IS THERE ONE GOD OR THREE?
THE TRIUNE GOD
Doctrine is important, not just to theologians and seminary professors, but to all Christians. Jesus thought that this was the case. When He was tempted by Satan, He responded with doctrinal answers. He told Satan that...
In this chapter, we want to examine another vital doctrine of Christianity - the Trinity. In coming to terms with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it is first necessary to confront the unity of God.
There is a reason for this. If we can demonstrate that...
(1) There is only one God.
(2) The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God.
(3) The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each separate persons,
then we have made a case for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is for this reason that we begin our study of this section with the fact of the unity of God.
THE UNITY OF GOD
Before we speak of any aspect of the Trinity, it must first be established and understood that there is only one true and living God.
1. God is One.
"Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4).
This is known among the Jews as the Shammah - "that which is to be heard." It is one of the foundational truths of the Old Testament. It is a proclamation of the unity of God. It says that God is one. If we were to examine this verse in the Hebrew language in which it was originally written, it would read like this:
"Hear O Israel: JEHOVAH is our Elohim, JEHOVAH is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4).
This is interesting. It is interesting because the word Elohim ("God") is found in the plural. But even though Elohim is plural, it does not mean that we are to think of God in the plural. This instead is a literary use known as the "plural of majesty." It was a way of ascribing greatness to a person or thing.
This principle of the unity of God is not merely an Old Testament teaching. The God of the New Testament is not different from the God of the Old Testament. This same truth was taught by Paul.
For there is ONE GOD, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5).
The unified teaching of the Bible is that there is only one God. This means that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity can never be used to indicate a multiplicity of Gods.
2. God is Unique.
To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him (Deuteronomy 4:35).
The question is sometimes brought up as to whether there could be another god over God. Was God created by a Being that was superior to Himself? The answer is given in the book of Isaiah.
"You are My witnesses," declares the Lord, "And My servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe in Me, and understand that I am He. BEFORE ME THERE WAS NO GOD FORMED, and there will be none after Me." (Isaiah 43:10).
God is unique. He is one of a kind. In all of the universe, there is not another who is like Him. He is the only God. If this is true, then we would not expect anyone else beside God to be called God. It is then striking that Jesus is described in terms of deity.
THE PLURALITY WITHIN THE GODHEAD
While holding firmly to the unity of God, we must also note that there is also a plurality within God. In theological terms, this plurality is known as the TRINITY. Although this term is not found in the Bible, its truth is seen many times.
1. The Name Elohim.
The Hebrew word for God (Elohim) is found most often in the plural form, indicating three or more. Hebrew has separate forms for singular, dual and plural. This has often been used by Christians to suggest the possibility of a trinity within God. However this is more probably to be understood as a "plural of majesty," especially as the same form is also used of the individual false gods.
2. The Use of the Plural Pronoun.
In the Creation, Fall, and Babel accounts (Genesis 1, 3 and 11), we see an interesting use of the plural pronoun as God is speaking.
Then God said, "Let US make man in OUR image, according to OUR likeness..." (Genesis 1:26).
Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of US, knowing good and evil..." (Genesis 3:22).
And the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people and they all have the same language. And this is what they begin to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.
"Come, let US go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (Genesis 11:6-7).
How are we to understand these uses of "US" and "OUR"? It has been argued that perhaps God was merely speaking with the angels. However, in each case, the context indicates that it is GOD who accomplished the planned action, even when the plan is described in the plural. For example, after the stated intention to create man, we read...
And GOD created man in His own image, in the image of God He created Him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27).
It does not say that man was created in the image of God and the angels. Neither do we ever read that the angels had any part in that creative work. Man is said to have been created by God and in the image of God.
It has been argued that this is also an example of the Hebrew plural of majesty. However, there is no other ancient example of such a plural of majesty being used in the form of a pronoun of anyone other than God.
3. The Deity of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of John opens with a striking affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ. It does this in words that take us back to the first book of the Bible.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1).
