“Reframing God: Why the Trinity?” with John Burke

At Gateway Church in Austin we started a new series called “Reframing God.”

Many of us have a warped view of God. We see God as angry and hard to please or as an old wise man with a gray beard who is distant from us. God has revealed Himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit, so what does that mean? Discover the beauty of who God is and how that illuminates our path.

Message Discussion:

Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner,  life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Next Steps

Message Video:

Start at 37:30 and be sure to watch all the way through the spoken word weaved within the song after the message.

Message Notes:

Students in both Jewish and Christian parochial schools were asked to write what they understood about the Bible.  And it kind of shows how easily many of the stories and concepts can get mixed up in our minds. Here are some of their responses: 

 In the first book of the Bible, Guinness, God got tired of creating the world, so he took the Sabbath off.  (Guinness is a beer not a book—actually there is a book called God and Guinness, but that’s different than Genesis).

Other studens said:

  • Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree.
  • Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.
  • Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.
  • Throughout history, the Jewish people had trouble with unsympathetic Genitals. (Gentiles)
  • Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Amendments.
  • The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.
  • The Seventh Commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.  (time to post the big 10 back in the schools)
  • Jesus enunciated the Golden Rule, which says to do one to others before they do one to you.
  • The people who followed the Lord were called the 12 decibels.
  • One of the opossums was St. Matthew, who was a taxman.
  • The epistles were the wives of the apostles.

Some things in the Bible get confusingAnd probably one of the most confusing, difficult ideas to understand is that of the Trinity.  This mysterious aspect of who God is – revealed in Trinity. 

That’s what we’re gonna wrestle with today as we start this series called Reframing God. Next week, Why pray, then why worship—what’s the point and how does it affect God? There’s a lot of confusion about God, God’s heart, motives, character—we may need to reframe how we see God. Because we can’t really learn to love God if we don’t really know Him.

Like imagine if you were dating someone for a while, and you’re really thinking marriage, and he or she kept telling you how much he loved you.  And finally one night after dinner, you ask “what it is that you love about me?”  And he starts naming the qualities he loves about you. As he does, you get this sick feeling in your stomach because about 50% of the things he loves about you are not who you really are.  He says,  I love you because you love to do crazy adventurous things”, and you’re thinking “I’m scared to death of crazy adventurous things.”  He says “I love the way you’re so into cooking.”  You think, “I hate cooking – I just did it once because I knew it means a lot to you.” “I love how curious and creative you are” – “Okay—you finally got one right.” “I love it that you’re so into sports with me” You’re incredulous: “I tolerate watching sports or I’d never see you all fall.” And as he talks, you realize he doesn’t really love YOU – he loves an image that he has created in his head that’s maybe ½ accurate – but that’s not fully you.  How would you feel?  Not very loved, right.  To truly love another, you have to seek to know who they truly are deep inside—and as you learn, you may have to reframe the way you saw that person.  But love seeks to know and accept and trust a person as they truly are.

It’s the same with God.  If we are going to become people who love God (as the 1st commandment actually says), we have to know God as He truly is. 

Jesus said But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. 24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:23-24.  

What God desires, like anyone in love, is that the people He loves would have hearts that long for him and connect with him (in our spirit), as He really is (in Truth). So today we are going to look at this Mysterious Aspect of who God has revealed himself to be through the millennia.  

It’s important to say first that we can’t know all there is to know about God.  Moses notes:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.  Deuteronomy 29:29  

There are things about God that have been revealed so we can know Him and follow him, but not everything is revealed–some things are hidden, mysterious.  And we need to realize this.  If someone says that you should be able to understand everything about God, watch out.  That God is an idol – a finite image.  Because God is infinite, has no bounds – and guess what, a finite creature cannot comprehend that completely.  So if there is no mystery, you’ve got a false God and you need to reframe God and leave room for some mystery. 

And without a doubt, there’s mystery with this idea of God as Trinity. And this raises some confusing questions. Is the Trinity found in the Old Testament of just a Christian New Testament idea. Are there 3 Gods or 1 God, how is Trinity not a logical contradiction?  Why is the word Trinity never in the bible?  Was Jesus fully God, but if so did God die? Who was running the Universe then? If only 1 God, why Father, Son, and Spirit—what’s the difference? How do I think about and relate to this Triune God? These are tough questions to answer, which is why I’m gonna leave them for your Campus Pastor for next week—no I’m kidding—but we’re gonna have to do some theological offroading to get through all this, so buckle up and try to stay with me.

