Text: Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 1:1-11 Theme: We worship three divine persons who are one in love and purpose, word + work.
One evening Ruth and I visited a mother who was single and overworked. At one point I sensed she might appreciate some one-to-one time with Ruth. So I offered to put her seven year-old son to bed and say his prayers with him.
Little did I expect the string of questions Joshua would ask! If God sends angels to watch over me, how come I never see one peeking in my window? Then: If God is everywhere, will I bump him when I comb through my hair? So I tried my best to explain that angels and God who are beyond our sight or touch.
But he wasn't done with me yet!! If Jesus prays to God, and Jesus is God, does that mean he is talking to himself? I was dealing with quite the little theologian! With one question, Joshua got at the heart of the puzzling doctrine of the Trinity. We claim to believe there is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What does this mean exactly? Is God a single divine being so versatile that he can play three different roles at once? I recall a kid’s sermon comparing God to H2O: changing from water to ice or steam.
In the third century a theologian named Sabellius held this view of God. He thought God was one person who takes on different forms: Father, Son and Spirit. The classic term for this is modalism: one person taking on different modes of being.
However, after biblical reflection, the church rejected this idea. Modalism was deemed a heresy- as a denial of three distinct, divine persons. So, you better be careful how you explain the Trinity, even in a children’s message!
I’ve also heard the Trinity compared to an apple. One apple with skin, meat and core. All three contain the essence of apple: the apple nature. That’s helpful: as all three divine persons share the same divine essence or nature. But the analogy has a major flaw: an apple isn’t a person; it definitely isn’t three persons.
God in three persons. Mostly what I've heard from preachers + teachers is: it’s a mystery. You can’t understand it. You just have to accept it. But that doesn't help me answer little Joshua. If Jesus prays to God, and Jesus is God, does that mean he is talking to himself? Perhaps preachers have been vague, because the church's teaching has often been vague. Take the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 25 gets right to the heart of the things: Since there is but one God, why do you speak of three? Answer: Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word.
Well yes; but that doesn't help much! We know the Bible reveals God in three persons. But we want to make sense of it. How do we think about God? How do we speak to him? Many thoughtful people have listened to fuzzy responses and concluded it’s nonsense. Either God is one or he is three. You can't have it both ways.
Most of you have heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They broke away from the church precisely over the doctrine of the Trinity. The claim that God is one and three at the same time didn’t make sense to them. They concluded that there is only one divine person: Jehovah.
So where does that leave Jesus? They solved that by claiming Jesus is not divine. Rather he is a unique, high capacity creature with the power to save us from our sins. And the Holy Spirit? Merely a power, a force that flows from God- not a person. In other words, they have rejected the historic Christian teaching of the Trinity.
One true God; three distinct persons. Six simple words. Yet full of nuance and riches.
So, let's try to sort this out. The doctrine of the Trinity is actually rooted in Jesus’ life. Before Christ, believers thought that the one true God meant one divine person.
But gradually the followers of Jesus came to see that he is not just another prophet. The disciples were astonished by Jesus' miracles, by the authority of his teaching, by his forgiveness of sins, by the impact of his life and death and resurrection. They feel led to worship him. And whom do you worship? God alone. So, now we have two divine persons: the Father who sent his Son.
To make things even more mind-boggling, Jesus didn't stop with himself + the Father. He also speaks of the Holy Spirit- the Comforter- whom he will send. Then at Pentecost this Spirit arrives. And Peter preaches about the Spirit + Jesus + God. Matthew then recalls some of Jesus’ final words to them: Go + make disciples, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son + Holy Spirit.
So now there are not just two, but three divine persons to reckon with. This was clearly a whole new way of thinking about God. Eventually it led to the church's historic confession: God in three persons. So, what is the answer to Joshua's question? Well, it wasn't that Jesus was doing something strange, like talking to himself. No, Jesus was talking to God the Father, who is another divine person. The truth is: the three persons of the Trinity talk to each other.
