On Sunday, June 1st the Church on earth celebrated the Festival of the Holy Trinity, also known as Trinity Sunday. The Lutheran lectionary for this year’s festival used texts from Psalm 29, Isaiah 6:1-8, Acts 2:14a, 22-36, and John 3:1-17.
The reading from Isaiah is actually one of my favorite texts in the Bible. Do you know that the Apostle John also referred to Isaiah’s writings? In chapter 12 of his Gospel, John says that although Jesus did many great signs before the people, “… they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” That statement refers back to Isaiah chapter 53, when Isaiah speaks of the suffering Christ who would die for our sins.
And John continues, saying, “Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” This statement refers back to the words in Isaiah chapter 6 that come just after the text for Trinity Sunday.
Then, John gets to the clincher, writing: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” This section of John’s Gospel (i.e. chapter 12) is speaking of Jesus Christ, and John says that Isaiah, in the Old Testament, wrote these things about Jesus, because he saw Jesus and his glory.
So, let’s look at the reading from Isaiah 6 some more, because in this chapter, Isaiah sees Jesus clearly.
Isaiah was a prophet who lived in Judah in the 8th Century B.C; his name means “Yahweh is salvation.” He lived during the time period when the Assyrian empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and then threatened the existence of the southern kingdom of Judah. Despite the Lord’s many prophets he had sent to them, the northern kingdom of Israel had abandoned worship of the Lord, Yahweh, and had gone after false gods, committing idolatry and adultery against the Lord. Now, the southern kingdom of Judah needed a prophet to call the people of Judah back to the Lord if they were not to suffer the same fate and fall to the Assyrians. Isaiah would be that prophet.
So, the beginning of Isaiah chapter 6 says, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Uzziah was king of Judah until his death in 740BC. So, that’s when Isaiah saw this vision.
Now, in the physical temple in Jerusalem, there were three sections. The innermost section was called the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, because that’s where the ark of the covenant was kept (i.e. the thing that Indiana Jones found in Raiders of the Lost Ark). This section was veiled off from everyone but the High Priest; and only he could enter once a year into the Holy of Holies, on the Day of Atonement, and only with the blood of a sacrifice. Even the ground contained within the Holy of Holies was considered consecrated, and the chamber was filled with incense to veil the ark from direct view.
So, within this Holy of Holies was the ark within which the two tablets of the Law were kept, and over the ark was a cover, called the mercy seat, where the Lord promised to dwell, and shielding this mercy seat were two angels, called cherubim, with outstretched wings. So, these cherubim shielded the mercy seat.
Now, way back in Genesis chapter 3, when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden due to their sin, He placed cherubim in the Garden to “guard the way to the tree of life.” These cherubim also acted as shields and prevented sinful humanity from entering into the presence of the holy Lord. So, on the ark of the covenant, we again see cherubim shielding the Lord’s presence.
But, now here in Isaiah 6, the prophet sees not the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat, but the very throne of the Lord in heaven. He sees what the ark and the temple in Jerusalem was only an earthly image of; Isaiah sees the heavenly temple that these things pointed to. And he sees the Lord whose glory and majesty is so great that the train of his royal robe fills the temple, just as incense filled the Holy of Holies in the earthly temple. Isaiah also doesn’t see the cherubim, but instead sees a type of angel referred to as seraphim. He writes that above the Lord “… stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.”
On the Ark of the Covenant, the two cherubim pointed to what these seraphim are doing, for they are also covering their eyes from the glory of the Lord. So, these seraphim seen by Isaiah cover their eyes with two wings, their feet with two more, and then fly with the other two. So, their feet do not touch the train of the robe of the Lord, nor do their eyes behold His glory. The reality that was represented on the ark and in the Holy of Holies is now seen by Isaiah in person in the heavenly temple.
And one of the seraphim calls to another, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Now, the word seraphim is only used a few times in the Old Testament. In Isaiah it refers to these heavenly beings who dwell in the very presence of the Lord and proclaim His glory. But, in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, it refers to serpents. The word seraph is the singular and means “burning one,” which is probably how it came to be associated with snakes, due to the burning of their venom.
