The “Trinity” in the Gospel of John

The Holy Spirit is mentioned a lot in Scripture, but there is very little description (or none?) of how he is distinct from the Father or Son or really anything about him the way the Father and Son are described.

Therefore, my title might be more correct saying the “Duality” in the Gospel of John. There is much, very much, said about the Father and Son in John’s Gospel.

I have a FB friend with whom I have a doctrinal difference—a pretty important one—to which this entire post applies. I am not addressing this post to her anymore than I am addressing it directly to anyone else. She may well read this, and if so, I’ll be glad, but it’s not directed at her.

John says that his goal is to get us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. (Again, as I pointed out yesterday, see Psalm 2 for why that wording is used.) As part of that, he spends more time on the pre-existence of Jesus than any other Gospel.

He doesn’t waste any time getting to it, either.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He is the one who was in the beginning with God. Everything was made by him, and without him nothing was made that was made. (1:1-3)

For that matter, he doesn’t waste any time getting to the pre-existence of our Lord in his letter either:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life. For the life was revealed, and we have seen it and bear witness and proclaim to you that eternal life, which was with the Father and was revealed to us. (1 Jn. 1:1-2)

We tend to spiritualize the idea of Jesus as God’s Word and Eternal Life. Yes, he’s the Word, but mostly he is Jesus, the Son of God.

Not the early Christians. They loved the the “Logos” of God. (Logos is Greek for word, message, or reason.) They spoke of his birth from inside God before the beginning began. The talk about how he proceeded from the God, already the Word of God but now the Son of God as well to be his voice in declaring the universe into existence.

John was the last apostle alive. The Gospel of John was probably written near the end of the first century when John was a very old man. Clearly, he loved the mystical part of our Master’s faith, and he’s quite a bit less “down to earth” than the other apostles, though he is no less practical. “My children, do not be deceived. He who practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous.” You have to live it, not just talk about it.

John’s Gospel, written so near to their time, only encouraged the early Christians in their love of the Word of God. They knew that when God speaks, he speaks through his Word (Heb. 1:1-3).

John goes on to tell us in chapter 1 of his Gospel that the Word became flesh and lived among us. Most of us are familiar with v. 14 and the idea of the incarnation.

What we are less familiar with is John 1:18. “No man has seen God at any time, but the only-begotten God, he has explained him.”

As an interesting side note, the Greek word for “explained” in John 1:18, which is much better than the KJV “declared,” is literally “exegete.” Jesus, the Word become flesh, is the exegesis, or the explanation or revelation, of God.

I also used the usual modern translation of John 1:18, “the only-begotten God,” rather than “Son,” as in the King James, because that is also common early Christian terminology. There is one unbegotten God, and he has a Son, the only begotten God.”

Okay, back to the point. John says no man has seen God at any time. How can that be since Exodus 24:9-10 says that at least 74 people saw God. Jacob wrestled with God.

The reason that John can say what he said is because Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders saw the Word, the Son of God. No one can see God and live, but the Son, he has always been the revelation of God. Many have seen him and lived. In fact, seeing him is a route to life.

John has much more to say about the pre-existence of Jesus, using his own words.

After the Jews scoffed at Jesus’ claim that Abraham had seen Jesus, he gave the most incredible answer to them. “Before Abraham was, I am.”

There is no way the Jews missed that reference. When Moses stood in front of the burning bush and asked who he should say was sending him, God said, “Tell them that ‘I Am’ sent you.”

Obviously they didn’t miss that reference. They picked up stones to stone him and accused him of claiming to be God.

In John 12:41 we read that Isaiah gave a prophecy because he saw the glory of Jesus. When we go back to Isaiah 6 to look at the context of that prophecy, we find:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. (v. 1)

Winged serpents fly around the throne crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of armies. The whole earth is full of his glory.”

The apostle John tells us that Isaiah was seeing the glory of Jesus! In verse 1, he uses the general term for Lord, which is Adonai. But the Seraphim, the winged serpents, call him Yahweh, as does Isaiah in v. 5.

