Scripture: John 3:1-17
Title: The Holy Trinity
- The Spirit’s role
- The Son’s role
- God’s love
The Spanish artist, Bartolome Murillo, has a painting of the Holy Trinity
– ‘Trinity’ is a word theologians use to describe one God in three divine persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit
– We might think of the Trinity as a community of divine love or as the life of God
In Murillo’s painting God the Father is in heaven, as an older man with a beard, while Jesus is the boy (on earth) standing between Mary & Joseph
– In between God the Father and God the Son is God the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove
What I like about this painting is it shows humanity participating in the life of God, through Jesus
– This is essentially why Jesus came – so we could join the divine community (the holy trinity) and experience abundant life with God
This morning’s message is based on John 3:1-17, the lectionary reading for last Sunday, the 27th May – Trinity Sunday
– I had originally planned to preach this sermon last week but decided to postpone it because I felt to bring a different message last Sunday
– In John 3 a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus talks with Jesus at night and through their conversation we catch a glimpse of the Trinity
– We also hear how we might participate in this community of divine love
– From John 3, verses 1-17 we read…
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
May God’s Spirit illuminate this reading for us
In this conversation Jesus reveals to Nicodemus how a human being can participate in the life of God
– Jesus begins by talking about the renewal or rebirth brought about by the Holy Spirit, then Jesus talks about his own role in revealing God and redeeming humanity. First let’s consider the role of the Spirit
The Spirit’s role:
We human beings were made to breathe air and to live above ground
– If we wanted to go under water we would need to put on scuba gear
– That would enable us to breathe under water for a little while but we couldn’t really live there under the sea – not without growing gills and changing internally so we could cope with the cold water
– It would be similar if we wanted to live on Mars – we couldn’t survive on Mars without a space suit, there is too little oxygen and too little warmth
– To be able to live on Mars naturally our whole body chemistry and physiology would need to undergo a fundamental change
In John 3 Jesus talks about the ‘Kingdom of God’ & ‘eternal life’ & ‘heaven’
– In the context these three expressions are different ways of describing the same thing – life with God or life within the Trinity, God’s life
– The way we come into this world, the way we are born naturally, we could no more live in heaven or in God’s kingdom than we could on mars or underwater
– To be able to participate in the life of the Trinity we need to undergo a fundamental change – we need to be born again or born from above
– (The Greek word used here can be translated both ways)
This concept of transformation is illustrated in nature by frogs and butterflies
– To be able to live on land and breathe above water a tadpole must undergo a fundamental change
– Likewise to become a butterfly a caterpillar must be reformed in a cocoon
– So it is with us – to enter God’s life we must be reborn, but our re-formation is not something we can bring about ourselves
– It is the Holy Spirit who transforms us and makes us able to enjoy heaven
Now this may seem old hat to us because we have had these words of Jesus for 2000 years – but for Nicodemus this was shocking news
– Nicodemus was a Pharisee – someone who had taken a vow to learn and apply the entire Old Testament Law, plus all the other man-made rules the Pharisees had put around God’s Law
– Nicodemus had grown up being taught and believing that he would get into God’s Kingdom by being a descendant of Abraham and following the rules – but Jesus was telling him, what he had devoted his whole life to wasn’t going to cut it
Going back to my previous analogies of living underwater or on Mars – it doesn’t matter how much I practice holding my breath I’m never going to be able to hold my breath long enough to live in the sea or survive on Mars
– My body has to change to suit the environment
– Same thing with living in heaven – it doesn’t matter how hard I practice keeping the Law, that won’t support eternal life
– Heaven isn’t a list of rules to follow to the letter – it is a divine community of love to be enjoyed forever
– Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying the Law is redundant now and we can do whatever we like
– Many aspects of God’s Law are still helpful to us in this life
– The point is: heaven is different to earth and if we are going to breathe the air of heaven we need to be changed by God’s Spirit
Nicodemus was having a hard time accepting this so Jesus goes out of his way to explain in terms that a Biblical scholar like Nicodemus would understand…
– I am telling you the truth: no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
– To be born of water and the Spirit is a reference to cleansing & renewal
– In Ezekiel 36:25-27 God says to the Jewish exiles…
I will sprinkle clean water on you and make you clean from all your idols and everything else that has defiled you. I will give you a new heart and a new mind. I will take away your stubborn heart of stone and give you an obedient heart. I will put my Spirit in you and I will see to it that you follow my laws and keep all the commands I have given you
In this passage Ezekiel was looking forward to the time when God would give his people a new heart and a new mind so they could love him and each other naturally, without having to hold their breath as it were
– By alluding to this prophecy from Ezekiel, Jesus is pointing out to Nicodemus that the time of renewal (or being born again) is at hand
– But this renewal – this total conversion experience – is a gift from God
How exactly the Spirit brings about this change in us is a mystery – there is no magic formula
– We can’t tell the Spirit what to do any more than we can tell the wind what to do.
