The cross. The right arrow. The heart. I saw Professor Richard E. Muller write that simple diagram on the chalkboard so many times in seminary. Guys loved his classes because he was great for visual thinkers. He had a diagram for everything. The diagram of the cross, the right arrow, and the heart was perhaps the closest he could come to showing how God works, but even then a diagram couldn’t explain everything. It was merely a start of an explanation of a mystery as deep as God Himself.
Consider the diagram for a moment. The question lying behind it is “How does God get the benefits of the death of Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, into your life?” Notice the diagram doesn’t ask how you get the cross or how you get Jesus into your life. Neither of these things are any benefit unless you are talking about what Jesus’ death is for you. You can explain it until you are blue in the face. Ultimately, though, it is a mystery that is not explained, but believed.
The Athanasian Creed does speak of thinking about the holy Trinity in one right way. It also speaks of believing the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That’s where everything in the diagram begins. You start at Jesus taking on flesh for your sake. It’s a promise almost as old as the foundation of the heavens and the earth. It’s the foundation of prophecy and proclamation in Scripture. It is so holy that Isaiah needed his lips cleansed with a searing-hot coal as he saw the vision of the mystery of God in order to preach it. It’s a mystery so bottomless that Saint Paul can only step back with us and marvel at its holiness and its beauty.
It’s a mystery that confounds Nicodemus, yet is perfectly clear to Jesus. Of course it is clear to Jesus, for He is the Father’s only-begotten Son. He is the mystery in skin. He comes not only to proclaim the favorable season of the Lord, but also to do that favorable season in the shedding of His blood and in His rising from the dead.
If you’re confused about the whole thing, you’re not alone. Join Nicodemus and the long line of people who scratch their heads when contemplating God’s work for you. You can only being to appreciate it when the Holy Spirit gets you to stand still and receive every good and perfect gift from above. That’s what Jesus tries to do with Nicodemus. Don’t use your noggin so much, Nicodemus. It’s a mystery revealed only through the sacred Word and the preaching of the sacred Word.
The only way to know what way the wind blows is to feel it on your body and hear it with your ears. If you’re hard of hearing, you’ll certainly feel it on your body. The Spirit’s work in the Word preached, heard, and read is the only way you’ll know what way the Spirit works on you. You hear the Word. The Word works not only repentance, but also faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. When you hear Jesus speak in His Word, you hear what the Father has to say about you. That’s what the Spirit makes sure you hear. The Holy Spirit keeps you close to Jesus, and in so doing, keeps you close to the Father in heaven.
How can these things be? There’s the question that has no explainable answer. Even Professor Muller’s chalkboard diagram can’t answer the question. The closest to a definitive answer is from Christ’s mouth with a twofold oath: Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen. Notice the use of first person plural by our Lord. We speak. We bear witness. What is spoken and borne witness is the mystery of salvation. No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.
You were not there that dreadful Friday before the Passover when our Lord died for your sins. Yet by faith you believe that what Christ did that day, He did for you. You heard it spoken to you. You hear it spoken to you right now. A witness has been borne for your sake. The witness chiefly is Holy Scripture, for these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Yet how shall they hear without a preacher? The men who have stood in this pulpit through the years bear witness to Christ. As they speak, the Holy Spirit works in the words they speak to convict you of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Repentance is worked. Faith is created and renewed. You are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You are fed the very Body and Blood of Christ. Your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. A line is drawn straight from Eden through the pilgrimage to the Promised Land, where a bronze snake is lifted up on a pole to save the Israelites as they gazed on that snake, to Calvary, where Christ is raised up for your sins, through the empty tomb, to this church building at this very moment.
The Triune God is at work for you today. They work to bring the benefits of Christ’s death into your ears, your heart, and your life. All these things happen through earthly stuff like words, water, bread, and wine. All these things bear witness that God loves the world by sending His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. How can these things be? King David answers in Psalm 34: Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Don’t be afraid. Listen to the Lord in His Word and hear your salvation in Christ, for He alone has done it for you.