Three-in-One

Our culture is changing. Quickly. Christianity has not been the dominant worldview for a long time, but a clear alternative is rising fast to take its place in ways we haven’t really seen before. This new alternative is aggressive and intolerant and it increasingly has access to the levers of political power. What this means is a number of things, but perhaps most significant among them is that for followers of Jesus it has never been more important that we have a clear and firm handle on exactly what we believe and why those beliefs are better (that is, more in line with reality) than the available alternatives. This week we kicked off a brand-new teaching series aimed at addressing this very matter called, You Believe What? For the next few weeks we’re going to be talking about some of the most basic beliefs of the Christian worldview and why those matter so much. In this first part we start at the top with God. What is He like and what does that mean for us? Let’s talk about it.

Three-in-One

When I was a senior in college, I had to take biochemistry. Other than advanced courses focusing in on one particular branch of chemistry or another, biochemistry was the hardest chemistry course there was at the school. It took all the hard parts of both chemistry and biology and combined them into one challenging package. And the big project for the course was to write a research paper on some biochemical molecule. I still remember my molecule: cisplatin. It’s one of the earliest-discovered chemo drugs. I worked my tail off for that paper. I spent hours in our library. I took a day and drove down to the University of Missouri to use their much bigger and more equipped library to find some really obscure old journal articles so that I could cite original sources accurately instead of merely referencing them from other articles. I think the final project came in at something like 25-30 pages with a bibliography that ran for 5-6 pages. I did really well on it too. It helped that Dr. Nagan was a great teacher.

That was sixteen years ago. We were cleaning out some stuff at the house the other day and I found the original paper sitting on a bookshelf in the same folder it had been in since I graduated. Just for grins I went through and tried to read it—emphasis on the word “tried.” I don’t think I understood a single word I had written. Not one. It was just page after page of complex jargon and gobbledygook. I might as well have been reading a foreign language. I may have understood it all once (actually, if I’m being really honest, I didn’t understand any of it when I wrote it either…), but I sure don’t now. And absent more work than I’m willing to put toward it, I couldn’t understand it again either. There are just some things we don’t understand. And perhaps with enough time and attention we could get there, but then again, maybe not. Still, just because we don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful and matters a great deal. Cisplatin was a revolutionary cancer drug that has saved countless numbers of lives and served as the starting point for the creation of even more powerful and effective drugs to fight cancer. It’s worth understanding. I’m not just going to be the one to do it.

There is a difference, though, between things we don’t understand that we don’t necessarily need to understand, and not understanding something that really does matter for our lives. Cisplatin may fit in that first category, but I want to talk with you this morning about something that fits squarely in the second category. One of the things we sometimes don’t understand is our own faith. What exactly is it that we believe about God? That’s one of those questions we know somewhere in the back of our heads is important, but don’t always (or often) give it the attention it deserves. Indeed, when you live in a culture in which the basic assumptions of your worldview are assumed by most people, you really don’t have to give it a lot of thought.

We used to live in a culture like that. We don’t anymore. And as the available alternatives are becoming more clearly defined, more aggressive about proselytizing the unconverted, and intolerant of heretics, it is becoming more important by the day for those who would identify themselves to be followers of Jesus to have a strong handle on just what exactly it is they believe and why those beliefs are worth having over and against the beliefs of another religion. Nowadays, most people who aren’t already followers of Jesus aren’t going to respond to our profession of faith by saying, “Oh that’s nice.” They’re more apt to ask with all the derision they can muster: “You believe what?!?”

Taking a page out of that very playbook, this morning we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series called, You Believe What?, that is actually going to walk in step with the Bible Studies for Life series many of our Sunday school small groups will start today (which means this is a great time to get yourself connected with one of our groups). The big idea that is going to be driving our conversation over the next few weeks is that as our culture continues running down a path away from the Christian worldview toward some options that are not just different from what many of us claim for ourselves, but openly hostile to it, it is becoming more important than ever for us to have a strong handle on what and why we believe what we believe. The simple reality is that eventually the world is going to come calling, ready to challenge our beliefs. If we don’t have a firm grasp on them, we’ll be bullied into changing them to comply with the new powers that be. That, my friends, is not a recipe for faithfulness.

