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Basics 21 – The Persons of God



Understanding God

Lesson Twenty One: The Three Persons of God

If you search the text of Scripture or any of the exhaustive concordances of the words contained in the Bible you will discover that the term “trinity” does not occur even once.  Yet there are few subjects of theology more documented in the Scriptures than the subject of the Trinity.  Like many other of the attributes of God that we have looked at in past lessons, the subject of the Trinity reveals characteristics of God that to the human mind are self-contradictory.  How can there be just one God and yet at the same time He exists as three Persons?  This is a concept so difficult for man to grasp that God Himself had to reveal it to man by gradually by degrees.  First He hinted at the existence of the Trinity in the Old Testament, then He revealed it more fully in the New Testament.



Understanding God

Lesson Twenty One: 

The Three Persons of God

by John McReynolds

As is our custom when approaching the study of the word of God we pause for a moment to be sure that we are in fellowship with Him.  If we are not in fellowship with the triune God there is no way that the study of God’s word can become real and effective in our spiritual lives.  First John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins God is faithful to forgive those sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Confession of sins is the only way to insure the filling of the Holy Spirit so essential to learning God’s truths.  Let us pray:

Thank You, Heavenly Father, for giving us the opportunity to learn about You.  This is the central purpose for leaving us to live here on the earth after You saved us, so that we can learn about You and apply these truths to our own lives, and then to tell the world about our incomparable Savior Jesus Christ.  Bless now this study to edify us and to conform us more closely to the image of Your dear Son, in Whose name we ask it, amen. 

Understanding the Persons of God

As we have been discovering in our studies into the infinite nature of God there is no way that He can be fully comprehended by finite man—especially not this side of eternity.  Yet in His word our God has left us many insights into His nature, and these He has left us with the intent that we are to incorporate them into our understanding of God and His purposes for mankind.  This is no less true for the subject we take up now: the subject of the Trinity of God.

Whenever God speaks about Himself in the Bible He does so from one of two different standpoints: from the standpoint of His Essence, or from the standpoint of His Persons.  From time to time in the previous nine lessons we have mentioned the Persons of God, but our primary focus has been the Essence of God.  In the first lesson of this series, Comprehending the Incomprehensible, we dealt with the various qualities of God—those aspects of His Being that relate to His infinite excellence. 

One of those aspects is that God is Unity, or God is One.  Basically by that we mean that from the standpoint of His essence God is not made up of parts, and that God is unique in all of reality—nothing and no one is equal to Him.  It is this oneness that is in view in Deuteronomy 6:4, which makes up the first part of the famous Shema of Israel, which is recited by devout Jews to this day: “Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad” (שׁמע ישׂראל  יהוה  אלהינו  יהוה  אחד) — “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One).” (Note that religious Jews, when they come across the Name of God in Scriptures, יהוה (YHWH), do not pronounce the name Yahweh or Jehovah, which they consider too holy to pronounce; instead they say “Adonai”, which means “Lord”.  In fact many of the English speaking among them transfer this piety to written English—they will write “G-d” instead of “God”.)

Taken by itself this verse appears to exclude any possibility of there being more than one Person of God.  Based on this verse and others in the Old Testament the religion of Judaism takes the position that God exists only in one Person—the Lord.  Judaism does not admit that while God is one in essence He exists as three persons—which is the position of Trinitarianism.  The idea that God exists as three Persons draws its greatest support from the Gospels and the New Testament writings—all of which Judaism rejects.  Nevertheless there is much in the Old Testament that points to a plurality of Persons and supports the concept of the Trinity, which we will be looking at in detail shortly.

Three In One—a Pattern in Nature

The number three is a number that occurs over and over again in nature.  There are three basic states of matter—solid, liquid, and gas.  Ancients observed that things were either animal, vegetable, or mineral.  They saw three bodies in the skies: the sun, the moon, and the stars.  We can see three stages in the life of insects: larvae, pupae, and adult.  It’s as if God left us these examples to illustrate His nature. 

Light is an example of a trinity in nature that forms an excellent illustration of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The light from our sun is composed of a broad spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.  This light possess three general characteristics: actinic, luminiferous, and calorific.  Although these terms are not quite scientifically accurate, they serve well to illustrate the three Persons of the Godhead.

Actinic light is light that cannot be seen nor immediately felt and as such it is a perfect illustration of God the Father—John 1:18.  It is contains of the shorter wavelengths of light known as ultraviolet radiation, which both gives life—as in plant photosynthesis—but can be harmful to life by causing cell damage as in a  severe sunburn.

nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.

