Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Preeminent Christ – Col. 1:15-22

As we come to the end of the year 2018, we can probably all look back on the year and find a thousand reasons to be thankful and to see God’s grace in our lives.  It is true, of course, whether we see it or not!  And yet, at the same time, we would have to be blind not to look at the surrounding culture, which is becoming increasingly ungodly and hostile to the Christian faith, and not also find a thousand reasons to be dismayed.  And so here in the second decade of the twenty-first century we need to be ready to face an uncertain future with courage and faith.  We need to be ready to live as people who are pilgrims in a strange land.

As Christians, this means you and I have to absolutely committed to the lordship of Christ over our lives, even as others refuse to acknowledge his lordship at all.  Being a follower of Christ does not have the same cultural value as it did a few decades ago.  It is not a plus in your value column but a very big minus.  It’s no longer a wonderful bonus but woeful baggage.  So we will never remain faithful to Christ in a generation that hates him with a renewed and increasingly violent rage unless we are absolutely convinced he is who the Christian faith claims that he is: the Son of God and Savior of the world.

But how are you going to be that kind of person?  First of all, we need to be reminded that we are not the first to face cultural opposition to the faith.  What we have experienced in the last couple hundred years here in the West is an anomaly in the history of the church.  Even in our own day millions of believers all over the world face daily persecution.  And yet the church remains, and the faith grows even in the face of great opposition.  The same history that tells us that persecution is normal also tells us of a church that has been victorious over our vicious foe, the Devil.  Our Lord’s prophesy of the church has been vindicated over and over again: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).

And then we need to be willing to hold the faith with courageous conviction.  Are you convinced that Jesus is who he said he was?  Can you say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69).

Athanasius was one such man.  He lived in the fourth century (296-373 A.D.), walking through the heat of debates that raged in the church about the deity of Christ.  He was a contemporary of Arius (though about 40 years younger) and actually served with Arius for a time in the same church in Alexandria, Egypt.  Arius was deposed in 320 for teaching that the Son of God was the first and greatest of God’s creatures, that there was a time when the Son was not.  It was in response to this teaching that the Council of Nicaea (325) was convened, which gave us the Nicene Creed.  However, this was not the end of the story; even though the overwhelming majority of the bishops signed the Creed, in the years following the council, there was a lot of debate and confusion over exactly how believers should view the person of Jesus Christ.  While most of the disagreements were between those who were essentially orthodox, yet this controversy gave an opportunity for the Arian party to make some serious and dangerous advances in the church.

Into this environment stepped Athanasius, who made the aim of his entire life and ministry the defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Son of God.  He was the bishop of the church in Alexandria from 328 to the end of his life.  He not only participated in the Council of Nicaea, he vigorously defended it against all comers.  Although the debates centering around the deity of Christ would not be finally settled until the Council of Constantinople in 381, several years after his death, yet his witness and ministry was, under God, a vital element for the final victory of orthodoxy over heterodoxy. 

It wasn’t easy: he was exiled five times by various emperors, spending seventeen of his forty-five years as bishop in exile.  And yet he never wavered.  According to the historian Edward Gibbon, Athanasius demonstrated “what effect may be produced, or what obstacles may be surmounted, by the force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object.  Then immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defense he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being.”[1]  Like Luther would 1200 years later, Athanasius stood against emperors and false churchmen in support of truth at the hazard of his own life and ministry.  And yet, his courageous stand was crowned by God with victory.

What made Athanasius so courageous is that he understood the magnitude of what was at stake.  Debating the deity of Christ is not merely a cerebral and impractical matter that is fit only for scholars to debate.  The very life of the church depends on getting this right.  More than that, he understood that our eternal life depends on the fact that Jesus Christ is, in his divine nature, eternally and unchangeably and gloriously God over all.  He wrote:

No-one else but the Savior who in the beginning made everything out of nothing, could bring what had been corrupted into a state free from corruption.  No-one else but the Image of the Father could re-create human beings in God’s image.  No-one else but our Lord Jesus Christ, who is life itself, could give immortality to mortal humans.  No-one else but the Logos, who imparts order to everything and is the one and only-begotten Son of the Father, could teach us about the Father and destroy idolatry . . . He revealed Himself in a body that we might see the invisible Father; He suffered our insults that we might inherit immortality.[2]

I want each one of you to have the same conviction about Christ that Athanasius had.  In the face of a hostile society, you will be tempted to fall away from Jesus Christ unless you are absolutely convinced that he, and he alone, holds the keys to eternal life, that he is the Son of God, and the only way to the Father.

Now in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity which we have been considering the past few weeks, understanding who Jesus is, is absolutely crucial.  It is understanding that Jesus is himself divine that is the linchpin to the doctrine of the Trinity.  If you believe in the true and full divinity of Christ, chances are that you are going to be orthodox in your understanding of the Trinity.

In our last message, we considered John’s witness to the divinity of Christ, in terms of the glory that he manifested in his earthly life and atoning death.  However, there are a lot of folks out there who think that John represents an aberrant witness to the person of Christ.  Some will say that John does not represent the earliest witness to the faith of the church.  Though this is ridiculous, and can only be maintained if you argue that John’s gospel was not written by the apostle John (which is a very tenuous claim, to say the least), yet I want to show you that the other authors of the NT also clearly affirmed the deity of Christ.  In particular, I want a very important passage in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  This passage is interesting, because, although it doesn’t say, “Jesus is God” in so many words, yet its testimony leaves us with the unavoidable conclusion that Jesus Christ is none other than the eternal Son of God who shares the very nature of the Father.

The Preeminent Christ

Speaking of the Son of the Father (1:13), Paul writes that he “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him where all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in the earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist.  And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.  For it please the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (15-19).

