Here is what I was able to get from the book (on CD-ROM), "Hard Sayings
Of The Bible". I don't necessarily agree with the author's conclusion
or application, but thought the information might be helpful in
providing some direction for your study of this passage:
ANGELS ASCENDING AND DESCENDING?
(JOHN 1:47 - 51)
What is meant by the angels "ascending and descending on the Son of Man"?
Nathanael was not talking about angels, although he had been convinced by
Jesus' prophetic insight into his life that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
Now Jesus responds to him, saying in effect, "You haven't seen anything
yet!" He goes on to describe the experience we find in this verse. What
does it mean to see heaven open? And why would it be significant to see
angels of God "ascending and descending" on Jesus? In fact, does it not
seem strange to talk about such beings coming down on top of a human
being like Jesus?
It is obvious that there is a change of audience in John 1:51. Up until
this time Jesus has been addressing Nathanael, and the pronoun you is
singular. In this verse Jesus speaks "to him" (singular) and says, "I
tell you (plural) _ you (plural) shall see_" In other words, within the
verse the focus shifts from Nathanael to the whole group of disciples.
Jesus is broadening his audience. It is not just Nathanael who will have
this experience, but the whole group of at least four of them.
What is it that the whole group will experience? The reference to angels
of God ascending and descending is probably a reference to Genesis 28:12:
"He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its
top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and
descending on it." The difference between "on it" and "on him"
(underlying John's "on the Son of Man") is not significant in that the
Hebrew could be translated both ways. In fact, in later Jewish literature
there is a discussion between Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yannai on this very
point (Genesis Rabbah 69.3 on Gen 28:12).
John's reference is wider than simply Genesis 28, for he also uses the
phrase "you shall see heaven open," which suggests the descent of the
Spirit at Jesus' baptism (Mk 1:10).
So what we have here is a complex picture. Heaven is open; there is a way
from heaven, the presence of the Father, to earth. That way ends in or on
the Son of Man, or Jesus. As Jacob comments in Genesis 28:17, "This is
the gate of heaven." All of this is said in a context of seeing greater
things than simply a prophetic word from Jesus, which is what Nathanael
had already received.
There is no place in John in which the disciples see literal angels
moving between heaven and earth, or heaven and Jesus. However, angels are
those who bring the divine presence and so are the divine intermediaries.
So the question becomes, "Where in the Gospel of John do we see the
divine presence revealed to the disciples?" The answer comes quite
quickly: in the next chapter.
In John 2:11 we read, "This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus
performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his
disciples put their faith in him." In the miracle of turning the water
into wine the disciples saw Jesus' "glory" revealed. This resulted in
faith. What was Jesus' glory? John has already answered that question in
John 1:14-18: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We
have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the
Father, full of grace and truth. _ No one has ever seen God, but God the
One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." John is
saying that the "glory" or reputation that belongs to the Father is seen
in Jesus. We could put it that Jesus is the window through which one sees
Jacob at Bethel sees a stairway to heaven and experiences the presence of
God. The disciples during Jesus' life did not literally see a stairway to
heaven, but they did experience the presence of God and commerce between
heaven and earth. They had this experience when they observed the signs
which Jesus performed and saw his "glory," which was the "glory" of the
Father. Nathanael had believed because of a prophetic word given by
Jesus. Both he and the other disciples would experience more than this:
they would experience Jesus as the "gate of heaven," the place where the
presence of the Father in heaven was expressed on earth. They saw this in
the signs which Jesus worked, and they responded with commitment (faith).
John picks up this theme in John 14:12, when he indicates that the
presence of the Spirit in the believer will make him or her into one who
can be even more of a window into heaven, the topic of another chapter.
At this point what we notice is that Jesus is the point of contact
between God and the world. In him there is traffic between heaven and
earth. That traffic is seen in his signs in which the presence of the
glory of the Father in him shines through. This, John is saying, calls
for belief. Nathanael committed himself to Jesus on the basis of what he
had; we have far more basis for committing ourselves than he did.
-- Peter H. Davids ("Hard Sayings Of The Bible")
Mark A. Copeland