– The Holy Spirit is a powerful and untameable movement of life
Okay, so that’s one of the things the Holy Spirit does – he brings about a fundamental change in us so we can participate in the eternal life of the Trinity
The Son’s role:
Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, has the same purpose only his role is slightly different: Jesus reveals God and redeems humanity
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night – in the dark
– If we give Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt this is most likely because he wanted to have a decent conversation with Jesus without being interrupted. During the day Jesus would be surrounded with people and it would be difficult to talk for very long
Elsewhere in the gospel of John, Jesus is described as the light of the world
– What does light do? It reveals things – so we can see
– Now physical light – from the sun in the sky – reveals physical things
– But spiritual light – from Jesus the Son of God – reveals spiritual things
– Nicodemus has been in the dark and when we are in the dark we can’t see
– So in coming to Jesus, the spiritual light of the world, Nicodemus is stepping out of the darkness and into the light in order to see spiritual things – that is, the things of God
Imagine someone, you’ve never met or even seen before, who lives in a completely different country, making a proposal of marriage to you
– (For the sake of this illustration those who are already married will need to imagine they are single)
– The deal is you have to leave your old life behind and make a new life with them – follow them wherever they go
– It sounds a bit dodgey doesn’t it – like some sort of internet scam
– Most of us wouldn’t take up a proposal like that
But what if the person who was proposing marriage came to you in the flesh, so you could see what they were like and get to know them a bit – then you wouldn’t be making a decision in the dark, so it would be easier to trust them
– The person’s presence shines light on their character and their motivation
– As it turns out this person is gracious and true – they are powerful but also understated & kind
– They don’t have any photos of the country they come from (so you can’t see where you’ll be living) but they do describe to you (by way of parables) what their country is like – a beautiful & peaceful place
– What’s more you get the feeling they really love you – that they would even die for you
– In the end you are faced with a choice: either reject the proposal and stick with life as you know it, or, trust the person and go with them
If you think about it, that’s pretty much what God is proposing: leave your old life behind and make a new life with him
– But so we don’t have to make a decision in the dark Jesus came, from heaven to earth, to shine light on God – to show us what God is like so we would be better able to trust God and find redemption for our souls
– Jesus is the light of the world who reveals God’s heart & mind, his character & motivation, in order to redeem humanity.
– In verses 11-13 we read…
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen… Notice Jesus says ‘we’, not ‘I’.
– It’s not entirely clear who Jesus means by ‘we’ but perhaps he is referring to the divine we: God the Father, Son & Holy Spirit – it fits the context
– …yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
– In other words, ‘Nicodemus, you just don’t get it. And you’re not getting it because you don’t really trust me, at least not yet. Trust, faith, belief precede understanding
– 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
– Jesus is basically saying: “I’m here to reveal God to you. I’ve been to heaven. I’m not talking in theory. I know what the life of God is like from the inside, from my own experience.”
The Son of Man is Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself
– It’s a phrase which has different layers of meaning
– On the lips of Jesus it is often a veiled way of saying ‘Messiah’ and at the same time an identification with humanity
– You see, in shining light on God, Jesus is also shining light on what it means to be human. Jesus reveals our purpose – he shows us what it looks like to be made in the image of God
In verses 14 & 15 Jesus goes on to talk about his role in redeeming humanity…
– And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Once again Jesus is making it easy for Nicodemus to understand by referring to a story from the book of Numbers (which Nicodemus would be familiar with)
– While living in the wilderness the people of Israel were attacked by venomous snakes and cried out to be saved
– The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone can look at it and live.”
– Moses did what God said and those who looked at the bronze snake were saved
Jesus is saying, “I’m a bit like that bronze snake – I am God’s means of salvation (his redemption) for people.”
– Nicodemus wouldn’t have understood at the time but later, when he was taking Jesus’ body down from the cross, he would have realised Jesus was saying, “My crucifixion, my being lifted up on a pole, will save those who look to me in faith”
And so we come to perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible…
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Although God the Father is not explicitly mentioned in these verses, talk of God’s Son implies there is a Father
– Here we see God reaching out through the Son to save the world
– In the gospel of John the world means those who are opposed to God
– Those who have rebelled against God – God’s enemies
– God’s motivation is not to condemn the world but to save it
– God doesn’t just love his friends – God loves his enemies as well
Once there was a wealthy land owner who grew all kinds of fruit on his orchard
– Although he was wealthy he was also generous & kind
– The people in the nearby village relied on this man for their livelihood
– He provided paid employment for everyone and the whole valley prospered because of his enterprise
– In all his dealings the landowner never left anyone out of pocket
– Some people loved him but others were envious
One day a group of villagers decided they didn’t want to work for the orchardist anymore and, in the dark of night, they set fire to his fruit trees and then scurried home for fear of being caught
– It was a senseless move really because they were cutting off their own living – without the trees they would be out of work
The wind picked up and the fire got out of control threatening the village
– As the orchardist looked down the valley he had a choice to make – let the sleeping village burn (that would be justice) or send someone to warn the villagers and save them (that would be mercy)
– The orchardist chose mercy and sent his son – the villagers knew his son and would surely listen to him
The son ran door to door waking people and warning them to escape
– Those who had started the fire pretended to be asleep, ignoring the warning – they knew they had done wrong and thought the orchardist’s son had come to take revenge on them, when he had actually come to redeem them
– But those who trusted the son and heeded his warning were saved and welcomed into the Father’s house
God is like the orchardist – he didn’t start the fire, his enemies did. But he didn’t stand by and do nothing either
– God loved all the villagers enough to send his only son to save anyone who would believe in him
Through his act of mercy in saving us, Jesus reveals the love of God
– And through the power of the Holy Spirit we experience the renewal that is necessary for us to participate in the life of God (the divine community of love)
Questions for discussion & reflection
1.) What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?
2.) What do you imagine ‘heaven’ or ‘eternal life’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ to be like?
3.) What role does the Holy Spirit have in preparing us for eternal life with God?
– What does it mean to ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’?
– Why did Nicodemus struggle to accept what Jesus said about being born again?
4.) What role(s) does Jesus have in our salvation?
5.) Thinking of the broader context of John’s gospel – what is the significance of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night?
6.) How does God make it easier for us to trust him?
7.) What is the meaning of the bronze snake on the pole story, from Numbers 21?
8.) What do verses 16-17 of John 3 show us about God’s heart (his motivation)?
– What do you think God’s attitude is toward you? (E.g. Do you think he means you harm or good?) Why do you think this?