The Trinity and the Church United

Internal division has threatened the church from its earliest days. Ethnic divisions between Jews and Gentiles threatened to perpetuate segregation in Ephesus. Fights over spiritual gifts fractured the Corinthians. While each church had different obstacles to solidarity, Paul prescribes the same remedy to both: teaching on the Trinity.

The unity of the Godhead is essential to Paul’s argument about the church. First, it’s necessary to understand that there’s only one God and only one church—this forces us to see the equality of all Christians. We must not elevate any one ethnicity nor a particular spiritual gift above others.

To the Ephesians, he buttresses his argument about church unity with two Trinitarian statements:

For through him [Christ] we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father. Eph 2:18

In him [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Eph 2:22

After unveiling the “mystery” of the church where Jew and Gentile are united in Christ (chapter 3), he reminds them of their shared bond in the Trinity:

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Eph 4:4–6

As for the Corinthians, their elevation of certain gifts demeaned the common source of each gift: the Trinity.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 1 Cor 12:4–6

To drive home this unity, Paul says:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Cor 12:12–13

The Spirit not only brings us into union with Christ, but unifies everyone in the church into the same body. The one church, to which all Christians belong regardless of ethnicity, and the one God who empowers all Christians in spiritual service compels believers to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

 

A Shepherd’s Heart

In the centuries after David and Solomon, Israel’s shepherds—the kings and prophets—led God’s people astray.

My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, “We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the Lord, their habitation of righteousness, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.” Je 50.6-7

In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, Israel, was taken into captivity by Babylon. Their Babylonian captors believed that because the Jews were sinners suffering God’s righteous judgement, they had a right to abuse them. God did not, however, approve of Babylon’s arrogance and cruelty. He judged them for it, handing their empire over to the Persians.

By the time of Christ, six hundred years later, the Babylonian and Persian empires were gone. The Jews, though under Roman rule, were back in the land of promise and free, for the most part, to govern their lives according to their law and to worship in their own temple.

But, once again, Israel’s shepherds—like the kings and false prophets of old, and the Babylonians who had taken them captive—didn’t love God or his people. They loved their own status and power.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Lk 15.1-7

If Israel’s leaders had seen themselves as sinners always in need of God’s grace, they’d have used their authority humbly, gathering and guiding straying sinners back into the fold. Instead, they used the people’s sin as an excuse to abuse them. Denying them the grace of God, they drove them away (Mt. 23.13). God did not approve of their arrogance; He judged them for it.

Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. He proved it by seeking and saving the lost (Lk 19.10). He laid down his life for them—for us. (Jn. 10.11). And now the shepherd’s heart of our Savior is calling us to do the same. His Spirit in us gives us compassion for fellow sinners and will not let us rest until every one of  his wandering sheep is returned safely to the unity of the fold.

 

The Mystery of the Trinity

The Trinity is a central and uniquely Christian doctrine. Just like salvation by grace alone, our belief in one God in three persons sets Christianity apart from other religions. Admittedly, this is not easy terrain. We couldn’t understand that our God is three in one without the Scriptures and the ministry of the Spirit himself. Even so, the Trinity requires deep thinking.
For those of you who are new to this concept of the Trinity, Bruce Ware summarizes the teaching of Scripture in this helpful definition:

“Christian faith also affirms that this one God eternally exists and is fully expressed in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each member of the Godhead is equally God, each is eternally God, and each is fully God—not three gods but three Persons of the one eternal Godhead. Each Person is equal in essence to the other divine Persons. Each possesses fully and simultaneously the identically same, eternal divine nature. Yet each is also an eternal and distinct personal expression of that one and undivided divine nature.”

As Christians, we confess that there is only one God, not three gods. We also confess that the Father is fully God, that Jesus is fully God, and that the Spirit is fully God. The Son is not one third of God but all that God is along with the other two persons.

In addition, we affirm that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. They are distinguished from one another. For example, we do not say that the Father took on humanity. That was the role of the Son.

Furthermore, while we affirm there is only one God, we also affirm that all three persons of the Godhead simultaneously and eternally exist. That is, the Father does not become the Son at some point in history and then the Son becomes the Spirit. No. Each person exists simultaneously. This is easily seen at Christ’s baptism where all three persons interact with one another:

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16-17).