God is revealed as One God in both the Old and New Testaments.

For those just starting to explore faith, or unfamiliar with the Bible, it’s important to know the bible is not a book, it’s a library. It’s a compilation of 66 books written by 40 different authors over 1500 years of history where God is claiming to reveal his character by interacting with humanity.  Keep that in mind, because the mere fact that this mystery of God as Trinity is maintained rather than morphed or resolved across 1500 years of written history is itself miraculous.

So Moses wrote the first 5 books of the bible, starting with Guinness—I mean Genesis–recording pre-Israelite history from 2000 BC to 1500 BC. Then as nations are worshipping idols, false gods, living in fear and doing destructive things like child sacrifice, God reveals himself powerfully to Moses and the Israelites he led out of slavery in Egypt.  God appears to Moses on Mt. Sinai (not Cyanide) gives the 10 commandments and makes a relational covenant with the people.

He says: 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 strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Deuteronomy 6:4-7.

God is One—and love is what God wants most. It was the first and greatest command.  This was called the Shema—the creed of Israel, there’s only One God, love God only.  This was ingrained in Judaism, there aren’t many gods, there’s only One. Isaiah and other prophets repeat this continually, like in 680 BC God tells Isaiah,

I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you [King Cyrus], though you have not acknowledged me,so that…people may know there is none besides me. Isaiah 45:5-6.

There’s One God who actually revealed himself in History, and proved He was God by doing verifiable things, like telling in advance he’d send King Cyrus (the Persian King) to rebuild Jerusalem. We’ve looked at how this One True God proved himself again and again in actual history—no other god of any religion has done verifiable things in actual history.

God is love, and wants to be loved for who He is—He is One. And this theme carries into the New Testament. Jesus last prayer:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. John 17:3.

So Jesus affirms only One True God, and tells people “worship and serve God only.” 

Then Paul reiterates this. We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 1 Corinthians 8:4.

So here’s the first big idea:

There are not three Gods, there’s only One God, revealed in three persons. 

In fact, it’s true, the word Trinity never appears in the Bible at all.  Trinity is a word theologians use to describe this mystery of God, revealed, but not explained.  But it’s all over the Old Testament, made more clear through Jesus. Again, what’s amazing—this mystery of One God revealed in 3 persons is consistent for 1500 years across 40 books, even though those writers it didn’t fully understand.  Let me show you a sampling:

Genesis 1 “So God created mankind in his own image…male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27.  

So think about this—there’s a plurality of relationship that reflects God’s very Being, not just male, not just female—but together, in relationship with the Creator.  The bible says “God is love” but love is relational. So before God created how did God love? The Father loves the Son loves the Spirit loves the Father eternally—and we were created and invited into that loving relationship. God is a loving relationship. 

But isn’t the Trinity a contradiction?  How can 3 persons be 1 God?  Well, It’s not a contradiction, but it is a paradox.  But science has found lots of paradoxes that are not contradictions.  For instance, ever heard of the Double Slit Experiment?

Light behaves as both particles and wavelengths—which it can’t be both—weirder still, what changes whether particle or wavelength is whether it’s observed?  Eminent physicist Richard Feynman, says

“[The quantum double-slit experiment] puts us up against the paradoxes and mysteries and peculiarities of nature”.

-Feynman

So the Trinity is not the only paradox or mystery.

God revealed a plurality of persons, as One God, from the beginning of human history. 2000 BC Yahweh appears in the form of a man to tell Abraham and Sarah they will have a child to create a nation to reveal God’s identity to all nations.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre… Abraham looked up and saw three men… Genesis 18:1-2.

And off and on in the Old Testament, Yahweh, the One True God appears as a man, often called The Angel of the Lord, and you know this isn’t just any angel because all angels reject worship—saying worship God only, but this Angel of the Lord accepts worship.  Theologians say this is the pre-incarnate Jesus.  Isaiah makes this very clear in 680 BC writing that a Great Light will come to the region of Galilee (where Jesus would live and teach 700 years later).

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6.

So this is Jesus, called the One True God, foretold to come as this Messiah.  And then to make it even clearer, the prophet Daniel in about 500 BC has a vision of Heaven 

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. Daniel 7:13.

WHAT? Worshipped him? There’s only One God, worship God only, so why is this Jewish prophet talking about a “son of man” whom Yahweh will give all authority and sovereign power so that all nations will worship him?  It’s Jesus—revealed for 1000s of years before he came.

