Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these... Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (vv. 50-1).I remember that this passage was always strange for me. What in the world could it mean to see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? It never made any sense to me when I was younger; it was another one of those confusing sayings of Jesus which sooner confused me than edified me in any way.
Jesus here is apparently referring to the vision of Jacob in Gen 28. Jacob had tricked Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, his brother, and Esau was ready to kill Jacob for it. He planned only to wait until his father had died. So Jacob was sent away to find a wife from among his mother's family, lest he marry one of the Hittite women nearby. In this context, on a long journey to find a wife and now in danger of his life, Jacob lies down to sleep with a rock under his head. Not exactly the most comfortable conditions! That night he has a dream:
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that 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 28:12-15).
Implicit in all of this is the proposal of an orderly and providential universe. The events of Jacob's life are not random or haphazard, left up to chance. It is not an open and unsettled question whether Esau will succeed in his plan to murder his brother over the lost blessing. In the face of the confusion and uncertainty of every day events, Jacob's dream confronts him with the promise of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, on which angels of God ascend and descend, carrying out the will of God who is above all and who rules over everything.
The world, then, is an intelligible and providentially ordered place, in spite of the apparent chaos and nonsense of the events which take place every day. And with this background in place, God promises Jacob something tremendous: that he will be with him, that he will bless him, and that he will protect him, never leaving him until what has been promised will be fulfilled. God's promise is one of grace: I will be with you and protect you and bless you abundantly. Only if God is the providential ruler of the world, with all things under his foresight and command, can he make such a promise with any ounce of credibility and promise.
With this background in mine, Jesus tells Nathanael and Phillip that they will see the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man. In other words, Jesus, who is the Son of Man, becomes that ladder which connects heaven and earth. He now becomes the meeting place between the two dimensions, the place of mankind and the created order, and the place of God who rules above everything. In Jesus, these two worlds meet and have their interaction. Once more, we are talking about the mystery of the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. This meeting between the two worlds, this connection between the two worlds, can only take place if the two worlds are in some ineffable manner united in the one person of Jesus.
The Son of God assumed a human nature, divinity uniting itself with humanity in a single hypostasis, and so the relationship between humankind and God is now mediated through him. A person who meets Jesus is now meeting with God; a person who wishes to meet with God must now come to Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Therefore John will say that No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23). They are inseparable because Jesus of Nazareth, this person to whom Christians claim their allegiance, is the true Son of God the Father, whose being and whose life is utterly inseparable from the Son.
Implicit in all of this, too, is the notion that God's providential control and the fulfillment of his promises to the people of Israel (promises which naturally concern all people as well) are to be fulfilled through Jesus. That ladder from heaven to earth through which the angels fulfill the plan and promises of God is Jesus himself, and he now becomes the fulfillment of those promises through his life. What Jesus is telling Phillip and Nathanael, in other words, is that they will see the fulfillment of all those promises which God made to his people in the Old Testament, coming true in the very person of Jesus himself.
This means that the Son of Man is the ladder to heaven. If a person wants to know if God is provident, if he cares for this world and if he establishes an order and structure to things, and if moreover he wants to know if God keeps his promises, he need only look to Jesus Christ. This person shows us that, in spite of common appearances, this world has a logic and an order to it. He shows us that God is control of things. He shows us that God does not lie about his promises but fulfills them all at the right time, even if it is not when we think it should be.