Christians: Does the Trinity appear in the Bible?
The Trinity appears throughout the Old Testament from the beginning. The opening lines of Scripture reveal God in a most surprising way:
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.1
We see both God the Father and the Spirit of God involved in creation.
Paul reflects this pre-Christian Trinitarian understanding when he describes the Son as “the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”2 John also uses this idea as he teaches about Jesus Christ as the Word: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”3 It is evident that the people of God understood the fundamental concepts of the Trinity long before Jesus was born.
Just a few verses later in Genesis, God speaks of himself with plural pronouns: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”4 This is very unusual, happening in only three other places in the whole Bible.5 It makes no sense at all. But when you see the Trinitarian understanding of Genesis 1:1–2, everything falls into place and helps us understand some otherwise unclear Old Testament passages.
Sometimes, people will wrongly say that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament. The Trinitarian God of the Bible is the same in both the Old and New Testaments. The Trinity, in fact, appears not only in the New Testament but also in many Old Testament passages. One of the most important is: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”6 We see the “Spirit,” the “me” who is anointed (which is Messiah Jesus), and the “LORD” (God the Father). We read that Jesus began his public ministry by reading this passage and identifying himself as the “me” of Isaiah 61:1, saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”7
Here is another example of the Trinity appearing together in one Old Testament passage:
In all their affliction he [the Father] was afflicted, and the angel of his presence [the Son] saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.8
The “angel of the LORD” is another puzzling phenomenon in the Old Testament, but it makes total sense when you realize it is coming from a Trinitarian perspective.9 In Genesis 16 “the angel of the LORD” finds Hagar and speaks both command and comfort to her. Then in verse 13 Hagar “called the name of the LORD who spoke to her,” El Roi, which means, “You are a God of seeing.” Is this the LORD (Yahweh) or the angel, which means “messenger” or “word,” of the LORD? The conundrum is solved when we realize this is the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son who became incarnate in Jesus. He came down to comfort and bless Hagar at the spring. She recognized that it was God who had appeared to her in love. In the New Testament, when Jesus comes in the flesh, he again comforts and commands a troubled, non-Hebrew woman by a spring.10 This was the Samaritan woman, and she, too, recognized that God had appeared to her.
Lastly, the Old Testament reveals in advance the divine Son who will come as the Messiah, God coming to save sinners and crush sin on behalf of God the Father:
- The LORD [Father] says to my Lord [Son]: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”11
- Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord GOD [Father] has sent me [Son], and his Spirit.12
- I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man [Son], and he came to the Ancient of Days [Father] and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.13
From the beginning of the Bible we see the Trinity, as well as other key doctrines, appearing in bud form. As the Scriptures continue to reveal God, what is called progressive revelation, the bud opens bit by bit. The Old Testament people of God looked forward to the coming of the Spirit-anointed Son who would reveal the Father more completely. Then they would understand more of this mysterious promise of the one who is God but differs from the Father, who will be anointed by the divine Spirit who is neither Father nor Son, who would fulfill the ancient promise of God to crush the head of the serpent and redeem God’s people.
The Trinity in the New Testament
The New Testament continues and deepens the revelation of God living and active in three fully divine persons. While we get glimpses into the inner, heavenly life of Father, Son, and Spirit (what theologians call the immanent or ontological Trinity),14 Scripture focuses on the concrete and historical acts in which the Trinity is revealed as the three persons working together in creation (what theologians call the economic Trinity). This is helpful because it allows us to see how God always works in unison and does so in history for his glory and our good.
The New Testament reveals more of the Trinity doing the work of creation, speaking of the role of the Father,15 Son,16 and Spirit.17
In the Gospels we see the entire Trinity involved in Mary’s conception of Jesus. Luke 1:35 says, “The angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High [Father] will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God [Jesus].’”18
At the baptism of Jesus we witness one of the clearest pictures of the Trinity. Matthew 3:16–17 says, “When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my [Father] beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” All three persons of the Trinity are present, and each one is doing something different: the Father is speaking, and the Son is being anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the Messiah and missionary.
Jesus’ Great Commission is also Trinitarian. Matthew 28:19 says, “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.” Baptism is in one name and three persons, an unmistakably Trinitarian formula. In addition, Acts 1:7–8 says, “He [Jesus] said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”
One way to come to a fuller appreciation of each member of the Trinity is to see their unique role in our salvation. The entire Trinity is involved in our salvation, but with distinct roles, as the following verses indicate:
- In love he [the Father] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved [Jesus]. In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. . . . In him [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him [Jesus], were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.19
- . . . The foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.20
- But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior [Father] appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.21
God the Father devised the plan of salvation and predestined our salvation. God the Son came to die on the cross in our place for our sins. God the Holy Spirit takes up residence in Christians to regenerate them and ensure their final salvation. In this, we see the Trinity clearly at work in our salvation.
Furthermore, the entire Trinity is involved in the bestowing of our spiritual gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord [Jesus]; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God [the Father] who empowers them all in everyone.”22
When New Testament authors sum things up they often use Trinitarian formulas:
- The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God [the Father] and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.23
- There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord [Jesus], one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.24
- Praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.25
Finally, Jesus himself describes the Trinity: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. . . . And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit.”26
Of the Scriptures listed above, which one do find to be the most helpful in revealing the Trinity to you?