The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity
March 1st, 1981 @ 10:50 AM
THE UNFATHOMABLE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 13:14
3-1-81 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity. In the long series covering several years on "The Great Doctrines of the Bible," this message this morning closes the section on theology, the doctrine of God. Next Sunday morning, we shall begin the series on the doctrine of Christology, the doctrine of Christ, and it will be entitled The Marvel of Jesus.
This message this morning closes the long series on theology proper, on the study of God, entitled The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity. As a background text, the Trinity is named in the last verse of the last chapter of the second Corinthian letter, 2 Corinthians 13:14, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen" – a trinitarian, tri-personality benediction: the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, the communion of the Holy Spirit: the Triune God. The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity: not that that is the only unfathomable mystery; just that the unfathomable mystery of God reaches into infinity.
We live in the midst of inexplicable mystery. We ourselves are a constituent part of it. There is no more un-understandable, inexplicable, unfathomable mystery than you yourself. Sometimes the Bible, the Lord Jesus, the apostle Paul will speak of a man, of us as being a dichotomy. The Bible will refer to us as a psuchē and as a soma, a soul and a body. Now how could they be together, inter-commingled and commingled in one you? How does spirit and materiality, corporeality mix together? Yet that’s you, soul and body. Sometimes the Bible, and especially the apostle Paul, will refer to us as a trichotomy. He will refer to us as a somatikos man: soma, body, a material, physical man, a somatikos man. He will also refer to us as a psuchikos man: psuchē, the sentient man, the man that thinks and feels. He will also refer to us as a pneumatikos man: pneuma, spirit, a pneumatikos man, a man that is sensitive to the Spirit of God. Now, we are in one category and in one sense a unity, a personality. We are also in another sense a plurality, a trinity: a soma, a psuchē, and a pneuma. Now, how do you put all that together in us? How could mind, and spirit, and will influence matter? How does it move and breathe and live in us? How am I both spirit, invisible and immaterial, and body, corporeal and visible? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know. There are limits to human understanding. In fact, we are limited in every area of our understanding. All we do is just look and see and observe; we don’t understand anything.
If this is true, the unfathomable mystery of our own being, how much more infinitely is it inexplicable and unfathomable when we reach toward the infinitude of the mystery of the sacred Trinity God? In reading the life of Augustine, he was walking by the side of the sea, and he saw a little boy digging a trench in the sand. He walked over to the lad and asked him what he was doing.
And the little fellow replied, "Sir, I am digging a trench. I’m making a trench."
"Why are you doing it?" said Augustine.
And the little lad replied, "I’m going to empty the sea into my trench."
The great thinker, the greatest of the Latin fathers, continuing his walk and musing, "So the lad thinks that he’s going to empty the sea into the little trench he’s made in the sand. Sometimes," he says, "we are like that. We propose to encompass the infinitude of God in the small limits of our mind. It cannot be achieved. It is impossible."
If we cannot understand or explain even the works of God – how did the sun get there? Who made it? And how did we get here, and who made us? And how are we made? If we cannot understand even the phenomena of the works of God all around us, the mud and the muck and the mire that can burst into these beautiful and flaming flowers – if we can’t understand the works of the Almighty, how much less can we understand the great mystery of God Himself?
In the order of creation, the higher the order, the more complex and inexplicable it becomes. To begin with a rock or a clod, then rise to a tree, a plant, then rise upward to an animal, then rise upward to a man, and finally to rise upward to God – the infinite, unfathomable mystery of the Trinity.
Now, when we look and study, there are two things that we learn. Number one: in the self-disclosure and the self-revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures, He reveals Himself to us as tri-personality. Second: in human experience, in our relationship and our knowledge and understanding, our meeting God in human experience, we know God as a tri-personality. Now the message that follows is a discussion of those two things.
Number one: in the revelation of God in these holy pages, He reveals Himself, discloses Himself to us as tri-personality, one in three and three in one – all coequal, coeternal, one in essence, three in subsistence. God is personality. He is somebody. He reveals Himself as a person; He speaks, He thinks, He acts, He communicates, He feels, He talks – that’s God. We are verbal creatures, and God communicates to us in words, in language, in thoughts, in deeds. The self-disclosure of God is always personal; God is not a philosophical principle. God is not an academician’s abstraction. God is not a barren, sterile, impersonal "first cause"; God is somebody. And He reveals Himself to us as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of David, of Isaiah, whose personal name in the Old Testament is Jehovah, Yahweh, whose personal name in the New Testament is Iēsous, Savior, Jesus our Lord.
