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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
God is one, but he exists as a Trinity. Any attempt to define the Trinity is difficult and dangerous, as it is an attempt to do what the Bible does not do. However, by a study of the biblical teaching about God, we understand that although God is one, the form in which his godhead exists is that of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons is fully God, yet there is only one God, not three.
One God, three persons
The Old Testament gives little clear teaching about the Trinity, for the emphasis there is on the oneness of God. Israel lived among nations that had many gods. The important truth impressed upon Israel was that there is only one God, and he is a unity (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Our understanding of the Trinity comes largely from the New Testament. This does not mean that the God of Old Testament times differed from the God of New Testament times, or that a God who was previously ‘one’ branched out into three. God has always existed in a Trinity. What is new in the New Testament is the revelation of the Trinity, not the Trinity itself.
The reason why the revelation of the Trinity is new in the New Testament is that it was related to the great acts of God in bringing his plan of salvation to completion in Christ. God did not reveal his truth in the form of abstract truths unrelated to the situation in which the people of the time lived. Rather he revealed his truth step by step as he brought his people closer to the full salvation he had planned.
Nevertheless, with the fuller knowledge that Christians gain from the New Testament, they may see suggestions of the Trinity in the Old Testament. Such suggestions are there, even though believers of Old Testament times may not have seen them (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12).
For example, in the Old Testament references to the creation there was an inseparable connection between God, the creative power of God’s Word, and the life-giving power of God’s Spirit (Genesis 1:1-3; Job 33:4; Psalms 33:6). But with the coming of Jesus, people gained a clearer understanding of the work of the Trinity in all the activity of God, including the creation (John 1:1-4). This understanding increased further as Jesus taught his followers and left with them the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would interpret his teaching and continue to enlighten them (John 16:13-15).
The revelation through Jesus Christ
When God took human form in the person of Jesus Christ, much that was previously secret and hidden became open. Jesus revealed God to the world (John 1:1; John 1:14; John 1:18).
Through Jesus Christ, God was now physically present in the world. But in another sense he was not physically present. Jesus made it plain that when people saw him they saw God (John 8:58-59), but he also made it plain that God existed elsewhere; for he himself came from God, and during his earthly life he spoke to God (John 6:38; John 11:41-42).
Jesus explained this apparent contradiction by pointing out that he was God the Son, and that the one from whom he came and to whom he spoke was God the Father. Although these two persons were distinct, they were uniquely united (John 5:18; John 5:37; John 8:42; John 10:30; John 11:41; John 14:9; John 16:26-28; see ).
Having become a human being, God the Son now gave the additional revelation that there was a third person in the Godhead, the Holy Spirit. All three persons were involved in the miraculous coming of the Son into the world (Luke 1:35), and the life and ministry of Jesus that followed should have shown people that God existed as a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16-17; Matthew 12:28; Luke 4:18; John 3:34-35). Just before he completed his ministry, Jesus explained about the Holy Spirit more fully. He promised that after he returned to his Father, he and the Father would send the Holy Spirit to be with his disciples, as he himself had been previously (John 14:16-17; John 14:26; John 15:26).
The Holy Spirit, though a separate person from the Father and the Son, is inseparably united with both (Acts 2:32-33). He comes from the Father as the bearer of the Father’s power and presence (John 15:26; John 16:7-11), and he comes from the Son as the bearer of the Son’s power and presence (John 14:18; John 16:7; Romans 8:9; see ). Although there is a distinction between the three persons of the Godhead, there is no division. Each has his own personality and will, but he never acts independently of the others (John 14:26; Acts 16:6-7; Galatians 4:6).
No change in God
This three-in-one and one-in-three unity of the Godhead is well illustrated in the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to baptize their converts ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). In Jewish thought the name represented the person (see ). Jesus here spoke of the name (singular), indicating one God, but at the same time he showed that this God existed in three persons. And these three persons were distinct from each other, yet uniquely and inseparably united.
