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Three in ONe

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 11, 2012

Matthew 28:19 and assorted scriptures The Dance: Three-in-One

As we were doing our worship planning, we saw that we would have a gap of three weeks. Between the end of the Open Doors Campaign and mission Sunday and the beginning of Advent—we had three weeks without anything scheduled. So we were asking ourselves: what can we do that would make for a three week series? What in Christianity has to do with the number three? Where do you see a “three” in the church?

And the answer that came to us, of course, is the Trinity. We believe in one great God, who exists in three persons. It’s all over the church. When we stand and confess our faith in the Apostle’s Creed, we are making an explicitly Trinitarian claim. What are the three parts of the Creed? “I believe in God the Father…I believe in Jesus Christ His Son…I believe in the Holy Spirit.” That’s the Trinity!

And then, again, in the baptism. When we applied the water to Rydia (and to Kinnick and Korsin and Jesse) we said: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…” The Trinity! God in three persons, blessed Trinity! It’s at the very heart of our faith.

So, we had three weeks open, we said: “Let’s do a series on the Trinity!” Easy, right?

Not necessarily. As I first conceived it, I was going to do one week on the Father, one week on the Son, and one week on the Spirit. Nice and neat and tidy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that probably wouldn’t answer the big questions that we have about the Trinity.

And, let’s face it, the Trinity raises big questions. For the typical non-Christian, the idea of the Trinity is one of the most outlandish things ever. God is one, yet God is three? That sounds absurd. One plus one plus one equals one? That’s some faulty math. It seems like nonsense. It stretches the bounds of reasons. As one commentator says: “’Three-in One’ might be a good name for sewing machine oil, but as a description of God the unbeliever sees it as sheer, unmitigated gibberish.” (Richard L. Strauss, “Three in One”,

And maybe that’s where you’re at. If church is new to you, you might be wondering what in the world I’m talking about right now. One God, three persons? What?! If that’s the case, I want to encourage you to hang in there. My guess is, there are a lot of people here who have been going to church their whole lives and are still trying to understand the Trinity. So you’re in good company.

And yet, as I’ve said, the Trinity is at the heart of our faith. Every time we say the creed, every time we celebrate baptism… really, every time we call Jesus God…we are affirming our belief in the Trinity. So it is worth it to take some time to look at it.

In a sense, the fact that it is such an outlandish idea may be one of the best arguments in its favor. Three in one is so hard to make sense of it seems unlikely that any man would have ever thought it up. That leads us to suspect that God Himself might have revealed it.

And that is, in fact, the case. We believe in the Trinity because that’s the best way to understand the data in the Scriptures.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

If Christianity were something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about. (Mere Christianity, p. 129)

While the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, the idea is there from beginning to end. The idea of the Trinity is the only way to make sense of what the Bible tells us about God. We have to deal with the facts, and the facts tell us that our one God exists in three persons.

So we’re going to take three weeks to talk about what Christians believe about the Trinity and why it matters. These sermons will be different than my typical sermons—I’ll spend less time in one particular passage of scripture and do more jumping around in the Bible. This might feel a little bit more like a theology lecture than preaching. But the Trinity is so central to our faith, I feel it is worth our time.

One Essence, Three Persons
So let’s begin with this question: What is the Trinity?

My definition: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God. Three persons. Each person in the Trinity is distinct from the other, and yet all three are fully and equally God in eternal relation with each other.

Wayne Grudem puts it like this: “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.” The Belgic Confession, which is a standard of faith for our church, says: “We believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct.” (Article #8)

We believe in one God. Let me make that very clear. One of the things that set Israel apart from all the religious systems of its neighbors was monotheism. One God.

The Canaanites and the Egyptians and the Assyrians and later the Greeks and the Romans all believed in lots of gods. They were polytheistic. They believe each tribe or each village had a separate god. They built shrines and idols for each of their various gods.

But the Bible, from the very beginning, has always been very clear that there is only one God. The creation account in Genesis 1 is written in a way that shows that God is greater than all the tribal deities—the sun gods and the moon gods of the Canaanites. Over and over again the Bible says the LORD is one, there is no one like our God, there is no other god beside our God, and so on. (i.e. Deut. 6:4; Ex. 15:11, 1 Kings 8:60; Isaiah 45:21, et al) In the New Testament as well, there is no variation from the conviction that God is one (Rom. 3:30).

The Bible is monotheistic. Christianity is a monotheistic religion. Only one God.

And yet, the Bible clearly teaches that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all God. They all possess—fully and eternally—all the characteristics and attributes of divinity. It is not right to speak of the Son and the Holy Spirit as though they were created by God. Scripture affirms that Jesus has always existed, and has always been God (i.e. John 1:1). Same goes for the Holy Spirit. It’s not like they are God’s chief lieutenants. To deny the deity of Jesus is to advocate something entirely at odds with Christianity.

