The Stairway to Heaven
December 21, 2003 | Andrew Davis
The Need for a Stairway to Heaven
Andy read the scripture beautifully for us. This morning, I came up to him during the break and asked if he would also add the John reading. I was just going to have him read Genesis, but we really have before us the Old Testament shadow and the New Testament reality. We have the Old Testament vision and dream fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and we had to read both of them, didn’t we? And to have a clear sense of how Jesus Christ is for us the stairway to Heaven. The ladder that Jacob dreamed about has come true. There is a way for sinful people like you and me to go to Heaven. Isn’t that the central message of Christmas? That people like you and me, sinners, we can go to heaven because Jesus descended from Heaven to lift us up. And to me, that’s the joy and delight of this season. And all the other things are either blessings or distractions, depending on how you look at them. I choose to look on them as blessings and they’re a delight and a pleasure, and that’s a good thing. But the center of it all is that people like you and me, sinners, can be lifted up out of the dust, really, end up in the glory of Heaven.
When I think of Christmas, I think of it as a season of dreams. I remember when I was a child, I had a hard time sleeping. I don’t know if you remember that. I was always waiting for Christmas. We were a home and a family that talked a lot about Santa Claus, I’m not speaking at all on that topic this morning, but I do know that I was wanting to be the one that would see him, and I had a hard time sleeping. I knew that I had passed on from childhood to adulthood when I collapsed in bed, Christmas Eve, delighted at last for a chance to sleep and didn’t want to be awoken early the next morning. Now I know I’m an adult, all I want is a good night’s sleep. But when I was growing up, it was just a time of dreams. And they weren’t sleeping dreams, there were wakeful dreams, excited to think about what the day would bring.
Now, the dreams were always materialistic, I have to be honest with you. There were things that I wanted, there were certain things, and also even now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To be with relatives and friends, to have occasions together, memorable occasions, times with loved one, all of those things are good things. But I think that ultimately Christmas is a story of a dream fulfilled, and we’re looking this morning at Jacob’s dream, a vision of a stairway to heaven.
Jacob’s Flight and Nathanael’s Unbelief
Now, to begin with, we have to understand why we need a stairway to heaven. Well, why is it necessary? And I think a good place to start is with the character of Jacob himself. Why was Jacob in that place that he eventually named Bethel? He was traveling through the desert, and he lay down on the ground with a rock for a pillow. Now, I’m going to say more about that in a moment, but he was literally running for his life. And why? Because he was a con artist, he was a schemer, a deceiver, and he had burned his bridges at home, and so he was running for his life. The name Jacob literally means one who grasped the heel, and in Jewish idiom, that’s a sense of a deceiver, a con artist. And his brother, Esau, had said, “Rightly is he named deceiver, the one who grasped the heel because he has swindled me twice.”
He swindled Esau out of his birthright when Esau was famished and he was willing to trade it for a bowl of stew, Jacob was more than willing to make the exchange. Actually, he somewhat goaded him into it, suggested it. But even worse, just before his flight that led to this vision, he lied to his father, his blind and dying patriarchal father. He lied to him that he might steal Esau’s first-born blessing. “I am Esau, your first-born,” he said to his father. That’s a lie. And as a result of that, his bridges were burned, specifically with Esau more than anything. Esau wanted to kill him, and so Jacob was fleeing for his life.
In Genesis 28:10, it says, “Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran, and when he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.” The big problem was not Esau, the big problem was his own sinfulness, his own wickedness. Michael Cardon, in writing a song about this, said, “A stone for a pillow as hard as his head, he lay on holy ground.” But I don’t really think that Jacob’s problem was a hard head, I think it was a hard heart. It was a hard heart. And Jacob was a sinner, and he needed a Savior.
The same is true of Nathaniel in the New Testament story. Now, Nathaniel is the best that Israel has to offer. Jesus said, “Now, here is a true Israelite in whom there is no guile.” He’s exactly the opposite of Jacob. He’s really the best that Israel had to offer. And yet he also needed a Savior. Nazareth, can anything good come from there? Come and see, he was told. An initial disposition of disbelief.