The use of the imperfect tense in the three verbs of this passage is striking. The imperfect tense in the Greek describes the continuation of action in the past time. It does not look to a point in time, but rather to an ongoing process. Thus, we might be permitted to translate this passage like this:
In the beginning already was the Word, and the Word already was with God, and the Word already was God. (John 1:1).
Do not miss this! The Word did not become God at Creation. We are told that when everything else began, the Word already was God. This is significant when we realize the identity of this One known as "the Word."
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).
The Word was not originally a Jewish carpenter named Jesus. But at a point in time, the Word BECAME flesh and thus became the One whom we know as Jesus. This is an important distinction and it is necessary that we not get it backwards.
We DO believe
The Word became flesh.
One who was in the beginning and who was with God and who was Himself God took on humanity, becoming a man so that He was now both God and man in one person
We do NOT believe
The flesh became the Word
It would be wrong to conclude that the man Jesus somehow became deity during his life
He is called the Word because He was sent to communicate the truth of God to men. In this, He did more than the prophets. They proclaimed God in words. He WAS the Word. He was the very essence of God in the flesh. He communicated the character of God by who He was.
This is the purpose for Christ coming to earth - to reveal God to man and to break down the barriers between God and men.
No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18).
Notice the identity of the two persons who are here mentioned. First, there is God who has never been seen by man. He is also called the Father. But there is also "the only begotten God." This is God who was born in human flesh. This is Jesus.
Do you see the implications? Both the Father and the Son are described as God. This is an indication of the plurality which exists within the One God.
4. A Triune Baptismal Formula.
Matthew records some of the last words of Jesus before He was caught up into heaven. As He spoke to His disciples on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, He gave still another indication of the plurality which exists within God. It is found in the words of the Great Commission.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19).
Notice that the disciples were not told to baptize in the NAMES of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is in the NAME of these three persons. Do you see what has happened? We have one NAME, but three PERSONS.
A similar formula is to be found in the apostolic benediction in Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14).
This threefold formula is suggestive of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It could be argued that such a benediction would be inappropriate without the Trinitarian understanding.
5. God deals with God.
There are several passages of the Bible which relate God having dealings with God.
Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Thy kingdom.
Thou hast loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
Therefore God, Thy God, has anointed Thee. (Psalm 45:6-7).
This is a case where God is seen anointing God. This is not mere reflexive language. It is not a case of God anointing Himself. It is one member of the Triune Godhead anointing another member. Less there be any mistake on this, the writer to the Hebrews quotes this passage and informs us that the Father is speaking of Jesus (Hebrews 1:8).
This same type of language is used in Psalm 110. It is a Psalm of David. King David is the speaker in this Psalm.
The Lord says to my Lord:
"Sit at My right hand,
Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet." (Psalm 110:1).
Once again, the Hebrew text helps us to more fully understand the flow of thought in this passage.
JEHOVAH says to my ADONAI:
"Sit at My right hand,
Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet."
Remember that it is David speaking. He is the King of Israel. He is the highest human authority in the land. There is no other person in the land whom he can address as "lord." He is the lord of the land.
And yet, he DOES have a lord. His Master is God. He pictures a heavenly conversation when he pictures Jehovah speaking to HIS Lord.
Jesus once quoted this passage to the Jewish teachings in the Temple. The subject of their conversation was the identity of the Messiah. He first asked them who the Messiah was supposed to be. They replied that the Messiah would be the son of David. This was a correct answer. But it raised a problem. The problem was that Psalm 110 has David calling the Messiah by the term ADONAI - "Lord." A father does not refer to his son as "lord." It is the other way around. In what way is Jesus both the son of David and the Lord of David? He is both humanly descended from David, but He is also the Son of God. He is the God-man.
6. Common Designations.
Jesus is said to do things which can only be done by God.
...looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus (Titus 2:13).
But of the Son He says, "Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever, And the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom." (Hebrews 1:8).
