Ascending and descending angels

William Blake’s 19th century painting, “Jacob’s Dream,” depicts angels ascending and descending a staircase to heaven. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a similar depiction, claiming the angels will ascend and descend “on the Son of Man.”

After Jesus called Nathaniel to be his disciple, Jesus said to him, “You will see greater things than this. And he said to him, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’” (John 1:50-51).

What a strange thing to say! First, what is Jesus talking about when he speaks of angels “ascending and descending on the Son of Man?” And second, when did Nathaniel and the rest of the Apostles see this fulfilled?

The background to Jesus’ statement comes from Genesis 28:11-19. Jacob was traveling to Haran when he decided to pitch camp at a certain shrine. Placing a stone from the shrine under his head as a pillow, Scripture says, “Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s messengers were going up and down on it. And there was the LORD standing beside him and saying: ‘I, the LORD, am the God of your forefather Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants’ … When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he exclaimed, ‘Truly, the LORD is in this spot, although I did not know it!’ In solemn wonder he cried out: ‘How awesome is this shrine! This is nothing else but an abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!’” (Genesis 28:12-13, 16-17).

The place was called Bethel (house of God). Where exactly was this spot? No one is certain. Augustine and others believed that it was the spot where the future Temple was built, and there are good reasons for this belief. The Temple was literally “God’s house” because God’s presence dwelt in the Temple.

What’s interesting about Jesus’ words is that the angels are said to ascend and descend, not upon the ancient shrine or the Temple, but upon the Son of Man. This brings us to the second mysterious item in this passage: who or what is the Son of Man?

The term “son of man” is often used in Scripture simply to denote a person. But there is another and more significant way that it is used. In book of Daniel, the Son of Man is a figure who comes on the clouds of heaven to the Ancient One and receives universal dominion (Daniel 7:13-14). Since Jesus is the Son of Man (Mathew 26:64; Mark 14:62, 16:19; Acts 7:56; Revelation 14:14–16), what does it mean that the angels “ascend and descend” on him?

The figure is called the “Son of Man,” yet he appears to be divine in that he is enthroned with the Ancient One and given universal dominion, which really belongs to God alone (Daniel 7:9, 14). But what do the angels ascending and descending tell us about him?

Augustine gives us an important insight: “If they ascend to him precisely because he is on high, how do they descend to him if he is not also here?”

When God became flesh and dwelt among us in the Incarnation, the angels ascended to him because he is the Most High God, higher than the highest angels. Yet, as Augustine says, the angels also descended on the Son of Man because he is here on earth. The Incarnation gives us all sorts of wonderfully strange paradoxes such the angels descending from heaven to praise the Most High God, and angels ministering to God, not before his throne in the highest of heaven, but in the desert (Mark 1:13).

This mystery of the Incarnation continues today in the Mass. In the liturgy, we recognize that we are surrounded by angels and we sing hymns to God, like the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), just like the highest angels sing before the throne of God (Revelation 4:8, cf. Isaiah 6:3) and we also sing the Gloria. Why? Because Christ is present on our altar, and where God is, there is his heavenly court. It is in the Mass that the angels ascend to the Most High by descending here to our liturgy.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at