Now, I don’t blame him for it. There was nothing in the Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah coming from Nazareth. But I guess my point is that even the best that Israel had to offer, he needed a Savior as well. And this is why we must have a ladder to heaven, a stairway to heaven, because God lives in a high and lofty place.
God is Exalted and Lives in a High and Holy Place
Look at the verse in your outline there in Isaiah 57:15, this is a magnificent verse. It says, “This is what the high and lofty one says. He who lives forever, whose name is holy, I live in a high and a holy place.” I’ll stop there. The rest of the verse is magnificent. But this is a statement of God’s exalted nature. He is a high and lofty God, He is the God above all gods, the name above all names. And it says that he lives in a high and holy place. High and lifted up. That’s the way Scripture portrays our God.
Isaiah 6:1, “In the year the King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” This is our God, a high and exalted God. And the Scripture says He’s exalted far above all other gods, which we know are false gods, really demons masquerading as deities.
Psalm 97:9 says, “For you, O Lord, are most high above all the earth. You’re exalted far above all gods.” He’s an exalted God, and He’s exalted above all the puny nations of earth. Psalm 113:4, “The Lord is high above all nations. His glory is above the heavens.” And then Isaiah 40 makes this very clear,
“Surely the nations are like a drop in the bucket. They are regarded as dust on the scales. He weighs the islands, as though they were fine dust. Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires nor all of its animals for burnt offerings. Before him, the nations are as nothing. They’re regarded by him as less than nothing. To whom then will you compare God or who is his equal? He sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth, and its people before him are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and lays them out like a tent to live in. He reduces the princes of the world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground than he blows on them and they wither and become like dust.”
Dust, dust, dust. That’s what the nations are to God. They’re nothing, they’re small.
This is our God. He’s a high and exalted God, far above all gods and far above all the nations of men. And he lives, it says, in a high and holy place.
Now, for myself, I love history. I like to read about exploration in particular. I like to read, for example, the journeys of Marco Polo as he went along what became the Silk Road. And I’ve been to Kashgar in China and some other places where Marco Polo traveled. Well, he ended up in the capital city of the greatest empire in terms of land mass that the world had ever seen, the grandson of Genghis Khan, the great Kublai Khan. And he ended up in a province in Northern China called Shantou, we know it is Xanadu, and there was this magnificent palace in which 6000 guests could come and have all their needs and wants met.
And this is what Marco Polo wrote. He said it was a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stones. There are fully 16 miles of parkland well watered with streams and springs diversified with lawns. Within the parkland grazed animals of all sorts, such as heart and stag and roebuck, which the Khan kept for recreation and sport. Musicians would play, entertainers, dancers. The palace hall was richly adorned with tapestries from all over the region. A magnificent place, the kind that just defies description. But if you tried to get in there without an invitation, those Mongol warriors would shoot you down. They were the best archers in the world. Impossible to get in and see it if you were not welcome.
Now, God regards that like dust on the scales. That’s nothing. How then will you, a sinner, get to heaven? How are you going to get there? He lives in a high and holy place. He lives, it says, in unapproachable light. You can’t get close to him. You can’t see his face and live. Now, how are we going to get close to this lofty God? How are we going to see him? How much more? If you can’t get to see the Kublai Khan, how much more can you not see the high and holy God? That’s why we need a stairway to heaven.
Heaven is Closed to Sinners
Now, the angels that were ascending and descending on that staircase, they were awesome, much more powerful than the Mongol warriors. Their arrows more deadly and more sure. But how much more powerful is God Himself? Look at the vision in verses 12 and 13. He had a dream, Jacob had a dream, in which he saw a stairway resting on the Earth with its top reaching to Heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father, Abraham, and the God of Isaac.” And so he had a vision and a dream of God standing at the top of the stairway to heaven, looking down at him. And this holy God looks on us sinners and sees us as we really are. God will not accept us just as we are. We must be atoned for. We must be cleansed of our sins. We must have a way to be lifted up off the dust and make it up to this high and holy place.
The Deceptive Stairway to Heaven
Now, we have this sense inside us, don’t we, of a separation between us and God? And along with it, an equally strong pride that we’re going to overcome that separation, we’re going to build ourselves our own stairways.
