3 Roles, 3 God, or 3 Persons?

Scriptures: Genesis 18:1-15; 2 Corinthians 13:11-14

As I noted earlier, today is Trinity Sunday. And just like Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, and Pentecost, whenever it’s Trinity Sunday, I’m going to do a certain thing. In this case, I’m going to preach on the trinity.

Some of you may get tired of hearing it, or may think, “Didn’t you just do that last year?” But the trinity and its concepts are so important and central to our beliefs as Christians that it’s something I think we need to be reminded of each and every year.

Also, as we go through our study, and we’ll talk a little more about that later too, then we get to know more about God. We get to understand the immensity of His being, the depths of His grace, and we are awed.

The trinity is a difficult concept. I’m on the Committee for Preparation for Ministry in the Presybtery, and I hear a lot of statements of faith. And every statement of faith says something about the trinity, some better than others.

A lot of people, frankly, try to dismiss it and minimize its importance. Many today within the Christian circle do not even accept the doctrine of the trinity, some for the simplest of reasons: “The Bible doesn’t use the word trinity,” while others reject it because of its profound difficulty in understanding. Either way, it’s still rejection, and that of the worst kind. To reject the doctrine of the trinity is to reject the deity of Christ and the ability of salvation that occurred on the cross.

There are a couple of different kinds of common conceptions that challenge the traditional trinitarian position. One is called modalism, or three roles, each person of the trinity has a role, but it’s all one God. It’s like how I’m a father, I’m a brother, I’m a son.

The other is that there are three gods. Mormonism teaches that there are three gods.

A popular belief among Christians divides the work of God between the three persons, giving a specific part to each: creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, and regeneration to the Holy Spirit. In fact, I even heard somebody once, despite the fact that Jesus himself said to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, try to baptize someone in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

This understanding of giving a specific part to each one is partly true but not wholly so, for as A. W. Tozer says, “God cannot so divide himself that one Person works while another is inactive. In the Scriptures the three Persons are shown to act in harmonious unity in all the mighty works that are wrought throughout the universe.”

There’s even a term for that. It’s called perichoresis. If you want your two-dollar seminary word for the day you can write that one down. It’s from the Greek, and it literally means “dancing between.” The word “choreography” comes from the same root. It’s talking about how the three are in a kind of dance with one another as they work through the trinity.

If we use this term “trinity,” we should probably begin to understand it by defining it. It breaks down pretty easily: “tri” or three, and “unity.” So the best way to completely define the term is “three in unity” or three in one. This term is compiled to describe the nature of the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Easy to say, not so easy to understand.

Someone once said, “If you try to understand the doctrine of the trinity, you may lose your mind, and if you deny it you will lose your soul.” But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take up the challenge to try to grasp what we can.

Does the Bible use the word “Trinity”? As I noted earlier, no, not expressed with that specific term. But it is expressed by analogy. In the Old Testament, we have a number of references to it. The triune Godhead is expressed from the opening of creation, and so states that God is triune in nature and substance.

The Hebrew word for God that is used in Genesis is elohim, which is a plural noun, rather than singular. Genesis 1:26 says “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Some would try to say it is using the “royal we” there, because God is sovereign king of the universe. But the use of the term elohim says otherwise. Even in the very first verse, where it says that the earth was without form and void and God spoke and said “Let there be light” and there was light, and the Spirit brooded out over the waters, we see the three acting in one.

We see God the Father and the creative impulse, we see God the Son and the defining principle (and I’ll talk about that in a moment), and then we see that the Spirit was present, in the breath of God.

In the story today that we had, with Abraham, the liturgist noted that it was the Lord and two angels, and that’s one theory. There are a couple of other theories that are out there. One of them says that it was a full theophany, that all three persons of the trinity came forth and greeted Abraham, and recognizing this, that’s why he bowed low. Another way of putting it is he prostrated himself. Normally you don’t lay yourself flat on the ground just for anybody, even a guest.

Also he used a humongous amount of resources for these three individuals. Again, as the liturgist noted, five gallons, approximately, to a seah, and he ordered three. Now I’m not a baker. Does anybody know how much bread fifteen gallons of flour would make? [Someone answers, “A lot!”] A lot of bread. So he was very definitely being extravagant.

In the New Testament, we see that John the Evangelist defines Christ and his deity for us in the very first verses of the first chapter. He says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.”

That sounds fancy, but what it is basically saying is the Word was there, the Word was with God, the Word was God, and he was involved in making everything. The word for “Word” that is used is logos in Greek, which means really more than just saying a word. It means the defining principle. He was the Word, with a capital W.

So we see that the plurality of God has eternally existed from before the creation of time. Dr. Ed DeVries said, “The members of the Trinity work together in complete unity, totally dependent and yet totally interdependent of each other. God the Father is the sovereign ruler of the entire universe, and everything operates because of and to fulfill his eternal plan. God the Son takes this plan out of eternity and brings it into time, administering the various aspects of the plan. God the Holy Spirit makes this eternal plan, the will of God, real to men.”

