The Sacred Mystery of the Trinity
Chapter 6 - The Handwriting of God
by Grant Jeffrey
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." Deuteronomy 6:4
Many Christians and virtually all non-Christians acknowledge that the mystery of the Trinity is the most profound and difficult of all biblical doctrines to understand. During my years at Bible college in Philadelphia, I can remember many late-night conversations with my fellow students as we vainly attempted to come to terms with this difficult concept. As a result of numerous conversations over thirty-five years with both pastors and laymen, I have come to believe that many Christians do not have a clear understanding of the great scriptural truths about the triune nature of God. Unfortunately, many pastors and Bible teachers in our generation have failed to teach this vital doctrine, perhaps because of its obvious difficulty. However, the sad result of this failure is that many Christians are unable to express clearly in either thought or word their understanding of the true nature of God as revealed in the Bible. Surely, we who love God with all our heart and have dedicated our lives to His service need to come to a full, mature understanding of the great biblical truths regarding the nature of God. It is obvious that the only source of true knowledge about God's nature must be found in the genuine written revelation of God, as found in the Holy Scriptures. However, in this study we will also examine the writings of the Early Church about the nature of God. Finally, I will share some fascinating research that will reveal an extraordinary discovery - the greatest of the Jewish rabbis in the years before Jesus was born taught, in the clearest language possible, about the sacred mystery of the Trinity.
When we examine the pages of the Bible, we find that there is a deep mystery concerning the nature of God, beginning with the opening verses of the Scriptures. From the initial verses in the book of Genesis through to the closing promises found in the book of Revelation, we discover numerous inspired statements that affirm that there is only one God. However, it is equally clear that the Word of God constantly affirms, often in the very same verses, that this same God, is revealed in three persons or three manifestations. This seeming contradiction has puzzled millions of thoughtful believers over the centuries. The infinite and omnipresent nature of God is far beyond the power of our finite minds to understand perfectly. However, while we still struggle to appreciate the inner mystery of His triune nature, the truth of the Trinity has been taught throughout the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.
One of my favorite biblical commentators is the brilliant Russian writer Ivan Panin, who completed an exhaustive study of the Word of God to discover its marvellous doctrines and the phenomenal textual features within the Scriptures. He once wrote, "I used to doubt God. Now I only doubt my knowledge of Him."1 While the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond our ability to fully appreciate, it is not fundamentally contrary to reason. This is a study that needs to be approached with a holy reverence, an open heart, and an obedient spirit that will examine the inspired statements of the Scriptures to learn from its sacred pages what our Lord reveals regarding His divine nature.
What does the Bible actually teach about the Trinity, the triune nature of God? The scriptural revelation of the nature of God can be succinctly described in one sentence.
The Bible declares that there is one God who is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom has distinct personal attributes; however, there is no division regarding nature, essence, or being.
This statement sums up every significant point that the Scriptures teach us about the doctrine of the Trinity, as held by orthodox Christian believers in all denominations during the last two thousand years. While the Bible clearly describes this triune or threefold nature in its constant use of the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Scriptures also declare authoritatively that there is only one God. As we consider these passages that describe God, we need to fix our mind on the truth that God is one God, not three. Because of the lack of biblical teaching about this important doctrine of the Trinity, some believers who are young in their faith have misunderstood the true nature of God. Some immature believers unfortunately imagine that they will see three individual Gods - the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - sitting on three separate thrones when they arrive in heaven. This is a profound misunderstanding of the true doctrine of the Trinity.
Let us examine the teaching of the Bible itself to learn what these inspired passages can teach us about the nature of God. First, the Bible repeatedly and emphatically rejects the pagan idea of polytheism (the view that there are many gods). In ancient times polytheism was virtually universal, with the exception of the Jews and Christians. The Hindus of India believe that there are millions of gods. The various ethnic groups making up the vast Roman Empire acknowledged thousands of different gods. However, the teaching of the Bible, from the first pages of Genesis to the last verses of Revelation, has declared that there is only one God.
Jesus Taught the Trinity
Consider the profound words of Jesus Christ that reveal His authoritative teaching about the triune nature of God, or the Trinity: "Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake . . . And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever" (John 14:11,16). In this one verse Jesus affirmed that He and the Father were one. At the same time, He identified himself and the Father as two distinct persons under the titles of His own name and that of "the Father." Then Jesus promised His Church that the Father would answer the prayer of Jesus and send "another Comforter," referring to the Holy Spirit, as the third person in the Triune God. A careful examination of these words of Jesus reveal clearly that He taught the unity of God expressed in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Comforter (the Holy Spirit).
The word "Trinity" comes from the Latin word trinitas, or the word trinitus, which means "three in one" or "threefold." This word expresses the clear teaching of the Church on the profound biblical doctrine of the nature of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, as a Trinity in unity.
