One God – Three Persons

In my post yesterday, I shared with you that there is no adequate human analogy or picture that can capture the Biblical teaching of the Trinity.  The best was to understand it, is to learn a set of easy propositions that capture the Biblical truth.  We covered the first of these proposition yesterday – “There is Only one God.” (Click here if you’d like to read yesterday’s post).  Today we want to move on to a second proposition to see what while the Bible teaches there is one God, it also refers to three different persons as God.

We must give careful attention to how we understand and articulate this aspect of the Christian faith.  The Bible does not teach that there are three different Gods.  This should already be clear from the verses in the earlier section.  But we do acknowledge that the Bible refers to three different persons as God.  Let’s look at each one of these.

A.) The Father is God

 

There is no debate about the deity of the Father.  Nevertheless, it is important to recognize a couple of passages, which directly refer to God the Father as divine.  In the Old Testament, for example, we could point to Isaiah 64:8 which says, “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  In the New Testament, Ephesians 4:6 states that there is, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 says, “there is only God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.” Any passage that speaks of God without specifically referring to Him as the Son or the Spirit is regarded as a reference to the Father.

B.) The Son is God

The Scripture affirms the deity of Jesus in three ways. First and most obviously, the Scripture directly affirms that Jesus is divine. John 1:1-4, says;

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him, was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  (John 1:1-4)

Jesus is called the “Word” (logos) in this verse because Greek philosophers used this word to convey the idea of divine reason.  So, John choose this term to introduce Jesus as God to his readers. Notice that John says Jesus was “with God and was God.”  The phrase “with God” emphasizes that He is distinct from the Father with regards to His personality, while the phrase “was God” is a direct affirmation of His deity. There are many other direct affirmations of the deity of Jesus in the epistles.  One of the clearest is Colossians 2:9 which says, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…” In Romans 9:5 Paul says, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all…”  Later in Titus 2:13, he refers to Jesus as “our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”  This statement is repeated almost verbatim in 2 Peter 1:1, making it likely that this was a common confession circulating the early church.

The Old Testament also has references to the deity of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6 says, “For unto us a Child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”  Later in Isaiah 40:3 we find a passage later quoted by John the Baptist about Jesus (see Matt 3:3), “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

            In addition to the direct affirmations of the deity of Christ, the Bible also shows that He possessed several divine attributes. When we refer to the attributes of God, we are talking about those characteristics Jesus shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  John 1:1, for instance, says that Jesus is eternal. We see this attribute also referred to in John 8:58, 17:5, 24. The fact that Jesus is eternal means that He has no beginning and no end. Like the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus has always existed and He always will.

Jesus also displays the divine attribute of omniscience — He is all knowing.  A good place to see this on display is in John 1:43-51, where Nathaniel asked how Jesus knew him and he replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Later in the same Gospel, His disciples said, “Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.”  (16:30) We must note, however, that there were some things Jesus did not know while He was here on earth. The best example of this is His statement in Matthew 24:36 concerning the second coming, “no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  This reflects the fact that Jesus did not make independent use of His divine attributes while He was here on earth.  He only knew and did the things given to Him by His Father while He was here on earth.

Closely related to His omniscience is Jesus’ omnipotence— He is all powerful. There are three primary ways the New Testament affirms the omnipotence of Jesus.  The first, is through the creation of the world.  Passages such as John 1:1-4 and Hebrews 1:2 show the active role Jesus played in the creation of the universe. But Jesus also proved His omnipotence through the miracles He performed.  Not only did Jesus show His power over the forces of nature by calming the storm and healing the sick but he also proved His power over supernatural forces by casting out demons. The greatest display of His omnipotence, however, came when He raised Himself from the grave.  The Apostle Paul specifically cites this fact when he says Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…” (Romans 1:4)

            For me the greatest evidence for the deity of Christ is that He performed the works only God could do.  Let me show you two examples of what I mean. The first is in Mark 2:1-12, where Jesus healed a paralyzed man brought to him by four of his friends.  According to the Bible, this man had to be lowered down through the roof because the crowd was so large they couldn’t get near Jesus any other way.  The image of these four friends digging a hole in their neighbor’s roof in a desperate attempt to get their friend to Jesus is compelling enough.  But what happens next reveals an even greater truth.

