“The Triune God Gives Us Eternal Life”
(John 3:1-17 – Holy Trinity – June 7, 2020)
John 3:1-17 – 1There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This 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.” 3Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? 11Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
Dear Redeemed of God, in the name of Jesus His Son:
When man meets God, he must be left with a deep sense of awe and wonder. Both the nature of God and the works of God are beyond our human understanding.
Consider the triune nature of God. Triune means “Three-in-one.” Scripture teaches that there is just one God (Deuteronomy 6:4). Yet in our text we hear of God the Father, the Son, and God the Spirit. From this and other passages, we learn that there are three distinct divine Persons; yet fully united and indivisible as God. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Spirit; the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Yet the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God – together just one God!
“How can these things be?” (vs. 9). Human reason responds this way, not only to the seemingly impossible triune nature of God, but also to the amazing works of God. This was how Nicodemus responded. “How can these things be?” The things Jesus was telling him were beyond the powers of his mind. For example, how could a man be born again when he was old, in order to enter God’s Kingdom? Could he somehow enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time? And how could this rebirth happen by means of water and God’s Spirit connected to that water?
When man meets God, human reason is left saying: “How can these things be?” God’s nature and God’s works are beyond human understanding. What reason cannot grasp, Jesus does not attempt to explain here. He simply invites Nicodemus and us to let God be God and trust how God has worked out our salvation. Jesus’ lesson is: “The Triune God Gives Us Eternal Life”; 1) The Father gave His Son for us, 2) The Son gave His life for us, and 3) The Spirit gives life to us.
1) The Father gave His Son for us
First, the Father gave His Son for us: “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” (vs. 16).
“God so loved the world.” Do we realize who that is talking about? It is not talking about a world of saints, as if there were people who lived such good lives before God that He felt compelled to reward them by giving His Son for them, even sacrificing His Son for them. No, it is talking about the real world of sinners. As Jesus tells Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (vs. 6). When Scripture talks about “flesh,” it refers to the sinful nature which has been passed along from parents to children ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. Our parents could not give us the birth of the Spirit, but only of the flesh. We are not spiritual children of God by birth. Nor can we become children of His Kingdom by our so-called saintly lives or good works.
Human reason takes offense and asks: “How can these things be? I am not so bad by nature that I would be excluded from God’s Kingdom. Am I such a miserable sinner? Surely as God looks at my life He will see that I have tried to do right, and He will let me into heaven.” This is how Nicodemus would have tried to make sense of salvation. As a Pharisee, he had tried to follow every detail of God’s Law, as well as many religious traditions, to try to become righteousness before God. If you asked him why some made it to heaven while others did not, he would have given the most reasonable sounding answer: “Some of us try harder to do what is right; we live as good-natured children of God. He will let us into heaven based on our merits.”
But Jesus squashes such self-righteous pride by pointing out that, after all, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” and cannot enter God’s kingdom. Even the supposedly best works proceeding from the sinful nature do not impress God. In Romans 8:7-8 the apostle Paul describes the inborn sinful nature of ours this way: “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Yet, no matter how terribly the nature and works of our sinful flesh have shown in our lives, “God so loved the world” (vs. 16). Try putting your mind around that one. What makes more sense to our human reason is that horrible offenders of the Law should be brought to justice. If someone hurts you or your loved ones what do you want? Justice! We have offended God’s Law and hurt those He loves. By all rights, He should carry out justice and sentence us sinners to eternal death.
Instead, God sent His Son on a rescue mission. Jesus says: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (vs. 17). We were like miners, trapped deep in the earth with no way to dig themselves out, who can only wait in the dark for rescuers to come and lift them up. We could not raise ourselves up to heaven from our dark pit of sin and death. So God descended to us through His Son’s incarnation in our flesh. Jesus says: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (vs. 13). He who dwells in heaven as the Son of God came down as the Son of Man, to reveal God’s loving plan of salvation, and to win that salvation for us.
2) The Son gave His life for us
Truly, God’s Son had to descend to the deepest depths to rescue us. He descended that deep shaft of humiliation and suffering, down into the pit of hell where we were trapped under sin and Satan’s power. According to His Father’s will, God the Son gave His own life to rescue us.
