Matthew 3:16-17 “Our Triune God”
Some years ago, my sister served as an English teacher in a Chinese college with our SBC Journeyman program. She could not initiate any “evangelism” per se, but she was allowed to respond to any question the Chinese students might ask her. One day, not long after they had started classes, Erin finished the English lesson for the day, and asked if anyone had any questions about the lesson. One of the students at the back shot up her hand and out of the blue asked: “Can you tell us about America and its three gods?” Well, it was a great witnessing opportunity, right off the top, that the Lord gave her in that class. But it also highlights what is often a misunderstanding about Christianity, that somehow we serve “3 gods”: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They are NOT “three gods”, but ONE – in what theologians call the “Trinity”. “Trinity” is a word that comes from “Tri”, meaning “three”, and “unity”, of course meaning oneness. When we say that God is a “Triune” God, we are saying that He is “three in one”: three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, in one essence, one nature, one being – one God.
This morning we are looking at the very first attribute of God in our study “Our Great God” – what the Bible teaches us about the God we serve. Last week we saw that there is nothing more important than knowing God; not just being “religious”, but really knowing Him. And today we are going to look at what the Bible teaches about Him as a Triune God. We are taking this first, because it is so often misunderstood, and yet it is one of the most important things we can know about God. The Tri-Unity of God is one of the key doctrines of Christianity, which sets us apart from every other religion in the world! So let’s pray and ask God to give us understanding, through His Holy Spirit, and then let’s look at what the Bible teaches us about “Our Triune God.”
I. The Doctrine of the Trinity
I will say right off the top that there are those who criticize the doctrine of the Trinity as being a product of speculation, or of Greek philosophy, instead of being a teaching of scripture. Often they say something like, “The word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t ever appear in scripture!” It is true that the WORD “Trinity” never appears in scripture, but the DOCTRINE of the Trinity does! We see it in our passage for today, Matthew 3:16-17:
“After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’”
This passage in Matthew 3 on the occasion of the baptism of Jesus is one of the most significant in the New Testament regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, because in it, we see ALL THREE of the Persons of the Godhead together in one place, at one time. This counters the teaching of what theologians call “modalism”, that God existed as Father, Son and Spirit at different times and places; for example, that He might have been God the Father in the Old Testament, God the Son in the Gospels, and God the Spirit in Acts and in the church age. In other words, the “modalists” would affirm that He was one God, but He just took different forms at different times. But that idea is devastated by this passage. Here we see all three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, together in one place, at one time. All 3 are God and yet each is a very specific Person within the oneness of the Godhead. That is the essence of the Doctrine of the Trinity: there is ONE God, who exists eternally as 3 Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We see this taught throughout scripture:
A. The Bible makes it very clear that there is ONE God:
Monotheism is at the very core of Biblical teaching. The “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4 was to be taught to every Hebrew child: “Shema O Israel” – “Hear, O Israel, YHWH your God, YHWH is ONE.” This oneness of the nature of God is taught throughout both the Old and New Testaments. When James says “You believe that God is One, you do well”, he was quoting the most basic Judeo-Christian teaching about the nature of God: there is ONE God!
B. But that ONE God exists eternally as 3 Persons:
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are each referred to as God.
— God the Father is God: Jesus commanded us as His disciples to address God as Father: “Our Father who art in heaven.” God the Father is God, the One to whom we pray.
— But God the Son is also God. Then there are numerous references in scripture to the Deity of Jesus. John 1:1, speaking of Jesus, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word WAS GOD”! It is one of the clearest passages about the Deity of Jesus – and as we have seen in our church numerous times in recent days, there are many, many more!
— The Holy Spirit is also God: He is called “The Spirit of God”; “The Spirit of the Lord”; He is called the “Holy” Spirit, and He does things that only God can do. All of these proofs demonstrate that He, too, is God.
In fact, Thomas Oden, in his Systematic Theology, (“The Living God”, p. 195) outlines how some of the earliest church theologians used 4 proofs in the New Testament to demonstrate that each Person of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) was Divine:
1) they are each addressed by Divine Names (“God the Father”; “Lord Jesus Christ”; “Spirit of God”, etc.)
2) each of the 3 is described with Divine attributes (holiness, omniscience, miraculous power, etc.)
3) each engages in Divine actions: giving power, forgiving sin, etc.
4) each is considered as worthy of Divine worship in the New Testament.
We do not have time to look up every scripture on each of these 4 points this morning – but don’t take my word for it; search the scriptures yourself! You will see that each of them is called by names for God; each is described with attributes that only God has; each does things that only God can do; and each is worshipped as God. So The New Testament makes it clear: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each “God”.
C. Each of the Three is a Person.
The New Testament refers to each as an individual Person within the Godhead; they relate to each other as Persons. For example, in that John 1:1 passage we mentioned a moment ago, it says that the Word was “with God.” That word “with” in Greek, (“pros”) means “together with”; “face to face with” – like two people looking at each other. Jesus and the Father were “face to face” with each other from all eternity, as two Persons within the Godhead. Then later in John 14:16, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper …”. Here are three Persons interacting with each other, at the same time, just like in the baptism of Jesus in the Matthew 3 passage: Jesus asking the Father to send the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a separate Person who is coming, Who will convict and empower, Whom the Father and Jesus send.
