Sermon for the Festival of the Holy Trinity
Ezekiel 18:30-32 + Romans 11:33-36 + John 3:1-15
On this Trinity Sunday, as we “worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity,” we are introduced to each Person of our triune God in the Gospel—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And as we hear the words of Jesus in His dialogue with Nicodemus, it’s anything but a dull, boring, philosophical explanation. It’s a life or death kind of conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus, and it’s a life or death kind of teaching that the Holy Spirit brings us today in these words. There is only one God, and you must know Him and know Him rightly in order to be saved. In fact, Jesus says later in the Gospel of John as He prays to His Father, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Well, you only know the true God as He reveals Himself to you in His Word. So consider carefully the words of Jesus in John chapter 3 as He reveals the Holy Trinity to you—the only God, the saving God.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, so that he wouldn’t be seen. He was an important teacher and leader in Israel, and apparently a very sincere, a very respectful man. But for all his sincerity, for all the respect he showed Jesus, even though he was a teacher in Israel, he didn’t know the true God rightly—not yet. Anyone who doesn’t want to be seen with Jesus shows that he doesn’t know God rightly. But he did know one thing rightly: Rabbi, he said, 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.
Yes, Jesus had come from God. He says over and over, especially in the Gospel of John, that He had been sent to earth by God, His Father. But knowing that Jesus was a prophet sent by God is still not knowing God rightly; it’s still not enough—not enough to be saved. Not enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is quick to point that out to Nicodemus: Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, some of the most religious, law-abiding, good-work-performing people in all the land, a descendant of Abraham and a circumcised citizen of Israel. And yet, with one sentence, Jesus discounts all of those things and declares that rebirth or regeneration is the only way into the kingdom of God—into God’s favor, into God’s family. Only by being born again can anyone see heaven.
Nicodemus at first interprets Jesus’ words in a physical way: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” So Jesus explains a little bit: 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. In other words, Jesus explains that He isn’t talking about physical rebirth, but spiritual birth. Just being born into this world does not make someone a subject or an heir of God’s kingdom. Not at all.
Because “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.” That’s the flesh we inherited from our first father, Adam, who rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden. We all start out life—from the moment we’re born, from the moment we’re conceived—outside of the kingdom of God, dead in sins and trespasses. The way into God’s kingdom, the way out of death and into life, is already blocked off to us from birth. Only if the Spirit of God gives us a new birth can we live.
That new birth takes place as the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts, faith in the true God, the only God, the saving God, the God who forgives sins, the God who takes ungodly, unrighteous people and justifies them, for free, for the sake of Christ Jesus, the Son of God. That message of rebirth by Spirit-worked faith in God and His Messiah filled the Old Testament. “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
And now, in the New Testament, starting with John the Baptist, God the Holy Spirit has specifically attached His promise of forgiveness and regeneration to water and calls it Holy Baptism. To be baptized is to be born of water and the Spirit. That’s the means the Holy Spirit uses to wash away sin, to justify sinners. That’s the New Testament way into God’s kingdom—through Holy Baptism and the faith connected to it—Baptism that is performed in the name of the triune God, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Now, if Baptism is to be performed in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then each Person must be God; it would be blasphemous to be baptized in the name of any creature. The One who has power over life and death, the One who creates faith where there was only unbelief, the One who gives a person birth into God’s kingdom—that One must be God; only God can do those things: forgive sins, give spiritual birth to a person, make a dead person alive, and open the kingdom of heaven. So the Holy Spirit is God, together with the Father and the Son. This is the only God, the saving God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one can be saved except by faith in this God.
The Spirit’s work of regeneration is invisible; you can’t see Him doing it. Jesus compares it to the wind. 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. You can’t see the Spirit working or explain the origin of faith. But you can see the effect of the Spirit’s work. A person who formerly didn’t trust in Jesus’ atoning death for sin now believes that the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. A person who formerly lived to please him or herself now lives to please God. A person who formerly didn’t care about hearing God’s Word now can’t get enough of it. A person who formerly was ashamed of Jesus is now ready to face death for His sake. That’s the night and day change that occurs when a person is born again. People don’t change themselves in matters of faith; it’s the Holy Spirit who changes them, through water and Word.
Nicodemus heard the words of Jesus, but it still didn’t make sense to him, because, as the Apostle Paul says, the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. What Jesus revealed next about “heavenly things” sounds even more foolish to the man without the Spirit: No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. What does that mean?
It means, no man can know God or understand His thoughts, because no man has ever ascended into heaven to see Him. But there is One who knows every thought of God, every action, every plan and purpose. That One is the Son of Man who came down from heaven—Jesus, who appeared to be just a man to Nicodemus, Jesus who was born in time according to the flesh, but who, according to His divine nature, was with God from the beginning, and was God. He came down from heaven, was incarnate as the Son of Man. And yet, because He never ceases to be God, Jesus could also say, as He was standing right there in front of Nicodemus, that the Son of Man “is in heaven.” Now, tell me, can any creature be in two places at once? Of course not! Therefore, Jesus is God. So. Since we can’t ascend into heaven to know God, God has come down to reveal Himself to us in the Person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit drives that knowledge home into our hearts. As Paul says to the Corinthians, For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. To try to know God, or worship God, or enter into God’s kingdom in any other way but by hearing and believing the Word of Christ is useless.
And what is the mind of the Lord which we know through Christ? Jesus has been building up all along to that very climax: 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. This one picture from the Old Testament summarizes perfectly the work of the triune God on our behalf. The people of Israel sinned against God and against Moses by grumbling and complaining in the wilderness: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread. So God sent venomous snakes into the camp to bite them, to kill them for their sin. Death has always been the punishment for sin, ever since God told Adam, “If you eat of this fruit, you will surely die.” But the people of Israel repented of their sin, and God, in His mercy, chose to heal them. He could have just miraculously zapped all the snakes and healed the snake-bitten people, but instead He had Moses make a statue of a serpent out of bronze, and lift the serpent up on a pole. And whoever looked up at the serpent on the pole was healed and didn’t die.
What a beautiful picture of the Trinity’s plan to save fallen mankind. God the Father sends God the Son into the flesh and has sinful men lift Him up on a pole—a cross—so that all who look at Him, that is, who believe in Him, should not perish but have eternal life. No one can believe in Him by his own strength or power, just as no one can give birth to himself. But God the Holy Spirit comes in Word and in water and turns the sinner’s eyes toward Jesus in faith, and so heals us from the snake-bite of sin so that we won’t die from it, but will live forever in God’s kingdom.
This is the life or death message of Scripture, because without faith in this triune God, and without the working of the Holy Spirit to create and sustain that faith, you will surely die under the wrath of the only true God. But His desire for you, His purpose for you is that you not die. His purpose for you is that you know the only God, the saving God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through Holy Baptism He has brought you into His kingdom and made you sons of God. Through His Word and His Sacraments He sustains you in His kingdom and teaches you to live as sons of God. This is the God whom we worship, “one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” He is the only God, the saving God. Blessed be His name forever and ever! Amen.