It’s been a few weeks since we were last studying the book of Mark together. At that time, we were thinking about John the Baptiser who — like an Old Testament prophet — summoned the people to turn from their sin in repentance and to prepare for the coming of the Saviour. And do you remember? What John said about the coming of the Saviour — this person who would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit — was an announcement that the old covenant was over and the new covenant was about to start. The Israelites had broken the old covenant, that covenant which God made with them in the days of Moses at Mount Sinai when he promised to be their God and they promised to obey him and to do everything he commanded. But they kept breaking that covenant, because they kept disobeying his commandments.
And so, God promised to make a new covenant by which he would pardon their sins and remember them no more; and he would give them a new heart, so that they would be able to love him like never before; and he would also fill them with his Spirit who would enable them to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments like never before. The days are coming, said God in the Old Testament, when I’ll make this new, better covenant with my people.
And then John the Baptiser appeared; and by announcing the coming of the Saviour who would baptise his people with the Holy Spirit, he was announcing that the new covenant was about to start: the time had come when God would do what he promised. And so, he pardons our sins and remembers them no more; and he gives us a new heart so that we can love him; and he fills us with his Spirit to help us to walk in his ways. The new covenant was about to begin; and the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, was the one who would introduce it and establish it and make it happen.
That’s what we were thinking about last time. Today we’re going to move on to the next part of Mark’s introduction. Verses 1 to 13 of Mark 1 are really the introduction to the gospel. And today we’re going to focus on verses 9 to 11 where Mark tells us what happened at the River Jordan whenever the Lord Jesus came to John to be baptised. And we’re going to look at those verses today; and we’re going to connect them with some verses at the end of Mark’s gospel. You see, in verses 9 to 11 of chapter 1, there’s a three-part pattern which is repeated near the end of the gospel. Sometimes we think the gospels are simple books. You know, compared to Paul’s letters and to the sophisticated theology of Romans, for instance, the gospels are very simple, because they’re little biographies, stories about the life of the Lord Jesus. That’s what we sometimes think. But, of course, they’re more than that, aren’t they? The gospels are more than little biographies. And when you get down to studying them, you realise that they’re not simple at all; and the gospel writers — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — use different techniques and styles and methods to teach us about the Lord Jesus and to teach us all about what he did for us and for our salvation. And so, right at the beginning of his gospel, Mark uses this three-part pattern which he repeats again at the end of his gospel.
What is the pattern? Let me first point out both versions of this pattern: the one at the beginning of the gospel; and the one at the of the gospel. And then I’ll try to explain their significance. So, here’s the first version of this three-part pattern which is found in chapter 1: the first part of the pattern is the Lord’s baptism; the second part is the tearing of heaven; and the third part is God the Father’s announcement that Jesus is the Son of God. So, there’s the baptism; then there’s the tearing of heaven; then there’s the announcement. Three parts.
If you have your Bible open in front of you, please turn with me to chapter 15 and verses 33 to 39. And let me read those verses now, because this is where we find the second version of this three-part pattern.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
You’re perhaps scratching your head, and thinking to yourself:
I don’t really see the connection.
But let me set it out for you. First, instead of a baptism, we have the crucifixion. But second, we have a tearing: not a tearing of heaven, but a tearing of the curtain in the temple. And third, we have an announcement; the Roman centurion said about the Lord Jesus:
Surely this man was the Son of God!
So, in Mark 1, there was the baptism; then a tearing; then an announcement. And in Mark 15, there’s the crucifixion; then a tearing; then the announcement. Mark uses this three-part pattern at the beginning of his gospel and at the end of his gospel. So there it is; what does it mean? What’s the significance of this?
Baptism and Crucifixion
Let’s turn back to the Lord’s baptism. In verse 4 of chapter 1, Mark told us how John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So, his message to them was about how they needed to repent and how they needed God’s forgiveness for their sins. That’s the message he preached to them; and baptism was a sign to them of how God was willing to wash away the guilt of their sins, if only they repent.
And in verse 5, we’re told that the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John; and they confessed their sins; and they were baptised by him. So, great crowds of people gathered around John, to hear his message and to be baptised by him. And then we read in verse 9 that, at that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and he too was baptised by John in the Jordan.
