Do you know that no one really knows WHAT electricity is? Look it up; they don’t. They know theories about how it works; they know how to avoid being killed by it; they know how to harness it to use it to do certain things — but totally “understand” it? No one really does. We take it by faith and go on — and flip the light switch on in the next room we come into.
That’s somewhat like our topic for this morning: the Doctrine of the Trinity. No one really “understands” the Triune nature of God; it is unfathomable. And yet like electricity, we can accept it, and use it to grow closer to the Lord in our Christian walk every day.
I. The Trinity Introduced
Last week we saw the importance of baptism for the Christian, and Jesus’ own example of humility and submission to God’s plan, in His own baptism, as an example for us. But something very important happened just after Jesus’ baptism that we need to look at before we leave this chapter. The Bible says in :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 lighting on Him, and behold a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My Beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased.'”
What is significant about this scripture is that right here at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, we find the Triune God introduced: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Son is coming out the water of baptism; God the Holy Spirit is descending from heaven like a dove; and God the Father’s voice is speaking from heaven that this is His Beloved Son. These are the three Persons of the Triune God. The Triune nature of God is one of the most important teachings of Christian doctrine and practice — and yet many Christians do not understand it, or realize its significance for their salvation and their Christian life. Let’s take a few moments to look at what the doctrine of the Trinity IS, and also why it is so important to our faith & practice.
II. The Doctrine of the Trinity
Let’s take a few moments and sketch just briefly, what this doctrine of the Trinity is. Briefly stated, the doctrine of the Trinity is that there is: ONE GOD, WHO EXISTS ETERNALLY AS THREE PERSONS: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
We MUST emphasize, Christianity does NOT believe in “three gods.” One of the most important verses in all of the Bible is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is ONE.” This is one of the cornerstone verses of the Old Testament, and the great confession of faith of God’s people. We are “mono-theists”, that is, we believe in ONE God.
Almost 30 years ago now, my sister Erin went to China on a two-year mission assignment. You can’t just go in there as a “missionary” as such, because they won’t allow it; but you can go as an English teacher, and that is what she did. She served in a university, and taught English. And although she was not allowed to bring up any religious conversations, if the students asked her a question, she was allowed to answer it in any way she wanted, so she prayed for opportunities to share. Well, she didn’t have to wait long. The first week of class, Erin taught the English lesson, and when it was over she asked if there were any question. Right off the bat, one student raise their hand and said: “Can you tell us about America and her three gods?” Well, of course the student was referring to the doctrine of the Trinity. But one of the things that Erin had to try to get them to understand is that Christians do NOT believe in “three gods.” We believe in ONE God. “Yahweh our God is ONE.” ONE GOD is a cardinal doctrine of Christianity.
But this one God somehow exists eternally as Three Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They are One, and yet they are somehow also Three. That is what the word “Trinity” means, “tri-unity”; three in One.
People try to illustrate the Doctrine of the Trinity in various ways, but they all fall short:
— I’ve seen where people have said that the Trinity is like an egg: it has a shell, and a white, and a yolk, but it it still one egg.
— Or it is like an apple: it has a peel (the skin), the meat, and the seeds, yet it is still one apple.
— Or it is like water, that can exist as liquid, ice, or gas.
— Or it is like how the same person can be a father, and a husband, and a brother — different names for the same one person.
But NONE of these illustrations is a perfect example of the Trinity, because they are not “separate”; they are ONE. In fact, some of these ideas give us WRONG pictures of the Trinity, as in the errant doctrine of Modalism.
Modalism teaches that God just reveals Himself in different “modes” at different times, just like water can be liquid, or if you freeze it later it can be ice, or if it evaporates it can be gas. Some teach that God is like that, and just appears in different “modes” in different times: in the Old Testament He was God the Father, in the Gospels He was Jesus, and in Acts He was the Holy Spirit, one at a time.
But the doctrine of Modalism is refuted by the passage we are looking at today, in Matthew 3:16-17. Here following the baptism of Jesus, the Bible tells us that “Jesus came up immediately from the water”, and just then, “the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting upon Him”, and at the same time, “a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” So right here, at the same time, and the same place, we have ALL THREE members of the Trinity present: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And they were relating to each other, and talking to each other. So it is NOT that God just takes on one “mode” at a time as modalism would teach. All three Persons of God exist at the same time.
And it has been that way from eternity. John 1, speaking of Jesus, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was WITH God, and the Word WAS God. HE was in the beginning WITH GOD.” That word “with” means “side by side” with God. So God the Father and God the Son were both there together before creation.
Jesus also prayed in John 17:5, “Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” So Jesus was sharing the glory of God in eternity, before the world ever came to be. They were Father and Son before the world was created.
So the Bible makes it clear: the Son of God did not come into being when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He had always existed in eternity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, whom Hebrews 9:14 tells us is the “eternal Spirit”. He too has existed from eternity.
