By Ian McFadden
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-10
Tearing heaven open. Now that’s a daring project.
Tearing heaven open, to me, conjures those delicious shafts of smoky sunlight that break through brooding clouds with some regularity in Tuscany or wherever painters hang out. But that’s because my worldview–and yours, I’m guessing–is more heir to the enlightenment Deists than it is to Hebrew cosmology. We live in a pretty disenchanted world. Even if we do believe in a magnificent and powerful Creator, his presence and activity are associated with supernatural events – glitches in the matrix of normalcy that we can’t otherwise explain. Our world, for the most part, is a natural one, suffering little interference from God.
But the Hebrews saw the world differently. The natural and the supernatural were much closer together. I’m not talking about animism or pantheism where all creatures are numinous, divine or even soulful. I’m talking about a world where a good and wise Creator constantly interacted with and intervened in the natural world of his creation. Supernatural events bore his fingerprints, but so did natural rhythms, normal phenomena and everyday occurrences. As Creator rather than creature, he wasn’t of the same stuff or even, necessarily, of the same way of being as his creation. He could be present constantly and always invisible. Interacting and manipulating but never leaving marks. At least not marks that you can find when your modes of inquiry are natural ones.
In the Hebrew mindset, the supernatural world (heaven) and the natural world (earth) were so closely bound up that they touched and, at points, whatever divided them was quite thin indeed. The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple was one such place. That’s why there were guards and priests, blood and altars, washing bowls and thick curtains. They were all there to mediate the touchpoint between two worlds.
In Heaven, the Creator’s wise, just, holy kingship was uncontested. On earth it was contested in every heart. And in some hearts, particularly those lodged in powerful people, the contest became not just spiritual but also structural. Kings, priests, scholars, and governors built around themselves laws, armies and cultures that resisted the grain of God’s kingship. They promoted injustice and avarice. They demoted holiness and mercy. They prized clout and coercion. They sold out the humble and the upright.
That’s why Isaiah pleaded that God would tear heaven open. “If You would but tear open the heavens and come down, So that mountains would quake before You…” Is. 64:1. He looked out over God’s people who were “like a people You never ruled,” at a Temple which lay in ruins, at “virtues like a filthy rag.” He was looking at a devastated and overrun Jerusalem. He was looking at earth. More than anything, the scene Isaiah surveyed begged for the Creator’s kingship to rip through and be unleashed and uncontested on earth, just as in heaven. But it didn’t.
At least not yet.
Until one day an unremarkable peasant from nowheresville up north stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by a man named John. The scene wasn’t that different than Isaiah’s. A different emperor in power. Different priests at the temple. Different leaders making laws. But the same contest against God’s kingship in every heart was being magnified in such similar ways that the date and the names didn’t really matter. It was the same scene. Except for the peasant from Nazareth.
When he came up out of the water, “he saw heaven being torn open” as the Spirit descended on him like a dove (Mark 1:10). It was happening at last! Isaiah’s gut-cry was being answered. Heaven was being torn open and God’s reign was pouring in. God’s just, good kingship invading into earth just like it is in heaven.
It wasn’t happening because the peasant from Nazareth had prayed any harder than Isaiah had. It was happening because he was God. When he said “follow me” and two fishermen and then two more dropped their gear and charged after him, his kingship was being exerted, heeded, uncontested on earth just like in heaven. When he said, “Be quiet! Come out of him,” and an evil spirit fled from within a man, it was happening.
It was happening–his reign was flooding in–when he healed a woman whose condition had isolated her. It was happening when taught “blessed are the poor” and when he commanded “love your enemies.” It was happening when he warned, “you cannot serve both God and money,” and “if you try to hang on to your life you will lose it.” It was happening when he required a lifeless body to live again. And it was happening when his own living body died.
That’s the second moment something gets torn in Mark’s gospel. Mark doesn’t make it sound like anyone else saw heaven tearing when Jesus was baptized. They missed that, they didn’t realize the gracious invasion had begun. But none of them would have missed the ripping of the temple curtain when Jesus died (Mark 15:38). The fabric between heaven and earth was torn and would not be repaired. The incontrovertible reign of God was rushing into the world of the everyday and he had brought it himself as a peasant from nowheresville.
The tear hasn’t been repaired.
God’s heavenly kingship in Jesus is still invading earth. Every time our hearts submit to his reign it’s happening. Every time his people pursue holiness, every time his people press justice and mercy against systemic evil it’s happening. Every time his name is proclaimed, his reign is renowned, his way is followed, his word is believed – it’s happening. Heaven is torn open and God’s kingship is coming.