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." (Revelation 1:8).
And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades." (Revelation 1:17-18).
Jesus is described as the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15) and we read that it is in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form (Colossians 2:9).
7. The Personality of the Holy Spirit.
When we deal with the question of the Trinity, it is immediately obvious to most people that the Father is God. The issue of the Son is whether He is also God. The issue of the Holy Spirit it whether or not He is a separate PERSON.
a. Personal pronouns are used of the Holy Spirit.
He is not an "it."
"When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, HE will bear witness of Me." (John 15:26).
b. Personal properties are ascribed to Him.
c. Personal activities are ascribed to Him.
THE EXTENT OF THE PLURALITY WITHIN GOD
Now that we have established the fact of a plurality within God, we must ask a crucial question. How far does this plurality extend? Is it merely a matter of different functions? Or does it also involve different manifestations? Or does it even entail different persons?
1. Different Functions.
It is immediately obvious from the Scriptures that there are different functions within God. For example, we see different functions within God as He brings about salvation.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
There are different functions within the Godhead even as there are different functions within my own life. I am a father and a husband and an employee and a teacher, yet I am one.
This brings us to a question. Can we explain the plurality within God only in terms of function? Or is there more?
2. Different Manifestations.
The Scriptures also indicate that God has manifested Himself to man in a variety of forms. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush. To Elijah He was a still, small voice. In the form of Jesus, He was manifested in the flesh.
And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Beheld by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16).
A great many of the Greek manuscripts show a textual variation in the personal pronoun. Instead of, "HE who was revealed in the flesh," they read, "GOD was revealed in the flesh." In either case, the context refers to God and teaches that God was revealed in the flesh.
The use of the aorist tense indicates a point in time when this came about. It means that there was a time when God was not flesh and then He BECAME flesh. We have already seen this same truth expressed in John's Gospel.
And the Word BECAME flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).
Could this be the extent of the plurality of God? Is it merely that the One God has been revealed in different ways to me? Or is there even more? I think that there is.
3. Different Persons.
The primary aspect which indicates that the plurality within the Godhead is made up of different persons is the Bible's description of the interaction which takes place between those persons. For example, when we examine the prayer of Jesus in John 17, we find Jesus interacting with the Father.
"And now, glorify Thou Me with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was." (John 17:5).
Do not miss this! Here we have the Son speaking to the Father about the personal relationship which they enjoyed before the creation of the world. In verse 24 there is even more.
"...for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world." (John 17:24b).
This is the language of relationship. And a relationship implies two distinct persons. One does not have this kind of relationship with himself. The implication is that the Father and the Son were loving each other long before the Son was manifested in the flesh. They existed as separate persons long before God was revealed to man in any form. They existed as separate persons before man was even created. They have always existed as separate persons.
The different ACTIONS of God can be explained by a difference in FUNCTION. The mention of different MEMBERS of the Godhead can be explained by a difference in MANIFESTATIONS. But the various INTERACTIONS which take place among the members of the Godhead can only be satisfied by the existence of different PERSONS within that Godhead.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TRI-UNITY OF GOD
Now I want to ask you a question. It is the question you should ask whenever you approach a doctrine of the Bible. What is the importance of this teaching? What is the significance to me in knowing that God is triune? Is it just so much spare doctrinal baggage? Not at all.
Jesus said, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23). When you become a Christian, the entire Trinity comes and lives within you.
The Godhead is a family. It is One God with three distinct persons. It is the most tightly knit family in the universe. It is the eternal family.
Here is the point. If you have placed your faith in Christ, then you have become a member of that family. You have been adopted into that family and become a child of God. You have become a recipient of that love with which the Father loved the Son before the foundation of the world.
When we come together to worship, it is a family reunion. The God of the universe has united Himself with us. With such a rich heritage, we can scarcely be attracted by the foolishness of the life that the world offers.
Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having out hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:22-25).
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