“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Mark 10:45
It is no exaggeration to say that every aspect of the Old Testament pointed forward in some way to Jesus: the sacrificial system, the festivals, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and even the Law itself all culminate in the person of Christ. He is the focus of every prophecy, the answer to all of the questions, and – perhaps most importantly – the fullest expression of God’s steadfast love and covenant faithfulness.
Just think of all of the promises that are realized in Jesus. He is the “seed of the woman” whom God revealed to Adam and Eve, the One who finally triumphed over the Serpent. He is the descendant of Abraham through whom God kept His oath to bless every nation. Jesus is the Prophet that was foretold by Moses, He is the faithful Servant who accomplished what Israel could not, and He is David’s greater Son in whom God vowed to one day establish an everlasting kingdom:
Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.
2 Samuel 7:16
And it is within this context, the arrival of the long-awaited King, that the significance of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is most clearly seen because it reveals the final piece of the puzzle: God’s only begotten Son. I say “final piece” because unlike the “Father” and the “Holy Spirit,” the “Son” is only anticipated and prophesied throughout the Old Testament. Indeed, not until “the fullness of time” has been realized does the Son, Jesus Christ, make His appearance, and it is through Him that the Kingdom is finally secured and the relationship between God and man repaired.
Thus the reason we refer to the biographical accounts of Jesus’ life as the “gospels,” which comes from a Greek word that literally means “good news,” is because all of God’s plans and promises are finally coming to fruition in the person of His Son. And so just as certain announcements in the ancient world were typically referred to as “gospels” – like the announcement of a great military victory, the birth of a future emperor, or the ascension of a new emperor – when Paul declares that he has “Good News” to proclaim about Christ, he is heralding not only the greatest victory of all time, but also the King who gave His life to win it:
This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.
The Son of God
From the circumstances of Jesus’ miraculous birth to His death and resurrection, everything about Christ is special, one of a kind. We can relate to Jesus because He is similar to us in so many ways, and yet as God’s only begotten Son we also affirm that He is unlike every person who has ever lived. Even among kings He stands alone as King of kings and Lord of lords, the only One who is worthy to sit upon the throne of God’s Kingdom. Jesus is incomparable because He is Immanuel – God with us – the promised Savior who made it possible for God to draw near to His people and sojourn among mankind once again:
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
In the original Greek, the word translated as “dwelt” in this verse means to live in a temporary dwelling, like a tent or a tabernacle, and alludes to the brief duration of Jesus’ initial, earthly ministry. This meaning stands in contrast to the more permanent state of residence implied by a different Greek word also translated as “dwell” in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.
Indeed, the New Testament unambiguously attests to the fact that Jesus’ connection with God is the first, last, and only of its kind, a permanent and complete union that sets Him apart and distinguishes Him from the rest of humanity. In a word, Jesus is holy – set apart and consecrated unto God – by virtue of His unique relationship to the Father. And just as we got a glimpse of God’s glory when His presence filled the Tabernacle and the Temple, we see that same glory manifested in Christ at the transfiguration…
Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.
and in the pages of Revelation…
In the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
Thus as God’s only begotten Son, Jesus’ singular relationship with the Father not only differentiates Him from every other member of God’s family who has become a child by adoption, rather than by nature…
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
but it glorifies Him as God’s appointed King who rightfully assumes the preeminent position within the entirety of God’s Kingdom. Unfortunately, though, this honor also comes with a burden that only He is able to bear. For on account of His relationship to the Father, Jesus alone is uniquely qualified to serve as our propitiation and thereby inaugurate the fullness of God’s Kingdom upon the earth.
Accordingly, when we reflect upon the import of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Jesus’ identity as “the Son” underscores the supreme mystery of the Gospel: that even as one man’s rebellion sent everything into a cosmic tailspin, the Son’s willing, sacrificial obedience to His heavenly Father set things aright. In other words, it reminds us that Jesus doesn’t just rule over the Kingdom of God, He also epitomizes what it means to be its subject. Because unlike Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, John, Paul…indeed all who have come before or after Him…He only ever said “yes” to the request of His Father:
Although Jesus existed in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus alone was perfectly obedient, even unto death. Not because He had to be, but because He chose to be. He loved and trusted His Father so much that He always answered God’s call upon His life: every time, no matter the circumstances, regardless of the cost.
