HOW CAN GOD BE THREE, YET ONE?
Does the Bible actually teach that God is a Trinity?
A cornerstone of Christianity through the centuries, has been the idea that God is a Trinity. Yet the word Trinity doesn't even appear in the Bible. So where does the belief come from? The purpose of this piece is to look at what God says about Himself in the Bible, and discover the truth He reveals to us there.
THE STRUCTURE OF OUR DISCUSSION
Our discussion will first go through what the Bible reveals to us about God. Then we will ask what it says about the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. That foundation prepares us to walk through the relationship between the three, before we draw our conclusion of what the evidence reveals. Here are the phases of our discussion:
The word “Trinity” does not actually appear in the Bible, we only use it because so many people are familiar with the term. Instead of trinity however, the Bible prefers to use the word “Godhead” as a way to refer to the complete divine nature of God. Here is the Biblical definition:
Godhead (Strong's reference number G2305)
So when the Bible speaks of the Godhead, it means everything that can rightly be called “God.” Here are examples of it used in the text:
“For since the creation of the world His [God's] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” – Romans 1:20
“we ought not to think that the Godhead is like gold, or silver, or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.” – Acts 17:29
So let's go on to ask if the Bible can tell us if this Godhead is one God or many?
THE GOD OF THE BIBLE
What does the Bible tell us, is God one or many?
Our first introduction to the God of the Bible is found in the very first verse:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1
When we look at the Biblical definition of this word “God,” we notice something fascinating. “Elohim” is the Hebrew word used here, instead of the more expected choice of “Eloha”. You see, “Eloha” is the Hebrew word for a single god, while “Elohim” is the plural form. We might have been forgiven for expecting the translation to read “gods”. Look the Biblical definition:
God (Strong's reference number H430)
“Elohim” in the Hebrew
(plural intensive - singular meaning) the one true God
Now keep in mind that the word is plural when you read the statement made only a few verses later:
“And God [Elohim] said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” – From Genesis 1:26
Notice how God is referred to as “Our” (plural). The same thing happens again only two chapters later:
“Then the LORD God [Elohim] said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.”’ – Genesis 3:22a
When it says the “LORD God” here, the word “LORD” is written in all capital letters. This is a helpful clue translators use to tell us that the original Hebrew text has mentioned God's actual name, “Jehovah”. So every time we see the word “LORD” or “GOD” (which are both titles) written in all capitals, we know that the original Hebrew text actually uses God's name instead.
Here is the Bible dictionary definition of His name:
LORD/GOD (Strong's reference number H3068)
“Jehovah” in the Hebrew
Jehovah = "the existing One" the proper name of the one true God.
Why is this important? Because it shows us that the same One who spoke of Himself as “Us” in the previous quote, is the One who also says this:
“I am the LORD [Jehovah] and there is no other; There is no God besides Me.” – Isiah 45:5a
There are many places in the Bible where Jehovah reveals that He is the only one true God. Take just two examples:
“the LORD [Jehovah] Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” – Deuteronomy 4:39b
“For thus says the LORD [Jehovah], Who created the heavens, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it...‘I am the LORD, and there is no other.’” – Isiah 45:18
So how can the same God in one place speak of, “Us” and in another place, say He alone is the only one true God? To answer that question, we first need to find out who the “Us” was.
THE “US” OF CREATION
Who was God referring to when He said “Let Us”?
Let's look at the passage again:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” – Genesis 1:1-2
Now we know two things: God created, and the Spirit of God was with God during creation. We see this idea of the Spirit of God co-creating, echoed again in the book of Job:
"The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty has given me life.” – Job 33:4
The Spirit of God then, was with God before the world was ever made. And the Spirit of God was a co-creator with God. But – some may argue – how do we know that the “Spirit of God” is not just another way of talking about God Himself? Let's use Jesus' words to show the distinction between God (also called the Father), and the Spirit of God (also called the Holy Spirit):
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever... the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name” – John 14:16, 26a
Can you see that Jesus is asking His Father to send another? The word “another” means that the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father, in some way separate from the Father. Take another example:
“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” – John 15:26
So the Holy Spirit is “another”, who proceeds “from the Father”. If He was Himself the Father, Jesus would simply have said the Father will come. As a last example we will use Jesus' words again, when He said:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 28:19
When Jesus says disciples must be baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, it seems clear that all three had to be mentioned because there is a distinction between them. The Father is not the Spirit, just as Jesus is not the Father. If there was no difference, no sense of individuality, He could just have said, “in the name of the Father”.
So we see that the Spirit of God, and Father God, are distinct from each other. And if that is true, then they were both together performing the act of creation. This begins to make some sense of who the “Us” of creation is. But there is more.
