“How Can God Be One and Three?”

“How Can God Be One and Three?”

John 17:1-5; Genesis 1:1-2; &

John 1:1-5, 14

On the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter delivered a sermon that marks the birth of the Church (see Acts 2:14-36).  The first 300 years of the Church’s existence, She experienced the worst of the Roman Empire as it sought to destroy through its laws and violence, which only served to grow it.  One of the early church fathers who lived in the middle of the worst of those years under the oppressive heel of the Roman Empire was Tertullian (A.D. 155-220) who wrote against various heresies and coined the Latin word, “trinitas” of which we get the word “Trinity.”  A sentence that Tertullian wrote regarding the suffering Christians experienced: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Understand that Tertullian did not invent the Trinity, but assigned a word to a reality already assumed throughout the Bible with an ever-increasing clarity that God is One, subsisting in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The word “trinitas” literally means “three-ness” or more simply, “three are one.”  

Under the reign of Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337) whose conversion to Christianity led to the legalization of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, the Bishop of Alexandria (a man known as Alexander) could host a bible study without incident.  One of the pastors who attended the study was a man by the name of Arius.  Some think that the passage that was discussed that day was Proverbs 8:22-25, of which theologians and pastors before and after Arius understood the personification of wisdom to be a reference to Christ.  Arius also understood Proverbs 8 as a reference to Jesus.  In light of the language of Proverbs 8, Arius concluded that since the text states that God begat wisdom, therefore the Son was begotten before the rest of creation.  In other words, according to Arius, Jesus had a beginning point; “While God has always existed, the Son has not, which means there was a point at which God became a Father.”[1]  

Alexander, and those who had come before, contended that Jesus, as the Son, is a Son because he is from the Father from eternity, and that the word begotten is not a reference to a point in time that Jesus was created, but that he has always been eternally the Son of God.  But for Arius, he could not reconcile how God could be equally Father, Son, and Spirit, and at the same time remain one God as described in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  For Arius, Jesus was not, nor could he be, co-eternal with the Father as equal with the Father as one God. What was alarming to men like Alexander was that Arius was essentially teaching that Jesus is not in a different category from the rest of creation, but simply the best and first of the Father’s creation.  Essentially, according to the teachings of Arius (aka Arianism), the Son of God is inferior to God the Father as a person and in his actions.[2]

Because Arius’ supporters were growing, and an ever-increasing division threatened to rupture the unity of the Church, emperor Constantine recruited theologians from the East and the West to represent the catholic (universal) Church.  In AD 325, church leaders and representatives from all over the empire gathered in Nicaea; of those who participated were Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and others sympathetic to Arius’ teachings.  One such person who leaned towards the teachings of Arius was emperor Constantine (who was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia).  The council did not side with Arianism and ruled that it was not only contrary to the teachings of Scripture, but also heresy.  Constantine honored the ruling of the counsel. Arius was then exiled, and all of his writings were ordered to be destroyed.  The council wrote a creed to guard the universal Church against Arianism known as the Nicene Creed that was to be confessed in churches everywhere: 

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day He rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

[But those who say: “There was a time when he was not”; and “He was not before he was made”; and “He was made out of nothing,” or “He is of another substance” or “essence,” or “The Son of God is created,” or “changeable,” or “alterable”—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.][3]

In other words, God is a Trinity subsisting as Father, Son, and Spirit with one will existing as three persons.  Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not different forms of God, for that would be Modalism, which was also considered heretical.  Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not lesser than the Father, for that would be Subordinationism, which was considered heretical.  The Father, Son, and Spirit were not three separate deities, for that would be Tritheism, which is also heretical.  No, God is One as Father, Son, and Spirit who exist eternally as three coequal and coeternal persons.

The Importance of the Trinity

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that there is no way I will be able to adequately address the doctrine of the Trinity as it is taught in the Bible in one sermon.  Sometime after this sermon series, I will take more time to adequately preach on the Trinity to not only show you its significance in the Bible, but to prove to you just how significant it is for the life and faith of the Christian. 

