As we have previously noted, the word ‘Trinity‘ is not found in the Bible, and there is no verse or passage that teaches the doctrine explicitly. What we do find, however, is the Father, Son and Spirit together performing the functions of God as Creator, Redeemer and Saviour. Rather than having the Trinity described for us, we are shown God in action – as Father, Son (or Word) and Spirit.
The Trinity in the Old Testament
It is not possible to deduce the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it is not incompatible with the Old Testament. Apart from the various clues (already mentioned) to the plurality of Yahweh, there are several hints of the Trinity itself – and they come at key points in the Biblical story.
At the very beginning of Genesis, when God created the world, we read that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3) Here is God, the Creator (Revelation 4:11) – and His spoken Word, putting His will into effect (John 1:3), and also His Spirit, actively and intimately watching over the process like a mother bird over her young (Psalm 104:30). Here we can see that the creation of the world was a ‘joint enterprise’ involving all three members of the Trinity.
The other definitive event in the Old Testament is the Exodus, where God calls His people out of Egypt and redeems them from slavery. It is referred to again and again, throughout the psalms and the prophetic books, as the Israelites reflected on what God had done for them (e.g. Psalm 114) and were recalled to their first love for Him (e.g. Jeremiah 2). One such passage is found towards the end of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 63:7-14), where the prophet sings of “the kindnesses of the LORD” in redeeming His people. But he also speaks of “the angel of His presence” (Isaiah 63:9) – the ‘messenger’ who was sent by Yahweh (and therefore distinct from Yahweh), and yet bore Yahweh’s name and was to be respected and obeyed as if Yahweh Himself (Exodus 23:20-22). The Holy Spirit is mentioned no less than three times: as the source of Moses’ power (Isaiah 63:11,12), as the Giver of rest (Isaiah 63:14), and as the One who was grieved by Israel’s continual rebellion in the wilderness (Isaiah 63:10). Once again, although Yahweh is Israel’s sole Redeemer, all three members of the Trinity are described as playing distinctive parts in that redemption.
Finally – and intriguingly – there are the instructions given to Moses for making the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-30). The details of the construction and layout of the tabernacle were of the most profound importance (Hebrews 8:5); they were a ‘translation’ of spiritual realities into physical objects arranged in space. The various components are listed in an unusual order (quite different from the far more logical order in which their construction is described in Exodus 36-39). First come three special pieces of ‘furniture’ (the Ark, the Table for the consecrated bread, and the Lampstand) (Exodus 25), then the tent to house them (Exodus 26), and then the various items that would be used for worship (the altars, the basin, etc). Obviously the Ark of the Covenant represents the presence of God; but why are the Table and the Lampstand associated with the Ark, and not with the rest of the furniture?
The Table’s principal function was to carry “the bread of the Presence” (Exodus 25:30). This instantly reminds the Christian of Jesus, the Bread of life (John 6:32-35). The Lampstand was the sole source of light within the Tabernacle, and is specifically associated with the Holy Spirit in the visions of Zechariah (Zechariah 4:1-6) and John (Revelation 4:5). The Tabernacle was divided into two rooms by a heavy curtain. The Ark was to be placed behind this curtain in the Most Holy Place, out of sight and visited by the high priest only once a year on the solemn Day of Atonement; but the Table and the Lampstand were to be put in front of the curtain in the Holy Place, where the priests could interact with them on a daily basis. Thus the Tabernacle teaches us that God is invisible and unapproachable; yet He reaches out to us to give us life and light, and we can know Him through His Word (Deuteronomy 8:3) and His Spirit.
None of these things, however, are more than brief and tantalising hints. It was only with the coming of Christ that the triunity of God was revealed.
The Trinity in the New Testament
In the New Testament, we find God manifested much more clearly as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Take any of these three away, and you are left with a gap… God in His completeness is triune.
The New Testament focuses our attention on Jesus Christ, but He is never independent of the Father or of the Spirit. At His conception, Mary was told: “The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) When He was presented to the world at His baptism, we again find both the Father and the Spirit in attendance: “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love…” (Mark 1:10,11) Jesus always made it very clear that He was sent to us by the Father, and never acted or taught on His own initiative (John 5:19; 12:49). It would also be true to say that He did not act or teach without the Spirit (Acts 10:38); He did not teach or do miracles before His baptism, for God’s Word is silent unless carried by God’s breath.
What about Christ’s great act of atonement, His death on the cross? That might seem on the surface to be His doing alone, but the writer to the Hebrews tells us otherwise: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14) Although acted out on earth, in front of a human audience, the atonement is fundamentally an event ‘within’ God, as He reconciles us to Himself through Christ (II Corinthians 5:18,19). At the Cross, “we find Father, Son, and Spirit working in concert for the salvation of the world. We find the Father so loving the world that he gave his only-begotten Son to death, even death of the cross. We find the Son freely giving his life away, drinking the dregs of sin and death in loving solidarity with a sinful, suffering world and, wonder of wonders, holding all things together even as he lay lifeless in the tomb. And we find the Spirit, the one who hovered over the waters at creation and over Mary’s womb at Jesus’ conception, the one who signalled the Father’s good pleasure at Jesus’ baptism and empowered Jesus for ministry, sustaining him in his last breath and in his death.” (Matt Jensen)
Again, in the cataclysmic event of Pentecost (the outpouring of the Spirit) we again find all three Persons of the Trinity involved. “Exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:33)
The whole process of our salvation is, as we would expect, the work of God – but God as Father (planning and choosing), Son (providing our justification) and Holy Spirit (making it effective in our lives) (I Peter 1:2; Titus 3:4-6). In saving us, God makes us His children; but here again, the Son and the Spirit are also intimately concerned (Galatians 4:6). And all three are involved together in the life and growth of the Church (II Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 3:16-19). We are baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19). We pray to the Father through Jesus and by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). The peace that God bestows on His people (Numbers 6:22-27) is the gift of the Father (Philippians 4:7), the Son (John 14:27) and the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). And we also receive spiritual gifts from the Father, the Lord Jesus, and the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:4-6).
The great blessing promised by God in the beginning was that He would live amongst His people (Leviticus 26:11,12; II Corinthians 6:16). That promise is fulfilled by God dwelling within each one of us – as Father, Son and Spirit! Jesus promised that Christians would experience God’s presence in their lives (John 14:15-23) as the Spirit (verses 16,17) and as the Son (verse 20) and as the Father (verse 23). In the space of one short paragraph (Romans 8:9-11), the apostle Paul refers to the Spirit of God living in us, the Spirit of Christ living in us, and Christ himself living in us. These are not three different experiences, but three ways of describing one experience: what it is to be a Christian.