One of the things we’ve been learning from the life of Jacob is what the Apostle Paul calls ‘God’s purpose of election’. Listen again to what Paul wrote in Romans 9:
[W]hen Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’
We assume that God is just like us and that he will always choose the best and leave the worst. But what does Paul teach us? He reminds us that when God chose Jacob over Esau, they weren’t yet born. And because they weren’t yet born, they hadn’t yet done anything, whether good or bad. So, it wasn’t that God looked at Jacob and saw that he was better than his brother. Or it wasn’t that he looked at Esau and saw that he was worse than his brother. Before they were born, and before they had done anything, whether good or bad, God chose Jacob.
So, it wasn’t that one was better than the other or that one was more deserving than the other. And, in fact, we’ve seen that neither brother was very good. Esau married pagan, unbelieving women and he despised his birthright and sold it cheaply to his brother. And Jacob was not any better, because he was the grasper and the schemer who deceived his father and took his brother’s birthright. Neither brother was very good.
Why then did God choose Jacob over his brother? Well, Paul tells us. God wanted to teach us about his purpose of election. God wanted to teach us that when he chooses to save us from our sins, it’s not because of anything we have done. He doesn’t choose to save us because of our good life or because of our good deeds. He doesn’t choose to save us because we’ve done something to deserve it. No, it’s not by works. And it doesn’t even depend on our desire or effort, says Paul. Our salvation, he tells us, is due to God’s mercy. God says:
I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.
So, if you’re a Christian today, then Paul is telling you that the only reason you’re a Christian, and the only reason God chose to forgive your sins and to give you the hope of everlasting life is because he decided to be merciful to you. It’s not that you were any better than anyone else. It’s not because you did something to make you stand out from the rest. No, he simply decided to show you mercy just has he decided to show mercy to Jacob and to withhold it from his brother Esau. And so, all the praise and all the honour and all the thanks for our salvation belong to God and not to us, because he’s the one who chose to show us mercy.
So, that’s one of the things we’ve been learning from the life of Jacob. Another is that nothing can prevent the Lord from carrying out his plans for the world. Last time we saw how Isaac wanted to bless Esau whom God had rejected, instead of blessing Jacob whom God had chosen. Isaac was standing in the way of God’s plan for Jacob and for the world and its salvation. But God thwarted Isaac’s plan to bless Esau and the Lord ensured that Jacob received the blessing and the promises. And, of course, Esau wanted to kill his brother for having taken the blessing from him. But God thwarted Esau’s plan to kill his brother and he ensured that Jacob was kept safe. Nothing was going to prevent the Lord from carrying out his plan for Jacob and for the salvation of the world.
And God is still working out his plan for the world today to call out a people for himself who will love him and serve him and seek to glorify him. And despite the Devil’s opposition and the world’s persecution, and despite the weakness of his people, nothing will prevent the Lord from carrying out his purposes. So, we can trust in him and we can pray to him to build his church throughout the world.
As we turn to today’s passage, we see in verse 10 that Jacob left Beersheba and headed for Haran. Haran, you might remember, was Abraham’s home town. It’s where he once lived with his father, before the Lord called him to leave his father’s household and to head for the Promised Land. And now, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, is heading back to Haran, not only to escape from his brother who wanted to kill him, but also in order to find a suitable wife.
Well now, we read in verse 2 that when he reached a certain place — and the place is not named until later — but when he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. I was listening to a podcast recently about a man who was canoeing along the Shannon. And during his commentary, he would tell us that it was getting late, so he needed to find a suitable place to stop and to erect his tent before it got too dark. Well, Jacob is doing the same thing. It’s getting dark. It’s time to stop and set up camp for the night. And you get the sense that he’s on his own and it’s a desolate place. Perhaps it’s also a dangerous place, with wild animals, prowling around. And so, he takes a stone and he puts it under his head. And he then lay down to sleep.