Recall that in Genesis chapter 3, Satan is also called a serpent, but the word used there is different. It’s nachash, which means “shining one.” This reflects the fact that Satan is referred to elsewhere as a fallen angel of light; he’s shiny.
But, nachash is also used interchangeably with seraph to mean serpent. The Lord in the book of Numbers tells Moses to make a seraph, a serpent, and place it on a bronze pole to save those being bitten by venomous snakes; the text then says that Moses made a nachash (see Numbers 21). So, the two words refer to the same thing, but looking at it from different angles. Notice that when it’s associated with the Lord, it’s a seraph, but when it’s on the earth, it’s a nachash.
Jesus refers to this event in the book of Numbers in the Gospel reading for Trinity Sunday (i.e. John 3). He says, “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.”
In the book of Numbers, the people of Israel rebelled against God, so God sent serpents – the text says seraphim – which bit the people and they died. But, whoever looked upon the dead, bronze, serpent on the pole that Moses lifted up lived, even though he was bitten.
Jesus, in John, points to this event as foreshadowing what he would do on the cross. For through his death on the cross all who look upon him – all who have faith in the crucified Christ raised high up on the cross – will live and will be saved from eternal death.
So, through the serpent Satan came sin in the beginning and death as a result of sin. And in Numbers we see the serpents biting the people to kill them, just as the serpent Satan brought death into the world in Genesis. But, through Christ being raised up on the cross, Christ is victorious over the rebellious serpent Satan, and over sin, and over death.
So, in Genesis, Satan is referred to as a snake and elsewhere as a fallen angel. In fact, in the book of Job, Satan is in the very presence of the Lord, accusing Job, and in the book of Zechariah, Satan is again in the presence of the Lord, accusing the high priest Joshua. He is the shining one. When he came t
o Eve to tempt her, he did so as one who appeared glorious. He was once an angel who was in the presence of the Lord, just as are the seraphim that Isaiah sees. Yet, he rebelled, and due to Christ’s victory on the cross and empty tomb, Satan was kicked out of the Lord’s presence. Satan is now on earth, now just a venomous, slithery nachash, trying to bite all he can.
Satan is not faithful – he is arrogant and rebellious. The seraphim, though, that Isaiah sees are faithful. They proclaim the Lord’s glory and their singing shakes the very foundations of the Lord’s temple; they are the heavenly versions of the faithful cherubim seen on the ark and in the Garden of Eden. They burn and shine because they are in the Lord’s presence and reflect His glory. Satan thought that he shined because of himself, he wanted to garner all glory for himself. This is what those who are rebellious against God do; they don’t want to give God all glory; they want to be self-righteous. In the process, they become as a nachash: fallen, venomous, bringing death, and condemned to death.
But, the seraphim in Isaiah are faithful and declare the glory of the Lord. They not only shine, they burn with the reflected glory of the Lord. And Isaiah, as he encounters the holy Lord God, feels his own sins. The faithful seraphim shield their eyes, but Isaiah beholds the glory of the Lord. So, as he encounters the holy Lord, he laments, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah sees Yahweh and knows that he will die, because sinful man can not dwell in the presence of the holy Lord and live. He has passed across the veil into the presence of the Lord and knows that he will die in the holy Lord’s presence because of his sins.
But then, one of the burning ones – one of the seraphim – flies to Isaiah with a coal taken from the altar of sacrifice and touches Isaiah’s lips with it, saying, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
The Lord atones for Isaiah’s sins through the altar of sacrifice. This is what Christ does for us. His cross – his altar of sacrifice – atones for our sins. Through the cross of Christ “… your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And because the Lord Himself has atoned for our sins, we can stand in the presence of the Lord. And we can also serve Him. We see this in Isaiah also as the Lord, after atoning for Isaiah’s sins, says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
In response to the Lord’s question, Isaiah says, “Here am I! Send me.” And the Lord commissions Isaiah to go proclaim His Word to His people. In the same way, since our sins have been atoned for through the cross of Christ, the Lord also sends us to proclaim His Word.
