Now before you chuckle at Jacob’s superstition, isn’t it true many people fall into the exact same fallacy of thinking? For example… How often do we end up holding a church building, retreat facility, spot in the woods, or even a pew in such high regard and reverence simply because it happened to be the place where we encountered God in the past?
I have found this is so easy to do because physiologically and psychologically memories and experiences can become intertwined with our senses. We all know smells (like a perfume or cologne), sounds (like a song), a loving touch, even certain environments (places like a school or ball field) can immediately trigger memories and emotions long forgotten.
This is why we revere a place we’ve encountered God because the place itself bring us back to the experience we’re longing to replicate. Understand, the problem isn’t returning to a location hoping to re-engage with God. The problem is when we return to the wrong location.
Christian, may I boldly say there is only one place we should be constantly coming back to… One location we can revisit… One stone we should return to… And that’s the one upon which the Stairway was “set upon the earth” which created a way we might reach heaven.
The truth (and this will be a lesson Jacob will learn later in life) is that the only place we should be constantly returning to is not a physical place, but rather exists spiritually. You see there was a rock named Calvary upon which sat a cross that bore the Son of God.
This morning if you feel distant from the Lord - stagnant in your relationship with Jesus - stale spiritually, please realize the solution isn’t returning to that familiar seat or retreating to that secret place you have in the woods in search of God… If you feel distant the solution is for you to return to the cross and remember that is was by His wounds you’ve been healed… By His stripes you’ve been made whole.
How interesting it is that in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 we read “that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”
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