In Season: Jacob’s “Ladder” and the Condescension of God in Genesis 28:10-22

Timothy Johnson
Tuesday, July 1st 2008
Jul/Aug 2008

Two years ago I preached a message entitled "Christmas at Bethel." I recall the furrowed brows this title elicited in the weeks leading up to the sermon when people inquired about my approaching sermon topic. Imagine how they would have responded to the title "Christmas at Luz"! My purpose here is to share some of the exegetical points that informed this sermon with the goal of emphasizing an important and foundational Christian teaching that does not always receive the attention it deserves: the condescension of God.

The condescension of God addresses the almost unfathomable reality that the Triune God has seen fit to humble himself to his own creatures. From beginning to end, the Bible portrays the omnipotent, all-knowing God of the universe as the God who regularly stoops down from glory to care for his beloved ones. The ultimate expression of God's condescension manifests itself in the God-man Jesus whom Jonathan Edwards describes in his sermon "The Excellency of Christ" as the "one of infinite condescension." (1) And yet casting God in these humble terms continues to confound a Western culture whose every impulse exhorts the sacred individual to defend his rights, to climb the ladder of professional success and, most damagingly, to attempt to ascend to God. Under such conditions, humility is an obstacle, not a prescription for improvement. The church is not immune from this cultural influence whose pervasive power is easily detected in the preaching and teaching that commonly conforms to these cultural expectations. Thus condescension of God is an important reminder for the church that upward mobility is not the pattern of life modeled or prescribed by the triune God of the Christian Bible.

We, like Edwards, are amazed at how infinite glory and infinite humility converge in Jesus, and while his incarnation is surely the most complete manifestation of God's condescension, it is valuable to note that the Old Testament provides many glimpses into God's intentional pattern of revealing this condescension. For example, God walked in the garden (Gen. 3); descended to earth in order to mercifully confuse our languages (Gen. 11); investigated the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18); met frequently with Moses (Exod. 4); and patiently engaged Job (Job 38), just to name a few. The Sunday school story of Jacob's ladder represents another example of how the Bible reveals God's condescension and, as such, serves as an excellent place within the Old Testament to learn how God prepared for the descent of his Son.


In Genesis 28, Isaac sent Jacob away from the Promised Land (Canaan) to Paddan-aram so that Jacob would marry a woman from Rebekah's family instead of from the despised local Canaanites. Jacob was also fleeing from his brother Esau who intended to kill him on account of Jacob's deceptive appropriation of his birthright (Gen. 27:41). On his journey toward Paddan-aram, Jacob spent the night "at a certain place" that is identified as Luz, which Jacob would later rename Bethel meaning "house of God." At this location Jacob received a dream that featured what has come to be popularly known as a ladder connecting heaven and earth (Gen. 28:12).

This so-called ladder was likely not a ladder at all. The underlying Hebrew word is found only in this verse within the Old Testament, and the etymology of the word suggests a meaning closer to a stairway. The NIV translates "stairway," footnoting ladder as a possible translation; and while the ESV translates "ladder" in the text, it footnotes as a possible reading, "flight of steps," which is my preferred translation. Scholars recognize this interpretive problem and some surmise that the image of an ancient ziggurat was influencing the author of the verse. A ziggurat was an ancient pyramidal structure with outside staircases that pagans would ascend to a shrine in order to worship their deity. Some even suggest that the imagery found here in verse 12 mirrors the kind of edifice described in the Tower of Babel story (Gen.11:4).

Grammar and Theology

In my view, the primary exegetical and homiletical problem raised by the translation of "ladder" is that readers generally picture climbing ladders. Unfortunately, some church fathers such as Augustine allegorized the soul's spiritual ascent up this ladder, which has no doubt contributed to the preservation of the popular translation of "ladder" (NASB, NKJV). (2) For that matter, ziggurats also conjure images of ascent. I believe, however, that a common feature of Hebrew grammar found in Genesis 28:12 actually suggests that the word being used here (regardless of whether it is translated "ladder," "stairway," or "flight of steps") is being directed "toward the earth." The Hebrew word for earth in verse 12 (eretz) is suffixed with the Hebrew letter he (h) thereby reading "eretzah." This grammatical feature is called a "locative he" and generally denotes direction toward something. (3) It is also used in no less than six other instances in this particular story. Thus, one could easily translate verse 12 this way: "And he dreamed, and behold, there was a (ladder, stairway, flight of steps) positioned toward the earth." By contrast, virtually every translation yields something like "there was a ladder set up on the earth" (ESV).

