Trinity Sunday

This Sunday is observed the Sunday after Easter Sunday

John 14-16; 2 Corinthians 13:14

The Doctrine of the Trinity: The Bedrock of the Christian Faith

My guess is that most Christians understand that they are supposed to believe in what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity.  They understand that since the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and since, of course, the Father is God, then God must be three in some mysterious way.  But they also know that there is only one God.  Most Christians don’t lose sleep over this mystery; they simply say they believe it (which I’m sure they do), and move on.

I would like to take this devotion on Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost, as is fitting since all three persons of the Triune God are now revealed to us) to show you that the doctrine of the Trinity is not some esoteric teaching that only the initiated can understand.  I want to show you that this doctrine is actually very practical and is the very foundation of our faith – which means we need to understand it.  Bear in mind, we do not mean that we can understand the doctrine to the point that we exhaust its meaning; of course not.  We mean only that we grasp of it what God has revealed to us.  (Indeed, if you take the time to read the passages above and seek the Trinitarian references in them, you will go a long way towards understanding matters all by yourself.)

Before I proceed with each member of the holy Trinity, I would like to explain a few things about the doctrine as a whole.  For starters, what is the best illustration we can use to help us understand how God can be three in one?  There is nothing that will be a perfect illustration because we simply have nothing in our experience or world that approximates God.  But the best I have ever heard comes from an ancient theologian, St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who compared God’s triune self to the human mind.  His argument went like this: A person only has one mind; however, within that mind, we can distinguish three operations: a memory, an understanding, and a will.  We cannot separate or divide them.  For example, one cannot understand something without using one’s memory (take mathematical concepts, for instance), nor can one use one’s understanding or memory without willing to do so, even though one is not aware of willing to do so when one is willing it.  This is the case for all three: we can never use one without the other two.  We can distinguish the three operations but never separate them.  However, we are still aware that one of the three is the primary one we are using most in a particular moment.  For example, if I am trying to memorize my lines for a church drama, the primary operation my mind is using at that moment is my memory, but of course, not without my understanding or my will.

So it is with God when He works in the world.  As one God, all three persons are involved in the action.  For example, the Father creates the world, but in conjunction with the Son (Proverbs 8:22-31; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17) and the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:2).  Still, we think of the Father as the primary actor in creation.  Likewise, the Son was the primary actor in redemption, not the only actor, as the Father sent him, and the Spirit prepared his body from the Virgin, but, still, it was the Son who was incarnated and crucified, not the Father or Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in the application of Christ’s redemption to us.  So this is how we understand our God’s three-in-oneness: the three are distinguishable but not separable, always working as one God in the world, but with one of the three “playing the lead role,” so to speak, in some activity.

So how does the Bible define the roles and tasks of each one of the three:

First, the Father:

1) The Father is the Origin, the Fount, the Beginning of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  We do not mean by that that there was ever a time when the Son or Holy Spirit was not; we only mean that in some mysterious way, which we shall never fully understand, the Son was begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father – from all eternity.  He is also the Father who initiates everything that the Triune God does in the world, be it creation itself or the plan of salvation.  So the Father is the beginning of all things within the world, and even within the holy Trinity itself.

2) He is the Sender or the One who sends.  He sent the Son in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), and He and the Son together sent the Holy Spirit ten days after the Son’s ascension into heaven on the day of Pentecost (John 14:16, 26; 16:7; Acts 2).

3) The virtue we associate with the Father is love (John 3:16; 16:27; 2 Corinthians 13:14).

Second, the Son:

1) The Son is the Mediator, the go-between, between us and the Father (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15).  His special task is as the agent of redemption sent by the Father.  The Son accomplished the plan of redemption which the Father initiated by sending him, through his life, death, and resurrection.

2) The virtue we associate with the Son is grace (2 Corinthians 13:14; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18; and almost all of Paul’s letters, especially his greetings and closings).

Third, the Holy Spirit:

1) The primary task of the Holy Spirit is the application of the redemption that was accomplished by the Son (John 16:7; Romans 8:1-39; Titus 3:5; 1 John 4:13).  There are many tasks that the Spirit does, the primary being birthing us anew in Christ (John 3:5-8), the next in importance being leading us into all truth through the Spirit-breathed sacred Scriptures (John 14:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-16).

2) And the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us is always that of the Son (John 16:12-14); that is, the Spirit does not speak on his own but of the Son, just as the Son spoke not on his own but of the Father (John 5:19-47).  This is why the Spirit is sent from both the Father and the Son – to bind the Spirit to the Son as the Son is bound to the Father.  When people divorce the Spirit from the Son, who is himself the Word of God, whose words are recorded in all the Scriptures, and not only the gospels but also in the words of the apostles and the prophets, they invariably fall into false teaching.  In sum, the Spirit speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures, and never apart from them – this is vital to understand and practice.

