What is the Trinity? How can God be Three in One?
Why the concept of the Trinity is at the heart of Christianity.
Perhaps you’ve wondered what Christians mean when they speak of God as a "Trinity"? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion. Some non-Christian groups accuse Christians of believing that three gods exist. Others accuse Christians of making up the Trinity hundreds of years later since the word itself is not found in the Bible. Sadly, many Christians too misunderstand what the Trinity is all about.
The word “Trinity” means “three-in-one” or “three-in-unity”. So, when Christians speak of the Trinity, they mean that only ONE God exists but that this God exists as a unity of THREE persons, consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
While the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, we do see the concept there. The Bible often speaks of God as “one”, yet it also speaks of God as “three”. Let’s begin by looking at God’s oneness.
God is one
Something to keep in mind about the earliest Christians is that they were Jewish. Most Jewish people during the time of Jesus were monotheists - in other words, they believed that only one God exists. Because of their monotheism, many Jewish people would recite Deuteronomy 6:4 daily, a passage declaring their allegiance to the one true God alone:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one
The early Christians who wrote the New Testament held on to their Jewish roots. They, too, believed that God is one (1 Corinthians 8:4-6; James 2:19). Jesus also affirmed God’s oneness, connecting the belief that God is one with a person’s responsibility to love God above all other things:
“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength' ..." (Mark 12:29-30)
The authors of the New Testament also realized that God is three. Much of their thinking about God’s "three-ness" began with thoughts on Jesus. These early Christians realized there was something unique about Jesus — something that set him apart from all of the other prophets who had ever lived before him. Not only did he perform miracles, raise the dead and cast out demons, but Jesus also predicted his own death and resurrection — both of which happened according to the Bible. While Jesus’ death is significant for our salvation, it was his resurrection that demonstrated the genuineness of his message to the people of his day.
How did Jesus describe himself?
What did Jesus say about Himself that led His early followers to proclaim Him as God?
Son of Man: This may sound strange but “Son of Man” was the title Jesus gave to himself and used more than any other. But what makes the title “Son of Man” so important? It has to do with the high and exalted figure of Daniel 7:13-14, a figure who shared God’s sovereignty over all of creation. For Jewish people, God alone was sovereign and he shared his authority and power with no one.
When Jesus spoke of himself as the Son of Man, He was identifying himself with this exalted heavenly figure in Daniel 7. He was claiming to share divine authority and sovereignty with God. That’s why at Jesus’ trial, the chief priest tore his cloths and said Jesus was speaking blasphemy (i.e. insulting claims or irreverence toward God). It was Jesus’ declaration of himself as the Son of Man that led to his death (Matthew 26:63-65).
I Am: Similarly to the Son of Man language, Jesus declared Himself as “I Am”. One day, while in the midst of a heated discussion with some Jewish leaders, Jesus tells them that even before Abraham existed, “I Am” (John 8:58). This shocked the Jewish leaders so much that they tried to stone him. They recognized that Jesus was claiming to be “I Am”, the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14).
One with the Father: In the gospel of John, one of Jesus’ followers, Philip, asked Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus replied by telling Philip that if he had seen him, then he had also seen the Father, because he is in the Father and the Father is in him (John 14:8-11). Also, in John 17:21-22, Jesus prays to the Father, asking for his disciples to be one just as he is one with the Father.
Besides Jesus’ own words about himself, there are places in the New Testament where Jesus is called God. John 1:1 says that the Word was “with God” and that the Word “was God”. Who’s the Word? This is John’s title for Jesus before Jesus (the Son of God) entered our world and became flesh like us (John 1:14). Other New Testament passages which call Jesus God include: John 1:18; 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8 and 2 Peter 1:1. Not only does the Bible call Jesus God, it also calls the Father (John 6:27; 1 Peter 1:2) and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4) God.
God is Three and One
The early Christians had other ways of saying that someone was God. Only God could create. According to the Bible, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in creation (Genesis 1:1-2; Job 26:13; John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3, 10). As noted earlier, Jesus is co-ruler with the Father over all things (Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:8), something only God can do. Lastly, only God could be worshiped. But we see passages where both Jesus and the Father are worshiped (1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 4:9-14).
There are some passages where all three persons are mentioned together (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:5-6). At Jesus’ baptism, the Father spoke and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus from heaven (Matthew 3:16-17). Also, Christians are commanded by Jesus to baptize disciples in the name of "the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).
This is just some of the evidence for the Trinity in the Bible. Given these passages and many others, Christians can be confident that the Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the word itself is never found there.