For several Sundays in a row, the Gospel has come from different sections in Jesus’ Maundy Thursday discourse from John 13-17. As I explained in several past sermons, the chronology of these selections might seem “off” at first glance (i.e. Why are we reading words Jesus spoke during Holy Week long after Holy Week and Easter?), but the content of Jesus’ words looks ahead to Ascension and Pentecost and prepared the disciples for those momentous events. In the current year (Year C) of the three-year lectionary, we’re hearing an excerpt from every chapter of that discourse over the course of five weeks: John 13:31-35 on Easter 5, John 14:23-29 on Easter 6, John 17:20-26 on Easter 7, John 15:26-27 on Pentecost Day, and John 16:12-15 for Trinity Sunday (Pentecost 1).
As I looked at the readings for this Sunday, I noticed that I’ve preached on the First Lesson (Numbers 6:22-27) and Second Lesson (Romans 5:1-5) in previous years, but never on the Gospel (John 16:12-15). So that led to the choice of the appointed Gospel for this weekend’s sermon. And after the usual exegetical study (after, not before!), my reading took me to Luther’s sermons on this section of John’s Gospel in Volume 24 of the American Edition of his works.
The old axiom that “every text has 1,000 sermons” is certainly true with these words. But this weekend’s observance of Trinity Sunday narrows our focus to the relationship of the three persons of the Triune God. Amid his many thoughts on this section, Luther also spends some time dealing with the persons of the Trinity. Here are Luther’s words specifically on the phrase, “He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears” in John 16:13. The comments related to the Trinity begin in the fourth paragraph.
Here Christ makes the Holy Spirit a Preacher. He does so to prevent one from gaping toward heaven in search of Him, as the fluttering spirits and enthusiasts do, and from divorcing Him from the oral Word or the ministry. One should know and learn that He will be in and with the Word, that it will guide us into all truth, in order that we may believe it, use it as a weapon, be preserved by it against all the lies and deception of the devil, and prevail in all trials and temptations. For there is, after all, no other way and no other means of perceiving the Holy Spirit’s consolation and power, as I have often demonstrated from Holy Writ and have often experienced myself. For I, too, am a half-baked theologian. This I say lest I exalt myself over the great minds who have long ago ascended into the clouds beyond all Scripture and have nestled under the wings of the Holy Spirit. But experience has taught me all too often that whenever the devil catches me outside Scripture and sees that my thoughts are rambling and that I, too, am fluttering toward heaven, he brings me to the point of not knowing where God is or where I am. The Holy Spirit wants this truth which He is to impress into our hearts to be so firmly fixed that reason and all one’s own thoughts and feelings are relegated to the background. He wants us to adhere solely to the Word and to regard it as the only truth. And through this Word alone He governs the Christian Church to the end.
Here Christ defines the Holy Spirit’s office and points out what and about what He is to teach. He constantly keeps in mind the false spirits and preachers who boastfully claim to have the Holy Spirit as well as others do and allege that what they say has emanated from the Holy Spirit. That is what the pope persuaded the entire world to believe. Thus the Holy Spirit establishes a wide difference among teachers and gives the right rule by which the spirits are to be tested. He wants to say that there are two kinds of teachers. There are some who speak on their own authority; that is, they evolve their message from their own reasoning or religious zeal and judgment. The Holy Spirit is not to be that kind of preacher; for He will not speak on His own authority, and His message will not be a human dream and thought like that of the preachers who speak on their own authority of things which they have neither seen nor experienced and, as St. Paul says in 1 Tim. 1:7, talk “without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.” “No, His message will have substance; it will be the certain and absolute truth, for He will preach what He receives from the Father and from Me. And you will be able to recognize Him by the fact that He does not speak on His own authority—as the spirit of lies, the devil, and his mobs do—but will preach about what He will hear. Thus He will speak exclusively of Me and will glorify Me, so that the people will believe in Me.”
