Christ, the Ladder

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 decending upon the Son of man.'

THE account of the call of Nathanael suggests a good deal more than it states. We should dearly like to know exactly what was behind the recorded facts. All we are told is that a disciple named Philip, who had just joined himself to Jesus, and who afterwards played a not unimportant part in the life of the apostolic church, announces to his friend Nathanael that he has found the Christ. Nathanael is at first skeptical, but is induced to come and see for himself. He does so, and is won over at once by the Master's statement that he had seen him under the fig tree before Philip called him. 'Rabbi,' is the instant response, 'thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.' The comment of Jesus upon this outburst is that there are greater experiences in store for him. 'Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'

Now all this is very interesting, but also very meager in quantity. The whole episode is dismissed in a few sentences, and we are left to imagine what must have been the psychological background of a situation so striking. According to the story Jesus had once at least gone past the garden where Nathanael was engaged in meditation, as was a common Jewish custom, under his own fig tree. It may well be that then some kindly look of sympathy and understanding passed from Christ into the very heart of Nathanael.

It is the richness of Christ's sympathy which accounts for that remarkable personal influence which He seems to have possessed over His disciples. He knew what was in men; He could read character as other men read books; He could understand moods and anticipate feelings in a way which was unique. He was keenly sensitive to what in these days we are accustomed to call the psychological moment. This is perhaps most evident in those seemingly sudden calls which he addressed to His disciples, and the equally sudden response which they made to His call.

In the soul of Nathanael there was going forward a high debate. Its subject we may claim to know, for that outburst, 'Thou art the Son of God,' reveals it. 'It is true, that which John the Baptist spoke yesterday and the day before, that this young Galilean is the Great One whom John was to herald, that a sign from heaven has made John sure of it, so that he declares this man to be the Son of God?' Can it be true? Could anything good come out of Nazareth. He thought he was alone as he communed thus with himself and poured out his heart to God in fervent petition that the shadow would soon lift, that the Messiah would soon come. Imagine then his astonishment when from the first words that Jesus spoke to him he found that he had not been alone, that someone had seen, and heard, and understood his most secret and intimate yearnings and desires. It was not that this Man of Nazareth had seen him when he thought himself alone, nor even that He had noticed his mental struggle---another might have done that---but it was that He had both seen and understood, had both discerned and interpreted. This stranger, with whom he had never talked, had explained in a single sentence the riddle of his life. He had done more than explain the past, He had interpreted the present, and His forecast of the future inspired Nathanael with new hope, by declaring him to be not the mean and deceitful Jacob of his pessimistic moods, but the Israel of his hopes and striving. The conviction is borne in upon his mind, that the discovery of the Messiah which Philip had announced must be true. This must indeed be the greater Son of David, Son of God, and promised King of Israel. While he is rejoicing in this, and testifying it in the exultant cry, 'Thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel,' Jesus quietly adds, 'Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.'

Christ's words put the story of Jacob into a picturesque form, but with a difference. There are the angels of God as before, but 'Son of man' takes the place of the ladder. The vision at Bethel was a casual thing. Jesus Christ promises a continuous experience to His followers---'Ye shall see heaven open.' When with sincerity we pray that heaven may be open we are never left alone and unanswered. Nor are we left without means of access to the highest. Christ is the ladder between our earthliness and the heavenly Father's love, and that ladder is set up in every believing soul.

Why are the angels described as ascending and descending upon this Divine ladder? Why is that order adopted? Should it not be descending and ascending? Surely the angels must first come down from above before they can ascend from below. And who and what are these angels? Here, again, we have a conspicuous example of the profound depth and suggestiveness of this Fourth Gospel. The order is not the wrong way about; it is quite correct. The messengers of God here spoken of are not only those that stream down to us in Christ from our Father's compassionate heart, they are the aspirations that ascend from our souls to call the blessings down. Repentance, contribution, desire for amendment of life, the prayer of humility and faith, of self-offering and consecration, the appeal of the tempted and the sorrowful, the loving prayer of intercession, these are the angels of God---rightly named---who ascend from burdened human hearts upon the Christ ladder every day and hour to the source and seat of all power. And the gifts of pardon, healing, assurance of redemption and fellowship with God, consolation in loss and trouble, the peace that passeth understanding, the love that seeketh not its own, these are the angels of God that are always descending in response to our cry of need.

The ascending and descending angels express the continuous intercourse between earth and heaven. These heavenly angels ascend for aspiration and descend for ministry. But what does that mean in its spiritual significance? There are two things which are indispensable to human nature. We cannot get rid of our aspirations and we cannot get rid of our sense of responsibility. Our aspirations are the consciousness of ideals which have as yet been fulfilled, and when Jesus Christ says, 'Heaven shall be open,' He means that the ideals of mankind will be continually before their eyes, He is thinking of spirits that can claim and find the satisfaction of their aspirations in the very presence of God.

Aspiration implies the desire for something more than we possess. This is a characteristic and domineering demand of the human heart. Our soul life has two desires. It sometimes happens that one aspiration drives us into solitude. We long to get away from the world---to be near to God. But we also have another desire, which drives us into the world with the longing to be among our fellows. Our angels would not be satisfied if we only thought of the religious life as aspiration and emotion and prayer. We must go down, for the sense of responsibility is a power, and the desire of service and sharing is strong within us. Religion, whenever it lays hold upon a man's heart, makes it impossible for the man who has reached heaven in aspiration to remain there.

We know salvation as a great reality only that we may be saviors. Too often, like Benedetto in Il Santo, we have to confess: "I have felt the sin of the world with repulsion which shrinks from it, and not with the fiery sorrow which braves it and wrests souls from its clutches."

In Christ, timothy.


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