June 2019   
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Acts 9:17-22


            The Trinity is so hard to explain or understand, we never would have invented it, if we had not been compelled to this conclusion.  A lot of folks out there don’t believe in the Trinity: the Unitarians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Mormons.  No offense intended – all of them simply reject what we believe when we say that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are each fully God, but that they are all one God, not a pantheon.

            Is this really important?  You BET it is.  Aren’t we splitting hairs, you say?  Absolutely not!  What if I claimed that Brian Patton here is God in the flesh?  Brian, if he had any sense (and I’m sure he does!), would be the first to object; if not, surely his wife would object; if not, the rest of you know better.  We are not being picky or trivial when we insist that the triune God is the only acceptable way to assemble the teaching of God’s word.

            So how did we ever come to such a bizarre, convoluted conclusion about God?  It all started with Jesus.  In 1913, a scholar named Wilhelm Bousset claimed that no one ever claimed that Jesus was God in the early church until after 50 AD, when Paul starts calling Jesus “Lord” and starts putting him on a par with God in his outreach to the Gentiles.  As the argument goes, the Gentiles were used to calling the Emperor “Lord and God,” plus they worshipped other deified humans, so it was an easy step from there to worshipping Jesus as a god.  Likewise, Dan Brown claims in The Da Vinci Code that the early church never believed that Jesus was God until the emperor Constantine imposed the idea on the church 300 years later.

Larry Hurtado, professor of NT at the University of Edinburgh, blows both Bousset and Dan Brown out of the water in 2003 with his book Lord Jesus Christ.  Hurtado argues that the worship of Jesus and calling him “Lord” (meaning “God”) goes back earlier than Paul’s conversion.  It goes back to the very earliest church, not to the Gentile church, but to Jerusalem.

Paul did not invent the idea that Jesus is God.  He saw it in the earliest church.  That was what made him so mad about them.  That was why he sought to put them to death for blasphemy.  They were treating Jesus like God, from the very start!  They weren’t saying “Jesus is God” in so many words, but as Hurtado points out, we can see what they believed through their actions, in the person to whom they directed their worship.  When Paul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, he switches completely to the faith he once denied.  And what was that faith that he switched to?  In today’s scripture, when he gets to Damascus, immediately Paul goes into the synagogue and proclaims Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God!”  That is the first time we hear those words since Jesus rose from the dead.  (By the way, what does Paul mean by “Son of God”?  He doesn’t mean “God Junior.”  He means that Jesus shares God’s divine nature, the same way that our children share our human nature, and are not animal, vegetable, or mineral.  The only difference is that Jesus and God are one, in a way that we and our children are not one.)

For the early church to put Jesus on a pedestal with God was a huge innovation.  These are folks who fiercely believe that there is only one God, and yet they were able to treat Jesus like God, as an extension of their worship of God.  For some reason, the early church felt compelled to extend the exclusive status of the one true God to include their Messiah, while they refused to extend the same divine status to any other figure, even if they had to die for it.  So in 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul can say, “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  Hurtado calls this “binitarian” devotion to Jesus.  (From here it was only a small step to “Trinitarian” theology by recognizing the Holy Spirit as God.)

Again, this was not Paul’s invention.  This is what the whole church believed.  When Paul and his opponents argue about whether Gentiles can follow Jesus without obeying all the Jewish laws, they never argue about whether one side or the other has gotten it wrong about Jesus.  Why?  Because in their devotion to Jesus as God, both sides were on the same page.

In Philippians 2:11, Paul equates Jesus with God by taking the words of God in Isaiah 45:23 and applying them to Jesus.  God says, “I am God, and there is no other…To me every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear.”  Paul says, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Paul goes on to be very explicit in his letter to the Colossians: “He (meaning Christ) is the image of the invisible God…All things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…All the fullness of God dwells bodily in him.”

By the time that John writes his Gospel (about 90 AD), the church has become very clear that Jesus is God.  But about this time, some folks in the church began to fall into the opposite error: they believed that Jesus was God, but they denied that he was truly human.  Because they believed that the material world was evil, they believed that Jesus was just a ghost, that he did not come in the flesh.  We know them from history as the Gnostics.  The Gnostics are proof that The Da Vinci Code was wrong when it claimed that the early church never believed that Jesus was God.  John writes in his second postcard, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.  Such a one is the deceiver and the Antichrist.” (2 John 7)

During the second century AD, the truth was up for grabs.  There were a number of Gospels and oral traditions about Jesus floating around: the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians.  How could people tell which ones were genuine, and which ones were phony?  That’s why the NT canon was developed: to help decide the question, “Whose word, whose authority should we accept?”  Back when they still had people who were still alive who could tell them what the original apostles really taught, the rank-and-file of the church began to identify which books rang true to what Jesus and his apostles taught, and which books did not.  It was not decided by a Pope or a church council; it was decided by the people as a whole over time.  Part of that reliable tradition from the apostles is that Jesus was both fully God and fully human.

