Thursday, June 04, 2020

Luther's Notes on the Gospel: Trinity

John 3:1-15 
1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? 11 Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Luther's Explanatory Notes

 It seems that this excellent, beautiful gospel, which shows the right way to eternal life, had been selected for the festival of the Holy Trinity, because the difference in the persons is so finely and properly pointed out in the highest and greatest work, which God carries on with us poor people, by justifying and saving us.

The Father loves the world and gives it the Son. (Verse 16.) The Son permits himself to be given to the world, and like the serpent in the wilderness, to be lifted up on a cross, in order that all who believe on him should have eternal life. (Verse 15 f.) To this Word is added yet the third person, the Holy Ghost, who, by the water in Holy Baptism, enkindles faith in the heart, and regeneration into the kingdom of God.
1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 
Nicodemus is highly praised by John the Evangelist: In relation to the government he is a ruler; as regards intelligence, the wisest; as regards life, the holiest; for he was a Pharisee. Besides this, there was an additional grace, that he had a love for the Lord Christ, which was more than all the three other graces. But he comes to Christ with thoughts like these: "He will be glad that I come to him, and it will delight Him that such a great and excellent man, one of the rulers and best men, condescends so much, and bestows such an honor on Him, an inferior person."
2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
We know that You are a teacher come from God. And he would say, "Master, we see very well that thy doctrine must be right and divine, for the signs and the miracles which You perform prove this. But why do You rebuke us Pharisees, who exercise all diligence to keep the law of Moses, which was given by God, as if God were not pleased with us, and as if we could not merit heaven thereby?" These words he thinks he has spoken with a good intention. But there is yet here the old Adam and pure hypocrisy. For that he comes to the Lord "by night" is on account of fear, lest others should call him a heretic. From this we conclude that he was yet an old Adam, since he comes by night, and does not yet have the true light.
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
unless one is born again. How does the Lord receive him? Verily in such a manner, that He strikes him down as with a stroke of lightning; for his hope and good intention must come to naught and perish. "What you speak," He says, "is not right and is without spirit; you speak very loftily in saying that I come from God, and are yet so deeply sunken in your imagination and blindness; you have heard the bell ring, but know not from what steeple."

Just so now, many begin to extol Christ by their words, but there is only foam on their tongue, but nothing in the heart; for they are not born again. Therefore the Lord gives him a short, plain answer; "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." As much as to say: "You expect no more of your Messiah, than that He should be such a one who shall praise your law and government. But the law is yet far from being fulfilled, when you perform outward works; the law must be kept entirely in body and soul, and from the bottom of the heart, without any disobedience and sin. You must first become such a man before you can do real good works. My doctrine is not about doing and not doing; but about becoming, that is, it means not new works done, but first to become new." The child that is yet to be born can do nothing. Thus all works, good and precious though they may be, are entirely worthless when done before regeneration; these same works are pure sin and death. Thus Christ says, "I begin to teach the people that I will make them thoroughly pious, but not with outward demonstrations."

But what is the new birth? It is when a man becomes what he was not before. For the birth brings something into being, which did not exist before. What Christ says here is just as much as what He says in Matt. 18:3, "Except ye become as little children," etc. To be born again means to become a little child, so that we say to God, "All my strength is vain, all my wisdom is blindness and the greatest folly; all my piety and life is condemned to perdition; therefore I commend myself to Your grace, please rule over me according to Your Spirit."
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
How can a man be born when he is old? This is the answer of human reason and wisdom to the preaching of repentance and the new birth; and it must answer thus, because it knows or understands nothing else.
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 

Born of water and the Spirit. This also cannot be understood, unless anyone has experienced it and has passed through the spiritual birth. But let these words stand, and do not contort them by sophistry; it is better that you think: "I do not understand the words; rather than change them I will commend them to God."

Understand the words simply as they read. The water is nothing else, than holy baptism, as Christ also says, (Mark 16:16) Now the water does not have this power on account of its own nature; the Word of God, His command and promise are comprised in it. But when word and water are brought together, then you have such a water in which the Holy Ghost will be present. Therefore he also adds, "with the Holy Spirit." When he comes to it, it becomes a living bath, which washes the people and cleanses and washes away all sin and death. Here is a new man, for you have such thoughts as no Papist or Turk has; namely, that Christ died for you and rose from the dead. Now if you continue in this faith, then the Holy Spirit is present and baptizes you, strengthens faith in you more and more, and gives you new understanding in your heart. He also awakens in you new and holy thoughts and affections, so that you begin to love God, and to do from the heart what pleases him.