The Unity and Attributes of God
The Bible teaches repeatedly that there is only one God. Numerous examples from the Scriptures could be sighted, but these few verses will suffice to prove the truth of this important doctrine. Moses, the great lawgiver of the Jews, declared, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Moses also declared the unity of God in the famous words of the "Shema," the daily affirmation of righteous Jews throughout the world for thousands of years: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Deuteronomy 6:4). However, there is a mystery found in the Hebrew words of this declaration that we will study more deeply later in this chapter. The prophet Isaiah also declared the unity of God in his prophetic words, "I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images" (Isaiah 42:8). Isaiah also wrote of God in the following words: "To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?" (Isaiah 46:5). The prophet Malachi wrote of one God when he said, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?" (Malachi 2:10).
One of the most important attributes of God is that He is both eternal and uncreated. In other words, there was never a time when God did not exist. Therefore, God has no beginning and no ending. The Scriptures reveal the eternal nature of God in numerous passages, including the words of King David in the Psalms: "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God" (Psalms 90:2). Jesus Christ confirmed His eternal nature in these words: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that God is omnipresent, which means that He is simultaneously everywhere throughout His creation, not only in awareness but in His actual divine presence. This omnipresence of God was alluded to by King Solomon, as recorded in the book of Kings at the building of the Temple: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" (1 Kings 8:27). The Scriptures also declare that God is unchangeable, that His nature will remain the same forever. The prophet Malachi wrote, "For I am the Lord, I change not" (Malachi 3:6). This inspired declaration by Malachi confirms that God's nature, as expressed in the Trinity in unity, did not change when the Son incarnated in the body of the Christ child, Jesus of Nazareth, 2000 years ago. In other words, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have always existed as the Trinity.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Are Called God
Now that we have examined the passages that affirm there is only one God, we need to explore the other passages of Scripture that also teach us clearly that God the Father, God the Son, Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit are all identified and named as God. Paul wrote the following letter referring to both the Father and Jesus as God: "To Timothy, my dearly beloved son: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord" (2 Timothy 1:2). Paul again affirms that both are God in his letter to the Church at Philippi: "And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:11). In the Gospel of John we find a clear declaration by the beloved disciple, John, that both Jesus and the Father are God. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (John 1:18).
Jesus, the Son of God, Created the Universe
However, while John reveals that Jesus and the Father are both God, he also reveals that it was Jesus, the Son of God, as the Word (Logos) of God, who created the entire universe and everything within it. I am constantly surprised to find that many Christians have assumed that God the Father created everything. However, a careful examination of the Scriptures reveals that the act of creation was committed to Jesus, the Son of God. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made" (John 1:13). This teaching is confirmed by the letter Paul wrote to the Ephesians Church: "And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 3:9). The Psalmist David alludes to the fact that the Son is the One who created all things by identifying the Creator as "the Word of the Lord." Later in this chapter we will examine the scriptural evidence that "the Word of the Lord" is often used as an Old Testament title for the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. David declares, "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth" (Psalms 33:6).
The Bible continually refers to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person of the Godhead who teaches, acts, witnesses about Christ, and dwells within the spirit of the believer as the Spirit of God. At the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ promised His disciples that He would send them "a Comforter" to guide and direct them after He ascended to heaven. "And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you" (John 14:1617). This passage reveals the three divine persons of the Trinity. However, this verse also clearly identifies the Holy Spirit as the person of God the Comforter, who will indwell the believers. King David also wrote about the divine Holy Spirit as a separate person of the Trinity when he appealed to God (the Father) in the following words: "Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me" (Psalms 51:11). Additionally, in the New Testament, Jesus identified the Holy Spirit as both God and as a distinct person of the Trinity. Jesus taught about the Holy Spirit as God in His conclusion to the Lords Prayer, which was addressed to "Our Father." Jesus taught, "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" (Luke 11:13). These Scriptures obviously teach the threefold nature of God as we describe it under the word "Trinity."
The Bible Teaches the Trinity
We have examined the scriptural teaching that there is only one God. In addition, we have examined the Scriptures that teach that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons of the Godhead. We now need to look at the Scriptures that reveal the three persons as one God. One of the most significant passages revealing this teaching about the Trinity is found at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus when John baptized our Lord. The Gospel of Matthew records, "And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:1617). In this well-loved passage we observe Jesus, the Son of God, being baptized by John and the Holy Spirit of God descending upon Him. Simultaneously, God the Father speaks from heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son."
