C.S. Lewis said that a person who claimed to be God was either a liar, a lunatic or Lord. He was either bad, mad, or God. (If you say “God” with a
accent it kinda rhymes with “bad” and “mad.” Work with me here.) Boston
A lot of people hear the Christian claim that God is one—what we call monotheism—and yet three—the doctrine of the Trinity—and conclude that we are crazy. Some think we’re liars, but, since most Christians sincerely believe the Trinity, most go the crazy route. They are nice enough not to actually put it that way, but to when they hear us say that God is one and yet God is three, they are undoubtedly thinking, “That’s nuts. Something can be one, or something can be three, but nothing can be both.”
You have to admit, they have a point. If someone insists to me that their solid-color shirt is red, and that it is also yellow—not reddish yellow or yellowish red, but both pure red and pure yellow—well, I’m calling the guys in white uniforms, right? It’s like saying that a person is both five feet tall and six feet tall. Height is not a binary state.
So even Christians find the idea of the Trinity to be confusing. And when you consider that the first Christians were Jews, and that Jews were strict monotheists, you have to ask, “How is it that good monotheistic Jews came to worship Jesus as Lord and still insist that they were good monotheistic Jews?”
The fact is that it really wasn’t as much of a stretch as it appears. We make the Trinity a matter of math—one yet three. But there is another way—a very Jewish way—of looking at it.
For the Jews, monotheism was about two things: God is other, and God is involved. God is the sovereign creator of heaven and earth, but he does not stand off from his creation—he is intimately involved in it. For the Jews this intimate involvement took the form of covenant election—the Creator chose them as his special people. Thus monotheism was never an attempt to establish the inner workings of God’s nature, it was simply a description that this God whom alone they worshiped was both other than his people and also intimately involved with them. This is in stark contrast to the beliefs of surrounding peoples in many gods who couldn’t be bothered with the affairs of humans unless bribed or appeased through sacrificial gifts.
Because this God is thus simultaneously other than his people and present with them, Jews of Jesus’ day had developed several ways of speaking about the activity of this God in which they attempted to hold together these twin truths. Thus we see in the Old Testament that:
· And, God’s Wisdom (Sophia)—his handmaid in creation, the firstborn of his works, his chief of staff, his delight—gives his people the secret of being truly human, of reflecting God’s image.
I’ve written on each of these the last five weeks, and if you’ve wondered if I was going anywhere, well, we’re here. These 1st century Jews who embraced Jesus as the Messiah, the promised Anointed One of God, recognized something in him that hadn’t been anticipated as they looked forward to the Messiah but, in hindsight, should have been: that in Messiah Jesus, God was present in the world in a way that was both unexpected and yet not without precedent.
That is why the New Testament writers, good Jewish monotheists all, reached back into their tradition and invoked each of these images in describing the work of God in Jesus Messiah. Their assertion is that all these images find their ultimate fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. In him God was most truly and fully present—that is why he was given the name Immanuel, God-Is-With-Us. And why they were able to hear and accept without much fuss Jesus’ statement that he and the Father were one.
Once again, Jesus wasn’t making a mathematical statement; he was making a relational statement about the kind of God who not only is one, but is the One.