John’s coverage was widespread concerning Jesus’ pre-existence. He was the Wisdom who was “by him, as one brought up by him” (Prov. 8:30). He was the “I Am” who spoke to Moses in the burning bush. He was the Lord, high and lifted up and worshiped by seraphim. He quotes Jesus as saying that he “came down from heaven” to do his Father’s will (Jn. 6:38).

Addressing a Couple Important Objections

1. I thought we believed in one God, not two. If God and his Word are both Gods, one unbegotten and one begotten, doesn’t that make two Gods?

Well, in a sense it does, and it is a sense that Scripture does not deny.

“The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As long as we know 1+1=2, then it is easy to say that John 1:1 talks about two Gods. Even Tertullian, sometimes called “the Father of the Trinity” because he was the first to us the word Trinity (Trinitas), felt compelled to address the issue.

There is without doubt shown to be One who was from the beginning and also One with whom he always was; on the Word of God, the other God. (Against Praxeas 21)

We see indications of God and his Son throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well. In Genesis 19:24, Yahweh is on earth calling down fire and brimstone from Yahweh in heaven. In Zechariah 2:8-11, Yahweh of armies announces several times that he has been sent by Yahweh of armies.

Very puzzling, but God included these things in the holy Scriptures on purpose so that we would know that the Logos who proceeded from God was born before the beginning began. He created all things, and nothing that was created was created without him.

2. If this is so, why do Jesus and the apostles say there is only one God?

There is only one God, the Father (1 Cor. 8:6; Jn. 17:3; also re. the Nicene Creed. God has a Son, who is of course divine, since he is God’s Son.

I’ve been told repeatedly that this is puzzling. I’ve been told that it’s easier to believe that God is only one person, not three, or that Jesus was only exalted to be Son of God after his birth here on earth.

It doesn’t matter if the idea is puzzling. It only matters if it is true.

More puzzling to me is how people want to explain away Scripture when we have an explanation, difficult as it might be to grasp, direct from those who heard the apostles teach or came along later in the apostles’ churches. Many argue that the apostles were so inept that their churches fell into false doctrine almost before the last one died around AD 100.

I can’t go there. The explanation given by those disciples of the apostles makes Scripture after Scripture fall into place, leaving no difficult Scriptures whatsover.

The one God is the Father. He has a Son, born out of the womb of his heart before the beginning began, and he made all things through him. The Son is occasionally described as a second God (Jn. 1:1,18), the begotten God.

This in the eyes of the early Christians, did not create a problem. There was only one God, and one Son who shares God’s divinity. There are not two divinities. There are not two authorities. There is one authority and one divinity, and it flows from the Father and through the Son.

The illustration that the early Christians liked to use was a spring and a stream. A spring, welling up from the earth, is the source of a stream. The spring is the source, the stream is the product. We call them two things, but they share one essence: water.

The sun shines on the earth, and the beams that reach us we speak about separately from the sun. There is the sun, and there is the sunbeam, but the sun and sunbeam share the same essence.

For references to this, you can go to my Trinity quotes page, which is replete with very early quotes about the relationship between God and his Son.

A Final Reminder

If you get to the end of this post, then first, congratulations. Second, you may be thinking, “I don’t know about all this. This is uncomfortable terminology, and I’m not use to it.”

Remember this. At one time, this was normal terminology. It may weird us out now, but in the early centuries of the church, our terminology would have weirded them out. Who, I ask, is more likely to be using correct terminology?

If you can’t buy the idea that the second century churches, started by apostles, are far more likely to be holding to apostolic truth than we are, then look again at the Scriptures I have referenced above. I have only dealt with the Gospel of John! What if I were to include Matthew 1, Colossians 1, Revelation 1, and so many others.

1 Corinthian 8:6 ought to settle the terminology issue. John 17:3 ought to as well. The early Christian teaching comfortably handles those verses about the one God (and agrees with the Nicene Creed, which so many of us claim to believe but don’t understand), and it preserves Jesus’ full divinity and eternality. He never had a beginning, just a birth, prior to which–or perhaps not prior since this was before time–he existed inside the Father, communing with him as his Word.

Very strange to our ears, but it is not too complex to understand, and at one time it was the only orthodox doctrine in existence.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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