The Heavens are Torn

How Jesus' baptism marks the start of a new era

I hope you all have been having a lovely June! The cicadas just arrived in my backyard and no, I will not be eating them. This month’s newsletter looks at Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, and the meaning of the torn heavens.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The Heavens Torn Apart: Mark 1:9-12

In my last newsletter, we saw that John the Baptist is associated with the wilderness. The wilderness is full of symbolic significance as the place God meets with his people, away from the distractions of civilization.

Now we come to Jesus’ baptism.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Depending on your translation, you might be used to seeing the phrase, “He saw the heavens parting” (NKJV) or “He saw the heavens opening” (NASB). Matthew and Luke use these gentler phrases in describing Jesus’ baptism. The word Mark uses here is much more violent.

Where have we seen this striking image of the heavens being torn open before?

Isaiah 64 begins with this desperate plea to God:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
    that the mountains might quake at your presence—
 as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    and that the nations might tremble at your presence! -Isaiah 64:1-2

The Greek word Mark used (σχίζω) is reminiscent of Isaiah’s choice of words in this passage, and it seems likely that Mark had Isaiah 64 in mind when he wrote his account of Jesus’ baptism. Mark intended us to picture, as Isaiah first did, Yahweh ripping open the heavens as He returns to His people. Nature itself responds violently to the inbreaking presence of God. The mountains shake, fires flare, and the nations know that Yahweh is the one true God. The very fabric of reality is changed as the Father tears through the veil of sin that lay over the world.

Then the Father spoke from heaven to acknowledge the legitimacy of his Son— the Incarnated Word— as the crown prince. Jesus wouldn’t ascend to the throne formally until his ascension, but at this moment the Father acknowledged Jesus as the True Son, the future King.

Jesus’ baptism marked the long-awaited return of God’s presence to his people. Isaiah, along with the other Old Testament prophets, longed to see God reunited with his people. For many years, this was impossible. God’s people lived and died in exile and longing while God waited for the fullness of time to come.

When Jesus saw the heavens torn open, he saw the beginning of a new era. Through his imminent death on the cross, the veil separating God and man would be permanently torn. God’s people would once again draw near without shame or fear, knowing that Jesus had eliminated every hindrance that separated them from the Father.

Listen

This beautiful setting of Psalm 114 is one of the oldest sacred melodies that has survived; it can be traced back to the music sung in ancient Hebrew temple worship! Psalm 114 celebrates Israel’s rescue from Egypt. The Psalmist imagines how nature itself would respond to the terrifying presence of the Lord. I thought this piece would be the perfect complement to the meditation above.

Here is the full text of this chant version of the Psalm.

When Israel came out of Egypt,
   the house of Jacob from among a strage people,
Judah was His sanctuary,
   And Israel his dominion.

The sea looked it and fled;
   Jordan was driven back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
   And the hills like young sheep.

What aileth thee O sea, that you fled?
   And O Jordan, that you thou are driven back?
Ye mountains, that you skip like rams?
   And ye little hills, like young sheep?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
   at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the hard rock into a standing water,
   and the flintstone into a springing well.

More of This, Please

Ever wonder what sand looks like under a microscope?

I am just finding out that dinosaurs still exist and they make unbelievable sounds.

A pygmy marmoset discovers an insect and it is adorable.

If you read last month’s newsletter, you might remember that I highly recommended Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. I just found out that Joy Clarkson is hosting a book club on the novel! It is free and open to anyone who wants to join. I have enjoyed Joy’s podcast in the past as well as her book club last summer. Check it out if you’re interested, and take a look at Joy’s excellent writing and podcasting while you’re at it.

What I’m Reading

Heretics, Chesterton. This gem is often overlooked but it is well worth the read. In each chapter, Chesterton takes a thinker or an idea from his time period (1905) and demonstrates their inconsistencies and absurdities. Watching Chesterton pull apart ideas is immensely fun, but also encouraging. We have our own spate of heresies today, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is nothing new, and nothing to fear. I personally prefer to read physical books, but Heretics is also available to read online for free here.

Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis. Even more convicting and rightly disturbing than I remember. Lewis understands our capacity for self-deception like few other authors I know. If you feel that you have lost sight of the daily Christian struggle against temptation, this book is a great place to start!