Abraham is referred to in the Bible as "a friend of God" [Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23], not a friend of an abstract principle, but "a friend of God." And the same Holy Scriptures say that Moses spoke to God as a man would speak to a friend, face to face [Exodus 33:11]. God in the Bible is personal. In the Holy Scriptures, He is referred, He reveals Himself as tri-personal. There are three eternal, coequal distinctions in the Godhead. And all through the Bible, beginning at the first verse of the first chapter of the first book to the last benediction, that Trinity, that tri-personality in the Godhead is always apparent, ever present, always self-disclosed and revealed.
We shall look first in the Old Testament: the Trinity, the self-disclosure of God as tri-personality in the Old Testament Scriptures. In the first verse of the first chapter of the first book: "In the beginning God; in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void"; chaotic, "and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God," the Spirit of God, the ruach of Elohim, "moved upon the face of the waters" [Genesis 1:1-2]. "And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness" [Genesis 1:26]. There is a plurality in God. In the first syllables of the first verse, He is introduced to us – a plurality. The singular word for God is El. You find it in a thousand combinations in the Old Testament Scriptures; El-Kanah is the father of Samu-El [1 Samuel 1:19-20], the combination of God, singular: El, E-l, El. The plural is Elohim. Plural, Elohim, God, "In the beginning Elohim," [Genesis 1:1].
I counted in this first chapter of Genesis thirty-two times is that word Elohim used; God. In the books of Moses, Elohim, God, plural is used more than five hundred times. And in the Old Testament Scriptures, Elohim, God, is used more than five thousand times. And all thirty-two times in the first chapter of Genesis, all over five hundred times in the writings of Moses, and all over five thousand times in the Old Testament, all of it, without exception, Elohim is used with a singular verb. Elohim plural: referring to the majesty and the abounding marvel and mystery of God. And singular verb, He is one. That’s God!
The second introduced to us in the distinctions in the Godhead, "The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" [Genesis 1:2]. The Spirit of God – and all through the Old Testament Scriptures, there is presented the Person of the moving of the Spirit of God.
· The Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab that they might contrive the beautiful artifacts and furniture and accouterments and embellishments of the holy tabernacle where God was worshiped [Exodus 31:1-6].
· The Spirit of God came upon David, Israel’s sweet psalmist and singer [1 Samuel 16:13].
· The Spirit of God left Saul, and an evil spirit troubled him [1 Samuel 16:14].
· Zechariah the prophet: "’Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ saith the Lord" [Zechariah 4:6].
· A tri-personality, eternal distinctions in the Godhead: Elohim, God, ruach, the Spirit of God. "Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness" [Genesis 1:26].
There is another somebody, another Person who appears all through the Old Testament Scriptures. He is called the "Angel of God" or the "Angel of the Presence," and He is always there. In the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis is the moving, marvelous story of the offering up of Isaac on Mt. Moriah. And as Abraham raises his hand to plunge the fatal knife into the heart of his only begotten son, a promise by Sarah [Genesis 17:15-17, 18:9-15], a voice speaks to Abraham [Genesis 22:10-11]. And this is the story, "And the Angel of the Lord":
And the Angel of the Lord said to Abraham, By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, because you have obeyed My voice, blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying thee, I will multiply thy seed, and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."
Who is that "Angel of the Lord" who speaks to Abraham and says, "By Myself have I sworn," saith the Lord, "that in blessing I will bless thee"? [Genesis 22:15-17]. Who is that Angel of the Lord? Or again, in the thirty-first chapter of Genesis: "The Angel of the Lord spake unto Jacob saying, I am the God of Bethel" [Genesis 31:11-13]. Who is that Angel of the Lord that speaks thus to Israel, "I am the God of Bethel?"
In the third chapter of the Exodus, Moses is keeping his father Jethro’s flock on the back side of the desert, and in the day he sees a bush flaming, unconsumed. And he turns aside to see why the bush is not burned [Exodus 3:1-3]. And when God saw that he turned aside, He spake unto Moses out of the flaming bush. And do you remember the story? "And the Angel of the Lord spake unto Moses out of the burning bush saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob’" [Exodus 3:4-6]. Who is this Angel of the Lord that is speaking to Moses out of the flame and the fire? Who is He?
Or take again, in the story of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan: having crossed the Jordan and surrounding Jericho, Joshua sees there standing before him, a Warrior with a sword in His hand. And Joshua approaches and asks the Man, "Are You for us, or are You against us?" And the Man replies, "As Captain of the hosts of the people of God am I come." And Joshua falls down and worships Him, and the Warrior says to Joshua, "Take your shoes from off your feet, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground" [Joshua 5:13-15]. Who is that Warrior who appears before Joshua and announces Himself as being Captain of the host of the people of God? Who is He?
