Today we celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday. We celebrate that we worship a God who is a triune God, a God who has revealed Himself to us as three distinct persons in one Godhead. We do not worship three gods. We do not worship a god who comes to us in three forms or modes. We worship a God who is one God, yet three persons. There are many examples that a person can use to attempt to explain the trinity of God and although there are many examples and although all are limited in their explanations, all are valid for at least one point of illustration. Three such good examples are a tree, an apple and water. A tree has three parts, the roots, the trunk and the leaves, yet there are not three trees, but one tree. An apple has three parts, the seeds, the flesh, and the skin. Yet, again, there are not three apples but one. Water is H2O and it can be solid, as in ice, liquid, as in water, or gas, as in steam. Yet, there are not three waters, but one water. Now, certainly these illustrations only go so far. In reality we must confess that we do not, nor will we ever, this side of heaven, fully understand the trinity of God, but we know that our God is a triune God for He expresses Himself as a triune God and He tells us, specifically to Baptize in His triune name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Our text brings us to a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. He is identified, along with Joseph of Arimathea, as being one who did not vote for the crucifixion of Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and yet he did not go along with the rest of the Pharisees in their actions. Evidently Nicodemus recognized, from the signs and wonders, from the preaching and the miracles of Jesus, that He was not just an ordinary person, but that, perhaps, maybe, just perhaps, Jesus may be the one promised from of old. He may be the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Nicodemus approached Jesus at night. He came at night so that he might not be seen by others and in particular by others of the Pharisees. He came at night so that he might have some one on one time with Jesus, that he might be alone with Jesus without being disturbed by others. He came to Jesus and he confessed his faith. His confession was that Jesus is a prophet and he knows this because “no one can do these signs that [He] does unless God is with him.” Nicodemus understood the signs and wonders, the miracles Jesus’ performed as signs of His divinity that He was the Messiah.
Nicodemus came to Jesus and was concerned and questioned Jesus about eternal life. Jesus’ answer was an answer of faith. One is not saved by physical birth, by being born a Jew, nor is one not saved by being born a Gentile. One is not saved by doing enough good works, nor by doing specific good works. One cannot save oneself, no matter by how many good works one does.
Jesus expands His teaching by making a distinction between physical birth and spiritual birth. As for physical birth, that which is born of flesh is flesh, in other words, we are all conceived and born in sin, that is original sin. Not only that, we all add to our inborn sin our actual sin, sins of omission, those sins of our failure to do the things God would have us to do and sins of commission, those sins we commit against God’s commands. We are born in and with sin and we daily sin much and are in need of forgiveness. Left in our sin we are doomed to eternal death and hell.
There is one solution and that is that one must be born again, and this is not a physical rebirth, but a spiritual rebirth, a being born again of water and spirit. Of course we understand that Jesus is speaking about Holy Baptism. Here Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is saying, what He means about this being born again and so Jesus explains.
As for physical birth Jesus said that sin is born in each one of us. As for spiritual birth, each one must be born again through Holy Baptism, so that which is born of spirit is spirit, “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16a).
This analogy is not so hard to understand, Jesus says. The wind is unseen, and yet we see its effect. We may not see the sin with which we are born, but we see its effect. I would suggest that if you really want to see the effect of our inborn sin, put two toddlers in a room with one toy and see if they instinctively share the toy. I would suggest that rather than share the one toy they will fight over the one toy, and I would suppose that even if you gave them two toys each one might want the toy the other one has, an effect of our inborn sin. Likewise, the spirit works through Holy Baptism. While we may bear witness of God using the hand of the pastor to put water on a person and hear God speaking through the mouth of the pastor, His name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we cannot see the Holy Spirit work in Baptism, but we see the result and the result is faith, forgiveness, life and salvation.
And, even in adults, the Holy Spirit, though unseen, is seen in His work of conversion, as He works through the means of grace, in particular through His Holy Word, to work faith, strengthen faith and to keep us in faith. An unbaptized person who comes to faith through the Word of the Lord naturally has a desire to be baptized, thus we see the effect of the Holy Spirit.
