In just three verses, Mark describes the baptism of Jesus. It is a story which opens up more questions than it can possibly answer. Did Jesus need a baptism for repentance? Does the voice from heaven announce a new reality, or merely make clear what has always been true? What does Jesus make of what the voice says? Does anybody else hear it? Does the descent of the Spirit like a dove mean that Jesus receives the Spirit from the Father at that time, or is it a sign that the Spirit has always be upon him?
But, at the same time, in just three verses, this story provides the context for understanding everything else which Mark will recount in the rest of his gospel, everything else about Jesus’ life and death. The voice from heaven, the voice of God, makes it very clear that, in everything Jesus will subsequently say or do, humanity is encountering the words and work of God.
How so? Mark, as indeed do all the Gospel writers, presents Jesus as the decisive turning point in God’s dealings with humanity. There was a time before the incarnation and there is the time after the incarnation. That moment in history changed everything. And John stands as witness and interpreter of it. He links Jesus to God’s promises to Israel in the past and he points forwards to God’s intervention in human history, God’s conferring of new hope for humanity.
And John serves as a reminder too that the gospel is down to earth, is grounded in the reality of life, life which often is not pretty. Hence the description of John himself, crudely clothed, eating bugs, talking about ordinary things like untying sandals. How much more grounded than that can you get? It’s a timely reminder that faith is not to be thought of as ethereal or otherworldly or abstract. It is real and it is about reality. At a point in Israel's history, between a troubled past and uncertain future, John witnessed to the Messiah coming. It is into this same reality of our own lives, of troubles in the past and worries for the future, that God is incarnated through faith.
On the day in question, Jesus appears, unrecognised, among the crowds listening to John, receiving his baptism. Why was he there? Some have speculated that Jesus was a disciple of John’s before taking up his own ministry after John’s arrest. In Mark’s mind, Jesus’ appearance was a sign both of humility and authority, of the authority which comes through authentic humility. It was a sign that Jesus was identifying fully with sinful humanity, which God had sent him to save.
Patiently, he waits his turn, and when it comes, there's no protest of unworthiness from John as there is in Matthew’s Gospel. Rather, Mark focuses his attention entirely on what happened when Jesus came up from the water. He describes the heavens been torn apart and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descending.
What are we to make of this tearing of the heavens? I think we’d be wasting our time if we tried to speculate about what it might have looked like, of what might have caused it. I'm convinced that this is a metaphor; and what Mark is trying to convey is the truth that, in Christ, the barrier between heaven and earth is breached. God had come to earth to make the way for us to go to heaven. It is a metaphor to which Mark would return.
Whether a voice was heard by one or by many does not matter. It is a sign too, and one which is even more important than the visual signs. On one word hinges the whole gospel – the word “Son”.
You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.
These are words which would be repeated at another crucial juncture of Jesus’ life, at his Transfiguration, and the principal word – Son – will crop up too at critical points in the story which Mark has set out to tell.
We get no sense of it now, but with each repetition, we build the sense that this word – Son – is actually a dangerous word. At first, we do not hear it from the lips of humans. It is from the mouths of demons that it is heard. The sonship of Christ is so powerful that, through it, he can overcome all manner of evil, and the unclean spirits which Jesus banishes are instructed to keep silent about his identity. As Jesus stands trial before the high priest, it is his acceptance of the title "Son of Man" that fatally convicts him of blasphemy. As he hangs on the cross, his last breath just gone from his body, we hear the confession of the centurion, "Surely, this man was the Son of God,” – the first time it is said in the gospel with awe, wonder and faith, rather than hatred and fear, by a human being. And at that time too, there is a rending, at tearing, this time of the veil of the Temple, as Jesus gives back to God the Spirit that had descended upon him. The title proclaimed at the Jordan was confirmed on Calvary.
For Jesus, the baptism in the Jordan is the beginning of the journey of sonship, and it begins to reveal what that status means and what that journey will entail. It is a journey begun in humility, a journey of obedient suffering. This is what being the Son of God means. It means accepting suffering, even to death, that humanity might be saved and death itself defeated.
It is a status and a journey which ultimately reveals God. That is the meaning, I believe, of the rending of the heavens and the rending of the veil of the temple. They are signs that, in Christ, we come face to face with God. No longer is God hidden from his creation. No longer do those who see God fear that they will die. Now those who see God live to all eternity. No longer does God remain hidden in the heights of heaven but God descends to the depths of earthly life, in order that we time-bound creatures may enter eternity, and we mortals may enter immortality.