Naturally, if one were to interpret the grammar in the way I suggest, the striking imagery of God's descending activity toward earth emerges rather clearly. One could not confuse the fact that it is God who is initiating the process toward Jacob, not the reverse. In his book Putting Amazing Back into Grace, Michael Horton also considers Jacob's "ladder" a metaphor for Christ's descent, seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of the ladder in John 1:51. (4) Horton points to Luther's condemnation of medieval religion as a "superstitious 'ladder of glory'" that found greater delight in the pursuit of God through pious endeavors than in the condescension of God. (5) Thus, the most natural interpretation of the grammar conforms to a theology that uncompromisingly seeks to turn our attention away from our own efforts to reach God.

Luther knew that the pursuit of God frequently manifests itself as futile attempts to do "good works," which only serve an insatiable desire to climb ladders. Most every deviant theological trajectory can, eventually, be traced back to some faulty, though commonly well-intended, attempt to incorporate a greater role for the human being that will ultimately intercept a greater percentage of glory from God and hand it off to man. This theology of glory is the antithesis to the biblical reality of God's condescension and it can surface in rather subtle formulations.

Justification and Good Works

For example, consider the current impact that the New Paul Perspective is possibly having on some views of justification. John Piper's recent book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, critiques Wright's disappointing view that our works serve as part of the basis for our justification. (6) Piper skillfully reveals that Wright's assertion that Paul was not as opposed to Jewish legalism (which is the traditional interpretation of Paul) as he was with Jewish ethnocentrism (which is a position more in line with the New Paul School), falters in that both ethnocentrism and legalism stem from the same taproot of self-righteousness. (7) According to Piper, while Paul opposed both ethnocentrism and legalism, he ultimately opposed that self-righteousness that could eventually result in one who could "boast in God's grace." (8) Thus, it would seem that those who seek to elevate the value of works in the context of justification by claiming that Paul was preoccupied with ethnocentrism are simply avoiding the core issue of self-righteousness, which is the true source of works-righteousness. Piper then draws attention to Wright's perception that there is a "conspiracy" among those who do not concentrate enough attention on the relationship between justification and sanctification. (9) Unfortunately, such a sentiment is becoming increasingly prevalent in evangelical circles.

It is right at this point of any discussion on the relationship between good works and salvation that the condescension of God is so important. Good works are not ours to create nor even to emphasize in the first place. Properly understood, good works are the outward result of a justified life, both of which come from the hand of God. One classic biblical articulation on the relationship of faith and good works is found in Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV) where verse 10 is far too often forgotten:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

God is the author of our good works, not us! Verse 10 should serve as a descriptive, humbling comfort that God has done everything for us, including preparing the good works in which his justified ones are to walk. Too often we try to prescribe good works as a way of pleasing God, and this often takes the form of quoting James 2:26, "Faith without works is dead." But I read the whole of James 2:14-26, in accordance with Ephesians 2:8-10, as a description of the fact that faith that does not result in good works cannot save (James 2:14). In other words, James is not prescribing good works as a way of proving that we have faith, he is describing the fact that one who is justified will necessarily produce good works. Therefore, Paul and James together describe what only God can do. Just as God declared that he would write a new covenant on his people's hearts that was different from the ones given earlier, thereby implying that only he would provide the means of salvation (Jer. 31:31-34), so too God provides the good works in which justified believers cheerfully walk. God has done it all! Reformed theology rightfully emphasizes justification because it is the necessary source of the good works that result by God's providential intention. Emphasizing good works (a.k.a. sanctification) apart from its source, justification, simply places the cart before the horse and ultimately yields insecure man-pleasing fruit that is not the kind of secure, fearless, life-changing fruit that results from justification.


We can see how God's intervention at Luz ultimately led to Jacob's changed life by first overcoming his insecurity. As he saw the flight of steps descending to him, God's words provided the comfort and security that the scared, lonely, wretched swindler needed to hear. In one of the Bible's first "Immanuel" verses, God declares to Jacob in Genesis 28:15, "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land." The phrase "God with us" constitutes perhaps the greatest articulation of God's condescension in the Bible, and as in so many other instances, this phrase is offered as a prescription for overcoming fear.

For example, in Isaiah 7:14 Ahaz receives the prophecy of Immanuel in the midst of his fear of an advancing Assyrian army; and in Matthew 1:20 while Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife, he was told not to fear because his son would be that Immanuel. After Moses' first fearful rejection of God's call from the burning bush, God responds that he will be with him (Exod. 3:12). Jeremiah's fear of his call due to his youth was also tempered by God's comforting words that he would be with him (Jer. 1:8). Jesus' Great Commission was given to anxious disciples with the promise that he would be with them (Matt. 28:20). Finally, in Acts 18:9, as Paul fears preaching the gospel to the Gentiles in Corinth, Jesus charges him not to fear, saying, "I am with you."