Some people will take passages like this and focus on words like “firstborn” and “beginning” in order to cement the claim that Paul believed that Christ was a creature just like you and me.  But before we consider the import of these words, think about what the apostle is claiming about Christ here.  He is claiming that Christ is the creator of all things (16).  Think about that: the entire witness of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that God is the creator of all things.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” exactly what Paul here ascribes to Christ.  In contrast to the false gods of his day, the prophet Jeremiah makes this claim for the true God: “He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion” (Jer. 10:12).  Again, this is exactly what Paul says of the Son of the Father.

He is not only the creator of all things, but by his providence he holds all things together (17).  In other words, Christ is the ultimate explanation for the laws of physics and chemistry.  It has been rightly said that though the laws of physics explain many things in the universe, one of the things they do not explain is the existence of such laws.  In contrast, the late Stephen Hawking has written that “because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”[3]  He uses this logic to get around a creator, but such a statement begs the question: why is there a law of gravity anyway?  Paul’s answer: because Jesus Christ created it!

Now such descriptions don’t fit the idea that Jesus Christ is a creature just like you and me.  They are properly descriptions of someone who eternally shares the very nature of God. 

Of course, some pseudo-Christian groups will argue that God created Christ, and then Christ created everything else.  The Jehovah’s Witness actually insert the word “other” in their translation in verse 16.  But that is not what Paul says here.  He says that “all things” absolutely were created by him; in other words, if it was created, Christ created it!  This precludes the idea that Christ is a created being, unless you are willing to believe that he created himself.  In fact, Paul goes on to be as inclusive as possible: he created all things “visible and invisible.”  This includes angelic beings (cf. 2:15, 18).  Christ is the creator, not just of dirt clods and mountains and animals and people; he is also the creator of the invisible unseen world of angelic beings.  This precludes the idea that the Son of God is an angelic being, even if he is supposed to be the first and greatest of them all.

Now let’s consider some of the other descriptions Paul gives to Christ in these verses.  First of all, he is said to be “the image of the invisible God” (15).  Now man in general is said to be the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7).  After all, human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).  However, when mankind fell in sin, the image of God in man was effaced; consequently, one of the goals of redemption is the restoration of the image of God in man (cf. Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  However, in Rom. 8:29, Paul says that “whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”  Putting Rom. 8:29 together with these other passages, we see that being recreated in God’s image is the same thing as being recreated in the image of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  How could this be?  It is possible because, as Paul says here, Christ is the “image of the invisible God”: that is, he is the perfect representation and likeness of God’s nature.  “Christ is then the image of God in the sense that He is like God. Indeed, He is the exact likeness of God, like the image on a coin or the reflection in a mirror.”[4]  He is like God because he shares God’s nature, being God’s Son.  As such, his being God’s image didn’t begin with the incarnation; he has from eternity been the perfect image and representation of God.

The author of Hebrews uses a similar expression to describe the Son of God in the opening words of his epistle: “…in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the world of his power” (Heb. 1:2-3, ESV).  To call a mere creature the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature is ridiculous.  These words describe the eternal Son of God, who shares deity with the Father and the Spirit.  This verse is very important for another reason; the phrase “the radiance of the glory of God” points to one of the illustrations the early church fathers used often to illustrate the fact that though the Son is distinct from the Father, he shares the undivided nature of God, like a beam of light from the sun.  You look at the sun and you see light; you are bathed in its light through the beams of light it sends to earth.  The beam is not the sun, but they both share the nature of light.  Thus, in the Nicene Creed, Christ is said to be “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence as the Father.” 

Second, Paul writes that Christ is “the firstborn of every creature” (15).  Now here the heretics will pounce.  “Firstborn” can indicate the first of several sons to be born, and so they want to take this to mean that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures.  In other words, they want it to mean “first created.”  But this is not what Paul is wanting to convey; nor is it what the words means.  Rather, he is wanting to convey the ideas of pre-existence and preeminence.  Being created, or even having a beginning, is not the point here.

In the ancient eastern culture, the firstborn son had certain privileges and status that the younger sons did not have.  Hence, over time, “firstborn” came to denote priority in rank, sometimes without respect for time.  This can be seen in a number of OT uses.  For example, in Exodus 4:22, the nation of Israel is called God’s firstborn, even though Israel was not the first nation God created.  Or, in Ps. 89:27, king David is also celebrated as God’s firstborn, although he was the youngest of Jesse’s sons. 

So here, when the apostle says that the Son of God is the firstborn, he is not making any statement about the creation of Christ, but rather that he is pre-existent to and preeminent over all creation (cf. ver. 18).  “Firstborn,” doesn’t mean “first created,” but first in position and rank over all creation.  As the creator of all things, he is its Lord and King.  Even if the term carries with it temporal connotations, as James White points out, in any case the term does “not speak to creation but to birth, and such a term could easily refer to the Son’s relationship to the Father, not to any idea of coming into existence as a creature.”[5]  The Son is the Son of God the Father, and as such is eternally begotten of the Father.  Though it is difficult to know what this means exactly, it in no way points to the Son as having a beginning at some point in time.  As N.T. Wright points out, though the word firstborn “conveys the idea of priority in time and rank . . . to opt for temporal priority does not imply that the pre-existent Son of God is merely the first created being. … It is in virtue of this eternal pre-existence that the Son of God holds supreme rank.”[6]

In verse 18, the apostle explicitly ties the idea of being “firstborn” to preeminence: he is “the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.”  The point here is not just that Christ was the first to rise from the dead, but rather that in his rising from the dead, he has done something definitive and as the result holds first place over all.  He has not just risen from the dead: he is the resurrection and the life. 