“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”
John 10:17-18 (NLT)
What is perhaps most striking, though, is that Jesus and His mission were not an afterthought that God came up with in response to Adam and Eve’s rebellion; to the contrary, the New Testament reveals that the Son has always been the key to all of God’s plans. Since the Cross was the only way to repair the damage that was done in Eden, both defeating the Kingdom’s arch-enemy while simultaneously securing pardon for God’s rebellious subjects, God therefore ordained Jesus’ date with Calvary from the very beginning. In short, Jesus has always been the cornerstone upon which all of God’s plans were constructed:
He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
1 Peter 1:20-21 (NKJV)
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:15-17 (NIV)
Put differently, since the omniscient mind of God foreknew that Adam and Eve would rebel against His reign and plunge creation into ruin, He devised the solution before there was a problem. God knew exactly how He was going to fix things before they became broken, which is why Paul states that on account of Jesus, all things hold together. He is the centerpiece of all of God’s plans, conceived of “before all things,” and serves as the foundation upon whom the entirety of God’s earthly Kingdom is predicated!
All of these truths about Christ and His mission are encapsulated in and proclaimed by His designation as the “Son,” but there is even more behind this important title. Because the formula doesn’t say “Father, Sacrifice, and Holy Spirit,” although this would be technically correct. Neither does it say “Father, Savior, and Holy Spirit” though this is equally true. Out of all the words that God could have chosen to describe this unique relationship with humanity’s new Adam, He chose the word Son because Jesus is dearly loved…
“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”
…because as the only begotten Son, Jesus is the only legitimate heir to the Father’s Kingdom
In these last days God has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things.
…because as the firstborn Son, Jesus’ “birthright” gives Him authority over and responsibility for the extended family
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
…and because “Son of God” testifies to Him being the very embodiment and expression of His Father in the same way that Joseph from Cyprus, one of Paul’s closest companions, embodied encouragement. If you don’t recall Joseph, that’s probably because Scripture usually refers to him by his nickname, Barnabas:
Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement).
In other words, just as Joseph was so full of encouragement that people referred to him as the “Son of Encouragement,” as the “Son of God” we acknowledge that Jesus is the very embodiment of the immaterial God in human flesh. He is “God with us,” Immanuel:
He who has seen Me has seen the Father.
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself.
A Simple Solution
To this point, I would venture to say that most Trinitarians would be in general if not complete agreement with everything that has been stipulated about Father, Spirit, and Son. I note this concurrence to highlight the fact that when it comes to the things that ultimately matter, the “three personness of God” – i.e. the doctrine of the Trinity – is not required in order to have a proper, Scriptural understanding of either the Father, the role of the Holy Spirit, or Jesus’ unique identity as God Incarnate. Put differently, there is a lot about God that is pretty clear and straightforward even without bringing the notions of multiple persons or a “Godhead” into the picture.
That being said, it is time to confront the whole notion of “tri-personness within a Godhead” head-on. Because whereas the Trinity affirms that Jesus is divine by virtue of His identity with God the Son, i.e. the “second person of the Trinity,” the New Testament consistently indicates a much different relationship:
At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the desert.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.”
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.
We have considered these verses previously, but the point is worth reiterating. Per the Trinity, since Jesus is the incarnation of the “second person,” and since all of the persons of the Godhead must remain distinct entities that neither overlap nor mix, then these verses describe scenarios that violate and essentially contradict the Trinity. Why is this the case? Because Jesus cannot be the incarnation of the Son and simultaneously filled with the Holy Spirit. The doctrine simply will not allow Jesus to be both.
Figure 10 – Extended view of the Trinity
Furthermore, there are other passages which ascribe actions to the Holy Spirit when we might logically expect them to be done directly by the Son Himself. For instance, take Jesus’ statement which ascribes the driving out of demons to the “third person” rather than Himself, i.e. the “second person”:
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Since Jesus is the incarnation of the “second person,” and since the Trinity affirms that the Son is co-equal to both Father and Spirit in every respect, then why does Jesus have to appeal to another member of the Godhead to drive out demons? Even if you accept the Trinity’s “Division of Labor” clause, it begs the bigger question of why Jesus’ actions and authority are always attributed to either the “third person” or “first person” of the supposed Godhead…never the “second.”
Then there’s the passage from Hebrews that speaks of Jesus offering Himself through the “Spirit” rather than the “Son”:
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Considering that the Trinity’s “Division of Labor” defense is based upon the notion that Father, Son, and Spirit each assume distinctive roles and responsibilities as they work collectively to enact our redemption, why does the author of Hebrews attribute Christ’s sacrifice to an act of the Spirit rather than the Son? Isn’t the Son’s sacrifice the whole point?