Well, in the night he had a dream. But this is no ordinary dream, because the Lord was using this dream to communicate to him. And really he saw three things. Unfortunately the NIV isn’t entirely helpful here, because in the Hebrew the word ‘Behold’ appears three times to signal these three things which Jacob saw. The Hebrew says:
Behold, there was a stairway, set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. Behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Behold, the Lord stood above it.
Or it could be:
Behold, the Lord stood beside him.
Either the Lord was standing above the stairway, or else he was standing next to Jacob. The fact that Jacob later said that the Lord ‘was in this place’ suggests that it’s the latter: the Lord stood beside him. But in any case, behold, there was the stairway; behold, there were the angels; behold, there was the Lord. This was a remarkable dream and one writer has said that this form of revelation from God — a dream from God — was perfectly suited for someone like Jacob who, apparently, was not seeking God. You know, we don’t have any indication that when he stopped at this place he was hoping to see God or to meet with him. He wasn’t praying for a word from the Lord or for guidance from the Lord. He wasn’t seeking the help of the Lord. But in this dream, the Lord invaded his consciousness and spoke to him.
So, what did the dream mean? Well, we can compare this stairway to the Tower of Babel, can’t we? The people of Babel were so proud of themselves and they wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted to build a tower that reached up to heaven. So, there they were, men on the earth, trying to climb up to heaven. But in Jacob’s dream, what do we have? We have a stairway from heaven to earth, and the Lord is sending his angels down to earth to accomplish his purposes and to do his will; and then they’re ascending back to heaven afterwards. Do you remember what the writer to the Hebrews said about angels? He said:
Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
And so, here are the Lord’s angels, being sent down to earth and then they’re ascending back to heaven afterwards.
And, of course, instead of us, trying to climb up to heaven, this is a picture of God, coming down to us. So, it speaks to us of God’s grace and mercy and his willingness to bend down to us and to reach down to us. There’s an old spiritual song which Bruce Springsteen has recorded called ‘Jacob’s ladder’. It goes like this:
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Brothers, sisters, all.
But we’re not climbing Jacob’s ladder, because it’s not about, climbing up to God, but it’s about the Lord God, reaching down to us.
Well, at the end of John 1, we read how the Lord Jesus found Philip and said to him: ‘Follow me.’ Philip found Nathaniel and told him:
We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.
Nathaniel seemed sceptical at first, but he went to see the Lord. And soon after meeting the Lord, Nathaniel too believed in him. And the Lord said to him:
I tell you the truth, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
The Lord was referring to the stairway Jacob saw. But what he’s saying is that he himself — the Lord Jesus — is the stairway. He’s the gateway to heaven. He’s the one who has bridged the gap between heaven and earth. So, he came down from heaven to earth and he did everything he needed to do in order to lift sinners like us from earth to heaven. In Genesis 28, Jacob saw this stairway to heaven. And in John 1, the Lord Jesus announced that he’s the stairway. So, whoever wants to come to the Father, whoever wants to enter eternal life, must come through the Lord Jesus Christ.
I remember as a boy going up to my uncle’s farm in Donegal. And, while we were there, I wanted to get up to the top floor of their barn. They usually had some kittens or some chicks up there and we always liked to look at them. But, there was no way up to the top floor. And so, we needed our aunt to fetch a ladder for us. Well, heaven is too far away from us, because the distance between God and us is far too great for us to reach up to him. How could puny little creatures like us ever hope to reach up to Almighty God. And then, to make the distance between us even greater, he’s far too holy for us and we’re far too sinful for him. There’s a massive distance between us. But the Son of God has become the stairway to heaven; and all who go by him may come in prayer into the presence of God today; and then one day, we’ll come in person into the presence of God in glory. And the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who has opened the way for us.
But, of course, that wasn’t the end of Jacob’s dream. He not only saw the stairway, and the angels, and the Lord, but he also heard the Lord speaking to him. And really the Lord repeated to Jacob the same three promises he had made to Abraham and to Isaac. Look with me at verses 13 to 14. There’s the promise of a place:
I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.
