Angels Ascending and Descending
upon the Son of Man?
Expository Bible Studies │ ChristAssembly.org
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This short article concerns the prophecy found in John 1:51 to Nathanael. We will seek to answer a few questions: When will the prophecy about angels descending and ascending be fulfilled? What does it mean that angels will be ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? Where will Jesus be when the prophecy is fulfilled? We can begin with the context of the prophecy to Nathanael. I have provided my interpretations of the prophecy, which I find to make the most sense to me of all the verses. I understand that my interpretations are not air tight. I invite you to open your Bible and join the study. You can review the verses below and reach your own conclusions. I always enjoy Godly feedback concerning the Scriptures because I seek the truth always. As always, examine everything carefully, and hold on to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Jesus met Nathanael and told him: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” Jesus said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these. And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:48-51). Jesus made a specific prophecy to Nathanael about angels and the Son of Man. When, where and what will be the fulfillment of that prophecy? We have a few clues in the Bible that point to that time, place and events that fulfill that prophecy. Heaven will be opened, Jesus will descend with His angels, He will fight as on a day of battle, vanquish His enemies, set His feet on the Mount of Olives and then sit on His glorious throne in Jerusalem. He will send forth His angels to gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matthew 24:31). Likewise, He will send forth His angels and they will gather all the nations before Him as He sits on His glorious throne (Matthew 25:32; see Matthew 13:41). Therefore, the fulfillment happens at Jerusalem when Jesus returns to earth, and sends forth His angels to gather the elect and the nations and bring them back to Jerusalem for judgment as Jesus sits on His glorious throne. The angels ascend from Jesus at Jerusalem to go and gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other; the angels also gather the nations to Jerusalem. The angels descend when they return to Jerusalem with the nations and the elect. Apparently all angelic activity spread across the earth will be centered in Jerusalem, where Jesus sits on His glorious throne. We can examine the prophecy in more detail below. Before we start with the New Testament evidence, we may benefit from reviewing a similar passage in Genesis 28, Jacob’s dream about a ladder reaching up to the heavens.
Jacob’s Dream About a Ladder
As Jacob left his mother and father, he journeyed toward the house of Laban, his mother’s brother in Haran. While on his journey, Jacob slept outside and had a dream. In his dream, “a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” Jacob then heard from Yahweh speaking from the top of the ladder, am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob then awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I did not know it.” Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens” (Genesis 28:10-22). Several points emerge from the text about the prophecy to Jacob which relate to the prophecy to Nathanael in John 1. I have included verses outside of Genesis 28 that help us see how each point relates to the prophecy to Nathanael.
♦ The angels ascended and descended upon a ladder (Genesis 28:12 │Matthew 13:41, 24:31; Mark 13:27).
♦ The end of the ladder on earth was in Bethel and the other end was in the heavens (Genesis 28:12; Revelation 19:11).
♦ God declared: “I Am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13 │ Matthew 22:32).
♦ God promised: “The land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants” (Genesis 28:13 │ Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 24:34).
♦ God promised: “Jacob’s descendants would spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south” (Genesis 28:14 │Matthew 24:31; 25:32; Mark 13:27).
♦ God promised: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15 │Psalm 110:1-2; Daniel 7:11-14; Luke 19:12; Ephesians 1:18-22).
♦ God promised: “I will bring you back to this land” (Genesis 28:15 │ Zechariah 14:4; Acts 1:11).
♦ Jacob called that place the house of God (Bethel), the gate of the heavens (Genesis 28:17 │1 Kings 8:1-61; Zechariah 14:8-11).
Every one of the points above from Jacob’s Dream relate directly to the fulfilment of the Nathanael prophecy in John 1:51. Therefore, similarities between Jacob’s ladder and the prophecy to Nathanael seem apparent, but they are not the same prophecy. God fulfilled Jacob’s prophecy by bringing Jacob back into the land safely and his offspring continued to spread out across the world. Jacob said that the end of the ladder on earth sits at the place which he described as the house of God and as the gate of the heavens. In the Nathanael prophecy, we will see that the end of the ladder on earth sits in Jerusalem. In both cases, the other end of the ladder reaches up to heaven. When Christ returns to earth and sits on His glorious throne in Jerusalem, in that place will be the house of God, the throne of God and the gate of heaven.
