The God of Bethel

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Two of the greatest visions in the Bible are given to Jacob. The first occurs at Bethel as he leaves his father’s house (Gen. 28:10–22). The second occurs as he returns home, at Peniel (Gen. 32:24–32). Both encounters take place at night, and in both Jacob sees God. This month we will consider the significance of the Bethel vision in Scripture.

Jacob’s encounter with God took place after his father had blessed him and sent him into a far country to escape the murderous enmity of his brother (Gen. 27:42) and to find a bride (Gen. 27:46). As Jacob undertook his journey he came to a place where he lay down in an open field and slept. In a dream he saw a “ladder” (or better, a “stairway”) set on earth and reaching into heaven. The angels of God were ascending and descending upon the stairway. Most significantly, at the top of the stairway stood the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac (Gen. 28:13), and Jacob (Gen. 28:21). When Jacob awoke, he recognized the profound significance of the vision and memorialized the name of the place as “bethel” or “the house of God” (Gen. 28:19–22), for there the God of his fathers had promised to be with him in his journey and to bring him safely home.

John tells us in his gospel that the Lord Jesus spoke to Nathanael about Jacob’s vision, and promised him that he, like Jacob, would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:51). The allusion to the Bethel vision is unmistakable. But where, we should ask, was the promised vision fulfilled? We begin our search by observing that the vision is not promised only to Nathanael, although such seems to be the case from a reading of the English text. The Greek, however, underlying the Lord’s promise “you shall see,” is a plural form. Apparently the vision of Jacob is open to all who, like Nathanael, express a guileless faith in Jesus. But where is the fulfillment of this vision? And how will we recognize it when we see it? Jesus tells us very clearly that we will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Now, John’s gospel is very carefully connected to Revelation by a pattern of intricate interweaving, a web of chiastic (or mirrored) and consecutive correspondences. In other words, the two books of John are designed to help interpret each other. For example, the gospel opens with a quarrel between light and darkness (John 1:5) that is only resolved at the end of Revelation (Rev. 21:25). Again, the gospel opens with the Bridegroom (John 3:29), but there is no bride until the end of Revelation (Rev. 21:2). In other words, themes introduced at the beginning of the gospel are resolved at the end of Revelation. As we would expect, the vision promised to Nathanael is embedded in the vision of the seven last angels described in Revelation (Rev. 17:1–22:6).

This climactic vision describes seven angels scheduled in stages between heaven and earth, centered on the fourth angel. The first and the seventh angels are located on earth (Rev. 17:1–3, 8 and 21:9–10). The first angel shows the beast ascending and the seventh angel shows the holy city descending. The second and sixth angels “descend from heaven” to mid-heaven (Rev. 18:1–3 and 20:1–3). Finally, the third and fifth angels are deployed in heaven (Rev. 18:21 and 19:17–19). The six angels are thus arrayed around the central angel in the vision, three to a side, in three corresponding pairs. Two angels are on earth, two in mid-heaven and two in heaven, thus constituting an image of a “staircase” between heaven and earth. Such an elaborate figure of speech was called “ecphrasis” by Greek rhetoricians. It is a carefully drawn eidetic (extraordinarily vivid) or iconic image. 

But notice how John describes the central Angel of the vision, the fourth Angel. He writes, “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:11, 16). In other words, at the top of the literary ladder John describes, at the place where Jacob had seen the God of Abraham, John saw the Angel of the Covenant, even the Lord Jesus! The climactic (climax is the Greek word for “ladder”) vision of Revelation is to show us the face of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And that blessed face, for those who are true Israelites and have renounced all guile, is recognized to be Jesus! 

There could be no greater affirmation of the divinity of the Savior than for John to see and recognize the blessed face of the Lord of heaven and earth, the King of kings and the Lord of lords at the top of the ladder of this vision. This great image assures us that Jesus commands the angels of heaven as ministering spirits to accomplish all His good purposes in the earth. And just as He promised Jacob, the Lord will surely be with us, and will bring us, like Jacob, safely home to the house of His Father. Jesus is the Angel of the Covenant, and He has sworn our surety by the faithful witness of the God of Bethel.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.