The Faith part 4
The Trinity Test
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
February 1, 2009



Did anyone not get a copy of the Sunrise Update this morning? Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through this message series called The Faith. This is now our fourth week into it, and we’ve been talking about a lot of the foundational beliefs that have united all Christ-followers in all places at all times.

Today we’re going to be talking about The Trinity. This one of the most basic and at the same time most misunderstood beliefs of the Christian faith. So what I thought I’d do is start by just giving you a little test. In your Sunrise Update, you’ll see your message notes are a little bit different than usual. Instead of the usual fill in the blank kind of outline that I typically give you with all the Bible verses included, what I’ve done this time is given you The Trinity Test. So I’m going to give you four or five minutes right now to just take a look through these multiple choice questions and choose the statements that you think are true, and then we’ll go through them one at a time and we’ll see how you do. And when we do that, you can use the space in between to take notes. Okay?

PLAY SONG
Creed by Rich Mullins

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The Trinity Test:

Which of these statements is true?

A.    The early Christian creeds teach the doctrine of the Trinity
B.    The doctrine of the Trinity originated at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325
C.    The doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in Scripture
D.    Both A and C

A.    Jesus claimed to be God
B.    The disciples believed Jesus to be God, though Jesus never claimed to be God himself
C.    The Roman emperor Constantine declared Jesus to be divine
D.    Both B and C

A.    Jesus was God taking on the appearance of a human
B.    Jesus was God born as a human
C.    Jesus was a mortal man that the Spirit of God entered at his baptism
D.    None of the above

A.    God the Father became Jesus and then became the Holy Spirit
B.    God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three separate persons
C.    Before the incarnation, only God the Father existed. Then the Son (Jesus) was born, and then the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost.
D.    All of the above

A.    The word Trinity is found in the Bible
B.    The doctrine of the Trinity is a contradiction and must be accepted by faith
C.    The Trinity is a mystery that goes beyond our understanding
D.    None of the above

A.    God is the total life-force of all living things.
B.    God is a person
C.    The Trinity teaches that there are three gods
D.    None of the above

A.    Jesus was the first creation of God the Father
B.    Jesus appeared in the Old Testament as the archangel Michael
C.    Jesus was fully God and fully man
D.    Both A and C

A.    The Father is the greatest member of the Trinity
B.    The Son is the greatest member of the Trinity
C.    The Holy Spirit is the greatest member of the Trinity
D.    None of the above


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This doctrine of the Trinity is core to the core of the Christian faith. It summarizes our understanding of the nature of God and helps us understand who He is, and that’s important because it affects how we relate to Him and whether we can really know Him or not. Plus, if you get this all messed up, or if you reject it altogether, you can end up worshipping a false god, and I know you don’t want to do that. So this is important.

Now, this doctrine of the Trinity that we hold as Christians stands in stark contrast to other religions such as Judaism and Islam, where God is seen not as Trinitarian but as Unitarian… that is, one person. In Christianity, God is understood to be three persons. This is also a major point of distinction between Christianity and pseudo-Christian cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists… These pseudo-Christian cults… I believe without exception… deny this doctrine of the Trinity in some way, shape or form.

So the Trinity is kind of a plumb-line for the orthodox Christian view of God. But unfortunately, if you ask most Christians they can’t really explain it or defend it themselves. This is a core belief of the Christian faith, but Christians are not equipped to understand it let alone tell others about it. And if you do ask a believer to explain the Trinity, they might make a valiant attempt but often they’ll end up on some pretty shaky ground. They may even start proclaiming a heresy, which is a belief that is false and has been condemned by the Christian church.

Now, as we go through this today, this is going to be a little bit more academic than usual. And we’re going to talk some about history, because to better understand the Trinity, we need to understand how this doctrine developed.

