On Sunday I was preaching on John 4:43-54, the healing of the royal official’s son. One notable aspect of the story is Jesus exclamation, ‘Unless you people (meaning the Galileans) see signs and wonders you will never believe’ to the man, just before he heals his son: a healing that John describes as his second sign. Why is Jesus so negative about belief built on signs? The answer, of course, is that Jesus’ problem with the Galileans was not that they observed the signs but that they did not see what the signs pointed to, Jesus’ identity as Christ and Son of God.
I was reflecting on all this as I thought about the East London Theology Conference we’re hosting next month. We’re delighted to have Professor Fred Sanders coming to speak on the topic of the Trinity, a subject on which he has published many excellent books. That has meant that over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about how to explain to people why they should give up a Saturday to hear someone talk about something that, for many, strikes them as a bit technical and abstract. I found that my instinct was to try and show why hearing about the Trinity would help in some aspect of the Christian life: perhaps evangelism or prayer. But, truth be told: though I believe it will, it’s hard to draw those kind of lines for people in a couple of sentences. Most Christians I know want to be better spouses, better evangelists, better friends, better Bible teachers, if that’s their calling, and better followers of Jesus in general but sometimes it’s hard to immediately see why understanding the Trinity that bit more will help them with those things.
John 4:43-54 made me wonder whether I’d got my thinking the wrong way round. Jesus’ problem with the Galileans was they didn’t really care who Jesus was, they just wanted to use him as a means to their end. That was Jesus’ challenge to the royal official – am I just a means to an end for you or are you prepared to reckon with my identity? Jesus is not a means to an end, he is the end. Yes, believing in his name, John tells us, leads to eternal life, but what is that life? ‘Now this is eternal life,’ Jesus tells us, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ For Jesus, eternal life is knowing his Father and knowing Him. He is always at the centre.
What’s that got to do with the upcoming theology conference? Well, it’s made me think that the way to think about it is not that understanding the Trinity better might help me in the areas of life I’d like to improve, whether evangelism, discipleship or prayer, but that understanding the Trinity better is a foretaste of what all those other areas of my life should be leading towards, knowing Jesus Christ. I would suggest that we face the dangers that the Galileans did, viewing Jesus as someone who might be useful in the pursuit of our agendas whether they be church growth, a happy family or social justice. But Jesus is never content to submit to someone else’s agenda, even when it’s as urgent and desperate as a dying son. Jesus challenge to us is: are you interested in me or just in what you can get from me?
If we are interested in Jesus for his own sake, then a day spent considering his identity as the Divine, Eternal Son and his perfect eternal relationship with his Father in the Spirit, begins to make a lot more sense. Suddenly, what seemed an abstract point of academic theology we can now see for what it really is, the pulsating centre of all Christian, indeed human, life. We do not need to justify making an effort to understand the Triune God any more than we need to justify the effort to get to the beach on a sunny day. You do not need to justify enjoying what is enjoyable for its own sake. Of course, just as the man in John 4 found his son alive and well at the end of his journey, we will find that study of the Trinity leads to many blessings: invigorated prayer, committed evangelism, comforted spirits. But those blessings will only come if we lift our eyes first to the one from whom they come: the glorious and eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The opportunity that something like the East London Theology Conference holds out, therefore, is to lift our minds to contemplate a God so beautiful, so glorious and so majestic that all of eternity will not be sufficient to exhaust our adoration. No gallery, stadium or theatre in London that day will contain anything as compelling as God’s revelation of himself in Scripture that we will be considering. If you’d like to join us in beholding the one who we will worship for eternity, then the good news is that there are still tickets left. We’d love to see you there.