Monday, February 02, 2004

The Trinity in the Old Testament

The tri-unity of God is an important aspect of Christian doctrine. It is drawn from the Bible’s teaching about the persons of the Godhead. It is a doctrine, like salvation, that is revealed progressively throughout Scripture. The Old Testament gives us insights into the plurality of the one true God, but it is in the New Testament that we see clearly that God is triune.

It is common for some people that reject the trinity to refer to themselves as ‘oneness.’ This is a misnomer, because every true Christian believes in only one God. We are, and always have been, strict monotheist. It is the tendency for these folks to accuse doctrinally orthodox Christians of tri-theism (a belief in three gods), and then attack that position. Only a pagan could believe in tri-theism; such a view is anathema to any true Christian. The Christian Church has always stood against all forms of polytheism; It has also stood against the different forms of “oneness” beliefs whether they are Muslim, Unitarian, Socinian or today’s Oneness Pentecostals. The view held by today’s oneness was known in the ancient Church as Sabellianism. It was, rightly, rejected and condemned as heresy (i.e. a false teaching).

We do not pretend to have full understanding of God’s unity and plurality. It is an aspect of His being that is incomprehensible to us. It is a mystery, but we accept it because it is taught in Scripture, and Scripture alone is our infallible rule for faith and practice.

Old Testament

Below are some Old Testament allusions to the plurality of persons in the one God.

One way in the Old Testament that we see hints of the Trinity is the use of the plural Hebrew Elohim (gods) used when refereeing to the one true God of Israel. Eloah is the singular root form of Elohim. It is used less than three hundred times in the Old Testament to refer to God. The suffix “im” is used, like “s” in English, to make a word plural. For example cherub is the common Hebrew term for an angelic being. The plural form of cherub is cherubim. Cherubim are more than one cherub. It is not a mistake that the Old Testament uses the plural Elohim when speaking of the one true God. There is a reason; it is because of the tri-unity of God’s being, which is fully revealed as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

The plural Elohim is used over 2300 times in the Old Testament referring to the God of Israel. Elohim is also used to refer to the Gods of pagans. Elohim is translated “gods” over 2oo times when referring to the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. We see this in Exodus 12:12. Here it refers to "all the elohim (gods) of Egypt” or in Gen. 35:4 “And they gave unto Jacob all the strange elohim (gods) which were in the land... Many more examples can be given.

This Plural term for god is used to refer to the one true God. This is, again, a hint in the Old Testament that there is a plural aspect in God.

Gen. 1:1 In the beginning Elohim (God) created the heaven and the earth.
Gen. 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Elohim (God) moved upon the face of the waters.
Gen. 1:3 And Elohim (God) said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Congregation Shema Yisrael, a Messianic Jewish congregation, has a very good article on the web dealing with the Trinity. Here is a statement from them.

“Plural Verbs: Normally the plural name "Elohim" is followed by a singular verb. But there are several fascinating instances when "Elohim" is accompanied by a plural verb. Genesis 20:13 literally says in Hebrew that Elohim (God) they caused me to wander from my father's house... And in Genesis 35:7 Elohim (God) they appeared to him. 2 Samuel 7:23 says: What nation on the earth is like Your people Israel, whom Elohim they went to redeem for Himself. Psalm 58:11 declares that surely there is a God they judge the earth.”

The singular El (God) is not used in Genesis until chapter fourteen. Elohim is the most common term used in the O.T. for the one true God.

Here is the definition of Elohim as it is found in Strong’s Concordance: “gods in the ordinary sense; but specifically used (in the plural thus, especially with the article) of the supreme God…”

It is also significant that God speaks of himself in the plural:

Gen. 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Gen. 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

Gen. 11:7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

Is. 6:8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. (Notice that the LORD speaks of Himself by the singular “I” and the plural “us.”)

In Is. 6:3 we read that one of the Seraphim around the throne “cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” God is here declared to be a thrice-Holy God.

Is. 42:1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.

In the Is. 42 prophecy of Christ we see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their different roles performed in the work of redemption. We see this again in Is. 48 and Is. 61:1.

Is. 48:16 Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord GOD, and his Spirit, hath sent me.

Is. 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; [2] To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;

Again we see the Old Testament prophet refer to all three persons of the Godhead. Jesus Christ informs us in Luke 4:18-19 that He fulfills this Prophecy.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD. These words are known as the Shema and they are found in Deuteronomy 6:4. This is a fascinating verse and is another example of how the Old Testament gives witness to the plurality that exist in the Godhead. The word for Lord is YHVH; it is the personal name of God. God in this verse is the plural Elohim. The word translated one is the Hebrew “echad.” This is the same word used in Gen. 2:24 where we are told that husband and wife are one “echad” flesh. There was another Hebrew word that could have been used that means simply a numerical one. That word is “yachid,” and it is not in the Shema. Again this is a hint of God’s plurality and tri-unity in the Old Testament.

The most quoted and alluded to Old Testament verse in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1

“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” The New Testament makes clear that this is the Father speaking to the son at his ascension. (See Matt. 22:43-45, Mk. 12:35-37, Luke 20:42-44)

Peter explains the verse in Acts 2:29-35. He says:
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. [30] Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of His loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; [31] He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. [32] This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. [33] Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. [34] For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, [35] Until I make thy foes thy footstool.”

So we see in this Acts’ passage explaining Psalm 110:1 the Father speaking to the Son. In these verses we have three persons of the one true God communicating one another and having separate roles in our redemption, yet they are but only one God. Can I explain it? No. But to deny it is to reject an important aspect of what the Bible reveals about God.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, The Old Testament reveals that there is a plurality of being in the nature of the one true God. This is not comprehensible to us creatures, and we should not be surprised that God is beyond our understanding. There are many things about God that are beyond our finding out. His omniscience, the fact that He is omnipresent, and omnipotent, that God has always existed and is above, beyond and transcends time, all of these things are beyond us, but these things like the trinity are revealed in Holy Scripture.

I will, as time permits (i.e. someday), follow this article with one titled "The Trinity as revealed in the New Testament."

Soli Deo Gloria,

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