Jn 3 1-17 Couldn’t Be Without Trinity (originally published version in pdf format)
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
As you might imagine, people aren’t always excited by Holy Trinity Sunday. There aren’t any presents, like at Christmas. There aren’t typically a lot of exciting, catchy hymns, like at Easter. There’s no special mood that comes with it, like Lent or Advent. It’s just sort of, well, doctrinal.
I’ll grant you that the Trinity is a difficult thing to understand. Actually, I have to grant that it’s more than that: The Trinity is impossible to understand. Any and all attempts to explain it in terms that make it possible for us to understand it have resulted in some contradiction with God’s own revelation of himself. No, he’s not one person with three different jobs. No, he’s not one person with three different roles to fulfill. No, there are not three Gods of similar substance who are so completely united in thought that they act as one. There are three persons, but only one God. The persons are completely distinct from one another yet completely God in and of themselves. They are each the one, true God and together they are the one, true God, yet they are not each other. Each person is and must remain distinct.
Confused? Well, that’s the interesting thing. Although contemplating something that is beyond our comprehension is confusing, God did not even in the least, smallest bit reveal his Triune nature in order to confuse us. Not at all. Rather he revealed his nature to us to strengthen us, encourage us, to increase our trust in him and the peace that comes from knowing him.
How does he strengthen and encourage us by revealing an incomprehensible truth? Well, consider that the third chapter of the Gospel of John is often characterized as both an essential explanation of salvation as well as being among the simplest. And then consider that this simple explanation doesn’t work without reference to the Trinity. Or, to put it more strongly and directly, look at your salvation here as Jesus describes it and consider the fact that This Could Not Be Without the Trinity. That’s right. What Jesus says simply could not be true without a Triune God. And this is some of the simplest, most basic stuff in the whole Bible!
Come to think of it, it’s a little strange that this conversation was so simple. It probably should have been one of the most complicated and in-depth conversations in all of Scripture. I say that not because it’s about the Trinity but because it’s a conversation that takes place between Jesus and someone who seems to be an old, venerable teacher among God’s people. Nicodemus, John tells us, was a member of the Jewish ruling council. Jesus calls him “Israel’s teacher.” It seems natural that this conversation between Jesus and this wise, old Pharisee would have gotten very deep and very involved. But it didn’t. Instead, it became a lesson in the basics of salvation provided to a man who was considered in his day to be a Bible expert.
But at least you can give Nicodemus some kudos for not trying to avoid the obvious truth about Jesus: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” At the same time, however, this also confronts us with the thing about Nicodemus that confuses people the most: If he saw and understood the evidence that Jesus was the real deal, then why didn’t he believe in him right away? Well, this just shows that there’s a difference between knowing God exists and having faith in him.
Think about what faith means. Faith is trust. When you don’t trust someone, you don’t believe what they tell you. You have no faith in them. For whatever reason, you don’t believe that they are on your side and so you’re automatic reaction to anything they say is skeptical. I mean, come on! Nicodemus was already familiar with Jesus’ ministry, so he knew that Jesus wasn’t talking about people crawling back into their mother’s wombs to go through the birthing process again! When had he ever seen or even heard of anything like that ever happening among Jesus followers? That really wasn’t a legitimate question so much as it was foolish skepticism coming from an unbelieving heart that did not trust the one, true God.
Jesus totally nailed it when he used the illustration of the wind. Just because you don’t understand the origin of every breeze that hits your face doesn’t mean you should question its existence. Just because you don’t understand the full extent of a particular wind’s reach doesn’t mean you should question that it has an effect. You can’t see wind and you don’t always know the mechanics of every wind that blows, but you still acknowledge that the wind exists. You can see the effects of it in the branches that sway and in the stuff that gets blown around.
Nicodemus was seeing the effects of the Third Person of the Trinity all around him. Through the ministry of Jesus, those who had been lost were being found. The faithless were becoming faithful. People that the Pharisees would have given up on—prostitutes, tax collectors—these were coming to repentance, changed forever by Jesus’ message and ministry.
But the teachers of Jesus’ day would not accept what they saw with their own two eyes. Why? They simply did not trust him. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
By the way, have you lost track yet of what this has to do with Trinity Sunday? I’ll bring this back around now to where we began: None of what Nicodemus saw or heard could be without the Trinity. Remember what Nicodemus had said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus started getting into the work of the Holy Spirit—and ultimately that of the Father and of the Son—because Nicodemus had acknowledged that the one, true God had to be at work in Jesus’ ministry. Nicodemus was, of course, correct, and yet he did not have faith in Jesus and, thus, he did not have faith in the one, true God. Jesus, then, started talking about the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in order to foster the faith that Nicodemus lacked. Speaking of the Trinity was basic and essential to that work.
You may not see it yet, but I’m starting to bring this around to typical weaknesses that you find today in our own Christian faith. You see, Christians today tend not to be really big on “doctrine.” They say it, in fact, like it’s some rarely handled and far-off aspect of the Christian faith. They speak of doctrine like it is an intellectual pursuit for eggheads or people who like to read books all the time and argue about them.
The doctrine of the Trinity is often a case-in-point for people who treat doctrine with disdain. Because it is difficult to understand, they assume that it is a message for the aforementioned eggheads and intellectuals, not for the regular, old, front-line Christians.
But look at how wrong Jesus proves such an attitude to be! Here Jesus is trying to break down the gospel of salvation into its simplest, most basic building blocks for someone who has missed the point of it their whole lives through, and what does he talk about? He talks about the work of the Spirit! He talks about the Father sending his Son! He talks about the Trinity!
And that’s because the simple message of salvation in Christ simply cannot be without the doctrine of the Trinity. “For God so loved the world that he [the Father] gave his one and only Son [the Son], that whoever believes in him [faith is the work of the Spirit] shall not perish but have eternal life.”
You may find the doctrine of the Trinity difficult. That’s understandable. It is difficult. In fact, it’s impossible to work out satisfactorily in your head. That’s okay. God didn’t give it to you as a puzzle to figure out but as a way to see how God can both be paying what is owed for sin and receiving what is owed for sin.
We need to recognize, brothers and sisters, that when we cave in to the faithless views of this world regarding the doctrines of Scripture, we are giving in to deadly lies that keep us away from truths that were revealed in order to strengthen our faith and assure us of our salvation. Just because something is difficult to work out completely in a little human brain doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, believable or helpful. After all, which is more incomprehensible: the doctrine of the Trinity or the fact that a perfectly holy God who is no worse off if he simply damns us all to hell decided that he would rather damn himself in our place instead of watching us suffer for our own sins against him?
Trinity Sunday isn’t really for explaining the Trinity. It is for marveling in it. Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t revealed so that smart people could unravel it. It was revealed so that slow people like you and I could see better the extent of God’s love, that he did not come here to condemn us but to save us, a truth that could not be—nor could it be believed—without the Trinity. Amen.