Trinity Sunday June 4, 2023
243, 245, 246, 244
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God and Father, dwelling in majesty and mystery, filling and renewing all creation by your eternal Spirit, and manifesting your saving grace through our Lord Jesus Christ: in mercy cleanse our hearts and lips that, free from doubt and fear, we may ever worship you, one true immortal God, with your Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and 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?” (John 18:38) We routinely condemn Pilate in connection with his question, but not for the question itself. The question itself was solid—actually 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 real or basic problem, which was that he did not know the one true God. The irony is that he was asking the right question at the right time to the right person. In fact, he was asking the question of the one person in all of history that could have given him an authoritative answer.
Which is exactly the point. There is such a thing as truth, but the moment mankind rejects the one, true God, man also sentences himself to an endless and hopeless search for absolute truth. Why? Because truth begins and ends with God. He is the source, the one and only authority. That which comes from God is truth; all that disagrees is falsehood and distortion. So also Scripture teaches us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7)
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 at least a 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 all “posters” of God, pictures that tell us a small part, but by no means all. God himself 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 during this Sunday of the church year, is but one example.
This is one lesson we must learn well, for failure here will send us on paths that can only lead to destruction. This morning then 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. Beyond that there is this practical application: We have been called not to understand all things, but to tell what we have been told by our God. The text that forms the basis of our study is that well known section of John’s Gospel, the Third Chapter:
Now 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 him, “Truly, truly, 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, “Truly, truly, 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 its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 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? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (ESV)
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 by Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Speaking of “truth,” it is an immutable truth that achieving absolute truthfulness is actually a moment by moment pursuit, and we will forever struggle to 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—not with the truth but with our basic human emotions and inclinations. 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 therefore confesses sin, even while refusing to yield to it, and refusing to allow it to define who and what we are.
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 very long, tough row to hoe. That’s why God’s Word is so critically important for us. That is 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 119th 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!” The Psalmist clearly recognized his own limitations, his own tendency toward foolishness, dishonesty, and error. God’s Word was his only truth, his only sure guide. On our own we are capable only of great foolishness, ignorance, and deceit.
Man has God-given reason and intellect, but such things can only get us so far. Human beings need to learn to subject reason and intellect to God’s Word. It is there God visits us, teaches us, humbles us. There we find, for example, that there are truths that we simply cannot understand or comprehend. The fact that we cannot fully comprehend all of what the Bible teaches us does not make it untrue. 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 throughout God’s Word, including our text for this morning, 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 that which determines what is and is not true.
All of this helps to explain how human reason, when used improperly, can be a damning curse; but when rightly used 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 religious leaders, the Pharisees were regarded as the wisest. As to conduct and purity, the Pharisees were considered the most saintly. Among even these elite, Nicodemus stood out, being chosen to service as a government leader. Nicodemus was the upper crust of Jewish society. In government—a ruler, in conduct and reputation—beyond human reproach, and in knowledge—one of the wisest.
And 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.” The last thing the honorable Nicodemus expected to hear from Jesus was that he (Nicodemus) lacked something necessary to enter heaven. He was the best of the best—a leader, a scholar, 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 is precisely the lesson Nicodemus needed to learn. When it comes to the truth of God’s Word, there 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 goodness earns heaven. Given their conduct, that 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 regard 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—through Christ Jesus. The Pharisees were not on that one path, for indeed their old ways had to die and they themselves had to be “born again.”
Jesus tried to explain 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: 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?“ 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, antiquated acceptance of what cannot be verified by earthly means. Yet we are called to be witnesses. Witnesses are supposed to tell what they know. That’s it. They—we—are not required to comprehend every detail or to have plumbed the depths of all that we share. We are called to tell, in a simple and straightforward manner, exactly and only what we have been led to know. We cannot control how the message is received any more than Jesus could while he walked this earth. Again from our text: “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.”
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. Do not be afraid, on the one hand, to abandon your human logic when it pulls you where God’s Word does not allow, and, on the other hand, do not be afraid to boldly share what you do know, for the only thing that you can know for certain is what that One Source of all truth has told you in his Word.
And then don’t forget to rejoice in the sweet simplicity of the gospel message in this text. Jesus did not come to condemn, he came to save. Whoever believes in him will be saved. What a sublime blessing to be reminded that, in the end, it is just that simple.
God grant us continued confidence in “what we know”—the illogical foolishness that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and that forgiveness is declared or credited to us not by what we do, but through the God-given trust in what Jesus has already done for us. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, 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.