What does this mean? This means that there is a distinction between heavenly beings and earthly beings. And further we are told that only a heavenly being can testify of heaven. In other words, no one from earth can testify concerning heaven because no one from earth has yet been to heaven, except one and that one is Jesus. Only Jesus can testify of heavenly things because only Jesus has been to heaven, for that is from where He came in order to be born as one of us and that is where He ascended following His resurrection.
For what purpose did Jesus descend? Jesus explains His coming to earth using what would be a familiar illustration for Nicodemus and that is the encounter of the children of Israel and the serpents in the wilderness. When Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage of slavery in Egypt it did not take too long and they began to grumble. They grumbled against Moses and against God. As a consequence and as a punishment of their grumbling, God caused serpents to come into the camp and to bite the people. The people, then, cried out in repentance to Moses and to God.
Moses prayed to God and God told him to make an image of the serpent and to put it on a pole. Whenever anyone was bitten by a serpent he or she could look at the serpent on the pole and they would live. The serpent was punishment for their sins. The serpent on the pole was to be looked at in an act of repentance and faith in forgiveness. Thus, in essence, the punishment of the snake and being bitten by the snake became the cure as one who was bitten looked on the bronze snake on the pole.
God created a perfect world and in that perfect world He created and placed a perfect man and a perfect woman into a perfect garden. The devil came and tempted the woman with the temptation that she could be like God. The woman disobeyed God as did the man and with that disobedience, sin entered the world. The punishment for sin was death, the beginning of physical death, and unless there was a cure, the ultimate conclusion would be eternal death and hell. God immediately stepped in and promised to send a Savior, one who would take the punishment for the sin of Adam and Eve. Jesus came as the Savior. He came as one of us, one of the beings which brought sin and death into the world. He came in order to suffer the punishment for us.
God placed Jesus on the cross. The serpent brought death, humans brought death. The serpent on the cross was to be looked at in repentance and faith. Jesus was put on the cross to be looked at in repentance and faith. We look at Jesus and believe and we are saved. Thus, the punishment became the cure.
Which brings us to Jesus words, what we call “the Gospel in a nutshell,” John 3:16. The price of sin is death, physical death and ultimately left unpaid, eternal death and hell. What sin has earned, the wages of sin is death. Sin costs the shedding of blood and death, human blood and human death for human sin. Left alone in our sins we would be condemned to eternal death and hell. Nothing on our part can take care of our sins. There are not enough good things we could do, not that we could or would do them, that could add up to pay the price for our sins.
In His love God sent Jesus. Jesus is God Himself in human flesh. Jesus is the Creator taking on the flesh and blood of His creation in order to rescue His creation. God knew that we, His creation, His creatures, would not be able to save or rescue ourselves, thus, because of His great love for us, He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, true God in human flesh to pay the price for our sins, to rescue us from sin, death and the devil.
The price, the cost, what sin has earned, the wage of sin is eternal death and hell. What Jesus, God in flesh did was pay that price. On the cross, God died for us, in our place. On the cross Jesus died a physical death and an eternal death, He suffered the pain and torment of hell for us, in our place.
In our theology we talk about the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sins. The Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law shows us how we sin, it tells us what we are to do and not to do. On its own all the Law can do is lead us either to think we can gain heaven through works righteousness, or it leads us to despair. The Gospel is the good news. The Gospel points us to Jesus. The Gospel tells us all that Jesus has done, does, and continues to do for us. The Gospel motivates repentance because it proclaims that all our sins have been paid for by Jesus on the cross so that we have forgiveness of sins. The Gospel leads us to faith in Jesus who paid the price for our sins.
Thus, Jesus came into the world, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world though Him might be saved. Yes, to those who do not believe in Jesus they are condemned, but to all those who do believe, to all those who have faith, they are forgiven and have eternal life.
As we celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday we celebrate what a great and loving God we worship. We celebrate that our God is one as He has revealed Himself to us as a triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We celebrate that He is the one who created us, redeemed us, that is traded His life for ours on the cross, and sanctifies us, that is He continues to work faith in our hearts, strengthen us in faith, and keeps us in faith until Christ comes again. And when Christ comes again He will gather us with all the saints and we will stand before the Lord’s throne and say, “To God be the glory.” For Jesus’ sake. Amen.