The Call and Prophecy to Nathanael
Early in the public ministry of Jesus in the flesh, he went into Galilee and found Philip and said: “Follow Me.” Philip in turn found Nathanael and reported the news that Jesus was the One spoken about by Moses and all the prophets. Nathanael responded: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied: “Come and see.” As Nathanael approached Jesus, He said: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael said to Jesus: “How do You know me?” Jesus then revealed to him: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered: “Because I said I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” Jesus continued: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:43-51). God inspired every word in the original autographs of the Bible, and so the words always matter. Here, the context helps us understand the prophecy of Jesus to Nathanael: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Therefore, Nathanael was coming to see if Jesus was really the Messiah, spoken about by Moses and the Old Testament prophets. Nathanael wanted to see for himself.
Several points caught my attention. First, Nathanael called Jesus the Son of God, emphasizing the deity of Christ (John 1:49). Second, Nathanael said that Jesus is the King of Israel, recognizing Jesus as the prophesied King of Israel (John 1:49). Please recall that Philip had already identified Jesus to Nathanael as “Him whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote about–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). Nathanael came to see if any good thing could come out of Nazareth. Therefore, the titles Nathanael applied to Jesus related directly to the prophesy about the angels. So, let me summarize a few points about the prophecy to Nathanael and the titles Nathanael applied to Jesus by faith in Him.
♦ Philip identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, Whom Moses and all the prophets of the Old Testament wrote about.
♦ Philip then urged Nathanael to come and see if those prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.
♦ Nathanael came, saw, and heard Jesus speak to him.
♦ Nathanael identified Jesus as the Son of God.
♦ Nathanael identified Jesus as the King of Israel.
The prophecy to Nathanael related to those two titles, Son of God and King of Israel, as prophesied by Moses and all the prophets. We know that the prophecy to Nathanael also related to a future time when the Son of God will be the King of Israel, in the sense that Moses and the prophets wrote about Messiah. Please keep in mind that Nathanael was correct to identify Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel. At the moment Nathanael said those words, those things were true about Jesus. But we also need to review the prophecy to Nathanael in more detail. Jesus prophesied to Nathanael: “you will see greater things” and “you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). In this prophecy, the first “you [singular] will see greater things” was spoken to Nathanael individually. In the next phrase, “you (plural) will see the heavens opened,” meaning Nathanael and other people will see the heavens opened. Therefore, Nathanael personally will see greater things than Jesus seeing Nathanael under the fig tree. Plus, many people will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. In fact, the Sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven before He comes and many people will see the heavens opened (Matthew 24:30-31). Several points now tie that prophecy to the titles Son of God, Son of Man, King of Israel, and Messiah.
♦ You (individually) will see greater things.
♦ You (plural) will see the heavens opened.
♦ You (plural) will see the angels ascending.
♦ You (plural) will see the angels descending upon the Son of Man.
Therefore, the prophecy relates to a time in the future when the titles of the Son of God, the King of Israel, Messiah and the Son of Man will have special meaning. The implication is that what Nathanael was witnessing at the time would be eclipsed by greater things in the future. Notice especially the titles the King of Israel and the Son of Man. In John 18:36, Jesus told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore, we know that Jesus was indeed the King of Israel, but at that point the kingdom of Jesus was not of this world.
When will Jesus come back to reign as King of Israel? Zechariah prophesied: “And the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zechariah 14:9), speaking of the time when Jesus returns to earth to begin His Millennial Reign (Revelation 19:11; 20:4).
When will Jesus reign as Son of Man? Daniel prophesied: “I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven, One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14; see also Luke 19:11-15). Notice that Jesus will receive dominion, glory and a kingdom, so that all the peoples will serve Him. This passage describes the beginning of the Millennial Reign of Christ. Compare the prophecy Jesus made to Caiaphas, the high priest, who adjured Jesus to declare if He was the Christ, the Son of God: “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN” (Matthew 26:64). Notice that Jesus related the Son of God to the Son of Man. Jesus further elaborated that Caiaphas would see the Son of Man sitting a the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:63-64). We know that Jesus ascended into heaven, as David revealed: “Yahweh says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’ The LORD will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, ‘Rule in the midst of Your enemies'” (Psalm 110:1-2; see also Colossians 1:18-22; Psalm 2). In the future, Jesus will exercise on earth the dominion He received from the Ancient of Days by reigning from Jerusalem as Son of Man, Son of God, and King of Israel, just as He prophesied that Caiaphas would behold.
♦ Jesus prophesied that Nathanael and others will see the heavens opened.
♦ Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man.
♦ Jesus prophesied that Nathanael and others in the future will see angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man.
