Party of Three
Party of Three
Oprah recently interviewed Diane Nyad, the 64yr old who completed a 53 hour solo swim from Cuba to Florida. In the interview Nyad said that even though she was an atheist she could still, "Stand at the beach's edge … and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved." In response Oprah said, "Well, then I don't call you an atheist. I think if you believe in the awe and wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is … It's not a bearded guy in the sky."
Oprah's comment was fascinating on multiple levels—not the least of which was her ability to offend both believers and atheists at the same time. Folks went crazy—including atheists who demanded that Oprah apologize for demeaning Nyad's non-belief in God. But setting that aside, notice how she defines God. If you believe in awe and wonder and mystery—that is God, she says. That's sort of like saying if you are ever afraid then you must believe in the boogie man.
Oprah's comments represent just how sloppy and squishy our understanding of God has become. Yes, God and his creation do provoke feeling in us of awe and wonder—Paul says as much in Romans 1. But can we know anything more about who God is, beyond nebulous emotions we may experience from time to time?
This morning we are starting a new series on the doctrine of God. Who is this God we worship and follow? What do we believe about him, and what has he revealed to us about himself? And, this is important, what is different about the Christian belief about God compared to other faiths?
A.W. Tozer once observed that, "What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." How could he make such a claim? Well, because our vision of God determines how we see everything else—our world, our neighbors, ourselves, our future, our past … everything. Is God an angry judge? Is he an impersonal force? Is he an old guy in the sky? Is he just a sense of "awe and wonder?" What we think about God matters.
To get things rolling this morning, we are going to explore the most essential Christian teaching about God, and yet one that is rarely taught. I want to explore the Trinity. Now, in a sermon about the Trinity you would think I have three points, but I don't. Just two. First, we're going to look at the definition of the Trinity—what is this core Christian teaching about God? And second, we're going to look at the implications of the Trinity—why does this understanding of God matter?
What the Trinity is
Before we jump into defining the Trinity, let's deal with a few preliminaries. First, as you may know, the word "Trinity" is not found anywhere in the Bible. That fact alone does not mean the idea of the Trinity is unbiblical. There are many theological words that are not in the Bible. The word "incarnation" never occurs, but we use that word to describe the very biblical idea that Jesus took on flesh and dwelt among us. Similarly, the word communion is not in Scripture—but we use it to describe the new covenant symbol of the bread and wine in the New Testament.
Likewise we use the word "Trinity" as a way of succinctly describing a concept about God found all over the Bible. Roger Olson puts it this way:
While it is true that no [single] passage of Scripture spells out the doctrine of the Trinity, it is also true that the whole of Scripture's witness to who God is and who Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are [and these texts] make no sense at all without the model of the Trinity. And that all alternative concepts end up doing violence to some essential aspect of [what Scripture reveals], to Christian experience, and possibly even reason itself (The Mosaic of Christian Belief, p.139).
So, while there is no single passage of Scripture that uses the word or that lays out the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly, there are many, many passages that contain it implicitly. I want to begin by looking at one of those together: John 14:8-17.
Read John 14:8-17
In this conversation with his disciples, Jesus speaks of his relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. He speaks of his unity with the Father—"if you've seen me then you've seen the Father." But he also speaks of himself and the Father and the Spirit as different persons. Here's what's intriguing to me—this text begins a much larger conversation in John 14, 15 and 16 that happens in the upper room after the Last Supper. It is Jesus' final teaching to his followers before his betrayal and death.
Sinclair Ferguson noted that "when his disciples were about to have the world collapse in on them, our Lord spent so much time in the Upper Room speaking to them about the mystery of the Trinity. If anything could underline the necessity of [the Trinity] for practical Christianity, that must surely be it!"
So, what did Jesus teach them about the Trinity? What does Scripture say about the nature of God? Let's define this doctrine.
Often when people try to explain the Trinity they use a clumsy analogy. God is like water—liquid, solid, and gas. Or God is like an egg—a shell, white, and yolk. Or St. Patrick's famously used shamrock—one plant, with three leaves. The truth is, as handy as these analogies can be, they all fail. They each, in some way, violate what Scripture reveals to us about the nature of God. The problem is that we want to take a mystery as unfathomable as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe—and reduce him to a simple phrase that we can stick on a t-shirt. It just doesn't work.