The point of the apostle is to show that Christ is first over all, preeminent, exalted.  This is not the description of a creature, but of the Creator over all: God eternal.  As Brian Hedges has put it, “Paul’s argument for the Son’s supreme status and authority as the image of the invisible God, the ruler over all creation, the head of the church, and the firstborn form the dead now culminates in this exalted claim.  As the Lord of creation and new creation, the Son holds complete supremacy and claims full rights of ownership.”[7] 

It should therefore not surprise us that the apostle goes on to write, “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (19).  What does this mean?  Given what the apostle will say in 2:9 (“For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily”), the fulness here is God’s fulness.  (ESV translates, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”)  Though we are invited to pray that we might be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph. 3:19), the fullness there is not that of deity as it is here, but the fullness of the communication of God’s love to sinful men.  Again, to quote N.T. Wright, “It is appropriate that Christ should hold pre-eminence, because God in all his fullness was please to take up permanent residence . . . in him.  The full divinity of the man Jesus is stated without any implication that there are two Gods.  It is the one God, in all his fullness, who dwells in him.”[8]

What difference does it make?

Some might say, and have said, “But what difference does it make, as long as we believe in Jesus?”  Well, it makes a world of difference.  To believe in Jesus doesn’t mean anything unless you believe in the Jesus who is revealed to us in Scripture.  We need to understand that we are not called to believe in a man of our own imagination who just happens to have the name Jesus, but that we are called to place our confidence in the Christ who is revealed to us in the pages of the New Testament.  Paul himself exhorts the Colossian church, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (2:6); in other words, as you received him as preached by the apostles, live your life in that faith (cf. 1 Jn. 4:6).

Moreover it is serious because a Christ who is not God cannot do what is at the heart of our faith: namely, faith in a Savior who has conquered sin and death for us.  A mere man cannot be a substitute for others in this case, for he cannot bear your guilt before God and punishment upon himself, and he cannot purge your sin.  Yes, it takes a man to stand in for another man (the reason the animal sacrifices of the OT were insufficient), but it takes God to completely atone for our sins.  Think of it: if there it a hell that is the just punishment for sins, how could any mere man quench the fires of hell for other sinners, let alone himself?  If God is infinitely holy and our sin is infinitely heinous and deserves an infinite punishment, then man alone cannot atone for sin.  Only an infinite God could bear an infinite punishment.  In other words, in order for atonement to happen, a God-Man must be our substitute.  This is the heart of the Christian faith.

This is why the apostle, having said about Christ what he said in verses 15-19, can go on to say, “And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven, and you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight” (20-22).  Only the God-Man of verses 15-19 can accomplish the reconciliation of verses 20-22. 

Because Christ is the God-Man, we can have absolute confidence that he has actually and completely purged the sins of all who put their faith in him.  First of all, he has “made peace through the blood of his cross.”  Peace with who?  Certainly, given what he writes in Eph. 2, and verse 21, this is peace with God.  This is a peace that goes both ways, for God is no longer our enemy because our penalty has been paid, and we are not longer enemies toward God because one of the effects of the atonement is not only justification but also sanctification, so that our hearts are changed and we love God instead of hate him.  The effect is summarized in verse 22: “to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.”

Moreover, since Christ is creator over all, his work of reconciliation extends to all his creation.  By the cross, he will not only bring about salvation for sinful men and women but will also finally bring all the fallen elements of creation into harmony and peace (cf. Eph. 1:10). 

Finally, note the finality of redemption: “having made peace.”  On the cross, our Lord’s last words were, “It is finished!”  He is a successful Savior; he will have the price of his redemption.  Therefore those who trust in him can be fully assured that their sins will be completely purged.

All this makes sense only if Christ is the God-Man.  We can see clearly from these verse that the apostle Paul believed in the deity of Christ with just as much conviction as the apostle John.  Let us too, join with the apostles in a firm belief in the full deity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father shares the undivided nature and essence of the Godhead.  But let us go further: for the demons believe and tremble.  Let us go on to love him, to trust in him, and to obey him.  Faith without works is dead.  What we need to live the Christian life in any day and any place is that firm confidence, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, that rests in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  And the witness of Scripture is that all who place their faith in him will never be ashamed.

[1] Quoted in Nick Needham, Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power, vol. 1 (Christian Focus, 2016), p. 228.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Quoted in John Lennox, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? (Lion Hudson, 2011), p. 16.  There are several problems with this statement, including the fact that if there is a law of gravity, then there is something, not nothing.  Moreover, to say that the universe creates itself is to make the remarkable claim that the universe existed before it existed, which is absurd to say the least. Hawking was far, far more intelligent than I will ever be or even could be, but baloney in the mouths of the brilliant is still baloney.
[4] Curtis Vaughan, Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan, 1980), p. 38.
[5] James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House, 1998), p. 113.
[6] N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: TNTC (IVP, 1986), p. 71.
[7] Brian Hedges, Christ All Sufficient: An Exposition of Colossians, (Shepherd Press, Kindle Edition), loc. 754.
[8] Wright, p. 76.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

We Beheld His Glory: John 1:14

This morning we are two days before Christmas.  It is natural therefore for our minds to be directed to the Gift and the miracle of the birth of the Son of God into this world in Bethlehem so many years ago.  If our hearts are right, we will not only be led to consider the miracle but also the implications of this miracle.  If we stay in the manger, and don’t consider what that manger made possible, we will have missed the entire point of this holiday.  Our text helps us to consider the great implications of the birth of Christ.  In particular, it tells us that the incarnation (the coming in flesh) of the Son of God made possible a display of his glory that would not have been possible otherwise.  More than this, it made possible the sharing of this glory for others.  This is what we want to consider this morning: what the glory of Christ says about him, how this glory was displayed in the earthly life and death of our Lord, and how we become participants in this glory.

What the glory says about Christ

Our text reads, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”  This is the apostle John describing the incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh.  He was “made flesh” or “became flesh and dwelt among us” (ESV).  That he is referring to Jesus is made clear by verses 15-17.  The apostle tells us that John the Baptist bore witness about this Word made flesh, and then John the apostle goes on to say that “of his [referring to the one who was witnessed to by John the Baptist, which was the Word made flesh] fullness have we all received, and grace for grace.  For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”  Verse 17 explains verse 16, especially the phrase “grace for grace.”  This grace comes from the fulness of the Word made flesh, and verse 17 tells us that this grace came by Jesus Christ.  Here therefore we have the positive identification of the Word in verse 14.  The Word made flesh is Jesus Christ.