May we be richly rewarded as we think deeply on our incomparable God!

The Church and the Trinity

Trinity via WikiCommons

Pastor Matt’s new series on doctrine stresses that our actions reflect our beliefs. “If you want to change your life, you must change your mind,” he says. Agreed.

For the next few weeks, my articles will focus on practical applications that stem from the often mysterious doctrine of the Trinity. What we believe about God changes how we live. Our actions expose our beliefs.

The Trinity is a central and uniquely Christian doctrine, yet it is not outlined in a systematic, textbook-like fashion in the Bible. The word “Trinity” isn’t even in the Bible. We have to hunt and gather throughout Scripture to put the pieces together. This has often frustrated the church. If the Trinity is so important, why isn’t it just explicitly outlined and defined in one place?

God has chosen to reveal himself to us in the middle of everyday life, not in dry and detached lectures. He teaches doctrine, not in the context of the classroom, but in the reality of human existence.

When Paul introduces the metaphor of the body to describe the church, perhaps surprisingly, he begins with the Trinity (1 Cor 12:1-31; Eph 4:1-16). This is not coincidence. These two local churches had widely different problems (Ephesus suffered ethnic division, and Corinth was riddled with factions and the abuse of spiritual gifts), yet the same corrective was given. A proper view of the church begins with a proper view of God. The church is to reflect the nature of the Trinity.

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5-6).

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Cor 12:4).

There is one church to which all Christians belong, composed of many members, each endowed with various spiritual gifts, all collectively designed to edify the whole. In the church, there is unity as well as plurality, variety of function coupled with mutual purpose, equality of membership although diversity. Sounds a lot like the Trinity. And that’s his point. We’ll explore the church in relation to the Trinity more in the weeks to come.

 

Captivated by Truth

When I was 19, I quit college, moved to Salem, Oregon, and took a full-time job cleaning carpets for a disaster restoration company. I worked with a 50-year-old technician named Dave.

Dave was very particular about who drove the van. But one day, after a full day of carpet cleaning, he relented and let me drive it back through the industrial part of town to the shop. As I was driving on a particularly narrow road, a car came racing toward us from a driveway on the right. As he approached, I realized he wasn’t going to stop in time.

After the impact, I pulled over. Dave and I got out only to see the car racing away, swerving through traffic. Dave turned to me and said, “Throw me the keys. I’ll take the heat for this.”

Still somewhat shocked, I tossed him the keys and remained silent while Dave told our boss, the police, and the insurance company that he had been the driver.
I ought to have been relieved, but I wasn’t. When I got back to my apartment I felt nothing but misery. I had lied, and I couldn’t make myself believe that it was ok. Worse than that, the only way to remedy what I had done seemed to be a direct course to unemployment.

But as the minutes ticked by, I knew I would rather have a clear conscience and not have a job than have a job without a clear conscience. Realizing that doing right is what matters most, I placed my trust in God for the outcome, picked up the phone, called my boss, and told him that I had been the one driving his van earlier that day.
I experienced an immediate sense of relief. The truth was out. I had placed my trust in the God who loves truth. So whatever happened, I knew I could deal with it because my conscience was clear before God.

What did happen is that my boss praised my honesty. He said that he wished everyone on his crew were as honest as I was. I was baffled. I had just lied to him and confessed it. And he praised my honesty? But there was still Dave to worry about. I had just ratted him out.

Dave was less enthusiastic about my decision, but he let it ride with a “to each his own” kind of philosophy, and we went on working together as happily as we had done before. Except, of course, Dave never let me drive the van again.

Jesus Is the Great I Am

Last week, I wrote about Yahweh, the personal name of the LORD. If you missed it, take a moment to read What’s in a Name. It will help you understand the significance of this week’s article.

When Moses wanted to know God’s name, God responded, “I AM WHO I AM…the LORD [Yahweh]” (Exodus 3:14-15). The name of Yahweh is directly related to the Hebrew phrase “I AM.” That is, Yahweh is essentially a play on words of the verb “I am” in the Hebrew language. Alternately the phrase can be rendered, “I will be who I will be.” Whether we look to the past, the present, or the future, God has always existed and remains the same.