This critical passage clearly reveals the three distinct persons of the Trinity acting as individual persons, yet in perfect harmony as the Trinity of God. It is significant that at the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus Christ instructed His disciples by giving them His Great Commission: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19). Since baptism is the most profound profession of faith, devotion, and worship, which is due only to God, the words of Jesus confirm that "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" are equally God, as taught in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. This teaching of the Trinity also appears in the final benediction, in which the apostle Paul concludes his second inspired letter to the church at Corinth. Paul gave them his blessings in the names of the three persons of God, as revealed in the Trinity, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen" (2 Corinthians 13:14).
The Trinity As Taught in the Old Testament
The unusual language used by Moses in the first verses of the book of Genesis presents a great mystery regarding the nature of God and His creation of this universe and mankind. The first verse of the Bible records the creation of the heavens and the earth by God. However, the inspired writer used the word Elohim Myhla "Gods," which is the plural name for God, rather than the singular name Jehovah hwhy "God." It is fascinating to note that Moses uses this plural name for "God" Elohim Myhla more than five hundred times in the first five books of the Bible. The mystery is that the plural name of God Elohim appears with a singular verb each time. The normal laws of grammar demand that the plural form of the noun must agree with the plural form of the verb. However, throughout the Scriptures, we find that the plural noun for God Elohim appears invariably with the singular form of the verb, such as we find in the first verse of Genesis. Here the singular verb "created" arb bara occurs with the plural noun Elohim Myhla in Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." The Hebrew Scriptures record this passage as follows [reading from right to left in the Hebrew]:
"the heavens and the earth." "Elohim (Gods)" "created" "In the beginning"
Urah taw Mymvh ta Myhla arb tyvarb
[plural noun for Gods] [singular verb]
There is only one logical solution to this problem. If there is no grammatical agreement between the plural noun Elohim and the singular verb "created," then there must be an overriding logical agreement that demands the unusual grammatical construction found in these sentences. The logical agreement is that the word Elohim clearly reveals the sacred mystery of the nature of God as a Trinity. In other words, Genesis 1:1 reveals this declaration: "In the beginning the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) created the heavens and the earth."
The Teaching of the Early Church on the Trinity
The early Church upheld the biblical doctrine of the Trinity universally from the Day of Pentecost in a.d. 32 throughout the last two thousand years. An examination of the early Church writings will verify their unwavering support for this teaching found in the writings of both the Old and New Testament. The real value of these ancient Christian writings is that they are the best interpreters of the doctrine of the Trinity as it was preached by Jesus and the apostles. As some of these early Christians were taught by those who personally knew the apostles, they would have been in an excellent position to understand the true meaning of the New Testament teachings. Some critics of the doctrine of the Trinity have complained that the word "Trinity" cannot be found in the actual Hebrew or Greek words of the Scriptures. However, the truth of this doctrine is taught clearly from Genesis to Revelation. Many scholars believe that the word "Trinity" was used for the first time in reference to this biblical doctrine during a church council held at Alexandria, Egypt in a.d. 317. However, the history of the early Church reveals that this doctrine of the Trinity was taught by Jesus Christ, His disciples, and the apostles. The Trinity of God was the universal belief of the church from the very beginning of the Christian era. For example, the secular Greek writer Lucian, in his book Philopatris, written in a.d. 160, confirmed the well-known belief of the Christians in the Trinity. Lucian described the first generations of Christians confessing their faith in God in the following words: "The exalted God......Son of the Father, Spirit proceeding from the Father, One of Three, and Three of One."2
Some critics and theologians have claimed that the doctrine of the Trinity was unknown until the Council of Nicca in a.d. 325, where they claim it was invented by the unanimous collusion of the Church fathers in that council. However, this claim is totally contradicted by the many writings of the early Church from Christ to a.d. 325. I will share some passages from several of these writers to establish this fact. In addition, the orthodox Christian faith has continued to teach the Trinity for two thousand years, from the resurrection of Jesus Christ until today.
One of the earliest of the manuscripts written by Church leaders is the Shepherd of Hermas. He was a brother of Pius, the bishop of Rome. Some scholars believe Hermas is the person mentioned in the apostle Paul's epistle to the Romans (16:14). Hermas wrote, "The Son of God is more ancient than any created thing, so that He was present in council with His Father at the creation."3
Justin Martyr was a great leader and writer in the early Church in a.d. 150. His writing declares that the doctrine of the Trinity was proclaimed with great clarity from the earliest ages of the Church. Justin and many of the early Church fathers wrote that it was Jesus Christ who appeared as God to Moses in the burning bush. He criticized the Jews for confusing the roles of God the Father with that of His Son in the passages of the Old Testament. Justin Martyr wrote,
The Jews, who think that it was always God the Father who spoke to Moses, (whereas He who spoke to him was the Son of God, who is also called an Angel, and an Apostle) are justly convicted both by the prophetical spirit, and by Christ himself, for knowing neither the Father nor the Son. For they, who say that the Son is the Father, are convicted of neither knowing the Father, nor of understanding that the God of the universe has a Son: who, being the first-born Word of God, is also God.4
Justin Martyr also wrote the following statement in his Dialogue With Trypho. He establishes a general rule that wherever God appears or converses with any man in the Old Testament, as in Genesis 17:22, we should understand that the passage is referring to Jesus as God the Son.
