A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
May 26, 2013
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-34; John 16:12-15
It’s one thing to say something is true. It’s quite another to live like it.
Every year Christians who observe the Christian calendar celebrate Trinity Sunday on the heels of Pentecost Sunday. Last Sunday we celebrated the truth that God sent the
Holy Spirit to empower followers of Jesus to found the early church, and to vitalize all
Christ-followers in all times and places to bring the kingdom of God on earth even as it is in heaven. This Sunday we celebrate the truth that God is Trinitarian in nature, composed of a marvelous and mysterious fellowship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Today if I asked you if you believe the Trinity to be true, I’m confident most of you would say “Yes, absolutely!” And if you were really on your game, you’d say, “At FBC we refer to God all the time. Not long ago we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. And last Sunday, we rejoiced that the Holy Spirit can set us ablaze for God!”
And yet, I can’t help but recall a commentator I read preparing for last Sunday’s Pentecost sermon who said that many of us live as “binitarians”, as Christians who believe God created us, and Jesus saved us from our sins, but behave as though God’s Holy Spirit has little or nothing to do with our lives.
What evidence might there be that we ignore the third person of the Trinity? The answer is chillingly simple…when it comes to our Christian lives, we typically operate through our own power guided by our own wisdom, with occasional help from the scriptures.
Last week’s sermon focused on our desperate need for the fiery power of the Holy Spirit, so I’m not going to replow that ground. Trinity Sunday typically focuses on the
freshly relevant, always wise, and utterly truthful guidance of the Holy Spirit. So it’s the
guidance of the Holy Spirit that we’ll emphasize today. And hopefully before I’m done
you’ll understand why the Trinity is not just some dry, dusty dogma but is absolutely vital
to our faith.
If you were with us in our recent study of a book by Dallas Willard, you learned that many of us were taught to believe Jesus was our Savior but not our Teacher of ultimate truth. So, we go to Jesus for our salvation. But when it comes to real-life issues like how to treat our enemies—loving them, praying for them, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile—we assume Jesus doesn’t really know what he’s talking about and we look for real-life truth elsewhere.
Quite honestly, we count on scientists to tell us how the world works, our financial managers to tell us how our money works, our favorite political commentator to tell us
how our government works, and our military leaders to tell us how to defend ourselves.
Jesus is great when it comes to getting into heaven, but we don’t look to him for truth
about everyday living.
To make matters worse, many Christians believe that since God inspired the writing of the scriptures centuries ago, God has had nothing further to say. That means if the bible
doesn’t explicitly address an issue—like stem cell research, global warming, gun control, or budget deficits—we’re basically on our own to figure out the truth of the matters.
Friends, if this is the way you operate, I would humbly submit that you do not believe in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, whose job it is to guide people with a fresh supply of God-given, Jesus-reflected truth. And I would add, you are in good company! The reason most churches debate the truth about what to do in rancorous church business meetings rather than attempt to discern the truth God wants them to do in prayer meetings is because they don’t believe God in Jesus Christ is still speaking to folks through the Holy Spirit, not really.
So, on this Trinity Sunday let me ask you again—do you believe in the truth of the Trinity? Specifically, do you believe the third person of the Trinity still actively reflects
God’s truth? Would it help to know the bible we revere and the Jesus we follow teach
these very principles?
But wait a minute! Where does the word “Trinity” appear in the bible? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. For that matter, neither does the word, “incarnation”, or the notion that God became flesh and dwelt among us. But that doesn’t mean the bible doesn’t support both teachings.
One of the earliest expressions of the Trinity in the Bible comes from today’s passage in Proverbs 8. To be honest, Proverbs 8 has been the subject of controversies we don’t have time to even identify, much less describe. So let me get straight to the point—the way Solomon describes wisdom in Proverbs 8 strongly resembles the way John
describes the Word, or the pre-existence of Jesus in John 1.
Proverbs presents wisdom as a vital part of God from the beginning of time, operating almost as a separate being and yet one with God at the same time. The whole world was created with the help ofWisdom, just as the New Testament claims Jesus was involved with the creation from the beginning of time. Read all of Proverbs 8, and you
learn that wisdom provides the supreme truth about life, again foreshadowing Jesus’ claim in John 14:6 that he is the “way, the truth, and the life.”
