In Gen 28:12 we read that Jacob "dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it". The context of this passage is as follows. Jacob had deceived his father Isaac in order to get the blessing intended for Esau. What Jacob had done involved several serious sins, for he lied and deceived (cf. Lev 19:11), he coveted and stole his brother's blessing, he did not honor his father, and he took God's name in vain (see Gen 27:20). "And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob" (Gen 27:41). When Rebekah, the mother of Esau and Jacob, heard about it, she talked to Isaac about sending Jacob away, in the hope that the anger of Esau would subside and Jacob would then be able to return (Gen 27:42-46). So Isaac sent Jacob to Padan-aram, to the family of Rebekah, telling him to get a wife from there (Gen 28:1-5). Now, the wives of Esau were from Canaan and they were a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 26:35, 27:46, 28:8-9). So Jacob left to Padan-aram. On the way, in Bethel, he had the dream recorded in Gen 28. The age of Jacob at the time of Gen 28 can be estimated as shown in the article The Life of Jacob. Now, passages such as Gen 11:10-32 indicate that people lived much longer in those days. Their physical condition was not deteriorating as quickly as in our days. At the time of Gen 28 Jacob was just a few years above the mid-point of his life. He was about 77 years old. In the context of the lifespan of his forefathers, he was a rather young man.
(Gen 28:1) And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan.
(Gen 28:2) Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother's father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother's brother.
(Gen 28:3) And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people;
The phrase "multitude of people" in Gen 28:3 corresponds to a Hebrew phrase that is literally translated "congregation of peoples" or "assembly of peoples". This could remind one that "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 8:11). For "this is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face" (Ps 24:6)NKJVTM . "And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29).
(Gen 28:10) And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.
(Gen 28:11) And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
(Gen 28:12) And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
(Gen 28:13) And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
(Gen 28:14) And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
(Gen 28:15) And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
The Hebrew word translated "ladder" appears in the Bible only in Gen 28:12. Lexicons indicate that the meaning of this word is "ladder" or "staircase". Moreover, the corresponding Greek word that is used in the Septuagint can be translated either as "ladder" or "staircase". The passage itself indicates that what Jacob was seeing was a way that was broad enough to allow angels to ascend and descend on it at the same time. Thus, the meaning "staircase" would fit better in the context of this passage. We read that "the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it". This way between heaven and earth that Jacob saw is a symbol for Christ, as we learn from the following passage.
(Joh 1:49) Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.
(Joh 1:50) Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.
(Joh 1:51) And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
Based on Jn 1:51 we can see that the staircase that Jacob saw in the dream represents Jesus. Indeed, the ministry of angels would not be possible without Jesus, for grace comes by Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17). Now, angels are ministers of grace, being "sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb 1:14).
(Gen 28:16) And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
(Gen 28:17) And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
There are two possibilities. One is that Jacob was referring to what he saw in the dream when he spoke about "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven". The other possibility is that he was referring to his physical location. However, even if Jacob was referring to his physical location, he was saying these things because of his dream. If he called his location "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven", how much more would he have called thus the way between heaven and earth that he saw in his dream. It follows then that Jacob regarded the staircase that he saw in the dream as part of "the house of God" (the dwelling place of God) and also as part of "the gate of heaven". The fact that the words of Jacob were recorded indicates that they are significant. They can help interpret the dream. Then, what the staircase stands for, is also in a certain sense "the house of God" and "the gate of heaven". We read in the New Testament that Jesus is the gate (Jn 10:9). Moreover, since Jesus is the head of the church, which is the house of God (1Ti 3:15), he also is the house of God, for all believers are in him.
(Gen 28:18) And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
(Gen 28:19) And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.
(Gen 28:20) And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
(Gen 28:21) So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God:
(Gen 28:22) And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
Jacob set up the stone as a pillar, likely as a reminder of the staircase that was set up on the earth in his dream. Thus, the pillar represented the staircase. He poured oil on the top of the pillar (Ge 28:18) and said that it "shall be God's house" (Gen 28:22). The staircase represents Jesus. The oil poured on the top of the pillar can remind us that Jesus is the "Anointed One", the Messiah.
The context of this passage does not indicate that Jacob had this dream after doing some remarkably good works. On the contrary, this happened sometime after he committed a number of serious sins (Gen 27:18-30). At that time he did not know the Lord. It was after this dream that Jacob began to serve the Lord, as we read in Gen 28:21. In spite of the sins of Jacob, the Lord gave him the blessing and revealed himself to him. Thus, Jacob illustrates the point that "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us" (Tit 3:5) and that "we love him because he first loved us" (1Jn 4:19).