Now that Christ is Lord, and substantially God the Son of God, and in times past appeared potentially as a man and an angel, and in fiery glory as He appeared in the bush. and at the judgment of Sodom, has been proved by many arguments." 5
The Council of Sirmium was held in a.d. 351 to deal with a number of heresies that were beginning to plague the Church. This council established a creed as a clear statement of the teaching of the Church regarding the Trinity. In one of its comments on this subject we find the following words: "If any one say that the Father did not speak the words, 'Let us make man,' to His Son, but that he spoke them to Himself, let him be anathema."6 The declaration "Let him be anathema" means "Let him be accursed or cut off from the Church." This statement shows how strongly the Trinity was held to be an essential doctrine of the faith by the early Church.
The Mystery of the Trinity Revealed in Ancient Jewish Writings
A few years ago I made a fascinating discovery in the ancient writings of the Jewish sages that were recorded thousands of years ago during the centuries surrounding the life of Jesus Christ and the destruction of the Second Temple in a.d. 70. This discovery suggests that the mystery of the Trinity was understood by some of the greatest of the ancient Jewish sages and writers. Furthermore, this doctrine of the Trinity was recorded in the writings of these great Jewish teachers and sages in their Targums (paraphrases of Scripture) and their commentaries (including the Zohar).
Both Christians from Gentile backgrounds and Jewish Messianic believers accepted the teaching of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation that shows that God has revealed Himself throughout the Scriptures in the form of the three persons of the Godhead, or as the Jewish sages wrote, "three manifestations" or "three emanations."
Many students of the Bible will be as astonished as I was when I first discovered these provocative ancient Jewish theological writings. They helped me understand why so many of the Jews in Israel and throughout the Roman Empire rapidly accepted the claims of Jesus of Nazareth to be both the Messiah and the true Son of God. Any student of the history of religion knows that the Jewish people, together with the Muslims, have historically rejected the truth of Christianity, primarily because they reject the claims that Jesus is the Son of God. The Jews and Muslims generally reject Christ because they believe that Christianity teaches polytheism, that we believe there are three Gods, not one. They generally fail to understand that Christians believe and uphold the biblical teaching that there is only one God. Both Jews and Muslims understand the truth that is clearly expressed numerous times in the Old Testament that there is only one God, but because they misunderstand the biblical teaching about the Trinity, they reject Christianity without examining the claims of Christ.
The question that occurred to me several years ago was this: Why did hundreds of thousands of Jews accept the claims of Jesus to be the Son of God? We know from early Church history that many of those who first accepted the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire were Jews. The apostle Paul and other Jewish Christian missionaries were accepted as teachers and worshippers in the Jewish synagogues throughout the empire for one hundred years, from the resurrection of Jesus in a.d. 32 until the rebellion against Rome in a.d. 135. During the three years of battle for Jewish independence led by the general Simeon Bar Kochba, many of his followers (including the famous Rabbi Akiba) declared that Bar Kochba was Israel's true messiah.
Naturally the Jewish Christian believers were forced to withdraw from the Jewish forces fighting against Rome because, as followers of Jesus Christ as the true Messiah, they could not acknowledge the false claims of Simeon Bar Kochba. Unfortunately, this rejection was treated as treason by the Jews who were involved in a life and death struggle with six legions of the cruel Emperor Hadrian. The war for Jewish independence ended in a.d. 135 with the massacre of one and a half million men, women, and children in the Jewish army and their civilian followers. From a.d. 135, the Jews that were believers in Jesus were no longer welcome in the Jewish synagogues. The great schism began between Jews and Christians that has tragically continued for the last two thousand years.
However, to return to my question: Why did many Jews in the first century of this era accept the claim that Jesus is God, while most Jews in later centuries have rejected this claim out of hand? I believe the answer can be found in these ancient Jewish Targums and the Zohar, which we will examine in this chapter. These writings clearly reveal that the Jews in the centuries surrounding the life of Jesus Christ understood that the sacred Scriptures taught that there was a profound mystery regarding the triune nature of God. That mystery is revealed in the Targums and the Zohar. There is One God, who is revealed in three persons - the Trinity. Since these Targums were read in the synagogue every Sabbath day, these concepts would have been widely known to religious Jews in that day. I believe that the evidence we will examine will prove that these writings prepared many Jews to accept the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God because their greatest religious teachers, including Rabbi Simon ben Jochai and Rabbi Eliezer, writers of the Zohar, and the writers of the Targums, Jonathan ben Uziel and Onkelos the Proselyte, all taught the mystery of God expressed as "Three in One."
