When you read that title, what comes to mind?
(A) An iconic rock song dating from the 1970s.
(B) A spectacular (but illegal) hiking trail in Hawaii.
(C) A failed construction project in the book of Genesis.
(D) A famous dream of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob.
(E) Jesus’ description of Himself in John’s Gospel.
Don’t feel guilty if (A) is your first reaction! Whether or not you’re a fan, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is one of the most recognizable songs of modern times. Though known best for its unique musical qualities, the lyrics evoke a yearning that many have found to have spiritual undertones.
Unless you’re a fanatical adventurer, it’s unlikely that you chose (B). The Stairway to Heaven trail to the summit of Puʻukeahiakahoe on the island of Oahu is a famous destination which is now closed for safety reasons. The name obviously evokes expectations of a transcendent ‘mountain top’ experience.
These two examples both reflect a universal impulse to seek a path to a higher reality – one only vaguely glimpsed in the grubby ordinaries of life, but which something deep inside urges us towards. That also seems to be the motivation lying behind (C) the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), an attempt to elevate the human experience by human effort. But like every other attempt to attain ‘heaven’ by human endeavor, it too was doomed to failure.
Undoubtedly the most familiar Biblical reference to a ‘stairway to Heaven’ is (D) the familiar story of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ where the young Jacob, later to be renamed ‘Israel’ has a remarkable vision:
“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder [stairway] set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it 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 in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 28:12-14)
The story is correctly understood as God reaffirming His covenant, first established with Abraham and Isaac, and now with Jacob and his descendants – the ‘Children of Israel.’ But for Christians, the ultimate meaning of this incident is revealed by choice (E), when Jesus explains to His first disciples who He is:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
Jesus was clearly connecting Himself to Jacob’s vision. But what point was He making? Christians easily make the association that it is through Jesus, the descendant of Jacob, that all humanity has been blessed. Thus, Jesus is plainly signaling that He is the promised Messiah (‘Christ’) by which God’s covenant promise to Jacob was being fulfilled. And, of course we know that it is through Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice that we will someday attain Heaven – when we are taken there.
But there is also another important, but more subtle, message here about our yearnings for ‘heaven’ while we live out our lives on earth. Unlike our culture’s ideas, the Bible offers no illusion that we can transcend our human limitations through our own efforts. You see, it is not striving people who are on the Bible’s stairway to Heaven, but angels – God’s personal messengers – and they are both ascending to God and descending to earth. We cannot escape earthly reality by working our way upwards. Rather, Jesus came to earth from the Father to be the ‘Way’ (John 14:6) by which the Father is in communion with us in the ‘here-and-now’ of this life. It is for just this intimate connection to God that Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Jesus is Himself the link by which we on this earth are now able to interact with Almighty God. He is the living Stairway to Heaven!