Or take again, in that incomparable story in the third chapter of Daniel: when the furnace is heated seven times hotter and the three Hebrew children are cast therein [Daniel 3:19-21], Nebuchadnezzar watching the three to be burned and consumed by the fire and the flame, he, in astonishment, says, "Did we not cast three into the fiery furnace?" And the servant said, "My lord, yes." And Nebuchadnezzar says, "But I see four walking loose in the midst of the fire; and the fourth in form is like unto the Son of God" [Daniel 3:23-25]. Who is that?
All through the Old Testament Scriptures, He appears. You can call it an epiphany, you can call it a Christophany; it is a pre-incarnate presence of Jesus our Lord. And the three are always in the Old Testament Scriptures: Elohim, God; ruach, the Spirit of God; and the Angel of His Presence, whom we come to know as Jesus, our Lord. In the Old Testament, God reveals Himself, He discloses Himself as tri-personality, eternal distinctions in the Godhead. When we turn to the New Testament, the same marvelous, mysterious, unfathomable revelation and self-disclosure of God is made – just as in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament – a Trinity in the personality of God. It starts off like that.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the Spirit of God has conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary a Child, conceived of the Holy Spirit [Genesis 1:20-21]. And this was done according to the word of the Lord, according to the word of God, when He said by Isaiah the prophet, 7:14, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, ‘With us is God’" [Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23], all three of them are there in those two verses in the first chapter of Matthew; God our Father, the Holy Spirit, who conceived the Child in the womb of Mary. "And His name shall be called Joshua, Savior, Iēsous, Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins [Matthew 1:20-21], being Immanuel, "God with us" [Matthew 1:23].
In the beginning of His messianic ministry, the three are named together. In the passage you just read, the Son of God is baptized in the Jordan River, and the Spirit of God in bodily form as a dove, lights upon Him: And the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" [Matthew 3:16-17], the Trinity in God’s personality. And the book closes like that; as it begins and as His messianic ministry opens [Matthew 3:16-17], so it consummates in that same Trinity, "Go unto all the world and make disciples of all the people, baptizing them "in the name," singular, in the name of – I have three names," God has three names – "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" [Matthew 28:19]. So throughout all of the New Testament, all of it, the Trinity is presented, the self-disclosure of God is named over and over and over again:
· You will find that Trinity named in Luke 1:35.
· You’ll find the three named in John 14:26.
· You’ll find the three named in John 15:26.
· You’ll find the three named in Galatians 4:6.
· You will find the three named in 1 Peter 1:2.
· You’ll find the three named in Jude 20-21.
· You will find the three named in Revelation 1:4-6.
I went through the Book of Ephesians this last week, and you will find the three named in that one book alone:
· in Ephesians 1:17;
· in Ephesians 2:18;
· in Ephesians 3:14-16;
· in Ephesians 4:4-7;
· in Ephesians 5:18-20;
· in Ephesians 6:17-23.
· And the beautiful text of the morning, in 2 Corinthians 13:14: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen."
Woven throughout the New Testament is the self-disclosure of God as a tri-personality: God our Father, God our Savior, and God in our souls, moving the Holy Spirit of the Lord.
Now in my studying, I came across one of the most amazing things that I have ever found in the Bible, and it is this: wherever the three personalities in the Trinity stand together, without exception – and they stand together all through the Bible – wherever all three of them are seen together, are presented together, it is always in redemptive blessing, in merciful loving-kindness, in salvation and deliverance. There’s no exception to that.
May I say that by contrast? Sometimes when the Father is presented alone it is in a fury of judgment, such as the Father is clothed, God is clothed in thunder and in lightning and in judgment as He delivers the Commandments on the top of Mt. Sinai; the very mountain shook with the darkness of the flame and the fire. If an animal touched it, it died. It was awesome – God, the Judge of all the earth [Exodus 19:11-18]. Take again the Lord Jesus Christ; in His address in the temple, in the last and Passion Week of His life, He spoke of Himself as being the stone of stumbling. And if the stone falls upon a man, it will grind him to powder – Jesus as a judge of men who reject Him and disown Him [Matthew 21:42-44]. It’s awesome! Or take again the appearance of the third in the Trinity by Himself. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Matthew, if a man blasphemes God, he can be forgiven. If a man blasphemes the Son, he can be forgiven: but if a man blasphemes the Holy Spirit, there is neither forgiveness in this world nor the world to come, but he has committed an unpardonable and a forever eternal sin! [Matthew 12:31-32]. It is awesome! [Matthew 12:31-32].
But when all three of them appear together, when they stand together, when they are revealed together, without exception in the Bible, it is always in mercy, and in grace, and in loving kindness, and in salvation.