3) The virtue we associate with the Holy Spirit is power (Romans 15:13, 19).

This order must always be kept: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lest we confuse the three with one another and mix their essential roles and operations.  It is the order of the plan of redemption: the Father who initiates the plan, the Son who accomplishes the plan, and the Holy Spirit who applies the plan.  This is how they work in the world.

As to their own relations with one another, we only know that the Father is the Unbegotten, the Son is the one Begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is the one who Proceeds from the Father and the Son.  That is all we can know of God in His essence.  We can describe Him as infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc., but none of those descriptions tell us who He is in and of Himself.  That, we shall never comprehend fully – and getting to know God and worshiping Him as God will make heaven all that it is supposed to be for His redeemed people who will have no other desire in heaven but this: To know God and enjoy Him forever.

And so I hope you see how eminently practical is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Pentecost Sunday

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-47; Romans 8:1-39

Bringing Us Back into His Fold

In the Old Testament is an account that goes back to ancient times – way back.  It is the building of the Tower of Babel, that event in which men tried to make a monument to their collective selves.  They thought they could make it reach all the way to heaven.  God came down and judged the arrogance of men by confusing their language and thus scattering them over all the earth.  It was really a sad occasion.  The flood had only occurred a century or more before, and already man was up to no good.  But God expected as much, for after the flood, God said, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21, emphasis added).  So man was only acting according to his nature – his sinful nature.  So they (that is, we) were scattered abroad over all the earth – separated, isolated, alienated from God and one another.

The rest of the Old Testament is the story of how God was bringing us back into fellowship with Him, and back into fellowship with one another.  It involves promises made to Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets.  They were finally fulfilled in the person and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It was his sacrifice on the cross, foreshadowed in the Old Testament sacrifices, that reconciled God to us and made us acceptable before Him.

But there was one more step.  The third person in the Trinity was now to begin his work, a work we partially described on Ascension Day.  Acts 2 describes his coming, fulfilling the promise that Luke records from the Prophet Joel.  The Holy Spirit fell upon those disciples (about 120 of them, Acts 1:15) and they suddenly began speaking languages they previously did not know.  Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the “world” heard these Galileans speaking their own languages.  What did it all mean?

It meant that the event that happened at the Tower so many millennia earlier had been reversed.  Instead of speaking different languages and not being understood, now we were speaking different languages and understanding one another.  Instead of being scattered, we were now being gathered – gathered into one family again – the family of God.  The plan of redemption was fulfilled as the Holy Spirit came to work saving faith in the hearts of men so that they would believe in Jesus.  The Book of Revelation showed us what we now wait for.  The gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is our guarantee or down payment, our foretaste of that for which we wait.  He binds us together in love, sanctifies us, and makes us ready for our heavenly dwelling.  Our God has conquered Babel through the Spirit.  Hallelujah!

Afterword

The celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost closes the Easter Season.  From this point forward in the Book of Acts, the disciples (learners) become apostles (sent ones) who go out and preach the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world.  Let it be the same for us.  May we now take the message of salvation to our neighborhoods, knowing that the Holy Spirit goes before us.  I doubt that Peter thought three thousand people would come to saving faith in Christ Jesus on that one day.  Perhaps God will do great things through us as well.

Of course, Easter Season is never over.  Every Sunday is Easter Sunday.  Every Sunday is the opportunity we have to worship our risen Lord and Savior.  And we are Easter people – people whose lives have been forever changed because of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.  So although the Church provides “seasons” for us to observe these holy days and times for our instruction and edification, we should allow the work of these seasons to follow us all year long as we meditate on the majesty and mystery of the work of God in our salvation.

Praise be to the Father who sent His Son for our salvation; praise be to the Son who reconciled us to the Father; and praise be to the Holy Spirit who leads us to the Son that we may be reborn and adopted as children of the Father.  May the God of peace be with us and grant us to draw ever closer to Him through Christ Jesus our Lord and thereby closer to one another.  To God be the glory.  Amen.