Heaven Opened and The Return of Christ to Earth
Jesus prophesied to Nathanael: “You (plural) will see heaven opened” (“ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα”). This phrase serves as a time marker. Seeing heaven opened will precede the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. Notice the singular here “heaven.” The only other occurrence of the same phrase “heaven opened” (“τὸν οὐρανὸν ἠνεῳγμένον”) occurs in Revelation 19:11, describing Jesus returning to earth to wage war: “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.” Therefore, we find support for placing the time of “heaven opened” as the return to earth of Christ to wage war. In passing we may also note that the heavens (notice the plural) opened at the baptism of Jesus and the Spirit like a dove was descending upon Jesus (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; see also Luke 3:21 (singular heaven)). Likewise, as Stephen was stoned to death, he saw the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. So, we may now try to see if Jesus meant that Nathanael and others would see Jesus coming back to earth to wage war and establish His Millennial Kingdom on earth. If so, then Nathanael would have died on earth before the prophecy would be fulfilled, as mentioned above. Of course, Nathanael would still be alive spiritually, with a resurrected body, when Jesus returns to earth (compare the prophecy to the disciples who will not see death until they see the Son of Man coming in Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27–(see The Kingdom of God and the Taste of Death). But Jesus also said that everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die, referring to age life (John 11:26; see also Matthew 22:32–see The Concept of Ages in the New Testament). After death on earth, Nathanael will be resurrected at the Clouds Resurrection of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, before the seven-year Tribulation begins. At the Clouds Resurrection Nathanael will come to the clouds of earth and will be among the first to receive a glorified body. In passing, please remember that Caiaphas will also see Jesus coming on the clouds with great power and glory (Matthew 24:30), but Caiaphas will see that sight from Hades, just as the rich man looked over the great chasm and saw Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:23). After the Clouds Resurrection, Nathanael will return to heaven for seven years, and then join Jesus as Jesus returns to fight against His enemies on earth. Having slain the armies, Jesus will set up His throne in Jerusalem and commence His Millennial Reign on earth (Zechariah 14:4). Therefore, knowing that all believers (including Nathanael) will reign with Jesus on earth (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:10; 20:4–compare the saints reigning in the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:5), we know that Nathanael will see the prophecy of John 1:51 fulfilled as he returns to earth with Jesus at the end of the age.
♦ Nathanael and others will first see heaven opened when Jesus returns to earth with His armies to wage war.
♦ Nathanael will have died on earth before he returns to earth with Jesus.
Jesus Sits on His Glorious Throne
In Daniel 7:13-14, the Son of Man (Jesus) will receive a kingdom from the Ancient of Days and His kingdom will not end (see also Luke 1:33). We also know that Jesus will sit on His glorious throne in Jerusalem after He wages war with His enemies after His descent described in Revelation 19:11 (see Zechariah 14:3-9). Therefore, it appears correct to say that Jesus prophesied that Nathanael would see Jesus as the heavens opened and Jesus descended to wage war against his earthly enemies (and their spiritual counterparts). Jesus will bind the devil in the abyss for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-2); likewise the beast and the false prophet were condemned to the Lake of Fire in Revelation 19:20. As the sign of the Son of Man appears in the sky, signaling His return to earth to reign, the Son of Man sends forth His angels to gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matthew 24:31). Likewise, the Son of Man sends forth His angels to gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness and throw them into the furnace of fire (Matthew 13:41-42). In the future, as Jesus sits on His glorious throne in Jerusalem (Matthew 25:31; Zechariah 14:5-9), the nations are gathered before Him consisting of believers and unbelievers. Jesus will separate them as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (see how Jesus explained the parable of the wheat (believers) and the tares (unbelievers) in Matthew 13). The sheep (believers) will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The goats, accursed ones (unbelievers), will depart from Jesus into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41–see Afterlife for more details). At this point, we now understand the foundation and timing of the prophesy to Nathanael. Now we can look more closely at the details of angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
♦ After Nathanael and others see the heavens opened, Nathanael will see Jesus descend from heaven with His armies to wage war on earth.
♦ Nathanael will see Jesus sit on His glorious throne in Jerusalem.
♦ Nathanael will have a glorified body and reign with Jesus for a thousand years on earth.