So far, so good.  But how do we reconcile that formula with the equally clear and important truth that there is only one God?  We find the formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as far back as Paul and Matthew.  But what did it mean?  How can three be one?  That was the next puzzle the church had to tackle.  The church had to work out this puzzle over time.

Around 190 AD, there were a few guys (one of whom was named Sabellius) who taught that was there is only one Person in the Godhead, not three.  God’s name is Jesus Christ.  According to this theory, God went through three modes, one at a time.  God started out in heaven as the Father, came to earth as the Son, and is now the Holy Spirit.  This belief is called modalism.  It is also called Sabellianism.  Today, it is also called the “Jesus only” doctrine, and is preached today by the United Pentecostal Church, including famous people such as pastor and author T D Jakes, and Gwen Shamblin, founder of the “Weigh Down” workshop.

Surprisingly enough, this doctrine was also believed for a short time by two of the Popes in Rome around 200 AD (Zephyrinus and Callistus), along with a large part of the church.  Most people hadn’t figured out any better answers yet.  But there were 2 voices of opposition to this teaching, folks who felt like they were very much in the minority: Hippolytus and Tertullian.  Hippolytus and Tertullian argued that there was one God who existed simultaneously in three persons.  Tertullian, a Roman lawyer from North Africa, is the guy who invented our word “Trinity.”  Was it in the Bible?  No, not that specific word, but “Trinity” turned out to be the best word to describe the teaching found in the Bible.  The church had never thought this question through completely before this point in history, but eventually (surprisingly!), Hippolytus and Tertullian’s minority point of view won the day as being the most faithful explanation of what the Bible teaches.

Unlike our doctrine of the Trinity, modalism failed to explain who was in heaven while Jesus was on earth.  Modalism failed to explain the scene at Jesus’ baptism, where all three persons appear at the same time: Jesus, the Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice out of heaven that says, “This is my beloved Son.”  Modalism fails to explain who Jesus was praying to.  And ultimately, God is not so much like three forms of the same substance (like water, vapor, and ice, all forms of H2O) as God is three personalities who are all one God.

But one might wonder, So what?  Why are the details so important?  Why does it have to get so complicated?  Why not just say that God is one, and Jesus is just a great man?  The facts won’t let us do so.  It all goes back to who is Jesus.  Jesus is the one whose very personhood made this so complicated.  Much as their Jewish monotheism held them back from this conclusion, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus compelled his followers to conclude that he was God in the flesh, to be worshipped as an extension of their worship of God.   If Jesus is truly God, the Holy Spirit is God, but there is only one God, the doctrine of the Trinity becomes our eventual logical conclusion.

Our belief in the triune God makes a difference, a difference for which we ought to be willing to lay our lives on the line.  Folks in the first three centuries of the church went to their deaths saying “Jesus Christ is Lord, and no one else.”  Fellow Christians have starved to death or have been slain for refusing to say the Muslim creed, while some folks claim that we’re only splitting hairs.  Others have suffered imprisonment, draconian fines, and loss of job for their faith in Jesus and the triune God.  The triune God is not a philosophical proposition to be toyed around with, but Someone in whom we must be willing to place our unflinching faith.  Jesus gives us no room for maybes.  From what we know about him, he leaves us no choice but to believe in a God who is three in one.

The triune God shows us what the love of God is like.  Contrary to the caricatures of the cross as the ultimate in child abuse, or a sacrifice to a vengeful God to force God into letting us go scot-free, the cross gives us a picture of God-in-the-flesh coming to earth to voluntarily suffer the eternal pain of hell for an entire race of lost souls.  The cross was the ultimate in self-sacrificial love.  Only our understanding of the Trinity can lead us to that picture of the love of God.  Only someone who was both truly God and truly human could die for human sin, and do so for the sins of an entire world.  And only God the Holy Spirit could open our hearts to understand and believe that precious Good News.  By placing our faith in what the triune God has done for us in the cross of Jesus Christ, you and I can know for sure that we have been put right with God forever.  If you’ve never done so before, let today be the day when you place your faith in what our triune God has done for us in Christ.

Let us pray.  Lord, we give you thanks that you are a God who is beyond our comprehension, a God whose love led you to become one of us, to suffer the eternal pain of hell for every one of us, so that we might have life and peace with you that lasts forever.

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