“Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered Him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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?’” (John 3:9-12).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This week I was watching a podcast where Andrew Klavan was interviewing Jordan Peterson, the best-selling author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. For those of you unfamiliar with Peterson, I would encourage you to get to know a little about him. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called him the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world.”
What I found most interesting about the conversation was Klavan’s question about where Peterson stands in his understanding of faith and God. Peterson’s critics to the left have accused him of being a dangerous spokesman for the alt-right and labeled him a fundamentalist Christian. Conservative Christians have warned that while Peterson could be an ally in the struggle against neo-Marxism and cancel-culture, we should not be too quick to accept him as a brother in the faith, especially since he has never said that he is. Peterson calls himself “a classic British liberal” and refuses any attempt to pin down his religious belief. He defines faith “as something you are willing to die for.” While he is thinking and investigating and finds Christianity attractive, he’s not there yet.
As I listened to Peterson and Klavan’s conversation, I’m reminded of Nicodemus’ late-night visit to Jesus. There’s great insight, thought, and hunger to understand, but the Holy Spirit has not yet brought new birth. Like many intellectuals, Peterson is still under the impression that everything must be fully understood to be believed. He is not yet ready to accept the mystery of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ. God grant that day would come soon!
“In the first edition of his Loci Communes, Philipp Melanchthon begins with the warning that the mysteries of God are to be adored, not investigated. The Feast of the Holy Trinity is not a day for explaining and investigating the unfathomable mystery of God’s triune being; it is a day for adoration. Thus, the Athanasian Creed [which we will use today] confesses, ‘And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance’” (emphasis added).[i]
There are many things about God that we cannot explain. Even highly trained theologians must admit that they cannot answer every single God-related question. For example, if you want to know what kept God busy before the creation of the world, you will have to wait to ask the Source Himself. However, there are a great many things about God that we do know and that we can explain.
We know that God exists. We know there is a God because His Law is written in our hearts—morality is hardwired into us. Most of us feel, perhaps even without instruction, that it is not okay to murder or steal or lie. Deep down, at our core, we know right from wrong. We call this conscience or natural knowledge.
But if we knew of God’s existence only from nature and our frail hearts, that would not be a full knowledge of God. It is not nearly enough to enter a good relationship with this God what we think must exist.
The only way we can come to know the one and only true God is through the way He chooses to reveal Himself. And while God could certainly set up some other communication system, He used a medium with which we are all familiar: words. His Word.
In Scripture, God tells us about Himself, and we learn that while there is only one God, He is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now this whole three-in-one and one-in-three business known as the Trinity is downright mind-boggling. It is a mystery. We do not arrive at our understanding of God because it is reasonable or logical, but because it has been revealed to us in Scripture.
The word Trinity never appears in Scripture. A long time ago a theologian took the liberty of assigning a name to this concept so that we do not talk in circles whenever we refer to the threeness of the one God.
Both the Old and New Testaments state that there is only one God. We also learn that the one true God consists of more than one person. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let Us make man in Our image.” In Isaiah 6, God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God is both one and three. The three persons of the Trinity work together. A clear example of this is found at Jesus’ Baptism, where we see 1) God the Son as an in-the-flesh human being, 2) God the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and 3) God the Father’s voice coming down from heaven.
Also, when Jesus commands Holy Baptism in Matthew 28:19, He tells the apostles to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of Holy Spirit. The one, singular name God includes all three persons of the Trinity.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page: The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. They are all God—not three gods, but one God in three persons. The three persons are all equally good and equally important. There are no inferiority complexes or power struggles within the Trinity.
All that being said, if you still do not completely understand who God is, you are in good company. The truth is that God has not revealed everything about Himself. Numerous errors and false teachings started because people wanted a God who fits their own limited human understanding. But Lutherans are most comfortable in confessing what God has revealed to us about Himself. No more, no less. It is not necessary to understand the Trinity, but to believe what He has revealed about Himself. As we confess in the Athanasian Creed, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”
In our Gospel for today, we meet Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a “ruler of the Jews.” Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel,” suggesting that he is a highly recognized teacher among his contemporaries. As such, Nicodemus knows the Law and the traditions of Judaism forwards and backwards. The problem is He doesn’t really know the Lord. He doesn’t recognize Him even when he meets Him face-to-face.
As his conversation with Jesus ensues, Nicodemus encounters a hard truth about himself. As a teacher of Israel, he does not understand everything—not even the most important, elementary truths of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings. The ways of God bringing life “from above” are a mystery to him. Although he has taught the stories of Israel, although he has read how Ezekiel called the Spirit of God to come from the four corners of the earth and bring the bones of Israel to life, he still does not understand. He is limited in his understanding and Jesus presses into that limitation, bringing Nicodemus to the hard truth that there is an end to his understanding.
At the end of his understanding, however, is the beginning of life. It is life which comes as a gift, life which flows from the mystery of God.
Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as a “teacher come from God,” but he doesn’t recognize Him as the Incarnate Son of God. He thinks he knows about the Kingdom of God, but he doesn’t know that to enter the Kingdom of God, one must be born again of water and the Spirit. He doesn’t know about the Son of Man who descended from heaven, who must be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. He doesn’t know that God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
By God’s grace, you do know these things. God has revealed Himself to you—who He is and what He has done for you. Although God’s ways are hard and beyond our understanding, they proceed from grace. The hard ways of God reveal the softness of His heart. God’s grace enters into that which is painful, that which is difficult, and it brings about life. God is painfully creative.
God the Father sees the world He has created: fallen, rebellious, broken, riddled with death. God the Father, however, will not abandon His creation. Instead, He sends His Son into the world to bring life, new life. Life from above, born by the power of the Holy Spirit, that all people might be saved through Him.
This way of life, however, is not easy to understand. Neither is it easy to live. Like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross. He will experience God’s wrath for sin. Painfully bearing the sin of all, Jesus will powerfully bring God’s grace to all. Yes, He will be lifted up on the cross and die. But He will also be lifted up from the tomb and rise. He will then be lifted up to the heavens and ascend, and be seated at the right hand of God, the Father, from where He will send forth His Spirit, through water and the Word, to bring life. We are baptized in the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three in One, One in Three, graciously joined in a mystery.
Trinity Sunday is a day we confess the mystery of our faith. It is a mystery that saves. The ways of God are beyond our understanding but at the heart of this mystery is a love that saves. Some mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Others are questions to be answered. This mystery, however, is a love to be experienced.
When I was about twelve years old, my parents let me have my own garden spot. I planted green beans. When they didn’t come up right away, I grew impatient. I also want to try to figure out how plants grow. I dug in the row and found a couple of the sprouted seeds, which broke off in the process and would never grow. I was no closer to understanding this mystery of life. Now, as an adult, I plant seeds, wait patiently, and trust in their growth.
There are some mysteries I do not understand but that does not mean that I cannot experience the blessing of their life. In some ways, the Trinity is like that mystery. Deep within the heart of God, one God in three persons and three persons in one God, is the gift of life. It is a life which is abundant, gracious, freely given, able to take our painful limitations, able to enter into our sin and our suffering, able to grasp the limits of death itself, and break through with salvation, that, “Whoever believes in Jesus Christ should not perish but have everlasting life.” Today, we rejoice in that mystery.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Weedon, William C. Celebrating the Saints. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016. Kindle Location 4922 of 5229.