Jesus tells Nicodemus what He was to undergo to accomplish this: “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” (vs. 14-15). Back in the days of Moses, the Israelites had rebelled against God in the wilderness. God judged them by sending deadly serpents among them that bit and caused many to die. But God had Moses lift up an image of a bronze serpent on a pole; and according to God’s promise, everyone who looked to the serpent lived (Numbers 21:5-9).
Likewise, for our sins we deserved judgment. Instead, God lifted up His Son on the cross, cursing Him in our place (Galatians 3:13). Like the serpent on the pole, Jesus became the very image of what was killing us – our sin. God took all our sins and put them on His Son. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Therefore: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:21, 19). In this rescue, God has not left out a single soul.
Again human reason says: “How can these things be?” How can it really mean that God is not counting sins against anyone, for Jesus’ sake? Some falsely teach that God only provided a limited atonement for sins; as if His Son only died for the sins of a limited number of people whom He chose to save. They teach that, since God chose to save some, it stands to reason that He must have predestined others to hell, never truly meaning to save them.
Again human reason must bow to God’s Word. God’s Son did not die only for the sins of some. 1 John 2:2 says: “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” 1 Timothy 2:4-6 says clearly that God our Savior “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all.” Therefore if anyone is lost, it is not because his sins were left unpaid for; but because he did not believe and receive the gift.
God’s promise of salvation is like a blank check written in the blood of His own Son. It is written to “the world… whoever believes.” So believe it. Put your name on that blank check, because God’s Son gave His life for you. God is no longer counting sins against us, but Jesus’ righteous life to us. By the death and resurrection of His Son, God lifts us from the pit of sin and death; He lifts us up in His forgiveness and eternal life.
3) The Spirit gives life to us
Just as we depended on God’s Son to win our eternal life, we depended on God’s Spirit to give us this life through a spiritual rebirth. For by our own power, we cannot believe and be saved.
Here again human reason says: “How can these things be?” It wants to explain in human terms why some come to faith and others do not, to give man a little more credit. Some teach that being born again depends on you making the decision to follow Jesus. This is based on the false idea that man, by nature, is not so badly corrupted and darkened in sin; but he still has some light of goodness and the willpower to make the right choice and enter God’s Kingdom.
Again, human reason must bow to God’s Word. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (vs. 6). Just as a dead man cannot choose to come to life, so also natural man, being dead in his sins, cannot choose to come to life in Christ (Ephesians 2:1). According to 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore if anyone is saved, God’s Spirit gets all the credit for working that faith and new life in him. Saving faith itself is a gift of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8).
As Jesus says: “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” (vs. 8). We can see the evidence of the wind, but we cannot see the wind itself or control its direction. So it is with the work of God’s Spirit in human hearts. The fact that we believe in Jesus as our Savior is evidence of the Spirit’s activity in our hearts. But it is not like we were directing the Spirit, like someone calling to the wind: “Over here! This way!” By God’s grace alone, His Spirit sought us out and worked repentance, faith, and spiritual rebirth in us.
But by this comparison to wind, Jesus does not mean the Spirit works arbitrarily, blowing here or there by accident, perhaps leaving us as quickly as He came. God’s Word tells how we remain connected to His Spirit, faith, and eternal life – namely, through the power of His Gospel in Word and Sacrament (Romans 1:16). Jesus alludes to this as He says: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (vs. 5). Here we notice the connection between the work of God’s Spirit and a visible means, water – namely, the water of baptism.
Again human reason says: “How can these things be?” How can simple water affect spiritual rebirth? But Baptism is not just any water. It is water connected with God’s promise of cleansing from sin and outpouring of His Spirit (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Titus 3:5). It is the water Jesus commanded His Church to apply “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). So the Triune God has placed His saving name on us in Baptism, making us His children by faith which the Spirit works in us. Through His Word and Sacraments, God’s Spirit continues to work repentance in our hearts, and to strengthen our faith in Jesus unto eternal life.
There are many things in life we do not understand. We do not fully understand God’s nature and His ways. But in His Word, the Triune God clearly reveals how He gives us eternal life. Our place is not to keep asking, “How can these things be?” but to let God be God and simply believe His Word. By Jesus’ Word and the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus became a believer (John 19:38-39). By God’s grace, so have we. Let us thank God the Father, who so loved us that He gave His only-begotten Son for us. Let us thank God the Son, who gave His life for us to win our eternal life. Let us thank God the Spirit, who gave life to us through the rebirth of baptism and faith. Amen.