When Jesus was baptised, heaven was opened. Why was heaven opened at the baptism of Jesus rather than some other time? I think that the answer lies in looking at two things: 1) the experience of Jesus – because this must be understood before our experience can be understood; and 2) the opening of heaven is progressive, beginning with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Mary and finishing with the return of Jesus Christ and the consummation of all things. Here I want to explore this matter.
In the Old Testament God is in heaven (Ps 14:2; 53:2; 115:3; 136:26). His throne is in heaven, surrounded by angels who worship him (Isa 37:16). Human beings cannot access heaven, except occasionally when a prophet is given a glimpse into heaven (Ezek 1:1). Indeed, Jesus said that no one had ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, that is, himself (John 3:13). Therefore, something very significant happens when we come to the New Testament.
When the eternal Son of God chooses to enter the womb of Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit, this was the first step in the opening of heaven. When God planted his foot on the earth this was heaven come down to earth, the beginning of a something which will culminate in God permanently dwelling with humanity on the New Earth (see Rev 21-22). In terms of the experience of Jesus, heaven was eternally open to him as the eternal Son of the Father. There was never any separation between the Father and the Son, who is homoousios (one substance) with the Father and the Spirit. But in terms of the experience of human beings, this is a radical step of openness on the part of God. If heaven is the abode of God, then the fact that God the Son entered physically into the womb of Mary makes the abode of God, that is, heaven close to humanity.
John says as much when he writes: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The verb “made his dwelling” is connected to the word for tabernacle in the Old Testament. The tabernacle was in the centre of the Israelite camp, and it was there were that Israel could go to meet with the LORD who dwelt in the midst of the camp (e.g. Exod 29:45; Num 35:34). Yet there is a big difference between God dwelling amongst Israel in a tent and God dwelling amongst Israel in a human body.
Luke makes a similar point in a different way.
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:39-45)
When Elizabeth is said to exclaim with a loud voice to Mary, the word used by Luke is biblically somewhat rare. It is only used here in Luke and in 1 Chron 15:28; 16:4-5; 16:42 and 2 Chron 5:13. All of the instances in Chronicles are in the context of the Ark of the Covenant being brought up to the Temple. There the people cry out loudly in praise because of the presence of the ark. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Holy of Holies and represented the presence of God in his holiness and mercy. The Ark was covered with the mercy seat, the place of atonement. There is no coincidence in the use of language. The Virgin Mary was the Ark. Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, recognised who was in Mary’s womb – the presence of God himself, come into the world to redeem the world and to have mercy on it. This is another way of speaking about the way in which God the Son become incarnate connects heaven and earth.
However, the opening of heaven goes to a further level when Jesus is baptised in the Jordan.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17).
In this event Jesus experienced the opening of heaven for a human being. As God, heaven was always open to him, but as a human being he had to experience anew the openness of heaven on behalf of humanity. He had been baptised with a vicarious baptism of repentance on behalf of humanity, and here experienced heaven opened on our behalf. At this point Jesus, as a representative human being, experienced the pleasure of the Father in a way which no human being has experienced before. While Matthew records the voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, whom I love,” Mark records the event differently. In Mark, the voice says, “You are my Son, whom I love” (Mark 1:11). The experience of the Father’s pleasure is given to Jesus. He knows that he is the beloved Son. This is the first part of what the opening of heaven means for Jesus at his baptism.
The second aspect of heaven opening after Jesus’ baptism is the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. John’s Gospel records John the Baptist explaining how he knew that Jesus is the Lamb of God:
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34).
When the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, this was not a temporary anointing with the Spirit, but a permanent one. The Spirit remains on him. John knew that Jesus is the Lamb of God, because he is the first human being to be permanently anointed with the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament saints did not experience a permanent indwelling of the Spirit, but Jesus does. This permanent indwelling of the Spirit is the second feature of Jesus’ experience of an open heaven.
