One of the most common evangelistic tools is a simple drawing of two cliffs with a chasm between. On one cliff is a figure representing the sinner, and on the other a figure representing God. What can span the chasm of our sin? A cross, dropped neatly in place to serve as a bridge between the sinner and God.
No doubt, this simple illustration has been used to great benefit, but allow me for a moment to make a mountain out of a molehill. Instead of a bridge between two level planes, the gospel is better understood as a matter of ascension, descension, and condescension.
Remember when Jacob dreamed about a ladder with angels ascending and descending? That ladder offers a better picture for how we think about salvation. A closer translation for the word “ladder” in Genesis 28:12 (ESV) is “stairway” (NIV). Jacob sees a series of steps—a stairway to Heaven, so to speak—with angelic mediators passing back and forth between God and man.
Scholars believe Scripture describes a commonly recognizable image for the original audience of Genesis: a ziggurat, or pyramid-shaped tower of steps that the ancients erected as a means to ascend to a deity.
The Bible even mentions one such tower “that reaches to the heavens” in Genesis 11, the famous Tower of Babel. Its builders intended to climb up to God on their own terms, but God frustrated their efforts.
In Jacob’s dream only a few chapters later, the same image is repurposed to tell a heavenly truth. We need not wonder what it is, for, conveniently, Jesus interprets it for us in John 1:51: “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
The span between God and man is not horizontal, requiring a bridge, but vertical, requiring a stairway of miraculous length. Indeed, our stairway to heaven is not a “what” but a “who.” It is Christ himself, who lays down his life to span the distance between God and man, a distance no human could ascend on his own merit or effort.
But Christ is not merely the stairway, he is also the perfect mediator, superior to angels in his descending and ascending. “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?’” (Heb. 1:13). In the incarnation Christ descended to Earth. The sinless Son condescended to take on human flesh. And having suffered, died, and raised from the dead, he ascended to the right hand of the Father.
In the hour of his martyrdom Stephen bears witness to the fact of the ascended Christ: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
God is not waiting across a bridge, hoping we will look to our right. He is seated enthroned on his holy mountain, with Jesus at his mighty right hand. Like Stephen, all who would come to him must look not left or right, but heavenward. It is this habit of looking horizontally for our help that has landed us in our predicament in the first place. It makes a molehill out of a mountain.
In his descension, condescension, and ascension, Christ has made vertical peace between God and man, opening the way to Heaven for all who call upon his name. In Psalm 24, the psalmist asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” He answers his own query with, “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” In other words, no one born of Adam. In other words, it is Christ who may ascend the mountain of the Lord, and Christ alone. The one who may ascend is the one who descended, the one who condescended to us.
Our salvation was not a transactional matter of a horizontal fix. We are those who have been rescued from a vertical drop. Our salvation comes not from someone on our level, but from someone infinitely above it. How great his condescension! How high and wide and long and deep. And so we confess the source and location of this salvation: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.”
Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher with a passion to see women become committed followers of Christ. She is the author of Women of the Word, In His Image, and None Like Him.