I want to take two passages, just looking at that: one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. In the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah, verses 7 through , all three Persons in the Godhead are named, and look how they are named:
I will mention the loving-kindnesses of the Lord, and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord hath bestowed upon us,
His great goodness toward us.
For He said, Surely they are My people: so He was their Savior –
capital S –
In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence –
didn’t we speak of that a moment ago? –
And the Angel of His Presence saved them;
In His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old.
What a beautiful picture of the great triune God!
Now, in the New Testament, in the first chapter of the Revelation, there the Trinity is presented again. Revelation 1:4:
John to the seven churches which are in Asia:
Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come –
that’s God the Father –
And from the seven Spirits which are before His throne";
The word seven means the plentitude, the overflowing grace and mercy of the Spirit of God. That’s the Spirit. And now the third Person of the Trinity:
And from Jesus, who is the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead, the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and made us kings and priests unto God and the Father; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Wherever the three are self-disclosed, are presented in the Bible, it is always in loving-kindness, in tender mercy, in redemptive love and deliverance. That’s God!
Now, the second part of my sermon – and the time’s already gone. We know God in our human experience as tri-personality: God the Father, transcendent above all; God the Son, immanent in all; and God the Holy Spirit, inherent in all. And we know God like that. Our experience is trinitarian. God is holy; how could a sinful man ever approach the divine holiness of God? No man can even see His face, and live [Exodus 33:20]. We cannot even look at the sun, which is one of the small creations of His hand [Genesis 1:14-18]. Much less could we look into the face of the glory of God Himself, the transcendent God. We approach our Lord’s – our great God – we approach Him in our Lord’s loving kindness, and favor, and redemptive love, in His blood of sacrifice that covers our sins and washes the stain out of our souls [Revelation 1:5], and we approach God in Christ. We are creatures for whom He died [Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:2]. We are sinners whom He saved [1 Timothy 1:15]. We know God only as Jesus opens the door that we might approach His presence. And the Spirit of God moves in our hearts thus to bring Him to us in loving salvation [John 16:8].
When I preach, the Spirit of God is in your heart, and He confirms the witness of the Word by the moving in your souls, and thus are we brought to the great heavenly Father [Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6]. And we are invited to come boldly – sinners as we are, unworthy as we are – "come boldly, that we might find grace to help in time of need" [Hebrews 4:16]. That’s God. And we experience the salvation of God in that trinitarian form. Jesus died for us [1 Corinthians 15:3], covered our sins in His own sacrifice and love [Romans 3:25], and the Holy Spirit takes the message of Jesus and woos and pulls in our hearts [Romans 8:16], and we come before God in His name, in His grace [Ephesians 2:8]. That’s the way we were saved, and that’s the way that we live as Christians. That’s the way we pray.
"Behold," said Abraham, "I take it upon myself to speak unto Thee; I, who am but dust and ashes" [Genesis 18:27]. But we come, unworthy as we are, we come before God in the name of Jesus; that is, we plead, we ground our hope and faith in His righteousness, in His loving mercy. We come in Jesus’ name [Luke 11:9]. And we come moved by the Spirit of God in our hearts [Galatians 5:25]. Were it not for the Spirit of God, we’d never come. We’d never trust. We’d never believe. We’d never pray. But the moving Spirit of God leads us to the Lord [Ephesians 2:18]. That’s our experience.
Now may I sum up one other truth? Whenever anyone departs from the revelation of God as a tri-personality, he immediately falls into a barren and sterile faith without comfort and without hope. That is true with regard to Jesus our Lord. If we deny the Trinity, then Jesus is just another man. And He died as all other men have died, and He is in a grave somewhere as all other men are in their graves. He could not perfectly represent to us the Father – He is another man. We would have no assurance: He doesn’t hear our prayers, He doesn’t comfort our souls. He doesn’t have any word of grace and salvation. He can’t pardon our sins. He can’t sustain and keep us. He is a man as all other men.
We’re not like that. We accept the revelation of God. Jesus is the great, wonderful Savior, the second Person of the Trinity who reveals to us our Lord God and who brings us in salvation into His saving presence [Hebrews 19:19]. And however others may scoff or scorn that we worship a creature, a man – not to us. He is revealed to us as God, and He represents God in the flesh. If I want to know God, He is God [John 10:30]. If I want to see God, I look at Him [John 14:9]. And if I want to worship God, I worship Him [John 17:3-5].
