“Why don’t we just dispense with the whole idea of the Holy Trinity?” That casual statement rocked me, especially since one of my mentors made it–a senior priest in our diocese who had successfully planted numerous churches in the area, and was a very loving, wise man whose enthusiasm for the Lord knew no bounds. He continued, “It’s really so hard to explain. It confuses everyone and gets in the way of people we’re trying to reach. The time has come to consign it to the past.” Consign the Holy Trinity to the dust bin of church history?
I could certainly understand where he was coming from. Some explanations of the Trinity make me cringe, like comparing The Uncreated Ones to three-in-one oil or an apple’s core, pulp and skin. Others are quite comical. Once in Honduras a man insisted that the Holy Trinity was really Father, Son and Mother Mary because “you have to have a mother for a father to have a son” (if I understood His Spanish correctly). I suspect that more than a few priests schedule their vacations to coincide with Trinity Sunday, so they can avoid the onerous task.
Oh, but I LOVE the Trinity! And I hope I can help you love Them too! Let’s take a quick look at three reasons why it’s important to believe in Them.
It may be an inconvenient truth. It is clearly a difficult one to explain. But suppose it IS the truth. What truth could be more important to understand, embrace and encounter than the truth that this universe has not one but three Gods? And that ALL THREE love us intimately and want to help us get to know them individually.
This truth takes us way beyond “mere” monotheism into realms of discovery that are vastly more mysterious and more satisfying than the usual starting point—the belief/hope that there might be a great high God “out there” somewhere. Well, Kansas never looked the same to Dorothy, nor the Shire to Frodo. But it’s worth the journey to move from breakfast cereal to sirloin steak and from fantasy to Reality.
It is an undeniable fact that Jesus believed in the reality of all three Persons of what we call “the Holy Trinity.” (Brief digression: I know that neither He nor the Bible ever mentioned that word. It’s not the word that matters! It’s the never-ending Reality it represents. So, even if you are a hard-core “trinity” denier, please allow me the liberty of using the short form for the “Three-In-One” or the “triune God”, or the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”) The simple truth is this: We Christians believe in the Trinity because Jesus did.
Repeatedly, in the gospels we see the unique relationship of Father and Son unfolding. His first recorded words in scripture reveal it, “Do you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Throughout His three years of ministry, He addressed His prayers to the One He consistently called Father. Under unfathomable duress in the Garden, He yielded to His Father’s will.
This entire life of devotion culminated at the cross with His great cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Then, astoundingly, He ascended to His Father’s side forever. Not taking the Father’s place, but at His side.
“That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21 ESV
As clear as this external record is, John takes us deeper: In the fourth gospel, Jesus tells us that He—the Son—can only do what He sees the Father doing and speak as the Father desires Him to speak. Within Himself is an unbroken connection to Another—One who three times audibly declared His absolute love for His Son. This is the secret source of all His wisdom, guidance, and power. Without doubt we are being shown the greatest Love that has ever walked the earth. No other lover ever pursued his (or her) beloved as Jesus did His Father. Yes, Jesus loves us, but the greater part of the Story is how magnificently He loves the Father
Does this make Jesus somehow “less” than the Father? I won’t take time to go through questions that plagued the church for centuries. I only need to point out that you (if you know Jesus by faith) know that you know that Jesus is Alive and that He is Lord. Only a mighty God could reveal Himself to you the way that Jesus did. This is the unalterable FACT which made us Christians in the first place. We may or may not have believed in God, but once saving faith came into our hearts, we knew Jesus as our God. The tricky part is that the revelation doesn’t stop there. He is God all by Himself, but (strangely) He is not by Himself. There are two others He wants us to meet. (See “The Two Facts of the Resurrection” for more on what is beyond doubt.
Jesus not only believed in the Father, He believed in the Holy Spirit. From the time of His baptism He knew Himself to be uniquely anointed by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit came upon Him and never left. That was a first! Always the old covenant pattern had been the coming and going of the Spirit “like the wind.”
Now One had come who lived and breathed that Wind, saying that He accomplished His deeds of power by “the finger of God”—a euphemism for the Holy Spirit. Even better, just before the cross, Jesus explained that He would be sending the Holy Spirit as “another Comforter” for His disciples, since He Himself was going away. There’s just no question that Jesus believed in the Holy Spirit!
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” John 14:25-27 ESV
I hardly need to remind you of the practical benefits of knowing Jesus intimately and personally. Knowing Him means that we know we are forgiven and that we have a home in heaven. This gives us access to confidence in the present as well as for the future. Knowing Him also means that love, joy, and peace can now flow in exhilarating waves around and through us as we walk closely with Him. Best of all, we have someone who loves us to share our heart with. But He doesn’t want it to stop there!
