The First Sunday after Pentecost
(Trinity Sunday) May 30, 2010
224, 231, 246, 244
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit—our triune God—be with you all. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christian:
Pontius Pilate once posed the rhetorical question to our Lord: “What is truth?” We routinely condemn Pilate in connection with his question, but not for the question itself. The question itself was solid—a truly great question. We rather condemn Pilate for his arrogance and for the fact that he was in no way looking for an answer to his grand inquiry because he believed there was no answer. That was a symptom of Pilate’s basic problem which was that he did not know the one true God. The irony is that he was asking the right question of the one person in all of history that could have given him an authoritative, first person answer.
There is such a thing as truth, but the moment mankind rejects the one, true God he also sentences himself to an endless and hopeless search for absolute truth. Why? Because truth begins and ends with God. He is the source. That which comes from God is truth. All that does not come from God is falsehood and distortion. So also Scripture teaches us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
The problem is further compounded by the fact that mankind has been given a limited intelligence and a certain measure of understanding as to how part of God’s creation works. The dilemma that man faces is knowing and accepting the limits of his God-given reason and understanding. Human beings love to imagine that we know much more than we actually do. It’s the old “you don’t know what you don’t know” carried to its ultimate extreme. There are certain things that we have been told about God, certain things that we have experienced relating to our God, but these are only single characteristics of a God who is beyond the scope or grasp of human understanding and appreciation. Man’s reason and intellect are simply not up to the task of analyzing and comprehending Almighty God. He is beyond us, and yet at the same time He is within us. This paradox only serves to reemphasize the fact that the mind of man cannot fully fathom our Creator God—we cannot wrap our intellects around all that is God. There is, therefore, much more about God that we do not know and understand than what we do know. The triune nature of God, which we celebrate especially on this Sunday of the church year, is but one example of a characteristic of God that we are incapable of fully comprehending.
Acknowledging our limitations is one lesson we must learn well, for failure here will send us on paths that can only lead to destruction. Today we will look at this thing called truth and how it relates not only to the Trinity, but also to the precious saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Great Commission to share that ultimate truth. The text that forms the basis of our study is that well known section of John’s Gospel, the third chapter:
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
So far the very words of God. You are blessed each time you hear the Word of God and treasure it! May God fill each of us with the truth that is above human manufacture or improvement. To this end we pray: Sanctify us through Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth! Amen.
Speaking of “truth,” let me ask you a question that will take some careful introspection: “How honest are you?” In mulling this question over in my mind and applying it personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that achieving absolute truthfulness is actually a moment by moment pursuit and we will never get to the point where we are altogether honest. True honesty calls for policing our every thought, word, emotion, and action. It’s an art-form really, and what makes it so challenging is the delicate balance that is required. For example, a foundational principle of Christianity is that we freely acknowledge and confess our sins which takes blunt honesty—not only with God, but also with ourselves and others. Yet together with that brutal honesty we are also supposed to employ restraint and denial. In other words, while a Christian needs to be honest enough to confess lustful or covetous thoughts, for example, we are not to employ the sort of mock honesty that gives up, declaring that that’s just the way I am. True honesty confesses sin even while refusing to yield to sinful impulses. True Christian honesty sees consistent failure in the past, but continually resolves that such failure will not continue.
Add to this whole dilemma the fact that absolute truth is dictated by God alone and that it does not always agree with human wisdom and understanding, and we are faced with a genuinely “sticky wicket.” That’s why God’s Word is so critically important for us which is also undoubtedly why the Psalmist pulled that Word of God close to his breast and declared it “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). So also in that same Psalm the inspired writer also proclaimed: “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!” (Psalm 119:1-2). The psalmist clearly recognized his own limitations, his own tendency toward foolishness and error. God’s Word was his only truth, his only sure guide. On our own we are capable only of great foolishness and falsehood.
Do you remember any of the ideas and emotions that you experienced as a child? If you do, you have leg up on the subject we are studying today. I recall as a child, for example, being rather appalled at the existence of bees. I mean here you have a field full of beautiful flowers, a garden full of budding plants, and fruit trees full of blossoms, and those nasty biting, stinging creatures had to come and ruin it all. (These deep thoughts obviously came to me after having felt the business end of one of the little buggers.) In my adolescent wisdom I could have imagined myself banning the pesky creatures had I been granted the power to do so and in so doing I would have sentenced the entire planet to death. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, in that case that bees are critical for pollination and therefore critical for all food production. My next juvenile objection was probably, “Then why did God have to give them stingers?” The answer is, undoubtedly, so that ignorant little boys would learn to leave them alone and let them do their work.
Speaking of honesty (or lack of) by the way, evolutionists really are rather silly at times, aren’t they? Bees need plants and plants need bees. Neither can exist independently. Nor can widely spaced plants be pollinated by insects that can only walk. Yet evolutionists would have us believe that not only did plants and bees evolve at virtually the same time, bees also developed the astounding ability to fly almost overnight which would have been necessary for their preposterous notions to work. Even Pilate could have figured out that such ideas aren’t “truth.”