Now if the children need to be born again, and otherwise can not see the kingdom of God, why should we deny them baptism? Although the water can do nothing without the Holy Spirit, yet without the water the Holy Spirit will not work within us

The external office. But learn also from these words, how He points Nicodemus to the external office in His church, which is preaching and baptism. For God will not act and work secretly with his Spirit. Otherwise who could experience or be certain where or how he should seek or find the Holy Spirit.
 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 
Born of the flesh. The Scripture denominates the whole man as flesh; as born from father and mother, so he lives, acts, thinks, and speaks, no matter where and when he is born, or whether he is born a Jew or a heathen. All this is nothing else than what He says here, that it can not enter into the kingdom of God; that it is to be condemned in sin under God's wrath. Rom. 11:32; 3:23; Eph. 2:8, 9.

Spirit means what God creates in us above nature and human strength; namely, spiritual knowledge, light, understanding, which he reveals to us, whereby we know God and turn to him, take hold of his grace and cleave to him. If such a beginning is to be made in man, then the heart must be enkindled and renewed by the Holy Ghost.
7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 
Do not marvel. As Nicodemus turns up his nose, as if he was not pleased, and remains silent, the Lord continues: "Why are you so much surprised, my dear Nicodemus? You will not be able to comprehend it yourself. Submit and reflect that you must learn it from Me."
8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The wind blows where it wishes. "You cannot tell Me," says Christ, "whence the wind comes and whither it goes, and yet you must believe that there is such a thing as wind." So also the wind does not blow just as we wish, or whence we desire it; "thus the wind roars and storms without your knowledge, strength, will, might or power, where it will." This is a certain, material thing, which all people feel and hear, and is subject to our five senses; and yet we do not know what it is. Why then should we not honor our blessed God and believe His Word when He says that we are born through baptism?

When we contemplate all nature we find it is full of such examples. For instance, you can not explain why a plant grows out of a little seed. You hear the bodily voice and the external word very well, but you do not see the power of the word. In such a high and great work nothing externally extraordinary or glorious will be seen, for nothing that we hear or see comes to it, but the word and water, and yet the power and work of the Holy Spirit is there, which enkindles the heart and awakens the true fear of God, etc.

Therefore we have in this example a beautiful, lovely picture clearly and properly painted, as to what takes place in this new birth. First, the outward office of the word, and the power which the Holy Spirit exerts thereby.

Secondly, this parable shows finely that Christianity is not bound to external things, places, persons, garments or other things, as the Jews' external holiness was. As the wind blows where it wills, and yet no body knows whence it comes, so also we cannot determine the Spirit in a Christian with rules and doctrines, nor judge of it by reason, but the same (Spirit) will simply not be trammeled and judged by any one, ( I Cor. 2:14 ff) except only that it can be perceived externally in the word and confession which every one should obey, and not regard the persons of men, if only they rightly administer the word and office of the Spirit.

In the third place, the Holy Spirit and his gifts are bestowed upon us in such a manner, that we know not how we received them; here not every one can point out the place or the person, as to when and where he was converted; the Holy Ghost and His gifts are not given to us according to the will of man. He also bestows his gifts to every one as he will.
9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
How can these things be? Nicodemus in his thoughts clings continually to the bodily birth.
10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? 
"Are you the teacher of Israel," says the Lord, "and, indeed, a doctor in Israel, so that Israel should learn from you? Why do you teach other people what you do not know? You (Pharisees) know nothing at all of the doctrine of Christ, the kingdom of God and true spiritual things; but you have perverted everything, go about securely, boasting of your holiness."
11 Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. 
We speak what We know. "We (John and all My disciples) proclaim not an uncertain nonsense, based on reason, but the doctrine revealed by God through the Holy Spirit."
12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 
If I tell you heavenly things. "Thus far I have spoken to you of such things as take place on earth, how man must be born of water and the Spirit; that is, how the Spirit operates through the external office of the word and baptism, which you can see and grasp, and of which you have examples, such as that of Abraham, Isaac, David, Samuel, Gideon and others, who by faith became changed men. Now, if you will not believe this, which is yet prefigured in earthly and external things, how much less can you believe, if I speak further of that which is above in the heavenly, divine essence and council, (of the Holy Trinity, the resurrection of Christ, etc.)"
13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 
No one has ascended to heaven. Here he begins to speak of those high and heavenly things (Verse 12) namely, the secret, eternal, ineffable council and will of God, determined from eternity; and concludes also the other part; namely, of the new birth, which is described in this discourse; that is, how man can be justified from sin, become a child of God and heir of the heavenly, eternal life; namely, from where and why baptism has such a power, and by whom it is acquired and merited, and how this must be received.

