Bethel and the Church in Perth
At the 2003 WA prayer Summit in Mandurah, Geoff Westlake shared a word based on Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Gen 28:10 – 22). This seemed significant at the time and was taken up by a number of those present in various ways. It led me to reflection and research in relation to the Genesis passage and other related portions of scripture. I retained my notes from that time but until now had no sense to =try to bring the material together into a coherent whole. Provoked by a conversation (27.10.05)with Mark Anderson of Impact World Tour as to whetherPerthwas called of God to be a “Bethelcity” with an “open heaven”, I have revisited the material in order to come to some conclusion on the basis of the Word and prayer.
Bethel and the Dream of Jacob
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord 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; 14 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. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
I have used the N.I.V text in 2 crucial places. It translates verse 12 as “stairway” rather than “ladder”. This important to the meaning as corresponds to the step pyramids (ziggurats etc.) that functioned as temples during the patriachal period. Priestly figures would climb up the stairs to the altar of the “high god” situated nearer the heavens. In this case, the commerce between heaven and earth is wholly by divine initiative.
Secondly, in verse 13 we read that the LORD is “above it”, at the top of the stairway, rather than “beside him”. This accentuates both the divine sovereignty and transcendence – hence theapparent need for angelic mediation.
At the core of the manifestation of God to Jacob is the reiteration of the promise first given to Abraham in Genesis 12, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v.14).
The naming of the place “Bethel” is consistent with the Jacob anoints the pillar as a sign that it is a holy place indwelt by God. Throughout the Old Testament period “house of God” is a synonym for temple. This is true whether for the temple of a foreign deity e.g. Dagon (1 Sam 5:2) or Yahweh ( 2 Sam 7:5ff. etc.). God’s presence is thought of as a localised reality in “heaven” (2 Chron 7:14etc.). Thus Moses receives a blueprint for the tabernacle from God on Sinai (Ex 25:40; 27:8) and Solomon is to construct thetempleofGodaccording to “the plan/pattern” that the LORD had directly given him (1 Chron 28:11, 12, 19). This is also true for Ezekiel’s eschatological temple (Ezek 43:10). It would appear that the deity will only dwell in his house if it is constructed according to his specifications. (The observation that the second temple constructed after the return from Babylon does not fit these specifications does not revoke this rule, for the glory of the LORD does not appear there, only in the tent of meeting and Solomon’s temple (Ex 29:43; 40:34- 35; 1 Ki 8:11).
It is important to note that the Solomonic temple is to be a house of prayer for all the nations. 6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isa 56: 6- 7), that is a place where all the nations can come and prayer. This found initial fulfillment in the visit of the Queen of Sheba, but was soon subverted by Solomon’s own tolerance idolatry.
Here are some words from a paper I wrote several years ago, The intensity of the divine presence corresponds to the width of the Solomonic vision that the whole earth fears the LORD. He prays that through the petitions of visiting foreigners in theTemple, “all the peoples of the earth might know your name and fear you, as do your peopleIsrael, and so that they know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” (1 Ki8:41- 43).
This kingly vision sees theTempleas the dwelling place of God and
the hub of the cosmos from which the revelation of the one true God
radiates to all the nations. Even though this great missionary
vision begins to reach fulfilment through the visit of the queen of
Sheba(1 Ki 10:1- 13), it is effectively still – born.
The incident atBethel, the construction of the tabernacle and the opening of the temple are three crucial phases in the divine self- manifestation in the Old Testament period. The purpose of these theophanies cannot however reach completion until the one who comes who is “greater” than Jacob, Moses and Solomon (John4:12;Heb 3:3; Matt12:42)
Altars without Stones
Jesus as the New Jacob
In Jesus is contained the fullness of meaning of all the revelatory events of the old dispensation (John5:39). The clearest application of this principle to Jacob’s experience atBethelis in John1:43- 51.
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The context of this dialogue in John’s Gospel is essential for understanding it’s menaing. If Jacob saw the Most High God above him at the top of the stairway, the Word who was always with God (John 1:1) has descended below and “tabernacled” in the midst of humanity. This is the exact sense of John 1:14, “14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”. The English word “live” translates the Greek eskeneso which is used repeatedly in the Greek Old Testament of God’s glorious dwelling with Israel (Ex 25:8; 40:35; Zech 2:14). In the chapter succeeding the story of the Nathanael, Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple, John makes this clear that “he was speaking of the temple of his body” (John2:21). These first two chapters of the Gospel then are saturated with references to the fulfillment of the reality in Jesus that was experienced in part by Jacob.
