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The doctrine of the Trinity can be, and often is, one of the most obtuse doctrines of the Christian faith. For example, we read about it in the Athanasian Creed like this–and this is beautiful, and it’s very deep, and it’s worth meditating on, but just listen to what it says about the Trinity:
“The Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the majesty coeternal…The whole, three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshiped.”
Get it? That’s an essential doctrine, you better understand that!
Is Knowing Who God Is As Important As Knowing What He Has Done?
This is a challenging thing, this doctrine of the Trinity, and when we start to dwell on it, our mind starts to wander away. Perhaps we begin to ask ourselves this question: why do we even need to talk about who God is at all? Wouldn’t it be much better to just talk about what God wants us to do? And to be sure, there are plenty of preachers who will tell you exactly what God wants you to do.
Or better yet, maybe we could talk about what God did for us. That’s getting a little bit better; certainly it’s much more productive than talking about who God is. Or at the very least, if we’re going to talk about who God is, can we make it simple? Wasn’t it the same John who wrote our Gospel reading who also said in one of the epistles that God is love? That’s pretty easy. Isn’t that all we need to know? Or maybe, if we need to take it one step farther, we could describe that love, such as we have in John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
(Let’s pause really quick. When we hear “God so loved the world,” we actually think of the magnitude of God’s love: Oh, I love you so much. This is actually a description of how God loved the world. So you might say, “For God so loved the world like this, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”)
So yes, God is love. And this verse tells us that God is actually sacrificial, self-giving love. To be sure, such an explanation is both sufficient and compelling: God is, in his inner-being, sacrificial love, as seen in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If that’s where you are, and if that’s the only place that you can get to, I encourage you to wait there and dig in deeply because that well is deep and that well is rich.
What He Has Done Is Because Of Who He Is
But as we see in our story of Nicodemus, even this understanding that God is sacrificial love is founded upon an understanding of God as Trinity: God as three Persons in one God. That’s how God has revealed himself to us, and that’s how God has revealed his love to us.
We see this in Jesus’s interaction with Nicodemus. What we realize is this: being born again, entering the kingdom of heaven, and knowing eternal life–these are dependent upon God the Father, dependent upon God the Son, and dependent upon God the Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons.
So why don’t you open your Bible with me. We’re in John 3:1-16, and in this story of the interaction between Nicodemus and Jesus we see God revealing himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Story Of Nicodemus
Nicodemus has come to talk to Jesus about God. They’ve come to talk theology. Nicodemus wants to talk about his God, the God of the Jews, the one majestic and holy God revealed to Moses in the burning bush; God, the creator of heaven and earth; God, the author of Israel’s story; God, the perfecter of Israel’s salvation; this is the God that Nicodemus knows; this is the God that Nicodemus taught about; this is the God to whom he’s supposed to lead his people.
Nicodemus knows a thing or two about God. He’s a Pharisee. He sits on the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem. He knows his Bible inside and out, frontwards and backwards. He knows God and because he knows God, he knows someone who’s come from God. He recognizes it when he sees it. And he sees it in Jesus. Look there in verse 2:
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, I know God, and I’ve been watching you and I’ve been talking to my friends about you, and we see your miracles and we see the authority with which you speak. We see that you have been sent by God. I know God, you know God. Let’s have a chat. Then Jesus goes right for Nicodemus in verse 3:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This is another way of saying, Nicodemus, you don’t know who God is. Unless you are born again, you cannot know God. You cannot see his kingdom.
Of course, Nicodemus is thrown for a loop. He understands an almighty, all powerful, all knowing, creator God, but how can he be born again? What does this mean? And how does this bring you into the kingdom? Wasn’t his first birth enough? Wasn’t he born into the right family, God’s chosen people? Even if being physically born into the right family wasn’t enough, wasn’t the kingdom also dependent on doing the right things, on living a holy life to the satisfaction of a holy God? Nicodemus has no category for a second birth, much less a birth that is necessary to enter into God’s kingdom. This is a challenging statement. So he responds there in verse 4, saying what is this being born again? And how does that help me to know 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?”
