One God or Three?
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13)
Two young children coming running to their Dad, excited because they’d learned God’s first name.
“You know God’s first name? ” responds their Dad, “How did you learn that?
“it’s Andy!” they shout, “We know it because of Mom’s favourite hymn!”
“Which one is that?” asks their Dad, with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“Well,” respond the children, “that hymn says ‘Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells I am His own.”
It’s not just children who get confused about the names of God. I’ve been told that one of the main problems Moslems have with Christians is that they think we worship three Gods, instead of one. But my guess is, it’s not just Moslems who have a problem understanding ‘the Trinity’.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and as such, it’s a good time for us to take a closer look at the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity; a doctrine which is central to our Christian faith. According to this doctrine God, who exists eternally, has revealed Himself to human beings in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But what does that really mean for us as Christians, and how should we explain it to those who think we worship three gods?
To help us in our understanding, let’s begin by looking individually at each of the three persons of God.
I God, the Father
There was a time, many years ago, when accepting God as Father was quite natural and understandable for most people. Virtually everyone acknowledged that God had created all things, and that we were created in His image. Therefore, there was no question but that God was our Heavenly Father.
But that’s not the world we live in today. The environment in which we exist is one enormously influenced by science and interpreted by evolutionary theory. We are continually being told that
- all life has evolved; beginning from virtually nothing accept the muck of a primordial stew which existed at the beginning of time, shortly after the ‘Big Bang’; and that
- since then, over eons of time, a mindless force called ‘evolution’ has slowly, but surely produced the enormous diversity of life, which today we see all around us.
- And although there are huge gaps and inconsistencies in this argument, it is generally assumed by the majority of educated people today, that is how we came to be.
The implication of this is that:
(1) there is no God, only blind chance; and
(2) that human beings are merely a superior form of animal: which means that:
a) we have no soul;
b) we’re not made in the image of our Creator, and
c) we are accountable to no one; we can do whatever we want, so long as we can get away with it, because the fundamental rule of life is ‘the survival of the fittest’.
Now there are certain benefits in thinking in this way, the most prominent being that we don’t have to be accountable for our behavior. We can virtually do anything we want, so long as we can get away with it. So there is no right or wrong, save what we choose to call right or wrong.
But such thinking means that it’s perfectly alright:
- to euthanize the disabled,
- to abort unwanted children,
- to attempt to engineer a superior race, and
- to do away with those who do not measure up to our chosen standards.
Hitler was an advocate of evolutionary thinking, and so he had no problem with the killing thousands of Jews and disabled people. They were simply imperfect humans that could be eliminated because they contaminated the population.
However, once you introduced God into the picture; particular an all-powerful God who has created the world and the whole universe; and believe also that this God created the first man and woman as distinct from all other creatures, able to have communication with God, then you totally change the meaning of who we are, and what our responsibility is.
If God created us in His image, and if He gave each of us a mission and purpose for our lives, then we have a responsibility to live in obedience and harmony with God. Such harmony implies a high standard of morality established not, by our best thinking, but rather by God Himself.
II God the Son
Now, let’s turn our attention to the second person of God, Jesus Christ His Son.
As Christians we believe that Jesus was not, merely a very good and wise man who is remembered for His teaching and His kindness. If that’s all Jesus was, it is very likely that at best, it would only be historians who would have remembered Him. After all, He lived long ago, in a back water of the Roman Empire. He had no wealth or political influence. All his followers were common folk, and after just three years of teaching, this man Jesus was put to death, charged with being a blasphemer.. Such a record, if he had been merely a human being, - would have earned Him, at best, a single line in the history books.
But Jesus wasn’t just a good and wise teacher. By His own admission, He was the Son of God. But does that imply that we now have two gods, a Father and a Son. NO!, The New Testament is very clear about this. The Apostle Paul addressed this issue when he said:- “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself”. (II Cor. 5:19)
But then, does that mean Jesus was divine, but not really a human being? If that were the case, then He wouldn’t have been like us; tempted as we are, yet without sin; and He certainly couldn’t have died on the cross, for God can’t be put to death. This was one of the dilemmas faced by the early church, because there were some Christians who tried to persuade others that Jesus was just divine; in other words, He was God, and only God.
But that’s not what is revealed in the Scriptures, for both the Gospels and the Epistles make it very clear that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Is it possible to really understand how this can be, - probably not? This is one of the great mysteries of our faith, but that it’s true, was made clear by Jesus Himself.
I’m sure many of you watched the recent television documentary on the Bible that was aired during Lent. If you watched the final episode that portrayed Jesus’ arrest, torture and crucifixion, you should have no difficulty believing that Jesus was fully human. The suffering He endured was real; and so was His death.