In digging through those ruins in ancient Rome, on a wall of the Palatine Palace, there was scratched a caricature. It was this: it was the picture, rude and crude, of a man with an ass’s head nailed to a cross. And in front of the ass’s headed man nailed to the cross was a crude picture of a man kneeling in worship. And then underneath was the caption scribbled in incorrect Greek, "Alexamenos adores his God." That was the attitude of the scornful, contemptuous Greek and Roman in the first Christian century. But by the side of Alexamenos, we also would kneel before that cross, numbered among those who believe that in Christ we have the full-orbed revelation of God.
And thus, we believe in the Holy Spirit. And thus, we believe in the infallible and inerrant Scriptures that have revealed to us this tri-personality of God, and thus, we’re brought to worship the true God of heaven and earth.
May I make one last observation? Whenever men worship an inferior god, no matter what you call him, the man is debased and degraded. There’s no exception to it in history. Whether the god that is worshiped is made out of stone or gold or silver or any kind of an idolatrous image, the worship is a degrading thing to the man who bows before it.
The same is true in modern life. When men today worship an inferior god, such as the deification of man, called humanism, or whether they worship pleasure, or fortune, or ambition, or fame, or success, whatever they give their lives to, if it is an inferior god the man in his soul and in his life is debased and degraded. But when a man worships the true God, when he bows before the Lord Jesus Christ, when he accepts the testimony of the Holy Spirit in his heart that points to the saving grace of Jesus [John 16:7-15], the man is exalted; he is lifted up, he is edified. And everything that concerns his life is sanctified, and hallowed, and made heavenly and holy. That’s God. There is one God, and His name is God our Father, and God our Savior, and God in our souls – the moving grace and witness of the Holy Spirit [Romans 8:16]. Amen.
Now may we stand together?
Our Lord, in Thy presence we are so feeble, like dust, like worms. Lord, Lord, who could stand in the fierce brightness and holiness of Thy throne? Who could be his own defense in the day of judgment? How does one stand in the day of the wrath of God? Only in the love and mercy, in the grace and goodness of Jesus our Lord, the Angel of the Presence in the Old Testament, the risen Savior of the New Testament, the great King who is coming again in the consummation of the apocalyptic age [Matthew 25:31]. O divine Holy Spirit of God, take the things of Jesus and reveal them meaningful to us.
And while our people stand in the presence of God, a family you, a couple you, or one somebody you to give yourself to the Lord, to come into the fellowship of His church, "Today I have decided for God, and I am answering with my life." Make the decision now, and in a moment when we sing, down one of those stairways out of the balcony, down one of these aisles in this lower floor, "Pastor, I am coming." God bless you and angels attend in the way as you come. Thank You, Lord, for the sweet harvest; a precious gift to lay at Thy dear feet, amen. While we sing, while you come.
UNFATHOMABLE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY
that this is the only unfathomable mystery, just that as it concerns God it
reaches into the infinite
We live with inexplicable mystery every day
ourselves – soul and body
sacred mystery of the Trinity – we just look, observe
– little boy digging a trench to empty the sea into
We propose to encompass the infinitude of God in the small limits of our mind –
it cannot be done
II. God reveals Himself to us as tri-personality
– He is somebody
1. Three eternal
coequal distinctions in the Godhead
in the Godhead apparent throughout the Scriptures
the Old Testament from the beginning
God,Elohim, plural(Genesis 1:1-2, 26, 1
The Spirit of God(Genesis 1:2, 26, Exodus
31:3-6, 1 Samuel 16:13-14, Zechariah 4:6)
That other Person who appears – "Angel of God", "Angel of the Presence"(Genesis 22:15-18, 31:11-13, Exodus 3:1-6, Joshua
5:13-15, Daniel 3:25)
the New Testament
Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:21-23, Isaiah 7:14)
Trinity named throughout New Testament(Luke
1:35, John 14:26, 15:26, Galatians 4:6, 1 Peter 1:2, Jude 20-21, Revelation
1:4-6, Ephesians 1:17, 2:18, 3:14-16, 4:4-7, 5:18-20, 6:17-23, 2 Corinthians
Whenever three named together it is for blessing(Exodus
19:11-18, Matthew 12:31-32, 21:42-44, Isaiah 63:7-9, Revelation 1:4-6)
III. God reveals Himself as tri-personality
in human experience
by the Scriptures we come to know God as tri-personal
Father, transcendent above all
The Son, immanent in all
The Holy Spirit, inherent in all
our salvation experience(Exodus 33:20)
In our praying(Hebrews 4:16, Genesis 18:27)
IV. Those who refuse the revelation of the
Trinity fall into barren, sterile faith
have no Savior – Jesus is just another man
have no illuminating Spirit
They have no inerrant Holy Scriptures
When men worship an inferior god, the man is debased and degraded