So contrary to the Chinese student’s question to my sister years ago, Christians do NOT worship “3 gods.” We strongly affirm with the Bible that there is ONE God, who exists eternally as 3 Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is a central teaching; a core conviction of Christianity. In fact, it is one of the things that separates us from all of the other religions of the world. To not believe the doctrine of the Trinity is to place ones’ self outside of the realm of historic Christianity. It is at the heart of what we believe – so much so that Jesus commanded us to baptize His disciples “in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Triune nature of God is so important that God commanded us to teach it in the words we share every time we baptize a person as a believer!
Part of our responsibility is to understand the importance of this teaching, and not to minimize it. We need to remember, in what is too often our haste to minimize the differences between us and others, that not everyone who talks about God means the same thing as we do, when we talk about God. People may use the word “God”, but mean someone or something entirely different than we do.
— When they say “God”, people may be referring to some other god, like “Allah”. But Allah is a “god” who judges people based on their works, and who gave the Koran to Muhammad. That is not who we are talking about when we talk about God.
— When a person says “God”, they may mean the God of the Book of Mormon. But the so-called “god” the Book of Mormon describes was once a man, who became exalted to the rank of “god”, and got his own planet – and now you and I can follow in his steps and do the same thing. That is not the God we are talking about. The Bible says that YHWH is God “From everlasting to everlasting”! There was never a time when He was not God! When they say “God”, they don’t mean what we mean when we say “God.”
— And when we say “God”, we do not mean some “generic” god, who “everybody can agree on”, who doesn’t have any specific qualities or attributes. When we say “God”, we mean Someone very specific. When we say “God”, we mean the author this Book! When we say “God”, we mean the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we say “God”, we mean the Triune God!
Gregory Nazianzen, a leading pastor/theologian who lived about 300 years after Christ, famously said: “When I say God, I mean ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’” We need to imprint that statement upon our minds. We need to teach it to our children in our homes and to every member of our Sunday School classes. Write this down, repeat it, memorize it, and use it: “When I say God, I mean ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’”
This has a lot of meaning for our daily relationships and conversations:
— It means that just because a football player says during an interview after a game that “god helped him”, you can’t assume that he is a Christian. Just because he says the word “god”; it doesn’t necessarily mean that He is talking about the God of the Bible.
— Just because a political candidate says something about God and family values, or closes his speech by saying “God BlessAmerica”, it doesn’t mean that he personally knows the Triune God of the Bible! There is a big difference!
— It means when you are talking to a person in the grocery store, or at work, and they say something about “god”, don’t put your guard down and think, “Oh, good, they are a Christian.” Maybe they are – or maybe they are not. Don’t take that for granted. Just because they say something about “god” does not mean that they know the God of the Bible. A lot of people talk about “god” in a generic way; very few really people really know the Triune God of the Bible. When we say “God” – and most importantly, when the BIBLE says “God”; it means “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – the Triune God.
II. Applications of the Doctrine of the Trinity:
This is NOT just an obscure “philosophical distinction.” The Triune Nature of God means some very important things for us:
1. The Triune nature of God is vital for your salvation.
I Peter 1:2 says that we are (chosen) “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ, and be sprinkled with His blood.” Each Person of the Trinity worked together to bring you your Salvation. God the Father foreknew you from eternity past: He created you to know Him, but He also foreknew that you would rebel against Him and sin. And so “before the foundation the world” He made a great redemption plan: to send God the Son, who would die on the cross and shed His blood as a payment for your sin, so that God the Holy Spirit could convict you of your sin, and draw you to Jesus, so that when you would turn from your sins, and trust Jesus and your Savior, you would be saved. But each Person of the Trinity was at work in your salvation: God the Father foreknew you; God the Son shed His blood for you; and God the Holy Spirit convicted you, and drew you to Himself, and became the seal in your heart of your salvation.
And salvation for us is only possible because of the Triune nature of God. If God were monolithic, one Person only, as the Muslims describe Allah, there could be no such salvation. There would be no God the Son to send; there would be no God the Holy Spirit to convict and come into our hearts. If it were not for the Triune nature of God, there would be no Savior, no salvation, and we would be left on our own to deal with a holy and just God, and we would be LOST for eternity. Salvation by grace through faith depends on the Triune nature of God.
2. The Triune Nature of God is also important to understand your daily relationship with God.
Ephesians 2:18 says: “through Him (speaking of Jesus) we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” Again, the word “Trinity” is not used in this verse, but you can plainly see the doctrine of the Trinity here. And it tells us some important things about our relationship with God because He is Triune, how we relate to each Person:
First of all, it tells us that it is the Father to whom we come. It says we come “TO the Father.” God the Father is goal. He is the One we were made to know. Jesus said in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” So it is God the Father to whom we come. We will be thrilled and fulfilled by His glory for all eternity.