False stairway #1: Human Religions
And so, we make these deceptive stairways. For example, human religion. Human religion, the essence of that is building your own way up to the holy God, a stairway to heaven made through your own good works and achievements and religious regulations and observances and duties and prayers, all of these things. And sometimes you can see it even in the architecture. Like in Central America, you look at some of the Mayan temples, they’re pyramids with stairs going really right up to the heavens, 91 stairs on a side, the top platform, four times 91 plus the last one, 365, one for each day of the year. They were great astronomers. And they were looking at the stars, which we are testifying to them of their own puniness, testifying to them of the greatness of God, and yet the priests, as they would go with every step, would offer a sacrifice to the serpent God that they were worshipping. They’re building a stairway to heaven, so they think.
Closer to home, something we would be perhaps more familiar with, Medieval Roman Catholicism, a system of works, a system of obediences set out by the Pope and by the councils that they would follow. In Rome, there was an actual staircase, the Scala Sancta, the holy staircase. Supposedly, Jesus had gone up these stairs to be judged by Pilate, and I guess the idea is that in the Crusades, they were actually removed to Rome, and you could go there. And the Pope offered an indulgence: Nine years for each prayer prayed on each step on your knees, and you could work your way or you could work your loved one’s way out of purgatory step by step. Perhaps some of you saw the Martin Luther film this summer, it was out, and Luther himself did it. He went up that stairway step by step, praying to God for the indulgence, to get the nine years for each step, and then he could go back and start it again and again and again, just like a machine reducing time in purgatory, a stairway to heaven.
False stairway #2: Human Achievements and Acquisitions
Another stairway would be human achievements, accomplishments. It’s a different kind of heaven, the heaven of earthly pleasure and pride. Perhaps ultimately, heaven itself. As Psalm 73 says, “They lay claim both to Earth and to heaven, the wealthy oppressors.” But there was a stairway to wealth and riches during the Klondike gold rush in 1898. They called it The Golden Staircase. 1500 steps cut in ice and rock, very steep, very slippery. And these gold rushers were climbing up it step by step with heavy packs on their backs, hoping to make something of themselves, make something of their lives. Every step perilous. At any moment, they might slip right back down to the valley and be killed. A stairway, a golden staircase to a different kind of heaven.
Perhaps the most famous stairway to heaven of all in the Bible is the Tower of Babel. Human achievement and accomplishment. “Come, let us build bricks and bake them thoroughly, and make a tower that reaches up to heaven and make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the earth.” That’s what we’ll do. And so they made a stairway to heaven, so they thought. And God said, “Well, let’s go down and see that little tower that they’re making. Let’s go all the way down and see how much progress they’ve made.” Now, they never did reach heaven that way, and they won’t.
False stairway #3: Human Experiences
Or you could follow Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Start with physiological needs, and then your needs for love and belonging, and then your needs for esteem, and ultimately the highest pinnacle of that pyramid, self-actualization. Being all you can be. It sounds like the army, but that’s literally what it was, that you would be everything you could be. A stairway to a different kind of heaven. Or human experiences, just collecting them in life, whether religious experiences like meditation with Zen and all that kind of thing, or pilgrimages, you could do that, or just travel, been there and done that. Collecting a life full of experiences, a different kind of staircase.
The Builder of False Stairways: The Devil Himself
Now, behind all of these false staircases is the ultimate stairway-to-heaven builder himself: The devil. Isaiah 14, he said, “I will ascend above the tops of the clouds. I will make myself like the Most High.” And he’s the one that’s suggesting all of these false ways that none of them will get us to Heaven. The true stairway to Heaven, the vision was had by Jacob himself.
Look again at the text in Genesis 28. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the Earth with its top reaching to Heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it, and there above it stood the Lord, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”
Interesting phrase, “And you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you, and your offspring. 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 promised you.”
The True Stairway to Heaven
Understanding Jacob’s Vision: An Unfinished Dream
Look at Jacob’s lowliness. He’s lying on the ground, on the dust of the ground. He’s got a rock under his head for a pillow. He is corrupted inside, he’s a deceiver and a con artist. He’s running from his own family, he has an uncertain future. And to this man, God appears. And it says that the stairway was resting on the earth right near him. It came right down to where he was, right down to the dust of the earth, that’s where the stairway reached. And it successfully reached all the way up to God, and there were angels ascending and descending, moving from the hidden heavenly realms to the lowly, dusty, earthy realm, and the Lord himself at the top of the ladder looking down at him. And along with it comes a magnificent promise, the promise of God. I am the God of Abraham and Isaac, I am the God of the covenant. I am the God who will give you a vast number of descendants, as numerous as the dust of the earth. But even within this, there’s a hint of Jacob’s lowliness.
