This study looks at how the Gospel of John appropriated Jacob’s encounter at Bethel to show Jesus as the typological fulfillment of that event. If you have not read it already, I suggest reading the first part of Study 5’s post from December 27, 2016. That post examines Jacob’s vision as it appears in the book of Genesis.
Bethel was a place where heaven and earth met. This connection was vividly portrayed in Jacob’s dream with angels going up and down a ladder that stretched to the Lord in heaven. In the Gospel of John, Jacob’s ladder finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself makes this claim to Nathanael, one of the several men who are deciding to become Jesus’ disciples. We read about this encounter in John 1:43-51.
John 1:43-51. 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (ESV)
Nathanael initially was skeptical that Jesus could be the Messiah because Jesus grew up in Nazareth. When Jesus revealed a supernatural knowledge of Nathanael’s past, Nathanael proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel. As if to show that being the King of Israel was much more than Nathanael’s limited view, Jesus referred to Jacob’s (who would become Israel) vision at Bethel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
When Jacob began his journey to becoming Israel and the covenant people of God, heaven and earth met at Bethel as God made his presence known. In fact, Jacob named the place “Bethel” (which means “house of God”) because it was a place where heaven connected to earth–making it a “house of God.” When Jesus referred to Jacob’s vision, he was claiming that a similar heaven-earth connection was manifesting itself. As Nathanael and the other disciples were beginning their journey toward becoming the new covenant people, they would see an even greater connection between heaven and earth occurring in Jesus. This initial encounter was just the beginning of many “greater things” that Nathanael would see now that he was following Christ.[i] The remaining chapters of the Gospel of John expound upon those greater things that the disciples experienced as they followed Jesus. Above all, John’s Gospel emphasizes the close connection that Jesus has with his heavenly Father–a connection that extends to the disciples as they experience Jesus as their own “Bethel.”
After examining Jacob’s dream at Bethel in the previous post, what do you think Jesus is implying with this reference to the events at Bethel? (Suggested Answer: In Jesus, heaven and earth meet—God manifests his presence. Jacob met God at Bethel and was given promises—the disciples meet God in Jesus and receive new promises and fulfillment of previous promises.)
How does understanding Jesus as a fulfillment of previous sacred places affect how you think about him? How does it affect how you relate to him? (Suggested answer: In Christ, we have a connection to heaven. Christ is God’s way of breaking into human history and our personal histories. In Christ, God fulfills and extends his promises to his people. When I relate to Jesus, I am entering into an epic history of God’s fulfilled promises. Through a relationship with Jesus, heaven can be opened up for me, just as it was opened for Nathanael.)
Just as God met Jacob and Jesus met Nathanael during their life journeys and transformed them, the living and risen Christ can meet us today. How is Christ trying to enter into your journey and, through his presence, transform you?
[i] Andreas Kostenberger, John (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 84-87.