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How can God be three, yet one? An explanation of the Trinity with marriage as a picture.

Chapter 7 in About God
this chapter by Ian B. Johnson.


God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet one, is clearly declared in scripture.

The single clearest declaration of the existence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- i.e, to use the traditional theological term, as a Trinity -- is found in I John 5, which states, in relevant part:

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three who testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three agree as one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is God's testimony which he has testified concerning his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who doesn't believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. The testimony is this, that God gave to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life. He who doesn't have God's Son doesn't have the life... We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding, that we know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.
I John 5:1-12, 20 & marg. (WEB)

The italicized language in the above passage directly asserts that the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit are one. Unfortunately, this language is also found only in the margin of most modern translations, attached to a notation indicating that it is not found in extant Greek texts which date earlier than the Sixteenth Century. However, even if the questioned language is treated as if it had been added by Medieval monks (a historical conclusion with which this author disagrees), the existence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three yet one, can be demonstrated in at least three other ways.

First, even if the language italicized above is ignored, the remainder of I John 5 is of unquestioned authenticity and clearly teaches the concept of the Trinity. Only the person who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God overcomes the world, is born of God and has life. Anyone who does not believe this calls God a liar. Yet in verse 20, both God and his Son are called "him who is true" and "the true God." Furthermore, in verse 7 the Spirit is called "the truth," and in verses 8 through 10 the testimony of the Spirit, the testimony of the water and the blood by which Christ came and the testimony of God are equated.

Second, numerous other scriptures either directly teach or depend upon the concept. For instance, "the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ" is referred to in Colossians 2:2, and in I Corinthians 12:3-6, the Spirit of God and the Holy Spirit are equated, his work in our lives is identified as God's work, and is identified as the only power by which we can say "Jesus is Lord." Similarly, Jesus' own words are said to be God's words because God gives the Spirit to him without measure. John 3:34-35. It was God who anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and power. Acts 10:38. Likewise, in several places Jesus promises to send his followers the Holy Spirit from the Father, to comfort, teach and empower them and to guide them into all truth. John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7. Indeed, all things that the Father has belong to the Son, and Jesus promised to send the Spirit to show them to his disciples. John 16:14-15. After his resurrection, the scriptures indicate that Jesus kept this promise, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Father and pouring it out on his followers who were gathered together. Acts 2:33.

In the same way, we have seen in previous chapters that Jesus, the Word, was with God and was God in the beginning, and without him nothing was made that has been made. (1). Yet the Genesis account identifies three actors as present at creation: God, the Spirit of God hovering over his work, and the words God spoke to bring things into existence. Genesis 1:1-3. In a similar way, in the human events which led to the birth of Jesus, God first sent an angel (a spiritual messenger) to speak his words to Mary, and when she submitted to those words and received them, the Holy Spirit came upon her and the words God had spoken were conceived in her womb, resulting in the conception of the Son of God as Son of Man. Luke 1:29-38. Moreover, while the angel told Mary that the baby she would bear would be the Son of God, her cousin Elizabeth, when "filled with the Holy Spirit," called Mary's unborn baby her "Lord." Luke 1:32, 35, 41-42. Likewise, Elizabeth's husband Zechariah, "filled with the Holy Spirit," prophesied that his son John, as a "prophet of the Most High," would "go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him" -- exactly as John later did for Jesus. Luke 1:76; Mark 1:1-3. Thus, all three members of the Godhead are seen to have been active both in the creation and in the events which led to the human birth of the Son of God.

The Son eternally comes from the Father and they share the Spirit. All three act together.

Third, the central mystery of the Gospel cannot be understood without an understanding of the mystery of the Trinity. As was previously shown, at both the creation of all things and the conception of Jesus, the Word came forth from the Father and was acted upon by the Spirit, which brought the Father's work into existence by the Word he had spoken. This is the invariable relationship between the three. The Son is always seen to come forth from the Father, the "firstborn over all creation," the radiance of the Father's glory and the exact representation of his being, and is the one by whom the Father creates and sustains all things. Hebrews 1:1-3, 8-12; Colossians 1:15-17. While equal with the Father, he submits to the Father and does only what he sees his Father doing. John 5:19; Philippians 2:5-6. Though he submitted to be made human, "a little lower than the angels," to bring salvation and understanding friendship to humanity, in substance he is one with his Father (2).

