Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
May 30, 2021
Nicodemus was a very smart man, a teacher of Israel, a ruler of the Jews, a man who stood out even among the Pharisees. This does not describe someone unless he is both intelligent and hard working. And Nicodemus pursued even more knowledge of God. This is why he meets Jesus at night, to learn from the teacher come from God. Yet, Jesus gives Nicodemus a lesson, which blows all his great learning and studying and hard-earned status away. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
What does this mean? It means that despite his years of dedicated study and astuteness, Nicodemus could not see the kingdom of God, that is, he could not believe and understand the Gospel unless he were born again. No, Jesus is not talking about a physical rebirth, but one of the Spirit. Nicodemus like the rest of mankind is born of the flesh. That which is born of flesh is flesh. The flesh avails nothing (John 6:63). “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:50) By flesh, Scripture means the natural condition to which you are born, that is, your sinful condition, which you inherited from your first father Adam. Just listen to how Scripture describes those born according to the flesh:
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
King David cries, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8)
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
And so, Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to see the kingdom of God, that is, if he wants to be saved and have true knowledge of God, he must be born again. Nicodemus cannot by his own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ his Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit must call him to faith by causing him to be born again. We cannot cause ourselves to be born again. Just as baby Flint did not do anything to cause himself to be born of the flesh, neither can we cause ourselves to be born again of the Spirit. The Lord spoke through Jeremiah, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also can you do good who are accustomed to evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23) We cannot change ourselves. God must change us. He must give us a new birth, or we cannot believe in him, we cannot recognize the Holy Trinity, we cannot see the kingdom of God, we cannot be saved.
When Nicodemus asks Jesus how this second birth takes place, Jesus answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now, this is an obvious reference to Baptism. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to us through the water and the Word, just as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit always comes through God’s Word, but in Baptism Christ joins water to this Word and Spirit. This is how God has chosen to cause us to be born again and to join us to Christ, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” And again, Titus 3 says that he saved us, “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 5)
There are those who question how water can cause one to be born again. They deny that Baptism has the power to cause rebirth. Yet, it is certainly not the water alone that causes a person to be born again, but the Holy Spirit, who works through God’s promise joined to the water. Could the Holy Spirit cause a person to be born again apart from Baptism? Sure, he could. But the ordinary way that Jesus has taught us to born again is through the water and Spirit in Baptism. Jesus could certainly have and he did recover the sight of the blind without putting mud on the blind man’s eyes and having him wash in the pool of Siloam (John 9), yet when Jesus chose to use mud and washing, how foolish would it have been for the blind man to rebuke Jesus and say, “No, heal me by your word alone. I don’t need this mud and washing!”? Again, think of the leper Naaman, whom Elisha told to wash in the Jordan seven times. How arrogant would it have been if he had refused to wash in the Jordan according to the word of God from the prophet. He would have remained a leper all his days. And think of the people of Israel in the wilderness dying of venomous snake bites. Those who refused to look at the bronze serpent on the poll perished. Only those, who believed in the Word of God from Moses looked up at the bronze serpent and were saved through faith.
Baptism does not compete with faith. Faith alone saves. But what is faith, but to believe and hold onto God’s promise in the Gospel? And Baptism is indeed Gospel, because it promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe.
Today is Trinity Sunday. We confess one God in Unity, yet three persons in Trinity. The Father is God. The Son is God. And the Holy Spirit is God. Yet, there are not three Gods, but one God. The Father is not the Son nor is the Son the Holy Spirit nor the Holy Spirit the Father, yet these three are one God. This is impossible for our human reason to understand, even less for our sinful flesh to believe. Yet, those who are born again believe it, because those who have been born again trust in the Gospel. The Holy Trinity reveals himself in the Gospel, and so, Holy Baptism reveals to us the Holy Trinity. God the Father causes us to be born again by sending us his Holy Spirit through his word. Yet, he joins the Spirit and Word to water. He does this for the sake of our faith. The wind blows and we hear its sound, but do not know where it comes from or where it goes. How do you know that you have been born again? Because the Word has been joined to the water. Have you been baptized? Has the water touched your skin? Then believe that you have received the Holy Spirit. Even more, believe that you have been joined to Christ Jesus, to his death and resurrection. God uses water, because water is physical, and we are physical beings. The water touches our skin and tells us that Jesus has died for us. We are washed in his blood, which truly flowed from his open wounds. As Jesus rose from the dead, so will we who have been buried with Christ in Baptism be raised to new life.
We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The entire Trinity works in our Baptism. The Father sends the Son, who shed his blood for us. The Father sends the Holy Spirit, who causes us to be reborn after the image of Christ. We are washed in the same water, which wet our Savior Jesus. Through Baptism, God opens our eyes to see the kingdom of God through faith.
And what is the kingdom of God? What is it that we see when God causes us to be born again by water and the Spirit? Jesus tells Nicodemus. “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.” In Numbers chapter 21, the people of Israel grumbled against the Lord. So, he sent fiery serpents that bit the people and many of them died. So, God told Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole, so that whoever looked at the serpent would not die. Moses made a bronze serpent and lifted it up. It was metal, not venomous as the snakes were that bit them. And so, Christ Jesus is without sin of his own as he dies for the transgressions of all mankind. Yet, the bronze serpent bears the image of the curse which plagued the people of Israel. And so, Jesus bore the image of the curse of sin as he died on the tree. It was certainly offensive to the people of Israel that the God who forbade the worship of metal images commanded them to look to a bronze statue for rescue from their snakebites. And so, it offends people that the Christ, God’s own Son died a miserable death on the cross.
Yet, there lifted high was their salvation. There on the cross we see the kingdom of God. Unless you are born again, this message is offensive. Unless you are born again, Jesus on the cross looks like a loser who can help no one. Yet, when the Holy Spirit causes you to be born again, your eyes are open to your salvation upon that cross, God’s kingdom coming with power; power to forgive your sins; power to crush the head of Satan; power to open the kingdom of heaven to all who believe in him.
Through Baptism we receive a spiritual birth by the power of the Holy Spirit. As children born of the flesh need milk and then solid food, so also do those born of the Spirit need spiritual food. That spiritual food is the Gospel of Jesus Christ the crucified. To be born again, means to have faith in Christ. When you look at Christ on the cross through faith, you see the Holy Trinity. God the Father so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to die on the cross for our sins. Christ Jesus, God’s Son from eternity and our brother according to the flesh, born of the Virgin Mary in space and time, pays the ransom for our sins on the cross. And the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, causes us to be born again, so that we can recognize this brutal death and victorious resurrection of Jesus as our Salvation.
The Gospel is our spiritual food without which we cannot live. We’re still in the wilderness. The fiery serpents of sin and temptation continue to bite us as we continue to battle our sinful flesh and the power of Satan in this world. We need the healing power of Christ Jesus. We need to recognize the Holy Trinity, who saves. If we reject the Gospel, we reject our new birth by the Spirit. But when we believe in the Gospel, we receive forgiveness of our sins and certainty of our salvation every day of our lives.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, our God has caused you to be born again, so that you can see his Kingdom through Christ Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Do not close your eyes to this salvific sight. Do not close your ears to the voice of the Spirit. Rather, through the faith of a newborn child of God, enter into your Father’s Kingdom by clinging to Christ the crucified, so that you may live in his kingdom in eternity. Amen.
Let us pray.
Baptized into Your Name Most Holy
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
I claim a place, though weak and lowly,
Among Your saints, Your chosen host.
Buried with Christ and dead to sin,
Your Spirit now shall live within. Amen.