None of those who witnessed the crucifixion, including the religious officials and the Roman leadership, ever honestly questioned that He died that day. That’s not what troubled them, it was the empty tomb, three days later that astounded everyone, including the disciples. No one expected this, in spite of the fact that Jesus had told His disciples that this would happen.
So whether, with our limited human brains, we are able to understand it or not, the truth is, Jesus was both human and divine; and this is the central mystery of our faith.
III God the Holy Spirit
But perhaps, it’s the third person of God which presents the greatest difficulty for most Christians today. We may acknowledge that the first Christians were touched by something very powerful on the Day of Pentecost which transformed them, because the evidence is clearly there. At one moment, they were a frightened, disorganized, and disillusioned band of people cowering behind locked doors in fear of their lives. In the next instance, they were bold, fearless crusaders willing to stand up against all opposition, even at the risk of their lives.
Nothing short of the power of God’s Holy Spirit could explain this. And furthermore, that same Spirit seems to have touched the lives of many of the other early Christians, inspiring them to carry the Gospel to the four corners of the world.
But that was in the past! What about now!
Seeing the working of the Holy Spirit is much harder today. Gone are the tongues of fire that went from one believer to another. Gone too, for many of us, is the boldness and fearlessness of those early Christians. So where is the Holy Spirit today?
The problem is that we live in a cocoon, when it comes to our faith. Any opposition to our faith which we experience here in Canada, isn’t violent. We don’t worry about the kind physical violence experienced by the early Christians. The challenges to our faith we face are subtle. It comes in the form of little jabs here and there, which almost unconsciously slowly chip away at our faith.
We’re somewhat like the rat that falls into a tub of water which is sitting over an open flame. At first the water is quite comfortable, and the rat is content to soak up the warmth, but then gradually, very gradually, the temperature rises, and by the time the rat is aware that he’s in trouble, he’s being cooked alive in a pot of boiling water.
The end result for us as Christians today, is that almost imperceptible our faith is being whittled away by the secular forces of society, forces which encourage us to question and doubt the things we have been taught in church, that the damage is done.
If you want to see the working of the Holy Spirit today, you need to look at those places where Christian are targets of violence.
I have on my office bookshelf a book entitled “Extreme Devotion”. It’s filled with true stories of individual Christians in countries such as Romania, and Egypt, and Pakistan who have faced real and immediate dangers, but who, in the face of such persecution, have stood firm in their faith.
A few months ago, I shared with the young people in our Teen confirmation class, the story of one brave, young girl named Rachel, who knew what it was to be strengthened by the Spirit of God. She had recently become a committed Christian and pledged to give her life in service to Jesus. In her diary she had written:
‘I’ve lost all my friends at school. Now that I’ve begun to walk my talk, they make fun of me. But I’m not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus.”
A few weeks after writing these words, a gunman (who was a fellow student in her school) entered her classroom and began shooting indiscriminately at her classmates. He approached Rachel and asked: “Do you still believe in God?” She looked him in the eye and replied: “Yes, I still believe!”
He asked her, “why?”, but before she’d had time to answer, he killed her.
Rachel Scott, (a student at Columbine High School), passed her test on that terrible day. She knew God and had experienced the power of His Holy Spirit, and because of it, her story of courage in the face of danger, has touched and inspired the lives of countless young people around the world.
There is absolutely no question but that the Holy Spirit is still available; still empowering Christians to stand up for what they believe. And if you want to be touched by this Spirit, you need simply to open your heart and mind to God, and His power will be given to you. But my friends, you need to be careful of what you ask, because if the Holy Spirit enters your life, it may very likely lead you into difficult, risky places; because God does not promise us freedom from danger, only salvation of our souls.
So there you have it, the mystery of the Trinity; God made known to us as a union of three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; all one and the same God existing simultaneously and eternally. The Good News which we proclaim, as Christians, is that God is not the remote, or unapproachable, as some faiths would suggest, but rather, He is one:
- who relates to us as a Creator Father.:
- who has formed us from the dust of the earth;
- who continues to care personally for each one of us;
- who sent His Son to live among us and to die for us, and
- who has provides all the guidance and resources we need, through the power of His Holy Spirit, to enable us to fulfill ourselves as His servants, and to spread the Good News of the risen Christ to the whole world
And for anyone who is willing to respond, God has provided a quality of life, which Jesus called eternal, and promising one day that we will live with HIm in His eternal Kingdom.
Is this mystery of the Trinity hard to understand? You bet it is! From a human point of view, it makes no sense. it defies all that we, as mere humans, can know or see with the limits of our human brains. But I suggest to you, that belief in our Triune God is infinitely easier and more acceptable, than the other alternative which claims that this great and amazing universe, all the marvels of diversity and complexity we see around us, merely happened through mindless evolution, without the power and presence of God. That explanation, my friends, makes no sense whatsoever.