Later, thanks to a principle theologians call “progressive revelation,” the Trinity becomes far more explicit in the New Testament. For example, our passage today in John 16 refers to all three members of the Trinity in a way that would have been impossible in
the Old Testament. Not even the likes of Abraham,Moses, and David would have been
prepared to hear of the Trinity in their day. But the author of John’s Gospel knew of the
interlocking, intertwining work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit,
and could write about it with inspired brilliance.
Now, here’s what’s fascinating about what Jesus says in John 16. Despite all that he had done and said to this point, his disciples, who had been by his side for 3 years, still couldn’t even begin to hear, much less absorb the whole truth of God’s wisdom. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
To what “things” is Jesus referring? To what will transpire after his crucifixion and resurrection? The disciples, who were already struggling to wrap their minds around the
notion that Jesus would soon die and rise again, would surely not have a category for Jesus’ ascension. Or the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost.
And what about their eventual mission to the Gentiles? Were these thoroughly Jewish men ready to accept and absorb that in time uncircumcised Gentiles who ate unclean food would be invited to join the church of Jesus Christ? Are you kidding me?
Talk about progressive revelation! Jesus had already challenged the sacred Law of Moses on several counts in his Sermon on the Mount, conventional wisdom like an “eye
for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” retaliation. But letting Gentiles into the kingdom?
And the Spirit of Jesus wasn’t finished overturning and updating confirmed truth yet, or was he?
Here, my friends, is where Christian theology gets anything but dry and dusty. Most bible-believing Christians believe the canon of scripture is closed, not open. In other words, when it comes to the central issues of faith, there is no updating or future correction. The bible teaches that God is the author of all that is, and ever will be. Jesus
died for our sins on a cross, was raised from the dead, and one day will be Lord of all that is. In the meantime the Holy Spirit empowers and guides the church. These and other key tenants of the faith are not negotiable. They are true now and forever.
But our recently deceased friend Dallas Willard, a biblical Christian if there ever was one, disputes the rigid attitude he calls “bible deism” which says God has had nothing
of substance to say since the scriptures were completed. To the contrary, Jesus explicitly promised that a Spirit of truth would come, and this Spirit will guide you into all truth, truth you can’t bear to hear at the moment. This Spirit won’t be making truth up on his own. The truth he reveals progressively, incrementally over time will come directly from the Father, by way of the son. Having the Spirit will be like having the human Jesus by your side, only better. Because now Jesus can be and will be everywhere in the form of his Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
Has the Spirit continued to say things that couldn’t have been heard at an earlier time? You be the judge.
For centuries most people, including Christ-followers, assumed it was just fine to own human beings and treat them like slaves. But a couple hundred years ago first one group of Christians and then another began to take another look at slavery. And even
though it seemed possible to argue from scripture that slavery was acceptable, these
Christ-followers heard the Spirit saying clearly and unequivocally that it was time for this
human evil to end. So they started the abolitionist movement, and although it took a civil
war and a host of legislation, slavery in all its forms finally came to an end.
Sadly, human slavery and sex-trafficking have reappeared, and we are still fighting this human cancer. But at least no serious Christians any longer defends the practice of slavery.
Some, myself included, have made a similar argument about the role of women. For years it was standard practice to view women as little more than property whose primary purpose was to obey their husbands and care for their children. And parts of scripture seemed to support this view. But over time the Spirit of Jesus, who treated women with the utmost respect, has been changing minds and hearts. And while not all
Christians share the same view of the role of women, more and more are concluding that in Christ women and men are equal and women can be called and gifted for ministry in God’s kingdom.
Today, Christians are wondering if God has a fresh word about thorny issues like homosexuality. And the environment. And stem cell research. And a host of others. No doubt these arguments will continue. And no doubt these conversations will be messy as all of us see “through a glass darkly.” But this much I know—I will always put my money on the wisdom of Jesus, which may look like foolishness to this world, but is far wiser and truer than anything we ever have or ever will produce on our own. And I know the Spirit will proclaim that wisdom to all who have ears to hear.