And he was truly a man.  He was “flesh,” not in the pejorative sense often used in the NT, but in the sense that he was flesh and blood, as fully a human being as you and I.  He hungered and got tired and felt the sting of rejection and loneliness and suffering and pain.  When he was nailed to the cross, he felt the nails and spikes and thorns just as any other human person would have felt them.

And yet he was not just a man.  As I noted last time, this was a realization that dawned slowly upon the apostles.  But how did it happen?  The apostle John tells us in our text: “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”  As the apostles accompanied our Lord through his earthly ministry, they saw something.  John describes what they saw as “glory.”  This is a term which to ears trained by the Scriptures sounds like something which describes God.  In the Bible, glory is something which is over and over again ascribed to God.  Moses asked God to show him his glory (Exo. 33:18).  Several times the Bible calls us to ascribe to God the glory that is due his name (1 Chron. 16:29; Ps. 29:2; 96:8).  In heaven, God’s glory is continually extolled (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:11; 5:13).  Glory is seen as something which is distinctively God’s and which is connected to the worship of God.  Therefore, when John uses this word to describe Jesus, he is saying something very powerful.  He is saying that this Word-become-flesh, this Man, is more than a mere man – he is saying that this man displayed something (glory) which belongs peculiarly to God. 

Of course, we already know by this point the conclusion John arrived at.  He begins his gospel with these bold and unapologetic words: “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; and without him was not anything made that was made” (ver. 1-3).  Though there are some modern-day Arians (Jehovah’s Witnesses) who claim that verse 1 should be translated, “and the Word was a god,” this is a bad and impossible translation.  The Greek text is properly translated, “and the Word was God.”  But Greek aside, this is the conclusion we have to come to if we take verse 3 seriously.  This verse tells us that the Word made everything that was made.  If he were a created being, this would mean that the Word created himself.  Which would mean that the Word had to exist before he existed.  Which of course is impossible.  John saw the glory of the Word, and came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was God, the one who created all things. 

If the first verse of John’s gospel sounds familiar, it should, for it is meant to make you think of Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . And God said . . .” (1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26).  Genesis 1 tells us that God created all things by his Word.  John’s gospel identifies this Word with the person of Jesus Christ.  He is the one who created all things.  His powerful word brought matter and energy into being, created the laws of physics, and holds all things in being by the same powerful word (Col. 1:16-17).

John further describes him in verse 14: “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”  The Word, the one who created all things, is the only begotten of the Father.”  But who is the Father?  In John’s gospel, both Jesus and his opponents claimed that God was their Father (Jn. 8:28-29, 41-42).  The Father is therefore clearly a reference to God.  And yet the Word is someone clearly distinct from the Father.  He is not the same as God the Father; he is the “only begotten of the Father”; or, as most modern translations put it, “the only Son from the Father” (ESV).

Now some have capitalized on this and claim that because Jesus is the Son of God, he is therefore something less than God.  After all, Adam is called the “son of God” in Luke 3:38.  But notice that John doesn’t just describe Jesus as a son of God, but as the unique, the one-and-only, Son of God.  He is God’s Son in a way that no one else is.  God is his Father in a special and unique way. 

What is this special and unique relationship?  John is saying that Jesus is the Son of God in the sense that he shares the very nature of God with God the Father (cf. 1:1).  Even our Lord’s opponents recognized this.  When Jesus defended his actions by the words, “My Father is working unto now, and I am working,” this is the way they responded: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:17-18, ESV).  For Jesus, being the Son of God, meant that he was equal with God, that he shared the very nature of God.

This is the point that is being made in the very first verse of John’s gospel.  The Word was with God, that is, the Father.  He is not the Father; he is with him from eternity.  But that is not all that John has to say: “and the Word was God,” by which John means that the Word shares the very nature of God.  What God was the Word was.  He is neither identical with the Father, but neither is he less than the Father.  He is equal with the Father in terms of sharing the very nature of God.

What the first chapter of John very clearly tells us is that from eternity (“in the beginning”) God the Father and God the Son existed together.  They are distinct persons who together share the undivided nature of God.  What we have here is the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity.  And though the Spirit is not mentioned in this chapter, he will come in for detailed treatment in our Lord’s final discourse in the Upper Room in chapters 13-17.  There, the Spirit is called “another Paraclete,” someone who will come to minister to Christ’s disciples in his physical absence (14:16).  He is clearly distinct from the Son of God who sends him (as well as the Father who also sends him), but he is also clearly of the same nature as the Son; otherwise, how could he be called “another (of the same kind) Helper/Comforter/Advocate”?  We are therefore justified in saying that the Spirit of God too shares the very nature of God.

So here we have all the essential elements of the doctrine of the Trinity.  This is not something that later theologians invented.  It is something they were required to formulate in order to stay faithful to all the teaching of Scripture, especially in view of heresies that were attacking the church.

Let’s remind ourselves what the total teaching is.  As we pointed out in our last message, Scripture teaches that God is one.  We are not told to believe in “gods” but in the God.  God is never plural but always singular.  But Scripture also teaches that there are the Father, Son, and Spirit, and these each properly share the very nature of God and yet are distinct.  The only way to piece the various elements of Scripture together in a coherent way is to posit the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is one in essence and three in person.  But it is very important that we understand exactly what we mean by this.

First of all, when we say that the Father, Son, and Spirit share the nature of God, we do not mean that the essence of the Godhead is divided or distributed between them.  God is not a physical substance; he is not made of complex of parts; rather, he is Spirit (Jn. 4:24).  And spirit is not something you can just cut into pieces, like a pie.  Rather, we are saying that the one undivided essence of God is equally and completely shared by all three persons in the Trinity.  The Father is fully God, and as God is all that God is.  The Son is fully God, and as God is all that God is.  The Spirit is God, and as God is all that God is. 

