Monday, June 12, 2006

The Trinity in Salvation: A Sermon Preached in Dollingstown and Magheralin on Trinity Sunday 11th June 2006. John 3:1-17

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when we reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity, and how the Father, the Son and the Spirit are each God, but that there is one God. As you may know, the word Trinity itself doesn’t appear in the Bible, yet the doctrine is still very important, as we seek to understand (as much as we can) about God. Yet the Trinity exists, as God progressively revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This morning we’re going to look at the work of the Trinity in salvation, through the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. As we turn to John chapter 3, you might find it helpful to have your Bible open.

As the chapter opens, we are introduced to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish ruling council. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have known the Old Testament really well. The ruling council was made up of the leaders of the Jews, the top religious men. It was this group, you might remember, who later on reached the verdict of blasphemy in Jesus’ trial. They were certainly important people, as Jesus calls him ‘Israel’s teacher’ (10). Yet Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (2). Was he coming in secret to find out more about Jesus? Did he not want others to know? Or did the ruling council want some extra information on who this new boy was?

After all, Nicodemus starts off by saying ‘Rabbi, (Teacher) we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’ (2). It’s probably not a bad start. He’s gently praising Jesus, recognising that he has come from God, because he couldn’t do the miracles he’s doing if he weren’t from God. But in reply to Nicodemus’ gentle opener, Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter.

‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (3). You feel like saying, Jesus, where did that come from? Nicodemus only wanted a nice chat, and to learn a bit more about you, and there you’re starting into the hard gospel, about being born again? After all, for some people, the talk of being born again is unimportant, or for other people, or for other denominations… Certainly, it wasn’t what Nicodemus was expecting, or even what he could understand immediately. But we’ll come back to it shortly, when we think more about the Holy Spirit, because Jesus says that it is the Spirit’s work, bringing about the new birth.

As I said earlier, we’re thinking about the Trinity’s work in our salvation, and in order to get to the start of the work, we have to go to the end of the passage, to verse 16. I’m sure most people in church know this verse, because it is pretty well known, even among non-Christians, but we’ll hear it again: ‘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.’ (16).

Here we find the starting point of our salvation, the place where it all began. Or rather, the One with whom it began. ‘For God so loved the world.’ God the Father, saw our need of salvation, and out of the heart of God, which is love itself, he loved us. Remember that at the creation, ‘God saw all that he had made and it was very good’ (Gen 2:1). But as you and I know only too well, things didn’t stay perfect, as we messed up. We rebelled against God, went our own way, and sin and death entered the world.

But the Father didn’t shrug his shoulders and say, oh well, I tried, but it didn’t work out… He loved us, he cared for the world so much, that he acted: ‘he gave his one and only Son’. The Father’s special role in our salvation was to see our need, and to provide the Saviour for us. Out of his love, he sent Jesus into the world, he gave him up, and delivered him into the hands of sinners, to the death on a cross.

It is here that some celebrities who should know better completely misunderstand. Steve Chalke, for example, has spoken of how the cross seems to him to be a form of divine child abuse; that God beats up his son to pay for the sins we committed, and Jesus is the victim of the Father’s anger and our sin. Yet the point that Chalke misses in this picture of the cross is that he sees Jesus as being an unwilling victim, punished by his Father through no fault or choice of his own.

We do well to remember that the love of God isn’t just the love that the Father has. The Trinity together are love, as they interact in fellowship together. Just as the Father loves us, so Jesus loves us, and came to the earth to die for us, willingly. As the song says ‘You chose the cross.’ In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read that Jesus ‘set his face toward Jerusalem’ as he told the disciples that he was going to be killed and would rise again on the third day.

We see the same determination, and the same willingness to die on the cross here in our reading this morning, as Jesus says in verse 14, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that every who believes in him may have eternal life.’ (14-15). The Son of Man must be lifted up…

But what was his illustration about? What was the serpent lifted up in the desert? Keeping your finger in John 3, flick back to Numbers 21, as we look to see what Jesus was talking about. The Israelites had been wandering in the desert for almost forty years by now, and were getting a bit fed up of the whole experience. Once again, they rebelled, they complained against Moses and against God about the conditions they were facing. As a punishment, God sent venomous snakes to bite them, and people starting to die.

The rest realised their sin, and came to Moses asking that the Lord would take away the snakes. Instead, God told Moses to make a bronze snake, to put it on a pole, so that when someone was bitten by a snake, they could ‘look and live.’ When they looked at the bronze snake, they would be healed, but if they didn’t, then they would die in their sin. Their healing was on the basis of their faith – if they believed they would be healed when they looked at the snake. (The healing wasn’t actually in the bronze snake on the pole, but was in the faith of the individual. Yet the image is still around today – in the badge of the Ambulance Service).

Can you see the parallels? We also have sinned, and have been ‘bitten’ with the consequences of that sin – we face death. Jesus, the one lifted up on the cross, tells Nicodemus that, just like the bronze snake, anyone who looks to him in faith will be saved.

And as we look in faith to Jesus, so we become ‘born again’ by the Spirit. So what is this being ‘born again’ all about? We’re back to the start of the passage again, as we think about the work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation, and in our need of being born again. We certainly need it, because Jesus says that ‘no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (3).

If it sounds strange to you, it did to Nicodemus as well. He just can’t get his head around it, wondering how anyone could be born again, by re-entering their mother’s womb… But Nicodemus was getting it all wrong. Yes, as Jesus says, we must be born again, but it doesn’t refer to a physical birth, but rather to a spiritual re-birth –‘Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit’ (6). Here we find the role of the Holy Spirit in our salvation, working for conviction of sin, bringing the new birth, and creating us anew.

So what about this being born again… is it just for some people? Is it only a thing that members of other denominations talk about, or experience? Jesus’ words show us plainly that to be a Christian means that you are born again, whether you describe yourself as that or not… All Christians are born again! As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 - ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’

And what is the change in us when we’re born again? Are there signs that there has been a change of ownership; that the new creation has begun? Jesus says in verse 8: ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

What Jesus is saying is that, even though you can’t see the wind, you can see its effects, as the leaves are blown about, and you hear it blowing. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit – you can’t see the Spirit, but you can see the effects on those who have been born again, who are driven by the Spirit. These effects are the fruit of the Spirit, from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ As Paul says at the end of the list, ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (Gal 5:25).

So on this Trinity Sunday, we have seen that the three persons of the Trinity are all involved in our salvation – as the Father saw our need and sent his Son, as Jesus gave his life in sacrifice for us on the cross, with the picture of the bronze snake on the pole; and as the Spirit brings the new birth when we come to faith and look to Jesus. The challenge for you today is this – have you known these things in your life? Have you looked to Jesus and known life? Have you experienced the birth of the Spirit? These things aren’t opposites, or optional extras – they are the heart of the matter.

Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. It all seemed a bit strange to him, and he couldn’t get his head around it. But by the last time he appears in John’s Gospel, he has become a follower of Jesus, and comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. While up to this point they had been secret disciples, now they make their allegiance known publicly.

Let’s pray that we all will look to Jesus and live, knowing the birth of the Spirit, and the increase of his fruit in our lives.

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