Notice that Jesus responds to a question about the kingdom, and ultimately a question about God who is Father, with an answer about the Spirit. Did you see that? “How can one be born when he is old?” Nicodemus says. Jesus answers beginning in verse five.
“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.”
If you want to be born again, you must know the Spirit. Your first birth, Jesus is saying, is not enough.
The Necessity Of The Holy Spirit
Now of course, to be part of an earthly kingdom and to enjoy earthly life, one birth is enough–as long as it’s the right birth, and you’re born in the right country, and perhaps in the right socio-economic status. That’s enough. And actually, to be a status holding member of God’s people and to be a pillar in your church community, then also your actions are enough–for earthly things. Earthly birth and earthly actions are just fine. But to be a part of God’s spiritual, heavenly kingdom, to enjoy eternal life, then spiritual birth is necessary. A second birth is necessary, one that you cannot obtain on your own merits.
To stand in the presence of God the Father, Jesus is saying, one must be born again by the Holy Spirit. To know the fullness of God the Father, we must know him intimately by rebirth in the Spirit. So the Holy Spirit is necessary to bring about this second birth.
Of course, Nicodemus is still confused, and at this point it’s like he’s throwing up his hands there in verse nine.
“Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?””
And in response, Jesus points to himself.
“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.”
Jesus responds to a question about the Holy Spirit and being born again into the Father’s kingdom with an answer about the Son, the Son of Man who has ascended into the councils of heaven, who knows God intimately and from his throne room has descended to earth. This heavenly figure has become a man, and to know God, we must know him and know his salvation.
The Necessity Of The Son
Remember the story in the wilderness where Moses was trying to lead God’s people into the Promised Land? They were surrounded by snakes as a punishment for sin, and they were being bitten and they were dying. And God said there’s only one way to be saved from this punishment. He instructs Moses to put a snake up on his staff, and salvation came when you gazed upon the snake on Moses’s staff. As long as your eyes were fixed upon this snake, this symbol of salvation, you would survive. Jesus says to Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up in that way.
The Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross, he would pay the penalty for our sin so that anyone who would gaze upon him and believe would know salvation. Anyone who would look at Christ and receive his forgiveness would know rebirth through the power of the Holy Spirit, and would know the eternal kingdom of God.
To enter the kingdom of God, Jesus says, you must be born by the Spirit; and to be born by the Spirit, you must believe in the Son who has been lifted up for your salvation.
Perfect Love Is Found In The Trinity
So what we see here in this story with Nicodemus and Jesus is that we need all three Persons of the Trinity to even begin to talk about who God is. Even something so simple as “God is love,” or “God is sacrificial love,” is built upon an understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It cannot be fully understood absent trinitarian language. Yes, God is love, but how is he love? And how does that love affect us?
In the Trinity, when we consider this one God and yet three Persons, we see perfect love, love between Father and Son, between Son and Spirit, and between Spirit and Father. This is a perfect, trinitarian love. It is complete and full without anything else.
And yet God, in his abundance and in an overflow of His love, created this world. When he created it, it was very good (Gen 1:31). When this world was subject to sin and death, God, in an abundant overflow of His love, gave us perfect redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ, accessed by the Holy Spirit.
Our problem friends, is we want an easy way to comprehend God. We want to say God is our Father–he’s holy and righteous. Or we like to talk about Jesus and how he comes and meets us where we are. Jesus is our homeboy, right? Or we say God the Spirit is the God we can experience in this world. This sort of mystical, experiential God–we we want that God as well, but we have a hard time with all three.
If God is just a holy and righteous Father, he’s a God you can never reach; and if Jesus is just our homeboy, we have a God who will never transform us; and if God is just what we experience, then what you experience in this world is all there is. None of that is adequate to fully know who God is.
In God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we see the fullness of who God is in the fullness of His love, and we can begin to grasp the promise of our salvation. It is this God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, perfect in love and unity, perfect in his salvation of us, that is worthy of our worship, our praise and our glory.