Worship in Old Testament History (Part 3)

THEME: Worship in the Old Testament, 6th in the series 

Volume 7, No. 3 (March 2012)

This month we continue to examine worship during the Patriarchal period of Israel’s history.

2.  The Patriarchal Period (Genesis 12–50)


1) Jacob growing into a worshiper

The life of Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, is itself a picture of the nation that would be named after him (after God changed his name to Israel, Genesis 32:28; 35:10) and would grow from his descendants (the twelve tribes would be named after his sons): he (like the nation) was uniquely chosen, privileged and blessed by God, yet often chose to ignore God and to do things his own way; yet God graciously persists in pursuing him, until he becomes a true worshiper:

Jacob’s return to Bethel  (Gen. 35:1-15; cf. 28:19)

35:1          God’s call
35:2-4       preparation for worship
35:5-8       place for worship (altar)
35:9-13     God’s appearance
35:14-15   Jacob’s response of worship

Note that in 35:11-12 God repeats to Jacob the promises he had previously made to Abraham (12:1-3; 22:17-18) and Isaac (26:24).

2) Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28)

This well-known incident in the life of Jacob has some crucial implications for New Testament worship.

28:12        Jacob’s vision
28:13-15   God’s covenant
28:16-17   Jacob’s heart of worship
28:18-19   Jacob’s act of worship
28:20-22   Jacob’s vow of worship

Jacob saw a vision of a ladder (or ramp) bridging heaven and earth, connecting God with man and man with God. Worship is possible because God connects with people and reveals His presence to them.

It seems likely that, in a way Jacob did not fathom, that vision was a foreshadowing and looking ahead to a grand fulfillment in God’s plan and purpose in the history of Israel and of the entire world: a picture of the unique role of the incarnate Christ in mediating between God and man and making worship possible.

Jesus Himself seems to claim in John 1:45-51 that He Himself is the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream. There He says to Nathaniel, “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (v. 51). The language is almost identical to that of Genesis 28:12, except that instead of the angels going back and forth to connect heaven and earth by means of a ladder, it is now the Son of Man that provides that access and connection. Jesus seems to be saying: I  am the fulfillment of Jacob’s vision; I am Jacob’s Ladder; I am the connection between heaven and earth, and God and man. The incarnate One is that unique and necessary bridge between and the divine and the human.

Commentators have suggested some other clues in John 1 that point towards the likelihood that Jesus is deliberately referencing Genesis 28. To begin with, Jesus’ statement in verse 15 seems to come out of nowhere, unless one considers the theory that Jesus knew that Nathaniel, while he was under the fig tree (v. 48), was in fact meditating on Genesis 28; then the language and import of verse 51 makes perfect sense. One other possible clue: Jacob was of course known through much of his life as a deceiver (for instance, he stole his brother’s birthright through trickery; and also served to gain advantage over his father-in-law through devious methods); so perhaps when Jesus identities Nathaniel as “an Israelite indeed [a namesake of Jacob himself], in whom there is no deceit,” (v. 47), this may another indication that Jacob and his dream are the context of this account in John 1. This cannot be proven; but its seems highly likely, based on Jesus’ carefully chosen words and the contextual clues.

Jesus is Jacob’s Ladder, the connection between heaven and earth, between God and man. Even the ascending and the descending suggest His two-way mediatorial work, representing God before man and man before God. (See much more on this in the resources listed below.) That’s why William Nicholls wrote an excellent little book entitled Jacob’s Ladder: The True Meaning of Worship (out of print, but used copies can be found online; see, for instance, at abebooks.com). Nicholls writes:

Christ is the essence of worship, and our understanding of the Church’s worshipmust take its starting point from Him. In Him is embodied the downward movement of God’s love and grace, as He reveals Himself to man, and reconciles man to Himself; and also the upward movement of man’s response, perfectly dependent upon that love, and drawing from it all the resources of strength which are needed to make that response in all circumstances of life, and even in death itself.  (p. 26)

This of course makes Jesus also the fulfillment and embodiment of the Revelation and Response paradigm (see Worship Notes 1.5) that we have seen throughout our look at worship in the Old Testament, and that underlies all worship and indeed all of God’s dealings with man. Hebrews 2:12 succinctly illustrates this fact (again, see the resources listed below for more on this stunning truth).


Worship Notes 1.8 (“Proclamation and Praise: Jesus Our Worship Leader”)


Reggie Kidd, “Bach, Bubba, and the Blues Brothers: The Singing Savior’s Many Voices”
Ron Man, “Jesus, Our True Worship Leader”


William Nicholls, Jacob’s Ladder: The True Meaning of Worship (John Knox Press, 1958)
Reggie Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship (Baker, 2005)
Ron Man, Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2007) 


NEXT MONTH: The Exodus

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