But God is spirit. John 4:24. Thus, it can be no surprise that the substance which the Father and the Son share is spirit. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38. Indeed, John the baptizer attested that God gives the Spirit to Jesus without measure. John 3:34-35. As it is only the spirit of a person which truly knows that person's mind, so it is only the Spirit of God which searches even the deep things of God and knows God's mind. I Corinthians 2:10-11. Jesus said that the Spirit would show Jesus' things to us because all things that the Father has also pertain to Jesus. John 16:14-15. The "Spirit of God," the "Spirit of Christ," the "Spirit of Jesus," the "Holy Spirit," the "Spirit of holiness," the "Spirit of life," the "Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead" and simply the "Spirit" are equated in Acts 16:6-7, Romans 1:3-4 and Romans 8:1-17. Further, in 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, the "Spirit of God" and the "Holy Spirit" are identified with the "same Spirit" who gives gifts, the "same Lord" who receives our service and the "same God" who works in each of us.

The Spirit of God is a distinct personality.

However, that spiritual substance which the Father and the Son share is not an impersonal substance or a mindless force, but is throughout scripture attributed a separate personality. For instance, in Genesis 1:1-2, God speaks out his Word while the "spirit of God" hovers over the waters. Likewise at the Incarnation, the angel spoke the words of the Father and the Holy Spirit came upon Mary to conceive the Son. Luke 1:29-38. The Holy Spirit has spoken to people, and continues to speak, directly and personally (3). The Spirit also, as a distinct person, has a mind and experiences emotions (4).

The creation of man as male and female is a picture of the Trinity.

Genesis 1:27 attests that God created man "in his own image... male and female." While God gives man, male and female, dominion over the earth and the God-like power of procreation, in subsequent verses, the only way God expressly states that man is made in His image is that man is male and female. God created the first woman out of the first man. Genesis 2:21-22. Thus, Eve came out of Adam, just as the Son comes out of the Father. Moreover, Adam instantly recognized when he saw Eve, she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, as God himself confirmed. Genesis 2:23-24. Therefore, Adam and Eve shared one flesh, just as the Father and the Son share one substance. Finally, Adam and Eve were of one spirit, just as the Father and the Son share one Spirit. Malachi 2:15.

Adam and Eve, as they were originally created in innocence, were a nearly perfect picture of the Trinity. Indeed this picture was imperfect in only two respects. First, because the first man and woman were temporal, created beings, Adam had to be created first for Eve to be created out of him. By contrast, the scriptures are clear that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are equally eternal and none existed before any of the others. See, e.g., Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-3. From eternity, the Son comes out of the Father, without implying that either one is limited to time or had a beginning in time. Second, where the Son does only the Father's will and the Father and Son are eternally loyal to each other, the loyalty of Adam and Eve to each other, though complete in their innocence, had never been tested. Philippians 2:5-11; John 5:19-23. When tempted by the serpent, the first couple departed from their loyalty to God and to each other. Genesis 3:6-8, 11-12 & 16. By contrast, when tempted by the devil, the Son remained loyal to the Father, and when the Son took the sin of the world upon himself on the cross, the Father remained loyal to the Son (5).

Marriage is a picture of the Trinity.

At the present time marriage, and particularly marriage between believers, is a picture of the Trinity. It has been marred by sin and is no longer the nearly perfect picture presented by the first couple in their time of innocence. Nevertheless, man and wife, though distinct individuals, become joined by God as one flesh in a manner analogous to Adam and Eve, who were distinct persons though literally created from the same flesh. Matthew 19:4-6. Neither mate owns his or her own body; that body belongs to the other mate, to them both jointly. I Corinthians 7:4. Further, it remains true that a married couple, joined by God, to a large degree shares a single, merged spirit. Malachi 2:15.

