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In John 1:51, Jesus tells Nathanael that he will "see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man".

John 1:49-51 (ESV)
49 Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe? You will see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

What were these things and how did Nathanael see them?

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I presume this is referring to "greater things than these"? –  lonesomeday Oct 18 '11 at 16:07
    
It sounds like it's referring to "see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man", per the first line. –  Richard Oct 19 '11 at 17:37

5 Answers 5

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It's good to begin by asking what things Nathanael has already seen. Two things seem to be in view: 1) a sign of Jesus' supernatural knowledge, and 2) that Jesus is the "Son of God" and "King of Israel". This sets up our expectation for the sort of things that Nathanael might see.

Verse 51 seems to immediately articulate the "greater things than these". Nathanael will see "heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." But what do these things mean?

There are several other instances in the Bible where someone sees heaven open: e.g. Ezekiel 1:1, Mark 1:10, Acts 7:56. In each of these instances, the person has a vision that accords some greater divine reality. Since this verse comes immediately on the heels of 49-50 where Nathanael declares Jesus the Son of God and King of Israel, it would make sense for this vision of divine reality to confirm a greater understanding of Jesus as Messiah. But how? Jesus' statement in verse 51 suggests two facets of this new understanding:

First, the phrase "the angels of God ascending and descending" links Jesus' statement back to Jacob's dream in Genesis 28. In that story Jacob himself glimpses a new reality. He says, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." In connecting himself to this, Jesus is perhaps indicating that what Jacob saw, Nathanael will soon see in the Son of Man: namely, the presence of the I AM, the "house of God" and the "gate of heaven" (cf. John 8:58, John 2:19-22, John 10:1-9).

Second, the title "Son of Man" suggest another reality that Nathanael does not yet understand about Jesus. While Nathanael has declared Jesus to be Messiah in 49, the terms he uses - "Son of God" and "King of Israel" - are highly political. But the title Jesus uses - "Son of Man" - is less so. At present, Nathanael likely understands Jesus' messianic purpose in a political way. By changing titles, Jesus gives indication that Nathanael will come to understand Jesus as Messiah in a very different way.

In summary, what Nathanael will see is a deeper reality and confirmation of who Jesus is as Christ and King so that he might believe. How he will see it is unfolded in the signs given across the rest of the book (cf. John 14:11) beginning with the wedding in Cana where he performed "the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him" (John 2:11) and climaxing in the sight of the risen Jesus in John 20:29 - "Because you have seen me, you have believed."

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The ref to Jacob's ladder is right on. Cullam has the pun Cel'im which would be 'clefts in the rock'. The parted seas, torn veil, and cleft of the rock all symbolize the cross. One climbs a cliff through the clefts. Nathaniel saw the crucifixion. –  Bob Jones Oct 20 '11 at 5:01

I think it's on Jesus future on how he would be cruxified and then become the ladder reconciling heaven and earth

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. We're a bit different from other sites. Could you flesh this answer out more and add some sources, please? –  Frank Luke Oct 9 at 13:11
    
Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. –  Paul Vargas Oct 9 at 14:09

The background to Jesus's promise to Nathaniel to reveal Man's reconciliation to God.

The Problem Death: Separation from God

Adam and Eve are separated from God as a result of falling to the temptation of the serpent, in disobedience to God.

God's solution for Man's redemption

Resuscitation: God acts to bring back His children, make them ”alive”, which can happen only by being in Him.

Details of redemption progressively revealed

God curses the serpent, the selfish drive, prophesying its elimination by Eve's offspring, removing the obstacle to redemption, by nailing to a pole.

Abraham's obedience to God's instruction to leave his country gains him much favour, enough even to earn him the overlooking of the infraction of the Abhimelech and Ishmael incidents. God is so pumped up He assigns the role of redemption of the world to Abraham's seed, a son of Man. His promise to redeem the world, to bruise the serpent's head, will involve Eve's seed, now narrowed down to Abraham's seed.

The world will be blessed through Abraham's offspring, but how? Logically, it would involve the reversal of the curse on Adam, and getting his race back on track to the original mission of subduing creation, breaking the horse, making it fit for service.

Jacob sees the shape of that redemption: it will involve a gate to heaven, access to God, for the purpose of forgiveness, restitution, rehabilitation, empowerment, a staging area for the restoration of the prodigal!

Further details not present in the text.

The house will be built by Abraham's Seed. It will model God's requirements:

  1. Fruit: it will display the result of obedience (benefit: Isaac not Ishmael)
  2. Root: it will display the source of the fruit (Benefactor: God not Abraham)

This will turn the world to God (Rahab). The world is blessed.

The motif is revealed throughout the OT: to be rescued, one must board Noahs ark, gain entry to Moses's Tabernacle, Solomon's Temple, Israel's Jerusalem. Sanctuary is to be found there, and only there, because that is where Heaven and Earth meet, where God and Man can be reconciled.

