Question Box: Angels ascending and descending on Christ

Question or Topic Scripture
Angels ascending and descending on Christ John 1:51

We read in John 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 did Jesus mean? Why did he use this expression?


We will attempt to develop an answer to this question, hoping that some of our readers will also help us out on this one. Our thoughts for the moment are developed around the observation that this opening chapter in the Book of John seems to be filled with an effort to present Christ dramatically to the world. It was time for him to be removed from the relative obscurity that he had enjoyed during the first 30 years of his life so that he could be manifested to the disciples, and to his nation.

John began the process by describing this special man as the "Word that was made flesh" (John 1:14). He also says that "in him was life, and the life is the light of men" (v. 4), and that he was the "true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (v. 9).

These are very significant terms to use in the introduction of a man who was a stranger to his own people. He adds even more power to his description when he states that he is the "only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). John continues his introduction by saying - "He that cometh after me is preferred before me" (v. 15), and adds a significant comparison between Moses and Christ: "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (v. 17). He remarks that it was his own special role to "make straight the way of the Lord" (v. 23), thus referring to him with yet another title in the expanding list of the names and titles that would be associated with Jesus.

The description grows as Jesus approaches John to be baptized and he states: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). He then concludes this part of his introduction by saying: "Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God" (vv. 33,34).

His introduction had been powerful and yet they were still only words. There would, of necessity, be signs, wonders and miracles before many would accept him as the Messiah. Gradually, a few of the disciples came to realize that this is "the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ" (John 1:41). The list of believers began to grow as others added: "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (v. 45). They all looked for the Messiah, but now they were being asked to believe that this great person was actually the one that they knew only as a carpenters son.

Each in their own turn advanced questions and offered the test of scripture as they examined whether this was indeed the Messiah. "And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see" (John 1:46).

Jesus was now ready to demonstrate his own talents, convincing Nathanael with his special powers and gift of perception.

  1. John 1:47-49
  2. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!
  3. 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.
  4. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God ...

And even though Nathanael is convinced, Jesus tells him that he will see even "greater things than these". There will be even more dramatic proofs of his authority (v. 50).

Thus we come finally, to the verse in our question. Hopefully, we now have a better idea of the context and the purpose for this brief period of introduction to the Master. There would be for now, one final piece of evidence for them to consider: "Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (John 1:51).

These words were obviously prophetic. Was this a prophesy of something that would occur far into the future? When and how was this prophesy fulfilled? We are inclined to think that he was not talking entirely about the distant future. It may be that he had reference to a process that would be concluded within a few short years. He may have been talking about his own sacrifice, which would open the way to the most holy place, and then position him in the way of approach to the throne on high as our mediator.

To explain this suggestion, we look again at his words, and we realize that this particular expression is rather unique in scripture. So much so, that our attention is immediately drawn to the only other reference where these words are so combined. This may well have been his intention:

  1. Genesis 28:10-12
  2. And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

In this story of Jacob's dream, the angels are ascending and descending from heaven to earth on a ladder. The only significant difference in the words that Jesus used in John 1 is that the "Son of man" has taken the place of the ladder. Is this to say that in addition to the other roles that are included in his introduction, he would also become the ladder or staircase, or the way to and from heaven? That also in this new role, the angels would become subject unto him?

We are told in Hebrews:

  1. Hebrews 1:1-2
  2. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
  3. Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.

The angels at one time ascended and descended from the throne, as messengers and administrators of the will of the Father in carrying out his purpose on the earth. Now, in these last days, they are under the direction of Christ and it is through him, and in him, that access to the blessings of the Father are possible.

It was through his sacrifice, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God, that Jesus became the ladder by which we may now approach boldly to the throne of grace. He became our high priest, the "mediator between God and man" (I Timothy 2:5).

Our prayers ascend through him, and the angels descend at his command, as his "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Hebrews 1:14). Jacob's experience in dreaming about this ladder provides us with some additional information:

  1. Genesis 28:16-19
  2. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.

This association of terms provides us with another part of the picture. Jesus would also build a house for his name. We know that this will be the household of God. It would be built upon the "foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:20-22).

Christ is a "son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end" (Hebrews 3:6). In yet another expression, he is the door (or gate) of the house. He told his disciples: "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved" (John 10:9).

In reflecting on his simple words to Nathanael, our attention is drawn to a wide range of information about this man who would, (as the ladder in Jacob's dream) make provision for renewed communication between heaven and earth. We are thankful for this "new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised)" (Hebrews 10:20-23).


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