In returning to the central passage for this discussion, Jesus says of Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47). This is a direct contrast to the accounts of Jacob’s deceptive behaviour in Genesis (27:35; 30:37 – 43). Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” not by his first experience atBethelbut by the incident at Peniel where he struggles with the divine being (Gen 32:22 -32). In releasing his name “Jacob” (meaning, “deceiver”) to this manifest presence of God he takes on a new identity, no longer a deceiver but an object of the divine blessing because “one who struggles with God” (meaning of “Israel) and prevails. Nathanael is a “true Israelite” because he recognizes from the beginning that Jesus is King. The “greater things” (John1:50) that will be revealed to him in the future include the truth that Jesus is king not only ofIsraelbut of all the nations.
Jesus own person is the fulfillment of Jacob’s stairway. He in himself is the bridge between God and humanity, heaven and earth. Place (Bethel, Zion) is now relpced by person as the locus of God’s self –revelation. Paradoxically, this is expressed in John’s Gospel by the theme that Jesus is both in heaven and on earth. Here is how I put it in an earlier paper called, “You Don’t Go To Heaven When You Die”: Heavenly or Earthly, Where Are We Living Today? The first paragraph of this ends with, “What he (God) is trying to restore to the church inPerth in our time is a heavenly view and experience of reality.”
“Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except him who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:11-13). Contrary to our spatio –temporal thinking, Jesus (as a human being – John 1:14) is right there in front of Nicodemus and yet he claims at the same time to be in heaven.
While his body was firmly fixed on earth Jesus’ spirit enjoyed fellowship with the Father in heaven by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (John3:31, 34, 35). This was an intuitive, spiritual relationship he had with God and not a spatial or a physical one. Through this communion everything that belonged to the Father was at his command – the realm of forgiveness, healing, miracle deliverance flowed from the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit. Heaven and earth intersected in the life of Jesus (John1:51). In this sense, as the fullness of the Father’ visible presence upon the earth, the supernatural words and works of Jesus were natural to him (John12:49;14:10). The exciting and challenging thing is that this is also true for us (John14:11-12)
From Pentecost on a continuous dynamic flows between heaven and earth through the power of the Spirit (Acts2:2). Christians are not earth bound but given insight into the heavenly mysteries in the Spirit (2 Cor 12: 1- 4;Rev 1:10; 4:1- 2 etc.). Christians are in the “heavenly places” (Eph 1:3, 20; 2:6;3:10;6:12) with Christ in God (Col 3:1). All of this stands for the reality of a deep spiritual and not spatial communion.
There is a constellation of phenomena that seem to go together in the lives of Jesus and the apostles that are strikingly absent from the sort of ministry we have become familiar with inAustraliatoday. These include gospel proclamation with authoritative pronouncement of forgiveness (Mark 2:5; Luke 24:47; John 20:23), healings and deliverances by command (Mark 1:25- 26,32; 3:5; Acts 3:6 – 8; 9:34; 14:9 – 10 etc.), miracles in the sphere of nature (Mark 4:35- 41; Acts 28:3- 6; 2 Cor 12:12 etc.), mass turning to God (Matt 4:23 -25; Acts 2:41; 4:4 etc.).
The communion between heaven and earth is completely actualized in the person of the Son of God. The distance which evoked the need for theophanies at places likeBethel, the tabernacle andJerusalemtemple no longer exists “in Christ”.
The Church in Perth
Clearly, all of this is formally compatible to a high degree with the possibilityPerthwill become a “Bethelcity” with an “open heaven”. What more needs to happen? I consoder the below.
1. A return to a more Christ – centred understanding of the Great Commission.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18- 20).
Contrary to popular preaching, the three verses are intimately related. Verse 18 teaches that the authority of heaven and earth is united in the person of Jesus. Verse 19 commands his disciples to “go” and make other disciples on a universal scale. Verse 20 means this cannot be conducted without the presence of Jesus in his authority as the one who has risen and ascended to heaven.
2. A recognition that Christ is King from the cross.
19 “Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.” (John19:19- 20) As far as the New Testament is concerned, this inscription in the language of the country, the official language of theRoman Empire and the common
language of communication, symbolizes the universal kingship of the crucified Messiah.
3. A realization that the heavens have never closed around Christ.
The text of John 1:51 “you will see heaven opened”, has the Greek word for “open” (anoigo)in the perfect tense. This implies that the heavens will remain open in relation to the person of Christ.
Importantly, this is confirmed by the description of Jesus baptism (Mk 1:10).
Luke Jesus was praying Psalm 2:7 Isaiah 42:1 missional texts.
Communion between heaven and earth established from the time the Lord entered into his public ministry.
Cross seems to be the one exception to this interpretation.