COULD YOU EXPLAIN JOHN 1:51?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Some have expressed great difficulty with John 1:51: “And he [Jesus] saith unto him [Nathanael], 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.” When exactly was this fulfilled—Christ’s earthly ministry, or is it still awaiting fulfillment? “For what saith the Scriptures?”
John 1:51 should bring to mind the “Old Testament” reference we know as “the dream of Jacob’s ladder.” Some 1800 years before Christ, Jacob, living in the Promised Land, experienced the following in Genesis 28:10-15: “ And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.  And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.  And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;  And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”
In verse 12, Jacob witnessed a ladder extending from Earth to Heaven. He also saw the angels of God ascending and descending to Earth via that ladder. Notice they are not descending and ascending, but rather ascending from and descending to Earth. That is, planet Earth is the headquarters of God’s rule. This is the cross-reference to John 1:51: “And he [Jesus] saith unto him [Nathanael], 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.” Notice John has the same order as Genesis 28:12—“ascending and descending.” (We will return to this later. For now, observe how these two concepts are related.)
Why did Jacob have this dream? It was God confirming the Abrahamic Covenant to him, since Jacob was Abraham’s grandson (verses 13-14). This was the covenant God had first given to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, Genesis 13:14-17, Genesis 15:1-6, Genesis 17:1-19, Genesis 22:15-19). God then passed that covenant on to Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 21:12, Genesis 26:1-5). In the context of Genesis chapter 28, God has passed that covenant to Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:13-14). The bloodline of the nation Israel, and the bloodline of Messiah Jesus, is being formed here. Jacob will go on to have 12 sons, and these 12 men will become the 12 tribes of Israel (Acts 7:8).
We continue reading in Genesis chapter 28: “ And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.  And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.  And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.  And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.  And Jacob vowed 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 raiment to put on,  So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God:  And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.”
In verse 17, Jacob says, “How dreadful [awesome, magnificent] is this place!” He calls the place “Bethel” (its former name was “Luz”). The name “Bethel” means “the House of God,” “God’s House,” or “where God lives” (cf. verses 17 and 22). Furthermore, Jacob realizes the area he is living in is “the gate of heaven” (verse 17). The word “gate” here means “government” (cf. Genesis 19:1). Earth is the headquarters for God’s rule; His governmental powers in creation are centered on Earth. Jesus spoke John 1:51 in this light. In the Millennium (1,000-year earthly kingdom), the angels will ascend from Earth to Heaven, and descend from Heaven to Earth. They will report to and take orders from King Jesus Christ reigning in Jerusalem on Earth. The Lord Jesus will literally be ruling from David’s throne in Jerusalem on Earth (Isaiah 2:1-4; Joel 3:17; Zechariah 14:1-4,9,16-17; Luke 1:32-33; Revelation 5:10; Revelation 20:4,6; et cetera).
Remember, the purpose of the Abrahamic Covenant was for God to reign on the Earth in a kingdom. The redeemed nation Israel would be His kingdom of priests to evangelize the Gentiles. Those who had faith in the Abrahamic Covenant saw Jesus as Messiah/Christ/King in the Four Gospels, Him coming to set up their kingdom. These believers were the converts of John the Baptist in John chapter 1. Jesus said that, one day, they (Israel’s believing remnant) would see Him glorified on David’s throne (cf. John 1:51). This is yet future, still awaiting fulfillment. The Abrahamic Covenant has never been fully accomplished yet. Right now, it is momentarily stalled because, in this the Dispensation of Grace, God is forming the Church the Body without any covenants.
John chapter 1 actually contains various glimpses of the future. We see how believing Jews will reach other Jews with the message of Jesus being Christ/Messiah (see verses 40-46). Then, Israel undergoes a national conversion, and verse 51 is fulfilled. Notice how Jesus talked about “greater things” and “hereafter” in verse 51. “…[T]hou shalt see greater things than these [previous events]. And he [Jesus] saith unto him [Nathanael], 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.” Verse 51 is a future verse, even from our day. It has not been fulfilled yet so do not attempt to place it historically in Matthew through John. John 1:51, while not fulfilled at Christ’s First Coming, will come to pass at His Second Coming and subsequent 1,000-year earthly kingdom.