The opening of Mark's gospel gives us a glimpse of that. Verse 2: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. Well, who is talking to whom? It turns out to be God the Father talking to Jesus- somewhere back in eternity- about sending John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus. From all eternity the three talk; enjoy perfect fellowship; and make plans together.
A bit later in Mark 1 we find all three in action together- vs 10: when Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove and he heard the Father's voice say: You are my Son, whom I love. Three divine persons- who each think and feel and speak and choose and act.
Perhaps by now you are thinking: Wait a minute! That sounds a lot like three gods! What about Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one. What about the other half of the church's confession- that there is one true God?
You know what? I’ve noticed that when pushed about the Trinity, in our minds the one usually trumps the three. We don’t really think there are actually three distinct persons. You see that in Joshua’s question. Why did he wonder if Jesus was talking to himself? He wasn’t thinking of three persons who each think and feel and talk to each other.
I believe there is a key to better understand the Trinity. The key is the word one. Before Deuteronomy 6 refers to God as one, Genesis 2 refers to a man + wife as one. A man will…be united to his wife, and they will become one- one flesh. Do a husband and wife merge into one person with four eyes, four arms and four legs? Of course not. To become one in marriage means unity: physical and relational unity.
So too, in saying that God is one, it seems Deuteronomy 6 is proclaiming God's unity. Remember, Deuteronomy is set against the background of pagan beliefs: of many different gods who did their own thing and often worked at cross purposes. Think of the mythical Greek deities who often competed and quarreled and clashed.
In contrast, the Father, Son and Spirit are one: unified in all they think and say and do.
Jesus himself reinforces this interpretation. In John 10 he says: I + the Father are one. Well, one what? One person? No. Jesus clearly relates to his Father as another person. When Jesus says I and the Father are one he is referring to their intimate unity. They have one word. Jesus spoke the words of the Father. They have one will. Jesus freely obeys the will of the Father. They have one work. Jesus does nothing but what the Father sent him to do. And they are one in having the same divine nature: eternal, almighty, loving and just.
Jesus reinforces this understanding of oneness in his prayer for his disciples in John 17. Father, protect them… so that they may be one as we are one. That they may be one. Well, how are Christians one? Are we absorbed into one communal blob? Definitely not. But we are one church, one body, one spiritual building, one in unity. The church- one body, many members- reflects the Trinity: one God, three persons.
So there you have it. The Bible’s teaching is no vague mystery- or sheer nonsense. God’s Word reveals there are three divine persons- living in perfect unity or oneness.
In closing, let me highlight three practical implications of this teaching. First, we can relate to each of the three divine persons individually. I think because the Father, Son and Spirit all have the same divine nature and work, it’s easy to confuse them. Sort of like we might get identical triplets confused.
But they are distinct. For example, God the Father had the primary hand in creation. God the Father is head over Christ. God the Father sent Jesus into the world. Jesus is the only one who became human + died for us- not the Father or the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who was poured out at Pentecost and causes our spiritual birth. Get to know the distinct work of each divine person. Pray to them with that awareness.
Second: the perfect fellowship between the Father, Son and Spirit is a model for us. In God we have a model not of isolation and self-centeredness, but of community. To be designed in God's image is to find purpose + fulfillment in Christian community. This is why participation and commitment to a specific church is so important.
Third, the most powerful witness to the world is not some great evangelism program. The most effective witness is God’s people reflecting the loving unity of the Trinity. Diverse people living and serving together with one love, one spirit, one purpose. Faith Church- in its lovely diversity and loving unity- can embody that beautifully. That kind of loving community will have great appeal to a watching world.
That night when I tucked Joshua into bed, I didn’t have the time to explain all this. But I do think he understood Jesus' prayer to the Father was not babbling to himself. I hope you will know the Father, Son + Spirit more clearly, relate to each more personally,