So, in Isaiah we see Law and Gospel – we also see justification and sanctification. We see the Law as Isaiah encounters the holy Lord God and feels his sins and feels the condemnation for them. That is what happens to us as well when the Law works on us. The Law reveals to us that we are sinners. The Law shows us that we can not stand in the presence of the holy Lord God through our own efforts. The Law makes us exclaim, “Woe is me! I am lost!”
But, then we see the Gospel in Isaiah as the Lord atones for Isaiah’s sins through the altar, for the sake of Christ. And we have this in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord does it all. So, the Lord justifies us and Isaiah in His sight by what He Himself does. The Lord justifies us through the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood on the altar of the cross. The Lord Himself enables us to enter into His presence, through the actions of our ultimate High Priest, Jesus Christ, who enters into the presence of the Father on our behalf with the sacrifice of his blood on that ultimate day of atonement when he was crucified.
And then, we see sanctification – or the working of the Lord in us. The Lord sends Isaiah, because He has first justified Isaiah in His sight; likewise, He sends us, because He has first justified us.
We also see something else in Isaiah. The seraphim are calling out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” and Isaiah also hears the voice of the Lord saying – the verb is in the plural – “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The seraphim have a threefold praise of the Lord – holy, holy, holy. And the one Lord God speaks in the plural, using both the words “I” and “us” to refer to Himself. And then in John’s Gospel, as I mentioned earlier, John says that in this vision Isaiah saw Jesus Christ and his glory.
Holy, holy, holy – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The Father is holy, the Son is holy, the Spirit is holy – one God in three persons. One “I” – God – with three “us”es – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
So, Isaiah beholds the glory of the Triune God and hears the seraphim proclaim the glory of the Triune God. He sees Jesus Christ there, the Son of the Father, because – as Peter says in Acts 2 – Jesus is at the right hand of the Father and with the Holy Spirit.
Now, not only Isaiah beheld the glory of Jesus. John also saw Jesus in heaven in the vision given to him, recorded in the book of Revelation. It’s called Revelation – not “Revelations” – because it is a single, consistent revelation of Jesus Christ given to John.
When John first saw the risen and exalted Lord in Revelation, he like Isaiah felt his sins in this encounter with the holy Lord. And John fell at the feet of the Lord “as though dead,” it says; the word used here means corpse. John fell dead as a corpse at the feet of the Lord due to the Lord’s glory. And like Isaiah, the Lord redeems John, placing his right hand upon him and saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (see Revelation 1).
So, the Lord raises John up from the dead, because the Lord Jesus Christ himself died and now lives, having atoned for John’s sin on the altar of sacrifice of the cross. And like in Isaiah, the Lord, having now raised John up, commissions him, saying, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Jesus justifies John and then sanctifies him for the task at hand, just as he does for us.
Then, after Jesus gives John the seven letters to deliver to the churches, John is caught up in the Spirit to heaven and stands before the throne. There is one seated on the throne who shines radiantly with the beauty of jewels, and around the throne are 24 elders, clothed in white, with golden crowns on their heads. Thunder and lightening come from the throne, and before the throne are seven torches of fire, “which are the seven spirits of God,” which represents the completeness and perfection of the Holy Spirit. Around the throne is a complete rainbow, connected end to end. It’s perfect and circular, because God’s promise of redemption is complete; He has delivered His people through the waters of Baptism in Christ, just as He once delivered the Church across the waters of the flood, sealing the promise with a rainbow. And before the throne is a “sea of glass, like crystal.”
Then, John sees something else. He sees four living creatures with six wings who continually proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Again, these creatures, the same as Isaiah saw, are proclaiming the threefold glory of the Triune God – the Father is holy, the Son is holy, the Spirit is holy. John is seeing what Isaiah saw so long before him.
John also writes, “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives fo
rever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Since they continually do this, the Lord must continually give them back their crowns. The Lord has clothed the 24 elders with white robes, symbolizing the Lord’s righteousness with which He clothes them through the cross, and credits them with the crown of Christ’s victory. Our Lord is truly gracious to us, to credit us with what He did for us through Christ. These elders that John sees are the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles; they represent the Church Israel of the Old and New Testaments, united in Christ. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. They proclaimed the Lord’s glory and grace on earth and are now in heaven, continually proclaiming His glory and grace in eternity.
