The “Rending of the Heavens:” The Markan Critique of Modernity as a Basis for Hope

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Like Hosea, whose proclamation is translated into Greek in the LXX and rendered in English as “(The) beginning of the word of the Lord to Hosea (LXX),”[xvii] Mark proclaims that Jesus is the Christ who both expresses the Word of God as “Good News” and who bears or embodies the Word of God as “Good News.”  The eschatological time has come, it “is fulfilled” (vs. 15).  The rule of God is present. The only proper response is to repent or turn toward the message and the messenger as expressing the truth of reality and to believe or trust fully in the Good News of God – understood as both the content of the message and the character of the messenger.

This proclamation is set within the context of a complex history of promise and fulfillment.  The words from the “prophets” (Mark 1:2) seem to be an allusion to both Ex. 23:20 (LXX) and Mal. 3:1 (LXX)[xviii]  while verse 3 is from Isa. 40:3 (LXX).  These verses serve as reminders of the promise of one who would come and prepare for the dramatic manifestation of the LORD to his people.  Clearly, Mark understands John the Baptizer to be the one who prepares the way (vs. 4-8).

That Jesus is the one who announces the rule of God, who embodies the Good News, who defeats the “powers,” and whose sacrificial death not only redefines the role of Messiah but also provides the real victory over all that would destroy the God-established relationship and governance over human life and society is demonstrated in his faithfulness to the Spirit’s direction and his resistance to the temptations of Satan.  This very concise summary of the conflict between Jesus and Satan is the first expression in Mark of one of its dominate themes, that is, the theme of cosmic, spiritual conflict between Jesus and the “principalities and powers.”

The heart or center of the passage (vs. 9-11) is the linkage of the preaching and baptism of John with the obedience of Jesus affirmed in the apocalyptic theophany of the decent of the Spirit and the voice from Heaven which identifies this One as the “beloved son” of God.  Cate argues that the usual translation is best rendered: my only son.[xix]  This construction is used three times in Mark’s Gospel: 1:11; 9:7; and 12:6.  Each passage is significant.  Mark 9:7 contains several of the same features as 1:11 including a voice from heaven. Mark 12:6 lies in the heart of a parable of the Wicked Tenants in which Jesus emphasizes that the owner of the vineyard sent his “only” son to collect the fruit of the vineyard only after a number of slaves sent for the same purpose had been killed by the tenants.  Cate argues that Mark’s use of this word is influenced by the way LXX uses the term. This is especially evident in Gen 22:2, 12, and 16 where it is emphasized that Isaac is Abraham’s only son.[xx]  The use of “agapetos” in Mark 1:11 is profoundly significant.  The voice of God identifies Jesus as His only Son; not another slave but the Son, the incarnation of the King and Owner Himself.

The Baptism of Jesus provides a window into the Trinitarian and Christological meaning of the text.  The baptismal event is marked by the “heavens opening” (ESV) or “rending” and the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove.  A “voice came from heaven,” a Hebraic way of announcing the voice of God, saying “You are my only Son; with you I am well pleased”  These words are drawn from Ps 2:7, a coronation Psalm, and Isa. 42:1, the first of the suffering servant songs in Isaiah.

In the symbolism of this event, Jesus is pictured as identifying with all those who would seek a deeper and fuller relationship with God and as the unique Son of God who is now present and able to provide spiritual succor for those who suffer.  In this role Jesus is the fulfillment of the priestly function.

The Trinitarian understanding of God is also expressed in the symbolism of the anointing Spirit now manifested visibly on Jesus who proclaims with power the Reign of God.  Here, in this one event, Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the roles of prophet, priest and king.

Familiarity with this event prevents us from realizing the radical nature of this text.  Baptism was not an everyday occurrence.  The message of John challenged the sense of identity of the average Jew and called into question the role of the religious establishment.  Unmistakably, John evokes the prophets of old, especially Elijah, and breaks the perceived silence of God.  Everyone was talking, some were listening, and a few were responding to his call for repentance.  Into this charged situation comes Jesus.  He enters the water fully and is immersed.  The image is a radical one.  It is an embodiment of both birth and death.[xxi]

The imagery of Baptism easily can be seen as an embodied symbol of death, burial, and resurrection.  The Apostle Paul utilizes this symbolism in Romans 6.  Paul reminds the Romans that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” and so “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4 NRSV). Jesus, also, makes the connection between his baptism and the cross in Mark 10:38.  It also must be noted that the “rending of the heavens” or “splitting” in Mark 1:10 is linked to the “rending” or “splitting” of the veil of the Temple in Mark 15:38.  In all of these ways the Baptism of Jesus is linked to his death and resurrection.  The context in Mark has led interpreters, additionally, to suggest that Passover motifs are also woven into the connections between baptism and death and resurrection.  The splitting of the heavens is related by these interpreters to the splitting of the waters in the Exodus.[xxii]

Here the birth images have their place.  According to Jean Danielou, the catechetical lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem contain an argument in which the water of baptism is understood as both a tomb for the sinner and a womb from which the new person emerges in a new birth in Christ.[xxiii]  In this sense, the Baptism of Jesus serves as the “birth narrative” in Mark’s gospel.

The symbolism of the “splitting” of the Heavens may also point to other important meanings.  The Heavens can be seen in general terms as the structured cosmos.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Heavens are created by God and provide the God-ordained structure of reality.  Even the “heavens” tell of the “glory of God” (Ps.19:1 NRSV). In this sense the “Veil of the Temple” suggests a cosmological understanding.  The temple is the place where God encounters human beings in a direct way.  The veil serves as a symbol of the separation of earth and heaven: the realm of human life and the realm of God in Heaven.  Such a distinction and separation is inviolate.  The realms are distinct.  Human life and destiny are lived out within this cosmic reality.

In the broad sense, Hellenistic thought (both Greek and Jewish) included both physical and metaphysical dimensions in its understanding of the term, “heaven or heavens.”  It was the physical firmament that stretched above the earth and it was also the realm of the powers that exercised profound control over human affairs.  Even in Jewish thought, heaven could be used as a term for God and at the same time as a spiritual realm of multiple levels where the stars were symbols of the angels and the throne of God lay beyond the highest heaven.  There is even Jewish speculation concerning the transformation of both heaven and earth at the end of time.[xxiv]

The New Testament development of these concepts includes the idea that the heavens were a given aspect of God’s creation and any changes in their structure would indicate an eschatological or apocalyptic event of great magnitude.  Such a dramatic change would point to the fulfillment of the hope of Isaiah 61:1-2:

If only You would tear the heavens open and come down,

so that mountains would quake at Your presence –

as fire kindles the brushwood, and fire causes water to boil –

to make Your name known to Your enemies,

so that nations will tremble at Your presence!

The “heavens,” understood metaphysically contained many features which served to provide a cosmic structure to human life.  It is the nature of pre-modern conceptions of reality that the “heavenly” structures of reality dictate to the “earthly” structures.  Legitimation of earthly realities depends upon their approximation to heavenly realities.    The “sacred canopy” as Luckmann and Berger termed it[xxv] provides the model for all earthy institutional manifestations.  In classical cultures cosmic realities are organized in a hierarchy or series of values or levels that serve to shape the valuation of human institutions and behaviors on earth.  The interlocking nature of the cosmic structures provided for Hellenistic thought a compelling reason to believe in the determination of life by “fate” and the static and necessary nature of ultimate realities understood as the “forms,” or the “un-moved Mover,” or the “Logos.”