So, I'm not going to be giving you a nifty little analogy. But I still want to help you understand what Scripture says about God. So, instead we're going to define the Trinity with 4 words. (I know, it should be three.) The first word is: ONE. We believe there is one God. This is the unwavering message of both the Old and New Testaments—most famously articulated in Deut. 6:4-5 in the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
This is one of the most significant difference between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism. As one Mormon apologist put it, Mormons believe in "three distinct beings, three separate gods." Mormonism teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three gods. That is not what Christians believe. We believe, as Scripture unwaveringly testifies, there is one God.
But, this one God exists eternally as three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Which leads to our second word: THREE. Here's another way to say it—we believe in one God who is a community of three persons. So, when God's table is ready at a restaurant, the hostess would say, "God, party of three … your table is now ready." To understand how the ONE and THREE thing works, we need two more words.
The third word is: DIVERSITY. God is a diversity. This community of three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is one God and yet they are eternally different persons. This is where things start to get strange—even paradoxical. Some folks have tried to simplify this by saying, "Well, Father, Son, and Spirit aren't really three separate persons, they're just three different names for one God." That's actually a heresy called modalism. That's not what Scripture teaches. In John 14 Jesus isn't say that he IS the Father, or that he IS the Spirit. He is ONE with the Father and Spirit, and yet they are different persons. There is diversity.
The fourth word is: UNITY. These three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, nonetheless exist in perfect unity and harmony with each other. We read in John 17 that the Father gives glory to the Son, and the Son glorifies the Father, and in John 15 the Holy Spirit gives glory to Jesus. In the Trinity there exists no jealousy, hostility, or disharmony. The Trinity is a perfectly united community.
So, these are the four words you need in order to have the doctrine of the Trinity: ONE, THREE, DIVERSITY, and UNITY. There is one God, who exists eternally as three persons. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not the same, they are different from each other, and yet they exist and function in perfect unity.
Here's what the Trinity is NOT. Father, Son, and Spirit are not three different names for God. Nor are they three different functions of God. It's not as if God puts on the Father hat to create the world, and then wears the Son hat to redeem the world, and the Spirit hat to sanctify the world. All three persons of the Trinity are united and involved in everything God does. At creation the Son and the Spirit were there, right along with the Father. And Jesus spoke often, as he does here in John 14, of his unity and presence with the Father. It is the Father who raised him from the dead. And notice, it is the Son who asks the Father to send the Spirit. They are united, but diverse—they are three persons, but one God.
If we lose any one of these four words, we've lost the doctrine of the Trinity. We've slipped into something other than what Scripture reveals—something other than historical, orthodox Christianity. I realize it is a mind twisting idea, a paradox beyond our abilities to fully grasp, but that is the definition of the Trinity. We could spend weeks unpacking it further, or looking at all the passages that speak to this reality about God, but I'd rather use our remaining time to ask, "So what?" Why does the Trinity matter?
Why the Trinity Matters
Obviously, Christianity is not the only monotheistic faith. We're not the only ones who believe there is one God. But other faith's perception of this one God is very different than ours. Judaism, for example, views God primarily as a law-giver. Islam sees him in a similar way—as a judge. Deists see God as a "watchmaker"—the creator who ordered and wound up the cosmos and now doesn't interfere. Oprah apparently views God as "awe and wonder" (whatever that means).
The Christian vision of God is different than all of these. We believe that if you peel back the layers of time and space, if you could peer back long before the creation of the world, if you could look back to when there was nothing but God, what would we see? The answer is we would see LOVE. John tells us "God is love." But how is that possible? Love is an interpersonal quality. In order for love to exist it requires an object to love. Love requires both a lover and a beloved. It takes two to tango, as they say. One to love, and one to be loved. But if God is only one person, love—even divine love—could not exist before creation because there would be nothing for God to love.
This has led some to incorrectly believe that God created humans because he was lonely and he wanted somebody to love. But this is absolutely untrue. If God needed us, that would indicate some deficiency in his being. Kevin DeYoung articulates the truth really well:
With a biblical understanding of the Trinity we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight.
The Christian vision of God as revealed in Scripture tells us that before there was anything there was love—because at the foundation of the universe is not matter or laws or energy or even will, but RELATIONSHIP. We believe in a relational God—a God who has existed forever in perfect, loving, relationship with himself—Father, Son, and Spirit. Before there were planets, stars, or galaxies—and long before there was you or me or anyone else for God to love—the Trinity has been a community of perfect love.