Nor do we say that they share the nature of God like we all share the nature of humanity.  I am a human being and you are a human being; we can further say that we are all fully human.  That is not what we are saying when we say that the Father and Son and Spirit are fully God.  The difference is that human nature is divisible, but the Godhead is not.  Each Divine Person contains all that God is in terms of his essence.  Another way that theologians have tried to express this is in terms of mutual indwelling.  Each Person of the Trinity mutually indwell each other in terms of the essence of God.  This is very difficult to comprehend, because there is nothing like this in the created and finite world that God has made.  Which makes all the illustrations break down at some point. 

The reason we have to say this is because if we suppose that the nature of God is distributed between each Person, then what you end up with are three Gods, not one God, and this would violate the teaching of Scripture.  It is the fact that the essence remains undivided that we have one God, not three.  The Persons are not parts of the essence; each contains the entire essence of the Godhead.  They are three mutually related yet distinct modes of personal being in the one undivided essence of the Godhead.

Second, just as we have to emphasize the indivisibility of God’s essence, we also have to emphasize the fact that the Persons are irreducibly distinct.  That is, the Son is not the Father in another role.  Now I am both a father and a son; but I am the same person who is both.  This is not what is going on in the Trinity.  For this would mean that the Father is the Son is the Spirit, and that they are different in terms merely of the role that is being played at the moment.  But this is not what the Scriptures teach.

Rather, the Scriptures teach us that the Father is distinct from the Son, and that this distinction is a personal one and not merely a distinction of role.  The Father is a different Person from the Son.  And the Spirit is a different Person from the Father and the Son.  I tried to show you just how important this is in the previous message.  If God is unipersonal, then it is impossible to understand how God could be loving before he created the universe, and therefore loving in himself.  It is only as we embrace the doctrine of the Trinity that we can understand why and how it is the very nature of God to be loving.  The love that God offers us in the gospel is a love that overflows from the love that has been eternally shared between the members of the Trinity.  The invitation of salvation is an invitation to share in the fellowship of the Holy Trinity, and this is meaningless if God existed before the creation of the world as a single-person God. 

One of the frightening implications of a one-person God is that such a God needs us for fellowship.  Why is that frightening?  It is frightening because that makes God needy, and the last thing a fallen creation needs is a needy God, a God who depends on us to complete his happiness.  This is not good news; it is bondage.  After all, how could I possibly complete God’s happiness?  I can’t!  But the good news of the gospel is that the God who doesn’t need you, the God who is completely self-sufficient and happy and glorious in himself has overflowed in sovereign grace through the work of God the Son to include you and all your neediness and emptiness in his loving embrace.  The doctrine of the Trinity implies that God did not create you because he needed love or fellowship; rather, he created you because it is his nature to overflow and to share his glory and joy and love with others – first of all in the fellowship of the Trinity itself, and then outwardly towards his creation.

How the glory was displayed and shared

Now I am saying all this is implicit here in the very first chapter of John’s gospel; indeed, it is all implicit in our text.  But John didn’t figure this out by himself.  This doctrine is not something that we can arrive at through the evidence available in nature; it is something that must be revealed to us.  And God revealed this to us preeminently to us in the coming of his Son to earth in his mission to rescue us from our sins.  John tells us that he saw the glory of Christ, and what he saw convinced him that what he was seeing was the glory of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.  In other words, it is only as we see Jesus for who he is that we can really come to grips with the doctrine of the Trinity.  Those who reject the Trinity always get Jesus wrong.  They end up either making him a lesser deity or just another man.  But once you embrace Jesus as the unique, one-and-only Son of God, then you are immediately faced with plurality in the unity of the Godhead; in other words, you are faced with the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity.

John saw the glory of Christ and followed him; it is only as we see the glory of Christ that we too will follow him and be saved.  For this is precisely how Paul describes conversion: seeing the glory of Christ.  Those who see it are saved; those who are blinded to it are lost.  “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3-6).  It is only as we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that we will ever come to him and embrace him as our Lord and Savior.

But what did he see?  What was this glory that he saw?  John does not leave us in doubt.  The glory he saw was the glory of the incarnate Word, the glory of the Son of God who became also the Son of Man.  He manifested his glory in his miracles as he showed his sovereignty over the physical creation.  We are told that at the marriage at Cana in Galilee, where he turned the water into wine, that “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory” (Jn. 2:11).  The result was that “his disciples believed in him.”

Or consider what John and the other apostles saw at Lazarus’ grave.  There, when Martha reminded the Lord that her brother had already been dead for four days, he responded with the rebuke, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”  (Jn. 11:40).  And they did see his glory; Jesus by simply speaking a word raised this dead man back to life again.  Here was a man who not only had power over the chemical properties of water and wine, but someone who had life in himself and who could give it to whom he chose (cf. Jn. 5:26).

But it was not just his miracles that convinced them.  It was also the teaching of this man.  John would write in his epistle, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:1, 3).  It was not just seeing his works that convinced them, but also hearing his words that convinced them that this was more than just a prophet standing before them.  At one point, when many of Jesus’ would-be disciples turned their backs on Jesus and walked no more with him, Peter responded by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69). 

This is what happens when you see Jesus for who is really is.  Not just another good man, or even a good prophet.  But the Holy One of God.  The one who can give life to the physically and spiritually dead.  This is not just a good man but the Son of God, one who is God in his very nature, the God Man.  And when you see Jesus for who he truly is, when you see the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, your response is the same as that of the apostles: “to whom [else] shall we go?”

But the ultimate display of Christ’s glory was neither a sermon nor a miracle.  It was his humiliating death on the cross, a death that lead to his resurrection and exaltation.  Our Lord himself put it this way on the eve of his death: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:23-24).  He is clearly referring to his death, a death that would ultimately result in bearing “much fruit;” i.e. drawing many people to himself for eternal life (cf. ver. 32).  The hour of the Son of Man was his hour to be glorified.  This is counterintuitive to us because we wouldn’t naturally associate the humiliation of a cross with glory.  But the cross was the only way by which Christ could be glorified.  For Paul writes, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).