Son of Man was Jesus favorite name for himself. Jesus referred to this when he said, the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. Matthew 9:6

When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain and showed them his glory—his face was brighter than the sun they said (which is what those say have near-death experiences and seeing the Lord).

Then Jesus said “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

Clearly, Jesus equated himself with this Son of Man in Daniel who is the One True God. And in many other places Jesus equates himself with the One True God, like when Moses asked God in the burning bush, What’s Your Name, God says “I am” – ego eimi, which is the exact phrase Jesus tells the pharisees when they asked “who do you think you are?” He said before Abraham was born, “I am.”

Okay—but hang on a second.  If Jesus was the One True God, did God die on the cross? Who was running the universe if God was dead?  Atheists often pose this question. But let’s think harder about it.  You and I live in 3 dimensions of space 1 dimension of time.  Our astrophysicists tell us there must be more unseen dimensions to reality, because Einstein’s General Relativity works perfectly to describe how gravity and planets and space-time works.  And Quantum Mechanics works perfectly to predict how the microscopic works—but they don’t work together unless there are unseen dimensions all around us. They’ve mathematically demonstrated this.  So if God exists outside our dimensional understanding, then we can understand the Trinity in part, by analogy. 

If I created a flat world of only 2 dimensions, these people could only move forward and back, side to side, but there’s no “up or down” they can conceive of.  So I reveal myself to them, by reaching my hand into their 2 dimensional plane—they would see me as a round slice (like this PIC—right?).  Let’s say stuck 3 fingers into their world, they’d see three circles (like this PIC—three separate circles).  But what if I then told them, I’m not actually 3 beings, but One.  These 3 slices of me are not 3 different people, but 3 representations of the One Me.  But that would be a paradox to them—three circles only exist side by side, because they can’t conceive of a 3rd dimension where these three circles connect “up” my arm into my One Being. So 3 persons Father, Son, Spirit somehow connect “up” as One in higher dimensions—or beyond all dimensions.

So Jesus came Isaiah foretold Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:1-5

So Jesus was like the arm of the Lord, reaching into humanity to pay for our sins on the cross, and death killed his human 3 dimension representation, but God always transcended Jesus.

As Hebrews says, The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…. Hebrews 1:3

Well what about God’s Spirit? Not only do you see Father and Son mysteriously revealed across 1000s of years, but God’s Spirit was present in creation Genesis says. 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel…I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills. Exodus 31:1-3.

Probably most clear is where all three persons are hinted at in the relational, emotional heart of God. Isaiah 63 says [God] said, “Surely they are my people, children [of a Father] who will be true to me”; and so he became their Savior [the Son].In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence [the Son] saved them.[a] In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.10 Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit.  Isaiah 63:8-10.

See it right there in the Old Testament?  God the Father wants loving children who will be true to him, God the Son (the Angel of the Lord) comes as a savior when they’re not, and God the Holy Spirit carried them and is grieved when we rebel.  And this Holy Spirit is a Person, not an “It” or the force, He has feelings, can love, be grieved.

Okay, that’s a lot of theological content, how do we practically use this to relate to God and to love God better?  Like, it gets confusing, who should I think about—the Father, Jesus, the Spirit?  I can’t imagine all 3 as One.  Who should I pray to—does it matter? We’ll talk more about that next week. 

But here’s my pastoral wisdom.  Don’t stress about it. God knows our limits—what helps you relationally connect and trust God best is probably where God would want you to start. But as you grow, grow your interaction with the Triune God:

God the Father loves us better than any mother or father loves their children.  Jesus says He’s infinite, eternal, all powerful, a provider, yet when one of his children gets lost in life—Jesus reminds us the Father searches for them, runs to the wayward son or daughter who turns home, and throws a party when one comes home to God.  Do you need to be reminded that God is both powerful, sustaining the universe, you’re safe in his perfect plans, you can run to his arms and find comfort, protection, love? That’s the Father—the One True God.

Or maybe it’s Jesus, the who shows us the unseen God in a form we can relate to. He shows us that God gets us, and in the mystery of all mysteries, God intimately joins himself to humanity for eternity (Jesus still has his resurrected human form). He’s called our brother, our closest friend, he’s “been there done that” in all of lifes sufferings—He was tempted as we are, so he knows the struggle is real, and he paid the ultimate price a person could pay for you—his own life—so you could be forgiven, embraced by God, healed, and free to walk with God though this life.  Do you need a friend, a God who understands and helps you in your time of need? That’s Jesus, the One True God.