THE SON OF GOD IN CREATION
In the New Testament we discover this verse:
“God... created all things by Jesus Christ”– Ephesians 3:9
So here we have a verse that says Jesus was working with God during creation. In fact there are more passages that tell us the same:
“the Father... [has] conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son... [who] is the image of the invisible God... For by Him [the Son] all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.” – from Colossians 1:12-16
So then the Son of God is the one through whom all things were created. Now let's take a look at a well-known passage from the gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him [the Word]; and without Him was nothing made that was made... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten [Son] of the Father).” – from John 1:1-4,14
So when God created, “the Word” was with Him. And verse 14 reveals that “the Word” is the Son of God (Jesus Christ). So Jesus Christ was there in the beginning and nothing was created without Him.
So we conclude then that when God said, “Let Us make,” the “Us” was, Father God, the Son of God and the Spirit of God.
But didn't Genesis tell us that “God created.” Then we need to ask the next question. If:
God existed before creation, and
Are we not forced to assume that the Son and the Spirit are both God, since:
both existed before creation, and
both participated in the act of creation
First let's see if the Bible has an answer to the question – Is Jesus Christ also God?
THE SON IS GOD
Is Jesus Christ also God?
Let's look at our previous quote a little closer:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – John 1:1
Apparently John has already told us here that Jesus (the Word) is God. Now go to the book of Hebrews and we find another fascinating text, where God the Father calls His own Son “God”:
“And again, when God brings His first begotten into the world, He says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship Him’.... But to the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever’’ – Hebrews 1:6, 8
This one text is enough to establish the fact that the Son of God is Himself also God. But the Bible offers us many more evidences. Take a look at yet another extraordinary passage, this one from the Old Testament, prophesying of Jesus' birth:
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”– Isaiah 9:6a
Aren't “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” meant to be titles reserved for Father God alone? How is it that Jesus is sharing them with His Father? Maybe a clue can be found in the next verses:
“All things that the Father has are Mine.” – John 16:15a
“The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.” – John 3:35
The Bible reveals that it is the Father's greatest pleasure to lavish “all things” on His Son. He desires to have all His own fullness dwell in and expressed through His Son.
“For it pleased the Father that in Him [Christ] all the fullness should dwell” – Colossians 1:19
“in Him [Christ] dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” – Colossians 2:9
Even the “fulness of the Godhead” (meaning the fullness of the divine nature) is in Jesus Christ. This is why the Father calls Jesus “God”, and why the prophet Isaiah says His name will be “Mighty God,” and why the Apostle John said Jesus (the Word) is God – because He is!
The Apostle Paul put it this way, that though Jesus was God, He chose to lower Himself and come to earth as a man:
“Christ Jesus... being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, But made Himself of no reputation” – Philippians 2:5b-6
By saying it was not robbery to be equal with God, the text reveals that Jesus had a rightful claim to equality with God. But instead He subjected Himself to serve His Father. Still, Jesus knew who He was. See what He said to the Jews:
“‘Most assuredly, I [Jesus] say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.’ Then the Jews said to Him, ‘Now we know that You have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and You say, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.” Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead?... Who do You make Yourself out to be?’...[Jesus replied] ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’ Then they took up stones to throw at Him” – John 8:51-53, 56-59a
What has happened here? Jesus has just revealed His deity, by claiming a name that belongs to God alone. And because the Jews understood what He had done, they wanted to stone Him for blasphemy. You see, by calling Himself “I AM”, Jesus was calling Himself Jehovah – God's actual name (this is why some Bibles write it in all capitals).
Maybe this will be easier to see if we go back to the Old Testament where God reveals His name to Moses:
“Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And... ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you... this is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations.” – Exodus 3:13-14, 15b
It is from this term, “I AM” that the name Jehovah comes. Jehovah literally means “I am” or “I exist”. Look again at the definition we mentioned earlier:
Jehovah = "the existing One" the proper name of the one true God.
When God says here, "I Am that I Am" (or it could also be translated "I exists because I exist"), God is revealing Himself as the being that needs no one and nothing else in order to exist. He is the independent self-sufficient one. He is the original cause of everything else, and He does not need anything to sustain Him. Even if oxygen did not exist, He still would.
So when Jesus says, “before Abraham was, I AM,” not only was He saying that He existed even before Abraham (who lived all of 2000 years earlier), but He was using a name only God could claim. The Jews understood He was making this claim. See only two chapters later where they said to Him:
“‘We are [stoning You]... for blasphemy, because You, a mere man, claim to be God.’ ... [Jesus replied] ‘Do not believe Me unless I do the works of My Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”’ – from John 10:33-38
Jesus did not deny that He was God. Instead He gave them even more reason to believe Him. Our last example is from the account where Thomas was struggling to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until Jesus appeared to him:
“Then He [Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”’ – John 20:27-29
Jesus did not rebuke Thomas for calling Him God. Instead He encourages him, and blesses those who come to the same revelation without needing all the evidence Thomas did.
