May 22, 2016
“The Holy Trinity”
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." St. John 3:1-15
The Swedes call it a smorgasbord. Americans call it a buffet. It’s not a bad idea. You take your plate, walk along a table, and put on your plate whatever catches your fancy. There are many delicious dishes to choose from. You can take a little or a lot from a few or from many. You decide what you will eat.
That may be fine when choosing what we will put into our bodies, but smorgasbord theology is a deadly diet for the soul. God doesn’t let you pick and choose between a variety of spiritual foods. Rather, he feeds you what he decides you need to eat and he forbids you to eat anything except what he puts on the plate for you. This divine insistence angers foolish, rebellious, and immature people who think they know better than God does what is best for them.
Our generation promotes a smorgasbord kind of Christianity that mixes God’s revealed truth with the contradictory teachings of other religions. Afraid to confess the one and only saving faith with conviction, nominal Christians pick up a little bit of Hinduism here, a little bit of Humanism there, and maybe a dash of home-grown American pull yourself up to God by your bootstraps religion for seasoning. Eventually the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic faith becomes compromised to the point that it isn’t even Christian any more.
Nicodemus taught God’s word. He knew that Jesus was a greater teacher than he was. Jesus did miracles that ordinary teachers could not do. Who else but a teacher sent from heaven could change water into wine? He claimed divine authority. Nicodemus thought that Jesus might have some very important things to say. He naturally assumed that what Jesus had to say to him would not differ essentially from what he already knew. He was wrong.
Nicodemus wanted Jesus to teach him, but he wasn’t ready to confess Jesus publicly. So he came to him at night to begin a conversation. He began by paying Jesus a compliment. He said that Jesus was a teacher sent from God and that God was with Jesus. Perhaps he thought that Jesus would return the compliment. Jesus floored him with his response. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “Nicodemus,” Jesus said, “You want to learn from me. You want instruction from God. Good. Now listen to me. You cannot learn a thing until you become a new man. You must have a second birth. This will not be a birth like your first birth when you came out of your mother’s womb and entered this world a sinner. You were born blind, dead, and at enmity with God. You need a birth that comes from heaven. You need a spiritual birth. You need to be born of water and the Spirit.”
Jesus says to you and to me. You want to learn. Great. Jesus wants attentive students who are willing to listen to what he has to say. Learn this first. You know nothing until you are born again, born from above, born by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of water and the Spirit.
Many people who are baptized return to the flesh from which they were first born and reject the teaching of Jesus. They do not inherit the kingdom of God. They live and they die without God. This does not mean their baptism did nothing for them. If I despise God’s gift I do not thereby make it worthy of being despised. The mob of hate-filled and bloodthirsty people who screamed for Christ’s death despised him and held him in contempt. Does Jesus deserve to be despised? Is Jesus worthy of contempt? Is he not the radiance of the Father’s glory, the very image of God, the pure, holy, and spotless Son of the Father, full of grace and truth? But see him lifted up on the cross. Look! The serpent in the wilderness was viewed with respect as those who gathered around, dying of the poisonous venom flowing through their bodies, could see their friends and families regain their health simply by looking up on the serpent on the pole. But most of those who were gathered around the cross looked up only to mock Jesus with words of contempt. Yet on the cross the entire world of sinners was set free from all their sins. On the cross the anger of God against all of humanity came to an end. On the cross heaven and earth were reconciled. On the cross the new heavens and the new earth were created. On the cross the Son of Man was lifted up. There, being lifted up, he was ridiculed and tortured and hated and mocked. There, where the Son of Man was being lifted up, the Almighty God was righting every wrong, calming every fear, forgiving every sin, and bringing us all back to him as his restored and holy children.
We do not judge by appearances, but by God’s word. We live on every word that God says to us. The world does not believe that everyone who believes in the Son of Man lifted up on cross will not perish but have eternal life. The world does not believe that those who are washed by water and the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism are born from above. The world does not believe that its wisdom, power, and achievements have no value before God. The world trusts in the world. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. It knows nothing else. It sees nothing else. It cannot be taught because it cannot learn. You must be born from above.
Does this mean we Christians who believe and are baptized have a perfect understanding? No, but we can, by the grace of God, confess the truth he reveals. God reveals that truth to us in the words of the Holy Scriptures. God has preserved in his church the pure confession of that truth. We confess the true God. We confess the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We are born again when we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. These are not three gods, but one God. Yet the Person of the Father is not the Person of the Son or the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Father begets the Son. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son has always been begotten of his Father. The Holy Spirit has always proceeded from the Father and the Son. These three Persons are not three gods, but have always been and will always be one God, the only God who has ever existed or will exist.
The Holy Trinity is not a theory about God. He is God. The church did not come up with the doctrine of the Trinity. The Triune God has taught that he is Triune from the beginning of time. The Triune God is revealed throughout the Old Testament: from the first words of Genesis; to God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three men; to the Benediction that God gave to Aaron and that we receive at the end of the Divine Service every Sunday; to Isaiah’s vision of God who is thrice holy and on and on and on.
We Christians confess our faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which begins:
All Christians confess the Holy Trinity. Those who will not confess the Trinity are not Christians. We must say specifically in reference to such religious organizations as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Unitarians, and any other group that denies the Trinity that they are not Christian. All Christians confess and teach the doctrine of the Trinity. The creeds weren’t written to establish a doctrine of the Trinity, but to confess the truth that God has always revealed.
The only way we can know the true God is to look where the world in its wisdom mocks God. To know the Triune God, you must look at Jesus lifted up on the cross.
Do you want to see the Father’s love for you? Look at Jesus lifted up on the cross. There you will see how much your Father in heaven loves you. As St. Paul puts it, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? . . . Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! (Romans 8:32; 11:33)
Do you want to see the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ and know that this grace is intended for you and that it is your sins that are forgiven? Look at Jesus lifted up on the cross! For whose sins is he suffering, if not for yours? And if he is so suffering, then what has happened to your sins? If he paid for them, aren’t they washed away by his blood? Aren’t you set free from their guilt? What does the Bible say? “Whoever” believes in him shall not perish. That means you!
Do you want to see the comfort of the Comforter and know that you belong to God in fellowship with all other believers? Look at Jesus lifted up on the cross! There you see what your baptism provides. There you see that the God who knows every sinful secret in your heart does not judge you because of that sin but instead gives you the full forgiveness of all your sins. This is your comfort. The water that washed your body is the water joined to the blood shed on Calvary. By the authority of Christ, the Holy Spirit gives you everlasting life that no one in this world can take away from you.
God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – knows what we need. We need him. We need his holy word. We don’t understand to believe. We believe to understand. We do not pick and choose for ourselves the food for our souls. The One who baptized us into eternal union with himself lays before us a rich feast of the most wonderful food. He reveals to us the great mystery of God. We are born from above! And we never hunger or thirst again.
Rolf D. Preus