Saturday in the Seventh Week of Easter

3 John 1-15

More on Hospitality

Third John is written to one named Gaius, apparently a leader in the church to which John was writing.  He writes to commend Gaius for his hospitality in receiving “the brothers.”  We spoke yesterday about how traveling evangelists often went from church to church in missionary activity.  In his second letter, John warned the church not to entertain anyone who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh.  In this letter, however, he affirms Gaius for receiving true preachers of the gospel.  All of this, of course, calls for discernment on behalf of pastors and churches.  Churches need to exercise caution in opening their pulpits to just any traveling preacher, indeed, perhaps even to someone of their own denomination.  The pulpit is not for just anyone who would like to stand up and say something.  It is a sacred piece of furniture, the primary purpose of which is to be the station where the gospel of Jesus Christ is carefully proclaimed.  Specifically, the pastor acts as gate-keeper for the church as he is especially entrusted to guard the flock from wayward teaching.  But the church as a whole must also guard the sacred deposit of the faith that has been entrusted to her by the hands of her Master.  Each member must be a devout listener and faithful student of the word, not accepting anything less than the straightforward preaching of the word in all of its fullness and glory.

Then John brings up one named Diotrephes.  He is someone in the church who apparently likes to have control.  He “puts himself first,” acknowledges not the apostolic authority, and likes to talk about other people.  Furthermore, he refuses to welcome the brothers, that is, the true preachers of the word.  And just in case there is a question about this, John reminds them that those who do good are from God and those who don’t aren’t.  Our Lord said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20).  That’s how you can tell a Diotrephes from, say, a Demetrius, whom everyone knows is a good fellow.

So let the church welcome the pure and sincere preaching of the word, and rejoice in the truth.  For our Lord has “no greater joy than to hear that [his] children are walking in the truth.”

Friday in the Seventh Week of Easter

2 John 1-13

Fellowship with One Another, and the Commandments

We are almost at the end of the Easter Season, but we will take up Second and Third John before we close.  These are the two shortest “books” of the New Testament, and therefore do not say as much as others.  But we must remember that they are still God’s word to us, and the Church has ever found strength and encouragement in them.

The letter is written to the “elect lady,” probably a way of referring to the church to which John is writing.  John calls himself “the elder,” referring to his pastoral role as an apostle.  The theme of the letter is “truth.”  John rejoices that the some of the children of the “elect lady” are walking in the truth.  It is this truth that abides with us and will be with us forever.  Although he does not express exactly what that truth is, it appears that what he says in verse seven gives us a clue, along with what he wrote in his first letter, namely, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who came in the flesh.  This is the truth that the Church of Jesus Christ must abide in at all times if she will abide in Him.

But there is a further “truth” that comes from this letter.  He reminds the church (the elect lady) of the commandment which was from the beginning – that they love one another.  We heard that from John in the first letter, numerous times.  But then he defines love somewhat differently from the way he defined love in the first letter.  In his first letter, love was defined as something God did (4:9-10).  But in this second letter, love is defined as something we do: “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments.”  And what is that commandment?  We already said it: that we love one another.  Love is the fulfillment of all of God’s commandments (Romans 13:10).  To love one another is to be an obedient child of God, is to know the joy of walking with God.  It is in this way that the love of God is perfected in us (1 John 2:5).

John closes with words of warning for the church.  At that time, many roving evangelists were visiting the churches.  Churches generally gave hospitality to such men.  John warns them sternly not to entertain anyone who denies that Jesus came in the flesh.  Indeed, to do so would be to take part in their sin.  A stern warning it seems, but John would have us know that we must never even entertain the notion of compromising the gospel message, not even for the sake of hospitality.  We must guard this treasure with our lives, for the gospel is our life, the life of the Church.

Thursday in the Seventh Week of Easter

1 John 5:13-21

That You May Know

As you well know, John wrote this letter and a gospel (and Second and Third John and Revelation).  In his gospel, he writes the purpose of his book towards the end: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).  Here in his first letter, he places the purpose again at the end: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”  So he wrote his gospel that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ; and, having believed that, he wrote his letter that we might know that as believers in Christ we have eternal life.  Thus, his gospel and his first letter fit very well together – the former pointing the way to saving faith, the latter indicating faith’s rewards.

Saving faith in this loving, benevolent God grants us great confidence in approaching Him in prayer.  Why wouldn’t one feel confident praying to such a wonderful God?  Because He has loved us so much as to stoop down to save us, we may know that He hears us when we pray according to His will, and that we shall have the requests we ask of Him.  Now the operative phrase here is: “according to His will.”  We know that we cannot ask for that which He would obviously oppose and expect to receive it.  The way we know His will is through the constant reading and application of Scripture to our lives (Hebrews 5:11-14).  Our problem comes when we ask things according to His will and do not receive.  We must remember that God calls us to patience in our prayers (Luke 18:1-8), and to submission to His will (Luke 22:42; 1 Peter 4:19).  Finally, we should remember that prayer is far more about finding ourselves in God’s will than about forcing Him into ours.