Okay? So let’s get going. In question 1, you were asked to choose the correct statement from these four…

Question 1.
A.    The early Christian creeds teach the doctrine of the Trinity
B.    The doctrine of the Trinity originated at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325
C.    The doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in Scripture
D.    Both A and C

It’s true that at the Council of Nicaea this doctrine was examined and was debated and was eventually expressed in the Nicene Creed. But that’s not where the idea of the Trinity originated. It was already being taught long before then. In fact, you see the concept of the Trinity being taught in Scripture itself.

The Bible teaches that…

The Father is God

Like in 1 Peter 1:2 where it says…

1 Peter 1:2 (NLT)
God the Father knew you and chose you long ago…

The Son (Jesus) is God

Philippians 2:5-6 (NLT)
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.

The Holy Spirit is God

Acts 5:3-4 (NLT)
Then Peter said, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself… You weren’t lying to us but to God!”

There is only One God

Isaiah 45:22 (NLT)
“Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other.”


The Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And the Father is not Jesus or the Holy Spirit, Jesus is not the Holy Spirit or the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or Jesus. But there is only one God. But how can that be? Isn’t that contradictory? Well, we’ll get to that. Right now what I want you to understand is that isn’t something that was invented several centuries after the time of Jesus; it can be traced right to Scripture itself.


Question 2.
A.    Jesus claimed to be God
B.    The disciples believed Jesus to be God, though Jesus never claimed to be God himself
C.    The Roman emperor Constantine declared Jesus to be divine
D.    Both B and C

I expect some of you may have watched that miniseries that was on last weekend… The Last Templar. Or maybe you even read the book. Well, according to The Last Templar, Jesus may have written in a diary or in His own Gospel that he was a man and just a man, not God.

Now, I don’t mind when people raise honest objections to Christianity because I believe there are answers, but I’m not much of a fan of this current trend to create false evidence and distort history. I realize that The Last Templar was meant to be a work of fiction, but I also realize that when The DaVinci Code came out, one third of the Canadians who read it believed its claims to be true. So for anyone who might be prone to think fiction is fact, I want to set the record straight.

No, there is no secret Gospel in which Jesus claimed to be only a man and not divine. And no, the divinity of Jesus was not created by the emperor Constantine. That’s a popular claim these days, that Constantine orchestrated the Council of Nicaea in order to declare that Jesus was God, even though before that time Jesus was considered to be just a man. But the truth is, Jesus was considered to be divine long before that. At the Council of Nicaea it was never even a question whether or not Jesus was divine… everyone already believed He was. What they wanted to figure out was, just what kind of a God is He? But the claim that Jesus was God can be found in the words of Jesus Himself. Jesus claimed to be God, and His followers understood Him to be divine.

Here’s a reference from the Gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus is talking with some religious leaders who are becoming more and more upset with Him, and He tells them…

John 8:54-59 (NIV)
Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I AM!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Do you understand why they were going to stone Jesus? Were they going to stone Him to death because He claimed to be really old? No, they were going to stone Him because they recognized what Jesus was saying when he said, “before Abraham was born, I AM!” Now, to you and me, it looks like bad grammar. But to the Jews, it meant something very profound. Because they remembered what God told Moses way back in the Old Testament. God was calling Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, but he was afraid the people wouldn’t believe God sent him. So Moses asked God who he should say sent him, and God told him…

Exodus 3:14 (NLT)
God replied, “I AM THE ONE WHO ALWAYS IS. Just tell them, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

So when Jesus referred to himself as “I AM”, He knew exactly what He was claiming, and so did the Jews. He was claiming to be God, and the religious leaders were so offended by that they were going to kill Him for making that claim. And then a couple chapters later in John…

John 10:24-25, 30-33, 37-38 (NLT)
The Jewish leaders surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus replied, “I have already told you, and you don’t believe me. The proof is what I do in the name of my Father…. The Father and I are one.”
Once again the Jewish leaders picked up stones to kill him. Jesus said, “At my Father’s direction I have done many things to help the people. For which one of these good deeds are you killing me?”
They replied, “Not for any good work, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, have made yourself God.”…
“Don’t believe me unless I carry out my Father’s work. But if I do his work, believe in what I have done, even if you don’t believe me. Then you will realize that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”

Notice that when the people accused Jesus of claiming to be God, Jesus didn’t object. He didn’t tell them they misunderstood. He simply told them, “Look at the evidence.”

