Though it’s only an “additional teaching idea” in Lesson 12, Jacob’s ladder has captured my imagination due to some conversations I’ve recently had with Christian evangelicals.
The theme of the ladder to heaven is often used by the Early Church Fathers. Their interpretations of Jacob’s symbolic dream in Genesis 28 are similar to those made by Mormon General Authorities. In the 2nd century, Saint Irenaeus described the Christian Church as the ladder of ascent to God. In the 3rd century Origen explained that there are two ladders in the Christian life; one of which is the ladder that the soul climbs on the earth increasing the virtues. In the 4th century Saint Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of ascending Jacob’s Ladder by successive steps towards excellence, interpreting thus the ladder as an ascetic path, while Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote that Moses climbed on Jacob’s Ladder to reach the heavens where he entered the tabernacle not made with hands, thus giving to the Ladder a clear mystical meaning. The ascetic interpretation is found also in Saint John Chrysostom who wrote:
“And so mounting as it were by steps, let us get to heaven by a Jacob’s ladder. For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners.”
The account of Jacob’s Ladder as an analogy for the spiritual ascetic of life is again found in the classical work Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. The ladder in Jacob’s dream represented a symbolic journey where each of the rungs suggest the steps needed to move upward. Man must climb up one level at a time as he participates in the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel offered by the Lord, who stands at the top. Notice how similar this description is to the quote by Marion G. Romney found in our lesson:
“Jacob realized that the covenants he made with the Lord … were the rungs on the ladder that he himself would have to climb in order to obtain the promised blessings—blessings that would entitle him to enter heaven and associate with the Lord” (“Temples—The Gates to Heaven,” Ensign, Mar. 1971, 16).
Later Christian interpretation of Jacob’s ladder is quite different than the early Church fathers, and demonstrates the dichotomy of thought between evangelicals and Mormons on the faith and works issue. In this exegesis, Jesus is seen as being the reality to which the ladder points in that he bridges the gap between heaven and earth. According to Martin Luther, Jacob’s vision of the ladder represented the incarnation of Christ. In the Gospel of John 1:51 there is a clear reference to Jacob’s dream pointing towards Jesus Christ, referred to by his title of the Son of Man:
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.
Adam Clarke, an early 19th century Methodist theologian and Bible scholar, elaborated upon this verse:
“That by the angels of God ascending and descending, is to be understood, that a perpetual intercourse should now be opened between heaven and earth, through the medium of Christ, who was God manifested in the flesh. Our blessed Lord is represented in his mediatorial capacity as the ambassador of God to men; and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, is a metaphor taken from the custom of dispatching couriers or messengers from the prince to his ambassador in a foreign court, and from the ambassador back to the prince.”
In this one Biblical symbol we find differing schools of thought over the issue of salvation: One group views the ladder as a way to reach heaven based on their own actions of improvement and obedience to covenants and ordinances. The other group has access to heaven based on the provisions of God through the Mediator, Jesus Christ, who came to earth and became that ladder or stairway for the sinner to reconnect the relationship with God.
In pondering this issue in the past, I have lamented that such a rift exists between our two faith traditions. It often seems to me that we are closer than we think, and that grace and works are both important. Mormons, I explain, emphasize works so much because we fear that if we don’t, the sinner might lapse into laziness or indifference. Christians emphasize the grace aspect of the equation so that no one will mistakenly trust in legalism rather than the Savior for their salvation. Isn’t the truth a balance between Paul and James? However, the evangelicals have labored hard to convince me that salvation must be accepted upon grace alone. Lately I’ve been pondering why I am reluctant to join them in their assurance. I’ve accepted Christ as my Savior, and it certainly would be a lot easier not to worry so much about whether I was paying my tithing, going to the temple regularly, or doing my visiting teaching. But here’s what holds me back: if Jesus offers me the grace they describe, then I’ll be OK whether I’m doing my works or not. But if the Mormon view turns out to be the more accurate description of the will of God for us, I need to be trying my hardest to do all of those works which are in my power.
Am I living my life based on fear rather than faith? Maybe. Will it count against me in the end? I don’t see how it could.
What’s your take on Jacob’s ladder? Do we walk up, or does God descend to meet us where we are? Can this scriptural metaphor be of any help to us in our faith journey?