The Bible does not hide His deity, we could bring plenty more examples, but they would be of little use to those who choose not to believe. The true question here is not, “Where is the evidence of Jesus' divinity?” but “Will we accept the evidence the Bible offers?”
We conclude then that the Son of God, is Himself also God. But does that not leave us with a new problem? Do we not then have two Gods?
MANY GODS OR ONE GODHEAD?
So if Jesus is God, and the Father is God, then don't we have two Gods?
The Bible says there is one God, and yet understanding that God is a mystery:
“[that you may know] the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ” – Colossians 2:2b
See how the mystery is of “God” (singular), and yet of “both” Father and Christ (plural). Now take a look at a fascinating thing that happens in Genesis:
“And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness... So God created man in His own image” – From Genesis 1:26-27
“Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil’... So He drove out the man.” – Genesis 3:22a, 24a
Notice in both cases how God is first referred to in the plural form, and then it swops over to the singular form. What has happened here is that God refers to Himself inwardly as “Us” and “Our” (who we already know means Father, Son and Spirit who created together). But when acting outwardly, all three act as one God. Let's put that another way: We see here that God inwardly experiences three persons within the Godhead but He acts outwardly as a single Godhead.
So the term “Godhead” begins to help us now. We opened this piece by pointing out that the term “Godhead” refers to the divine nature, all that can be called God. And so if the Father, Christ and the Spirit are all divine, then all must be included in the Godhead. There are therefore three divine beings that form a single Godhead. In fact there is a second Biblical definition for the word “Godhead’ we have not mentioned yet, it is:
Godhead (Strong's reference number G2304)
a general name of deities or divinities as used by the Greeks
when spoken of the only and true God, it is the Trinity: of Christ, Holy Spirit, the Father.
We conclude then that while the Son of God, the Spirit of God and the Father are all God – they form a single Godhead. Now in order to solve our puzzle, we need to try to discover the relationship between them.
ONE IN WORK
The Father, Son and Spirit always act in unity, as one
Time and time again we see the Godhead working together in the Bible. We have already shown how creation was done by them together. Now look at how all three participated in Jesus' baptism:
“When He had been baptised, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”’ – Matthew 3:16-17
In all things the Godhead works as one:
“elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” –1 Peter 1:2
“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.” – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
“For through Him [Jesus] we... have access by one Spirit to the Father.” – Ephesians 2:18
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” – 2 Corinthians 13:14
So Father, Son and Spirit all share a divine nature, and they work together in what they do, but are they three separate beings or is their union more complete than that?
ONE IN ESSENCE
The Father, Son and Spirit are not just one in agreement, but one in essence
The Apostle John tells us the three members of the Godhead are in fact one:
“For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word [the Son of God], and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.” – 1 John 5:7-8
John's statement is very clear. He did not mean that Father, Son and Spirit simply act as one (in agreement or unity of heart), but he says they “are one”. This is made even more clear by the next verse, where the Spirit, water and blood are only said to agree “as one”.
We see the same idea of a shared identity again when the Holy Spirit is called both “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ”:
“But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” – Romans 8:9
So which is it? Or are Father and Son so perfectly knit that it really doesn't matter which way around you describe the Spirit? Remember that Jesus called Himself “I AM”, and Isaiah called Jesus “Everlasting Father”. But let's go a step deeper and look at these next few verses. Notice how the language is interchangeable, we could say:
The Holy Spirit dwells in us,
God dwells in us, or
Christ dwells in us
These different descriptions are used as if they are all saying the very same thing – because they are:
“by this we know that He [God] abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” – 1 John 3:24b
“Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We [Christ and the Father] will come to him and make Our home with him.” – John 14:23
“you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them’” – 2 Corinthians 6:16a
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” – Acts 2:4a
“To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” – Colossians 1:27
“There is one body, and one Spirit... One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is... in you all.” – Ephesians 4:4-6
The same pattern follows in the Bible with other acts of God as well. Jesus says He lays down His life, and He takes it up again. While other verses say the Father raised Jesus from the dead.
“No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” – John 10:18
“if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” – Romans 10:9
“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” – Romans 8:11
Or look at this peculiar verse which says “the Lord is the Spirit.” Now the word “Lord” in the New Testament – 9 out of 10 times – refers to Jesus Christ (with the last few exceptions referring to the Father).
“Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” – 2 Corinthians 3:17
“The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit.” – 1 Corinthians 15:45
Again, see how Jesus' attributes of being the “life” and the “truth”, are given to the Holy Spirit as well:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.” – John 14:6a
“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3:6b
“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” – John 16:13a
It seems there is a shared essence amongst Father, Son and Spirit which goes far beyond simple agreement. Their bond is quite unlike anything we are familiar with. Jesus echoes this when He tells us that to see Him is to see the Father:
“He who has seen Me [Jesus Christ] has seen the Father” – John 14:9b
He does not say seeing Him is “like”, or is “as good as” seeing the Father. No, seeing Him is seeing the Father. And again:
“I and My Father are one.” – John 10:30
So how do we take all we have said and come to any conclusions about God? Don't these texts contradict each other? We think an analogy will help us here:
HOW CAN THREE BE ONE?
Think of fire: The flame itself is what we call the fire, and what we think of when we think of fire. Without a flame, we cannot say there is a fire. But the flame is not actually alone: fire also produces heat, and light. Flame, heat and light are three components, or three aspects of fire. The heat and light come forth from the flame.
This might be a helpful way to get our minds around the Godhead.
In this analogy, the Godhead would be the fire.
Father is the flame – He is the source of everything, the original cause.
Jesus is the light – that which we see and understand of God, that which comes forth from God to make Him visible.
And the Spirit is the heat – the active working power of God, the thing we feel that affects us when God is at work.
Do we think there are three fires because fame, light and heat are all present? No. Instead we know that they always work together as one. They are one, while at the same time being three distinct, unique things. But even though they are different, it is impossible to separate them out from one another, as three separate things. They are collectively part of one union – fire.
Again, when we describe the work of a fire, we could say the flame destroyed the wood. We could also say that the heat burned up the wood. And a poet might write that the light consumed the wood. All would be correct and true, without making the other statements incorrect. The fire, all its aspects working together as one, burned the wood. In the same way, there is no contradiction in the text when we hear different members of the Godhead have performed the same acts.
So now we are ready to pull all our loose threads together:
When we try to understand the Bible's teachings we need to remember that the only faithful interpretation of the text is the one that agrees with every verse. So with the Biblical evidence we have seen, what are the possible understandings of the Godhead we can come to?
Can we say that because the Bible says there is only one God, therefore Jesus can't be God, because that would mean there are two Gods?
Clearly we have to say, “No” to this theory. Why? Because the Bible teaches that Jesus is equal to God, Jesus is God, that He was with God in the beginning and that He was co-creator. And we would also have to explain away the plural, “let Us make” of creation.
Can we say that because the Bible says Jesus is God, therefore there is more than one God?
Again we have to say, “No”. The Bible is clear in many places that there is only one God. If we claim there are two Gods, we deny the scriptures.
Can we say there cannot be such a thing as the Trinity because it makes no logical sense to us?
Are the limits of our understanding in any way an obstacle to God? Can He not be what He is because we can't fathom Him? Do our powers of reasoning hold God back in any way? No! A snail cannot understand God, but that has no affect on his Maker. Mankind is no different. We are simply part of His creation.
Can we say that God takes on different forms and therefore, while He is only one, He simply appears to us as if He is three?
This would make Jesus out to be a liar when He speaks of Him and His Father as “We”, or the Holy Spirit as “Another”. And of course God also said: “Let Us.”
Can we say that God is one divine essence (or Godhead) comprised of three divine persons?
The only interpretation which agrees with all the scriptures is this one. This is why the doctrine of the Trinity has been a cornerstone of Christianity all through the ages, ever since the Apostle John wrote:
"For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word [the Son of God], and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one." – 1 John 5:7
In short, the Godhead (one divine nature expressed in three distinct persons), is a very difficult idea to grasp, and yet it is also the only conclusion that agrees with the text. God is most glorious and mysterious. He is completely unique and vastly beyond us.
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me.” – Isiah 46:9b
Three persons of perfect unity, acting as the single Godhead of all creation – forever distinct, and forever bound – in ways our human minds will probably never understand. God is three, and yet He is one. We are not expected to understand it – we are only expected to trust what God reveals of Himself to us. We either believe His word or we do not.
While the idea of a Trinity, or a Godhead, may be a little bit abstract for us to understand, we don't have to. We cannot lower God down to our level, to something ordinary enough for us to feel we can comprehend Him. Our God is beyond us, always and forever too great for us to grasp, and yet revealed to us plainly enough that we can know Him intimately. That is all that is offered to us and for the believing heart, it is more than enough!
“Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than heaven— what can you do? Deeper than Sheol— what can you know? – Job 11:7-8
May God receive glory forever and ever!