Well, if we are going to talk about our faith and seek to get a better handle on what exactly it is we believe, the best place to start is with God Himself. What is the nature of the God we profess to serve? That’s kind of a big question, isn’t it? I mean, how do you define God in the space of a few minutes? You don’t and we won’t. Rather than trying to define God, though, we are going to see if we can’t get our minds a bit more fully around an aspect of who He is that is at one and the same time both crucially fundamental, and also incredibly difficult. This morning we are going to talk about the Trinity. 

I guess we should start with a definition. When I say, “the Trinity,” I’m talking about the Christian belief that God exists as three persons in one person. When we talk about God, unless we define our terms more specifically to speak of one single member of the Trinity, we are talking about the full, triune person of God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This, more than just about anything else, sets followers of Jesus apart from the rest of the religious world around us as different. It also represents one of the chief lines of attack our critics will use in discrediting our worldview as nonsensical and unworthy of devotion. For Muslims in particular, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the things that makes Christianity not just another religion on the world stage, but a blasphemous heresy that should be stamped out of existence.

Well, one of the challenges of talking about the Trinity is that there is not any one passage in the Scriptures that definitively unpacks it. Nowhere will you find a verse that says, “God is a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Yes, you do see all three names mentioned in the same context and in ways that imply a kind of closeness of relationship, but the lack of hard scriptural evidence is one of the main lines of attack against the doctrine, especially by unitarian versions of Christianity like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Here’s one reason for confidence, though: The Trinity isn’t something anyone would make up. In its orthodox formulation it presents God in terms for which we don’t have a category. How does someone come up with something for which there’s no category? We create a lot of amazing things, but only things for which there’s a category at the start. For the Trinity, there’s not. It makes Christianity harder for skeptics to swallow. And if our marching orders were to get as many people in the door as we possibly could, why develop an essential doctrine engineered in such a way as to make that more difficult than it otherwise is?

The truth is that while the Scriptures don’t give us any direct help here, there is plenty of indirect help. This idea of God existing as a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit isn’t something early believers simply made up to have something to believe in. It developed historically as they read and reflected carefully on the Scriptures and came to understand better (with the Spirit’s help) the nature of God as He revealed Himself to us in those Scriptures.

One such place comes to us just a few verses over from where we were last week. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to John 14. After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and given them the command to love one another which should have been the focus of all their questions as they walked to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, they got entirely more focused on exactly where Jesus was going and His identity. They missed the key point, but their confusion is to our benefit because Jesus answered their questions.

Looks with me at John 14:8: “‘Lord,’ said Philip, ‘show us the Father, and that’s enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been among you all this time and you do not know me, Philip? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” Now, we look at that and wonder how they could have missed what Jesus was saying, but again, like the doctrine of the Trinity itself, the disciples didn’t have a category for Jesus being God. The Messiah, yes, but not God Himself. But that’s exactly what He was saying.

What comes next points a bit toward the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son. Stay with me in the text: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who lives in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Otherwise, believe because of the works themselves.”

Can you see the synergistic relationship between Father and Son? They are one and the same and are perfectly aligned in their thoughts and words and actions. Their goals and intentions are one as they are one. This, however, only gets us to a biunity. Look down to v. 16: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth.” Then jump down to v. 25: “I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” These couple of verses add a little more to the picture. There is the Father and the Son and then there is this third person, the Holy Spirit. He is sent by the Father in the name of the Son, but has His own mission and will to extend their will and mission and help us get our hearts and minds around it.

One God. Three persons. But now, let’s be honest with each other: Those few verses do not make an airtight case. But again, this is a doctrine that didn’t develop out of a single location in the Scriptures. There is much more evidence that points us to the character and identity of each person while yet maintaining the unity among the three. It’s a tri-unity; a trinity.

