A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
St. John 3:1-15(16)
by William Klock
In today’s Gospel St. John tells us the story of a man who came to Jesus with some questions. I know that today is Trinity Sunday, but instead of preaching a doctrinal sermon on the Holy Trinity, I’d like to look this morning at the answers that Jesus gives this man—gives this “seeker”, to use a term that’s become popular today. And I want to look at Jesus’ answers, because today’s Gospel bridges the gap between the events of Pentecost that we read about last Sunday and the rest of the year ahead of us, the rest of Trinitytide, where we learn, Sunday by Sunday, the lessons of what it means to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. In a sense, today’s Gospel prepares us. And this is important, because if we jump into the lessons of Trinitytide—the lessons about the Christian life—if we jump into them unprepared with what Jesus tells us today, we might get the wrong idea; we might get the idea that being a Christian is about being a do-gooder, about praying, or about going to church. All those things are parts of the Christian life, but you can’t do any of those things to become a Christian. Those aren’t the things we do to enter the kingdom; they’re the things we do because we’re already in it. Today’s Gospel lays out for us, well, the Gospel. In the Epistle John saw a door open into heaven. In the Gospel Jesus himself shows us that heavenly doorway.
St. John tells us:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. (St. John 3:1)
Nicodemus was an important man. He was a Pharisee, but more importantly, he was a member of the Sanhedrin—the group of religious leaders that governed the Jewish people. He was part of a select few. And that means we need to realise that this isn’t just some Average Joe coming to ask Jesus some questions and not just some Joe with power and authority over the people either. Nicodemus didn’t get where he was without being a very smart and well-educated man. He was a theologian. In fact, in verse 10, Jesus calls him a “teacher of Israel”. And maybe this is why he comes to Jesus as he does here. In verse 2 John tells us:
This man came to Jesus by night…
Even though he knew that there was something more to Jesus than met the eye, Nicodemus was ashamed; he was afraid to come to Jesus openly and at a time and place where he might be seen, so he comes at night and under cover of darkness. We don’t know exactly why. Jesus was quickly becoming unpopular with the Jewish leaders and maybe Nicodemus feared that if his colleagues saw him associating with Jesus he’d be in trouble. Maybe he was just full of pride and didn’t want people seeing him, a big-wig (and probably a wealthy one at that) going out to talk with this new upstart, poor, itinerant rabbi everyone was talking about, but whatever the case:
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.”
Nicodemus and his colleagues had heard Jesus teaching and they had seen the signs—the miracles—he had done. John in his Gospel especially points to these miracles as specific signs of Jesus divinity. And Nicodemus was smart enough to recognise these signs. He and his friends were convinced that at least Jesus was truly sent by God and that God was truly working through him. He wasn’t confessing that Jesus was the Messiah or that he was God Incarnate or anything that specific, but he’d seen Jesus at work and knew that God was with him. The fact that Nicodemus addresses Jesus as a fellow rabbi affirms this. I really don’t think he was mocking Jesus when he said these things. He was a “seeker” in the real sense of that word. He wanted to follow God and he wanted to be a part of God’s work—and here he saw it in Jesus. He’s saying, “Jesus, my friends and I work for God and it’s obvious to some of us that you work for God too.”
But Jesus doesn’t respond and say, “Well thanks, Nicodemus! In fact, yes, I have come from God. How about we team up? Do you think your buddies would let me into the Pharisee Club? Maybe I could have a seat on the Sanhedrin too?” You see, I really suspect that Nicodemus came to Jesus for some kind of affirmation in his own ministry. He knew Jesus was the real deal—that he really was from God. But so far, Jesus hadn’t had anything to do with him or his Pharisee friends. I think it’s very likely that Nicodemus wanted Jesus’ blessing on his own ministry. But that’s not what Jesus does. And Jesus doesn’t affirm Nicodemus or the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin, because he knows the real need in Nicodemus’ heart. In fact, this whole section of St. John’s Gospel is a string of encounters that Jesus has with various people. It starts with Nicodemus, then he goes to see John the Baptist, and then he meets the Woman at the Well. Think especially of that woman who gave Jesus water to drink at the well and how Jesus told her her own life story and laid the deep needs of her heart bare. Jesus is really doing the same thing here with Nicodemus. He knew the wrong track that the Pharisees were on—including Nicodemus—and so as he offered the Woman at the Well living water, so here he offers Nicodemus what he needs: the living Spirit. In each case Jesus is offering the Good News. And so John goes on in verse 3:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of God—the place everyone wants to be, but also the one place none of us can get to on our own. That’s why Jesus had to come—so that he could take us by the hand, leading us out of sin and death and into the holy. And that’s what he does with Nicodemus. He says, “Nicodemus, you don’t need my affirmation on your ministry. You simply need to accept mine and to accept me for who I am and what I’ve come to do. You need to be born again.” In fact, Jesus uses that word “unless”—“unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That’s a word that ought to catch our attention, because it means that there’s only one way into the kingdom. If you aren’t “born again” you can never get there.