In verse 5, Jesus looks at the paralyzed man and says, “Son your sins are forgiven.”  Wait a minute!  Stop right there!  That statement is not what anyone expected Jesus to say.  If Gallup would have polled the people in that room, 10 out 10 people would have said they expected Jesus to say something along the line of “Son, you are healed!” or “Rise and walk.”  But not one of them expected Him to announce the forgiveness of the man’s sins.  Most in the room had already heard that Jesus could heal people.  That was a common expectation of the kind of thing the Messiah would do when He arrived.  But only God could forgive sin!

Everyone in the room knew the implications of this statement. By claiming to be able to forgive sin, Jesus was claiming a prerogative that belonged exclusively to God. This was a serious overstepping of the bounds. As great as the expectations were for the coming messiah, no one believed He would be able to forgive sin.  So, when Jesus made this claim, the immediate response was to charge Him with blasphemy in their hearts. (v.7)

In that day, the charge of blasphemy was no laughing matter.  Blasphemy refers to any “irreverent, profane, impious speech about God.” (Brooks 1991, 59) Leviticus 24:16 prescribes the death penalty for those found guilty of this heinous act, but the proof had to be incontrovertible.  In the case, of Jesus in Mark 2, there were more than enough witnesses to prove what He said, so from a legal standpoint this is an open and shut case.  To see just how serious this moment was, consider the fact that the charge of blasphemy is eventually what condemned Jesus to death. (see Mark 14:61-64) The gravity of the situation makes what happens next even more grand.

Knowing what was in their hearts Jesus asked the crowd, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?’” (v.9) Everyone in the room knew the answer. There is no tangible way to prove that sins have been forgiven. Or so they thought. What happened next shocked everyone.  Jesus said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”

The scribes now found themselves in a dilemma.  On one hand, they believed only God could forgive sin. But they also “recognized that healing ultimately came from God.” (Keener 1993) Admitting that Jesus healed the paralyzed man, which they could hardly deny since the evidence was standing right in front of them, was also to admit that God had given His blessing.  Something He would obviously not do if Jesus had committed blasphemy. Thus the only logical conclusion they could draw was the Jesus did indeed has the authority to forgive sin and must, therefore, be divine.

As compelling as this evidence is, there is one other work  Jesus performed that does an even better job of demonstrating His divinity — His resurrection.  In Romans 1:4, the Bible says that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…”  At first glance this may not seem to be too radical of a statement.  After all, there are a number of people in the Bible who were resurrected from the dead. In the Old Testament, for instance,  we have the accounts of Elijah raising the widow of Zerephaths son (1 Kg 17:22) and Elisha returning the Shunnamite woman’s son to life (2 Kgs 4).  Later in the New Testament, Jesus raised the widow of Nain’s son and Jairus’ daughter to life. (Luke 7, 8)  One of the most dramatic resurrections, took place in John 11 when Lazarus, who had been dead for three days, was called back to life by Jesus.  All of these were raised from the dead, but the Bible makes it clear that Jesus’ resurrection differed from all of these in one major way — it was accomplished by His own authority.

In every other case, the person who died played no role in their own resurrection. Death is about as final as it gets.  Once a person is dead, they can’t do anything to remedy the situation.  But Jesus was different.  In John 10:17-18 He says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again…”  While anyone can lay down their life on their own accord, no one but Jesus has the authority to take it back up again.

This is the reason Paul could say that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God… by his resurrection from the dead.” Commenting on this passge, Robert Mounce writes, “It is the resurrection that sets him apart and authenticates his claim to be deity.  Had Jesus not risen from the dead, he would be remembered today only as a Jewish moralist who had some inflated ideas about his own relationship to God and made a number of ridiculous demands on those who wanted to be his disciples.  On the other hand, if it is true that He rose from the dead, then his teachings about himself are true and his requirements for discipleship must be taken with all seriousness.”  (Mounce 1995, 61) The resurrection is greatest proof of the divinity of Jesus. With that said, we now turn our attention to the Biblical evidence of the deity of the Holy Spirit.