This implies that there was no time, at one point, which is true. I happen to have, as you know, a background in science. At a recent Bible study on Wednesday afternoon, we actually never did get to Hebrews, because we were talking about my passions on some things with science, and one of the things we talked about was how, if you look at the Big Bang and you look at Genesis and the description, even scientists will admit that before the Big Bang there was no time.

There was no way to measure it. There was nothing. And then even in the first few moments after the Big Bang, we still can’t figure out exactly what went on and what time was there, because gravity was so great that it would warp time itself.

And I’m seeing eyes glaze, so I’m going to stop now, especially since we took an hour and a half on Wednesday to talk about it. The fact is, there was no time, and then there was.

God the Father had a plan from before all time, the originator of all. The Son revealed the plan by bringing it into time. Christ himself came into time, at the incarnation, when he came and he lived among us, and then he suffered and died on the cross for us, to cleanse us of our sin.

And after he died, in three days he was resurrected, and changed into his glorified body. And we likewise, then, are given the promise of being made into new creatures, new beings, with life in him.

So prior to creation, time did not exist, but upon the creative act of Christ, everything came into existence. And God the Holy Ghost reveals this divine plan to the hearts of men and women everywhere. He is the one who opens our eyes.

Even in salvation itself, I like to say, all three were involved in this dance. God the Father was losing His Son, as He turned His face away. Christ was dying for our sins. And the Holy Spirit was giving witness to the deity and the sacrifice of God, as the Roman centurion, who had absolutely no reason to know who Christ was, said, “Surely this is the son of God.”

All of the Godhead are coequal. We see that in our passage in 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.”

1 Peter says, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.”

All three aspects of the Godhead are clearly seen in these several passages of scripture. Not one is more important than the other. Each has equal value. They are all equal. They are all unified. They are also all distinctive.

In his discussion at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus said, when he talked about “in my Father’s house are many mansions, and I go there to prepare a place for you,” he said at one point, “after I leave, one will come who is the advocate” (or the counselor, the comforter, there are a lot of ways to translate that word paraclete).

He says later on, “if I don’t go, then he can’t come, because as long as I’m here, I am the revelation of God.” He said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” There was no need for the Holy Spirit at that point in time. But once he left, then the Holy Spirit came, and revealed God to us.

Does the doctrine of the trinity teach monotheism? Yes, we believe it does. We believe fervently in one God, Yahweh. God is the God of Abraham. It says in Deuteronomy 6:4, to Israel itself, “Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall worship the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your strength, and Him only shall you serve.”

Jesus himself repeated that to the scribes and Pharisees, when he was chastising them and getting out of one of their traps.

We have many things that point to the co-equalness of Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, to their definite difference as persons, and yet their essential unity. Even Moses, when he was called to ministry, at the burning bush, said, “Whom shall I say sent me?” He wanted to know the name of God.

God said, “Tell them Yahweh sent you,” which means “I am.” Although actually, more than that, the concept in Hebrew means “I am whatsoever I am, I will be whatsoever I will be, and I was whatsoever I was.” Basically it speaks of God’s eternity. “I was, I am, and I will be.”

They are spoken of as being submissive to each other. The Spirit serves the needs of Jesus and points us to Christ. Christ said he came and he did the will of the Father. And the Father, it says, elsewhere in Scripture, in the New Testament, will give all things over to Jesus, and he will rule.

So we see all these things pointing to the essential unity and oneness of the trinity, the three. And we see that they are all God. This is an important aspect of our faith. We must accept the trinity as absolute. Anything that Scripture confirms as truth, whether in essence or in material reality, must be accepted by faith as truth. And this is attested to in many, many places.

That doesn’t mean that we can just say, “Cool! I got it now.” It’s something that we wrestle with. There’s an illustration that says Augustine (who was one of the great theologians of all time), while puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity, was walking along the beach one day when he observed a young boy with a bucket, running back and forth to pour water into a little hole. Augustine asked, “What are you doing?” The boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.” And Augustine realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.

Some things are a mystery, and as a scientist, that used to drive me nuts. Now after twenty years of ministry I have come to accept it and relish it in many ways. Because it means that God can never be put in a box. God can never be put in a pigeonhole. God is always going to be greater than we can grasp in His completeness. That means there’s always something new to learn about Him, something new to celebrate about Him, and a deeper place to go as we mature in our faith. We do that as we get into the Word, as we study. You have to learn what the Scripture says, and its testimony to God.

The concept of the trinity is very deep. But instead of trying, perhaps, to understand it in its entirety, maybe it will help if you think of it in the words of the Anglican Catechism which says, “First, I learn to believe in God the Father who has made me and all the world. Secondly, in God the Son who redeems me, and all humanity. Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost who sanctifies me, and all the elect people of God.”

Believe it. Live it. Learn it. And you will begin to testify to it in your own life. For all creation testifies to the glory of God. So must we.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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