The amazing thing about this is that the glory of Christ in his death is a glory that secured eternal glory and happiness for his elect.  It is not a glory only for himself.  For the salvation purchased on the cross is a salvation that secures glorification for the saints (cf. Rom. 8:30).  What is this glory?  Listen to what our Lord prays in John 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.”  Of course he is not saying that we will become glorious like Christ in every respect.  We will never be deified.  We will forever remain the creature and Christ the creator.  But just as a king can lavish his glory on his subjects without relinquishing his throne, even so Christ lavishes his glory on his people while remaining their Lord.  Again, Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).  That is, insofar as Christ shares our humanity, the glory that his humanity has received will be a glory that his people will receive as well in the age to come.

Unfortunately, people are continually seeking to meet the needs of their souls in other things because they have not yet seen, or refuse to see, the glory of God in Christ.  The problem is not because Jesus is no longer physically present to demonstrate his miracles or see his risen body.  The problem is that, as sinful men and women, we continue to seek glory in things which blind us to the greater needs of the soul before God.  We blind ourselves with the little incandescent light bulbs of human glory and turn our backs on the glory of Son of God.  If seeing the miracles of Jesus were all it would take to constrain to heart and mind to faith in Christ, then Jesus would never have been rejected by Pharisees and Sadducees of his day.  Even after the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection, the enemies of Jesus began to plot his death.  They knew that Lazarus had been raised from the dead.  In fact, even after our Lord’s own resurrection, we are told that “some doubted” (Mt. 28:17).  They couldn’t deny it; yet they refused to believe.  Why?

Jesus tells us why: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn. 5:44).  The apostle John explains: “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (Jn. 12:43).  It’s not a problem of evidence.  It’s a problem of what kind of glory you desire.  If you desire the glory of God, you will see it in the face of Jesus Christ.  If, on the other hand, you love the glory that comes from lust and greed and power, you will remain blinded to the truer glory of God and a captive to your sin.

The glory of Jesus Christ shines today in the gospels for all to see.  It is the glory of the Son of God, the glory of Holy Trinity shining forth in human form.  When we embrace him for who he is, we inevitably embrace the doctrine of the Trinity.  And doing so, we not only arrive at truth but embrace the eternal life which is found in embracing the Son of God by faith: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13).  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these 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” (Jn. 20:30-31).

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Why you should love (the doctrine of) the Trinity – Matthew 3:13-17

Christianity is what is called a monotheistic religion.  That is, we believe in one God, as opposed to many gods, which is polytheism.  Many of the religions that the ancient Israelites interacted with, and were tempted by, were polytheistic.  Many regions would have their own tribal deity.  We are all familiar with the ancient Roman and Greek pantheon, featured for example in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. 

We are monotheists because Christianity grows out of the religion of Moses and the patriarchs.  One of the main features of the religion of the Old Testament is its emphasis upon monotheism.  The God who revealed himself to the patriarchs and the prophets is One: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4).  One of the recurring themes of the OT is the disheartening cycle of Israel forsaking the one true God for false idols, being punished, and then repenting and turning back to the true God, only to repeat the cycle again.  The danger of the corrupting influence of polytheism is highlighted again and again.

Jesus was a Jew and all the first Christians were Jews.  Every book of the NT, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, was written by a Jew.  So it should not surprise us that Christianity is also monotheistic.  The apostle Paul, for example, wrote to the Corinthians, “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:5-6).  Our Lord himself, when tempted by Satan to worship him, responded by quoting Deut. 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”  That is very clearly a monotheistic passage.

So why do we have a doctrine of the Trinity?

The short answer is that we have a doctrine of the Trinity because Jesus came.  Another way to put this in terms of the season we are in is that we have the doctrine of the Trinity because of Christmas.  I say doctrine, because the Trinity did not come into existence on Christmas day, but Christmas made the doctrine of the Trinity clearer than it had been under the old covenant, even though there are hints of a plurality in the unity of the Godhead even then.  The incarnation of the Son of God confronted men and women with the reality that God the Father has a Son and that this Son is more than a man merely anointed and appointed by God, but someone who shares the very nature of God himself.  It seems that this realization slowly dawned upon the apostles.  They went from saying, “What sort of man is this?” (Mt. 8:27) to the exclamation of Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28).

Very well, Jesus is God.  But Jesus is not the Father.  He is distinct from the Father, which can be seen in numerous places, like in our text, where the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist is recorded, who “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him [Jesus]; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).  The early church fathers would tell people who wanted to learn the doctrine of the Trinity, to go to the Jordan.  In fact, here you have all three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three present at the same time, and all three clearly distinct from one another.

Thus the doctrine of the Trinity is implied by the Biblical teaching that Jesus – the Son of God – is God and the Father is God and the Spirit is God and Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, and the Spirit is neither the Son nor the Father.  The question then becomes, how do you fit this into the other Biblical teaching that God is one?  For if the Father is God, and Jesus is God, and the Spirit is God, then it would appear that God is three.  How is it that God can be one and three at the same time?

Well, clearly, God cannot be one and three at the same time and in the same way.  That would be irrational.  And though we understand that there are limits to logic, this doesn’t give us the right to violate the laws of logic.  So it must be that God is one in one sense and three in another sense. 

But in what sense?  It took the early church a while to iron out the details, but eventually they arrived at the following solution: God is one in substance or essence and three in person.  Each person (Father, Son, and Spirit) shares the same substance.  They are all equally God in the sense that they mutually indwell each other in terms of the essence of the Godhead.  But they are also irreducibly distinct as persons sharing the same essence.  This is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Tertullian, who lived in the late second and early third centuries (A.D.), was probably the first theologian who used the words “Trinity” and “person” to describe the distinctions in the unity of the Godhead.  A lot of people have a problem with this because the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible at all.  But what you have to understand is that Tertullian and those who followed him were using this kind of language, not to get around the Bible, or to invent something new, but instead to defend the truth of the Bible.  The problem is that if heretics use Biblical language, the only way you are going to be able to distinguish the truth from error is to use words not found in the Bible to clarify what the Bible actually says.  That is what Tertullian was doing.