Do you remember what God said to Adam in the curse? He said, “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.” Moses said in Psalm 90:3, “You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” In Ecclesiastes, it says, “Man’s fate is like that of the animals. The same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath. Man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place. All come from dust and to dust, all return.”
So we have a vision of a stairway that reaches from the dust and from a dusty man all the way up to the glories of heaven, but you know it’s just a vision. It’s just a dream. Interestingly in his dream, he doesn’t actually get to ascend the staircase, he wakes up lying on the ground because it’s not yet been fulfilled. The prophecy is fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Jesus is the seed through whom all nations will be blessed, He is the one who came to earth to Nazareth. He is the one who ministered physically, took on a human body.
Understanding Christ’s Statement: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (John 1:46-51)
Now, Nathanael, look over at John Chapter 1, Nathanael had utter disdain for Nazareth. He said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This was a small precursor of the kind of reception that Jesus would get from the Jews, from his own people. “He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.” Phillip says the right thing, “Come and see.” So he’s doing evangelism, “Come and see, come and look at this one who we think is the messiah, come and see.” And so he came and saw.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Now, here is a true Israelite in whom there’s nothing false, in whom there is nothing false.” Not, “Here is an Israelite who is about 5 foot 8 inches tall,” or “Here’s an Israelite who’s wearing a red turban,” or “Here’s an Israelite who’s got three sheep with him.” No, “Here’s an Israelite in whom there’s no guile, no trickery.” Well, that’s rather striking. Nathanael doesn’t deny that it’s true. So Nathanael wasn’t that kind of guy. He wasn’t going to play a game saying, “Oh, it isn’t me, I’m not really like that.” He wasn’t that way, that’s exactly who he was.
But the question in Nathanael’s mind is, “How do you know me? How do you know me? We’ve never met.” Very much like later with the Samaritan woman at the well, He knew everything about her. He knew that the man that was waiting for her at home wasn’t her husband. He knew that. And Nathanael has the same question, “How do you know me?” And Jesus said, “I saw you, I saw you while you were under the fig tree.”
Now, we don’t really know, and Spurgeon goes on at length about what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. We could sit down and kind of debate, “What was he doing under the fig tree? We don’t have any idea what he was doing.” It was a secret between him and Jesus, perhaps he was on his face praying that the Messiah would come. We have no idea. But he said, “I watched you while you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Well, that was enough for Nathanael, and he gave him lavish praise. “Rabbi,” he said, “You were the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.” Jesus also is a true Israelite in whom there’s no guile. He’s not going to say, “No, it isn’t so.” He’s going to say, “I wonder how you believe with so little evidence. You believe because I told you I saw you while you were under the fig tree, you shall see greater things than that.”
What a magnificent promise, because Jesus has come to earth because of the miracle of Bethlehem, because of the incarnation, you believers in Jesus, you’re going to see greater things than you have ever seen in your life. You shall see greater things than that. He can say that no matter what you would say to him. No matter what your reasons are for believing right now, no matter what your testimony, you shall see greater things than that, no matter what it was that ultimately led you to faith in Christ, you shall see greater things than that.
You who believe, you shall see, and that Greek is plural, “you all,” all of you will see heaven opened, and you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. O come, Lord Jesus. Aren’t you hungry to see it? Heaven opened the veil between us and the invisible world removed, and the welcoming God at the top of the stairway, saying, “Come, enter into your rest. Enter into the joy of your Master. Come up here,” Revelation 4:1.
Enter and come in. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now gained introduction and access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:1-2).