There’s the promise of a people:
Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.
And then there’s the promise that all nations of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
Well, you’re familiar with these three promises, aren’t you? The promise of a place refers on one level to the land of Israel; and on another level to the new heavens and the new earth where God’s people will dwell for ever. The promise of a people refers on one level to the people of Israel; and on another level to the church and to all who share Abraham’s faith. And the promise of a blessing through Isaac’s offspring refers to the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world, because he’s the one who suffered in our place the wrath and curse of God for our sins, so that all who believe in him might receive the blessing of God: the forgiveness of sins; and the hope of everlasting life. Just as God announced the gospel to Abraham and then to Isaac, so now he announced the gospel to Jacob. And so we see that God had not forgotten his plan, and he had not forgotten his promises. He still intended to send the Saviour into the world. And he was going to work out his plan for our salvation through Isaac and through his descendants.
And so, in due course, Jacob had a family. He had many sons. And from those many sons there came the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And from one of those Twelve Tribes, the Saviour was born. And through the preaching of the message about his death and resurrection, he’s calling a people to himself, and they’re spreading out to the west and to the east, and to the north and the south, because the church is spreading throughout the world through the preaching of the gospel.
And when the Lord Jesus comes again, he’ll bring all of his people into the new heavens and the new earth and we’ll live with him for ever and ever in that place he has prepared for us. God announced the gospel to Jacob and he’s still working out his plan for us today.
However, notice that after the Lord repeated the same three promises to Jacob which he had made to Abraham and Isaac. he went on to make a very personal promise to Jacob in verse 15. You see, Jacob was on his own. He’d been forced to leave his family in Beersheba. He was on his way to Haran. He didn’t know what would happen there. He didn’t know if he would ever come back again. But in verse 15, the Lord promised that he would be with Jacob to protect him. Look at verse 15:
I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. And I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
Now, when the Lord said, ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised’ he wasn’t saying:
I’ll be with you until I have kept my promise. After that, you’re on your own.
He didn’t mean that. No, he meant:
I’ll always be with you. I’ll be with you until I do what I’ve promised. And I’ll be with you after I’ve done what I’ve promised. I’ll always be with you.
Now, isn’t that what Jacob needed to hear as he headed off to Haran? He needed to know that God would be with him to help him and to protect him. That’s what he needed to hear.
And remember that Moses was writing these things down for the Israelites who were in the wilderness, making their way to the Promised Land of Canaan. How were they going to survive? Would they have enough food? Would they have enough water? Who would protect them from their enemies? Who would protect them on the way? And here’s Moses, and he’s able to remind them of what had happened to their forefather, Jacob. It’s as if Moses was saying to the Israelites:
You’re on your way to Canaan. And you’re scared and worried and alone. Well, our forefather was on a journey once. And he too was scared and worried and alone. But the Lord promised to be with him and to help him. And he’ll be with us too.
What a comfort that must have been for them! How re-assuring to know the Lord would help them.
And it’s the same for us, isn’t it? Like the Israelites who had been delivered from their captivity in Egypt, so we have been delivered from captivity to sin and Satan. But just as the Israelites hadn’t reached their final destination, so we too have not reached our final destination. We’re on our way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life with God. But we’re not there yet. There are many dangers on the way. Many trials and troubles to pass through. Many enemies who are against us. Who will help us? Who will protect us? Who will take care of us? Well, the Lord’s promise to Jacob is one that he repeats over and over and over again to his people:
I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. And I will bring you to the Promised Land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
Didn’t he make a similar promise to the Apostles in the New Testament?
Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The Lord will never, ever abandon his people.
So, we have nothing to fear. Though the whole world should turn against us, our Saviour has promised never to leave us. And that’s what believers are worried about right now. What with what’s happened recently with the Asher’s Case and the referendum in Ireland. We feel out of step with the world. And we wonder what’s going to happen? What does the future hold for the church when we’re so out of step with the world? But we don’t need to be afraid, because the Lord has promised never to leave us.