 

C.) The Spirit if God

 

One of the best places to see the divinity of the Holy Spirit is in Matthew 28:19 which reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Notice that the Holy Spirit is classified on an equal level with the Father and the Son.  Wayne Grudem points out that, “When the ‘Holy spirit’ is put in the same expression and on the same level as the other two persons, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is also viewed as a person and of equal standing with the Father and the Son.”  (Grudem 1994, 230) We see a similar type of construction in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Ephesians 4:4-6 and 1 Peter 1:2.  In each of these passages the Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and with the Son.  Since they are both divine, we also must conclude that the Holy Spirit is also divine.

One of the most direct statements of the Holy Spirit’s divinity is in Acts 5:3-4 where Peter confronts Ananias saying, “…why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back a part of the proceeds of the land…. You have not lied to man but to God.”  Notice that lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God.

Finally, the Holy Spirit also possesses the attributes and carries out the works exclusively reserved for God. In the New Testament, we learn that the Holy Spirit is eternal (Heb 9:14), omniscient (1 Cor 2:10ff), omnipotent (Luke 1:35) and omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-10). These are all divine attributes He shares with God the Father and God the Son.  John 3:5 attributes the Holy Spirit with carrying out the work of the new birth, something that 1 John 3:9 says can only be done by God.  To this we could add the works of Creation (Gen 1:2), Regeneration (John 3:5), Inspiration (2 Peter 1:21) and Resurrection (Rom 8:11), all of which are ascribed to the Holy Spirit, but reserved for deity.

All this Biblical evidence adds up to only one logical conclusion — the Holy Spirit is co-equal with God the Father and God the Son.  The Bible, therefore, shows that all three persons of the Trinity have the divine nature or essence, which brings us to the third statement we can use to summarize the doctrine of the Trinity.

 

So far, we have two of the three key statements about the Trinity laid out.  First, the Bible teaches that there is only one God.  But, it also refers to three different persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit- as being God.  Tomorrow we will look at the final key statement in understanding the trinity before looking at three heresies concerning this doctrine.

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If you would like to watch last Sunday’s sermon please click here.

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A New Series: Experiencing the Trinity

“The Trinity is revealed through the dynamic action of all three members of the Godhead working in perfect unity to accomplish their collective will.”

Over the next several weeks, I will be preaching and blogging about the doctrine of the Trinity.  Specifically, I want to show that the entire Christian life is an experience of all three members of the Trinity accomplishing their collective will.  If you enjoy this post, please follow my blog so that you won’t miss and installment and share with your friends. 

While working on this series in local coffee shop, I bumped into a friend of mind, who happens to be a fellow Pastor.  After a couple minutes of talking, he asked what I was working on.  When I told him that it was a new teaching series on the Trinity, his eyes began to glaze over and he asked, “The Trinity? Why are you working on something like that?  Why not work on something that will actually help people?”

While I have no doubt that my friend is a devout believer and a dedicated Pastor, his response demonstrats a significant problem in the evangelical church – we have divorced doctrine from practical life.  Nowhere is this more evident than in our treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity.

He is correct in one sense, almost all evangelicals know about the Trinity.  According to a 2016 study conducted by Lifeway Research, 93% of evangelicals affirm they believe there is one God in three persons – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.[1]  At first glance this makes it appear like the doctrine of the Trinity is alive and well within our churches.  But closer inspection starts to shows some real problems.  For instance, while 83% of Evangelicals agreed with the statement that Jesus is truly God and has a divine nature, 63% agreed with the contradictory statement that He is the first and greatest being created by God the Father.  As we will see in next week’s post, this is a direct contradiction of Biblical truth.

Another example  of our confusion over the trinity, concerns the deity of the Holy Spirit.  The study reveals that 24% of evangelicals agreed with the statement that the Holy Spirit is divine but not equal with God the Father or Jesus. In addition, 55% agreed with the statement that the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being.   As we will see next week, both of these statement are direct contradictions to the doctrine as revealed in the Scripture.

