It’s just a word for most of us these days. A place-name perhaps? Right now, a property developer is building the Trinity Point marina and housing estate not far from my home. My mother-in-law attends church in a suburb called “Trinity Gardens.” And then there’s Trinity, one of the leading characters in the Matrix movies of my formative years, not to mention those rambunctious Trinity spaghetti westerns from the 1970s.
But none of these uses of the word indicates its true meaning or gives a hint of the centuries of conflict before it became a mainstream Christian teaching. Put simply, Trinity expresses the idea that God is One as well as simultaneously being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now, if you’re at all logical or mathematical, you’ll read that last statement and immediately visualize an equation in your head that looks something like this: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. Which, of course, doesn’t compute. How can God be both Three and One? Some spiritual seekers write off Christianity at this point: If it makes no sense at its very foundation, how can the rest of its teachings be reliable?
But if we understand God as being infinite and outside our space-time continuum, it’s not such a huge stretch to seek alternative equations at the edges of mathematics.
Take 0 + 0 + 0 = 0, for example—yes, that equates correctly. Or, better yet, try using infinity symbols: ∞ + ∞ + ∞ = ∞. Surely, any God worth worshiping cannot be quantified.
Theologian Robert McIver, in his coauthored college text Meaning for the New Millennium, notes that physics likewise provides illustrations for the Three-in-One nature of God: “Objects are said to have three dimensions: height, depth, and width. Each of these dimensions is completely separate and totally fills the object, yet there still is only one object. Or . . . light itself, which according to one set of data acts like waves, and which according to another set of data acts like a stream of particles. It appears to be two things at once.”
Many Christian teachers have preferred to use a more down-home approach to explain the Trinity—although all of them confess that their metaphors fall short of capturing the full grandeur of God. According to legend, Patrick of Ireland, for example, drew attention to a clover leaf, noting how it is simultaneously three leaves and one leaf.
Or, in more recent times, I heard a YouTube preacher claim that understanding the Trinity is “simple as apple pie”—you can cut the pie into three slices, but, while the crust remains separate, the runny fruit filling recombines as soon as the knife is removed. It’s both three slices, yet still very much one unified pie.
But are these just clever word games used by Christians, or does the Bible, in fact, teach the doctrine of the Trinity? Here we run into trouble immediately, because the Bible never uses the word Trinity. Neither does it include focused discussions or explanations of the Three-in-One nature of God. Instead, we must rely on hints and passing mentions throughout both the Old and New Testaments, piecing them together and identifying patterns, without becoming arrogant about our conclusions. I mean, really—who are we to think that we can ever fully explain God? Our best efforts are only a glimpse. So, humility firmly in hand, let’s take a look.
The essence of Oneness
To this day, an observant Jew will daily repeat the creed known as the Shema (the Hebrew word for “hear”), which begins, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This is just one example of the many biblical references to God’s Oneness, which was an important distinction to make in the ancient world, where many pagan gods were worshiped.
But it’s also significant to note that the Hebrew word for “one” that’s used in Deuteronomy 6:4 is echad (the ch is pronounced as a guttural g), which means “one” in the collective sense. There are several English examples, such as the words flock, herd, and family, which refer to groups of birds, cattle, and persons, yet collectively they are one. So, God is echad—“One” in this collective sense.
Furthermore, and quite curiously, the very first name for God in the Bible—in Genesis 1:1—is Elohim, which is plural, thus, literally “Gods.” That well-known verse says, “In the beginning God [Elohim, plural] created the heavens and the earth.” We get hints of this idea in Genesis 1:26, which says, “Then God [Elohim] said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image” (emphasis added; also Genesis 3:22; 11:7).
The complexity of the oneness of two or more living beings is also hinted at in Genesis 2:24, where we read that “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (emphasis added). Are husband and wife really one person, one body, “one flesh”? Of course not! They are two individuals in two bodies, yet they are one through their unity in love. And that’s how it is with the Trinity: they are one in the love they have for one another.
We see this same idea expressed in John 17:11, where Jesus, in His prayer to His Father, asked “that they [His disciples] may be one as we are one.” This is a remarkable statement, because Jesus stated explicitly how He and God the Father are “One”: in the same way that Jesus’ followers are “one” in our love for one another.
Christmas is coming
Yes, January is a bit early to start thinking about the holiday season next fall, but it’s nothing compared to the thousands of years the ancients spent waiting for the birth of the promised Messiah—the very first Christmas. The prophet Isaiah wrote some words describing Jesus that were later immortalized in Handel’s Messiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
In these prophetic words, written about 700 years before Jesus’ birth, we see clearly that the promised Son is also called “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father.” The Messiah was to be not just the Son of God—but God Himself, to the point that it becomes hazy as to whether He is the Son or the Father.
While Jesus was careful in what He revealed about Himself during His earthly ministry (the strictly monotheistic Jewish leaders of His day were always looking for an opportunity to take Him out), He did identify Himself clearly as God a number of times. Take this declaration, for example: “Very truly I tell you . . . before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). His apparently ungrammatical use of “I am” invokes a crucial Old Testament story where God articulates His Name: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you” ’ ” (Exodus 3:13, 14).
So when Jesus said He is “I AM,” coupled with His assertion that He, a man in His 30s, was around before the time of Abraham, 2,000 years earlier, He was claiming to be God Himself, existing outside the human timescale.
And on the issue of Oneness, Jesus was again startlingly clear: “I and the Father are one,” He said to the Jewish leaders (John 10:30). And to His disciples: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
But doesn’t the Trinity also include the Holy Spirit? Yes, it does. The question is whether the Holy Spirit is an individual in His own right or an impersonal force coming from God the Father, His Spirit. Genesis 1:2 mentions “the Spirit of God,” and the Old Testament uses the expression “Holy Spirit” three times (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10, 11). But it’s in the New Testament where the Holy Spirit is most clearly depicted as an individual Person separate from the Father and the Son.
For example, shortly before His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus told His disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him” (John 14:16, 17; emphasis added). Notice that Jesus used the pronoun Him, not It, to refer to the Holy Spirit.
And in John 16:13 Jesus said, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears” (emphasis added). Here again, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as He. Even more significantly, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will “guide” Jesus’ followers and “speak” to them. These are action words that only an intelligent individual is able to do.
And in Romans 8:26, Paul said, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Again, the Holy Spirit does things for God’s people that only an intelligent Person can do.
In several places, the Bible mentions the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all in the same context. For example, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ ” (Matthew 3:16, 17). Here we see Jesus, the Son who was baptized; we hear His Father speaking, “a voice from heaven;” and we see “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him [Jesus].”
To this day, following this precedent and in keeping with Jesus’ instructions (Matthew 28:19), nearly all Christians baptize with the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Or consider this promise that Jesus gave to His disciples—and to you and me: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). Here, again, we see all Three Persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son (Jesus, who is speaking), and the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the apostle Paul ended one of his letters with the following Trinitarian blessing “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
This article is very much an introduction to what the Bible says about the Trinity, so please don’t take it as a comprehensive study. There’s so much more to explore. And don’t worry if you don’t know everything about our wonderful God, for we will spend eternity getting to know Him.
Kent Kingston is the associate editor of Signs of the Times®. He lives with his family in Australia’s Lake Macquarie region, north of Sydney.