Four Pillars of Jacob
by Harry Foster
"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it." (Gen. 28:18).
There are two men in the Bible with whom we almost all feel a strange oneness and sympathy of heart. They are Jacob and Peter. Their experiences and characteristics seem so to tally with our own that we all find help and encouragement from hearing about them. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, both of these men were failures in themselves. We are conscious of our own failings and so find a kinship with them. Secondly, they were both greatly loved of the Lord, in spite of their failures; God was very patient and gracious towards them, and we are glad to be able to identify ourselves with them in this respect. Thirdly - and I hope that this is as true of us as it certainly was of them - they were wholehearted and downright in their history with the Lord. It was this thorough-going characteristic in Jacob which influenced him in setting up his pillars. We read of four such pillars which he erected in the course of his spiritual pilgrimage, each one of them representing a landmark in his own inner history. It sometimes took Jacob a long time to learn a spiritual lesson, but once the lesson was learned it became a governing factor in his life. He accepted wholeheartedly the implications of what God had shown him, and set up his visible testimony to the fact in a pillar.
The following are the four pillars: Revelation (Gen. 28:18), Separation (31:45), Transformation (35:14) and Resurrection (35:20).
Genesis 28 speaks to us of the first recorded occasion on which Jacob really committed himself in this way. He took the stone which had been under his head as he lay asleep and set it up for a pillar to mark the place where he had received a remarkable revelation from God. Peter likewise very early in his career had a Divine revelation, and in both cases the revelation was concerned with the same spiritual truth. Peter realised that the Lord was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Lord added to that by affirming, "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:16,18). In a spiritual way Jacob also saw Christ, the Rock, and was shown that the house of God is involved in knowing Christ in that way.
The Circumstances of the Vision
Think for a moment of the circumstances of the revelation. Jacob was utterly alone with God. All other voices were silent; all other influences removed; it was as though he was alone in the world - alone with God. That is true of all revelation. Peter was not literally alone, but he was the only one to perceive what he did, and the Lord Jesus said to him, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee," that is to say, 'thou hast not learned this from some other man.' Learning and studying the Bible is a general matter: revelation is individual. We all wish to learn as much as we can of the truth as contained in the Word of God, and we can do this together. But when the Lord opens our spiritual eyes to see a Divine truth, that is something peculiarly personal; we are alone in it. The matter is no longer one of theories and doctrines but a direct challenge to our own hearts. We see that which the natural man does not know, and our whole life is changed by what we see. The proof of revelation is the effect that it has upon our lives. This revelation to Jacob made a profound revolution in his life. He saw for himself the truth of God's house.
We are apt to think of spiritual revelation as the fruit of some long process of spiritual maturing, but this is by no means invariably the case. Both Jacob and Peter were at the very beginning of things when the light of Divine purpose first dawned upon them. We would say of Jacob that he was nowhere spiritually when this incident occurred.
That is not the language of a triumphant, spiritual giant, but only of a miserable and discredited fugitive. Nevertheless this is the very man whom God has singled out for revelation. I do not think that he was ashamed of what he had done, but doubtless he realized that everything had gone wrong. What, now, was the use of the birthright and the blessing? His mother, Rebekah, had been optimistic in advising him to flee to Laban "and tarry with him a few days." Jacob knew that his brother's anger would last for years. He knew nothing of the future - that he would prosper in the land of his exile. All he knew was that everything appeared to be lost. He had no home of his own. And that was when he was shown the house of God. When you have your own house and are getting on comfortably in it you may not be particularly ready to be enlightened as to God's house. No, this vision was not the reward of spiritual maturity but the answer to abject failure.
It may be that many do not appreciate Divine revelation just because they have no such sense of personal insufficiency or failure. The ability to plan and to prosper may blind men to God's highest purpose. The place of revelation may be the place of conscious failure and unworthiness. Thank God, He does not wait until we are worthy. Not that Jacob was particularly worried about his personal unworthiness at this time any more than Peter was when he received his revelation. The Lord, however, knew that one day each of them would realise - Jacob as he wrestled at Jabbok and Peter as he wept bitterly at Jerusalem - how utterly unworthy he was. It is one of the glories of God's grace that He shows us that which is dearest to His own heart, even though we are Jacobs and Peters.
