What Is This Trinity?
By Pastor Daniel W. Brettell
As many of you already know, I’m Scots-Irish in my ancestry. Because of my Gaelic heritage, I have a fondness for the way the Scots and the Irish managed to put their own brand on the first thousand years of Christianity. I have a special fondness for, and interest in St. Patrick—a man who may not have actually been Irish, but who is most certainly associated with Ireland. Now, while I enjoy St. Patrick’s Day as much as anyone, my interest in this particular Christian Bishop goes far beyond that day in March that bears his name.
Patrick was born sometime around 373 AD and died in 465 AD—that’s a good long life for that time period. Considering that his birth came only about 50 years after the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, Patrick was an important figure in the early spread of Christianity throughout the empire.
There are many legends surrounding Patrick, so we need to dig deep to separate fact from legend. One aspect of Patrick’s ministry is without question his devotion to, and his understanding of, the Trinity. In his personal confession, Patrick writes:
“For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning . . . and his son Jesus Christ, who always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time . . . And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons [and daughters] of one God in the Trinity of holy name.”
Now, let me tell you something right now. When Patrick wrote these words, way back there in the 4th century—nearly 1700 years ago—the concept of the Trinity as a stated doctrine within Christianity was still a subject of much debate with regard to explanation—something that has not changed very much in 1700 years. Think about it. We profess faith in “The Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit.” Last week our six Confirmands expressed that very faith publicly. Last week I preached on the Trinity and how we relate to the Triune God. But I wonder, if confronted by someone outside these walls; by someone who denied the Trinity; by someone who challenged our belief in the Trinity; how might we respond to them? How might we defend and truly profess our belief.
The story is told of how Patrick used that archetype of Irish plants—the shamrock—to explain the Trinity. When challenged to explain how God could be three in one, Patrick reached down and plucked a shamrock. Holding it up, he asked, “Is it one leaf or three?” The reply was, “It is both one leaf and three.” To which Patrick responded, “And so it is with God.”
Yet, while Patrick’s illustration is wonderful, it does not explain where we get the Biblical foundation for the concept of the Trinity. There are those who continue to say that it is a false teaching; that there is no Biblical foundation for the Trinity.
Let me ask all of you something. How many of you have ever found yourself—on a Saturday morning—hearing a knock on the door or the ring of your doorbell, and upon approaching the door, have noticed through an adjacent window that your porch was populated by two or three or four very neatly dressed individuals—men usually in shirts and ties; women in dresses or skirts and blouses—all of them carrying biblical texts and bearing briefcases or other portfolios stuffed with religious tracts? Now, who are these people? Do we really need to ask? If there were only two they might be Mormons. But they might also be . . . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What . . . do you . . . do? Well, if you’re like most people I know, you don’t answer the door—and you try to be very, very quiet so they don’t know you’re home. I remember once when our kids were a whole lot younger, Patti realized who was at the door and quietly said she wasn’t answering the door. She told the kids to be quiet—to which my older son, who was about eight or nine at the time basically shouted, “WHAT? WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE QUIET? WHY AREN’T WE ANSWERING THE DOOR? WHO’S AT THE DOOR?” Now mind you, his shouted questions took place right in front of an open window.
Why don’t we open the door? Is it because we’re afraid they might challenge us to defend our faith? Is it because they might ask a question we might not be able to answer? What if they ask . . . about the Trinity—something they hold to be Biblically incorrect; a false teaching? What if they challenged you to show them where in the Bible the Trinity is mentioned?
There are two problems here my brothers and sisters. First, is our fear to defend our faith. And second is actually the cause of our fear. Many times we’re afraid because we aren’t sure what the Bible says and if we are fairly sure, then we don’t know where to find a passage. And that’s our failing. Because I can guarantee you that those people at your door? They know their Bible. But I can also guarantee you that their Bible is not the same as the Bible . . . our Bible—it is a much different translation in some very important places.