Each combination pair of Man and Sanctuary potentially could be used by God to fulfil His promise of using man as a partner in the rehabilitation of Creation, and each had its limitation, even in its best iteration, when God agreed to dwell amongst His people in a building, in a discussion with David. In that building could be found forgiveness of sin, restoration to fellowship, empowerment to act on the behalf of God: through these blessings, the world would be moved to turn to God, fulfiling the promise made by God to redeem it.

How Israel failed

First, Israel tried to produce fruit without displaying the Root:

Romans 9:32-33 NET Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but (as if it were possible) by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, “Look, I am laying in Zion a stone that will cause people to stumble and a rock that will make them fall, yet the one who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Then, it tried to change the fruit:

Romans 2:6-8 NET He will reward each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.

Matthew 23:23 NET “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others.

Israel's disobedience resulted in its failure to participate in the fulfillment of that promise:

Hebrews 10:4 NET For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins.

How Jesus succeeded, led Abraham's Seed, and the world, to rest (sanctuary)

The sanctuary had to be maintained. It had to be ”prepped”:

2 Kings 17:25-28 NET When they first moved in, they did not worship the Lord. So the Lord sent lions among them and the lions were killing them. The king of Assyria was told, “The nations whom you deported and settled in the cities of Samaria do not know the requirements of the God of the land, so he has sent lions among them. They are killing the people because they do not know the requirements of the God of the land.” So the king of Assyria ordered, “Take back one of the priests whom you deported from there. He must settle there and teach them the requirements of the God of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had deported from Samaria went back and settled in Bethel. He taught them how to worship the Lord.

Mark 11:17 NET Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!”

Quote describing the real rest, where to abide, from Frame-Poythress Article

We may return to the same conclusion that we reached before: the sacrifice of animals is inadequate to achieve final cleansing, nor can it cleanse anything more than the copies of heavenly things. Then who will bring the definitive sacrifice? A man must do it. A similar point is made indirectly in Num. 35:33-34: "Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites." When a man had shed blood, the man must die. But there is one exception, when the blood of the death of the high priest releases a manslaughterer to return home (Num. 35:25-28). The blood of the high priest has special value. In agreement with this principle, Zech. 3 uses all the symbolism of a defiled human high priest Joshua and then speaks mysteriously of the Branch in connection with which "I will remove the sin of this land in a single day" (Zech. 3:9)

Nathaniel was promised he would see the Gate of Heaven:

Mark 14:58 NET “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands.’”

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The other answers are quite good, but I have a somewhat different perspective. Nathanael and the other disciples of Jesus will see, witness and take part in Jesus's ministry on earth, depending on the Lord Jesus' love, power and authority. There are indeed the angels or messengers of God.

If you take angels as literal meaning, they will be involved mostly invisibly in Christ's ministry, starting with birth, teaching, preaching, healing, his suffering, temptation, death, resurrection, ascension and coming back. For example, angels in heaven rejoice at the repentance of a sinner. You may find other scripture references such as angels are ministering spirits, serving those who will inherit the salvation or kingdom of God (Hebrews 1).

Either Jesus' disciples or the literal angels do the things of God for His glory, relying on God's power.

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There are several ways to consider this but I think this quote from Matthew Henry is concise and describes the options well.

John 1:43-51 You shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

(a.) Some understand it literally, as pointing at some particular event. Either,

[a.] There was some vision of Christ's glory, in which this was exactly fulfilled, which Nathanael was an eye-witness of, as Peter, and James, and John were of his transfiguration. There were many things which Christ did, and those in the presence of his disciples, which were not written (ch. 20:30), and why not this? Or,

[b.] It was fulfilled in the many ministrations of the angels to our Lord Jesus, especially that at his ascension, when heaven was opened to receive him, and the angels ascended and descended, to attend him and to do him honour, and this in the sight of the disciples. Christ's ascension was the great proof of his mission, and much confirmed the faith of his disciples, ch. 6:62. Or,

[c.] It may refer to Christ's second coming, to judge the world, when the heavens shall be open, and every eye shall see him, and the angels of God shall ascend and descend about him, as attendants on him, every one employed; and a busy day it will be. See 2 Thess 1:10.

(b.) Others take it figuratively, as speaking of a state or series of things to commence from henceforth; and so we may understand it,

[a.] Of Christ's miracles. Nathanael believed, because Christ, as the prophets of old, could tell him things secret; but what is this? Christ is now beginning a dispensation of miracles, much more great and strange than this, as if heaven were opened; and such a power shall be exerted by the Son of man as if the angels, which excel in strength, were continually attending his orders. Immediately after this, Christ began to work miracles, ch. 2:11. Or,

[b.] Of his mediation, and that blessed intercourse which he hath settled between heaven and earth, which his disciples should be degrees be let into the mystery of. First, By Christ, as Mediator, they shall see heaven opened, that we may enter into the holiest by his blood (Heb 10:19,20); heaven opened, that by faith we may look in, and at length may go in; may now behold the glory of the Lord, and hereafter enter into the joy of our Lord. And, Secondly, They shall see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man. Through Christ we have communion with and benefit by the holy angels, and things in heaven and things on earth are reconciled and gathered together. Christ is to us as Jacob's ladder (Gen 28:12), by whom angels continually ascend and descend for the good of the saints.

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