READ : Mark 1:9-11
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11 rsv
I belong to a group that meets about once a month to study a book which we all have committed ourselves to read. Not long ago the book we considered was one that I had just written. As you can imagine, that gathering was an especially exciting one for me. The members of the group were going to be talking about something I had labored on for years, about my work. I especially valued their input because of the kind of persons they are. For one thing, they are intelligent and discerning, well equipped to evaluate literary content and style. More than that, they are good, upright people, whose reactions and opinions I greatly respect. Best of all, they are good friends who know me and care about me. How eager I was that night to hear what they would say!
All of us, I suppose, appreciate reliable feedback about who we are and what we do. We like it especially when fine people like these friends of mine tell us what they think. What if it were possible to know what God thinks about us? What if we could have His verdict, His evaluation, on our lives? What if there could be some voice from heaven in which the Almighty would say, “This is who you are, this is how I feel about you and the life you have lived.” That would be the ultimate in feedback, wouldn’t it? Here’s the One who knows everything about us. Here’s the One whose judgments are infinitely right and good. Yes, and here’s the One who loves us most and best.
In the Gospel according to Mark, we learn that something like this actually happened in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Listen to these words from the first chapter of that gospel, beginning at verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, `Thou art my beloved son; with thee I am well pleased.’” There it is. That’s what I want to think about with you today: what Almighty God has said about Jesus.
Let’s look first at what was happening there at the Jordan River. As we noted last week, John the Baptizer had been drawing great crowds by his fervent preaching. He called the people to repent, to turn toward God and to receive water baptism at his hand. That sign of their change of heart was to be accompanied by a confession of their sins. A kind of religious awakening was going on there by the waters of the Jordan. Many were profoundly affected by it.
Now Jesus came to be baptized. What could that mean? John himself was puzzled, uneasy at the prospect. We learn in Matthew’s Gospel that he said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14).
We can understand his feelings. John knew that Jesus was a blameless man. He had said earlier that he, John, was not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. John had been preaching to sinners. Jesus was not in that category. John was calling for repentance and confession, but in the presence of Jesus, the Baptizer knew that he himself needed to repent and confess. “Do You mean it, Jesus?” he might have said. “Do You really want me to baptize You?”
Here was Jesus’ answer, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Jesus understood John’s reluctance and accepted the reason for it. But He wasn’t to be deterred. He wanted to be baptized. He felt it was profoundly appropriate – a fulfillment of God’s holy will. What could He have meant by that?
Jesus had been introduced by John as the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, who would cleanse people and make them new with the gift of God’s own Spirit. But now it was fitting, He said, that He Himself should be baptized with a sinner’s baptism. The only way to understand this is to see it as an identification with others. Jesus, though He had no sin of His own to confess, was expressing His oneness with sinful people. He was taking upon Himself what was theirs and committing Himself to life as their representative. By being baptized, He was acknowledging that God’s judgment upon rebellious Israel was just, but He was also identifying Himself with the guilty people who needed pardon and release. It was as though Jesus in the waters of the Jordan was assuming a burden. He was taking upon Himself responsibility for the sins and wrongs of others. His baptism meant a solidarity with these people. He was giving Himself utterly on their behalf.
Once before in Old Testament times, the people of Israel had disobeyed God’s commands and wandered away into idolatry. The judgment of God was about to descend upon them. God had told Moses that He would begin all over again with him and his family. But Moses couldn’t bear to have that happen. He interceded on behalf of his people, praying that they might be spared. But if that could not be, then he was ready to perish with them. Thus he identified himself with the people in their guilt and condemnation. And here is Jesus by the waters of the Jordan doing that in a far more profound way.
THE SIGN FROM HEAVEN
What about this dove that was said to descend upon Him? Just what happened in that? What did it represent? Mark said that when Jesus had been baptized and had gone up out of the water, the heavens were “opened,” rent asunder, as it were. You might call this a kind of breakthrough from above. God was making direct contact with the earth. It was a heavenly visitation. It’s interesting to notice that the same verb is used to describe what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion when the veil in the temple at Jerusalem was torn in two from top to bottom. That was another heavenly rending. In both cases, God was acting to bring together heaven and earth, Himself and mankind. He was overcoming distance. He was bringing about togetherness, reconciliation.