The Angels Ascend from Jerusalem
As we saw above, at the end of the age, the Son of Man will come back to the earth on the clouds of the sky with great glory. He then will send forth His angels to gather the elect alive on earth from the four corners of the earth, from one end of the earth to the other (Matthew 24:30-31). Also at the end of the age, Jesus will send forth His angels to gather out of His kingdom the wicked alive on earth, who are all stumbling bocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and they will be thrown into the furnace of fire (Matthew 13:41; 25:41). Therefore, the ascending of the angels refers to King Jesus sending forth the angels from Jerusalem to gather the elect and the wicked from their places all over the world. Apparently Jesus sends forth His angels and they ascend from Him, or more particularly, they ascend from Jerusalem as they go forth from Jesus at His command. Please keep in mind that the New Testament writers described people leaving from Jerusalem as “descending” from Jerusalem, because geographically Jerusalem occupied elevated land (see Luke 10:30 and Acts 8:26) and people going up to Jerusalem (“ascending”) (see Matthew 20:17-18, Mark 10:32-33; 15:41; Luke 2:22; John 5:1; 11:55). In my view, the angels were not traveling by roads on earth, but seemed to have the power to travel by other means as well. Therefore, although a geographical ascending and descending may be in view in the prophecy to Nathanael, I understand the prophecy that Nathanael and others will see the angels ascending will be fulfilled when heaven is opened and Jesus returns to earth and sends forth His angels to gather the elect and the wicked alive on earth, and those angels ascend from Jerusalem.
♦ Nathanael and others will see Jesus send forth His angels to gather the elect from all over the world.
♦ Jesus sends forth the angels from Jerusalem.
♦ The angels ascend from Jerusalem to gather the elect.
♦ Nathanael and others will also see Jesus send forth his angels to gather the wicked.
♦ Jesus also sends those angels from Jerusalem.
♦ The angels ascend from Jerusalem to gather the wicked.
The Angels Descend to Jerusalem
Once the angels ascend from Jesus and have gathered together the elect alive on earth from all over the world, and gathered the wicked alive on earth out of the kingdom of God, then the elect and the wicked appear as one group before Jesus as He sits on His glorious throne in Jerusalem. Therefore, the angels descending refers to the angels: (1) returning to Jerusalem with the elect from all over the world; and (2) bringing the wicked from all over the world to Jerusalem. Both groups appear before King Jesus as He sits on His glorious throne in Jerusalem (Matthew 25:31). In passing, we know that angels can physically pull a person to safety (Genesis 19:16).
♦ The angels Jesus sent forth to gather the elect and the wicked descend back to Jerusalem.
♦ The elect and the wicked appear as one group before Jesus as He sits on HIs glorious throne in Jerusalem.
The Sheep and the Goats
In the future when Jesus returns to earth as King at the consummation of the age, the angels sent by Jesus will gather the elect and the wicked (both alive on earth) before Him as He sits on His glorious throne in Jerusalem. The elect and the wicked will arrive at the throne of Jesus in Jerusalem as one mixed group, because Jesus then will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep (the elect) from the goats (the unbelievers) (Matthew 25:31-46–see also The Key to Prophecy). The elect will be gathered into the barn of Jesus (Matthew 13:30), and they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34), and there they will shine forth in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43). In contrast, Jesus will command the wicked, accursed ones, to depart from Him into the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (see Afterlife for more details).
♦ Both the elect and the wicked will appear as one group before Jesus sitting on His glorious throne in Jerusalem.
♦ Jesus will then separate the sheep (believers) from the goats (wicked).
♦ The elect will inherit the kingdom of their Father prepared for them from the foundation of the world and they will shine forth with Jesus during His Millennial Reign upon the earth.
♦ Jesus will command the wicked to depart from Him to the furnace of fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Nathanael and others will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. In my understanding, this prophecy will be fulfilled when Jesus sends forth His angels to gather both the elect and the wicked; those angels ascend from Jerusalem, where Christ returns to earth. Then those angels descend back to Jerusalem having gathered both the elect and the wicked. As one group they will appear before Jesus as He sits on His glorious throne, and King Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. Nathanael will see all of these events because he will return with Jesus from heaven to earth with Jesus and will reign with Jesus during the Millennial Reign of Christ on earth. All the points outlined above regarding the dream of Joseph all come true in the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus to Nathanael. Today believers long to see Jesus sitting on His glorious throne and reign upon the earth; all unbelievers should fear that day. If you have doubts about your relationship to God, repent by turning to Jesus today for salvation by grace through faith in Jesus while it is still today, the day of salvation. Jesus loves you and does not seek for anyone to perish, but for all to repent and receive from Him eternal life. I urge you to have peace with God.