The Functions of the Triune Godhead as Seen in the Baptism of Jesus

In Peter Kreeft’s book Socratic Logic, I read the tale of a man who wanted to tell his friend, a farmer, something important. However, the man approached the fence surrounding the farmer’s property and noticed a large dog barking at him from the other side of the fence. The farmer was busy putting out some hay. The man said, “Sir, I have something I need to tell you. Is it okay for me to come over your fence?” The farmer said, “Sure, come on over!” The man said, “Sir, does your dog bite?” The farmer said, “No, he is a good dog. He won’t bite.” The man began to climb over the fence and the dog barked even louder. The man said again, “Sir, are you absolutely sure your dog won’t bite?” The farmer said, “Yeah, come on over. He won’t bite you!” So the man leaped over the fence. However, the dog bit him on the leg and sent him back over the fence. The man said, “Sir, I thought you said your dog wouldn’t bite!” The farmer looked around and said, “Well, that’s not my dog.” Many times a lack of communication can lead to all sorts of problem. Throughout church history, people have mistaken the roles of the Triune God. These misunderstandings have led to various heresies. Today, we will look at the functions of the Triune God. It is my hope that this message will help everyone understand the unity that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have together. The unity of the church is stressed as we should be united together as God is united. Also, we are invited into this divine, eternal relationship through the New Covenant. God is one in three persons.

  1. The function of the FATHER as ARCHITECT (3:17).

In the baptism of Jesus, we see the Father’s divine existence as he speaks from the heavens. The voice said to John, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17).[i] Barker and Kohlenberger note that “The voice from heaven was God’s own voice; it testified that God himself had broken silence and was again revealing himself to the human race—a clear sign of the dawning of the Messianic Age.”[ii] Note, God had revealed his plan. Thus, God is the architect of the entire salvation project. 

It is obvious that the Father is understood to be divine. The Father is known by his personal name Yahweh throughout the Old Testament. As we have noted previously, Yahweh means “I am” or the “self-existent One.” As he pertains to the Triune Godhead, he holds the function of the great planner or even the mastermind, if you will. Wayne Grudem writes, “So we may say that the role of the Father in creation and redemption has been to plan and direct and send the Son and Holy Spirit.”[iii] Norman Geisler writes, “By His very title of ‘Father’ and His label of ‘the first person of the Trinity,’ it is manifest that His function is superior to that of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father, for example, is presented as the Source, Sender, and Planner of salvation.”[iv] If it were not for the Father, then no plan of salvation would be offered.

2. The function of the SON as ACCOMPLISHER (3:16a).

At the baptism of Jesus, we see that Christ was obedient even in an act that was not mandatory. Jesus had committed no sin for which he had to be absolved. Yet, Jesus was obedient in his baptism and was obedient in his death. The baptism of Jesus would inaugurate his ministry on earth. The Father acknowledged his approval to his Son, in part due to the Son’s willingness to accomplish the salvation of all who would receive his atoning work. Barker and Kohlenberger denote that “These things are linked in the one utterance: at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his Father presented him, in a veiled way, as the Davidic Messiah, the very Son of God, the representative of the people, and the Suffering Servant.”[v]

On several occasions, the New Testament presents Jesus as God incarnate. This is an imperative doctrine to the Christian faith. Jesus himself acknowledged himself to be God come in the flesh from eternity past (John 17:5). Jesus claimed equality with God in forgiving sins (Mark 2:5). Jesus accepted worship by a leper (Matthew 8:2), from a ruler (Matthew 9:19), from the disciples after calming a storm (Matthew 14:33), from a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:25), from the mother of James and John (Matthew 20:20), from a demoniac (Mark 5:6), and from Thomas (John 20:28). The miracles of Jesus demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus as he healed various diseases, performed supernatural works over the natural world (i.e. calming the storm, walking on water, etc.), and even raising the dead. Jesus not only claimed to be God. He proved that he was God. Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated his obedience in fulfilling the plan orchestrated by the Father.

3. The function of the HOLY SPIRIT as APPLICATOR (3:16b).

There is yet another player in this Triune Godhead. The Holy Spirit plays a role. The Holy Spirit played an active role in Jesus’ baptism. Notice that in verse 16, Matthew records that the “heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (3:16b). The Spirit of God plays the role of applicator as the Spirit applies salvation to the person receiving Christ.

Craig Blomberg writes, “the Holy Spirit descends “like” a dove, which suggests that no actual bird appeared but that some visible manifestation of the Spirit led observers to recognize that God was revealing himself through those attributes regularly associated with a dove—e.g., superintending over creation (cf. Gen 1:2), offering peace (as in Gen 8:10), gentleness in contrast to the judgment of vv. 7–12, or as “the loving character of divine life itself.”[vi] The Holy Spirit led Jesus as the Father directed. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. It should be noted that the Holy Spirit is not an “it,” but rather a “he.” The Holy Spirit is the personal mover at creation and is the personal applier of salvation to the repentant soul. Throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is shown to be God himself. In Acts, when Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of stealing money from God, Peter said to them, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?…You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4). Ananias and his wife died thereafter. Jesus even tells us that all blasphemies will be forgiven expect one: the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:30-32).

