Tearing the Heavens Open

This essay is a simple Greek word study. The word is schizomenous; it means to tear open and implies doing so in a dramatic way.

Let’s start with a text from the OT:

1 Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down. (Is 64:1)

Here the prophet is expressing his deep desire that the Lord come down to the earth. To do so, he would have to “rend the heavens” to break through. It’s a dramatic image, and it becomes our theme for this essay – there is something separating God from us and when He comes to us, He must break through it. Its not a gentle act; God must rend or tear open the heavens to get to us.

Now, let’s turn to the Gospel of Mark and see our Greek word used in the baptism of Jesus.

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; 11 and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." (Mk 1:9-11)

Our word is used here (underlined) to describe the heavens opening and we see images of the Holy Trinity in the voice of the Father, the ascent of the Son, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. This RSVCE translation is a bit gentle; other English translations are more faithful to the Greek meaning (NAB/NIV: “being torn open;” ASV: “rent asunder”). This image is dramatic and is the opening act to Jesus’ ministry as recounted by Mark.

Now let’s look at the tail-end of Jesus’ ministry: His death on the cross. It is Mark who tells us the Temple veil was torn in two:

37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15:37-39)

We find our word used again referring to the tearing of the Temple veil. We should apply our prior understanding from chapter one to study this. This veil was a barrier between the courtyard and the sanctuary, between the non-priestly people and the priests who offered sacrifice to God. Although Scripture does not describe this outer veil in detail, the first century historian Josephus does; he describes it as embroidered with images of the universe, the heavens and the earth. As the Holy Trinity tore open the heavens at Jesus’ baptism, so this veil with embroidered imagery of the heavens also tore open. And as the Father declared His Son at Jesus’ baptism, so the centurion declared the same as the veil was rent in two. This tearing and coming down is related to the Son; it was He who came down.

The tearing of the veil symbolized God “rending the heavens and coming down.” He is with us now, and there is no longer a separation between the Divine who resides in the Temple, and us who live outside of it. We are together now. That it torn from top to bottom indicates that it was God who tore it as He “came down.” This “coming down” was immediate upon Jesus’ death; that is, His death was the direct and immediate cause of this change. No longer is God separated by the heavens, no longer would only the priests have access to Him. He is now among us, the Lord of heaven and earth. The request of Isaiah has been fulfilled.

Post-script: The savvy reader may notice our Greek word as the root of the English word schism. A schism is also a violent tearing of the integrity and unity of the Church. Sadly, it does not open a tear so that God may “come down” and live among us. Quite the opposite.