Or do you need God’s Spirit—not an It, or a force, a person. Equated with Wisdom in the Old Testament, which was often given a feminine persona.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom…. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Isaiah 11:2, Proverbs 4:6

The Spirit is God’s very presence, God’s power, with you always to guide you in wisdom and truth Jesus said.  Jesus promised the Spirit to empower you to live your best most fruitful life, you’re never alone. God is One, but each person plays a unique role with us, even though you can’t really separate them–they’re all present in all as Jesus mysteriously said his last night:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”… 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth….He lives with you and will bein you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. John 14:6-18

God the Father had a plan from the beginning and sends God the Son into the world to save it.  God the Son fully submits to God the Father and is obedient to the point of death on the cross.  God the Father honors God the Son by giving him all authority and honor. God the Spirit applies what Christ has done by drawing people toward Christ and putting the spotlight on Jesus.  In God we see perfect community. We see diversity with perfect Unity.   We see the definition of love.

Crystal is a friend I interviewed for Imagine Heaven. She had a rough life, parents divorced and she was sexually molested by a babysitter from age 3 to 8 while her mom got high upstairs, alcoholic abusive stepfather.  So Crystal struggled with the idea of God the Father, but Jesus intrigued her.  Jesus was a man, had suffered, could relate, and He came to save us—so when she was 9 Crystal got baptized wanting Jesus to save her.  And she did feel cleansed from all the shame and dirty feelings.  But then the abuse continued, she didn’t understand why Jesus didn’t save her from that. She spent her teen years angry at God, convinced he didn’t love her if he did exist, years of rebellion breaking all the 10 Commandments. Then at age 33 Crystal went to the hospital for pancreatitis, and due to complications, she coded—no heartbeat or brainwaves for 9 minutes. Listen and Imagine this Triune God.

“I left my body for nine minutes and went to heaven. . . I was aware of a being on my right, and instantly I knew who this was. And what overcame me was a profound, endless desire to praise and worship this being, for I knew immediately I was in the presence of God. I have always referred to God as a him, and I guess I always will. But the being on my right was not a him or a her; it was just God. Nor did I make any distinction between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, as we sometimes do on Earth. They were all One—the One before me now. There was no distinct form…just a blinding profusion of brightness. I wasn’t so much meeting God as I was recognizing Him. I already knew Him, and He knew me. I’d spent my life doubting His existence and disbelieving His love for me, but in that instant I knew God had always, always been there—right there with me. . . . There was another sensation—I wasn’t just aware of God; I was feeling Him. His radiance wasn’t simply something I could observe; it was something that overwhelmed every sense I had . . . That is what I experienced—a beautiful new way of receiving and sending love. I was completely infused by God’s brightness and His love, and I wanted to enter into His brightness and intertwine myself completely with it. I felt a miraculous closeness to God but wanted to feel even closer. This was the Creator of the universe, and I was in His presence! The sheer ecstasy of it! The beauty of it, the joy and the grace, the way my spirit soared and my heart burst—how I wish I had the words to convey just how miraculous this was. With every fiber of my existence I wanted to praise and worship God, and that’s all I wanted to do. And I wanted to do it forever. . . What drove my praise was the intensity and immensity of my love for God. There is simply no other love remotely like it. In His presence, I just had the feeling that I loved Him so, so much—more than I ever thought was possible. . . . And you know, back on Earth, I had so many questions for God. “If I ever meet Him,” I’d say, “I’m going to ask Him how He could let someone molest me?” . . . In His presence I absolutely understood that in every way God’s plan is perfect. Sheer, utter perfection. Does that mean I can now explain it? No. I understood it in heaven, but we aren’t meant to have that kind of understanding here on Earth. All I can tell you is In His radiance, it all makes perfect, perfect sense. In this way all the questions I had for God were answered…except there was still one question I felt compelled to ask . . . But in fact it wasn’t really a question for God. It was a question for myself . . . Why didn’t I do more for You?

Crystal as shared in Imagine Heaven

God is love, and He already loves you and He’s already pleased with you—you are his beloved son, his cherished daughter in whom he is well pleased.  Knowing God’s love makes us want to do more for him in love. Invite that Love to fill you as listen to this…

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