People have often tried to illustrate the Triune nature of God. But most illustrations fall short. For instance, people have used the three stages of water: solid, liquid, and gas. However, this illustration fails because the water changes forms which leads to the heresy of modalism. Some have illustrated God as three links of a chain. However, the links are three different things which leads to the heresy of Tritheism. Some have used the illustration of different roles that a person plays as I am father, pastor, and husband. However, this does not quite work either since I cannot perform all three at the same time which leads to the Sabellian heresy. Are there good illustrations? Well thankfully there are. Norman Geisler provides three. 1. A Triangle is a good example of the trinity. The triangle is one shape but holds three different sides at the same time. 2. One to the Third Power. 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. You have three ones which constitute one. That is a better illustration for mathematicians. My favorite is the third. 3 Love is Trifold. For love to be love, it must contain three elements: a lover, a beloved, and the spirit of love. These three are necessary for love to exist. Ultimately, we will always have to settle for a bit of mystery in our understanding of God’s Triune nature. But having a grasp on the essentials lets us know four important truths.

 

  1. God is three persons, yet one God. There will always be a bit of a mystery about the Triune nature of God. However, we can accept this truth due to the necessity of the Father’s existence, the historical nature of Jesus’ resurrection, and the historical accounts and personal experience that we have had with the Holy Spirit.
  2. God is an eternal relationship. We are invited into that relationship. When we accept Christ as the Lord of our lives, we have been ushered into the eternal relationship of God—a relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  3. God has made every effort to save us. Our salvation included the architectural genius of the Father, the accomplishing obedience of the Son, and the applicating and loving presence of the Holy Spirit.
  4. God is united. So, should we. If anything, we see the great importance that God places on unity. We should strive to be united with God. We should also strive for unity with fellow Christians.

 Copyright, April 14, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[ii] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger, III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 19.

[iii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 249.

[iv] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011), 549.

[v] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 19.

[vi] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 81–82.

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Essential Doctrines (Part 7): The Trinity

Trinity1  One of the important, yet misunderstood, doctrines in the Bible is that of the Trinity. In this article, the doctrine of the Trinity will be explained, then, it will be shown why a person should believe in the doctrine, and finally, why it matters. The Trinity is one of the major dividing lines between orthodox Christianity and heretical versions of Christianity.

 

What is the doctrine?

The doctrine of the Trinity suggests that God is one, yet exists in three different persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some have criticized this doctrine as being a form of polytheism and leaving the roots of Judaist monotheism. However, this is not the case. The Christian understands that God is one God. Yet, this one God is manifested in three persons. Various methods have been used to describe this. One of my favorite illustrations is that of water. Water is found in three forms: solid, liquid, and gas. Despite being found in these three (four if you include plasma) forms, the substance is the same…water. So, now that the doctrine has been explained, the article will now examine why the doctrine should be accepted.

  

Why should one believe in the doctrine?

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the more bizarre concepts in Christianity. However, it is founded upon strong evidence. There are certain things in life that may seem difficult to understand. However, those difficult things should not be cast aside as false if there is good evidence to suggest that they are realities.

The Deity of the Father

There is really no need to expound on the deity of the Heavenly Father as it is presented throughout the entire Bible. God the Father is revealed through the personal names given to Him throughout the Hebrew Bible. The classic personal name given to the Father is “YHWH.” Some translate the personal name of God as “Jehovah.” However, it seems that the name “Yahweh” is far more accurate. As found in Exodus 3:14, And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14, NKJV). Another title given to the Father is “Elohim.” Elohim is an interesting title. It is a plural name given to a singular entity. Some have seen a reference to the Father’s plurality of persons. While this is debated, Erickson writes that “Grammarians have termed this phenomenon the quantitative plural. Water may be thought of in terms of individual raindrops or of a mass of water such as is found in the ocean. Knight asserted that this quantitative diversity is unity is a way fitting way of understanding the plural ‘elohim.’ He also believed that this explains why the singular noun (adonai) is written as a plural (GAF Knight 1953, 20)” (Erickson 1998, 354). There is no dispute that the Father was seen as divine by the Old and New Testament writers.

The Deity of Jesus

 As mentioned in previous articles (“Essential Doctines: The Incarnation”), Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to movements like the Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormon Church, is understood to be divine. Anything less is untrue to the context of the New Testament. Since this attribute has already been discussed in previous articles, it is not necessary to undertake the issue again. However, it would behoove us to mention one of the earliest mentions to Jesus’ divinity found in an early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11, NIV).

 Verse 6 uses the “word ‘morphe’ contrasts with the word ‘schema’, which is also generally translated ‘form,’ but in the sense of shape or superficial appearance rather than substance. For Paul, an orthodox Jew trained in the rabbinic teaching of strict Judaism, verse 6 is indeed and astonishing statement. Reflecting the faith of the early church, it suggests a deep commitment to the full deity of Christ” (Erickson 1998, 350). Therefore it is undeniable that the earliest church understood Jesus of Nazareth to be the divine Son of God.