Then, John sees that the one seated on the throne has a scroll in His right hand, which “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” is able to open. And John weeps, because there is no one found worthy to open the scroll or to look upon it. But, one of the elders says to John, “Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then, between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, John sees “… a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
This Lamb sends the seven-fold, meaning perfect, Holy Spirit out into the earth so that the Spirit may testify to the Lamb. And the Lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne so that all things can be completed. And at this, the elders and the four living creatures fall down before the Lamb and offer up the prayers of the saints to Him. “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Then, joining the elders and the four living creatures gather “many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousand of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” So, the angels come to proclaim the Lord’s glory, for this Lamb who was slain – this Lion of the tribe of Judah who has conquered – is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father.
John is in the presence of the Triune God in the throne room, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – just like Isaiah was. Then, John also hears “… every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory forever and ever!”
You may not realize it, but John sees in this vision the ascension of Jesus into heaven. A few weeks ago we had Ascension Thursday, where in Acts chapter 1 Luke records the ascension of Jesus into heaven from the point of view of earth. Now, in Revelation John records the same event from the point of view of heaven. Jesus ascends back to where he came from, back into the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit, back to where Isaiah saw him so long ago.
So, in this vision, John sees the elders of the Church proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ, he sees the four living creatures proclaim the glory of Christ, he sees the prayers of the saints proclaim the glory of Christ, he sees the angels proclaim the glory of Christ, and he even sees everything else in creation proclaim the glory of Christ. Heaven and earth are full of his glory!
The Holy Sprit testifies to Christ throughout all the world, and the Father seated on the throne gives glory to Christ. Christ is the one who died and yet lives, atoned for your sins as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and is the Lion of Judah who defeated sin, death, and Satan.
Satan has been cast out of the presence of God and can no longer accuse you in His presence, because our Lord Jesus Christ has ascended back into heaven and has taken his rightful place at the right hand of the Father. Satan is no longer a seraphim, because he is no longer in the presence of the Lord, reflecting the Lord’s glory. He is an impostor, a Nachash, making himself out to be something that he is not, bound to the earth and defeated due to the victory of Christ on his cross and empty tomb. All who try to take glory away from God for themselves are impostors, bringing only sin and death upon themselves and others who fall into their traps.
But, because of the Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil, the Lord clothes us with the white robes of his righteousness, so that like Isaiah and like John we too will stand before His throne one day.
John saw this as well, writing, “… I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
One of the elders explained to John who this multitude is. He said, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
In the Old Testament, the Holy of Holies where the ark and the glory of the Lord dwelt was veiled off. No one could enter except the High Priest with the blood of the sacrifice. In Revelation, now here stand the great multitude of God’s saints, whom Christ the ultimate High Priest has washed clean from our sins with his blood and made us priests, so that we may enter into the presence of the Lord. John sees us who have come out of the great tribulation of life on this earth to enter into eternal rest with the Lord.
No longer is there a separation between man and God, now the Lamb is in our midst as our Shepherd, feeding and watering us forever. We are all priests now, because of the blood of the Lamb, entering into the Lord’s presence – here in the Church through Word and Sacrament, and directly in eternity.
So, each week as the Church on earth celebrates communion and proclaims the Lord’s glory and sings Hosannas to Christ in the company of the heavenly host, we join with all heaven and earth in proclaiming the glory of the Lord. We join in the song of the Church in heaven and the Church on earth, singing with one voice our praises to the Lord. And think of that great day that is to come when you will sing in the very, immediate presence of your Triune Lord God, just as John saw, shining in his presence, in the very presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, heaven and earth are full of your glory!” Amen.
(Image by “Albrecht Dürer – The Trinity (NGA 1943.3.3674)” by Albrecht Dürer –
National Gallery of Art: online database: entry 1943.3.3674. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer_-_The_Trinity_(NGA_1943.3.3674).jpg#/media/File:Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer_-_The_Trinity_(NGA_1943.3.3674).jpg)