Exploring historic cities with their hundreds-year-old cobblestone streets and gazing on their old-world architecture stirs my heart. I could spend all day meandering around corners and discovering unexpected treasures. And I always find myself drawn to the beauty of antique doors.
I stand and gaze upon their ornate beauty and I wonder: Who was the (usually now unknown) craftsman who carefully chose and carved those massive wooden portals? Who decided on that particular inscription, and then carefully designed and positioned its letters, carving its elegant calligraphy into the lintel above the exquisite entryway? Who, hundreds of years ago, first painted those golden letters? Who first walked beneath that lovely arch?
Can you read the golden inscription over these stately doors? The words are from Genesis 28:17, spoken by Jacob after he flees from Esau. Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, fled, dreamed of the ziggurat, and now, as he awakes from his dream, he exclaims:
“This is none other but the house of GOD and this is the Gate of Heaven.”
What does Jacob mean? What did his crazy dream mean? And what does God mean for us through Jacob’s words?
“…Jacob saw heaven opened, and a stairway linking heaven with earth…what Jacob saw was not really a ladder but a ziggurat — a massive stone structure with a winding staircase not dissimilar, so archeologists have argued, to the Tower of Babel. Nor was it a structure enabling Jacob to climb upwards (as a ladder might suggest). Rather, it was to allow God to come down!
God came and stood by Jacob and reassured him of his presence and of his covenantal faithfulness to him and his family. He came to “bless” wily Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15). Can you imagine more comforting words than these to a man who is fleeing for his life and isn’t sure if he’ll ever be safe again?
When Jacob awoke, he confessed that God had been with him: “‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:16–17). He called the place where he had seen God “beth-el,” meaning “the house of God.” Babel had been man’s attempt to reach God and make himself equal with God. It had been a symbol of man’s idolatry and self-justification. Bethel, by contrast, was God’s initiative to fellowship with man — a sinful man!
Jesus explains Jacob’s dream further. When he calls Nathanael to be his disciple, he tells 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” (John 1:51). The One whom Jacob had seen was a pre-incarnate revelation of Jesus. Nathanael is being given a glimpse of the second coming. Just as the Lord came down to Jacob, so, too, at the end of the age, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1:7).
At Bethel, Jacob was being given a glimpse of the scope of redemptive history: God takes initiative to rescue sinners by coming down and eventually taking them to be with Himself…
No wonder Jacob saw Bethel as “the gate of heaven.” God had come down to make His presence known among His people. The curse of Babel will be lifted — in a way that Jacob could not have realized. The very One who descends will descend even further — “into hell” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, meaning that he will experience all that the sin deserves — the abandonment of God in the darkness that descends at Calvary. And He is made “to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). For us. In our place. As our substitute. Bethel stands as a signpost to Bethlehem, and Calvary, and Pentecost, and heaven.” (Derek Thomas)
On this day, in this historic city, I’m thankful for doors that take us places we don’t expect. I’m thankful for the people who chose Jacob’s words to crown their magnificent entryway. I’m glad they carved, in order to remind themselves — and now us, all these years later — of God’s incredible unfolding plan. Thank you, Father, that Bethel and Bethlehem, Calvary and Pentecost are part of my history. Thank you that heaven is my future.