In the remaining pages of this chapter, I will share a number of fascinating ancient Hebrew writings from the distant past that reveal that these brilliant Jewish writers anticipated the New Testament's revelation that Jesus was truly the Son of God. It was natural that the Jews in the first century found it difficult to accept the claims of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God and to be "equal with the Father." The obvious problem faced by Jewish religious scholars when they encountered the unusual name Elohim Myhla, the plural name for God, repeatedly in the Bible was the question, Why would God identify Himself in the plural form? One of the ways these Jewish scholars escaped the clear suggestion of the plurality of persons in the Godhead, as found in the word Elohim, was to claim that this expression was simply an example of the "royal plural form" used by kings and queens to express their royal nature. The famous Rabbi Aben Ezra, writing around a.d. 1100, suggested this as a solution. The "royal plural" is an unusual plural form of speech used by such royalty as Queen Victoria when she uttered her famous line, "We are not amused."
While this evasion regarding "Elohim" as a "royal plural" appears in numerous Jewish commentaries on the Scriptures, it does not solve the problem. There is no evidence that this royal plural form of speaking was ever used in ancient biblical days. The kings and leaders of Israel and the leaders of surrounding pagan nations, such as King Nebuchadnezzar or King Cyrus, never used this form of speech. In fact, it is a comparatively modern invention that was created by medieval monarchs to emphasize their elevated status to rule their kingdoms in accordance with the theory of the "divine right of kings." However, all of the leaders and kings in the Scriptures speak in the singular form, never in the plural form of address. The normal mode of royal speech in biblical times was always the same singular form used by King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel: "Therefore I make a decree . . ." (Daniel 3:29). Therefore, the plural name for God Elohim Myhla must refer to the mystery of the plurality and unity of God in the Trinity.
The Zohar is a fascinating book written by Rabbi Simon ben Jochai and his son Rabbi Eliezer in the years following the Roman army's tragic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in a.d. 70. For many years father and son were forced to hide from the troops of the Roman emperor who had passed the death sentence on them both. The Zohar is held in great reverence by Jewish scholars, and has also been of great interest to many Christian scholars in past centuries, beginning with Pico della Mirandola (a medieval scholar), who wrote Latin summaries of its teachings. Pico della Mirandola was the first Christian writer to conclude that significant parallels existed between some of the deeper doctrines of Christianity and Judaism, as found in the writings of the Zohar. He believed that the doctrines of the Trinity, the doctrine of original sin, and the mystery of the incarnation of Christ were referred to in the ancient Zohar.
The Christian writer Petrius Galatinus published his book, De Arcanis Catholicae Veritatis, which illustrated his research into the ancient Jewish teachings of the Zohar which paralleled several of the major doctrines of the Church. Other Christian researchers on the Zohar's teaching include the writer Gasparellus, Kircher, and Knorr von Rosenroth. The fascinating book Kabbalah Denudata by Knorr von Rosenroth was published in 1677 and later translated into English almost two centuries later. His book is valuable for Christian scholars unfamiliar with the Hebrew and Aramaic languages who wish to examine the teachings of the Zohar.
Many of the most difficult areas of the Scriptures are discussed and debated in the pages of the Zohar. The primary value for Christians is the deeper understanding we can gain as to what the Jewish religious leaders truly thought about the teachings of the Old Testament, including the mystery of the Trinity. I was amazed when I first read the English translations of this book because I discovered that these brilliant Jewish sages had come to a clear understanding of the mystery of the Trinity two thousand years ago. This important discovery of the teaching of the Trinity by the ancient Jewish sages helps us to understand why many Jews accepted the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth during the first century of this era. Although many Jews naturally rejected Jesus' claims to be the Messiah and the Son of God, many Jews accepted that Jesus was the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament. In addition, the fact that the ancient Jewish sages spoke of the mystery of the plural nature of God prepared many in the Jewish nation to accept Jesus' claims that "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30).
The Trinity As Taught by the Ancient Jewish Sages
Do the ancient Jewish books such as the Zohar and the Targums actually refer to the Trinity and clearly describe the plural nature of God? Let me present the evidence, and you will be able to judge for yourself. Consider the following statements:
"How can they (the three) be One? Are they verily One, because we call them One ?