Okay, but none of this takes away from the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is hard. It’s hard to understand. We can try to describe it with words and illustrations. We can talk about an egg—yolk, white, and shell, all distinct, but still one egg—or we can talk about the three phases of water. If you want to get really nerdy, we can talk about the triple point of a pure substance. That’s where all three phases (solid, liquid, and gas) exist all at the same time in equilibrium and is perhaps the best illustration of the Trinity we have, but depends on technical knowledge that you probably don’t have unless you have a chemistry degree and so isn’t so helpful for use in normal conversations. With the possible exception of the triple point, though, all of our illustrations ultimately fall apart into one trinitarian heresy or another if you push them. Bottom line: this all goes beyond what we can fully understand. We don’t know how exactly God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit at one and the same time. We can describe it, but we can’t fully understand it. What we can understand, though, is what it means for us, and that matters a great deal. If you don’t remember anything else from this morning, remember this: Our God is three-in-one and that’s a very good thing.

So, why is that a very good thing? Let me give you two reasons. And let me introduce the first reason like this: Have you ever been around a child who grew up as an only child and didn’t get a whole lot of exposure to other kids while growing up? How good are those kids at relationships? Generally, they’re not so good. It’s not their fault. They didn’t get much practice growing up. But if you’re not accustomed to having relationships, you’re generally not very good at relationships. Now, think for a minute about what Christianity offers that no other religion in the world offers. What we offer the world is a relationship with Jesus. We understand that, right? But, because of the doctrine of the Trinity, when we offer a relationship with Jesus, we are really offering a relationship with the God who created the world and everything in it. God, the full, triune God, wants a relationship with you. But, if He were a unitary God who had existed as a single, unitary entity from eternity past, how would He even know what a relationship is? How would He be able to have and hold and build relationships with other persons?

The creation narrative in Genesis, whatever your feelings about it, makes clear that people were created in the image of God. We also happen to be inherently relational creatures. We are so, because we are created in the image of a relational God who is relational precisely because He is not a unitary entity. He is three persons in one person who are all perfectly related to one another. We describe Him as a righteous God. That’s fundamental to His character. Well, righteousness is primarily concerned with right relationships. How could a non-relational God be described as righteous before creating creatures with whom He could be in relationships? Indeed, if He only learned about relationships when He created us, then He learned something from us. If He learned something from us, He is not really all that much greater than us and not worthy of our worship. Because God is a Trinity, He can have a relationship with us. God’s trinitarian nature means that He not only can be in relationships with others—namely, us—but He understands relationships perfectly and wants to have that with you and me. Our God is three-in-one and that’s a very good thing.

And as good as our being able to be in a relationship with God because He is a triune God is, it actually gets better. God’s triune nature doesn’t just mean He understands relationship, it means He is able to love. If our God was a unitary God, then He wouldn’t have been able to love until we came along and we’re facing all the same problems as we were with relationships. Love flows out. As Father, Son, and Spirit, God was able to perfectly love one another among Himself before any of creation was spoken into being. When we entered the picture, He simply extended this perfect love to us. A god who is unitary cannot love the way our God can. Our God is three-in-one and that is a very good thing.

You may think the Trinity doesn’t matter much, but without it you couldn’t have a relationship with God and you wouldn’t be loved by Him. But you can and you are. Perfectly. Our God is three-in-one and that is a very good thing. It’s a very good thing because the rising alternatives to the Christian faith in our culture cannot offer anything like we can. They are all moderate rewards for unquestioning obedience and incredibly harsh punishments for disobedience. There is no relationship to them. There is no love. There is only will and power. We offer something different. We offer something better. We offer love and a perfect relationship with a God in a way no one and nothing else can offer and who is absolutely committed to our good. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty good to me. Our God is three-in-one and that is a very good thing.

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