Tom was a star athlete. When he was just a freshman in high school, he made it to the state final in Track and Field. He ran against upperclassmen and veteran competitors. In his final race, to everyone’s surprise, Tom finished 5th place! Given his young age, Tom was thrilled with the result, so were his coaches. But as he climbed onto the podium, there was just one face he wanted to see, his father’s. When he looked up into the stands, while his mom was smiling and cheering, his dad was looking down at his stopwatch, obviously disappointed his son didn’t place higher. He didn’t clap, he didn’t cheer, he only disapprovingly shook his head. Twenty-five years later, and having just buried his dad, Tom tells this story with tears in his eyes. He ran for his father’s approval, but he didn’t get it.
In the Bible passage today, Mark 1:9-11, we want you to follow the eyes of Jesus, because they are quite telling. It starts, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (9). Although we’ve been focussing on John the Baptist, the spotlight now turns to Jesus, who has already been declared the Son of God (1:1). Much to our surprise, the Son of God lived in a small town called Nazareth, population 120. He left his small town to go to the Jordan River in order to be baptized by John the Baptist, just like everyone else. As Jesus waded into the slow, muddy water, he showed us we were all in this together. By being baptized, Jesus identified with the suffering and need of the human race. God was one of us.
But now follow his eyes. Verse 10 reads, “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” Who saw? Jesus did. Where did he look? He looked to the stands, so to speak, to look for his Father. Like Tom, like you, and like me, even the Son of God sought his Father’s approval. “…he saw the heavens opened…” because he was looking for the only Face that mattered to him at that moment.
His Father was not looking down at his stopwatch in disapproval. In fact, his Father couldn’t wait to show his Son approval. The text says, “…immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” Picture the start of a college football game. There’s a banner at the corner of the field with the name of the hometeam painted on it. Then suddenly, immediately, the home team comes bursting through the sign, tearing it open, rushing onto the field. That’s like what Jesus saw. His Father tore through the heavens as if they were a sheet of butcher paper and rushed upon the field to be with his Son. Since God is Spirit, he had to take the form of a physically visible creature, in this case, a dove.
It’s interesting to note another scene in the Bible that connects a dove with water and a voice from heaven. In Genesis 9, at the end of the flood story of Noah and the ark, there is a dove, water, and a voice from heaven. All three came together when Noah was trying to determine if it were safe to walk the earth again. Here in Mark 1:9-11, it’s as if we’re being told that Jesus is the new ark, upon which humanity can be saved.
There’s a difference, however, between this story and a story like Tom’s. And it’s an important difference to grasp. Jesus hadn’t yet done anything to merit either approval or disapproval. Tom had already won his race and finished his season; Jesus had yet to start. The race for Jesus was a difficult and dangerous course, which would culminate on a cross. Here on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus was at the start of the race, warming up. His first hurdle would be his battle with Satan in the wilderness (1:12-13), which we’ll talk about next time.
Does it surprise you, then, that his Father would call out to him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (11)? Again, Jesus hadn’t yet done anything. The story just began. Jesus hadn’t yet faced any enemies, overcome any obstacles, or performed any miracles. As far as the story goes, he was just a thirty year old carpenter from Hicksville, Nazareth, hardly worth the applause of God.
Typically, we believe merit should come first and then approval. You win a race; then you get a medal. You work hard for a week; then you get a paycheck. You do well on a test; then you get an A. But the mischievous Father in heaven flips it around. You get approval; then you run the race. You get approval; then you do your ministry. You get approval; then you do your job. Pretty mind blowing, isn’t it? But it had to be this way.
How else do you think Jesus was able to do all he had to do? He had to have his Father’s approval first. Think of what Jesus had to go up against (all these are found in the book of Mark). Jesus would battle the devil; choose his disciples to carry his message to the ends of the earth; cast out demons; heal the sick; preach to the masses; cleanse lepers; heal paralytics; forgive sins; argue with religious leaders; heal a man with a withered hand; calm a storm; walk on water; heal a bleeding woman; raise a dead girl; face the rejection of his hometown; mourn the beheading of his friend; feed several thousand, twice; make the deaf to hear and blind to see; be falsely accused; be plotted against; be betrayed; be forsaken; be arraigned and tried in court; be spit upon; be tortured; be mocked; and be crucified. How in the world did he do all that? In great part, because he had his Father’s approval right at the beginning. Throughout it all, he could still hear the echo of his Father’s voice cheering him on, “You are my beloved Son! With you I am well pleased!” Then he could take another step.
And if this is how life works for the Son of God, then who are we to think we’re any different? The only way you can make it through your difficult journey is if you know the Father’s approval first. Otherwise, you’re sunk. There’s nothing you cannot do or endure so long as you have the Father’s approval. It’s all you need to get through whatever hell you’re in right now. Betrayal? Backstabbing? Abuse? Personal failure? You can make it through your rough course if you hold on to God’s loving approval. He says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
Your good works don’t merit God’s approval; rather, God’s loving approval of you merits your good works. Now, with the love of your heavenly Father descended upon you as a dove, go and live your life for him.
- Carefully read Mark 1:9-11. What strikes you the most?
- What does the word “approval” mean? Look it up in a dictionary.
- Would you rather have approval before you earn it or after you earn it? Why do you think God gives us approval first?
- Pray and search your thoughts, ask yourself about the areas in your life you’re seeking the approval of others. What would it mean if you knew God himself approved you? What would it mean if you approved you, too?