You see, in his day, there were people who were advocating modalism, arguing that there is only one person in the Godhead who reveals himself in three different ways, like an actor wearing three different masks.  From this came the doctrine of patripassianism, or the idea that the Father suffered on the cross, because the Son is the Father.  One such a person who taught this was a Roman Christian named Praxeas, and Tertullian wrote a book to refute him around the year A.D. 210.  Praxeas was doubly noxious to Tertullian, because he opposed the Montanists (an early charismatic Christian sect), of which Tertullian was an adherent, and advocated modalism: “By this,” Tertullian wrote, “Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophesy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father.”

Tertullian described the doctrine of the Trinity in these words: “All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  There you have it: God is one in substance and three in person.  It is the inevitable consequence of believing all that the Bible says about God: there is one God, and the Father, Son, and Spirit are God, and yet distinct from one another.

However, at this point, you might be thinking to yourself – okay, but what does it matter?  It all seems very abstruse and abstract and difficult – and worthless.  W.G.T. Shedd reports one theologian’s opinion that “as he that denies this fundamental article of the Christian religion may lose his soul, so he that much strives to understand it may lose his wits.”  Well, we don’t want to lose our wits.  And if that’s the way you view the doctrine of the Trinity, you are going to have a hard time seeing why you should bother much about it at all.  Which brings us to the point of this message.  I want you to understand not only that the doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical, but also why it is important for you to believe it.  I don’t know about you, but for many years I embraced this doctrine without really understanding why it is so wonderful.  Of course, I understood it is important as it was connected to the divinity of Christ, but for me it was more of a doctrine to be defended than a doctrine to be loved.   A lot of people approach the doctrine of the Trinity like those awkward relatives we know we’re supposed to love but we’d really not rather sit by them at the table.  For me, this stemmed from two basic mistakes: one, I failed to properly appreciate what the doctrine of the Trinity is really teaching; and two, I failed to see just how central it is to all of Christian life.  My goal in this message and those following is to share with you how the Biblical teaching has corrected both these mistakes.  I want you to love it and to see just how central and crucial it is for you to believe it.

Where do we start?

Let’s begin by thinking about this: what would you say is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith?  Would you say it is the gospel?  As important as that is, it is not the starting point of faith.  Yes, we must believe it and we cannot be saved apart from faith in its message, and so the gospel is fundamental in that sense.  But the gospel presupposes some things, and one of the things it presupposes is a certain view of God.  If your view of God is the Islamic one, you will not believe the gospel.  If your view of God is a pantheistic one, you will not believe in the gospel.  So in that sense, what we believe about God is more fundamental than what we believe about the gospel (cf. Heb. 11:6).

Even the doctrine justification by faith, which Luther called the article of the standing or falling church, and which you might think is that which distinguishes Christianity not only from other religions, but also Protestantism from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, is not ultimately distinguishing, as I recently discovered to my surprise.  Michael Reeves, in his book, Delighting in the Trinity,[1]tells the story of a sect of Buddhism found in Japan in 1549 by the Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier, which believed in salvation by grace alone: “Simple trust in Amida, they held, instead of trust in self, was sufficient to achieve rebirth into the pure land.  If we call on him, they taught, then despite our failings, all his achievements become ours.”  In fact, Xavier identified this sect (Yodo Shin-Shu) with “the Lutheran heresy.”  Of course there are still vast differences between this “justification by faith” and the Protestant doctrine, but what makes those differences is ultimately rooted in very different views of God.

The fundamental doctrine is our doctrine of God.  It is the foundation of all other theological belief.  And because God is a Trinity, that means that the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all other belief.  It is only as we get the doctrine of the Trinity right that we can with any justification say that we are Christian in any other point of faith and doctrine.  As Reeves puts it, “The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking.”

And it is important to begin, not with an amorphous concept of “God” but with the very distinctive Christian God.  One of the reasons we might have a problem with the doctrine of the Trinity, is that we don’t begin here.  And when we don’t begin here, we usually end up with an idea of God that is very different from the Biblical vision of God.  Have you ever noticed that the pagan gods of old looked just like the people who worshipped them?  This is the problem with idolatry – it is remaking God in our own image.  It is exchanging the creator God with a created thing.  If we don’t begin with what God reveals himself to be, we inevitably end up with a God looking very much like ourselves.  We have to begin with how God himself has revealed who and what he is, and since he has revealed himself to be a Trinity in Unity, this is where we have to start.  We don’t start with an abstract idea of a single person God and then, as Reeves puts it, try to stuff two more persons into the Godhead.  Rather, we start with the Trinity in Unity and go from there.

The Beauty of the Trinity

The idea of the Trinity is massively important for another reason.  Did you notice the way the Father introduces the Son to the world at his baptism?  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  This is immensely important.  It is important for the following reason: love cannot exist in a vacuum of fellowship.  And that means that love cannot exist apart from a plurality of persons.  This means that if God is unipersonal, he could not be loving in himself.  It would mean that love is something God would only have discovered once he created the world, but that before the world was created, he was loveless.  And that would mean that God is not love, contradicting 1 Jn. 4:8.  Because God is a Trinity, love is not something God discovered, it is something that he is.  He didn’t develop it once he created other beings, he has always been loving from eternity.

Now think about what it would mean for the other attributes of God if God could not identify himself in terms of love.  Think about sovereignty unattached from love, holiness and justice and power separate from love, and you get a God that is severe, untouchable, frightening, austere.  It would be hard to love such a God; in fact, it would be impossible.