Acts 17:25

… for our God is a consuming fire.

Heb 12:29

Who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen nor can see, to Him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:16

Luminiferous light is light that is both felt and seen—it is composed of the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum of light which we see as the colors violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.  In these wavelengths known as the visible spectrum light can be seen, and at its lower wavelengths it can be felt as heat.  Luminiferous light is the perfect illustration of God the Son in that as the Lord Jesus Christ He can be both seen and felt—He is discernible by our physical and our spiritual senses since He is both God and man.

See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

Luke 24:39

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’

John 8:12

O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!

Psalm 34:8.

Calorific light is light that is felt but not seen.  Calorific light is composed of the longer wavelengths beyond the red in the visible spectrum.  Hence it is known as infrared light.  This is the radiation that you feel as heat when for example you turn on an electric heater.  Like the Father, who is also pure spirit, the Holy Spirit cannot be seen by human eyes.  Nowhere is there any record of the Holy Spirit being visible to mankind.  In fact no Member of the Trinity would have been visible to mankind had not the Son agreed to be born into humanity as Jesus of Nazareth.

No one has seen God at any time …

John 1:18a

But like infrared light the Spirit can be felt as He works in our lives.  The Old Testament is filled with with references to the Spirit coming upon certain individuals, empowering them with special abilities in order to accomplish His purposes.  For example, the Holy Spirit came upon those the Lord raised up to lead Israel in the time of the Judges: Othniel—Jud. 3:10; Gideon—Jud. 6:34; Jephthah—Jud. 11:29; Samson—Jud. 13:29.  Other examples: Saul—1 Sam 10:10; 11:6; David—1 Sam. 16:13.  And in the very next verse of Sam. 16—verse 14—it is interesting to note that the Holy Spirit left Saul, illustrating the fact that the anointing of the Holy Spirit was not a permanent gift in Old Testament times as it is today. 

In the New Testament the Holy Spirit indwells every born-again believer, empowering them to live the supernatural Christian life.  And this indwelling is permanent—it is part of the 40 things the Holy Spirit give to the believer at the point of salvation.  So we see the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers in both the Old and New Testaments—so in that respect He is felt but not seen. 

Another illustration of the Trinity uses color.  In painting there are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.  All other colors are combinations of two or all three of these colors. When you mix red and blue you get purple, or blue and yellow makes green.  

The same is true when you shine a white light through cColorTrinityolored plastic sheets called gels.  These are commonly used in theatrical productions. Using a red gel with a spotlight gives you a red light, or a blue gel gives you a blue light.  But if you shine three spotlights onto the same spot, one equipped with a red gel, another with a green gel, and the third with a blue gel, you see white light!

It works from the other direction too.  If you shine a beam of pure white light through a glass prism the light is broken up into a spectrum of colors—primarily red, yellow and blue.  This is an illustration of the Trinity, which is white light in its essence corresponding to the essence of God, but composed of three primary colors, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

There are many other illustrations of trinity in nature—some better than others.  One is the egg.  it is composed of the shell, the white, and the yolk.  Another illustration—more famous—is the shamrock, a small three leafed plant native to Ireland.  It is said that Padriac, the famous 5th century Welsh evangelist to Ireland revered there as St. Patrick, used the shamrock to teach the concept of the trinity to the pagan Irish.  Each of the leaves of the plant represent one of the Members of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but each leaf—even when considered separately—is still a shamrock.

Three In One—a Pattern in Scripture

Numbers hold special significance in the Bible.  Among the many that are used in Scripture are 5, representing teaching (the 5 books of Moses, the five wise virgins, the five barley loaves, etc.); 6, representing fallen man;  7, representing perfection and completion; 40, representing a generation and the time of testing, and so on.  And of course the number three represents the Trinity.