It is difficult for us to understand — in fact one might say it is IMPOSSIBLE for us to understand. It is beyond our comprehension. But as we are studying in our class on A.W. Tozer’s book, The Knowledge of the Holy, of COURSE we cannot understand God. If we could wrap our finite minds around Him, He couldn’t be God at all! He is way beyond our comprehension and understanding, which is why we have to believe some things about Him by faith.
Perhaps the best illustration I know of that would convey His tri-unity goes back to the illustration of water, but NOT that it can be ice, or liquid, or gas in succession, but that in a scientific experiment a few years back, scientists had a certain chamber in which they had water in ALL THREE states: water, and ice, and gas, all at the same time. That’s still not a perfect illustration; no illustration will suffice because it is beyond us. We need to take it as a matter of faith that and believe it because “the Bible tells me so”, that there is ONE God, who exists eternally as Three Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That is the doctrine of the Trinity.
And this doctrine is significant: it separates Christianity from every other world religion. There are many religions which speak of a “god.” But they don’t mean what we mean when we speak of God:
— The Muslims believe in “one god” but not a Triune God, as we shall see.
— The Hindus believe in “gods” but not one Triune God who exists eternally as three Persons
— The Mormons believe in God, and say they believe in a kind of “trinity”, but it’s not the Trinity the Bible describes, who existed from eternity.
There are a lot of people who think we should just all “get together” because we “all believe in God”,
I liked George W. Bush, who served as our President before Barack Obama. But I didn’t always agree with him. One example is the time he said, in the aftermath of 9-11 that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. One of our church members asked me about that, and I said, well, he is our Commander-in-Chief, but he is NOT our “theologian-in-chief.” He was wrong about that. Muslims pray to a monolithic god, who spoke through the prophet Mohammad. Christians pray to a Triune God, who said that Jesus is the only way to Him. They are NOT the same.
Folks, words matter. What you believe matters — especially what you believe about God. When we Christians say “God”, we don’t mean “Allah”; we don’t mean “Krishna”; we don’t mean a god who has evolved like the Mormons do; we don’t mean some “generic” god. When we say “God”, we mean the one true God of the Bible, who exists eternally as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That is the particular God in whom Christians believe.
Gregory Nazianzen was a Christian theologian who lived in the area we now call Turkey where the Apostle Paul made some of his missionary journeys, about 300 years after the time of Christ. He was also called “Gregory the Theologian”, and he wrote and taught extensively about the nature of God. Nazianzen wrote: “When I say ‘God’, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This needs to be our confession and our understanding today too. When we say “God”, we don’t just mean “any” God; we mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the Triune God.
III. The Significance of the Doctrine of the Trinity
But what I don’t want you to think, is that this Doctrine of the Trinity is some “obscure” doctrine, that only matters to pinhead theologians, and doesn’t make any difference for us today. The Doctrine of the Trinity is a VITAL Christian Doctrine.
A. We see how vital it is by its use in some strategic scriptures.
— Here in Matthew 3 we find at the very outset of Jesus ministry, as He is baptized and begins His work on earth, all three Persons of the Trinity are present. This is a strategic moment, and the Trinity is explicitly taught: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all here, and mentioned prominently in this climactic moment.
— Then again when Jesus concludes His ministry on earth, is raised from the dead, and appears to His disciples at the end of this Book of Matthew, He gives His Great Commission to His disciples, saying here is what I want you to do: “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Right there in the Great Commission which outlines the work that Christians are to do until Jesus returns, we find the Trinity mentioned prominently again: everyone who is baptized into the Christian faith is to be baptized in the Triune name. We saw last week that baptism is the “wedding ceremony” in which a Christian confesses Jesus Christ publicly as Lord & Savior. We saw that it is THE first command that every Christian is to obey. And in that vital moment, every Christian is baptized in the Triune name, of: “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
This is no insignificant doctrine; it is found in some of the most important places in Christian scripture.
B. And it is significant for our Salvation. Our salvation is only possible because we have a Triune God.
I Peter 1:2 says that we are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood.” Here we see that each Person of the Triune God is involved in our salvation: God the Father foreknows us, God the Son sprinkles us with His blood and the Holy Spirit does the work of sanctification in us. Each of the Triune Persons of God has a part in our salvation — and in fact, it is not too much to say that salvation is only possible because we have a Triune God.
Many Muslims have criticized Christianity because we say that God died for us on the cross. “God cannot die”, they say, or the universe would pass away. They say that Jesus only appeared to die, or that God substituted Judas or one of the other disciples for Jesus on the cross at the last minute, that Jesus could not die. And if God were a monolith, only one Person, as the Muslims assert, that would be true. But God is not monolithic. He exists eternally as three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So God the Father can remain eternal, immortal, invisible, holding all together — but at the same time, God the Son can become incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, and indeed DIE on the cross for our sins in His human nature, and then God the Holy Spirit can came into our very lives, and give us the power to change, and to live for Him.