And now he begins to speak of Himself, as the promised Messiah, sent by God, of the Son of God and His office and work.

No one has ascended to heaven; that is, by his own power, but He who came down from heaven. Thus He draws everything to Himself that He had previously said about the new birth and the kingdom of heaven, that we may know that no one could attain it, unless He (Christ) had accomplished and attained it; so also there would be no power and spirit in baptism, if it were not given through Him and for His sake.

Who is in heaven. With these words is shown first the person; namely, that is in heaven; that is, He has been with the Father, the eternal, true God from eternity and is still with Him continually. John 8:54.

In the second place, "He came down from heaven," not like an angel comes down, but He assumed the human nature (John 1:14) and has again ascended to heaven; and yet He was without intermission sitting at the right hand of his heavenly Father, and was therefore continually and eternally in heaven, so that He always beholds the Father, and rules and works with Him in equal power and authority. Only this was too deeply hidden in His coming down; that is, when He emptied himself of His divine form (Phil. 2:7) until He was again exalted, as He is also according to His human nature, the Lord over death and hell and all creatures; as He showed by his visible ascension to heaven. But He does not here speak of a bodily change of the place, but of his spiritual journey, His humiliation and exaltation; that is, of His sufferings, death and resurrection.

In the third place, it may be asked, Since "no one ascends to heaven, but He who also came down from heaven," where do we remain? And it is certainly true that He only knows the way. But He keeps the way not only for Himself, or else He would have remained above, but He shows us the same way also through His dear gospel.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 
As Moses lifted up the serpent. This is the other part of this heavenly discourse (Ver. 12) with the right seed of the Holy Spirit, and is as comforting as the first part is dreadful. For here He shows how and by what means we also may receive His benefits. The Lord here gives us the right cue, how to interpret Moses and the prophets; namely, that Moses, with all his works and symbols, points to Him; namely, that Christ is the center around which the whole circle is drawn and whoever turns to Him belongs to it.

Now, in this figure are very finely painted and prefigured the nature, misery and distress of the whole human race, the office and redemption of the Lord Christ, and the way by which this is obtained.

The serpent in the wilderness. The serpent which Moses is to make according to the command of God is to be brass or copper; that is, reddish, and of course (yet without poison) like those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents, red and scorched by heat. Thus also must the Son of man, who was without sin, be numbered with the transgressors.

But why does he take no other sign than just that of the serpent? This it is which St. Paul says, (Rom. 8:3) He condemned sin with sin, drove away death with death, over came law with law. The world sees Christ only according to the outward appearance, not otherwise than a devil; and to the stubborn and impious He will also be a serpent, devil and judge; yea, their tyrant and punisher, as they themselves make a serpent of Him, and run from Him. But this is the divine wisdom, which does not act otherwise. Thus He helps the world by making foolish the wisdom of this world ( 1 Cor. 1:20, 21.) It has pleased God to help the people in this way, that His Son should be regarded by the world as a poisonous reptile, and yet save all who believe on Him.
15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Whoever believes in Him. The look upon the serpent and upon Christ is of two kinds and unlike. The former is a bodily looking. The look upon Christ is a spiritual looking, that I may believe. It is our Lord's manner to accomplish great things by small, insignificant things which appear foolish to the world. To the Papists faith also appears as a small thing. But it is truly the power of God, to believe that Christ was hanged upon the cross, killed and condemned for us (1 Cor. 1:23) For very soon the devil also presents himself, and whispers to thee: "Oh, can one be saved in such an easy way? The Jews also had said you must tear the serpent away, cool yourself in the water, etc., what can it help you to look upon the serpent?" But our Lord God is so mighty, that He leads and guides the whole world by a strawhalm [a puny insignificant appearing thing], and by a drop of water can save from sin, death and the devil.

The humanity is to be seen in these words, that the serpent was nailed to the cross and died; but the Godhead is indicated in this, that the serpent gives eternal life.


Luther's Explanatory Notes on the Gospels, pp. 285-290

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