We have to ask what it means to be “born again”. When I was a kid it became popular for people to start throwing this term around. People started talking about “born again Christians”. “I’m not just a Christian,” they’d say, “I’m a born again Christian.” But friends, there’s no such thing as a Christian who hasn’t been born-again. Yes, there are church goers and all sorts of other people that like to think of themselves as Christian who aren’t born again, but if you’re a Christian you are a Christian because you have been born again. Talking about “born again Christians” is like taking about “round circles” or “wet water”—the two can’t be separated.
But Nicodemus hasn’t figured that out yet. The problem is that he still thinks he’s spiritually okay where he’s at. And so he asks:
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
Nicodemus wasn’t stupid. Even if he didn’t fully understand, he knew this isn’t what Jesus meant. At this point he’s getting snarky because Jesus isn’t affirming him in his spiritual “lostness” as a Pharisee. “Born again? Right, Jesus. You’re saying I’ve got to climb back inside my mom and come out again?” Because Jesus didn’t affirm him he gets crass and insulting—not that unlike unbelievers today who get upset when we confront their sin or their false beliefs rather than affirming them. No one likes to be told that there’s only one way into the kingdom.
But Jesus doesn’t insult him back. He doesn’t back off. He says:
“Truly, truly, 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.” (John 3:5-6)
So it’s not just being reborn—it’s being reborn in a different way. Because of the fallen state of the human race, our earthly mothers can give birth only to sinners. We’re all born fallen. And since we’re all in the same predicament, there’s nothing we can do for ourselves or even for each other to fix that problem. “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” That’s where Nicodemus was. And so Jesus takes him back to some imagery that he should have understood—especially so as a rabbi and Old Testament scholar. Jesus is saying, “When I say you have to be born again, I’m not talking about physical rebirth; I’m talking about being cleansed of your sins. I’m talking about dealing with the very thing, the very problem that makes you unacceptable to God and keeps you out of his kingdom.” Nicodemus should have understood these things. Jesus draws on some ideas that Ezekiel preached. The people were stuck in sin in those days too and Ezekiel had stressed that they needed two things: they needed to be purified and they needed to be resurrected by the power of God. Think of the valley of dry bones and how God brought those bones back to life. That’s what the people (and Nicodemus) needed.
Jesus also reminds Nicodemus of what he had no doubt heard John the Baptist preaching. John had been baptising people with a baptism of repentance, but as he did that he heralded the way for Jesus, the one who would come after him and baptise with his Holy Spirit. The Jewish ritual washing in the Old Testament and John’s baptism were symbolic. They got you wet, but they didn’t really do anything. Jesus on the other hand brought the real deal. When we’re baptised in Christian baptism, we are not only washed with water—which still carries the symbolism of ritual purification from our sins—but we are also at the same time flood by his Holy Spirit who unites us to Jesus in whom we then have new life. And that pouring in of the Holy Spirit begins the work of sanctification—the ongoing process of our being made holy. So in the baptism of Jesus we are born of water and the Spirit—we receive what was promised in the Old Testament: we’re given both the purification we so desperately need and the resurrection we can never find on our own. For that reason I have to say, to talk of a “Spirit-filled Christian” is like taking about a “born again Christian”. There’s no such thing as a Christian who isn’t full of the Spirit just as there’s no such thing as a Christian who hasn’t been born again.
But back to Nicodemus. “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” Jesus knew that one of the problems with the Jews was that many of them were convinced that being born a Jew was what saved them. Jesus says, “No. If you want to be saved, you have to be born again of the Holy Spirit.” And we have the same problem too. There are people who think that just because they were born to Christian parents or raised in a Christian home or went to a Christian school or attend a Christian church that they’re Christians. Jesus reminds us that none of those thing will get us into the kingdom of God. Only “that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” Unless you are born of God’s Spirit, there’s nothing you can do in the flesh that will get you into God’s kingdom.
Jesus goes on in verses 7-8:
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus plays with some words here. In both Greek and Hebrew “spirit” and “wind” are the same word. He’s saying, “You have to be born of the Spirit and it’s like the wind. You can’t control or predict the wind because it blows at God’s direction, so the new birth of the Holy Spirit is God’s work.” St. Paul would later write in Ephesians 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” It’s a supernatural work and it’s done from above and by the power of God. It’s not something you or I can do. None of us can cause ourselves to be born again—only the sovereign Holy Spirit can.