Here the Persons of the Trinity are all part of heaven opening. The Son of God is present in the person of Jesus. The pleasure of the Father rests on the representative human being, Jesus. And the Holy Spirit anoints and indwells that representative human being. The opening of heaven in the experience of Jesus is very significant for humanity, because, as the firstfruits, Jesus experienced an open heaven on behalf of all humanity. This open heaven was not yet a reality for the rest of humanity, but it would become so because of the work of Christ. However, an open heaven could not exist unless Jesus had first experienced it, because the experience of Christians is a share in the experience of Jesus.
In the Old Testament there are several passages in which the opening of heaven is mentioned. These events are split between blessing and judgment. The heavens opened to produce the flood (Gen 7:11), but the opening of heaven to provide rain is a blessing which will give good crops (Deut 28:12). When heaven opens the foundations of the earth shake in terror (Isa 24:18), and when heaven is opened God’s blessing is poured out (Mal 3:10). Isaiah cries out: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” (Isa 64:1). This is a prayer that the Yahweh would come and bring salvation to sinful Israel. These passages show that the opening of heaven has two connotations: one of blessing and one of judgment.
The opening of heaven for Jesus also has two connotations. When Jesus was baptised his life took on a direction which would culminate in the cross. Humanly speaking, he went from being the carpenter’s son to being the one anointed by the Spirit to bring in the kingdom of God. From his vicarious baptism for repentance Jesus began a journey which would involve bearing the sins of the world. The immediate result of heaven opening was the sending of Jesus into the wilderness to fast for forty days and be tempted by the Devil. So the blessing of an open heaven also involves a judgment, a judgment which Jesus himself had to bear on behalf of humanity.
While heaven was opened for Jesus at the Jordan River, heaven was not yet open for the rest of humanity. This did not happen until the sacrifice for sins was complete. The connection between the open heaven at the Jordan and the open heaven at the cross is most easily seen in Mark’s gospel. While Matthew and Luke use the word anoigō (open) in regard to heaven opening at Jesus’ baptism, Mark uses a different word, schizō (split, tear, divide). The word schizō is used again in Mark 15:38 (and Luke 23:45). When Jesus had breathed his last, the curtain in the temple was torn (schizō) in two. The curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple (Ex 26:33). Access to the Holy of Holies was restricted to the High Priest, who could enter only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Heb 9:7). As the temple was patterned on the heavenly temple, the death of Jesus has not simply opened the temple curtain on earth, but has actually opened the Holy of Holies in heaven (Heb 9:11-12).
This is the third step in the opening of heaven. In order for this to happen, Jesus had to experience what appeared to him to be the absence of the pleasure of the Father and the loss of the anointing of the Spirit. But this opened the way for believers to enter freely into the presence of God every day. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Yet the opening of heaven for believers is not completed by the cross. As Rom 4:25 says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus is necessary so that believers can experience what Jesus experienced at his baptism, namely the pleasure of the Father and the anointing and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What then occurred when Jesus was raised from the dead? For humanity in sin heaven is not open. The wrath of God is upon sinners (John 3:36; Eph 2:3), which means that sinners cannot experience the pleasure of the Father nor the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus went to the cross he experienced fully what it is to be a sinner under the wrath of God. And in his death and burial he knew what it was to be shut out of heaven. These experiences were necessary so that the power of sin and death could be undone and heaven opened for all of humanity, through faith in Christ. But when Jesus rose from the dead, he was no longer subject to the power of sin and death. Heaven opened for Jesus in a way more powerful than ever before.
When Jesus was raised by the Spirit he experienced the fullness of Sonship, that is, the fullness of the pleasure of the Father which is possible for a human being to experience. “and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4). He also was given the absolute fullness of the Spirit. “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33). The fullness of the human experience of Jesus has opened heaven for humanity. Now, through faith, human beings can experience what Jesus experienced at his baptism, that is, the pleasure of the Father and the anointing and indwelling of the Spirit. This is what it means for humanity that heaven is opened.
Yet human beings are yet to experience the fullness of human sonship. Jesus has given us a share in his human experience of the pleasure of the Father and the fullness of the Spirit, yet this is only a foretaste of even more intimacy with the Father and the Spirit when Jesus returns. Presently Jesus experiences something which we cannot yet experience. This is because his humanity has been glorified and ours is not yet so.