And what of these passages which declare not only the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, but also glorify the One responsible:
Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,
For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead)
So did the Father raise Jesus from the dead, or did Jesus, i.e. God the Son, do it Himself? Was it actually the Holy Spirit? Maybe it was a collective effort? Or is Scripture telling us plainly that the “three persons” aren’t so distinct after all? Indeed, Paul seemingly obliterates the Trinitarian separation between Father, Son, and Spirit in the way that he routinely refers to the members of the Godhead as if they were the same “person”:
However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
We could look at scores of similar passages, but the point is simply this: the Trinity cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for the confluence that is implied in these passages without simultaneously tripping over one of its own rules. Its insistence upon multiple, distinct persons within God is its Achilles’ heel, because as soon as you attempt to reconcile all of the Trinity’s many rules and restrictions about relationships within the Godhead, the doctrine simply collapses under its own weight. Again, while there is nothing that inherently precludes “tri-personness” as a potential way of conceptualizing God’s nature, the problem is that you can’t pick and choose which parts of the doctrine to apply in a given passage: every part of the doctrine has to hold true…or none of it does.
In any case, the difficulties with these passages vanish if you assume that God is a single “person,” such that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” speaks not to multiple persons in a Godhead, but to God’s relationship with all human beings. Indeed, whereas the riddle the church fathers were trying to solve was the manner in which a “three person” God relates to Himself, what if the relationship at the heart of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is God’s relationship to mankind generally, through His unique relationship to one Man specifically?
This hypothesis probably seems a little too simplistic, but which relationship makes more intuitive sense: God’s relationship to mankind – which Scripture speaks to on virtually every page – or God’s three-way relationship to Himself which has no actual mention in Scripture? If we are to truly let Scripture speak for itself, then given the prior verses which plainly declare Jesus’ connection with the Holy Spirit, His designation as “Son” speaks not to His union with the “second person” of some theoretical Godhead, but it attests to His unique relationship with God via His own Holy Spirit! For as the only-begotten Son, Jesus was not just the first person to experience the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but He was the fullness of the Spirit dwelling in human flesh.
Furthermore, what is the essence of the Kingdom of God if not reconciling those who were naturally alienated from Him? Moses couldn’t do it. David wasn’t up to the task, either. There wasn’t a prophet, priest, or king in all of Israel who was able to placate God’s wrath and thereby repair humanity’s fractured relationship with Him…and it was all by design. Because as the saying goes, “if you want something done right…you have to do it yourself.”
Exalting the Son
God knew all along that there was only One way to redeem creation and thereby establish His Kingdom, which is why everything under the Old Covenant pointed forward to the mission, victory, and glory of His Son. The solution to Creation’s curse was always in view, but God nevertheless had to let us discover that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves…even with the assistance of His own Holy Spirit. For just as with any stubborn child who insists upon their ability to “do it myself,” He had to make sure we understood that in spite of all of our strivings we remain hopelessly alienated and separated from Him on account of our willful, selfish hearts.
But now, on account of everything that Jesus has done, the hope which had previously been promised has finally become reality. He has made peace with God on our behalf and freed us from the dominion of darkness, triumphing over the unholy spirit of this age which manifests itself as disobedience and rebellion against God.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
So whenever the New Testament refers to the work of the Holy Spirit, it testifies to the fact that a Holy God continues to build His Kingdom by calling us out of spiritual bondage and drawing us unto Himself. His Spirit beckons to ours amidst the throng of unholy voices which clamor all around us, convicting the world of sin while seeking to awaken each of us to the glory and the majesty of His Son. To all those who hear His voice, receive Him, and repent of their sin, God gives them the right to become His children on the basis of the price that Christ has already paid to redeem them. They are born again as citizens of God’s Kingdom, indwelt by His Holy Spirit, and given new hearts that long to honor their Father and their Lord:
“This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”
Hebrews 10:16 (NLT)
Clearly not everyone responds to the Spirit’s call, and all those who resist His Spirit and willingly harden their hearts are therefore utterly incapable of entering into His Kingdom. Their rejection of His Spirit is likewise a repudiation of Christ, and whoever does not have the Son does not have the One who sent Him. Thus by suppressing the Spirit of Truth they remain in spiritual darkness and under His condemnation as children of wrath:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Figure 11 – God’s Spiritual connection with humanity
Ultimately, then, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” serves first and foremost as a threefold doxology which reminds us of the love that God has for the world, a love that compelled Him to give His only son in order to save it. At the same time, it showcases the boundless love and compassion of Christ, the righteous One who gave His life for the unrighteous, and glorifies Him as our kinsman-redeemer, the only worthy intermediary between a Holy God and the one aspect of creation that has willfully rejected Him:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
Indeed, the point of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” isn’t to reveal “three persons in God” who manifest the essence of love by loving each other from all eternity; rather, it proclaims the great love that the Father has for all humanity…especially for His Son. The point is not to differentiate between co-equal members of a Godhead, but to distinguish the subjects of the Kingdom from those who remain forever alienated from their Creator. To separate those who are indwelt by His Spirit from those whom His Spirit only convicts. To set apart God’s children from those who practice lawlessness. To divide the sheep from the goats, to identify those who are “in Christ” versus those who are not, and most of all, to glorify the One who made it all possible, the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and chosen King.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.