If we open wide to what He is saying and what He is offering, we can enter into the same dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit that the early apostles enjoyed. Supernatural gifts, daily experiences of manifest presence, extraordinary outpourings of power all await those happy explorers of divine life, who hear Jesus’ call to seek “the power from on high.” Holy Spirit is within all who believe, but only those who seek the Spirit baptism experience the wonder of His coming upon us. Vive la différence! (see “Who Is the Holy Spirit? And What Is He Doing Upon Me?”)
There Is Still One More
Revealing His Father was a top priority for Jesus’ mission the first time around and it remains high on His to-do list to this day. My hunch is that most Christians think they already have this relationship well in hand, since thinking of God as “the Father” is where most of us began. I call that relating to God as “the great high God.” That’s knowing about God. Encountering the Father is different. We only really know Jesus when we encounter Him by faith, right? I believe that it’s similar with both the Holy Spirit and the Father. In many Christian lives, They still wait for an unveiling. (See “Passover, Pentecost and Booths.”)
These extra two personal relationships with God make life thrilling! Oh, sure it’s hard at times to juggle Who it is you are relating to, but They don’t seem to mind. They haven’t a prideful bone in their body. (OK, They don’t have bodies. But neither do they have pride.) They seem to LOVE it that one of theirs is trying to get to know Them ALL no matter how pitiful the attempt.
These two extra relationships are also immensely practical. One thing I need is all kinds of help, not just to live my life (which is challenge enough most days), but also to be an effective part of the Rescue in other lives. That’s where the real fun is! Jesus couldn’t do it without His Father and the Spirit helping Him and we don’t have to go it alone either. I can tell you, but only the Holy Trinity Themselves can show you…
[GO DEEPER: I’ve prepared a 16-page download, Living in the Spirit, to help you get to know the Mystery we are “hosting” on the inside, none other than the Holy Spirit of God. It’s free—download here.]
Having looked at these three compelling reasons why believing in the Holy Trinity makes great, good sense from a New Testament perspective, let’s zoom through a quick overview of seven suggestive signs tucked away in—of all places—the Hebrew scriptures. We rightly think of the Jewish faith as the world’s first and greatest monotheism. That is certainly the way that they see it to this day. But what if there was more to it than that?
God didn’t suddenly split into Father, Son and Holy Spirit just as the New Testament opens. Even to think of a division occurring is to let our thoughts go in the wrong direction. Any such division would be an unthinkable catastrophe for “Them” and for their creation. The Three in One are seamlessly united in a perfect harmony—always have been, always will be. That unity in God was apparently the first thought that the Lord wanted to get across to us. This is the part of His self-revelation which Israel grasped and had the great good sense to run with.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4 ESV
Nevertheless, the Lord didn’t leave it at that even for them. All throughout the Old Testament our God scattered hints or glimpses that are highly suggestive of a plurality in God. Looking back, it is easy to see this as a trail of “bread crumbs” leading to the fuller revelation of the Three in One that would come to us through faith in Christ. These precursors greatly enhance our faith, but if Israel was supposed to read the signs, that just didn’t happen. Let’s not feel smug about this, but let it caution us that clues to other truths may be eluding us.
Right from the beginning the Lord planted a huge clue in the book of Genesis. The very first name given for God in the Bible is elohim. In one form or another this derivative of “el” (god) was scattered all over the ancient world. Nothing surprising about that. What shocks us as we look back is that elohim is the plural form for God. In the plural form, it was rarely used by the nations surrounding Israel, but the scriptures use it just that way over 4000 times! Accordingly, a more accurate translation of the first verse of the Bible would be “in the beginning Gods created.”
In the beginning, God [elohim = Gods] created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1 ESV
2) Let Us
Whenever we read the famous “let us” passages in Genesis, we naturally think of the plurality of God that we know of as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But what on earth did the Israelites make of it? The “let us” statements combine with equally unexpected plural pronouns (“our”) to form six compelling indications that there is more to God than mere singularity. We may leap to the idea of a trinity, but nothing in the text pins the number down to three. Not yet, but it’s coming even before the New Testament arrives.
Then God [elohim = Gods] said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Genesis 1:26 ESV
The national proclamation of Israel’s faith culminated with this profound word: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Unquestionably, ehad means one. However, it also means more than a simple, singular item. Amazingly, it often indicates a plurality held together in unity such as a school of fish or flock of sheep. Recall that when Jesus said, “The Father and I are one”, He sealed His fate. From that point on the Jewish leaders sought to execute Him for blasphemy. They were convinced that one meant one alone. If only they could have connected the dots…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God [elohim again], the Lord is one [ehad = composite unity]. Deuteronomy 6:4 ESV
When I began reading the Hebrew scriptures as a converted Christian in my thirties, I was repeatedly thrown into confusion by this frequent visitor to earth. Was “the Angel of the Lord” an angel from the Lord or the Lord Himself? Only the context makes it clear, yet even the context doesn’t settle every occurrence. Did I say God was a mystery?