Or how about when Thomas first saw Jesus after the resurrection? Remember what he said?

In Matthew 16, Peter identified Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And in John 20, Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” And in both cases Jesus commended them on their insight. He didn’t tell them they were confused, He didn’t correct them, He accepted their words as being accurate and true. And Peter, Thomas, and the rest of the disciples, were all killed for their faith, except for John who they tried to killed, were unsuccessful, so forced him into exile instead. And over the next 400 years, 2 million other Christ-followers went to their deaths for believing and proclaiming that Jesus was God in the flesh.

So, in Scripture and in the words of Jesus Himself you see the concept of the Trinity taking shape. The Father is God, and Jesus is God, but the Father is not Jesus and Jesus is not the Father. But there’s only one God.


Question 3.
A.    Jesus was God taking on the appearance of a human
B.    Jesus was God born as a human
C.    Jesus was a mortal man that the Spirit of God entered at his baptism
D.    None of the above

In the third and fourth centuries, there were a group of people called Gnostics who rejected a lot of the Bible and started to write their own Gospels. And one of the strange views that popped up with this is that only what is spiritual is good. Anything physical, anything material, is evil. So they reasons that Jesus couldn’t have actually been God, because God couldn’t have become something physical. I know, pretty bizarre. Anyway, they came up with this whole theory that there was a man named Jesus that the Spirit of God entered at his baptism and then abandoned on the cross. So that’s a pretty strange belief, and it goes against everything we know about Jesus from Scripture. Like in John chapter one…

John 1:1-3, 14 (NLT)
In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. He was in the beginning with God. He created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn’t make…
So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.

It’s an obvious reference to Jesus, referring to Him as the Word. And it says the Word has always existed and the Word is God. And He didn’t just impersonate a human, and He didn’t just possess a human… He became a human.

And if you want another reference, how about…

Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)
Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).

Jesus was God, but yet He entered into His own Creation, was born as a baby, and lived among us. And to highlight His human nature, we know that Jesus experienced fatigue, He got thirsty, He got hungry, He got angry, He faced temptation, He felt sadness and sorrow… He didn’t just take on the appearance of a human; He was as human as you and me.


Question 4.
A.    God the Father became Jesus and then became the Holy Spirit
B.    God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three separate persons
C.    Before the incarnation, only God the Father existed. Then the Son (Jesus) was born, and then the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost.
D.    Both B and C

We’ve already looked at what it says in John chapter one, so we already realize that Jesus was already there in the beginning. He is eternal and He is God. And if you go back to Genesis chapter one, you can read about the Spirit of God—perhaps a reference to the Holy Spirit—moving over the surface of the earth. All three are divine. All three are eternal. All three existing at the same time. In fact, if you keep reading in Genesis chapter one, you’ll read (in verse 26) where God said, “Let us make human beings in our image.” “Let us make human beings”? Who’s “us”? Many people consider this to be an early reference to the Trinity.

So “A” and “C” are obviously wrong here. Both of those suggest that there was a kind of succession. First there was the Father, then there was Jesus, then there was the Holy Spirit. But no, all three are eternal. All three are God. But yet all three are separate.

And this is really where a lot of people get into trouble trying to explain the Trinity. One common analogy that people use for the Trinity would go like this: I might look at my own life and explain that I am a husband, a father, and a son. So even though I am one individual, I am also three. And I might use that kind of an analogy to try to explain the Trinity.

But there’s a problem with this kind of explanation. What is it? Well, it basically teaches that there’s one person called God, but that He plays three different roles. He’s after the other. Or He might put on a different mask depending on the situation.

