The Holy Trinity (B)
June 7, 2009
Text: John 3:1-17
The fact that God is Triune
, one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, demands not our understanding and comprehension, but our confession and praise. How one can equal three and three can equal one is not a math problem to be solved or a theory to be proven, but a truth, the truth
, in which we delight. As a matter of fact, we are immersed in that truth, for we are baptized into that Name, one Name, three Persons: I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, God is one: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4; ESV). This one God is the only true God. All others are idols. Therefore this one God, YHWH, “I AM,” as He names Himself (Ex. 3:14), alone is to be worshiped, feared, loved, and trusted. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). There is one God, and yet He reveals Himself in three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not three modes, or three faces of God, nor are they three gods, but three distinct Persons within the one substance of the Godhead, all three interpenetrating one another. Thus Jesus instructs His disciples to make disciples of all the nations by baptizing them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), again, one Name for one God, but three persons. Two of the most common Christian benedictions, recorded in Holy Scripture, profess this reality of the Trinity. St. Paul writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). The Aaronic benediction, which I will pronounce upon you at the end of this Divine Service, is recorded in the Old Testament (Num. 6:24-26). It was the blessing Aaron the priest was to pronounce upon the congregation of Israel, and this benediction likewise reflects the Triune nature of God: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Three times the Name YHWH, translated into English as “Lord,” is pronounced upon the people who bear the Name of their God, who are then given to confess that Name and give praise to God in that Name. In other words, this article on the Trinity is as much in the Old Testament as it is in the New. Even in the first chapter of Genesis, we see the Holy Trinity in action, as God the Father creates by speaking His Word, the Son who would become the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is hovering over the waters.
So you see, the article on the Trinity is very important. As we will see, it is important for our very salvation. In just a few minutes we will confess in the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith… And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity” (LSB p. 319). On this basis the Lutheran Confessions say from the outset about the Trinity: “We unanimously hold and teach… that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence, equal in power and alike eternal: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All three are one divine essence, eternal, without division, without end, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, one creator and preserver of all things visible and invisible” (Tappert; AC I:1-3).
The article on the Trinity goes hand in hand with the Gospel. There would be no Gospel were it not for the article on the Trinity, for the Gospel flows to us from the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As hard as the Trinity is to understand and as complicated as the terminology is that we use to describe Him, the confession of the Trinity is not just some academic exercise. “Scripture does not propose the doctrine of the Trinity as an academic question or a metaphysical problem. With the proclamation that in the one eternal God there are three Persons of one and the same divine essence Scripture combines the further gracious message that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son into death as the Savior from the guilt of sin and death; that in the fullness of time, the eternal Son became incarnate and by His vicarious satisfaction,” His payment of sin in your place
, “reconciled the world to God and that the Holy Ghost engenders faith and thus applies to man the salvation gained by Christ. When the Christian confesses, ‘I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ he is saying, ‘I believe in that God who is gracious to me, a sinner.’”
Which leads us to our Gospel lesson. The Father is revealed and reconciled to us by the Son, Jesus Christ, in whom we come to faith by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the world in this manner: He sends the Son in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, who bears our sins on the cross that we might become His righteousness, and is raised again that we might have eternal life. This crucified and risen Son then sends the Holy Spirit from the Father, who leads us to faith in Jesus. And all who believe in Jesus, all upon whom the Holy Spirit does His enlivening work, have eternal life. You must know the Son to have eternal life. That is the problem with, for instance, the Jews, who think they worship the Father, but do not know the Son. You cannot have the Father unless you have the Son, Jesus Christ. But if you have Jesus Christ, if you are united to Him by Baptism and faith, born again of water and the Spirit, then you have the Father. And you have Him as a gracious God, who loves you and forgives you all your sins for Jesus’ sake.