How Three can be One, can only be known through the revelation of the Holy Spirit."7
According to the Zohar, one day Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai was teaching his son Rabbi Eliezer about the mystery of the triune nature of God. He instructed his pupil by saying, "Come and see the mystery of the word hwhy, Jehova: there are three steps, each existing by itself; nevertheless they are One, and so united that one cannot be separated from the other."8
Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai indicates in another passage of the Zohar that these three steps as revealed in Elohim Myhla (God) are three substantive beings or three divine persons united in one.
The Ancient Holy One is revealed with three Heads, which are united in One, and that Head is thrice exalted. The Ancient Holy one is described as being Three; it is because the other Lights emanating from Him are included in the Three. Yet the Ancient One is described as being two. The Ancient One includes these two. He is the Crown of all that is exalted; the Chief of the chief, so exalted, that He cannot be known to perfection. Thus the other lights are two complete ones, yet is the Ancient Holy One described complete as one, and He is one, positively one; thus are the other lights united and glorified in because they are one.9
Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai wrote a fascinating passage recorded in the Zohar that is as clear a discussion of the mystery of the Trinity as you could find in any Christian theology text. Rabbi Simeon comments on the text found in Deuteronomy 32:39: "See now that I, I am he, and Elohim is not with me."10
He said: "Friends, here are some profound mysteries which I desire to reveal to you now that permission has been given to utter them. Who is it that says, 'See now that I, I am He?' This is the Cause which is above all those on high, that which is called the Cause of causes. It is above those other causes, since none of those causes does anything till it obtains permission from that which is above it, as we pointed out above in respect to the expression, 'Let us make man.' 'Us' certainly refers to two, of which one said to the other above it, 'Let us make,' nor did it do anything save with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague. But that which is called 'the Cause above all causes,' which has no superior or even equal, as it is written, 'To whom shall ye liken me, that I should be equal?' (referring to Isaiah 40:25), said, 'See now that I, I am he, and Elohim is not with me,' from whom he should take counsel, like that of which it is written, 'and God said, Let us make man.'"
Another book written by Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, known as The Propositions of the Zohar, records the mystery of the Shechinah glory of God in these words.
.......the exalted Shechinah comprehends the Three highest Sephiroth; of Him (God) it is said, (Ps. lxii. 12), "God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this." Once and twice means the Three exalted Sephiroth, of whom it is said: Once, once, and once; that is, Three united in One. This is the mystery.11
Another famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Eliezer Hakkalir, who lived at the time of Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, also taught the scriptural doctrine that there were three distinct Beings revealed in the one unified Godhead. In his commentary on Genesis 1:1, Rabbi Hakkalir wrote the following:
When God created the world, He created it through the Three Sephiroth, namely, through Sepher, Sapher and Vesaphur, by which the Three twywh (Beings) are meant......The Rabbi, my Lord Teacher of blessed memory, explained Sepher, Sapher, and Sippur, to be synonymous to Ja, Jehovah, and Elohim meaning to say, that the world was created by these three names.12
Rabbi Bechai, in his commentary on Genesis 1:1 (p. 1, col. 2) explained that the word Elohim Myhla is compounded of two words, Mh and la, that is, "These are God." The plural is expressed by the letter jod (y).
Another extraordinary reference to the Trinity is found in the Zohar :
Here is the secret of two names combined which are completed by a third and become one again. "And God said Let us make Man." It is written, "The secret of the Lord is to them that fear him" (Psalm 25:34). That most reverend Elder opened an exposition of this verse by saying "Simeon Simeon, who is it that said: 'Let us make man?' Who is this Elohim?" With these words the most reverend Elder vanished before anyone saw him............Truly now is the time to expound this mystery, because certainly there is here a mystery which hitherto it was not permitted to divulge, but now we perceive that permission is given." He then proceeded: "We must picture a king who wanted several buildings to be erected, and who had an architect in his service who did nothing save with his consent. The king is the supernal wisdom above, the Central Column being the king below: Elohim is the architect above . . . and Elohim is also the architect below, being as such the Divine Presence (Shekinah) of the lower world.13
The Shema: "Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God Is One Lord."
Every religiously observant Jew makes a daily affirmation of his faith in speaking the Shema, the inspired words of Scripture, as recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." In these sacred words, the speaker first uses the singular name of God, hwhy "Jehovah," then the plural name, Myhla "our God" (strictly, "Gods"), and then again the singular name, hwhy "Jehovah," and concluded with dxa "One." Most people hearing this affirmation would assume that the simple meaning is a direct declaration that "there is only one God." This biblical statement does declare that there is only one God - a statement accepted whole heartedly by both Jews and Christians. However, as pointed out earlier in this chapter, the mysterious use of the plural name for God, Elohim Myhla, suggests that this passage also contains God's revelation of His mysterious nature as Three in One and One in Three. When I searched the ancient Jewish books that were written during the period from the return from the captivity in Babylon in 536 b.c. to the destruction of the Second Temple in a.d. 70 I was amazed to find that many prominent Jewish sages taught the mystery of the Trinity based on this very passage in Deuteronomy 6:4.
