Trying to understand the Trinity…well, it’s no secret that it’s an incredibly difficult concept! How is God one God, yet in three persons? This is a stumbling block for many people…but I find it so beautiful. I can’t imagine God not being three in one. It gives him so many incredible characteristics, and it gives us so much meaning as His image-bearers.
First, when thinking of God as the Trinity, one of the best illustrations I have seen is light. 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” Of course that is meant metaphorically, because God created both darkness and light, both night and day, and they were all good. However, I love the idea of God being light because it means He exposes all underhanded dealings for what they are (Eph. 5:13); He penetrates even the most remote corners of the world with His goodness and gives the earth warmth and nourishment. It is also a wonderful explanation of the Trinity. When red, blue, and green come together, they create a beautiful white light. But when the colors are separated as in a prism, like the blog in the link shows, they are still light. They are still the same substance, and they are a unity, yet they each refract into brilliantly different colors.
Another great illustration I’ve seen is of a triangle. A triangle cannot exist without three corners; it by very definition ceases to be a triangle. If we take away even one of the corners, we no longer have even one triangle. Even though each has its unique role, and the top corner is not the left corner is not the right corner, they all function to form one whole.
One time when I was trying to explain the Trinity to some people who were seeking to understand the Lord, I explained that the Father is above all things and is exalted high above the earth. The Bible says, “No one has ever seen the Father” (John 6:46). However, we have seen Jesus (John 1:14)! And through Jesus, we are able to call the exalted, holy Father an intimate word like “Abba” (Romans 8:15). The Word, which was with God and was God from the very beginning, became flesh and lived among us. Jesus is the way that God manifests himself physically on earth. Many people even believe that all of the Old Testament physical manifestations of God, such as Jacob’s night wrestling, were actually early incarnations of Jesus. The Bible also says that the Church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), so His physical ministry on the earth never stopped, even when He ascended into heaven! It continues through the ministry of the Church. The Holy Spirit, though, is God inside us. He is the one who guides us into all wisdom and enables us to walk in/with Jesus and do His work on the earth. He is one with the Father and the Son and takes what is Christ’s and declares it to us (John 14:16). Likewise, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Because God in very nature is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are able to see how the same God can be exalted above the earth, physically at work on the earth, and literally living inside all those who believe in Him as well.
Further deepening my understanding and appreciation of the Trinity is the fact that we are created in the image of God. Somehow, we must each be one and three at the same time. And we see this in the fact that each person is body, soul, and spirit. One human, three parts. Without even one part, one ceases to be human. This is why the church in its mission on earth seeks to care for all three persons inside each person! We meet physical, soul, and spiritual needs. “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NASB). The penalty for Adam and Eve not believing God was death, but they did not die immediately! The cycle of physical death began, and in that very instant the human spirit became naturally dead to God; it had to be resurrected somehow.
Our deepest lack is our spiritual separation from God, so we most importantly invite people to receive the Holy Spirit, a new identity of righteousness so that we can have eternal communion with God, made possible through Christ’s victory. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient…. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5). When we accept Christ’s love and receive the Holy Spirit, He replaces our old spirit of death and gives us new, eternal life!
Secondly, we care for souls – we don’t just leave that person the way he or she is, but we invite him or her into life-giving community. We each grow in love for one another and for God, and we mature in wisdom and strength as we learn what God’s perfect will is for our lives and how to walk in it. The soul encompasses our mind and emotions – the things that make us “tick,” make us act the way we do. This is how we are completely righteous in Christ (in our spirit) and yet still have “work” that needs to be done inside us (Philippians 2:12)! This is how 2 Corinthians 5:21 (that we are the righteousness of God), Hebrews 10:14 (that we are perfect), and 2 Timothy 2:15-21 (Learn the Word of God more fully, so that your teaching will be correct and that God may use you for greater and greater works) can all be true! The first two are referring to the perfect Spirit, and the last one is referring to the soul as we walk intimately with God and show Christ to others, reflecting Him outwardly more and more.
One important thing to note is that when we receive the Holy Spirit, that means our soul is “saved.” This doesn’t mean that we always act that out correctly, which will be explained more fully in the next paragraph, but with the Spirit our soul is now able to mirror God in everything we think, say and do. The soul can either turn toward the flesh or toward the Spirit, but when we are in Christ, it feels really weird and wrong to turn toward the flesh, whereas before it would have felt gratifying! 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” The word for “natural” in the sentence refers to the soul. Once we have the Spirit, our soul is able to understand the things of God, and we are enabled to desire those things and walk in righteousness, rather than according to the flesh. Hebrews 4:12 speaks of the Word of God dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. The Word is so powerful that it helps us see where our redeemed soul is turning toward the flesh and not aligning itself with the perfect Spirit, and then it helps us get realigned!