Nicodemus thinks He worships the Father. But He does not know the Son. He knows that Jesus is from God. But he thinks that Jesus is just a great teacher. Many are the unbelievers in this world who would likewise acclaim Jesus as a great teacher. Yet they do not have the Son, because they do not believe in Him. Nicodemus does not come to Jesus in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of sins. He comes to talk theology with Jesus as an equal. But Jesus will have none of it. He loves Nicodemus too much to be tolerant of his misguided religion. We do not come to Jesus on our own terms. Jesus comes to us on His
terms. And so Jesus declares to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus is confused. How can one be born again? Surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born. But of course, Jesus is not talking about physical birth. He is talking about birth of the Spirit. He is talking about Baptism! “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). How do you see the Kingdom? How do you enter it? Jesus is the Kingdom of God. If Nicodemus believed, he would have seen the Kingdom of God sitting before Him and, indeed, speaking to Him. You enter the Kingdom of God, you enter Jesus, by faith. And faith is given in the new birth of water and the Spirit, water and the Word, Baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes: God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). Incidentally, later, Nicodemus did come to this new birth and so see the Kingdom, being one of only two members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who after the crucifixion professed faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior of the world. The Holy Spirit opened Nicodemus’ lips to confess and to praise. The Holy Spirit brought Nicodemus to faith.
Faith is looking to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, lifted up on the pole of the cross, just as the bronze serpent in the wilderness was lifted up. When the Israelites had sinned grievously against the Lord, speaking against both God and Moses, the Lord sent fiery serpents among them who fatally bit the people. But God also provided for His people’s deliverance from the serpents. He commanded Moses to put a bronze serpent upon a pole. Whoever was bitten by one of the fiery serpents and looked at the bronze serpent upon the pole would be healed. That’s faith. Look at the serpent on the pole and live (Num. 21:4-9). O people of God, bitten by the fiery serpent of sin, lying on the floor of the wilderness of this world, dying, look to Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross, for your salvation. Look to Jesus on the cross for divine healing. That is faith. The Holy Spirit directs your attention cross-ward, to Jesus Christ and Him crucified, that you might be healed, that you might be forgiven, that you might be reconciled to the Father. That is why we display the crucifix so prominently in our chancel. That is why it is good that the crucifix is right here, next to me, above me as I’m preaching. Because all preaching of God’s Word is pointing you to Christ crucified. The Holy Spirit works through preaching and Sacrament to fix your eyes on Jesus, the Jesus who suffered and died for you, in your place, who as the crucified God is the Author and Perfecter of your faith. And there is, of course, this promise: “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The Holy Spirit delivers the forgiveness of sins won by Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection, to us in His Word and the Sacraments. Jesus was sent by the Father to redeem us. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Spirit directs us in faith to Jesus who reconciles us to the Father. The work of salvation is the work of the Holy Trinity. We cannot understand or comprehend the Holy Trinity in our finite human minds. But we can, by God’s grace, confess Him. We can confess what God in three Persons has done for our salvation. And we can praise Him for this salvation, and for His holy majesty.
In our Old Testament lesson, we are given a glimpse of this divine majesty (Is. 6:1-8). Isaiah sees what is to us un-seeable. He sees the throne of God and hears the seraphim chanting the Sanctus
: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Notice the one God is acclaimed with three “Holies.” Isaiah cannot comprehend what he sees. Rather, he is terrified. No one can see the Holy God and live. Isaiah cowers in fear. He is undone, for he is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. But then a seraph flies to him. The seraph takes a fiery coal with tongs (and it should not be lost on us that even this holy angel has to use tongs to touch the coal)… he takes a fiery coal from the altar of sacrifice and touches Isaiah’s lips. No tongs for Isaiah. Direct contact with Isaiah’s lips. And the angel says: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (v. 7).
Our Lord Jesus is the Lamb of God who has been sacrificed on the altar of the cross. This morning He touches your lips with that sacrifice, His true body and blood, given and shed on the cross, which He will place into your mouths. Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. Now your lips are opened to confess and to praise. Now you will be given to see the living God, the thrice Holy Trinity, and not die. For His body and blood are the medicine of immortality, and whoever believes in Jesus Christ, whoever looks to Him for healing, will not perish, but have eternal life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 
Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics Vol. I
(St. Louis: Concordia, 1950) p. 378.