It is ironic, that when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, it is the deity of Jesus that is attacked while the Holy Spirit seems to be ignored all together.  So, what I would like to do with the time that we have left is focus on three separate passages that are connected, but before I do that, I want to offer three points of clarification. 

  1. If the Trinity is something not taught in the Bible, then the Church has been wrong regarding its teaching of the nature of God and who He is for nearly 2000 years. 
  • If the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in the Bible, then for centuries Jesus is not God and the worship of him for two thousand years as God the Son has been idolatrous because if Jesus is not God, then Christians have worshiped a creature rather than the Creator.
  • The majority of serious Bible scholars, church historians, and respectable theologians understand that the doctrine of the Trinity was not birthed out of paganism, nor does it have its roots in Roman Catholic dogma.  Permit me to give you two examples in the form of a quote from two men who were discipled by the apostle John:

Ignatius (AD 50-117): “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.”[4]

Polycarp (AD 69-155): “Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth…and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.[5]

Let’s not just take Ignatius and Polycarp’s word for it though, let’s go to their source which was the apostle, John.  I do not have a lot of time to address the following scripture passages, but I do have time to show you that the Trinity is in the Bible, and it is Jesus who helps us see it more clearly.

You see, the doctrine of the Trinity is not like the new furniture you put into a new house (the new house being the New Testament), but instead is the original furniture in a dimly lit room.  You know the furniture is there, but you do not see the details and beauty of the furniture until the room is lit up by the sun light.  When it comes to the Old Testament and what we read in the New Testament, Jesus is the Son who lights up the dimly light room of the Old Testament where the furniture of the doctrine of the Trinity can be clearly seen. 

The Glory of Jesus (John 17:1-5)

In John 17, we have a prayer that only John recorded in his Gospel.  It is a beautiful prayer where Jesus prays not only for his disciples, but for every person who would hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and believe its message.  The beginning of Jesus’ prayer highlights the essence of who he is:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”

Remember that Jesus’ prayer comes just before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion; the hour Jesus refers to is the purpose for why he took on flesh by being born into the world.  The first petition Jesus offers in his prayer is significant: “glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you…” If Jesus were only a man or the first created being who came on a mission from God to redeem mankind, he never would have petitioned that he also be glorified unless he was also God: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isa. 42:8; see also 48:11).

The second thing I want you to see in these verses is another petition Jesus gives: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (v. 5).  What Jesus was praying for was that after his sacrificial death as the Lamb of God (see John 1:29-34), that he would be glorified with the glory He enjoyed before the world existed, which again speaks to Jesus’ eternality (see also John 1:1, 14; 3:13; 6:62; 8:58; 16:28; 17:24).   

The Origin of Jesus (John 1:1-5, 14)

What glory was it that Jesus enjoyed before the world existed?  Let’s turn our attention to the beginning of the Gospel of John.  Again, we do not have the time to expound everything in John 1:1-14 but there are a few things I want to show you about how Jesus is a light that illuminates the doctrine of the Trinity throughout the Bible, which again is Father, Son, and Spirit who exist eternally as three coequal and coeternal persons.  Below is 1 John 1:1-5,14,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. 14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Arius and his teaching that Jesus was a created being (Arianism), can be heard in the teachings of the Jehovah Witnesses as well as Mormonism.  Because John 1:1 was a problem for Arius and continues to be a problem for every other group that rejects the Trinity, they will point to the Greek (the original language of the New Testament) and argue that because there is no definite article in front of God (Theos), that John 1:1 should be translated: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God.” 

What such people fail to recognize is that within the rules of Greek grammar, the lack of a definite article is not needed when the context clearly indicates it.  So, in John 1:1, the “God” that John is talking about is the Word, who is also the one true God who created all things. This is why those who believe Jesus was a created being and therefore reject that God is a Trinity will do grammatical gymnastics to explain away John 1:1.  Here is the way John 1:1 literally reads in Greek: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and the Word was God.” 