Now, when you read that, you want to stop and say:
Hang on! All these people came to John. And they confessed their sins and were baptised by him. But what sins did Jesus need to confess? Wasn’t he sinless? And if he had no sins, why was he baptised? Why did he need to receive this sign of God’s willingness to wash away the guilt of our sins, when he was guiltless? Why was the Lord Jesus Christ baptised?
So, why was the sinless Saviour baptised?
He was identifying with us, wasn’t he? You know what it means to identify with others, don’t you? You see someone wearing a white jersey down in the Kingspan Stadium; and, if you know a little about rugby, then immediately you know this is an Ulster supporter, standing up proudly for the Ulstermen. So, when you put on the white top, you’re identifying yourself as an Ulster supporter. On the other hand, if someone at the Kingspan Stadium puts on a red top, they’re identifying themselves as a Munster supporter.
The Lord Jesus didn’t wear special clothes to identify with us. Instead, in order to identify with us he was baptised like us. All these sinners came to John to be baptised; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the sinless Saviour, was baptised with them in order to say:
I belong with these people. I’m one of them.
He never sinned, but he was prepared to identify himself and to associate himself with sinners.
Of course, being baptised with sinners is one thing; but what we find at the other end of the gospel is something else entirely. At the other end of the gospel, in Mark 15, we find the consummation, the most perfect and complete expression of his willingness to identify himself with sinners, because at the end of the gospel we have the crucifixion, when the sinless Saviour took upon himself the guilt of our sins; and he bore in his body the punishment we deserve for our sins. The penalty was ours; but he took it from us and he suffered it in our place when he died on the cross.
And so, at the beginning and at the end of his gospel, Mark shows us how the Lord identified himself and associated himself with the people he came to save. First, he was baptised with us; and then he died for us. First, he stood in line to be baptised along with us; and then he was nailed on the cross to be punished, not along with us, but instead of us.
And so, we see why we ought to love him, and praise him. Our God is not aloof; he doesn’t remain at a distance from us; he didn’t create the world and then decide to sit back and have nothing more to do with us. Instead, because of the greatness of his love and mercy, he became one of us; and he came into the world and identified himself with us so completely that he was prepared to be pierced for us and to be crushed for us and to take upon himself the punishment that we deserve.
When politicians do something wrong, everyone else distances themselves from them, because they don’t want to be associated with this person who is at fault. Or when we do wrong, perhaps our friends distance themselves from us and don’t give us the support we need. But the Lord is not like that, because despite our sin and shame, he was prepared to come into the world and to associate himself and to identify himself with us and even to take the blame for us. This is why we ought to love him and to praise him. This is why we ought to trust in him, because he’s the friend of sinners; and all who trust in him receive the assurance of sins forgiven, because he’s paid for our sins in full.
But let’s move on now, because after the Lord’s baptism, we read how heaven was torn open and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove.
Mark uses an unusual word here when he says heaven was torn open. The other gospels simply say the heavens were opened; but Mark says heaven was torn open. You know, it was as if a tear appeared in the sky, and from out of the opening, the Holy Spirit came down. And the Holy Spirit came down on the Lord in order to anoint him for his work, because the Holy Spirit descended on him in order to equip him to be our Great Prophet, Priest and King. We thought about this when we were studying the first verse of Mark’s gospel. As our Great Prophet, he teaches us what we need to know for salvation. As our Great Priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And as our Great King, he calls us in his kingdom and rules over us and defends us. The Holy Spirit descended on the Lord Jesus and equipped him to fulfil his ministry and to do all that was necessary to save us.
In chapter 15 we read that, after the Lord died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn open. Mark uses the same unusual word. Now, the temple was really a more permanent version of the tabernacle which we’ve been reading about on Sunday evenings. The tabernacle was God’s dwelling place among his people. So, when his people lived in tents in the wilderness, God lived among them in his own special tent: the tabernacle. Later, when his people lived in houses in Jerusalem, God lived among them in his own special house: the temple. And while the people could come into the courtyard around the tabernacle and temple, and while the priests could come into what was called the Holy Place at the centre of the tabernacle and temple, no one — apart from the High Priest — was allowed to come into the Most Holy Place, at the very centre of the tabernacle and temple. And the Most Holy Place was really God’s throne room. And between the Most Holy Place and the Holy Place, there was a curtain which prevented anyone from seeing inside or from coming inside. It was really a barrier; and the message was clear:
No one is allowed to come into God’s throne room.