But brothers and sisters, we shouldn’t fear; what we should do is learn the Bible. You see the Bible does teach the Trinity. I talked about this last week, and today, Trinity Sunday, I want to talk about it some more. What is our Biblical foundation for understanding the Trinity? It’s all there for the understanding. And it’s not just in the New Testament; we find the Trinity throughout the whole Bible.
Consider the very first book of the Bible—Genesis 1:26
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'”
It doesn’t say “I will make man after our likeness.” God says, “Let us make man after our likeness.” This wording is not any imperial plural. God—singular—is described as being plural in one.
Then there’s Genesis 3:22:
God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”
Again, the singular “God” is described as the plural “Us.”
And in Isaiah 48:16:
“Come near to me and hear this:
‘From the beginning I have not spoken in secret;
from the time that it was, there am I.’
Now the Lord Yahweh has sent me, with his Spirit.”
Also, we find references to the Father, Son, and the Spirit equally referred to as God—in both the Old and the New Testaments.
In Isaiah, again, we read of Father and Son as God. Listen to Isaiah 63:16:
“For you are our Father, though Abraham doesn’t know us,
and Israel does not acknowledge us:
you, Yahweh, are our Father;
our Redeemer from everlasting is your name”
Now, pay attention to those words, because they talk about God as Father AND as Redeemer. “Redeemer” can only refer to Jesus Christ. And notice the statement that Israel does not acknowledge us—Judaism does accept the Trinity.
Earlier in Isaiah 9:6 we’re told:
“For to us a child is born.
To us a son is given;
and the government will be on his shoulders.
His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
We hear those words every Christmas; that prophecy from Isaiah is a direct and clear reference to God the Son—Jesus Christ. And tied together with what we read and believe from John 3:16, how can there be any doubt that God the Father and God the Son are one?
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.”
But what about God the Holy Spirit? Again, just as I did last week, I direct you back to Genesis 1:1 and Acts 2:1:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty.
Darkness was on the surface of the deep.
God’s Spirit (or a wind from God)
was hovering over the surface of the waters”
“Now when the day of Pentecost had come,
they were all with one accord in one place.
Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind,
and it filled all the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1-2).
And I believe this; I believe it with all my heart. Jesus promised the Apostles and all their descendents—meaning us, now, in this time, and all future Christians—Jesus promised that God’s Holy Spirit would come to sustain them and us. In John’s Gospel, the 14th Chapter, the 26th verse, Jesus says:
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
he will teach you all things,
and will remind you of all that I said to you.”
Okay, now bear with me, because this is really important, and I have to take you back to the Greek for it. When Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send,” what we read in the Greek is ho de parakletos, to pneuma to angion ho pemsei ho pater.
The key word in the Greek that I want you to hear is the word pneuma, which means “spirit” . . . but it also means “breath.” Jesus is telling the apostles and us that this counselor [in Greek the parakletos or Paraclete] is the pneuma, the spirit or breath of God.
So, how does this tie the Trinity together? Okay now this is really important. Listen to the words of Jesus as he dies on the cross.
In Matthew 27:50, it says: “Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit.”
In Mark 15:37, it says: “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the spirit.”
In Luke 23:46, it says: “Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!'”
And in John 19:30, it says: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished.’ He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.”
What do all these verses have in common? In one way or another they all say that Jesus gave up his spirit. In the Greek, we read spirit as pneuma or some variation of that word. Jesus gave up his breath or his spirit. The fully human Jesus died and gave up the fully divine Spirit or Breath of God; he released the Holy Spirit—the breath of God—into the world when he died on the cross. Fifty days later, on Pentecost, that Spirit of God—that breath of God—descended upon the Apostles and because God as Son released that Spirit into the world when Jesus died on the cross—saving us for all eternity—because of that act, the Holy Spirit—the Breath of God—descends upon us at our Baptism.
As I said last week; God the Father created us, God the Son redeemed us, and God the Holy Spirit sustains us. Allelujah! Praise be to the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray.
May the peace of Christ which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the joy of our resurrected Lord and Savior who died to redeem our sin, and in the Holy Spirit who enters our lives to sustain our faith. Amen
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010 Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.