We could go on and on, but the Lifeway study demonstrates that there is widespread confusion in the church over the doctrine of the Trinity.  Furthermore, this situation is about the same in both the evangelical and Roman Catholic traditions.  While most members of the church affirm their belief in the doctrine, the majority do not actually have a Biblical understanding of it.

I would suggest that one cause of this problem lies in our tendency to reduce big doctrines into simple slogans.  An easy example of this tendency is in the way we summarize the gospel with slogans such as, “Jesus saves” or “Just ask Jesus into your heart.”  When it comes to the Trinity, we attempt to sloganize the entire doctrine with simple phrases like – “We believe in God in three persons” or “We believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”

These types of slogans have value in helping to give believers a short-hand way of expressing the truth, but they fall short of a robust understanding of the doctrine.  Even worse, they can sometimes give the impression that we understand something that we really don’t. This is exactly what the statistics shows is happening with the Trinity.  While the majority of church members claim to believe the slogan, they have no real understanding of the doctrinal content underlying these statements, let alone how these truths can impact their daily lives.

With regard to the Trinity, much of the problem lies in the way teach this doctrine.  In most cases, the doctrine of the Trinity is limited to a presentation of three basic Biblical propositions that look something like this:

  1. There is only one God.
  2. Three different persons are referred to as God.
  3. Each person is distinct from the others.

Having stated these three basic propositions we then proceed to flesh it out with supported texts. In one sense, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this outline. It presents the basic principles of the doctrine of the Trinity in a simple and accessible manner.  In fact, next week, we are going to use this very outline to lay out some basic guidelines for understanding the Trinity.

This basic type of outline forms a great starting point for sorting out and gaining a basic level understanding of the doctrine.  But sadly, this is where most presentations of the Trinity stop.  We learn to recite the slogan, but don’t go to the next step of seeing how the doctrine is fleshed out in the historical narrative of the Bible, nor in our own personal experience. One of my main purposes in this teaching series is to try to remedy this situation by exploring a more robust way of presenting and understanding the Trinity.

Far from being a mere set of propositions, the Trinity is revealed in Scripture through the dynamic action of all three members of the Godhead working in perfect unity to accomplish their collective will. The clearer we see this vision of God, the more we come to understand that the entire Christian life is an experience of the Trinity.  All three members of the Trinity are working together to accomplish their collective will in every aspect our lives.

Take, for instance, our salvation. According to Ephesians 1:3-14 all three members of the Trinity play a role in this experience — God the Father chooses us, God the Son redeems us, and God the Spirit seals us.  All three persons carry out their own distinct role in our salvation, but they are working in perfect unity to carry out their collective purpose.  We will look at this in more depth in a couple of chapters, but for now just notice the pattern ­­­- all three members of the Trinity are working towards a common goal, but in their own distinct ways.  This same principle holds true for other areas of our Christian experience as well.

When we take part in the mission of the church, we are serving God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, pointing people to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  When we read our Bibles, we are reading the very words inspired by God the Father through the agency of the Holy Spirit to point us towards God the Son.  When we pray and worship, we come before God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit through the intercession of God the Son.  Do you see what I am getting at?  Every aspect of the Christian life is an experience of all three members of the Trinity working together to accomplish their collective will.  Far from being a dry and impractical, the doctrine of the Trinity is the key to unlocking an experiential knowledge of God.

The goal of this study, therefore, is to open your eyes to the incredible work of the Trinity in your everyday Christian experience.  Along the way we will clarify the Biblical doctrine and look at some classic departures from orthodoxy. But more than anything, we want this study to be a life-changing encounter with the living God.  Beyond anything else, the doctrine of the Trinity focuses on relationships – the relationship between the three members of the Trinity but also the relationship between the Godhead and the believer. Simply being able to recite a doctrinal formula, therefore, is not enough.  God’s purpose in revealing the Trinity in Scripture is to invite us into a relationship – a relationship that involves the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all working out their collective will in and through our lives.

Throughout this series, we will dig deeply into the Biblical teaching about how we experience the Trinity. I hope that you will book mark this page or follow this blog so that you won’t miss a single installment of this series.  I also would ask that you consider sharing these posts with your friends and fellow church members to help spread the word about it.

[1] For more information about this study visit http://www.thestateoftheology.com