No one was able to come into his presence, because he alone is holy and pure, and we’re not; we’re sinners who cannot come before a holy God and hope to live.
During our family worship, we’ve been reading from 1 Samuel about how the Philistines stole the ark of the covenant which was normally kept in the Most Holy Place and which symbolised God’s throne. But God’s anger burned against the people who stole it, and he afflicted them with diseases. And later, after the ark was returned, some of the Israelites looked inside the ark; but they died, because they weren’t allowed to look into it. And the people were afraid and asked:
Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?
And the answer is: no one. Not one of them could come into the presence of the Lord and hope to live because they were sinners; and sinners don’t belong in the presence of a holy God.
However, after the Lord died on the cross to pay for our sins, the curtain in the temple was torn apart to signify that sinners can now come before the Lord and we can now stand in his presence. We can come before him in worship; and we will one day come into his presence in heaven. And we can do that, because the Lord Jesus has paid for our sins; and all who believe in him are pardoned by God, and we’re covered in Christ’s righteousness, so that even though we may have done everything wrong, God regards us as if we’ve done everything right. And so, we can pray to him; and when this life is over, we know we will be allowed to stand in his presence in glory.
So, we’ve got the tearing of heaven at the beginning of the gospel; and we’ve got the tearing of the curtain at the end of the gospel. What’s the connection between the two? Well, it’s this. When the heavens were torn, the Holy Spirit came down; and the Holy Spirit is the one who equipped the Lord Jesus for his ministry. And because the Holy Spirit equipped the Lord Jesus for his ministry, the Lord was able to do all things necessary for our salvation, so that, after his death, the doorway into the presence of the Lord God was torn open, never to be closed again. And so, sinners like us can now come before God to worship him; and we can look forward to coming before him in glory and standing in his presence for ever and ever.
So, at the beginning of the gospel, heaven was torn open and God the Holy Spirit came down to equip God the Son to save us. And at the end of the gospel, the door into God’s presence was torn open so that all who believe may enter in.
We’ve had the baptism and the crucifixion; and we’ve had the tearing of heaven and the tearing of the curtain. Finally, we have the announcements.
Mark tells us that after the Lord was baptised, heaven was torn open and the Holy Spirit descended on the Lord Jesus like a dove. And then a voice came from heaven; it’s the voice of God the Father. And God the Father said:
You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
This person — Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee — is no ordinary man, because he’s also the Eternal Son of God who has come into the world.
So, the first version of the three-part pattern ends with this announcement from God the Father about his Son. And throughout the following chapter, people who meet the Lord Jesus and who hear what he said and who saw what he did, keep asking:
Who is this? Who is this person who can do these things?
Half way through the gospel, in chapter 8, we find Peter’s confession. He said:
You’re the Christ.
And that’s right; but it’s not a complete answer; he’s the Christ, but he’s more than that. However, when we turn to chapter 15, and the second version of Mark’s three-part pattern, we find the Roman centurion making an announcement about the Lord Jesus. He said:
Surely this man was the Son of God!
He was saying that this person — Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee — is no ordinary man, because he’s also the Son of God. Something about the way the Lord died — dying on the cross in the place of sinners — convinced this soldier that Jesus Christ is God’s Son.
And here’s the thing: whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God who died for sinners, whoever confesses this receives from God the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life.
Do you want to have the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life? Of course you do. Surely we all want to be pardoned? Surely we all want to have eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth where all of the sorrow and sadness of this life will be forgotten? Surely we all want that? Well, if that’s what you want, then you need to believe and confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for sinners. So, believe in him and confess him as your God and Saviour.
And if you believe in him, then rejoice, rejoice and give thanks, because the reason the Son of God came into the world and identified himself with sinners at his baptism and was crucified for them on the cross was in order to tear open the doorway into God’s presence, which was closed because of our sin, but which has now been opened because of Christ. We could not tear open the door ourselves; there was nothing we ourselves could do to open it; Dynamite, TNT, plastic explosives, nuclear bombs are not powerful enough to blow it open. The only thing which was able to open it was the death of the Saviour; and he loved us so much that he was prepared to lay down his life so that all who believe in him and confess him as their God and Saviour may enter in.
Mark is writing the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Gospel means ‘good news’; and this is good news indeed. Good news indeed about Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died for sinners. And so, let’s bow before the Lord and give thanks to him.