This is probably the earliest misunderstanding of the Trinity, and was very quickly condemned by the early Church. It actually has a name: It’s called modalism, and it says there’s one God who appears in three different modes or forms.

Modalism – the false belief that God is a single person who appears in different modes or forms. (also called Sabellianism)

Kind of like an actor in one of the ancient Greek plays. The same actor may hold a mask in front of his face to play one character, put that mask down and pick up a new one to play a different character, and then do the same for a third character.

Problem – Ignores the Scriptural truth that God exists as the Father, Son and Spirit, as individual persons, all at the same time


Another popular analogy that falls into this same trap is the idea that God is like water, which can be solid, liquid or gas. But again, this is a succession. You might have a block of ice, that ice melts and becomes a liquid, you heat it up and it evaporates into a steam. They don’t all exist at the same time.
[I've heard that in some laboratory experiments with specific conditions at a certain pressure and temperature, you actually can have ice, water, and vapour all present at the same time. But if you have to explain that, it’s not a very good analogy to use.]

Let me show you just one passage to explain why modalism and these kinds of analogies don’t work…

Matthew 3:16-17 (NLT)
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

Here you see all three members of the Trinity all present at the same time. It’s not just one person wearing different masks; it’s three different persons.


Question 5.
A.    The word Trinity is found in the Bible
B.    The doctrine of the Trinity is a contradiction and must be accepted by faith
C.    The Trinity is a mystery that goes beyond our understanding
D.    None of the above

Now, about letter A… You’ll sometimes hear people attack this doctrine of the Trinity by saying that the word Trinity is not found in the Bible so it can’t be true. Well, the word “Bible” isn’t in the Bible either. But I’m pretty sure my Bible exists. The word “pornography” isn’t in the Bible, either, but the Bible certainly has something to say about it.

So no, the word Trinity isn’t in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t talk about the Trinity. We didn’t come up with the idea of the Trinity and then try to find it in the Bible; we found it in the Bible and then came up with the term to explain it.

As for letter B… people think the Trinity is a contradiction because they don’t understand what we’re talking about. We’re not saying there are three Gods and at the same time only one God. Or that would be a contradiction. And we’re not saying there are three persons but only one person. That would be a contradiction, too.

We’re saying there are three persons, but only one God. We’re saying there are three centers of personhood in one divine nature. And there’s no contradiction there. It may be difficult to grasp, but then I find calculus difficult to grasp. Just because it’s difficult to understand doesn’t mean that it’s wrong or that it’s a contradiction. And actually, if you chose letter “D”, I’d give you points for that, too, because while we may not be able to completely define the nature of God, I think we can understand it at least in part.

Let me tell you something I learned this week… a second century Christian author by the name of Tertullian was the first to use the word “Trinitas” (or Trinity) to describe the nature of God. He’s also the one who came up with the word “Personae”, or person. Before that time, there was no real concept of personhood, at least not like we have today. So the word “person” was created to explain how one God is three persons… a Trinity.

Now, what makes this doctrine of the Trinity difficult to grasp is not that it’s irrational or contradictory, because it’s not. What makes it difficult is that we have no personal point of reference apart from the Trinity. I am one person. You are one person. Apart from God, we don’t have any experience with anyone who is three persons. But then, wouldn’t you expect the all-powerful, all-knowing, infinite Creator of all that exists to exceed our ability to understand or explain Him? The Trinity is not a contradiction, but it is a mystery because it goes beyond our ability to fully comprehend (although we can at least begin to understand it).


Question 6.
A.    God is the total life-force of all living things
B.    God is a person
C.    The Trinity teaches that there are three gods
D.    None of the above

Okay, this was a bit of a trick question. But maybe you caught it. The answer is… D, none of the above. We just talked about this: God is not a person, He is three persons. However, He is not three Gods. That’s called Polytheism…

Polytheism – the belief in more than one God

Problem – Ignores the Scriptural truth that there is one and only one God

That’s affirmed time and time again throughout the Bible. So that was never in question… the disciples and the early Christians all believed there was only one God.

