When it comes to the Trinity, there is really only one important question. It is not so much about the Father, and it is not about the Spirit. The question centers on Jesus. Who is Jesus? Or, as the Jews in our text put it, who does Jesus make Himself out to be? The answer not only provides the key to understanding the Trinity. It is the most important question we can ask, period.
There are many correct answers. Peter gave a good one, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). So did John, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Thomas finally got it right, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), as did Mary Magdalene, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16). Historically, the Church has offered its own answers, often in response to confusion or misunderstanding. The Athanasian Creed is a prime example. Jesus is “uncreated... infinite... eternal.” He is “perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh.” He is “not two, but one Christ... not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God... not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.”
These answers are good and right. Your congregation might even confess the Athanasian version during worship this Sunday. But for your sermon, I suggest you avoid getting into the fifth century weeds. Instead, follow Jesus’ lead in our text and use His self-confession to shape yours.
As always, context is key. Jesus’ confession in this text was not part of a private lesson to His disciples. It was not a dogmatic treatise on the doctrine of God. It came at the end of a brawl with the Jews who rejected Him. The scuffle began in John 8:31 when Jesus announced He would set His disciples free. They bristled against the implications by denying the need for freedom. Instead, they called themselves children of Abraham. This led Jesus to hit back with the accusation that their father was actually the Devil. This led to today’s text, which opened with the Jews making a similar counterclaim. A demon possesses Him, they insisted. But Jesus would not let it stand. He called them liars. Then, if that were not enough, He made an astounding claim: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
A demon possesses Him, they insisted. But Jesus would not let it stand. He called them liars.
They got the point. He was claiming to be God. This was not the first (or only) time He claimed it either (see also John 5:18 and 10:36). They responded in this instance by picking up stones, but it was not yet His time. His moment would come eleven chapters later. When it did, they would remind Pilate of His blasphemy and make sure He got His due (John 19:7).
Jesus’ claim about being before Abraham landed this text on Trinity Sunday. But as astounding as co-eternity and co-equality with the Father in majesty and glory is, this is not the most significant answer Jesus gave in this Gospel reading, not for us at least. What matters for us is what He said about what He DOES (rather than who He IS). For this we turn back to verse 51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My Word (τὸν ἐμὸν λόγον τηρήσῃ) he will never see death.”
As you prepare to preach on this text, I encourage you to make sure this promise dominates. It is more significant for your hearers than any trinitarian explanation, and more helpful (and probably more orthodox) than any trinitarian analogy you could invent.
But how? I suggest returning to the question the Jews asked Jesus in John 8:53. “Who do you make yourself out to be?” There are many answers given today. Some are false and need correction. Ask around, listen carefully, and share a few false examples. Other answers are true, but less helpful for daily living. Jesus’ answer in verse 51 is clear and direct and always significant: He is the one who saves us from death.
For those who are able to ignore their mortality, this claim may not mean much. But to anyone who has watched a casket close for the last time, or to anyone whose body has begun a slow but certain descent, this promise means (and transforms) the world.
From this promise flows a lifetime of doing what He says, namely, keeping His Word. Your sermon would do well to encourage this. We keep His Word by reading the Scriptures and clinging to its promises. We keep His Word by joining our brothers and sisters in worship, study, and conversation. We keep His Word through daily habits of devotion and prayer. Call your hearers to keep Jesus Word and trust His promise to raise them from the dead.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 8:48-59.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 8:48-59.