So, who is the Word?  The Word is Jesus who was with God because Jesus is also God.  What happened to the Word who John identifies as Jesus?  John answers that question for us in verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.[6]  Then as you read through the Gospel of John, you will discover that this is not the only place Jesus ascribes deity upon himself as One who is eternally equal with the Father, yet in taking on flesh, becomes like us in every way but without sin.  Permit me to give you some examples before I conclude.

There are seven “I Am” (ego eimi) statements in the Gospel of John: Where Jesus said: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the door” (10:7), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way the truth and the life” (14:6) and “I am true vine” (15:1).  Every time Jesus said “ego eimi” the Jews believed he was blaspheming for good reason.  The same words are used in the Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament in Isaiah in a number of places, but to make my point, I will only direct your attention to two places it is used in Isaiah.  In each of these passages, Yahweh is referred to:

Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.” (Isaiah 41:4, ESV)

You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me…. I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:10, 25)

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus identified himself in such a way that made him to be equal with Yahweh.  In the first chapter of John, Jesus is identified as playing an equal part in creation in Genesis 1:1; it is with this light that Genesis 1:1 is seen more clearly: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1–2).

All I want to do with this passage is to show you that Yahweh created all things as one God: Father, Son, and Spirit.  So, with New Testament eyes, you can read Genesis 1:26 and see that the “Us” is not a reference to God and the angels: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Genesis 1:26).

Because God is a Trinity, Peter could rebuke Ananias after he lied to him about what he gave to the Church with the following words: “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? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3–4).  It is for this same reason Paul could write to the Corinthian church: “…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:6–11).  Because the Holy Spirit, like the Son and like the Father, is God, Jesus attributed blasphemy as the only offense that can happen to Yahweh to one that can also happen to the Holy Spirit: “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 12:31–32).

Within the Trinity, the Father sent the Son to redeem sinners, and then the Son sent the Spirit to empower his people to accomplish the mission of Yahweh.  This is why Jesus commissioned his Church with a command instead of a suggestion: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).  Did it ever occur to you that if Jesus was referring to three different modes of God (Modalism), or one Father, and the Son and Spirit as created beings (Subordinationism), or three gods (Tritheism), that he would have used the word “names” instead of “the name” (τὸ ὄνομα)?    


The doctrine of the Trinity is not a subject that is absent from the Bible, but one that is assumed throughout the Bible.  Before the world and everything else existed, God was there as one God in three persons.  He is not a God who reveals Himself in three modes (Modalism); He is not a God that exists as One Father with the Son and the Spirit as subordinate to Him (Subordinationism); he is not a God who is three parts (1/3 Father, 1/3 Son, and 1/3 Spirit), nor is he a God that exists as three deities (Tritheism).  The God of the Bible exists with no parts (aka simplicity): He is God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in equal measure. 

The marvel and mystery of what happened within the Trinity is that Jesus humbled himself, by become human (the incarnation).  When this happened, it happened for the first time within the unity of the Trinity although it was the plan all along (see Ephesians 1:3-14).  When Jesus took on human flesh, something fundamental happened so that the salvation of sinners and the redemption of creation could be possible: God the Son became a man and by becoming a man he took on two distinct natures.  The one nature he shared with the Father and the Spirit for all of eternity, but the second nature was new and that nature was human.  The only qualified person to experience the wrath of God for the sins of mankind was a person who was both God and Man, yet without sin, and it is that subject I will address on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.    

[1] Matthew Barrett. Simply Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks; 2021), p. 47.

[2] Ibid, p. 48.

[3] Ritzema, E. (2016). Nicene Creed. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, L. Wentz, E. Ritzema, & W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

[4] Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 7.2.

[5] Polycarp, Philippians, 12:2.

[6] For other examples of the way Theos is used without the definite article where the meaning is clearly a reference to “God” see John 1:6, 12, 13, 18.