But how do we come to Him? This verse tells us: we come THROUGH Jesus. Jesus, God the Son, is the only way we have access to God the Father. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” Without the sacrifice of the perfect God-Man Jesus on the cross, we have no access to God. We come through Jesus.
And the “channel” through which we relate to God is through the Holy Spirit: we have access to Him “IN the Spirit.” In other words, if you want to “tune in” to God, the “channel” you have to tune into is the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that those who worship the Father must worship Him “in Spirit and in truth.” The New Testament commands us to sing in the Spirit, and pray in the Spirit, and worship in the Spirit. If you do not relate to God through His Holy Spirit, you are not relating to Him at all! You may do observe some “religious” routines; but you cannot really connect with God through any other means and channel other than through His Holy Spirit.
So Ephesians 2:18 shows you how you are to relate to each Person of the Trinity daily. Every day, you are to come in the Spirit, through Jesus, to the Father – you should relate to the Triune God every day! Maybe you haven’t realized it – but you need to! People make many mistakes in the way they relate to God because they do not understand His Triune nature rightly: maybe they make it all about the Holy Spirit instead of God the Father; or they try to come some other way than through Jesus. But the Bible makes it clear: you are to relate TO God the Father, IN the Holy Spirit, THROUGH Jesus Christ.
You might want to write down those prepositions and remember them. They are vital for your relationship with God. You are to come TO the Father; IN the Spirit, THROUGH Jesus Christ.
3. The Triune Nature of God is a pattern for your earthly relationships.
What we see in the way that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit relate to each other and love each other is a wonderful example for us to follow: the way they love each other, submit to each other, work together selflessly with the same mind and purpose.
Jesus prayed in John 17 about the glory that He and the Father shared together before the world was. He said in :24 there that “You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit had a perfect agape love relationship with each other in heaven before the world was ever made. They are the perfect example of love. And they lived that love out in the way that they work together and submit to each other. The Father loves the Son; and the Son submits to the Father, and the Spirit honors the Son, and goes where He is sent by the Father and by the Son. There is no jealousy, no pride; no “why do I have to submit to You?!” – each one loves and relates to each other perfectly – and this is a great example for us.
Do you find it “demeaning” to have to submit to an authority on the job, or in your home? Jesus submits to the will of the Father, but it does not make Him any less than God! It is not “demeaning” to Him; it is His role to do that. Do you get jealous of others when they get the attention or spotlight instead of you? The Holy Spirit doesn’t do that; He glorifies Jesus and the Father, and never says, “Hey, what about Me?” And the way that the Father and the Son and the Spirit work together to carry out God’s will is the perfect model of cooperative ministry: the Father plans, the Son dies, the Spirit convicts – each has His part in the work. We can learn from the Perfect Triune Family how we are to relate to each other, and work with each other as earthly families.
I was thrilled last Sunday night when we ordained 5 new deacons for our deacon ministry. As part of the service that evening, I read a brief testimony from each of the 5 men. One of them shared how he spent a lot of time with a family he was playing basketball with, and he said as he played with them, and ate dinners with them, and saw how they lived and treated each other, it showed him what a real family was, and how people were supposed to treat each other at home.
In the same way, the Triune God models for us how a family is supposed to relate to each other — and how every one of us is to treat other people in our relationships. Maybe some of us didn’t have a good family to model after – but we can follow the perfect example that our Triune God gives us.
— God the Father shows us how to lovingly lead – the perfect model for all of us who are husbands and fathers, or leaders in any area of life.
— God the Son demonstrates perfect submission to the will of the Father – an example to all us who are under authority, whether it is as an employee on the job, or a solider in the military, a wife to her husband, or child to his parent. He shows us that it is not demeaning to submit to authority. Jesus is the “glorious Lord Jesus Christ” – He is not demeaned in any way, or any less than God! But He is eternally submissive to the will of the Father – and a great example to us of that same thing.
— God the Holy Spirit models for us the humility that we are to demonstrate in all of our relationships; how we are not to make everything all about us. The Spirit gladly shines the spotlight on the Father and the Son. There is no jealousy, no pride; no selfishness. We have much to learn from Him!
The Father, Son and Spirit are the perfect example of love. In fact, as we have seen, they have lived in the perfect love relationship for all eternity. God did not create us because He “needed someone to love.” He has enjoyed perfect love in the relationships of His Trinity, for all eternity. He did not create us because He needed someone to love; He created us by His grace, to give us the incredible privilege of entering into that perfect love relationship which He has already known for eternity. The most important question for you is NOT “Do you have all this about the Trinity figured out?” – because none of us have! The most important question for you is: have you entered into that love relationship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit? Do you really know Him? Not just any generic “god”; but the Father who loves you, the Son who died for you, and the Spirit who is this moment working in your heart, drawing you to Himself: “Our Great, Triune God”!