But still Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks, “How can these things be?” And Jesus asks back, “How is it you don’t understand. You’re supposed to be a teacher of Israel? You should have flunked out of seminary when you didn’t get this. This is what the entire Old Testament prepared you for and pointed to.” He goes on in verses 11-13 and says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
Jesus is essentially saying, “Nicodemus, you’re talking face-to-face with the One who has come down from heaven. You’re talking to the Son of Man—the one prophesied by the Old Testament prophets, and yet you don’t understand.” Jesus has been telling him that the flesh won’t get you into the kingdom of God—that you have to be born of God’s Spirit. Now Jesus gets more specific. He points to himself as the one who offers the new birth. And he takes an interesting tack. He takes Nicodemus back to an event that took place in the book of Numbers when the Jews were in the wilderness. He says:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
In Numbers 21 we read how the people began grumbling against Moses and against God. They wanted to go back to the “good old days” when they were in Egypt, as silly as that sounds. In response God sent serpents into the camp. The serpents bit the people and they started dying from the venom. The people repented—which was God’s plan—and they urged Moses to pray for them. Moses prayed and God told him to cast a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole so that if anyone were then bitten by the serpents, all they had to do was look up to that bronze serpent and they would be healed.
The sad part of the story is that even though many of the people repented and looked up to the snake for healing as God told them, there were also plenty of people who refused and who died.
Jesus point is this: He himself was going to be lifted up in much the same way that Moses had lifted up that bronze snake on the pole. Jesus would be lifted up on a cross. He would become the substitute for the serpent. He would take on himself the sting of death. He would take on himself the poison of sin. He would be lifted up so that whoever believes on him may have eternal life.
Think about the parallel between the Jews in the wilderness being bitten by poisonous serpents and the rest of us living today under the sting of death and poison of sin. Those people who had been bitten by the serpents were going to die, so God graciously gave them a remedy to save them from certain death. Jesus explains to Nicodemus here that we’re in a similar state—except we’re not just destined for physical death, we’re destined for eternal spiritual death. But Jesus says, God has provided a remedy for you too. He’s going to lift me up on the cross—me, his Son—and I’ll offer there salvation from spiritual death the same way that the serpent lifted up by Moses offered salvation from physical death. Just as the many faithful Jews had faith in God’s power to heal them and obeyed and looked up to the bronze serpent, so we can find salvation—so we can find new birth through the Spirit—if we will only have faith in Jesus and look to him on the cross.
And this is where St. John steps in with his own Spirit-inspired commentary on Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and says those familiar words of verse 16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus started out saying “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Unless. Being born again is the necessary condition. And Jesus tells us how to meet that condition. He has been lifted up on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. He offers new birth by his Spirit to repair the flaw built into all of us by our natural birth. He offers the solution to the problem that we of the flesh can never come up with on our own. He took our sin on himself. He who was sinless became sin for us and died in our place that we might be rescued from the penalty of that sin—washed and made clean—and at the same time rescued from the bondage to that sin that we might become a holy people—united to him by his own Holy Spirit. But that “whoever” in verse 16 goes along with that “unless” in verse 3. Jesus’ death doesn’t do anything for us unless we believe. Whoever believes in him—trusting in him to do what we cannot—has eternal life. That means that whoever does not believe is still bound for eternal death.
That’s the sad thing here. When Moses raised up the bronze serpent he offered a cure that was 100% effective. Everyone could see that those who looked up to the serpent were healed. And yet we’re told that there were many who died. They refused God’s cure and they died. And just so, the Father lifted up his Son on the cross and offers us healing if we will only look up to him—if we will only have faith in him as our sinless substitute. Again, the cure rate is 100% and the promise is sure. But still there are many people around us who hear the message, who see him lifted up on the cross, who even know they are sinners, and refuse him. They continue looking for a backdoor into the kingdom of God that doesn’t exist.
And so, brothers and sisters, as we now jump into the lessons of the second half of the Church Year—the lessons that teach us what it means to live in God’s kingdom, now is the time to make sure you’re actually in that kingdom. Just statistically speaking, there are at least a few people here today who aren’t. There are people in every church that, much like Nicodemus, who think that because they were born in a Christian family or because they’ve gone to church for years, that they’re in the kingdom, and yet they’ve never truly put their faith in the sacrifice of Jesus for their sins. Some put their faith in their baptism, and yet forget that without faith in Jesus as Saviour that baptism is of no effect. Now is the time for each of us to evaluate where we stand. We’ve spent almost six months walking through the life and ministry of the Messiah. We’ve seen him come down from heaven, we’ve seen him live his sinless life, we’ve seen him die for our sins, we’ve seen him raised to new life, we’ve seen him ascend back to his heavenly throne, and we’ve seen him send his Holy Spirit to give birth to his kingdom. Now is the time to make sure you’ve truly entered that kingdom, now is the time to look to him as his Father lifts him up before us.
Please pray with me: Almighty God, on this Trinity Sunday, we ask that you would place firmly before us your mighty acts of salvation: the Father loving and sending, the Son loving and dying, the Holy Spirit loving and filling with life. Let your saving work not simply be a glorious vision to see, let it not be an intellectual truth to affirm, but by the working of your life-giving Spirit, make it for each of us the object of a true and saving faith that we might pass through the open door into the kingdom of heaven, through Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord. Amen.