Of course, love requires more than a plurality of persons.  You can have a room full of people who hate each other.  Additionally, there must be a bond of fellowship that unites.  And this is the way the Trinity is revealed to us; not just in terms of a plurality of persons but also in terms of a fellowship of mutual love.  For the gospel tells us by the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, God identifies himself to us primarily as a loving Father, and from eternity he is a Father first and foremost to his Son.  When he introduces his Son to us at his baptism, it is as “my beloved Son,” and you cannot have a Son without a Father.  When Jesus teaches us to pray, it is to “our Father” (Mt. 6:9).  In fact, one of the main points of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are to relate to God as Father.  And though it is not as clear in the OT, God identifies himself as a Father there, too (see Ex. 4:22; Deut. 1:31; 8:5; Ps. 103:13; Is. 1:2; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1). 

But God did not begin to be a Father when the Son became incarnate.  The Son is the eternal Son of the Father, for the Father sent the Son into the world; he did not send him to be the Son, but he sent him who already was the Son (Rom. 8:3).  God the Father and God the Son have existed in an eternal fellowship of love.  What was God doing before the foundation of the world?  Jesus tells us: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (Jn. 17:5).  “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24).  What was God the Father doing before the foundation of the world?  He was loving the Son.  They have always existed together in a holy fellowship of love and glory.

And the Spirit is the bond of that fellowship of love.  You see it there at the baptism.  How is it that the Father communicates his love to the Son?  It is not only by declaring it, but also by sending the Spirit like a dove to rest upon his Son.  Just as God communicates his love to us by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5), even so the Father communicates his love to the Son through the Holy Spirit: “In that same hour he [Jesus] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Lk 10:21).  Thus the apostle speaks of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14).

But this Spirit is not some impersonal force; rather he is a person in his own right: he can speak and send (Acts 13:2,4), choose (Acts 20:28), teach (Jn. 14:26), be lied to (Acts 5:3,9), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Eph. 4:30), and blasphemed (Mt. 12:31).  It is in the one Name that we are baptized; a name that is given by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

So you see, God did not become loving.  He has always been loving.  God’s works in creation and providence and salvation are acts of love because that is what God is.  God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:9-10).  God overflows in love, first and foremost in the Trinity, and then outwards towards his creation.  And we can know that God’s love is not some temporary blimp on the screen of his attributes because love is an eternal and necessary part of who God is.  And it is important to see that it is the doctrine of the Trinity that guarantees this.

All this affects the way we relate to God.  In Christ, we do not relate to God primarily as our Ruler, though he is that, nor as Almighty, though he is that.  We relate to him primarily as our Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The pattern in Scripture, the order, is this: by the Spirit, though the Son, we approach the Father.[2]  “For through him [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18; cf. Rom. 8:14-17).  It’s important that we see this, because sometimes we can think of God as the One Essence and the Persons as somehow existing alongside “God.”  Rather, the one God is the Holy Trinity.  We don’t approach the “Unoriginate,” as Arius called God.[3]  After all, “With ‘The Unoriginate’ we are left scrambling for a dictionary in a philosophy lecture; with a Father things are familial.  And if God is a Father, then he must be relational and life-giving, and that is the sort of God we could love.”[4]

Now by saying that we relate to God primarily as Father, I’m not saying that we believe that the Son or the Holy Spirit are lesser beings than God the Father – they are all properly God, equal in power and glory – yet there is an order in the Trinity.  You will notice in the NT that almost always when “God” is used, the word refers to God the Father.  This is not because the Son or the Spirit are not God.  After all, John tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1).  In Acts 5, we learn that lying to the Holy Spirit is the same thing as lying to God.  Rather, God almost always refers to the Father because there is a definite order in the Trinity.  Paul mentions this order in 1 Cor. 11:3, when he writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”  The Father loves the Son, and this eternal fellowship of love overflows in the sending of the Son to love the Church.  The Father sends the Son; it is never the other way round.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son; it is never the Father or the Son proceeding from the Spirit.  But what all this means for us is that the Son of God worked for us and the Spirit of God works in us in order that we might be able to approach God the Father as our Father.  Thus Peter writes, “you call on him as Father” (1 Pet. 1:17).  It’s why Jesus told Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17).  It is precisely because of what Jesus has done for us that his Father becomes also our Father and this is a wonderful and amazing reality indeed.

Of course, some earthly fathers are mean and cruel.  We must divorce all such notions from our minds when we think of God as Father.  God is Father but he is not evil as we are (Mt. 6:11).  He is good; the OT refrain remains true: “the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever.”  The love that we are called to experience is the infinitely superior and pure love of the Trinity; it is not the selfish and overbearing and hurtful relationship that is sometimes expressed in broken and sinful families.  It is the love that the Father has towards his own Son.  There is nothing cruel or harsh or unkind or ugly about that love. 

And it is this love that we are called to demonstrate in our lives.  Why do you think that the first commandment is to love God and then to love our neighbor?  It is because the only way you can relate to God is by love since he himself is love, and thus the only way we can imitate God is through love.  The love that the Father has for the Son overflows in the Son’s love for the church, and that is to overflow in our hearts towards our spouses, our children, our friends and our neighbors.  The Trinity is at the heart of everything; not only as an important doctrine but as the basis of our ethic as well, the foundation of all doctrine and duty.

So you should love the doctrine of the Trinity.  But more than that, you should love the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.  For it is possible to love a doctrine and fail to love the God of the doctrine, and we don’t want to do that.  We want to really love God; and to love God is to love the Father through the Son in the Spirit.  It is to be included in the eternal fellowship of the holy Trinity through Christ our Savior.  And there is no greater imaginable blessing than that.

[1] Many of the main ideas in this message are borrowed from this book.  It is the best book I have read so far on the doctrine of the Trinity.
[2] This point is repeatedly made in Robert Letham’s very helpful book, The Holy Trinity. 
[3] Delighting in the Trinity, location 253.
[4] Ibid., loc. 253.

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