As a God-fearing Jew, Jesus gave his complete allegiance to the one and only true God, and he taught others to do likewise (Deuteronomy 6:4; Matthew 22:37). Jesus’ statement therefore indicated that this God whom Israelites of former times worshipped under the name of Yahweh (Jehovah) was the same God as Christians worshipped under the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God who is ‘one’ is at the same time a Trinity.
Faith of the New Testament writers
The early disciples reached a fuller understanding of the Trinity through the life, teaching, death and triumph of Jesus Christ. They then passed on their insights through the writings of the New Testament. They never tried to define the Trinity, nor did they try to ‘prove’ it in a theoretical sense. Since they knew God as the one who gave his Son to die for them and gave his Spirit to indwell them, they thought of God in no other way than as a Trinity. The New Testament writings therefore assume the fact of the Trinity at all times (Ephesians 4:4-6; Ephesians 5:18-20; 1 Thessalonians 1:3-5; 1 Peter 1:2). Yet they also assume the oneness of God (Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4).
In keeping with the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of the New Testament writers show that the three persons of the Trinity are fully and equally God. No one person is inferior to, or superior to, any other. Concerning their operations, however, there is a difference. The Son is willingly subject to the Father (John 5:30; John 7:16; John 12:49; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 10:5-7), and the Spirit is willingly subject to both the Father and the Son (John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:13-15; Romans 8:26-27; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19).
Because of the unity between the persons of the Trinity, all three are active in all the work of God. This work is not, as it were, divided among three persons. In a sense, what one does they all do. But the Bible story shows that there is also a sense in which their activities differ.
The name ‘Father’ speaks of one who has to do with the origin of things, and this is seen in the great works of creation, history and redemption (Malachi 2:10; Ephesians 1:3-10; Hebrews 12:9; James 1:17). The Son is the one who reveals the Father, the one through whom the Father does these works (John 10:25; John 10:38; John 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 1:3-10; Colossians 1:15-16). The Spirit is the one by whom God’s power operates in the world, the one who applies the truth of God’s works to people’s lives (John 14:17; John 16:7-13; Acts 1:8; Romans 8:2-4; Galatians 5:16-18; 1 Peter 1:2). God’s salvation comes from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit (Titus 3:4-6), and people’s approach to God is by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father (Ephesians 2:18).
Relationship with the triune God
In making statements about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the New Testament writers were not attempting a theoretical analysis of God. Their concern was not to set out in systematic form the character and activities of the persons of the Trinity, but to express the relationship that Christians have with God. Christians cannot fully understand the mysteries of the Godhead, but they should try to learn all they can about God; for the life they have in Christ depends on God being the sort of God he is – a Trinity.
Jesus Christ, for example, could not be humankind’s Saviour if he were not the unique person that he is. The fact of the Trinity was essential to his birth (Luke 1:35), his life (John 3:34; John 5:36-37; Hebrews 2:3-4; 1 John 5:6-9), his death (Romans 8:32; Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 9:14), his resurrection (Acts 2:42; John 10:18; Romans 8:11) and his exaltation (Acts 5:30-32).
The fact of the Trinity is essential also for the life of believers: their indwelling by God (Ephesians 4:6; Colossians 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:19); their sanctification (John 17:17; Hebrews 2:11; 1 Corinthians 6:11), their enjoyment of salvation (2 Corinthians 13:14), their exercise of prayer (Romans 8:26-27; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 2:18), their eternal security (John 10:28-29; Ephesians 4:30) and their ultimate victory over death (John 5:21; Romans 8:11).
Likewise the Trinity is involved in the life of the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-6) and in Christian service (2 Corinthians 3:5-6; 1 Timothy 1:12; Acts 20:28). The Scriptures that Christians possess are a provision from the triune God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:21). They are one of the means by which the same God wants to work in and through his people, as they build themselves up in their faith and prepare themselves for fellowship with him in the age to come (Judges 1:20-21).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Trinity'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/t/trinity.html. 2004.