Last week in our journey through apologetics (our ability to defend our faith to those who doubt it or help it make sense to those earnestly trying to understand it), we addressed the divinity of Jesus. This naturally leads us to this ever-challenging topic: the trinity. God is one and God is three–which is it? Both.
Right. Well, let me tell you, this confusing topic was originally something that repelled me from the faith as I was first setting out to understand it, but then it turned out to be the pivotal truth that, when I gained my first sliver of understanding of it, became a game-changer for me.
Having said that, though, I will quickly add that my understanding of the trinity is incomplete. But if anyone tells you that they fully understand the depths and intracacies of the trinity, you should approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism. This is one of those aspects of Christianity that is both foundational and, at the same time, just beyond our ability to fully comprehend.
Before we jump in, though, let me remind us all that God knew there would be aspects of the faith that would be difficult for us to understand. He presented himself to us through the Bible, which in turn is his revelation of himself to people over the course of several thousand years–so we are subject to those people’s ability to comprehend these things themselves, and then in their skill at trying to explain them to us without the benefit of a conversation in which we could ask clarifying questions. Add to that the cultural differences resulting from such a large span of time as well as our geographic diversity, and also the challenges of translating from multiple languages into English, and it’s no wonder there are passages and concepts that are hard for us to understand. God assured us, though, that it’s OK if we don’t fully grasp everything about the faith:
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.Isaiah 55:9 (NIV)
In the Beginning
As I’ve shared previously, what turned me from my agnostic life to one where I was investigating what God was all about was the Jehovah’s Witnesses (well, to be more specific, it was because a girl I liked in high school was a Jehovah’s Witness, and her dad said we couldn’t date if I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, too). As I dug into it a little bit, I learned that one of the ways the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith differed from mainstream Christianity was over the concept of the trinity. Basically, they do not believe that Jesus is God. Not having grown up in the church, I didn’t know what this meant or why it was important. I also didn’t know how you could prove it one way or the other.
But then (all great stories have a “but then”!), I went to my first service at a regular Christian church, and you’ll never guess what the topic of the sermon was–the trinity! What a God thing! (I don’t believe in coincidences.) The text the pastor taught from was the beginning of the Gospel according to John, who was one of Jesus’s apostles and closest friends. This is how John tells Jesus’s “origin story” (which isn’t an origin story at all, as I’ll clarify below):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1-5 (NIV)
As you read on a bit, you realize that “the Word” he’s referring to is Jesus. This beautiful introduction culminates in this statement:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14 (NIV)
And there it was–a very direct and clear assertion that Jesus is God. And so began the journey I happily continue today, into the depths of God.
So What Does It Mean?
The idea of the trinity is that God (also sometimes referred to as the “Godhead” in discussions of this topic), while being one God, is at the same time comprised of three separate and distinct entities: God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. Since God was not created but has always existed, so too have all three of these entities always coexisted. This means that even though Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to a woman, he actually has always existed (this is why he has no “origin story”). That was just the moment in time when he stepped away from the intimacy of the relationship of the trinity to become a human and live among us for a while.
I should also mention that a terminology nuance which often causes confusion is that sometimes when people use the term “God”, they are really thinking of God the Father. This isn’t a big deal in terms of your relationship with God, but it can cause some challenges as you grapple with the trinity.
For example, one confusion people express sometimes is, “How could Jesus be God if he prayed to God?” This makes sense, though, if you realize that he, being God the Son, prayed to God the Father–two separate entities within the single triune God. I found this diagram which may help a bit:
But There Is No Mention of “Trinity” In the Bible
There are some atheists and secularists who claim Christianity is false because the word “trinity” isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but this is a central truth of our faith. While it’s true that the word is not mentioned, the concept is most definitely woven throughout the entire Bible–yes, even the Old Testament. I want to provide reference texts as examples, but to try to keep this post from getting too long, I will just provide them in a list form, as I did in last week’s episode:
- “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” – Deuteronomy 6:4 – establishes the idea that there is one God.
- “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” – Genesis 1:26 (emphasis added) – establishes that God is having an dialog within different components of himself.
- “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” – Isaiah 6:8 – another example of God referring to himself in the plural.
- “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6 – establishes that a son will be born who will be called Mighty God.
- Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” – John 10:30 – brings together the ideas that God is one yet made up of separate entities.
- John 6:27 – Jesus refers to “God the Father”, alluding to the different components within the triune God.
- Titus 2:13 – “while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” refers to Jesus as God
- John 20:28 – Thomas refers to Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” Jesus does not correct Thomas.
Why Is This Important?
One reason this is important is because, going back to last week’s post, it helps establish the divinity of Jesus. Another thing is that this is the way God has presented himself to us, so we need to try to engage with him as best we can, to the best of our understanding. At the end of the day, the essential thing out of this is that we have an appropriate high view of God, and that includes having the same high view of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
And even though we are given characteristics of each of the entitites within the triune God, it’s not important that we address the “right part” of God depending on what concern we bring before him. God will never respond to my prayers, “Well, Dave, that was a good prayer, and I’d love to help you, but you addressed it to Jesus when you should have addressed it to the Holy Spirit. Better luck next time.”
Some of us may have a preference in our prayers to address them to Jesus, Our Father, or the Holy Spirit, but it’s a safe assumption that it doesn’t matter which entity we address–what’s important is that we address him.
The triune God hears our prayers. He heard them when he stood among us, when he experienced our brokenness in person, and he hears them now. How great is our God!
When we pass from this life to the next, after we relax the grip of our mighty embrace of the Giver of Eternal Life, and after we stand up from bowing before His Majesty, we can ask Him to explain this mystery and a thousand others. We can discuss them with him until we understand. Or perhaps they will become abundantly clear when we meet Him face to face/face/face, and we’ll have nothing to ask, except maybe, Why me?