For years in our kitchen it hung there, a reminder to our children. A small, framed picture of a little schoolhouse with a quote taken from the original college rules of Harvard: “The main end of a student’s life is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life.”
That briefly stated goal hints at the need to know God as Trinity. As this rule states, the goal is “to know God and Jesus Christ”, as well as the Holy Spirit that the Father and Son sent to us. For to know God is to know him as both one and three.
The Christian faith declares that there is only one God who exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This basic statement is what we mean when we say God is Trinity. The word trinity is formed by taking the prefix for three, “tri”, and adding it to the word “unity”. To say God is triune is to say that he is three in one.
Yet that definition raises questions. Why do Christians believe this? What does it mean? Is belief in the Trinity necessary to really know God?
How God Reveals Himself
To answer these questions, we have to begin with how God reveals himself. The only way we can know God and what he is like is if he makes himself know to us. As an example, think of how we get to know another person.
As I write these words, I have known my wife now for over four decades. First as a friend in high school. Then as a sweetheart and eventual fiancée writing letters to each other from different colleges. Next as a bride beaming down the aisle at me (Overwhelmed both by her beauty and my unworthiness, I cried through my whole wedding!). Then as my new wife as we adjusted to living under the same roof. Eventually as a mother six times over. I saw more about who she was as she sacrificed her body, time, and love for each of them. I now watch her enjoy being a grandmother the family calls Mimi (an endearing, shortened form of her name). Through it all, as my best of friends, I love walking through life with her.
As I think about knowing my wife, certainly I have come to know her by watching her and experiencing life with her. But only by her talking and communicating with me have I truly gotten to know her deeply. As Paul told the Corinthian church, “Who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11) One person must share his or her thoughts with another in order to truly know them.
Similarly, we cannot know God unless he reveals himself to us. That is why Paul went on to say in that same verse, “So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.“ Only with the help of God’s Spirit revealing God to us can we truly know him. Indeed, because God is invisible, infinite, and eternal, we are utterly dependent on him to know him. In order to know God as “Three in One”, the Triune God must reveal himself to us.
Thankfully, God delights in making himself known to us. God has two primary ways he reveals himself to us. The first way is often called natural revelation, or what we learn about God in nature. The second way God makes himself known, referred to as special revelation, is more intimate. In special revelation, God communicates the deep thoughts of who he is to us. Both of these two modes of revelation show us that God is one but also many, though the first means is incomplete.
God’s Natural Revelation
The heavens and the earth God teach us about God. Psalm 19:1 says, “The spacious heavens declare the glory of God.” There is enough evidence in the natural world to cause men to know there is a God. Romans 1:20 says that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” We learn about God’s glory and divine nature everywhere we look in the heavens and on earth. Yet do we see God as Trinity in creation?
I would say Yes and No to that question. We cannot look at nature and discover through this means precisely that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, wherever we look, we do see what we might call “triune fingerprints”, or evidence that God must be one and many. For whether it is the solar system with the orbit of the planets, a tree with all its parts (roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc.), or an ant colony with all its members working together, God uses creation to reveal various members forming a unit. Just as a painting reveals something of that artist to us, so this observation hints at both the singleness of God and the variation of God that must exist in his divine nature. Yet to truly know the artist, he must speak with us. Thankfully, God has spoken to us through another, far more personal means of revelation.
God’s Special Revelation
The Bible, which is God’s Word, is the special revelation where God reveals who he truly is. God gave us His Word so that we could know him and what he is truly like. For that Harvard rule hanging on our kitchen wall was merely reflecting what Jesus prayed the night before he died. “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). In this prayer, we hear Jesus praying that we would know the Triune God. Jesus wants you to know His Father, the one to whom he was praying (see John 17:1), the only true God. Jesus wants you to know himself as the Son the Father sent to this world. Jesus also wants you to know the Holy Spirit, who filled Jesus with this prayer and recorded it in the Bible for you. Think how much God wants you to know and love him that he had his one and only Son, the night before he died on the cross, pray that you would come to know him as Trinity!
That verse is just one out of 31,102 contained in the Bible! When we look more closely from the beginning of the Bible to its end, we discover that God teaches thoroughly that he is Trinity and that he wants us to know him as such. Knowing God as Trinity is not just a matter for those who like to read big theological books or have debates about God. Rather, as one pastor long ago said, you cannot think of God being one without seeing him in his splendor as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and no sooner do you distinguish the three persons than you are carried back to seeing God as one. I trust that you will realize that knowing God is loving the Trinity.