What was visible was a dove, fluttering down, alighting upon Jesus. The dove was proverbially harmless, gentle, affectionate, often a symbol of peace. In this case, the descent of the dove was the visible expression of a reality that could not be seen. God’s own Spirit was coming upon Jesus to equip Him for His life work. The One who, according to John, would later baptize others with the Spirit, was Himself being so anointed.
It was common in Old Testament times for leaders of the people to be anointed with oil. This was a sign that God was enduing them with the gifts and power of the Spirit to fulfill a ministry He had given them. They were called “anointed ones.” That’s the Hebrew term “Messiah”; the Greek word “Christ” is the same. The descent of the dove here was the sign that Jesus was the anointed One, the One set apart for God’s high purpose. Jesus later quoted from the prophet Isaiah to that same effect, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18).
We aren’t told that the crowds lining the Jordan River saw this descending dove, but it seems that John the Baptist, at least, did. Jesus surely did. This was a powerful confirmation to Him at the outset of His public ministry that He was indeed the Messiah, the One anointed by God for a great mission.
THE FATHER’S WORD
Now came the Father’s word: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” We don’t know whether or not anyone else heard this. The words seem addressed to Jesus, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” Perhaps they were meant for His ears alone and we only know about them because He later related them to His followers. For Jesus Himself, the message was unmistakably clear. God was confirming His inner conviction. God was powerfully underlining mysterious things that Jesus had been reading in the Hebrew Scriptures. God was speaking of Him and to Him, revealing His true identity. This young son of Mary, born in a totally unprecedented way, was here declared to be Son of the Most High God, sharing His being, coming forth from His heart, but now living on earth as a genuine human being. That’s the word from heaven; that’s the word of the Father about Jesus, “You are my beloved Son.”
Between the Father and His Son, there had always been a relationship, a bond of unity, of perfect love. The man who came up from the waters of the Jordan had been from all eternity the object of His heavenly Father’s special favor.
But God was saying something also about Jesus’ life as a human being. He had lived now for some 30 years in the home of His parents. He had learned to work in Joseph’s carpenter shop. As the Gospel writer puts it, He had “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). It was about this career on earth, this adventure in the art of living, that the Father had said, “In you I have been well pleased.” God, looking down, liked what He saw.
When I read that, I think of another divine investigation recorded for us in the Old Testament in Psalm 14. Listen: “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one” (vv. 2-3). That’s the way it had been until Jesus walked the earth. But finally, there was One who did act wisely, who sought after God and who did what was good. God could no longer say from heaven, “No, not one.” He had looked down from heaven now upon the human life of His Son. Everything He saw in Jesus pleased Him. This is what the Almighty had intended a human life to be like.
Maybe the word of approval had special reference to what had just happened, to Jesus’ act of obedience in being baptized, to His identification with the sinful people whom God longed to save. When Jesus took upon Himself the weight of our sins and set out on the road that was to lead to a cross, God said, “That’s good!”
What does it mean for us, this word from heaven? It surely says to us that God has set His seal upon Jesus. He would continue to do that all through our Lord’s ministry, attesting the truth of His claims again and again by works of power and compassion. He would do it supremely and finally after Jesus’ crucifixion when He raised Him from the dead on the third day. But all of that would simply confirm the word with which Jesus’ ministry had begun. God has given us strong and moving reasons to believe that this Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
And what that means for how we live, God Himself has later declared from heaven, in words meant this time for all of Jesus’ disciples. On the mount where Jesus was transfigured and met with great saints of the past, God had said in the afterglow, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” That’s what God’s assessment of Jesus should mean to us. That’s the difference it should make that He is the Son of the Blessed and has lived a blameless life of obedience to God: we acknowledge Him as our Lord and devote ourselves henceforth to hearing and heeding His word. What about it? Will you make a commitment today, that right now and for the rest of your life, you will obey Jesus Christ? He abundantly deserves that kind of allegiance from you and me. Remember the Father’s word about Him, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” Jesus comes, you might say, well recommended!
PRAYER: Father, we thank You for letting us know that Jesus is indeed Your eternal Son and the One in whom You are well pleased. May everyone sharing this message today so trust in this Jesus as to find true life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.