In this way Christ sets bounds for the message of the Holy Spirit Himself. He is not to preach anything new or anything else than Christ and His Word. Thus we have a sure guide and touchstone for judging the false spirits. We can declare that it surely does not indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit when a person proclaims his own thoughts and notions and begins to teach in Christendom something apart from or in addition to what Christ taught. No, that betrays the presence of the loathesome spirit of lies, the devil, of whom Christ declares in John 8:44: “When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature,” that is, what he himself has fabricated. The whole heap of the pope’s doctrines—of the papacy, of purgatory, of indulgences, of pilgrimages, of monasticism, and of Masses—is composed of such lies of the devil. It contains neither a word nor a thought about Christ. Yet he has filled Christendom with it. Consequently, we, too, had to believe the nocturnal dreams of every stupid monk, transparent and obvious lies though they were and intolerable to intelligent people.
This is the plain and simple meaning of this text concerning the office of the Holy Spirit. But here there is more to say about the Person of the Holy Spirit, about how it is distinct from that of both the Father and the Son. For in the first place, when Christ refers to the Holy Spirit and says: “When the Comforter comes” (John 15:26), and “Whatever He hears He will speak” (John 16:13), and “He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine” (John 16:14), etc., He proves conclusively that the Holy Spirit is a true Being in the Godhead, that He is Himself a distinct Person who is neither the Father nor the Son. For all the following words indicate a special Person: “the Comforter, who will come”; “Whatever He hears He will speak.” If He is to come or, as Christ said earlier, if He is to be sent or to proceed, also to hear and to speak, He must, of course, be something. Now He surely is not the Father, since the Father does not come and is not sent. Nor is He the Son, who has already come and now returns to the Father, and of whom the Holy Spirit will preach and whom He will glorify.
But Christ points in particular to the distinctive Person of the Holy Spirit or His attribute, also to His divine essence together with the Father and the Son, when He says: “Whatever He hears He will speak.” For here Christ refers to a conversation carried on in the Godhead, a conversation in which no creatures participate. He sets up a pulpit both for the speaker and for the listener. He makes the Father the Preacher and the Holy Spirit the Listener. It is really beyond human intelligence to grasp how this takes place; but since we cannot explain it with human words or intelligence, we must believe it. Here faith must disregard all creatures and must not concentrate on physical preaching and listening; it must conceive of this as preaching, speaking, and listening inherent in the essence of the Godhead.
Here it is relevant to state that Scripture calls our Lord Christ—according to His divine nature—a “Word” (John 1:1) which the Father speaks with and in Himself. Thus this Word has a true, divine nature from the Father. It is not a word spoken by the Father, as a physical, natural word spoken by a human being is a voice or a breath that does not remain in him but comes out of him and remains outside him. No, this Word remains in the Father forever. Thus these are two distinct Persons: He who speaks and the Word that is spoken, that is, the Father and the Son. Here, however, we find the third Person following these two, namely, the One who hears both the Speaker and the spoken Word. For it stands to reason that there must also be a listener where a speaker and a word are found. But all this speaking, being spoken, and listening takes place within the divine nature and also remains there, where no creature is or can be. All three—Speaker, Word, and Listener—must be God Himself; all three must be coeternal and in a single undivided majesty. For there is no difference or inequality in the divine essence, neither a beginning nor an end. Therefore one cannot say that the Listener is something outside God, or that there was a time when He began to be a Listener; but just as the Father is a Speaker from eternity, and just as the Son is spoken from eternity, so the Holy Spirit is the Listener from eternity.
Earlier we heard (John 14:26; 15:26) that the Holy Spirit is sent not only by the Father but that He is also sent by, and proceeds from, the Son. Therefore this Listener must be called the Listener of both the Father and the Son, not of the Father alone or of the Son alone. Christ has stated plainly: “The Comforter, whom I shall send to you from the Father.” The expression “to send” has the very same connotation that the expression “to proceed from” has. For he who proceeds from someone is sent. Conversely, he who is sent proceeds from him who sends him. Consequently, the Holy Spirit has His divine essence not only from the Father but also from the Son, as the following words will illustrate further.
Thus these words confirm and teach exactly what we confess in our Creed, namely, that in one divine essence there are three distinct Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is illustrated by means of a metaphor, or a picture of natural things, in order that we in our weakness may be able to know what is meant and to talk about it. But we cannot search it out or understand it. We must believe, and cling to, these words which we hear from Christ Himself, just as Christendom and especially the holy fathers and bishops did. They had disputations about this article, and they fought for and preserved it against the heretics and lying spirits who made bold to meditate on and to affect wisdom concerning these sublime, inscrutable matters beyond and apart from Scripture.
Luther’s Works, Vol. 24: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16. Ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).