The Three Personal God

This last week I was teaching in 1 Corinthians with my class and we came to this section: 8:1-7a. What becomes very clear is that this section is about two things: The first is knowledge, particularly a knowledge of God. The second is about love. That’s the concepts in verses 1-3. Then verse 6 zeros in on the identity of who God is, the relationship of all things to him, how they exist and why they exist. Then in verse 7, Paul mentions that not everyone has this knowledge. There are people, even christians, that have misunderstandings about the nature of God, and those understandings impact how they view God, and ultimately how they love God and how they love their brethren.

This isn’t a new concept. For a long time, people have wondered “is there is a God?” If so, “how many are there?” and “what God is like?” This is a concept Paul jumped right into in Acts 17. He gives us lots of explanations for the nature of God, and much of it is centered in the fact that God is greater than man, but that we are also like God since we are his offspring. But I want you to notice, he is explaining the nature of God to them in order for them to have a proper understanding that is going to lead to a change in behavior.

Today, we’re going to do the same kind of thing. We are going to dive into the nature of God, particularly the fact that God is in three persons, or a “tri-unity.” Part of the reason for this is because there are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings floating around about God, and like Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8 - not everyone has this knowledge.

But I want us to do more than that, notice 1 Corinthians 8 is practical. The knowledge of God changes us. This is not an exercise in making us smarter than other people, it is to know God and even more importantly, to be known by Him.

Is a study of God practical?

C.S. Lewis commented on this and said “Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means the ‘the science of God’, and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?' He then added a story of a fellow soldier who was put off by the “Theology” in one of Lewis’ talks and he said “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!

That’s an accurate understanding for a lot of people, and C.S. Lewis agreed with him. This man had a real experience of God in some sense, and when he turned to the Christian creeds he was turning from something real to something less real. That’s how it can be for a lot of people. They want to experience God. They want to feel God. But then a study about him can be a bit dry or full of “head knowledge.”

However, Lewis went on with what I feel like is a very good illustration. He said that if a man once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he would be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper. But remember, the map is what thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In a way, it has behind it masses of experiences just as real as yours, but yours is only a single glimpse, the map fits all those experiences together. Also, as long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Merely learning and thinking about doctrine, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God - experiences that, if compared with the thrills and feelings we have are very elementary and confusing by comparison. Compare a walk on the beach with Isaiah in God’s presence or fire from heaven that Elijah experienced. We may not be there, but the map gives us more.

If we want to get further, we need the map. That’s the problem with vague religion - all about feeling God in nature, and so on - but why it is so attractive. It is all the thrills and no work. But you will not get to the United States by studying the Atlantic, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

This is what people want to do with Jesus’ teaching. They want him to be a good teacher and to take his advice in order to have a better social order and avoid war. Now, if we followed it, it would happen. The challenge is, you could do that with Plato, Aristotle, or Confucious. The problem is that people haven’t done it. Christianity isn’t just good advice, it’s revealed truth from God that while it is difficult to understand, is meant to transform us to become like God, to experience His life, to share in his nature and character, to show us the problem and save us.

The Divine Nature

The very first thing we should understand about God is that he is personal. Often times, it’s easy to think of God as a being, but as something less than personal. But the Christian idea is one of relationship. Notice what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:3 - it’s not just a matter of us knowing who God is, it is a matter of God knowing us. That’s a relational being that is more personal, more interactive than you and me.

God is introduced to us as a being, a person. Three descriptions are the most common - Elohim, Adonai, and YHWH (Yahweh). Psalm 38:15 has all three of these descriptions together. Elohim is a plural word, but singular in meaning - Deuteronomy 6:4, (Genesis 1:26-27). Elohim is short hand in essence for “spiritual being.” But it’s a title, and God can be Elohim of Elohim - a class on His own. Adonai is the word for Lord. These are both titles or descriptions of God. YHWH then is the personal name that God revealed in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:13-15).

Now, this is where people have trouble with the “Three in One” concept, or the “Trinity or Tri-Unity”. While this is not a biblical word, it is a biblical concept. However, in trying to work through this, this is where people have gone off. There is Tritheism - which says that there are three Gods (Mormonism). There is Arianism - which says that Christ is not God, but he was created (Jehovah’s Witness). And there is Sabellianism: A single God that reveals himself in different ways (Oneness Pentecostals).

However, the Bible clearly affirms the “tri-unity” concept. Godhead, Godhood, and Divine nature are then synonymous and a description of the unique status God has, or His nature. This can be seen in many different places. The Lord taught this (John 14:16-17, 15:26), the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), the first sermon (Acts 2:32-33), the Three-fold witness (1 Jn 5:7), and the Seven Ones (Eph 4:4-6).

Now, how does this work? Well, in an imperfect way we know the concept of plurality and unity. A marriage is two people, but they are “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). The church is many members but “one body” (1 Cor. 12:12-27). And there are many different people, but all one “race” or “blood” (Acts 17:26).