We need to carefully read the words of this ancient teaching found in the Zohar regarding the deeper meaning and mystery of God found in Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." Although the language is awkward, it clearly teaches the Trinity.
We have said in many places, that this daily form of prayer is one of those passages concerning the Unity, which is taught in the Scriptures. In Deut. vi. 4, we read first hwhy "Jehovah", then, Myhla "our God," and again, hwhy "Jehovah," which together make one Unity. But how can three Names [three beings] be one? Are they verily one, because we call them one? How three can be one can only be known through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, and, in fact, with closed eyes. This is also the mystery of the voice. The voice is heard only as one sound, yet it consists of three substances, fire, wind, and water, but all three are one, as indicated through the mystery of the voice. Thus are (Deut. 6:4) "The Lord, our God, the Lord," but One Unity, three Substantive Beings which are One; and this is indicated by the voice which are One; and this is indicated by the voice which a person uses in reading the words, "Hear, O Israel," thereby comprehending with the understanding the most perfect Unity of Him who is infinite; because all three (Jehovah, Elohim, Jehovah) are read with one voice, which indicates a Trinity.14
This statement from the Zohar is an incredible acknowledgment of the nature of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, as a Trinity. Rabbi Menachem of Recanati, writing in his Commentary on the Pentateuch about the Deuteronomy 6:4 passage, also clearly describes the mystery of the Trinity, the threefold Unity of the Godhead. Rabbi Menachem wrote about these mysteries and concluded, "These are secrets which are revealed only to those who are reaping upon the holy field, as it is written 'The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him'" (Psalms 25:14). Rabbi Menachem wrote the following on the Trinity:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our god is one Lord." This verse is the root of our faith, therefore Moses records it after the ten commandments. The reason (that there is said hwhy, Lord, Myhla, our God, and hwhy, Lord) is, because the word emv does not here signify "Hear;" but "to gather together, to unite," as in 1 Samuel 15:4, "Saul gathered together the people." The meaning implied is The Inherent-Ones are so united together, one in the other without end, they being the exalted God. He mentions the three names mystically to indicate the three exalted original Ones.15
Let Us Make Man in Our Image
Moses recorded God's creation of man in the first chapter of Genesis. The inspired account read, "And God said, 'Let us make man in our image.'" The question that has been asked by many Christian and Jewish commentators is this: Who did God refer to as "us" when he stated "Let us make man in our image?" The answer is this: God referred to the other members of the Trinity when He said "Let us. . . ." This statement clearly refers to the Trinity.
In Genesis 1:26 God says, "Let us make man in our image." In this passage we find God definitely speaking of the Godhead in the plural form using the word "us." Then, we find a sentence in which the word "God" is written in the singular tense (Genesis 1:27). Therefore, this passage suggests that God as revealed in plurality is yet One God. In Genesis 11:5, Moses speaks of God using the singular noun, "And the Lord came down to see the city." However, in the seventh verse of this passage God Himself speaks in the plural form "us": "Go to, let us go down, and we will confound their language." This transformation from the singular form of God to the plural reveals the mystery of the Trinitarian nature of God as declared in the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the prologue to the Zohar we find the following statement that suggests the clear knowledge of the Jewish sages about the plurality of the One God.
The fourth precept is to acknowledge that the Lord is God, as we read: 'Know this day, and lay it to thy heart that the Lord, he is God' (Deuteronomy 4:39); namely, to combine the name Elohim "God" with the name Jehovah "Lord" in the consciousness that they form an indivisible unity.16
The latest English translation of the Zohar also contains fascinating passages revealing the knowledge of the ancient Jews about the Trinity.
All those supernal lights exist in their image below - some of them in their image below upon the earth; but in themselves they are all suspended in the "firmament of the heaven." Here is the secret of two names combined which are completed by a third and become one again. "And God said, Let us make Man......."17
In the second Psalm, we read, "Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee." It is interesting that Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai comments in The Propositions of the Zohar on this passage:
There is a perfect Man, who is an Angel. This Angel is Metatron, the Keeper of Israel; He is a man in the image of the Holy One, blessed be He, who is an Emanation from Him; yea, He is Jehovah; of Him cannot be said, He is created, formed or made; but He is the Emanation from God. This agrees exactly with what is written, Jeremiah 23:5, of xmu dwd, David's Branch, that though He shall be a perfect man, yet He is "The Lord our Righteousness.18
In this incredible passage from The Propositions of the Zohar we can see the ancient Jewish sages understood the mystery of the Trinity and the realization that the "Son of God" is truly the Holy One of God.