And so, He says, you’re going to see greater things than that, you will see heaven itself, and so he makes this astonishing promise, and He speaks of heaven open and the angels ascending and descending. And so it was in Christ’s life, the angels were all over Christ’s life, just like they were all over the staircase. They descended on the night He was born, there were shepherds watching their fields out at night, and an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord, this will be assigned to you, you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men on whom His favor rest.” When the angels had left them and gone back into heaven, do you see the ascending and descending? When they had gone back into heaven, they said, “Come, let’s go see in Bethlehem this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
And so, the angels descended that night to announce Christ’s birth, the angels descended to minister to Jesus when He was suffering and tempted in the wilderness, the angels descended to minister to Jesus when He was wrestling, and great drops of blood were coming from him in Gethsemane. The angels came down and announced his great resurrection when He had risen from the dead, the angels were there, and then when Jesus ascended from his chosen apostles and was going up to heaven, and the cloud hid Him from their sight, the two men in white, two angels came and said, “Jesus will return in the same way you’ve seen Him go.” The angels were ministering all over the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, but the magnificent central truth is Jesus is Jacob’s stairway.
Christ’s Credentials: Heaven-Descended, Heaven-Ascending
He is the stairway to heaven, the angels of God ascend and descend on the Son of Man, and they wouldn’t be coming if it weren’t for me, they’d be coming with judgment and wrath, but not as ministering spirits, because that’s what they are. What are Christ’s credentials?
Well, he’s heaven descended. He’s come down from heaven. It says in John Chapter 6,
“I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but to do the will of Him who sent me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that He has given me, but shall raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Do you understand? Jacob’s vision, left him in the dust with a stone for a pillow, Jesus raises us up and takes us to heaven. “I will raise them up in the last day, I’ll take you not just from the dust of Palestine, I’ll take you from the dust of the grave. And when you see heaven open with your own eyes, no longer by faith, but now at last by sight, you will know how great I am, and then you will say, ‘Rabbi, you are the son of God, you are the king of Israel,’” and the evidence will be complete.
“You will know when I take you to heaven, that I am the Stairway to Heaven. When I lift you up from the very dust of the grave, when I give you resurrection bodies, and when you live with me forever, from the dust of the grave to the glory of Heaven, I am the Stairway to Heaven, I and no other.”
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are. He came down to earth and walked the walk we walk in every way, yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace.”
What was forbidden for us in the old covenant is now commanded in the new: “Let us approach the throne of grace so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Hebrews 10:“Therefore brothers, since we have confidence now to enter the most holy place by the blood of Jesus by a new and living way open for us through the curtain, let us draw near to God.”
But we’re not there yet, are we? We still got a journey to travel. We’re still more dusty than glorious.
Christ’s Achievement: Building a Stairway to Heaven
The transition hasn’t fully occurred yet, and you feel the dust of Jacob, don’t you? You feel the sin and the pull downward, and Jesus knows all about that, and so He has ministered to you and He will continue to minister to you. As a matter of fact, he’ll even send the angels as ministering spirits to help those who will inherit salvation. And so, the angels will be around and they’ll ascend and descend and they’ll be busy around you your whole life, protecting you and keeping you safe, and he’s going to send them one more time.
It says in Matthew 24:31, “He will send His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds from one end of the heavens to the other.” And so the angels will be sent forth that final time to gather up his children and they’ll take you to heaven, and so then you will see that Jesus is that stairway to heaven. He is the way, He is the truth and the life, and no one ascends to heaven except through Him. And what are we going to do about it? How are we going to understand this?
Well first, trust in Christ, not in your own Stairway to Heaven. Can you build a stairway to heaven through your religious efforts, through your achievements, through your experiences, through all of the things you do? It’s high and lofty, you’ll never get there.
And the Scripture testifies that every building you do is a stairway down descending away because of arrogance and pride. Give it up. Through simple faith in Christ, trust in Him that you might have eternal life.
If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ today, can I ask for the rest of the holidays, focus on the promise that He gives in John Chapter 1. You shall see heaven opened. You’re going to be there. What was just a vision in the Old Testament, well, for you will be fulfilled sight; now we walk by faith, not by sight, but some day you will see with your own eyes Jesus sitting on his throne, and then just worship Christ, worship Him constantly as the angels do, that’s their number one job in heaven. And frankly, all their ministry to us is just a subset of their worship of Him, they love Him and they do what He says. And so focus on Him and worship Him as they do, make Christ the center. He is the only one who can take you from the dust of the earth to the glory of Heaven.