The point is that man can only get so far in the use of his God-given reason. Nor can human beings achieve total honesty apart from God’s Word. It is there that God visits us, teaches us, humbles us. There we find, for example, that there are truths that we simply cannot understand or comprehend. Who hasn’t puzzled, for example, at the truth of the Trinity—one God, three persons? This is the particular aspect of our God that we acknowledge on this Trinity Sunday, yet who here really understands that aspect of our God? And yet it is clearly taught in our text today, so we unabashedly acknowledge it as truth. In our text we read that God the Father gave us His Son and that the Holy Spirit alone can lead us to faith in that Son. To believe in God does not mean that we pretend to understand everything, or even most things, about God. It means that we accept God’s Word as truth.
All of this helps to explain how human reason, when used improperly, can be a damning curse. But when that same reason is rightly used it can be one of the most beautiful, glorious and excellent gifts of God. Our text is a perfect example of the natural and wrong use of human reason. As familiar as this text is to many of us, we really cannot fully appreciate just what God is teaching us here until we understand just what Jesus was attempting to overcome in Nicodemus during this clandestine, nocturnal meeting.
Nicodemus was both a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—the Jewish ruling council. As such, Nicodemus was an all-star Jew. Of all the Bible scholars, the Pharisees were regarded as the wisest. As to conduct and purity, the Pharisees were considered the most saintly. Among even these elite, Nicodemus was a standout, being chosen to service as a government leader. Nicodemus was the upper crust of Jewish society. In government he was a ruler, in conduct and reputation he was beyond human reproach, and in knowledge he was one of the wisest.
Yet Nicodemus was actually neither wise nor truthful at this point in his life. He seems to have come to Jesus as a peer, but Jesus immediately turned his world upside-down when He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” [v.3] The last thing the honorable Nicodemus expected to hear from Jesus was that he lacked something necessary to enter heaven. He was the best of the best—a leader, a wise man, a perfect gentleman who was above reproach!
So why did Jesus say what He did? What Jesus said was actually completely contrary to human reason, but that was precisely the lesson Nicodemus needed to learn. When it comes to the truth of God’s Word logic and reason very often become our enemies. Had Jesus done anything else he would have effectively hardened all Pharisees like Nicodemus in their damning unbelief. The Pharisees believed that their own personal goodness could and would earn heaven. This seemed right to them, felt right. Jesus knew that no sinner could ever find the means to pay for even one sin. Every sinner needs a Savior. Nicodemus was willing to accept Jesus as a peer, but he was not yet willing to look at Him as his Savior. With one bold stroke Jesus teaches us for all time and eternity that there are not many paths to God. There is instead “one God, and one Mediator between God and men. The man, Christ Jesus…” (1 Timothy 2:5). Not many paths, one path and that is through Christ Jesus. The Pharisees were not on the path for indeed their old ways had to die and they themselves had to be “born again.”
To Nicodemus this made absolutely no sense at all. He replied with some rather silly, superficial comments concerning entering his mother’s womb a second time. This is very typical when man is faced with truth that is above him. Human beings tend to condemn and belittle what they cannot comprehend. Mankind, by his very nature, is not willing to sacrifice his logic and reason no matter what the cost. The result is damning unbelief.
Consider a rather current example: A document released several years ago by the Roman Catholic Vatican condemned the belief that the Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God because, in their words, “it leads people to a kind of intellectual suicide.” This document, widely praised by liberal Bible critics, also says: “Such an approach is dangerous because it offers simplistic answers to the very complex problems of life.” Though dead wrong in what they are saying, their words actually hold some truth—though not in the way they intended. The Bible does offer simple solutions. The “complex problems of life” are all caused by one horrible problem—sin. The “simple solution” is found in today’s text: “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.” [v.16]
Jesus explained some of this simple truth to Nicodemus in our text. Bewildered, using his human intellect, his only response was, “How can this be?” Listen again to Jesus’ reply: “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” [v.9ff] This must ever be our response to the world around us. You can fully expect that the unbelieving world will condemn you for your lack of imagination, your faulty logic, and your blind, naïve acceptance of what cannot be verified by earthly means. Yet they themselves offer no viable answers or alternatives. They grope blindly about for what they do not know and cannot find—all the while condemning Christians for what we by the Holy Spirit know to be true and which we offer to share without cost or obligation. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said. “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” [v.11]
Learn well the lessons Jesus teaches us in this precious text. Human reason cannot grasp and comprehend the truths of the Gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can create that saving faith in our hearts—the faith that trusts only in Jesus Christ for the righteousness that we could not provide. Saving faith is not the same as rational acceptance. Saving faith brings about such acceptance. Do not, therefore, be afraid to abandon your human logic when it pulls you where God’s Word does not go and to accept, instead, God’s Word as truth. There is no other path to God, for if even the exemplary Nicodemus had to be “born again of water and of the Spirit,” then “goodness” here on earth certainly is not that which saves us.
May God grant us continued confidence in “what we know”—the illogical foolishness that salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone, and that forgiveness is declared to us not by what we do, but through faith in what Jesus has already done for us. So also we pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, having filled our hearts with saving faith by your Holy Spirit, fill us also with a love for souls, that we might continually reach out to those who, on their own, are searching for a God they can never find. You have given us the truth, the saving Gospel, in never-ending supply, grant us the strength and courage to share that divine wisdom with the world. Amen.”
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.