Verses sixteen and seventeen present a difficult passage.  What is a sin unto death?  Jesus spoke of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which seems to indicate a willful turning of the self and hardening of the heart towards the gospel message.  A sin unto death would seem to fall into that same category – an unrepented, presumptuous sin that one will not let go of, perhaps, in the light of John’s letter, a hatred for one’s brother or sister in Christ that one insists on taking to his grave.  It might be impossible to be specific.  John reminds us again that “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning,” for God protects him.  The Christian continually works to root out all sin, hating it even as God does, implying that the opposite attitude may indeed be indicative of sinning unto death.  But John wrote this letter so that we may know that we who believe have eternal life.  Fear not.

Wednesday in the Seventh Week of Easter

1 John 5:1-12

The Way to Overcome

In this passage, John shows us the way to overcome the world, which is through faith in Jesus Christ.  We remember that for John, the world is an enemy.  The world is the tool of Satan to tempt us to sin and rebellion.  The Christian is called to flee, shun, or even better, overcome, the world.

We have already said that the way to overcome the world is through faith.  But how does one come to saving faith?  The first verse of this chapter speaks volumes: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”  This verse tells us three things.  First, it tells us that faith has content.  In other words, faith isn’t just believing anything.  Faith isn’t some mysterious experience that you can’t explain.  Faith isn’t something empty, as revealed in such sayings as, “Keep the faith,” which only begs the question, “Faith in what?”  Faith is believing something specific, namely, that Jesus is the Christ.  John states this in two other ways as well: confessing that Jesus is the Son of God (4:15) and that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2).  We also notice that saving faith centers around a specific confession about Jesus and His relationship to the Father.  Which brings us to the second point this passage reveals, and which has been emphasized all along in this letter, namely, that there is no daylight between the Son and the Father.  To have the one is to have the other (2:23).  The Christian faith makes an exclusive and offensive claim before the world: That Jesus is the Christ, and the only Savior of the world.  And finally, this opening verse tells us the divine order of how one is saved.  Notice that those who believe “have been born” of God.  They believe because they have experienced the new birth, which John speaks of throughout this letter and in his gospel.  We do not believe so that we may be born again; we are born again so that we may believe.  And this puts the emphasis back where it’s supposed to be: with God.  We remember that it is He who loved us, not vice-versa, and it is only His loving us that enables us to love Him.  Likewise, it is only His birthing us anew through the Holy Spirit that enables us to believe that His Son is the Christ, the one who came in the flesh, the Savior of the world.

And it is this faith that keeps the commandments, since the Holy Spirit living within us gives us a heart to keep them, so that they are no longer burdensome to us but a joy.  It is this faith that hears the Spirit say that our Lord came by water (his baptism) and by blood (his passion) to save us.  It is this faith that teaches us that abundant and eternal life dwell in the Son.  And it is faith in such promises as this that overcomes the world.

Tuesday in the Seventh Week of Easter

1 John 4:7-21

And Just Why Should We Love One Another?

John has told us several times now that we should love one another.  Now he tells us the reason.  To do so, he defines what love is.  Love is often defined as caring and feeling.  But listen to John: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”  And then he further clarifies: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  (To propitiate means to take the punishment for our sin and thus render God “propitious” towards us.)  Notice how John defines love.  He says nothing about us generating or doing the loving.  We are the objects of love, and that is all.  John defines love strictly from God’s side.  Indeed, he pointedly says, “Not that we have loved God.”  It is God doing the loving, and He is loving us.  In other words, if you will know what love is, you must look at God, and what He has done.  And what has God done?  God sent His Son as our atoning sacrifice so that we might live through him.  It is because God has loved us and shown us what love is that then John can say, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  Later on he adds, “We love because He first loved us.”  And this is why we should love one another – because God has so loved us.

It is God’s love that is the basis for our loving.  I cannot hope to love rightly until I learn how to love the way God would have me to.  And God’s way of loving is obviously sacrificial and giving.  We recall that Jesus laid down his life, and in a most painful way.  I must learn to love my wife, my children, my friends, my church, and my enemies, the way God loves them and for His glory.  I must love them all for His sake, knowing full well that the way He wants me to love them will run completely counter to the way I want to love them.  My way will always be tainted with self-interest, but His way will always be pure and devout … and sometimes painful, as it was for our Lord.  Ultimately, I must love others, not for my sake, and perhaps not even for their sake, but for His sake.

This kind of love is impossible for man, but we can possess it because “He has given us of His Spirit.”  As His Spirit leads us, placing the saving confession of His Son upon our lips, we abide in Him and He in us.  We grow in love as we continue to walk with Him.  As we grow in love, we are thereby perfected in love, and such love relieves us of all fear – fear of Judgment Day, but also the fear of the risk of loving others.  Like spokes on a wheel, the closer we get to God, the closer we get to one another.