But all of that is possible only because we have a Triune God. Listen:
— if all you want is a God who sits on the throne of the universe, like the Muslims teach, predetermining everything and sending down commands to us that we have no ability to keep, then the monolithic god of Islam is all you need.
— If you have lived such a perfect life that you didn’t need don’t Someone to die in your place to pay for your sins sins, then you don’t need a Triune God.
— If you have enough strength in and of yourself to accomplish everything you need to do, and to endure everything you need endure in this life, then you don’t need the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. You don’t need a Triune God; a monolithic god like Islam teaches is sufficient for you.
But if you’re like me:
— You’re glad that there is a God the Father who saw us in our sin before the world began, and who loved us anyway, and formulated a great redemption plan to save us.
— You’re grateful that there is a God the Son who although He was equal with God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be held onto, but emptied Himself, and came to earth, and bore our sins in His body on the cross and died in our place.
— You’re thankful that God has not left us on our own, to do the best that we can do in this life, but that He has sent God the Holy Spirit into our hearts, to call out “Abba Father” and give us the assurance that we are really His, and to produce by HIS power the fruit of His Spirit in our lives, and to give us the gifts and ability to serve Him. GOD IS IN US through His Holy Spirit! The doctrine of the Trinity is vital for our salvation, for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit all have a part in it.
C. And the Trinity is vital in our daily walk with God as well.
Ephesians 2:18 is one of the great verses on the ministry of the Triune God in the Christian life. Speaking in context of Jesus, it says: “For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” This is a great verse that teaches the role of each person of the Trinity in our fellowship with God:
— It says we are coming “TO the Father.” God the Father is our goal; almighty, glorious; transcendent God. It is He whom we were created to know, and in His presence Psalm 16 saays we will have pleasure and fullness of joy, both now and forever.
— But we come “to” God the Father “THROUGH Him” — through Jesus the Son. It is only through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross that we sinful human beings can ever come into the presence of God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” We come to God THROUGH Jesus; first of all as we are saved, and then every day as we pray our prayers in His name.
— And we come TO God the Father, THROUGH Jesus, “IN the Spirit” — the channel through which we come to the Father is in the Holy Spirit. We can’t “see” God with our physical eyes, or “reason” our way to Him with our worldly minds; we must come “in the Spirit” who intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
So Ephesians 2:18 teaches us that each Person of the Triune God has a part in our daily walk with God: we come TO the Father, THROUGH the Son, IN the Spirit, every day as we pray.
So the Trinity is not some “minor doctrine.” In salvation, we are loved by the Father, saved by the Son, filled with the Spirit. In our daily walk we come TO the Father, THROUGH the Son, IN the Spirit. The Trinity is a vital part of both our initial salvation, and our daily Christian walk.
It time for some of us to mature as Christians, and to learn to walk in the richness of our Trinitarian faith.
— some of us are almost like Old Testament Christians; we enjoy focusing on God the Father, but almost ignore Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit
— some are just all about Jesus, but Jesus always personally addressed the Father — and He taught us to do so — and He pointed us to His coming Spirit.
— some are all about the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit would be the first to tell you: don’t focus on ME; Jesus said the Spirit will glorify ME! (One said if your church logo is the Holy Spirit you have missed it …)
— but then some of us old Baptists almost act like those unconverted people in Acts, who haven’t heard whether there IS a Holy Spirit — we’re so afraid of being “Pentecostal” that we ignore the power of the Holy Spirit Whom we so desperately need in our lives and in our church!
We need to be full, Trinitarian Christians: we need to love our God in all His Triune richness. Do we understand it all? NO! We couldn’t possibly. But we will spend all eternity unpacking the riches of His glory, and getting to know our Triune God in all his fullness.
Last December, you may remember, Christmas was on Sunday morning. We had a dilemma as a family, because we had so many kids and grandkids here, the presents were just overflowing under the tree. We were supposed to meet for worship at church at 10:00, but there were SO many presents under the tree, that for a while I was afraid we weren’t going to get them all opened before we needed to go! There were just so many! Some of you may have been in the same situation.
Well in an infinitely greater way, that is what it is going to be like in heaven. We will be gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb, and in His presence we will just begin to “unpack” the Gifts of Who He is, and the pleasures and joys that He has for us — only it will never, ever end! For all eternity, we will be unpacking and unpacking and unpacking the riches and glory of God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit — our Triune God.
The question is NOT “do you understand all this?”, because none of us can. The question is: are you going to be there, learning more and more of Him forever, because by FAITH you have put your trust in the Father who loves you, the Jesus who died for you, the Holy Spirit who comes into your life: are you saved by, and are you walking every day, with this Triune God: “Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.”
INVITATION: If you’ve never done it, why don’t you call on the Triune God to save you today? Pray something like this: “Father: thank you for loving me … Lord Jesus, thank You for dying on the cross for me … Holy Spirit of God, come into my life and make me new, and give me the power to follow Jesus as my Lord & Savior from this day forward.”