This intriguing Being is consistently portrayed as an agent for the Lord (a regular angel), as the Lord, and as interacting with the Lord in a way that only another divine Being could. Such distinctions and interactions make sense only if there is a plurality in God. Here is a passage when the angel’s divine status seems clear.
And [the Angel of God declared] a blessing on [Jacob] there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [the face of God], saying, For I have seen God face to face, and my life is spared and not snatched away. Genesis 32:30 AMP
5) The Spirit of God
This one is so well-known and so frequent that it only needs explaining why so few caught on to what it was indicating. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures some sort of distinction was frequently drawn between God and the Spirit of God. This is the clue that was right before everyone’s eyes like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allen Poe tale. Improbably, the Hebrew scriptures show God sending, putting, withdrawing, and giving His Spirit as an act apart from Himself. This familiar prayer of David displays that distinction.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Psalms 51:11 ESV
6) The Messiah
Based upon its first appearances, the idea of the messiah simply pointed to the need for a savior or a servant that God would send. Over time the common expectation of the people and their leaders was that the Messiah would be more than a mere mortal. Even though the rabbis attributed many quasi-divine abilities to the messiah, none of the rabbis dared draw the obvious conclusion. The scriptures knew no such scruples. The Messiah was clearly depicted as being distinct from God and yet recognized as divine Himself.
Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me. And the Lord [the Messiah], Whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; the Messenger or Angel of the covenant, Whom you desire, behold, He shall come, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:1 AMP
7) Isaiah and Daniel
Both Isaiah and Daniel were writing towards the close of the old covenant revelation. Their prophetic vision carries us even closer to a full-blown New Covenant understanding of the Holy Trinity. Isaiah gives evidence—from our Christian perspective—of the Father (“Lord God”), the Son (the Messiah who would be sent) and the Holy Spirit who would be upon the “anointed one” (Messiah).
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. Isaiah 42:1 ESV
Daniel saw many remarkable things in his dreams, some of which were “sealed” for later times. Through his prophetically trained eyes, we see the Father (“the Ancient of Days”) and Jesus (“one like the Son of Man”). That’s not the whole Holy Trinity yet, but it is wholly amazing to see both Father and Son so clearly revealed in the Hebrew scriptures.
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat… I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:9; 13-14 ESV
Both passages have their counterparts in the New Testament: the Isaiah passage with Jesus’ baptism (the Father’s delight in Jesus; the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus) and the Daniel passage with John’s vision of this same scene in heaven while he was at Patmos (Revelation 5).
Amazingly, these passages didn’t open eyes to see what seems so plain in hindsight. Spiritual truths evidently need the Holy Spirit to reveal them. Again, I must ask, what are we still missing when we look into the scriptures? This is not cause for fear, but for continued, enthusiastic pursuit of truth. With such delightful Mysteries inviting us to know Them better, we can look forward to endless adventures of discovery.
Our Father in Heaven Someone has to be in charge and we couldn’t hope for a more loving, joyful or completely competent Being to take the reins. God our Father has never failed to love or to govern wisely—it is impossible for Him to make a mistake or commit a moral failure in anyone’s life. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit apparently defer to the Father’s leadership to say nothing of the unnumbered hosts who serve Him night and day. Yet, Satan rebelled, as did the entire kingdom of darkness and they have seduced humanity into thinking that their Enemy is somehow our enemy…
Jesus Our Savior Jesus is the Hero of our story. In fact all of history is His Story. Before the cross it tells us of humanity’s fall and of God’s ways of preparing us for the Savior to come. Then for a brief moment in time Jesus left His divine powers behind, took the plunge into earth’s pain and darkness, and lived in our midst, becoming forever united to our humanity. At the cross He single-handedly redeemed us. After the cross and His ascension history reveals His slow, patient way of redeeming humanity through us. It is easy to miss it: easy to look at the world and not see a Creator; easy to look at our history and not see His Story. Seeing Him changes everything.
Holy Spirit Our Helper Jesus said He would not leave us comfortless and He hasn’t! He is living in us through the Holy Spirit who is “sealed” to us a sign of our eternal destiny and as a present source of help and hope for any situation of need we may encounter. Because He is holy He shows us what doesn’t belong in us (sin). Because He is wholly good He helps us in the most patient, loving ways imaginable as He works to lead us out of our darkness into the full Light of Christ. All the while He draws so little attention to Himself, you would hardly know He is there. Part of the “fun” is learning to recognize and acknowledge our incomparable Guest.