The number three is used in many different ways in Scripture.  Here are a few:

  • In Isaiah 6:3 the seraphim said “Holy, Holy, Holy” referencing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus was crucified at the third hour of the day—Mark 15:25.
  • The prophet Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of the great fish—Jonah 1:17.
  • Our Lord spent three days in the grave and was resurrected on the third day—Matt. 12:40; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 5:14
  • Jesus resuscitated three people during His earthly ministry: 1) the daughter of Jairus, a child—Luke 41, 49-55; 2) the widow’s son, a young man—Luke 7:12-15; and 3) Lazarus, an adult—John chapter 11.
  • Christ is known as the Prophet—Matt, 21:11, Priest—Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 6:20, and King—John 8:37; 1 Tim. 6:5; Rev 17:14; 9:16.
  • He is described as the Good Shepherd—John 10:11, 14; the Chief Shepherd—1 Pet. 5:4; and the Great Shepherd—Heb 13:20.
  • The testing of man occurs in three categories: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—1 John 2:16
  • Jesus was tested in these same categories during His temptation in the wilderness: 1) Lust of the flesh—Matt. 4:3. 2)  Lust of the eyes—Matt. 4:8-9.  3) Pride of life—Matt. 4:5-6.
  • Three great apostates are named in the Epistle of Jude—Cain, Balaam, and Korah—Jude 11.
  • God spoke three times from heaven concerning His pleasure in His Son—Matt.3:17; Matt 17:5; and John 12:28.
  • When a Levitical priest was consecrated blood and oil was applied to three places on his body: the lobe of the right ear (hearing the word of God); the thumb of the right hand (spiritual production of good works); and on the big toe of the right foot (walking uprightly before God).

Where Do We Find the Term “Trinity”?

If you search the text of Scripture or any of the exhaustive concordances of the words contained in the Bible you will discover that the term “trinity” does not occur even once.  Yet there are few subjects of theology more documented in the Scriptures than the subject of the Trinity.  Like many other of the attributes of God that we have looked at in past lessons, the subject of the Trinity reveals characteristics of God that to the human mind are self-contradictory.  How can there be just one God and yet at the same time He exists as three Persons?  This is a concept so difficult for man to grasp that God had to reveal it to man by gradually by degrees.  First He hinted at the existence of the Trinity in the Old Testament, then He revealed it more fully in the New Testament. 

As we have noted the word “Trinity” (Latin Trinitas and Greek triados [τριάδος]) is not found in the Bible.  The word first appeared around 170 AD in the writings of the Latin theologian Tertullian, but was not used in its current theological sense until 325 AD.  In the First Council of Nicea, convened by the Roman emperor Constantine, an assembly of Church fathers from all over the Christian world analyzed pertinent Biblical passages and adopted what became known as the Nicene Creed.  The Creed was expanded and clarified during the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.  This definitive statement declared on the basis of the clear evidence of Scripture that Jesus Christ the Son is of the same essence as God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, thus ending the Arian heresy which stated that the Son was only a creation of the Father, and not of the same substance as the Father.  And so the doctrine of the Trinity was declared to be biblical and was accepted by the Church fathers as official Church doctrine.

A Working Definition of the Trinity

Basically we can define the Trinity as follows: It is the doctrine that Deity—God—exists as three separate Persons, each One of which is fully and completely God, and co-substantial, co-infinite and co-eternal with the other two.  The term “Trinity” describes three Persons who coexist in one Godhead.  The term “Godhead” derives from ‘Godhood” and refers to the existence as God of each Person of the Trinity.  Let’s break down those terms “co-substantial”, “co-infinite”, and “co-eternal”.

Co-substantial basically means sharing the same substance.  But the concept goes far beyond what the term “co-substantial” implies.  For example, I share the same genetic makeup of my parents.  Our daughter shares the same genetic makeup as my wife and I.  But we are still all physically separate in our substance. 

In 1996 scientists succeeded in cloning an ewe they named Dolly from a single cell from another sheep.  This animal was identical genetically with the sheep that was its progenitor.  Dolly was produced from a single parent sheep even though she did not come about through natural conception.  Even Dolly could not really be said to be “co-substantial” with her parent.  If you had them both side by side you might not be able to tell them apart, but you’d know for sure that one of them was not Dolly.  they may have been identical genetically, but they still existed separately.  (By the way, Dolly died at a relatively young age for a sheep—6 years compared to a natural life span of 11 or 12 years—and had developed adverse physiological conditions normally found in much older sheep.) 

But each of the members of the Trinity not only have the very same essence, they share the same existence.  In earlier studies we have seen that as God each member of the Trinity is omnipresent and transcendent—each one is everywhere present in space and time, and they exist infinitely beyond space and time.  If it were possible to apply the terms “space” and “time” to the omnipresence of God we would say that the three members of the Trinity occupy the same space and time.  Even though Dolly and her parent ewe were genetically identical, they could not occupy the same space at the same time—for them a physical impossibility. 