Knowing this helps us understand the significance of Jesus’ words in John 8. In this chapter, Jesus’ enemies oppose him. Claiming that Jesus was demon possessed, they ridiculed him further, sarcastically asking if he was greater than Abraham or the prophets (8:48, 53). They asked, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” (8:53).

After Jesus again pointed to his Father’s testimony for validation of his ministry, he explained that yes, in fact, he is much greater than Abraham. Rather than Jesus looking to Abraham as a leader, as these Jews claimed to do, Abraham looked to Jesus!

“’Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’

Once again, these guys aren’t getting the picture. It’s not whether Jesus has seen Abraham but that Abraham saw Christ. He “saw” Jesus’ day and rejoiced. This in itself is a remarkable statement about Abraham’s knowledge and faith in the coming Messiah. And then the clincher came:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am’” (8:58).

Jesus, by attributing “I am” to himself, was claiming to be God. He was claiming the personal name of God—the one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Make no mistake, his enemies understood him this time: They picked up stones in order to stone him for supposed blasphemy (8:59).

Jesus is the great “I AM WHO I AM” of Exodus 3. In the words of Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

 

Captivated by Truth

While attending college in Oregon, I worked as a janitor at a Baptist church. A church of Russian immigrants met there as well, and a man from that church named Vladimir worked with me. One day he came to our boss confused and a little agitated. In broken English he relayed to us that in Russia, if you had a Bible at all, you had one version of it. Now in America, he couldn’t decide which Bible to buy because there were so many different versions. Which was the right one?

I remember being convicted by his earnestness. I had long since taken for granted our abundance of Bibles. And for just as long I had taken for granted my need to read the Bible and absorb it.

As Heath shared with us a few Sundays ago (see Tyndale’s Confidence ) the word of God in the hands and on the tongues of the common man is one of the great legacies of the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church had, over the centuries, become an institutional behemoth with far-reaching political heft, and as the sole arbiters of the Scriptures, it wielded absolute power over people’s lives, consciences, and souls.

This heft had increased as people’s access to Scripture decreased. By the time of the Reformation, the Bible was available only in Latin, a language the common people had long since left behind, but which remained the scholarly language of choice for the clergy and the educated elite.

This educational gap between the clergy and the layman (non-clergy) meant that God’s direct revelation of himself and the message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ lay in the hands of a very few. Those few were using it to their own ends. Given the political power at stake, providing laymen access to the Scriptures was a risky business.

It didn’t take much education to recognize the abuses of the Church, it only took a plain reading of Scripture. If the layman was given the ability to compel the clergy to defend their practices from Scripture, then the Church’s whole power structure could crumble. And that is exactly what happened. The Bible, in the hands of the people, turned the world upside-down.

The Bible is the word of God given by the Spirit, preached by his prophets and apostles, and written down for us. It is the straight stick. When we hold it up, whatever is crooked, whether it be sin or bad teaching, becomes obvious. If we don’t know the Bible, aren’t captive to its truth, we hand our souls over to falsehood.

Five-hundred years have passed since the Reformation began and, though we are surrounded by Bibles, we are in peril of losing this precious dispensation of God’s grace, not to the government or to the world, but to our own neglect.

Me and Jesus

My childhood home was a place of conflict. My room was my retreat. It’s where I did my homework, drew pictures, read books, ate my dinner, and watched TV. Alone. I felt safest there, alone, or sometimes with a friend. I’ve spent my life since trying and failing to find safe people and places.

Looking around, I see I’m not the only one. Social anxiety is epidemic. The American ideal of rugged individualism and self-determination has given way to a culture of rugged trampling and being trampled.

Thirteen years ago, after a lifetime in and out of churches, I came to Christ. Since then I have watched Christians leave the church, one-by-one. A few rejected the faith outright. Others expressed their frustration or dissatisfaction with church. Some had been abused. I am sympathetic to them all.