The Trinity Was Also Taught in the Ancient Jewish Targums
As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, the Targums were a series of paraphrases and commentaries on the Jewish Bible written in the Chaldean language that were read in the synagogue every Sabbath day. The two major commentaries were written by Jonathan and Onkelos. The Targum of Jonathan was written by Jonathan ben Uziel, a famous scholar who was a student of the great Jewish scholar Hillel the Great during the decades before the birth of Christ. The Targum of Onkelos, which contained commentary on the five books of Torah, was written around the same time period. Jewish scholars believe that Onkelos the Proselyte was probably descended from Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. Both Targums were considered virtually as inspired as the Bible itself and were read in the synagogue after the reading of the Torah in Hebrew.
These Targums are valuable because they allow us to understand exactly how the ancient Jewish sages interpreted these important biblical passages that deal with the mystery of the nature of God. While only the words of Scripture itself are authoritative in teaching us the true doctrines of God, we can learn a great deal from examining the writings of the ancient Jewish scholars who understood the nuances of the Hebrew text. Furthermore, these Targums provide a precious insight into the true understanding of the Trinity by the Jewish sages who lived before the birth of Jesus. Let's examine these Targums to understand exactly what they taught about the nature of God.
In the so-called Jerusalem Targum,written by Jonathon ben Uziel, we find a commentary on the passage in Genesis that describes God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven" (Genesis 19:24). The Targum describes the Lord (hwhy) in this passage as "the Word of the Lord," which is a title for Jehovah suggesting the second person of the Trinity that appears often throughout these paraphrases: "And the Word of the Lord caused to descend upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, brimstone and fire from the Lord from heaven."19
The Targum on Exodus 3:14 reveals God's declaration of His eternal identity using the same title of "the Word of the Lord" to describe God. "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you" (Exodus 3:14). The Jerusalem Targum on Exodus 3:14 reads as follows: "And the Word of the Lord said unto Moses: I am He who said unto the world, Be! and it was: and who in the future shall say to it, Be! and it shall be. And He said Thus thou shalt say to the Children of Israel: I Am hath sent me unto you."20
The Angel of the Lord and the Angel of the Covenant
The ancient Jewish commentary by Rabbi Bechai (col. 1, p. 35) that describes Abraham's obedience to God's call for him to sacrifice Isaac provides an extraordinary insight into the writer's appreciation of the Trinity. Moses records in Genesis 22:11 that "the angel of the Lord" was the person of the Trinity that intervened to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac. "And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I."21 This portion of the deepest teaching of the great sages of Israel provides powerful evidence for the fact that some of the Jewish writers in ancient times understood the mystery of the Trinity:
It is necessary that thou shouldest understand what in this section (Abraham's sacrifice) is related; namely, that He who is tempting is God, and He who is restraining is the Angel of the blessed God. . . . The eyes of Abraham's understanding were opened, that this Angel was not one of the intelligences, but one of the Inherent Ones, which cannot be separated, nor cut off one from the other. If this Angel had been one of the intelligences, Abraham would not have obeyed his voice, when restraining him to do what God had commanded him; yea, an Angel would have no authority to say, "Thou hast not with holden thy son from Me, but would have said, from Him." But this Angel was one of the Inherent Ones, the great Angel......and in fact it was that Angel of whom it is said, "for my name is in Him."
Another famous sage, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, wrote about this mysterious Angel of the Lord, the great Lawgiver, that appeared to Moses in the flames of the burning bush. Rabbi Nachman points out that the Bible refers to this appearance of God to Moses as the Angel of the Lord in Exodus 3:2: "And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush." However, only two verses later Moses declared that it was the Lord God who was speaking to him from the burning bush: "And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I" (Exodus 3:4). These Jewish sages obviously understood that the Scriptures taught that the Angel of the Lord was truly God. Rabbi Nachman commented as follows:
It is said: "An Angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire," and (Elohim) Myhla, "God called unto him." This is all one, namely, whether he saith "The Angel, or (Elohim ) Myhla, "God spake to him out of the midst of the bush"......Therefore be not astonished that Moses hid his face before this Angel; because this Angel mentioned here is the Angel, the Redeemer, concerning whom it is written; "I am the God of Bethel;" and here, "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." It is the same of whom it is said, "My name is in Him."22
The significance of this study of the Trinity is that it will enable us to appreciate the biblical revelation of the mysterious nature of God who is revealed to us as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As we grow and mature as Christians we need to come to a fuller understanding of the deeper truths taught to us by the beloved Scriptures. The apostle Paul shared this wonderful blessing with the Church at Ephesus that I would like to use to conclude this chapter. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3).