Summary: The experience of Jacob at Bethel, and what it can mean today -- God still extends his staircase down to us at unexpected times.
The story of Jacob and his brother Esau is a tangled one, filled with deceit, intrigue and animosity. Esau despised his birthright and sold it to Jacob for a pot of stew. Jacob then deceived their father and got him to bless him as the ruler and chief heir of the family. So tensions ran high between the two men. Those problems continued until Jacob eventually had to leave home. Jacob feared for his life, so taking his belongings, he picked up and left his home and went far away to stay with relatives in the east.
Jacob did not seem to have much time for God. We never read of any conversations about God or with Him before he leaves home. We never read about him worshiping, nor any encounters with God in all of his life up until now. Jacob has had little time for God, because he has been too busy scheming and planning how to get ahead. Too much of his time has been wasted thinking only of himself. There was no time for God, and there was no time for anyone else but himself. But God is about to dramatically interrupt his self-centered life.
Jacob has been on the go all day. He is running from his problems. Finally, the night comes and he falls asleep. There is a rock for a pillow under his head, and above his head, the open heavens. As he is asleep, God reveals himself to Jacob. In his dream there is what appears to be a large ladder, or staircase of light, the top of which reaches to heaven and the very throne of God. On it the messengers of God were traveling up and down between heaven and earth. They were delivering people’s petitions to God and bringing God’s help to the people of the earth. Jacob was one of the privileged few who saw with his own eyes the workings of the kingdom of God, the spiritual activity of heaven itself. Here God reveals himself and gives his promise to Jacob that Jacob will be the heir to the promises which God had made to his father, and his father before him. The Lord repeats those promises to him personally saying, “I am the LORD, the God of your father 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... 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 have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15).
Jacob calls the place Bethel, which in Hebrew means ‘House of God.’ This special place seems to him to be the very dwelling place of the Lord. Jacob has met God. He wasn’t expecting to meet him. He wasn’t even thinking of God. It was purely grace. It was probably the last thing on his mind. He did not even want to meet God. He was only thinking of getting away from his brother. His mind was full of thoughts about where he was going and what was ahead of him. But God broke into Jacob’s self-absorbed world in an amazing way. God came to Jacob even when Jacob was not seeking God. God opened his world to Jacob, even when Jacob had closed his world to God.
This whole incident tells us something very important about the Lord. Isaiah the prophet quotes God as saying, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I’” (Isaiah 65:1). God is full of surprises. Just when you do not expect to meet Him, he comes to you. God can interrupt our self-centered lives in the most amazing ways. Think of the times in the Bible when God came into people’s lives in surprising ways. Moses would say: “The funniest thing happened as I was taking a walk one day. I was walking by a bush that caught fire and God spoke to me out of it.” Moses was not expecting to see God, and he was sure that God was not interested in seeing him, but God had a surprise for Moses. Paul, on the Damascus road, had only hate on his mind when the Lord stopped him in his tracks and changed his life. Gideon was busy with his job, threshing wheat, when the Lord came to him and announced that he was going to use his life in ways that Gideon had never dreamed of. The list of Bible characters could go on and on, but there is enough evidence to show us that God sometimes interrupts the ordinary in our lives to come to us in extraordinary ways. And he is still doing it today.