At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all distinct persons. It’s not like God shows up at various times and in various places with a different identity.

There’s a baseball manager named Bobby Valentine who is sort of infamous for a time—when he was managing the New York Mets—where he got kicked out of the game, and then a little later he showed up in the dugout again with a really cheap looking mustache pasted to his lip. Some people think of the Trinity that way. Like God is at various times disguising Himself as Jesus, and then at other times dressing up as the Spirit, and yet it’s always just the same person in different modes.

But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all fully divine—fully God—and yet they are distinct from one another. They talk to one another and interact with one another and carry out different roles and responsibilities.

And so we have the doctrine of the Trinity. One God. Three persons. All fully God.

A word theologians sometimes use to describe this is perichoresis. That’s a Greek word that means “indwelling” or “permeating.” I don’t need you to remember the word, but I bring it up because it is very similar to the Greek word for dance. You might notice the similarity between “-choresis” and “choreograph.” And dance is an image that has been used to illustrate the Trinity.

The idea is that in the Trinity each person wholly envelopes and is wholly enveloped by the others. The persons of the Trinity are eternally giving themselves over into one another. It’s not that the Father (at some “moment” in eternity past) poured Himself out into the Son; but rather that He is continually pouring Himself into the Son, and the Son is continually pouring out into the Father, and the Spirit is continually pouring out into the Son, and so on. There is unity within the Godhead, but it is a dynamic unity. God is always at work, always in motion, always interacting. Like a dance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally circling each other in joy.

There are flaws with the concept of the Trinity as a dance, to be sure. Don’t think line dancing or hip-hop or even waltz. But the idea is that for all eternity God has always existed as perfect community. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always surrounded each other with love, encouragement and praise.

Other attempts have been made to illustrate how one thing can be three at the same time. A three-leaf clover has been used to teach the Trinity. So has an egg, with its three parts: shell, white and yolk. Water can be, at differing times, liquid, ice, or steam. Under the right conditions—called “the triple point”—water can even exist in all three states at the same time. One man can be a father, a son, and a lawyer.

And yet, in the final analysis, every earthly analogy breaks down at some point. The leaves on the clover are only parts, not one of them can be said to possess all the attributes of the entire clover. Same with the egg. Even though water can exist in three different states, it’s not at the same time the same water. The man who has different roles is still only one person—it’s not like he can talk to himself in his different roles. Really, there’s nothing in our finite experience that can be used to explain the infinite nature of the triune God.

Ultimately, that’s kind of the point. We cannot hope to fully comprehend the Trinity. He is a totally different kind of Being, an infinite Being whom our finite minds cannot fully explain. We believe the doctrine of the Trinity not because we understand it, but because God has revealed it.

And really, would you want to believe in a God that you could fully explain?

The Facts
Now, second question: is this in the Bible? I’ve already said that the word “Trinity” does not appear in scripture, but does the idea? If we believe in the Trinity because it is the best way to make sense of scriptural facts, then what are those facts?

There are a lot of scriptural truths that point us to the three in one. I won’t hit on them all, but let me call your attention to a few.

First, Genesis 1:26. This is part of the Creation account, the creation of humanity in fact. God says:

26“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.”

Now, let me ask you: what does God mean when He says “us”? Who is He talking to? Is He talking to the animals He just created? Not likely. Is He talking to angels? No where else in scripture are we given any indication that angels had anything to do with our creation, and there is no sense in which we are made in the image of angels.

Is God using the “royal we”? You know, kind of like when the Queen of England says, “Let us have some tea and crumpets.” If that is what is happening, it is the only place in ancient Hebrew where the royal we is used. There’s no other evidence that anybody—not David, not Solomon, not God Himself--ever talked that way.

Instead, it would appear that already in the first chapter of the Bible we have an indication of a plurality of persons within God himself. You cannot develop the doctrine of the Trinity from just this verse—there’s nothing about three—but already we have a hint that more than one person is involved in the works of God.

Or, let me direct you to the New Testament, Matthew 3:16-17. This is the story of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist:

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

The interesting thing about these verses is that we have one scene where all three members of the Godhead are involved, and they are all distinct from one another. God the Son is coming up out of the water. God the Spirit is descending like a dove. And God the Father is speaking from heaven. This doesn’t prove the divinity of the three persons, but it does cause serious problems for the theory that says God wears different costumes. It’s quite an elaborate production to imagine Him standing in the water, projecting the image of the dove, and throwing His voice like a ventriloquist.

And then, one more passage, the one we used in the baptism, Matthew 28:19:

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

This is one of the most Trinitarian passages in the Bible. Jesus is giving His followers their marching orders—we call this the “Great Commission”—and He says that when people convert we are to mark that with a sacrament that incorporates them into the name of God. And notice that Jesus says “name,” singular. Not “names”, plural. There is only one God.