What does glorified humanity look like and what does this mean in terms of an open heaven? Having been raised from the dead in an incorruptible body, Jesus is no longer subject to sin, sickness or death. His body is now glorified and imperishable. It is a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:42-44). A spiritual body is not the same as being simply a spirit. Rather, a spiritual body is a real body, but one controlled by the Holy Spirit and not subject to the ravages of the flesh. Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father in a fully glorified human body. He is able to live as a human being in heaven. Prior to the resurrection of Jesus this was not possible for a human being. No human body which is not glorified by being raised by the Holy Spirit is able to dwell in the heavenly sphere. In this sense heaven is opened to Jesus as a human being in a way which is not yet possible for Christians. For us this is something which will only come in the future.
It was necessary for Jesus to experience the glorification of his human body and the fullness of the opening of heaven before it could be possible for other human beings. Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection. “But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:23). He is the firstborn from the dead. “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Col 1:18). The experience of Jesus must always be prior to our experience, because what we experience of God is simply a share in the experience of Jesus. He must always be first, both in time and in pre-eminence. Without the eternal Son of God choosing to enter into our humanity and transforming it, there could not be glorification of humanity nor an open heaven.
Although we will not experience the fullness of sonship until the resurrection of the dead (Rom 8:23), which will occur when Jesus returns for his own, we do experience what Jesus experienced when he was on earth. We have the pleasure of the Father. Those who are united to Christ are sons of God. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). We are given the Holy Spirit as a seal of the favour of God and the pledge of our inheritance (2 Cor 1:22). We also experience what it is like to be seated in heaven with the Father even as Jesus is seated there (Eph 2:6). These things are given to us so that we might be sure that we receive the fullness of sonship and the fullness of the Spirit when Jesus returns for his bride, the church. Then we will know truly and fully what it means that heaven in open.
If heaven is opened for Christians, what does this mean for us in the present? Heaven open has several consequences for the Christian life. The first relates the pleasure of the Father. Understanding that, as people in Christ, we have the pleasure of the Father should put an end to striving. There is no need to try to prove anything to our Father in heaven. He is pleased to have us as his children. Cringing fear of God is not appropriate as a way of relating to him. We have open access to the throne of grace, and can therefore come at any time without ritual and without any earthly mediator. This means that there can be no bargaining with God to get an answer to prayer and no need to have a “more anointed” person pray as if your own prayers were not adequate. An open heaven means that we can live in the knowledge that the Father in heaven is our Father and we are accepted and dearly loved.
An open heaven means that God has anointed his children and filled them with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a life of godliness is both required of us and possible for us. The Law of God is written on the heart and the anointing of the Spirit makes obedience that Law possible. We must no longer walk according to the flesh, because we are a people of the Spirit. The New Creation people of God are not in bondage to sin, but free to obey the Father in every area of life. Because heaven is open, there is no sphere of life which is outside of God’s interest. Everything which Christians do is done before God’s throne.
Thirdly, an open heaven means being people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is no platitude. We should not be flippant about the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. God himself dwells with us permanently. We are not alone. The Father wills to lead and to guide us through his Spirit, who dwells within us. An open heaven means that the Christian life is not a life bereft of meaning and direction. But God himself guides our paths and gives us his abiding Word, illuminated through the Spirit, so that we will be a people who fellowship with him. This privilege of continual fellowship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the mark of the New Age. We experience now a foretaste of what we will experience forever when God comes to earth to dwell with humanity.
Heaven will one day be most absolutely and fully open to human beings as it is for Jesus now. But heaven is open now to those who are united to Christ through faith. We do not have to wait for an open heaven. We do not have to bring about an open heaven. Heaven has been opened for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us live as if heaven were open, instead of living like people who are without the pleasure of the Father and the anointing of the Spirit. The joy of living with an open heaven will radiate outward as a powerful witness to a lost world.
 And Luke 3:22