A Vision of the House of God
Now as to the vision. You will notice in Genesis 28:14 that it was a vision of universal significance. We are apt to think that it was just something that concerned Jacob, since he was promised a blessing - "I am with thee, and will keep thee withersoever 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" (Gen. 28:15). But this experience was something far more than a personal encouragement to Jacob. God showed him what was His provision for the whole world, for all men, and all the nations. "In thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." It was as though God said to him, 'Jacob, what you are seeing is not just something that you are going to do - even that you are going to do for God. What you are seeing now is the key to the will of God in all the nations and for all time. It is the house of God.'
We talk of visions and revelations. How often we think in purely personal terms! - that the Lord is showing us what He is going to make of us or do with us, or what we are going to be for Him. The great men of God forgot themselves as the zeal of God's house took hold upon them. We who are so much less tend to think of revelation in terms of our own part in it, putting ourselves into the centre of the picture. Well, it is true that there is a place for us in the vision - there was a place for Jacob. God wanted and needed Jacob, but His real purpose was bound up with His house, from which all the nations were to derive their blessing and their life.
I am not sure that it was a ladder, as we think of ladders, that Jacob saw. It is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, so there is no means of comparing it with any other reference. It appears to be derived from a verb which speaks of that which is set up, which rises up. It may well be that what he saw was not at all a literal ladder, but some kind of sloping causeway joining earth and heaven. His stone the next morning symbolized for him what he had seen. In any case, John 1:51 shows us quite clearly that whatever the ladder looked like its spiritual counterpart is Christ - Christ set up as the great means of communication between heaven and earth.
This was set up on the earth at the place called Bethel. What is the significance of Bethel? It is that there is a place on earth which is wholly the Lord's. It is God's house. Of course the whole world is His, but this is peculiarly His, for here He is Lord indeed, He is supreme and all His rights are fully recognized. And what is more, everything which goes up to God from the earth must go up from Bethel. "The angels of God ascending..." It is not one of many ladders which may be found in various places. There is a specific and unique way by which all that comes up to God from man must ascend. Thus Jacob's eyes were opened to discover the house of God. Everything goes up from here. It is possible for us to do a lot of work, in activities here, there and everywhere, without much of it going up to God. Only that which comes through Christ can ascend to God. The whole point of Bethel is to insist that service must be Godward. That does not mean that service takes no account of the needs of men, but it insists that the true direction of service must be Godward even if it is expressed in manward activities. Thus it is that Peter reminds us that we are "...a spiritual house... a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5).
Similarly everything which comes down to man does so on this Divine staircase at Bethel. God speaks at Bethel, He speaks in His house. His is the only voice heard there. Of course, God spoke in all sorts of places and He does still, but the essential speaking of God - that is the meaning of the vision - comes down through Christ to His Church. In a world of men who do not know and cannot know the speaking of God the Church is God's means for making His voice heard. Alas, how many other voices may be heard in that which is called 'the Church'! However careful we may be to avoid a stereotyped form of Christianity it is very easy for us to provide an opportunity for the voice of men, the words of men, rather than the speaking of God.
Everything is kept living. Bethel does not mean that there is a place for God on the earth, fixed and detached, in which everything which is said must be of Him. No, there is a constant coming and going, that is to say a constant, living relationship with heaven. Bethel speaks of an opportunity for God so to manifest Himself that even a Jacob says, "How dreadful is this place." This means something more than a powerful sermon. It means much more than a mere accurate setting forth of Scriptural types and teaching. This humbled Jacob; this was God drawing near.
Bethel does not speak of a locality, as such, but of the spiritual truth of a people who are in living communication with God through Jesus Christ in a present and powerful way. That which can go up to God goes up from them, and that which God desires to do among men He is able to do through them. In them is found an expression of the authority, the will and the purpose of God; through them honour, glory and worship are presented to God in the name of Jesus Christ. Thus Jacob saw in type what is God's intention for His redeemed people.