However, as soon as we see their unity, we must remember their distinction. In the Godhood, or Divine nature, all three are said to be God. The Father is God (1 Corinthians 1:3), the Son is God (John 1:1, 14), the Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4). Yet, the Son is not the Father, the Spirit is not the Son, and the Spirit is not the Father. Here’s one of the best illustrations of this concept: Matthew 3:16-17. Where is Jesus? Being baptized. Where is the Father? In Heaven speaking. Where is the Spirit? Descending in the form of a dove. They are all one nature, they are all working in unity, they are three distinct beings.

They then work as a whole, together in unity: In Creation, in the Incarnation, and in Redemption. In perhaps a similar way, in construction, you have an Architect, a Contractor, and a Carpenter. They are all working as one and when on acts, it can be said they are all acting.

Now, this is quite a difficult concept for our minds to be wrapped around, and people have used ways to think about it in the physical creation. They have said that the divine nature is like an egg, three parts but one total egg. Or water, three forms but one substance. Or like St. Patrick traditionally was said to use, a shamrock - three, but one. But even these are flawed illustrations that we must be careful that we don’t follow into modalism or other error.

To illustrate how mind-bending this is, Edwin Abott wrote “Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions.” There he described a land of two dimensions. In a life-changing encounter, the square receives a visit from the Sphere, who lives in space land, a realm of three dimensions. Even though the Square cannot imagine more than two dimensions (He has nothing in his world to relate), he accepts the word of the Sphere and the existence of a third dimension. However, when he attempts to relay his newfound knowledge to the other inhabitants of Flatland, the Square is treated as a lunatic and locked in jail.

These may be helpful, but each of them can potentially be wrong and we must not limit the divine nature to these natural things, but use them as examples to better understand the trinity concept. God’s nature is beyond our comprehension and we are to take it by faith.

Loving God and being known by God

Now, what is the goal of all of this information? What’s the good of talking about him? There really isn’t any good in talking about God. It is being drawn into the three-personal life. It is reaching out to God, or as Paul said it “groping” for God and finding him (Acts 17). That is what is transformative. 1 Corinthians 8:3 tells us that to love God is how we are known by God.

The pursuit of God then is not like the study of rocks where it is purely informative. It’s closer to a zoologist who pursues and studies animals, but the wild animals have a choice in the discussion. It’s even closer to a relationship that you build with a person, a friendship that is voluntarily entered and maintained. God is reaching out then for a relationship, just like human beings, you would never know them unless had they revealed themselves to you. God is reaching out for relationship, revealing himself and then prayer is God helping us, all three persons, in the process of connecting with Him. It is more than appealing to a power to grant what you desire, it is about cultivating a relationship.

So the descriptions of God are fit concepts for us and center around relationship. Father obviously is relational to Jesus and to us. Jesus as God’s son is relational as well for identifying his connection to the Father and our relationship to a fellow brother. So then, when we say that God is love, we need to realize the depth of this. On one level, when we see love we should associate that with God. But on a deeper level, the relationship that is continuing in the Godhood, the living and dynamic activity has been going on forever, will create everything else. That relationship between Father and Son also has the Spirit - the unseen, yet real part of any relationship between people becomes an example for us of the third person. He then is the one that works in us and through us to help us.

This becomes enormously practical for everyday life. At the center of the universe is not just isolation and power - a single being who existed omnipotently forever. No, it is three beings that are one that constantly affirm, praise, and love each other.

The call then in texts like John 17:3, 22-23 and others, is that God is encouraging us to join him in that relationship. We are to be one with God and one another as the Father and Son are one. Our families are to be like the Father and Son. Our marriages need to be like the oneness between Christ and the church. Our churches need to be one like each of us are to be one with God. That’s the unity God is wanting with each of us and that he wants each of us to share in our relationships as well.

If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, etc, they are not something separate from God — they are God. If you want to experience those things, you must be connected to him and join him. But it’s more than that, when we are called to love one another, we are being called into relationship with God and to partake in the attributes that he has. We are to further and share the attributes of God with others.

Returning back to 1 Corinthians 8:8-13, that’s what the rest of the text is about and why a lack of love for brethren is such a betrayal to the gospel. When we are selfish and want our way, we are breaking the cycle, we are refusing to participate in the love of God. When we hurt a brother or sister through our selfishness we are hurting Christ and destroying the body of Christ. Food and privileges do not bring us closer to God, but love, love does bring us closer to God. Maturity then is not based on knowledge, it is based on love. If you’re mature, you love. Because to be mature is to know God.

But what then is hell? What is being lost? It is being separated from God, both now and for eternity (2 Thessalonians 1:9, Matthew 7:23), it is to not know the Lord. This gospel then is a message of God’s great love for the world, so much that the Father sent his son to die in order to bring us into His life. That we would be like Christ, a son of God, and that every Christian would become little Christs and we would experience what God has always wanted. To be called into the relationship that has existed from eternity and will exist for eternity.