But when Jesus gives us the name, it is three persons. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All included as though they were of equal standing. One God. Three persons. All fully God.

We may not fully understand it. We don’t have the perfect earthly analogy that will make it crystal clear. But the Bible teaches the Trinity. This is the best way to understand the information the Bible gives us. And this has been the orthodox belief of the Church throughout its history.

What Difference Does it Make?
In the next couple of weeks we’ll dig a little deeper into what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. Specifically, I’ll be looking at what the Bible says about the different responsibilities the members of the Godhead have and how they relate to each other.

But for now, let me wrap things up by asking one more question: Why does this matter? If the doctrine of the Trinity is so hard to comprehend, then why talk about it? I have three reasons it is important for us to know about and think about the Trinity.

  1. First, the Trinity is how God has revealed Himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is important because this is who God is. If we want to know God better, then this is one of the things we need to know about Him.

Bruce Ware uses this analogy. Suppose there is a wife who says to her husband: “You know, there’s something about me that is very near and dear to my heart that you don’t know, something that I’ve tried to tell you but you just haven’t gotten it; but it’s something that would really help you know me better. Will you listen?” A good husband will listen, right? He’s going to want to know his wife as well as he can. The more he understands what she is like and what makes her tick, the better the relationship will be, right?

Well, in sort of the same way, God is saying to us: “There’s something about me that is very near and dear to my heart, something that isn’t that easy to understand, but it’s something that will help you know me better.” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit, p.13) God has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The more we know about that the better we will know God.

Another analogy: C.S. Lewis says studying theology is sort of like looking at a map. He says that looking at a map of the Atlantic Ocean is a poor substitute for actually experiencing the Atlantic Ocean. There is no way a map can convey the power and wildness and the smells and the feel of salt spray hitting your face. In the same way, studying theology is a poor substitute for actually experiencing God. There is no way facts about God can convey the power and love and splendor of actually having a relationship with God.

And yet, you would not be wise to set out on a journey across the ocean without a map. You’ll want a map to help you understand and make sense of what you are experiencing as you sail. In the same way, theology helps us understand and make sense of what we are experiencing in our relationship with God. It helps us move forward and deeper with Him. (Mere Christianity, p. 119-120)

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of those maps. It helps us know God better.

  1. Second, the Trinity separates Christianity from other faiths. Belief in the Trinity is one of the distinguishing marks that separates us from other religions.

Judaism and Islam both believe in one God, and they both teach that this god is in some way the same god we worship as Christians. Muslims will even talk about Jesus as great prophet. They put him in a line of prophets that leads to Muhammed. But they do not believe in the Trinity. They do not accept that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both God.

So, it belief in the Trinity is one of the things that makes us “Christian.” To know the Christian faith, and to know what it means to be a Christian, one must see more clearly what it means for God to be Triune.

And, conversely, if you remove belief in the Trinity, then you are no longer dealing with Christianity. Throughout history, attempts to explain away the Trinity have been dismissed as heretical by orthodox Christians. In other words, if you believe in a version of Christianity without the Trinity, then you are a part of a cult.

  1. Third, and most importantly, the Trinity is crucial to our salvation. Apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that Jesus died on the cross for us makes absolutely no sense.

In fact, if Jesus is anything other than a member of the eternal Godhead, then the idea that God sent Him to die on the cross is repugnant at best, and downright criminal at worst. Think about it: if Jesus is some sort of creation of God—either an especially anointed human being or a super angel or even the created Son of God—then God forced upon Him a horrible suffering and death.

But the Trinity teaches us that Jesus was not a creation of God, but God Himself. That He is the eternal, pre-existent second person of the Trinity. The work of salvation on the cross, then, was the united work of all three persons in the Trinity. Josh Harris puts it like this:

Jesus was God himself, who willingly laid down his life. God the Father was no cruel, abusive deity who lacked pity for his child. Instead, in the mystery of the Godhead, Father and son chose together to redeem mankind through substitution. Human sin demanded a price be paid. But God would pay the price. With his own life. (Dug Down Deep, p. 101)

Without the Trinity, the cross is meaningless. Without the Trinity, we have no hope of salvation. But because of it, we believe that God has graciously made a way for our salvation.

So…there’s an introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity. Our great and glorious God—forever beyond our ability to comprehend or explain—eternally exists as three persons in one essence.

The proper response, I believe, is for us to worship and glorify this God. We may not be able to fully explain how it works, we’ll probably never comprehend it completely, but we can marvel at the greatness and mystery of a God who forever exists in tri-unity.

I love the last two songs that we are singing this morning, because they call us behold the wonder of our God—God in three persons, blessed trinity!