In our greatest fears, God reaches down to remind us that he's with us. Pursuing good works as the hoped for basis or even partial basis of our right standing before God is simply a desperate attempt to overcome our insecurity and fear that we do not measure up before a holy and righteous God. The truth is that we do not measure up, and we cannot for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:28). However, the good news is that God's consistent pattern of condescension demonstrates his eternal and compassionate love for us.

Our response to this undeserved, unearned grace should be one of euphoric gratitude and the kind of "good works" that mark a justified person, which is exactly what Jacob displays. After receiving the message from God in his dream, Jacob responds by first sanctifying the "certain place" both by renaming Luz to Bethel and by anointing a common stone to serve as a sacred pillar. Such a sanctification of Jacob's surroundings will also be seen in a twenty-first century regenerate life bearing sanctifying fruit that sets us apart from the world as a necessary result of God's initiating grace. Common elements of our life-such as our homes, cars, work place, choice of television programming, and more-will be seen with different eyes. No longer do we longingly peer up the ladder to see if we can attain either worldly or spiritual glory, but we will be more aware of the common world around us and in a better posture to walk in the good works that "God prepared beforehand." Such a life that is less consumed with self will be marked by the one characteristic that Calvin considered foremost in the Christian: humility. Calvin wrote in his Institutes, "A saying of Chrysostom's has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility"; and Calvin was even more fond of Augustine's contention that the primary precept of a Christian is "first, second, third and always" humility. (10)

Jacob's second response was his vow to follow God. Once God has called his elect, we cannot help but follow him. Jesus said, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). The pursuit of success or piety loses its aroma. Like Peter we recite, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). Slowly but surely we will be less oriented on consumption and more content with all that God provides. Such a trajectory is clearly seen in Jacob's third response, which was to tithe all that God had given him. No "good work" demonstrates trust and thanksgiving in God more than cheerfully giving away our possessions. In the end, Jacob's combined response to God's condescension overflows with the kind of God-wrought good works that both define a justified saint and ultimately glorify God who is the author of justification and good works.


In Genesis 28:12, God the Father demonstrates his eternal pattern of condescension with Jacob, and in the New Testament God the Son fulfills that pattern. But it doesn't end there. The classic ordus salutis of Romans 8:28-30 is appropriately preceded by indicators of the Triune commitment to acting on our behalf in verses 26 and 27. Since "we do not even know what to pray for as we ought," God the Spirit "helps us in our weakness" by interceding for us "according to the will of God." Even after foreknowing, predestining, calling, and justifying, God the Spirit continues to intervene on our behalf in order to guarantee our glorification. Truly God is with us, and as Piper states, "Our only hope for living the radical demands of the Christian life is that God is totally for us now and forever." (11)

Like the inspiring image of a father bending down to hear his child's request, the picture of our heavenly father humbling himself to meet our needs is powerful and true. The clear biblical presentation of the condescension of God combined with the portrayal of the misguided attempts to "make a name for ourselves" in the Tower of Babel story should forever remove the teaching that ascent to God is part of his design for our lives. Thus, Jacob could not have been seeing a ziggurat enticing him to ascend to God.

Instead, we must submit to that precisely phrased portion of Anglicanism's post-communion prayer that prescribes our best approach to employing good works:

And we humbly beseech, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

Whether it's pride, ethnocentrism, or a legalism that boasts in good works, the arrogant, self-righteousness that fosters them all is overcome by God's great and eternal condescension as completed in Jesus Christ, the author of both our salvation and good works who, as the incarnate Immanuel, provides the best gift by humbly carrying his helpless children up the flight of steps to the Father.

1 [ Back ] Jonathan Edwards, "The Excellency of Christ," as cited from The Works of President Edwards: Forty Sermons on Various Subjects. See an updated version of this sermon at
2 [ Back ] Quoted from Genesis 12-50 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture II), ed. Mark Sheridan (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 188.
3 [ Back ] B. Waltke and M. O'Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 185.
4 [ Back ] Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 110.
5 [ Back ] Horton, 179.
6 [ Back ] See John Piper's extensive, fair, and convincing critique of Wright's position in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007). Piper cites from N. T. Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 260.
7 [ Back ] Piper, 156-57.
8 [ Back ] Piper, 157.
9 [ Back ] Piper quotes from Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul," 253.
10 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.11. John Stott's Evangelical Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) includes a postscript entitled "The Preeminence of Humility" where he states, "I make so bold as to claim, in this brief postscript, that the supreme quality which the evangelical faith engenders (or should do) is humility," 122.
11 [ Back ] Piper, The Future of Justification, 184.
Tuesday, July 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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