Robert Farrar Capon was a pastor and author. He died in September 2013 at the age of 88. But he wrote beautifully about the Trinity. He described God as an eternal party—these three persons experiencing joy and love and unity for all eternity in a way we can hardly imagine—and that from this party, which is God, creation burst forth. Capon wrote an analogy of this event I want to read for you.
Let me tell you why God made the world.
One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father's fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things—new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, "Really, this is absolutely great stuff why don't I go out and mix us up a batch?" And God the Holy Spirit said, "Terrific! I'll help you." So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers—and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, "Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Good! Good! Good!" And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: "Good! Good! Good!" So they shouted together "Very Good!" and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the son drank their wine in the unity of the Holy Spirit and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other for ages and ages.
It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. But I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash.
The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is a party—that this world is built on the foundation of a relationship. This is why we can say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. This is what separates the Christian vision of God from all other—including all other monotheistic faiths. The message of Jesus Christ is not that we are to adhere to a set of laws like Islam or Judaism. Jesus didn't give us a set of rituals to perform or practices to follow like Hinduism or Buddhism. Jesus' message was that we are invited to join the party that the Trinity has been enjoying since before time began.
In John 17 Jesus prayed for us. He prayed just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, may they also be in us. And when Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 28 to "Go make disciples of all people, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," Let me tell you something—he wasn't just talking about water there. To be baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means that we are invited to live and share in party of the Trinity. To abide in the Trinity. To be immersed into the Trinity. It is an absolutely astonishing invitation.
Have you ever found yourself at a party with people you don't really know? A party you stumbled into, maybe uninvited or totally unexpected—and just had a great time? I had an experience like that this recently. I was in Cooperstown, New York at the Baseball Hall of Fame on the weekend when three players were inducted. The night before the induction there was a private, red carpet reception at the Hall of Fame—and I was there. I'm not even a baseball fan. I didn't grow up playing or watching baseball. I had a dad who played cricket and who thought only people who drink too much beer would be dumb enough to try to hit a round ball with a round bat.
But there I was getting a picture with Cal Ripkin, the former short stop for the Baltimore Orioles who still holds the record for starting in the most consecutive pro baseball games—an astounding 2,632 games in a row. I was chilling with former L.A. Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda (who sat in one corner like the godfather as people kissed his ring). I had a very nice conversation with Jonny Bench, the former catcher who played in 14 All-Star games. There was Andre Dawson, Wade Boggs, and Carlton Fisk. The truth is, I didn't even know who most of these guys were. But I had a great time. It was a really cool party. But I had no right being there. I have friends—huge baseball fans—who would have killed for my place at the party. How did I get in?
Turns out that one of the inductees this year was a player named Deacon White. White played in the 1870s—he was one of the early superstars of baseball—an amazing athlete. And it just so happens that I married his great, great, granddaughter. So we got invited to the VIP party at the Baseball Hall of Fame—and we had a great time.
Friends, the Trinity is a party of love, joy, peace, goodness, creativity, power, and glory that has been going on forever—and it will continue forever. And you and I have been invited to join it. Not because we deserve to be there. Not because we've earned the right to be there. But because a long time ago, the Father sent the Son. And the Son revealed to us this everlasting party. He died so that our sin would not prevent us from joining it. And the Father raised him from the dead through the power of the Spirit. If we put our faith in him, we too can be filled with the Spirit, raised from death to life, and join the Father, Son, and Spirit in this party that will never end.
This is why the Trinity matters. It tells us that at the heart of the cosmos is love, a relationship, a party. It is because of the Trinity that we believe we can have a personal relationship with God that will never end.
So, this morning I want you to remember 4 words. The Trinity means there is ONE God who exists eternally as 3 persons—the Father, Son, and Spirit. They live in DIVERSITY and yet perfect UNITY. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. And yet the Father is not the Son. The Father is not the Spirit. And the Spirit is not the Son. That is the definition.
The implication of the Trinity—that's where the power is found. Tozer said, "What we think about God is the most important thing about us." Some of you have been thinking wrongly about God, and it is robbed you of joy and peace and love. I invite you to examine how you think about God and how you relate to him—and see, perhaps for the first time, that he is inviting you to join his party of three.
Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.