Holy Trinity (June 3, 2007)
“Knowing God” (John 8:48-59)
Here is a book from my library entitled “Knowing God.” It has 254 pages. Is that enough to exhaust the study of God? Will you know God by the time you finish this book? Perhaps. But there would still be a lot more to say about him.
Here is the classic dogmatics text that is still used today at our Missouri Synod seminaries. “Christian Dogmatics” by Franz Pieper...all 3 volumes and a 1 volume index. Will you know God by the time you finish these books, footnotes and all? One of my profs said that’s where Pieper is at his best...in the footnotes. Some of us grabbed a clue and read the footnotes, and found out that many of our test questions were taken from that tiny print at the bottom of the pages.
Where do you begin to talk about God? How do you truly know God? It’s easy to run into trouble when we try to define and explain God...apart from the way in which he has revealed himself, of course.
Claiming to Know God
In today’s Gospel reading from John 8, Jesus encountered some people who said that he was a Samaritan and a demon. As Jews, these were the most insulting things they could think of to call Jesus. They hated those half-breed Samaritans, even though Jesus himself was not one. And of course, they hated the devil, and you and I know that Jesus was not affiliated with him. These sons of Abraham claimed to believe in the God of Abraham. Of this God, Jesus quotes these Jewish leaders as saying, “He is our God.” But Jesus said, “You have not known him.”
First of all, how do we know there is a God in the first place? We know there is a God from creation. When you look at the world, a person should be able to acknowledge that someone or something must have created all this. We know there is a God from conscience. That sense of right and wrong that everyone has inside them...where does that come from? The answer is God. But creation and conscience will not give you the complete picture of God. Only his revelation of himself in the Bible gives us all that he wants us to know about himself and his character.
Like those Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, many people claim to know God. There are all kinds of competing claims about who God is. They may even claim some connection to the Bible but have additional so-called revelations. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses will come to your door with a different god...one that is not Triune. “Oneness Pentecostals” like TV preacher T.D. Jakes also deny that God is One God in Three Persons. And false messiahs always pop up here and there in every generation. Jim Jones was one. David Koresh was one. Now we have Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a cult leader in Miami with thousands of followers worldwide, who claims to be God. At his prompting, some of his church members, oddly enough, have had the number 666 tattooed on their bodies because Miranda claims to be the Antichrist. He explains this by saying that he is not “against” Jesus, but rather he is the “real” Jesus.
At other times, people come up with faulty ideas about God because they try to know him apart from revelation. J.B. Phillips, in his book Your God is Too Small, names various false conceptions of God. One he calls “Resident Policeman,” a god who is always watching over your shoulder making sure you don’t screw up and to nail you when you do. Another, he calls “Grand Old Man,” that faulty Sunday School picture of a white-haired, white-bearded old man sitting in the clouds. Another, he calls “Absolute Perfection.” Certainly, God is absolutely perfect, but if all we know of God is that he is “Absolute Perfection” then we will constantly be wracked with guilt because we can never measure up. You can probably think of other faulty ideas about God: “Big Buddy in the Sky,” rather than the Almighty to whom we should bow down and worship. Or this one: “Co-Pilot,” the one who rides along with me even though I’m really the one behind the wheel, instead of Sovereign Lord and King. Probably the most common idea about God is “Life Preserver,” someone to cling to when the water gets rough, but I’ll swim on my own power in the meantime, thank you very much.
Some go so far as to say that Jews, Muslims, and Christians actually worship the same God because they believe in only one God...that they, along with Christianity, are the only monotheistic religions... from “mono” meaning “one” and “theos” meaning “God.” But here is what Luther said in the Large Catechism, “Even if we were to concede that everyone outside Christianity—whether heathen, Turks [meaning Muslims], Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites—believe in and worship only one true God, it would still be true that they do not know what His mind toward them is and cannot expect any love or blessing from Him. Therefore, they abide in eternal wrath and damnation. For they do not have the Lord Christ, and, besides, are not illumined and favored by any gifts of the Holy Spirit.” (LC II.66) The Scriptures clearly teach that God is Triune...three persons in one divine essence. We don’t have time to look at all the Bible passages that support this. But go back and look at the Explanation to the Small Catechism where it discusses the Creed. You’ll see the verses which say that there is only one God, but the other verses that call the Father God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God. The Athanasian Creed says, “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” And later the Creed says, “And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped. Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.” If your concept of God is messed up, your concept of how you are saved is messed up.
Know Jesus, Know God
So the best person to listen to in all this is Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know God. To those who claimed to know God, Jesus said, “I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.”
And then, a few moments later, Jesus made a claim to be God. “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The Jews responded, “You are not yet fifty years old and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”
Now there’s some odd grammar. “Before Abraham was born, I am.” Not “I was.” Not “I have been.” I AM. The very same name that the voice from the burning bush revealed to Moses: “Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.” I AM. In Hebrew, it is Yahweh. Jesus was clearly saying, “I am God.” And the people who heard him in our text clearly understood what he was saying. That’s why they picked up stones to throw at him. They knew that he was making a divine claim. That was blasphemy in their eyes and deserving death.
The Lord Jesus is the great I AM, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. He is eternal God in the flesh. He humbled himself as a man and kept God the Father’s word perfectly (v. 55). He honors the Father. The Father glorifies him in his death, resurrection, and ascension. And therefore we honor Christ as true God and Son of God. If anyone keeps his word, including the truth about the Trinity, we will not see death...death here meaning eternal death, eternal separation from God. The truth about the Trinity is that God the Father sent his Son Jesus to be born as a man, to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world, so that whoever believes this has forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And the Father and the Son both send the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith in all who hear this Good News.
So what do we do when we know God as he has revealed himself. Repent of our false concepts of God. Turn back to the Scriptures alone to know God. Learn them well. Make the right connections between the Old and New Testaments. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples after his resurrection, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44) Interpret the Bible with Jesus at the Center, for he is the great I AM...the same God revealed in the Old as in the New Testaments. The Trinity was not something made up by the Church. The Holy Trinity was present in Genesis 1, where God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit was hovering over the face of the waters, and as John 1 teaches us, the Word who was made Flesh was in the beginning with God and the Word was God.
Finally, there are two ways of dealing with this knowledge of God. That book Knowing God I shared with you begins with this illustration. Picture some people sitting on a high balcony of a Spanish house watching travelers go by on the road below. The people on the balcony can overhear the travelers’ conversation and chat with them. They might even comment critically on the way that the travelers walk. They might discuss questions about the road, how it can exist at all or lead anywhere, what might be seen from different points along the road, and so forth. But the people on the balcony are onlookers. Their problems are only theoretical. The travelers, by contrast, face problems that are practical. Which way should we go? How do we make this trip? What happens when we get to our destination? These are problems which call for some type of action and response.
When it comes to the nature of God, the people on the balcony ask how one God can be three, what kind of unity can three have, how three who make one can be “persons,” and so forth. The traveler asks these questions, too, but once discussed, the traveler wants to know how to show proper honor, love, and trust towards these three persons who even now are together at work to bring us out of sin into glory. (from the Foreword of Knowing God by J.I. Packer)
God has set us on the road as travelers in our Baptism. And as we travel down this road of faith and trust and hope, we invite others to travel with us, leading them to know God...not according to what we think...but according to who he truly is...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.