According to the liturgical calendar used by many Christian churches, last Sunday was Trinity Sunday. This is the day that the Church celebrates the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It falls on the Sunday following Pentecost, which is when the Holy Spirit came upon the Church.
The doctrine of the Trinity is one that causes concern for many people, and some churches that consider themselves Christian refuse to adopt this doctrine because they believe it involves the worship of three gods instead of the One True God. This is because of how the doctrine is typically explained. It is said that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the three persons of the Triune God. But how can three distinct persons be one? Christians are monotheists; we believe in one God, not three.
The problem with rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity is that to do so one must say that Jesus is not God. And yet that is exactly who He claimed to be. Jesus said to the people, “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” John 8:24. Later in this same conversation, as the discussion turned to Abraham and how the people claimed Abraham to be their father, ”I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” John 8:58. The Jews of His day clearly understood this statement by Jesus to be His claim that He was God. As they plotted against Him and threatened to stone Him, they said, “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” John 10:33.
But why did this statement by Jesus — “before Abraham was born, I am” — lead the Jews to the conclusion that Jesus claimed to be God? To understand this, we must return to the Old Testament and the stories the Jews were intimately familiar with. When God sent Moses to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, Moses was afraid to go.
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” Exodus 3:13-14.
When Jesus said His name was “I am,” the Jews understood this to be His claim that He was God. Jesus went on to make six other “I am” statements as recorded in the book of John, and to also claim that He and the Father are One.
Despite this and other scriptural evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity, many have trouble with the concept because scripture also says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4. This past Sunday the guest pastor at my church spoke of the Trinity in a way that made this apparent problem or inconsistency a non-issue. It was a way of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity that I had not heard before.
The word “personae” that is translated “person” in most explanations of the Trinity is a Greek word that does not actually mean person. This is an incorrect translation of the Greek word. The word “personae” actually means “face,” “mask,” “role,” or “appearance.” One American Heritage Dictionary definition of the word is “The role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one’s public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.”
Used in this way, one can understand Jesus as the role God assumes or the mask He displays to humans who are not able to stand in the presence of God the Father. The Holy Spirit can be understood as the role God plays or the face He displays within the hearts of believers to guide them in their daily living. Each “personae” of the Trinity serves a different purpose or role, but He is only One God. God’s appearance as Jesus here on earth served a specific purpose, and His indwelling in the hearts of believers as the Holy Spirit serves another purpose. But always He sits on His heavenly throne in all His glory and splendor as the Father.
The Christian band Third Day sings a song called “You Are So Good To Me” that is a song to the three personae of the Trinity. Whenever I hear the closing reprise, I better understand this complex but simple way in which God reveals Himself to us:
You are my Father in Heaven
You are the Spirit inside me
You are my Jesus who loves me
When I sing along with this song, I know that the “You” I sing to is One God, and He is all three of these wonderful things to me.