Okay, so with all that talk of “flesh” in the previous paragraph, you might have been thinking, what are you talking about? Flesh = body. Our bodies are beautiful but fallen from their original design, as our world is beautiful but fallen from its original design. Our bodies get sick. Our bodies die. Our bodies hunger and thirst, and therefore we are prone to gluttony and theft. We get sick and die when we are not able to get what we need. We horde from others to make sure our own needs are met. And hunger is just one illustration of the ways in which our bodies are fallen and cause us to sin. Our bodies are not bad in and of themselves, nor are our desires! God created the human body, and it is beautiful. God created food, and it is a gift. However, because of the Fall, we meet our desires in unhealthy ways, and our bodies often fight against us instead of for us.
1 Corinthians 6:20 admonishes us to glorify God with our bodies. In context, Paul has just been talking about issues within the Corinthian church, in which many are turning to the flesh to satisfy their needs and desires instead of turning toward the Spirit. The lawsuits among believers indicate strife and anger that has not been adequately dealt with. The sexual immorality, drunkenness, swindling, greed, and slander that he mentions also derive from people trying to live by the flesh instead of the Spirit. As their souls turn toward their fleshly desires, they try to satisfy them in ways that are not spiritual and that are contrary to their new nature. Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. A temple does not exist for its own sake; it exists for the sake of the One who is worshiped within it. Therefore, our bodies exist for doing good, for serving the Lord and serving others, not for serving themselves!
When we accept Christ and receive the Holy Spirit, we are already dead to sin and alive to Christ. We no longer live by the flesh, for it has been crucified, but live by the Spirit. So when Christians live according to the flesh, we’re zombies, a contradiction, the walking dead! Paul is flabbergasted by this; how can we, who are dead to sin, continue to live in it (Romans 6:2)? It’s a complete impossibility! When we live according to the flesh, satisfying its desires, rather than according to our perfect, righteous Spirit, we are allowing an illusion and a lie to control us. We are putting a dead body on the throne, attempting to resurrect something that has already been defeated and killed.
It is important to note that in the resurrection we will still have bodies; otherwise we are not complete people! We will not be torn apart; we will not be disembodied spirits or ghosts. This current body will pass away, it is true; this current body will die and fade away, but we will receive greater bodies. This is why Paul goes to great lengths to explain the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:35-55. We will have new and glorious bodies, and we have no idea what they will look like yet, because they are completely unlike anything we’ve seen before…but we know they will be awesome! See, if the body was a bad thing in and of itself, then it wouldn’t be so great to compare the Trinity to human beings. But the body is not bad, and it will not be done away with. Rather, it will be like Steve Rogers becoming Captain America or Tony Stark becoming Iron Man. We will inhabit our true, eternal bodies that reflect who we are, who we were created to be.
Finally, one more thought on the Trinity. I’ve talked about God being like Light and a Triangle; how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveal to us God’s nature and how He is at work; and about how our being created in the image of God means that we also are “tripartite” or have three essential parts. However, I also think the Trinity is important in how humans relate to one another, not just how we understand ourselves. God values community and relationships so highly that He is in community with Himself, able to converse with Himself, laugh with Himself, sing and dance with Himself. As Ellis Potter so beautifully writes, “God alone is God, and God is not alone.” Jesus talked with the Father all the time while on earth, and the Spirit “talks” with Jesus and makes His wisdom known to us! The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are all a family, regardless of how many fleshly family members each of us has, if we are orphans, or if we come from broken homes. We, though many members, form one body, one family. We also see a beautiful picture in the three-part family structure of father, mother, and child. They are different members with different roles, but they function as one unit. Humans, in the way we are designed to have community with each other, are separate and beautifully different and yet are one.
I think the Trinity, rather than being a troublesome doctrine or a stumbling block, explains the nature of God, the nature of humans, the nature of our relationship with God, and the nature of our relationships with one another perfectly. It is still a mystery, a beautiful mystery, just like all of the best things in life, and we struggle to find adequate ways to explain it. But it is true and good. I’m so thankful that, in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, we can run to God and cry, “Abba, Father!”