However, the New Testament also clearly states that Christian marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Ephesians 5:22-33. The Church is the body of Christ, and every believer is a member of that body. I Corinthians 12:27. The Church exists only because Jesus the Son died to bring it into existence and the Father and the Spirit raised him from the dead to empower it to live (6). Christ is the Head of the Church, his Body, and the Church is growing out of its Head, just as the Son eternally comes out of the Father. Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 2:19.. Yet, the Church is also the Bride of Christ, and Christ is at the present time (as we see time) perfecting his Bride so that he can present it to Himself without spot or wrinkle. Ephesians 5:25-27; Colossians 3:22. The Son and his Bride are, thus, distinct persons, yet a single body, just as the Father and the Son are distinct yet one. Moreover, the Son and his Bride share a single Spirit, that same Holy Spirit which the Father and the Son share (7).

The relationships in the Trinity, in marriage and between Christ, his Church and individual believers are analogous to each other, and point to the unity of the individual believers and the Church with Christ and with the Father.

It is at this point that the mystery of the Trinity and the central mystery of the gospel intersect. This mystery is stated by the Apostle Paul in several different ways. On the one hand, the "mystery of Christ" is a mystery about the Church corporately, namely, that through the gospel the gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 3:4, 6. On the other hand, the mystery which God is now making known is a mystery about believers individually, namely "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Colossians 1:27. Yet these are opposing sides of the same mystery. The Body of Christ grows out of its head in part by adding members. Acts 2:47; Ephesians 5:30. Each member is brought into the Body by being given the same Holy Spirit which the Body shares with the Head and the Son shares with the Father. Acts 2:15-17, 33, 38-39; Romans 8:9. A person who has the Spirit of Christ has Christ himself dwelling within, and, though still a separate person, is one spirit with Christ. I Corinthians 6:17; Romans 8:9-11. But the individual who has Christ has also been immersed by that same Spirit into one Body with all other believers and has become a member of that Body, of one substance with both the Body and its Head. I Corinthians 12:12-13, 27. On the other hand, the Body of Christ also grows out from its head in part by the growth of its existing members, as each is brought into a more mature relationship with the Head. Ephesians 4:11-16. Thus, the relationship between Christ, the individual believer, and Christ's Church is properly likened to marriage, as Paul does in one explanation of the mystery of the gospel:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
Ephesians 5:25-32 (ASV)

Thus, as Father and the Son, though distinct, are one substance and man and wife are one flesh, the Son and his Body are one and are mutually one with each member of that Body. Similarly, as the Father and the Son share one Spirit, and a man and wife are one spirit, the Son, his Church and each member of his Church share one Spirit, the same Holy Spirit which the Father and the Son share. Moreover, that Spirit is a distinct personality from the Father, the Son, the Church and each of the members of the Church in which he resides, just as the spirit of a marriage is distinct from either of the partners separate from the other, yet he perfectly represents the Father and the Son to each other and to the Church. While God's Word gives us much instruction concerning this mystery, only one who is personally a part of the mystery, a member of Christ's Body, can ever hope to understand it. The doctrine of the Trinity is beyond human understanding.

End notes

  1. John 1:1-5, 10, 14; I John 1:1-3 (identifying the Word).
  2. John 10:30; Hebrews 2:5-18; Phillipians 2:5-11.
  3. See, for instance, John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-16; Acts 2:4, 9:1-15, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2, 16:6-7, 23:11; Romans 8:15-16; I Corinthians 2:9-16, 12:1-3, 12:8-11, 14:24-25; I Timothy 4:1; I Peter 1:11; I John 2:27, 3:24- 4:3, 5:6-8; Revelation 2:7, 14:13, 22:17.
  4. Psalm 106:33 (the Spirit can be provoked); Isaiah 11:2 (the Spirit of God is the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and knowledge); Luke 10:21 (the Holy Spirit rejoices); John 11:33, 13:21 (the Spirit can be troubled and can groan); Acts 5:9 (the Spirit of the Lord can be tested); Romans 8:26-27 (verse 26 indicates that the Spirit groans while verse 27 speaks of the mind of the Spirit); I Corinthians 12:8 (wisdom and knowledge are gifts of the Spirit); Ephesians 4:30 (the Spirit can be grieved).
  5. Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 22:39-44; Romans 1:1-4.
  6. Acts 2:24-33; Colossians 1:18-22 and 2:9-15; Ephesians 5:23, 25-27; Hebrews 9:14.
  7. Acts 2:1-4, 15-18; Romans 8:8-11; I Corinthians 12:13.

Ian Johnson
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© 1998, 2005 Ian Johnson

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