However, they also understood that the Father is God, that Jesus is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. All three of them were God, but there was only one God. But how could that be? That’s what those early debates and councils strived to answer.

But understand, it was never in question that there was only one God and that all three were divine. A lot of the recent attacks on Christianity try to claim that Jesus wasn’t considered to be divine until the Council of Nicaea, but He was always considered to be divine. The struggle was to try to understand and explain that fact.


Question 7.
A.    Jesus was the first creation of God the Father
B.    Jesus appeared in the Old Testament as the archangel Michael
C.    Jesus was fully God and fully man
D.    Both A and C

There are cults today, like Jehovah’s Witnesses who still believe that Jesus was just a created being. Jehovah’s Witnesses even believe that before the incarnation, Jesus was the angel Michael. Well, this idea that Jesus was not really God but just a superior created being popped up early in the fourth century, promoted by a guy named Arius, and became known as Arianism. (Not to be confused with the Nazi form of Aryanism spelt with a “y”.)

Arianism – The belief that Jesus was not fully divine, but was a superior created being

Problem – Ignores the Scriptural claims of divinity of Jesus and nullifies the sacrifice on the Cross

… because if Jesus was just part of creation he could not pay for the sins of the rest of creation. And this is really what was behind the Council of Nicaea. Was Jesus like God the Father, or was He of the same substance as God the Father? The Church leaders knew that Arianism was false, that it was a heresy, but they didn’t know how to address it. So they needed to get together and nail down what they understood Scripture to teach about the nature of Jesus.

So let’s take another look at a couple of the passages they would have examined.

John 1:1-4 (NLT)
In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone.

So Jesus wasn’t part of Creation; He was the source of Creation.

Colossians 2:9 (NLT)
For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.

Jesus was fully God and fully man. They would have examined passages like this. They would have examined Old Testament prophecies. They would have studied the words of Jesus Himself. And after about a month of focusing on this issue alone, this is what they concluded about the identity of Jesus… this is part of what we know as the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,  (and by the way, “Son of God” is not a biological term but a heavenly term. The Jews understood the term to refer to divinity, not biology.)
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

Actually, it’s kind of funny: if you look at the full creed, there’s only one short paragraph about God the Father. And then there’s another short paragraph about the Holy Spirit. And all of this about Jesus, because that was the question they were trying to address. All to clarify that Jesus was fully God and fully man.


Question 8.
A.    The Father is the greatest member of the Trinity
B.    The Son is the greatest member of the Trinity
C.    The Holy Spirit is the greatest member of the Trinity
D.    None of the above

I can understand how people can think that one member of the Trinity is more important than another. I mean, we ever refer to them in an order… The Father is the first member of the Trinity, Jesus is the second member of the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit is the third member of the Trinity. So this give the illusion that there’s an order of priority or supremacy there.

But there’s not. All three are God. All three are equal. Even though we do see them submitting to each other… Jesus does the will of the Father, the Father glorifies the Son, the Spirit points us to Jesus, Jesus is led by the Spirit, the Father tells us to listen to the Son… There’s a mutual submission that we see within the Trinity, but that does not indicate that one is superior to the other. They are co-equal.

The Father is God. Philippians chapter 2 tells us that Jesus is in His very nature God. Acts chapter 5 equates the Holy Spirit with God. They are all God, and are all equal.



That’s all the time we have for our "class" today. If you’re following along in the book, then this week you should read chapter 7 – God Above, God Beside, God Within. And then in your LIFE Group you will be discussing more about the Trinity, you’ll also talk about a Christian view of time, about our cultural commission, and about the rationality of Christianity.

If you’ve been missing out so far, that’s fine. Just hop into a group this week.

 

 

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