“The Loving Father, the Lifted-Up Son, and the Life-Giving Spirit” (John 3:1-17)
The triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for our salvation. That’s what this Feast of the Holy Trinity is all about. This is not an occasion to strain our brains to try to figure out what for us, with our finite reason, is ultimately incomprehensible, namely, how there can be one God in three persons and at the same time three persons and only one God. That would blow out our circuits, if we even could comprehend it. Rather, the thing to do on this day is simply, with childlike faith, to receive the saving truth of the Trinity and to rejoice in the reality of the triune God. Which is what we will do now, as we rejoice in “The Loving Father, the Lifted-Up Son, and the Life-Giving Spirit.”
The loving Father, the lifted-up Son, and the life-giving Spirit: We meet all three persons of the Trinity, actively engaged in saving us, in the Holy Gospel for today, from John chapter 3. So let’s see how that plays out now, one at a time.
First of all, the loving Father. And we focus on this familiar verse, John 3:16, along with the verse that follows: “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.”
This passage speaks volumes about our loving Father and his purpose for us. God is not out to get us; he’s out to save us. And to do that, he will spare no expense or cost. Indeed, he will give to the uttermost. He will give his dearest treasure.
“For God so loved.” This is in his very nature. God is love, at the core of his being. He has a Father’s heart toward us. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” As a father shows compassion toward his children, so the Lord shows compassion toward us.
And what is so amazing about the Father’s love is the object toward whom he shows his love, and that is, the world. “For God so loved the world,” our text says. That is truly amazing! Because think of how the world has turned its back on its Creator. In rebellion and hostility and anger, we puny human beings have shaken our fist at God, as though we could know better than the God who created us, as though–and think of how stupid this sounds–as though we creatures are better off independent of and apart from our Creator. How dumb is that? And yet God loves us. Amazing!
Friends, you and I were part of this rebellious world. We too have sinned against our Creator, thinking we can do better on our own, tuning God out, not listening to his Word. We are the world–and I don’t mean that in a good sense. No, you and I must acknowledge our sins and readily admit that we do not deserve God’s love. But how happy we are to know and receive this love, which God shows toward us, even so!
“For God so loved the world.” To what extent? To the extent “that he gave his only Son.” Think of what the Father said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Think of how the Father repeated those same words at Jesus’ transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son.” The love of the heavenly Father for his Son exceeds our imagination. Yet the Father in his great love for us sinners–his sacrificial love was so great that God was willing to send his Son into this world, giving him up for us. This is a great and giving love that God has for us. “He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”
And for what purpose, to what end? “That whoever believes in him”–that is, in the Son–“should not perish but have eternal life.” That is God’s purpose for you: not that you would perish, be lost eternally, but rather that you would be saved and have eternal life. God has a good purpose for you! He wants you to live, live eternally. Live the way you were designed to live, in fellowship with him, blessed by him. Indeed, “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” giving up on self and trusting instead in Christ, and thus gaining eternal life.
And this leads us then to the Second Person of the Trinity, namely, God’s Son, Jesus Christ. And here we focus on these words about Jesus from our text: “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.” A word of explanation about the “Moses and the serpent” reference. This refers to a time when the people of Israel were grumbling against God in the wilderness, and the Lord sent a plague of serpents among them. They deserved God’s wrath and judgment. But the Lord was also merciful toward them. He instructed Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole and lift it up in the midst of the Israelites, so that people could look to it and thus be saved and healed. This was a type, a foreshadowing, of the work of Christ. For in the same way, Jesus himself, the Son of Man, which was a messianic title–he, Christ, would be lifted up, so that we sinners could look to him in faith and so be saved.
And that is what happened. Jesus was lifted up, on a cross, bearing our sins in his sinless body, the holy Son of God shedding his innocent blood on our behalf, for our forgiveness. Because Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh, both true God and true man, therefore his death is sufficient to cover all the sins of all the sinners who have ever lived, including you and me. “He became sin for us, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God.” “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” and “by his wounds we are healed.”
Yes, the lifted-up Son! Lifted up on the cross, making peace between heaven and earth, making peace between God and man, reconciling us back to God! Here is the heart and core of our salvation: Christ being lifted up on the cross. There is no salvation apart from this great and monumental act of God in the atonement accomplished by Christ on the cross. The lifted-up Son–look to him and live!
But how shall we know Christ? How shall we believe in him? How shall we come to faith in our Savior and believe and be saved? Here is where the Third Person of the Trinity comes in, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, who brings us to faith and gives us the new birth and new life as children of God. Jesus speaks of the life-giving Spirit in our text: “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.”
“Born of the Spirit.” “Born of water and the Spirit.” You and I have been given the new birth in the waters of Holy Baptism. Before that, we were merely born of the flesh, meaning our natural, physical birth as children of Adam–natural-born sinners, doomed to die, outside of the kingdom of heaven. But in Baptism, God does his work of making us his children, washing away our sins, connecting us to Christ, and giving us the gift of the Spirit, who brings us to faith and keeps us in the faith. You must be born again, and in Baptism, you are given that new birth and new life.
In the Nicene Creed we call the Holy Spirit “the Lord and giver of life.” And so he is. The Spirit brings us from death to life through the mighty Word of God. Through Word and Sacrament the Spirit does his work, giving us life and renewing that life constantly along the way. St. Paul writes to Titus about this life-giving, life-renewing work of the Spirit–and listen to how all three persons of the Trinity are involved in saving us, in this passage from Titus 3: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us”–referring to God the Father–“he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”–there’s the Spirit and the new birth of Baptism–“whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”–and there is God’s Son–“so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” So here is yet again another passage–Titus 3, just like our text in John 3–extolling the work of all three persons of the Trinity, active and involved in achieving our salvation.
Dear friends, that’s what this Festival of the Holy Trinity today is all about: rejoicing in the triune God who saves us, the God in whose name we are baptized. Trinity Sunday is a wonderful celebration of our identity and the salvation we enjoy in the name of the loving Father, the lifted-up Son, and the life-giving Spirit.