Angels Ascending and Descending

Why did the Lord tell Nathaniel “ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” and when did that happen?

John 1:43-51

Joh 1:43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. Joh 1:44 Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

Bethsaida, meaning “house of fish” was a city of Galilee west of and close to the sea of Tiberias. When Jesus fed the 5,000 on the N.E. of the lake, they entered into a boat to cross to Bethsaida in Mar. 6:45. Some have written that there is more than one Bethsaida.

Joh 1:45 Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Joh 1:46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. 1:47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!

I love that line! There’s an exclamation point! The Lord was excited to meet Nathanael! He couldn’t wait to praise him for his faithful integrity! In whom is no guile! What a compliment!

Joh 1:48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.

That had to have shaken Nathanael. We don’t know what happened, but this moment of him under the fig tree had to be a moment in which he was alone. He likely prayed to God, and the faithfulness of His soul, His desire to follow the will of God in that moment was something only God Himself would know, and God loved His heart.

The Lord tells him, “when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee” and that was the reason He would say of Nathanael’s character, “in whom is no guile!” He was not perfect, but he was faithful. His heart pursued the wisdom and the rightness of the ways of God.

Joh 1:49 Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.

That was it! That was all Christ had to say. That was all Nathanael had to hear to convince him, because there was no other conceivable explanation for what the Lord said except that He could only be the Son of God.

Joh 1:50 Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. 1:51 And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

What the Lord told Nathanael

Why did the Lord say this to Nathanael? “Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” What’s the significance of what He said?

The fact that the Lord said that he’d see the angels “ascending and descending” is word-for-word identical to the description of the angels upon Jacob’s ladder. You can’t help but make that connection to Jacob’s ladder.

Jacob had just robbed Esau of his blessing from Isaac. Isaac told Jacob to go get a wife. But don’t go to Canaan. Go to Padanaram, the plain of Aram, or the plain of the highlands, lying around Haran. He was to go to the house of Bethuel his grandfather on his mother’s side; and take him a wife from Laban his uncle. So Jacob leaves. Esau comes home. He finds out Jacob stole his blessing from Isaac. He hits the roof. He disobeys his father and goes to Canaan to get a wife. He ends up marrying Ishmael’s daughter.

So, in these passages in Gen. 28 Jacob is on his way to Haran.

Gen 28:10 And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. Gen 28:11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. Gen 28:12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Gen 28:13 And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; Gen 28:14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Gen 28:15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. Gen 28:16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. Gen 28:17 And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. Gen 28:18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. Gen 28:19 And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.

Of these passages, Charles Henry Mackintosh wrote,“Here we find the homeless wanderer just in the very position in which God could meet him, and in which He could unfold His purposes of grace and glory. Nothing could possibly be more expressive of helplessness and nothingness than Jacob’s condition as here set before us: beneath the open canopy of heaven, with a pillow of stone, in the helpless condition of sleep. Thus, it was that the God of Bethel unfolded to Jacob His purposes respecting him and his seed… Here we have, indeed, ‘grace and glory.’ The ladder ‘set on the earth’ naturally leads the heart to meditate on the display of God’s grace, in the Person and work of His Son… ‘The top of the ladder reached to heaven.’ It formed the medium of communication between heaven and earth; and ‘behold the angels of God ascending and descending upon it’ — striking and beautiful picture of Him by whom God has come down into all the depth of man’s need, and by whom also He has brought man up and set him in His own presence forever, in the power of divine righteousness! God has made provision for the accomplishment of all His plans… and it is for the everlasting joy of any soul to find itself, by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, within the limits of God’s gracious purpose.”

Notice that the gate of Heaven was open to Israel with the Lord above the ladder sending His angels down to the Earth to minister to the people of God. They were guardian angels both individually and corporately over Israel.

Additionally, the angels in the OT provided guidance, instruction, interpretations of visions, and protection at the direction of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was above the ladder.

But then something happened before the Lord was born. The gate of Heaven had seemingly become closed to Israel. God was silent for 400 years after Malachi. No voice of a prophet had been heard since Malachi. There was no heavenly visit from an angel since Zechariah, who was a post-exile prophet starting about 10 years after Daniel’s death.

But now in John 1 with the Lord talking to Nathanael, now that the Messiah has arrived, He is declaring to Nathanael that the gate of Heaven is open once again, except now everything about Jacob’s ladder would be inverted.

Now the Lord has descended the ladder Himself. He is no longer above the ladder but at the bottom, manifest in the flesh, and Nathanael would see the angels operating in a different light than what Jacob saw.

The Lord would say to him, “Hereafter (henceforth, from this moment forward) ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” The fact that the Lord would say, “Hereafter ye shall see heaven open” would seem to indicate that Heaven had been seemingly closed off to Israel for the last 400 years, but now Heaven is once again open except the operation of the entire heavenly government has changed. Now the angels would ascend and descend Jacob’s ladder only to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

In fact, in the entire Gospel period, the only things we would see the angels do was strictly in service to the life and ministry of the Lord. They announced His arrival. Gabriel gave instructions to Mary and Zacharias. An angel instructed Joseph both about Mary’s pregnancy and later to hide in Egypt until Herod dies. Angels ministered to the Lord after the tempting in the wilderness, served the Lord by stirring the pool of Bethesda to set the stage for the miracle of the lame man. An angel ministered to the Lord during His agony in the Garden and, of course, angels served the Lord on the morning of His resurrection moving the great stone of the tomb and giving instructions to the women.

What the Lord is saying to Nathanael, “Do you think that what just happened with Me is amazing? You’re going to see even greater things than this. You’re going to see, from this moment forward, the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

It would be Nathanael’s distinct blessing to see the entire government of Heaven serve the Messiah of Israel, because He would now be the object of attention of the entire heavenly host just as He would be the object of attention of the entire nation of Israel because the time was now at hand when all things that the prophets had written were to be fulfilled.

Of this story, Charles Baker wrote,“In Jacob’s dream the angels were ascending and descending upon a ladder. In Christ’s words the angels are going to ascend and descend upon Himself. Christ is, therefore, the Ladder between earth and heaven.”

F.G. Patterson, a Plymouth Brethren, would write, “It is worthy of note that Jacob saw the bottom of the ladder, and heard the voice of the Lord above it, while the angels ascended and descended upon it. While Peter, James, and John saw the top of it, as it were, when they were on the Mount of Transfiguration, beholding a foreshadowing of Christ’s coming glory as Son of Man.”

I have a question.

When exactly was it that Nathanael saw “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man”? Is it possible that Nathanael saw the angel ministering to the Lord during His agony in the Garden? Most likely. I suspect it may be possible that the words of the Lord to Nathanael in John 1 were fulfilled in Acts 1 when Nathanael saw angels ministering to Christ, ascending and descending, at His ascension.

Of course, there may have been other moments, too, which are not recorded in the Gospels. John told us in Joh. 21:25 that “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.”

  1. I truly can’t remember the last time I saw anyone quote from C.H. MacIntosh – I got saved reading the Bible AND CHMacIntosh back in 1981. I have all the old volumes. Thank you for your messages Joel – I always look forward to reading them. You are a blessing.

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    1. Oh I love CHM! Thank you! -Joel

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