A Present Divine Fact
And this is the remarkable thing about it - Jacob saw it not as an ideal which he was to try to bring about but as a Divine fact. It is striking to notice that at first he says "This is... the house of God" (verse 17) and then later, "This stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house" (verse 22). It will be because it is. Such a declaration would be absurd among men, but it is quite logical when we are dealing with spiritual terms. Divine revelation in this matter does not mean that we set to work according to a pattern to make something that will be the house of God, but rather that we seek to enter experimentally into what is already true in Christ. Such revelation shows us in a spiritual way what is already true of the Church in Christ, so that by faith we may say 'It shall be, because it is.' Jacob did not say that he would build the house of God because he had now understood what it should be like, for in that case it would bear the marks of Jacob, even though it were intended to be for God. No, he saw the true nature of the house of God and realised that he needed conforming to it. He would not make it, but it would make him. There is an important difference in these two views. That which men make, even in a sincere desire to reproduce the Church, the house of God, invariably conforms to the individuality of those concerned, bearing their marks and their name. Divine revelation as to the house of God makes us realise how much we need to be conformed to God's pattern in Christ. Like Jacob, we may know ourselves to be very different in nature, but like him we may prove how the Lord is able to break us and make us anew.
The great point about this revelation so far as Jacob was concerned was that he committed himself to it; he set up his pillar. The message of Jacob's first pillar is to call us to a wholehearted committal to what we have seen.
Effects of the Vision
The first effect of this vision on Jacob, a very necessary effect, was that it humbled him. "How dreadful is this place!" What he really meant was, 'I am not fit to be here.' Divine revelation will always make us very humble. There are those who claim to have revelation from God, but who are clearly inflated by what they know, and ready to lord it over others because of their supposed spiritual pre-eminence. Alas! they cannot really have met God; they merely have the knowledge which puffs up. We are so different in ourselves from what God shows to be His will for us in Christ, that we can only tremble as Jacob did, and confess our utter unworthiness. When he saw the house of God in vision he said, 'I am not fit to have anything to do with it; it is too big, too high and too holy for me. How dreadful is this place!' That is a very healthy reaction.
But the next reaction of Jacob, equally healthy, was to say, 'This may have been a dream in its beginning, but it is a revelation of Divine purpose to which God is committed, and I intend to make it quite manifest to everybody where I stand in the matter. I am committed to it.' It was in this spirit that he set up his pillar. Later on he would gladly have abandoned such a downright position. He was having a good time, he had lost his worries and fears, he had his wives, children and flocks, and was becoming rich and prosperous. Do you imagine that he was concerned about Bethel and that tenth which he had promised to the Lord? Not he! He would gladly have forgotten the matter, as we often try to do when our difficulties are surmounted and we are prospering in some way which is not so utter for the Lord. But God had not forgotten. Things began to go wrong in his relationship with Laban, and Jacob found trouble on every side. What was the matter? The Lord was forcing him to remember his experience of revelation and committal, and calling him back to that. "I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst a pillar, where thou vowedst a vow unto me; now arise and return..." (Gen. 31:13). The Lord is so faithful to His own revealed purpose that He will not allow Jacob to be at ease any where else than at Bethel. Jacob may have forgotten his pillar and his vows, but he meant them then, and God will hold him to them now, for he has seen Bethel and committed himself to its implications. It took years for the realisation, but it had to be. He could not rest anywhere else, nor belong to anything less. He might be miles from Bethel, nevertheless he belonged to it and the Lord was able to bring him there.
Jacob cannot constitute Bethel by his own efforts, but he must find his place in it. In fact, the whole point of the vision seems to be the appreciation of the spiritual fact of God's house. It is not what God is going to do; He has done it in Christ. Spiritually the day of Pentecost was the occasion when there was completed in Christ a people for His name. The Lord's people who are scattered and lonely, seeing no signs of a true expression of Bethel, should not get to work to try and form a little Bethel of their own but claim in faith the realisation of the vision of what is true in Christ. We must make it clear where we stand, but only the God of the revelation can bring us there. Bethel is a spiritual reality to which we must be conformed.
(c) God's Committal
Jacob's way of spiritual discipline brought much suffering, but it also brought rich blessing. At Bethel he received a promise. As Jacob set up his pillar in token of absolute acceptance of the revelation, he received the assurance that the Lord also was wholly committed to him, "I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever 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" (Gen. 28:15). It is for us to accept the vision, with all its implications, and the Lord will undertake to bring it about so far as we are concerned.
We must not behave as mere spectators in the matter of Divine revelation, admiring, discussing, rejecting, or postponing our decision. We, too, must set up our pillar, affirming thereby that whatever the cost we are committed to that which the Lord has shown us. And if we do that, God - the God of Jacob - assures us that He will be with us to bring us right in to the fulness of His purpose in Christ.