The Deity of the Holy Spirit

 The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity. Dunn describes that the word “spirit” (Hebrew ruah, Greek pneuma) is the word used from ancient times to describe and explain the experience of divine power working in, upon, and around men, and understood by them as the power of God” (Dunn 1988, 986). In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit was seen as the “wind of God” (Genesis 8:1, Exodus 10:13, Exodus 14:21); the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7, Job 33:4, Psalm 104:29); David coined the term “Holy Spirit” (ruach qodesh) to separate the Spirit of God from other spirits (Psalm 51:11); the Spirit of prophecy (Haggai 2:5, et al); the Spirit in direction of the end times, or the Spirit who would be poured out upon men and women (Ezekiel 39:29, Joel 2:28, etc.). In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit was seen as “wind” (John 3:8); “breath” (2 Thessalonians 2:8), “breath of life” (Revelation 11:1); the provider of salvation (Acts 2:38, 29); the teacher of truth (John 14:17); the advocate (John 14:26); the giver of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Cor. 12:8-10, 1 Cor. 112:29-30, Ephesians 4:11, and 1 Peter 4:11); and the giver of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23). But do these Scriptures necessarily point to the divinity of the Holy Spirit? One could argue that they do, but there are more specific links which attribute the Holy Spirit as a person in the Godhead.

The baptismal formula definitively suggests that the Holy Spirit is as much God as the Father and the Son. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV). The three are linked together in Paul’s benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14). The Holy Spirit is linked to critical times of Jesus life: Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:35), His baptism (Matthew 3:16-17), and at His resurrection (Romans 8:11).

The early church recognized the Trinity. In the Didache, an early book that nearly made it to the New Testament, it is said, And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before” (Didache 7:1-4).

Justin Martyr, writing in the early 2nd century, also wrote concerning the Trinity, For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water… And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed” (Justin Martry, Apologies I.61). Ignatius of Antioch writes in the late 1st century, “For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water” (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, XVIII). Although the word trinity is never used in the Bible, the concepts of a Triune Godhead are clearly taught and understood by the earliest of Christians.

  

Why is the doctrine essential?

If one is to understand God as God is presented in the Bible, then it is essential to the Christian faith. Anything less is untrue to the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. To strip any one of the three from their divine nature is to have a false view of the person. Unfortunately, there have been many heresies that have developed over the millennia that have sought to undermine this doctrine.

Arianism

 Jehovah Witnesses fit within this category. JH’s view Jesus as the incarnation of the archangel Michael. But the JH movement established by Charles Taze Russell is nothing new. Their beliefs can actually be seen in an early cult known as Arianism. An early cult known as Arians popularized a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not completely divine. Jesus was a created individual who was given the highest status among humans. In light of the teachings of John 1:1 and the self-identification of Jesus Himself as recorded in the Gospels, such a notion should be rejected.

Docetism

Docetists denied the actual humanity of Jesus. They believed, like the Gnostics, that Jesus only appeared to be human.

Apollinarianism

Apollinarius developed a Christology that Jesus had two natures: human and divine. But, he carried it too far. He denied that Jesus had a human will.

Nestorianism

Nestorius completely divided the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike Arian, Nestorius viewed the Spirit of Christ as being eternal, but the humanity of Jesus being only finite. Therefore, Jesus did not become divine until the Spirit of God rested upon Jesus.

Eutychianism

Eutychicus took Nestorius’ teachings even further. He seemed to indicate that once Jesus became divine, Jesus lost his human will and only then had the divine will.

Modalism

Modalists believed the essentials of the Trinity, but denied that they existed at the same time. In other words, they believed that God was the Father, then God ceased being the Father to become the Son, and then ceased being the Son to become the Holy Spirit. They do not believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit co-exist. This causes complications when one tries to fit the belief in the context of Scripture. For instance, at the baptism of Christ, we are presented with Christ being baptized, the Father speaking, and the Spirit descending like a dove. Therefore, this view cannot be accepted.

Mormonism

Mormons claim that there exists a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. These entities are but offspring of another set of divine parents. There are tremendous difficulties merging such a doctrine with the teachings of the Bible. Therefore if Jesus is seen to be the Son of God and there is evidence for the Trinity, then such a view must be rejected.

There are many other discrepancies that can be evaluated. However, the trinity is an important doctrine to understand and to accept if one is going to understand the nature and work of God. What’s more, the teaching of the Bible indicates that we are joined in with this divine relationship through the abiding of the Holy Spirit, paid for by Jesus at the cross, and established in the mind of the Almighty Father.

grace-of-god

Bibliography

All Scripture noted as (NIV) comes from The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

All Scripture noted as (NKJV) comes from The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Didache 7:1-4. Translated by Donalds and Robertson. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Dunn, James D. G. “The Holy Spirit.” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Edited by Walter A.

Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885. pg. 57.

Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885., pg. 183.

Knight, G. A. F. A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1953. In Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.