But God is not subject to the same limitations as Dolly and her parent.  Everywhere God the Father exists—which is everywhere and everywhen—God the Son exists.  Everywhere God the Son exists God the Holy Spirit exists. And everywhere the Spirit exists, the Father exists.  So the essence of each is literally the same essence.  That means that the existence of the Father is not separate from the existence of the Son is not separate from the existence of the Spirit is not separate from the existence of the Father.  All Three exist together in an infinite, absolute intimacy that cannot be comprehended by our finite minds, and they have always existed thus.  This is what we mean when we say that the Members of the Trinity are co-substantial in their essence.

Co-infinite refers to the fact that each of the members of the Trinity are infinite in their essence.  Thus the essence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are infinite in all respects.  This als/o establishes their absolute equality.  Since each of Them are infinite in their essence, no single Member of the Trinity is ahead, above, or superior in any way to either of the other two Members.

Co-eternal means that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have co-existed since eternity past as co-infinite, co-substantial Members of the Trinity.  God did not at sometime in the remote past somehow split into three persons.  Each member of the Trinity has coexisted with the other two for all eternity.

image This diagram illustrates the concept of the Trinity.  It is a tri-lobed figure composed of three circles representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  These three circles share a common area shown by the yellow shading which depicts the common essence shared by all three.  It shows the Godhead as three persons who are co-substantial with each other — i.e. sharing the same essence—as shown by the ten attributes represented by their initials overlaying the center of the tri-lobed figure: sovereignty, righteousness, justice, love, eternal life, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, immutability and veracity.

image Another figure has often been used to illustrate the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity, the so-called Scutum Fidei (Latin for “Shield of the Faith”) also known as the Shield of the Trinity.  In late medieval England and France, this emblem was considered to be the heraldic arms of God and of the Trinity.  It focuses on  illustrating that each of the Persons are truly  God, yet exist as three persons.  It shows that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.  Yet at the same time each of the three are wholly and completely one God.

 Scriptures That Reveal the Trinity

As we have mentioned before the doctrine of the Trinity is developed more in the New Testament than in the Old Testament.  Nevertheless there are many references in the Old Testament that reveal that God exists in more than one Person.  Genesis 1:26 records God’s decree to create man:

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image …” 

The Hebrew word translated into the English “Us” is elohim (אלהים).  It is a plural form of eloahh (אלוהּ), the word meaning Deity.  We also see this in Genesis 3:22:

“Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil …”

And again in Isaiah 6:8:

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’”

Another verse in Isaiah gives more Old Testament documentation of the Trinity:

Come near to Me; listen to this. From the first, I have not spoken in secret. From the time it took place, I was there. And now the Lord God [God the Father] has sent Me [God the Son], and His Spirit [God the Holy Spirit].

Isaiah 48:16

The Psalms differentiated between God the Father and God the Son when it predicted the incarnation of the Son of God:

I will announce the decree of the Lord [God the Father].  He said to Me [God the Son], You are My Son [Jesus Christ].  This day [the day of the incarnation] I have begotten You.’”

Psalm 2:7

And of course there are many verses in the New Testament that refer to the persons of God:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:19

Jesus made distinctions between Himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit:

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the [Holy] Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.

John 14:16

But He also declared that He and the Father were essentially the same (of the same essence):

I and the Father are one.

John 10:30

And again in an earlier passage in John 14:

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’  Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, “Show us the Father”?’

John 14:6-9

Just these few references reveal to us the rich scriptural documentation of the Trinity.  So far in our study of the Trinity we have covered the concept of the Trinity, examples of trinities in nature and the Scriptures, and what the Bible tells us about the triune nature of God.  There is much more to say about the Trinity than we have room for in this post, so in our next post we will examine the different roles that the Members of the Trinity play in Their activities on this earth.

 We’re grateful, Heavenly Father for Your word that reveals to us the mystery of Your nature—of Who You are. Thank You for Your truth that has saved us, that has freed us from our slavery to sin and opened the door to an unimaginably wonderful eternity with You which we will spend plumbing the depth of the riches of Your wisdom and knowledge—the perfect reflection of Your absolute and infinite character.  Bless this study and sanctify the things we have learned that we might be more perfectly conformed to the image of our Savior Jesus Christ, for it is in His name we ask it, amen.


To the reader:  If you have read this lesson, I would greatly appreciate any feedback, questions, or comments you have.  Getting feedback from my readers is very helpful and encouraging to me.  I promise to respond to all legitimate questions or comments as appropriate.  But please, do keep your questions and comments appropriate and constructive.

Thank you very much.

In His Service,

John McReynolds


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