Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 26, 2024

John 3:1-17 Commentary

We visited part of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus back in Lent. But back then, we focused on verses 14-21 and we didn’t get Nicodemus’s great question for Trinity Sunday in verse 9: “How can these things be?”

Of course, Nicodemus is asking about how it’s possible for humans to be born from above or again, but his entire conversation with Jesus keeps alluding to all three persons of the Trinity—though Nicodemus seems to have no idea the depth of the magnificent knowledge Jesus is sharing with him.

As part of taking the Jewish teacher to school, Jesus reminds Nicodemus that there is more to us humans than our physical existence. Yes, we must be born from our mother’s womb, flesh of flesh and bone of bone, but we are also made part of God’s family by being born of God the Spirit (verse 6). The Spirit’s movement and transformation is much more mysterious than the way babies are made: it is like the wind that we cannot see but by its effect, invisible yet impactful, free and totally outside of our control.

Jesus also tells Nicodemus that part of his problem is that he has a hard enough time accepting God’s truth about the physical things; of course the spiritual realities will be harder for him to grasp and build his life upon. This isn’t just true for Nicodemus—it’s true for so many of us, as though it’s part of human nature.

Here Jesus tries to help Nicodemus, albeit a little cryptically, by describing himself as the connection between heaven above and the physical earth all around them. Jesus Christ is the only one to ascend and descend from heaven. And here on earth, Jesus will be lifted up physically so that a spiritual reality can be realized by God’s people. Both the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ are being talked about here. The second person of the Trinity descended to earth into Mary’s womb and took on bodily flesh through the work of the Holy Spirit, and that same Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh, is now bodily (i.e., physically) present in heaven, having ascended as the resurrected, firstborn of the dead. Jesus knows what he is talking about when he says born of the flesh and of the Spirit. His purpose comes from above, as does all who follow after him.

And what is that purpose? It’s the beautiful truth of God’s love. When Nicodemus heard Jesus speak of God, he would have understood this as a reference to Yahweh, the one true God, and the one Jesus taught us to pray to as “Father.” The Spirit blows and converts us to belief for the purpose of love, not condemnation. The Son came to be lifted up on the cross not for our condemnation but out of great love for us—if we only believe. God sends and gives for the purpose of eternal life through the Son, knowing that such life starts here and now through rebirth in the Spirit.

So yes, with Nicodemus, we say, “How can this be?” as we seek to believe. It requires us to come to terms with the limits of our own ability to understand fully with airtight proofs that could convince even the greatest analytical skeptic. That’s what makes the wind such an apt image of the Spirit—both unseen and yet somehow undeniable. Like being born (see the textual point below), our experience of God starts outside of ourselves. But what we are born into is the greatest life possible: an eternal life physically begun now through belief, nurtured in the eternal love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Textual Point

It is important to note that of the 8 instances of “born” in this text, all of them are passive verbal forms (infinitives and participles). Being born is something that happens to us: we are just as much birthed, or borne into existence. It is a good reminder that our existence has always begun elsewhere, outside of ourselves.

Illustration Idea

In For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, N.T. Wright describes Trinity Sunday as the Sunday we “rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word ‘god’ might actually mean.” Having journeyed through the liturgical year and the way it focuses on Christ, we now “stand back” and come to terms with both what we know and do not know about God. “The Trinity,” he writes, “is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards. On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.’”


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