And wherever you go during the week, whether you’re at home, or at work, or out and about, doing your messages, the Lord is with you to help you just as he was with Jacob to help him.
In verse 16 we see that Jacob awoke from his dream. And look at his reaction. First of all, he said:
Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.
In other words, he realised this wasn’t just a dream. He realised this was a revelation from the Lord. Then secondly, he was afraid and said:
How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.
Isn’t that interesting? He was afraid. Modern Christians don’t like the idea of being afraid of the presence of the Lord. But it’s a thoroughly biblical idea. Think of Isaiah’s vision when he saw the Lord. And do you remember the angels? These perfect, supernatural beings. But even these perfect, supernatural beings covered their faces in the presence of the Lord. They daren’t look upon him because he is so holy. And as for Isaiah, he fell down and cried out:
Woe to me! Woe to me!
He was afraid. You find the same response from the Apostle John in the last book of the Bible whenever he saw the Risen and Glorified Lord Jesus. John was so overcome by what he saw, that he fell down, as though dead. Or think of what happened when the Lord Jesus was transfigured. Do you remember? His appearance became dazzling white. And the disciples were so frightened. In the Bible, when people came into the presence of God, they were afraid, because he’s so mighty and powerful and holy and perfect and pure, and we’re none of those things. In other words, in the presence of the Lord, we ought to be reverent and there ought to be a solemnity about us when we come before the Lord.
Well, I remember the last time I was at the cinema. I took my daughters to see some movie. And perhaps you don’t know what it’s like at the cinema these days. But, everyone is slouched down low in their seat. And everyone is passing around sweets. And lots of people are fiddling with their phones. And others are chatting to their neighbour. Not many people are paying attention to the movie. But it doesn’t really matter, because it’s only a movie. But, of course, it’s a different matter when we come to church on Sundays. You see, we believe we’re coming into the presence of the Lord. He’s speaking to us from his word. We’re speaking to him with our prayers and praise. The Lord is here. And so, there should be a reverence here, and a solemnity and a seriousness, because God is here and we need to reverent in his presence.
So, Jacob was afraid. And then he worshipped the Lord. And so, we read how he took the stone he slept on and set it up as a pillar. He poured oil on it to consecrate it. And he made a vow to the Lord. Now, we mustn’t misunderstand what he said here. Sometimes people read this and think that Jacob was bargaining with the Lord. You know:
If you do this, God, then I’ll do this.
But he’s not bargaining with the Lord. Really, what he’s saying it this:
If you’re going to do all of this for me….
Since you’re going to do all of this for me….
If you’re going to be with me, and watch over me, and will provide for me, and bring me back safely to my father’s house, well then, I want you to be my God. That’s the kind of God I need. And so, from now on, I’m going to worship and serve you as my God.
And then, look at his promise at the end, because this reveals that a change has taken place in Jacob’s life. He said to the Lord:
of all that you give me, I will give you a tenth.
Do you see the change? The grasper has become the giver. And that’s always what happens whenever someone comes to know the Lord and is willing to worship and serve him. The person changes. Their attitudes and desires and their actions change. We have didn’t priorities now.
Now, when we hear the word ‘tithe’ or ‘tenth’ we tend to think about money. But, Jacob was probably thinking about his livestock:
Of all the livestock you give me, I will give you a tenth.
And how would he give the Lord a tenth of his livestock? Well, probably by offering it to the Lord as a sacrifice. Well now, do you remember what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 12 about sacrifices to the Lord? He said:
I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.
In view of God’s mercy towards us in Christ Jesus, let’s offer to God, not a dead, animal sacrifice, but let’s offer him the whole of our life. Let’s offer him all of me, to love him, and to serve him and to obey him always.
Lord, if you’re going to do all of this for me — if you’re going to send your Son to die for me, if you’re going to pardon all my sins, and give me your Spirit to help me, and watch over me throughout my life, and bring me at last to heaven, then I’m going to offer you myself. I promise that I’m going to live my life for your glory and for your alone.