“Me and Jesus” is a siren’s song. I, too, have been dissatisfied and frustrated. I, too, have witnessed and experienced abuse by Christians. I, too, have been tempted to give up on church and go it alone with Jesus. It would be easy to believe the author who refers to my heart as “the prize of God’s kingdom,” or the one who said that the Bible that the Holy Spirit gave to the church was insufficient to satisfy her private yearnings (2 Tim. 3:16-17). She required “personal” communication from God.

“… I betrothed you to one husband,
to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”
2 Cor. 11. 2

While it’s true that our individual relationships with God are so personal that they reach deep into our souls to cleanse and transform us, Paul wrote the words above not to an individual woman, but to a church. According to God’s word, I am not the bride of Christ, we are.

“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish …  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5.25-27, 32

To be the bride of Christ is to be a part of his church. Jesus poured out his life and sent His Spirit to transform his gathering of people. The church is the focal point of his energy (1 Peter 2.4-19),  the center of our growth, the place where our transformation is revealed, and where his love is displayed to the world (John 13.25, 1 Jn. 1.9-10).

The church is also our destiny. It is the new Jerusalem, the city in which we will dwell, not alone with Jesus in our rooms, but together for eternity (Rev. 21.1-3).

 

What’s in a Name?

From the burning bush God spoke to Moses commissioning him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses didn’t feel qualified for the task. And he wasn’t. Not without God. That’s when God answered, “But I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12a). Still puzzled, Moses asked “’If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’” (Exodus 3:13).

God answers him with his personal name. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this.

“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’” (Exodus 3:15).

English Bibles distinguish between LORD (all capital letters) and Lord. “LORD” represents the personal name of God which is “Yahweh,” a word directly related to the phrase “I AM.” The word “Lord” translates the Hebrew word adonai, a title of sovereign authority.

While there are many titles given to God in the Bible, He only has one personal name. You may be a mother, a sister, a manager, a blackbelt, and a drummer—all titles which describe something about you—but the people who know you best often call you by your first name. Titles of God, like Savior, Redeemer, King, and Judge, all tell us something about who God is but Yahweh puts things on a more intimate, relational level.

When we praise the name of Yahweh, we communicate that we are on a first-name basis with the true and living God. Glorious! So why not just put Yahweh in the Bible instead of LORD? Unfortunately our English translations have, deliberately or not, carried on a human tradition that avoids using the personal name of God to guard against taking His name in vain.

The name Yahweh appears over 6,000 times in the Old Testament. Far from prohibiting the use of the name, the Bible calls us to speak and exalt it. In the words of the psalmist, “My mouth will speak the praise of Yahweh, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:21).

 

Freedom’s Last Name

With a captive audience in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read these words from the scroll of Isaiah to his neighbors:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, see Is 61:1-2).

After reading these words, he sat down and said something totally shocking, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus was claiming to be the anointed one Isaiah foretold, the one empowered by the Spirit to liberate and heal. That Scripture found its fulfillment in Jesus, as his mission would go on to show. Jesus, through the ministry of the Spirit, brings freedom from physical and spiritual oppression. He is the one who liberates captives. Simply put, Jesus was telling the people that he was the long expected Messiah.

The word “anointed” is significant in this context. Both the word “Messiah” and “Christ” mean “anointed.” Messiah is a translation of the Hebrew term and Christ translates the Greek term (see John 1:41; 4:25). It is important to know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name but rather a designation that he is the anointed one.

In Israel, three officials were anointed: prophets (1 Kings 19:16), priests (Ex 28:41), and kings (1 Sam 16:1-2). In Jesus, all these anointed offices find their fulfillment. Jesus is the Prophet (Deut 18:15; Acts 3:22; Heb 1:1-2), the King of kings (Rev 19:16) and the Great High Priest (Heb 9:11-12) whose work supersedes all those who came before him.

Each of those offices anticipated the coming of the Messiah who would fulfill the roles perfectly. Aaron had the privilege of being the first High Priest, yet made the golden calf. Moses was a great prophet, but struck the rock. David was a great king but committed adultery. Jesus operated on a different level: perfection.

When Jesus told his hometown he was the Spirit-anointed liberator, he was saying that he was their Messiah. When we say Jesus Christ, we mean Jesus is the definitive anointed one.

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