Bible Study: God in Three Persons

Volumes have been written on prayer and worship; and seminars have been given in abundance but not much has been said about their essentially trinitarian framework. This study aims at going some way to remedying that situation.

Jesus and prayer

Scripture tells us quite a bit about the prayer-life of the Lord Jesus. But before we look at it we need to ask the basic, preliminary question..

Did Jesus need to pray?
If Jesus is God Incarnate, then did he really need to pray? This is an important matter because Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some modern theologians, allege that because Jesus so evidently relied on prayer for strength and guidance, then he could not possibly have been God because God doesn’t need to pray, and Jesus clearly did.

That line of argument seems quite plausible; but it neglects the fact that Jesus, whilst on earth, voluntarily chose to live strictly within normal human limitations. Paul is one of several NT writers who make this clear:

~qFor you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

He, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…
Philippians 2:6f.q~

What this means is that the Eternal Son, in becoming a human being, voluntarily accepted all human limitations, restrictions and frailties - sin being the notable exception - and thus was, for approximately thirty years, entirely dependent on his Father through the power of the Holy Spirit:

~qDuring the days of his life on earth he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission…
Hebrews 5.7q~

Clearly, as the Eternal Word really did “become flesh” (John 1.14), so he was, “in the days of his flesh”, like all other human beings, dependent through faith and prayer on the Father. In short, and to put it rather baldly, prayer, not deity, pulled him through.

The Baptism of Jesus: the Trinity Portrayed and a Pattern Established
The narrative of the baptism of Jesus is an important one. And Luke’s version of it supplies us with an additional detail: Jesus, he tells us, was actually praying when the Spirit descended and settled upon him and the Father commended him (Luke 3:21).

This event was nothing less than a graphic and dramatic epiphany or showing forth of the Persons of the Trinity who have eternally existed and, additionally, an illustration of how Jesus engaged in prayer and thus set the pattern for our praying too. Jesus prays to the Father and, because of his “reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7), heaven is opened and the Holy Spirit descends. This sets for all time the pattern of authentic prayer: we pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus - and with the same reverent submission - in the knowledge that he alone is the key that opens heaven. The Father then responds and acts for us through the agency of the Spirit. That is precisely what we mean when we say that prayer should be practised within a trinitarian framework.

What is implicit in the incident as described by Luke and others is made very explicit in the actual teaching of Jesus. When the disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, he tells them they should address God as “Our Father in heaven...” (Matthew 6:9); and in the great discourse that runs from John chapters 14 to 16, he assures them that, if they “abide in the vine”, whatever they ask “in my name” will be granted (John 16:23ff). Furthermore, as the lengthy discourse is shot through with promises of the coming of the Spirit and of what the Spirit would enable them to achieve, we are driven to the inescapable conclusion that it is through the Holy Spirit that answers to prayer will come and blessings will be channelled. In short, we pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, and God answers via the Spirit. This is what some theologians have called the Lex Orandi - the law or rule of prayer.

In this context it is interesting to note that Origen (d.254), one of the most brilliant and gifted of the early Fathers, has some of his best insights into the emergent doctrine of the Holy Trinity in his important treatise De Oratione (“Concerning Prayer”). He notes the importance of the Spirit’s help in prayer - when we don’t know how or what to pray (cf. Romans 8:6) - and also that we reach our Father via the Spirit and the Son.

One last point here, before moving on to worship: we need to clearly distinguish between subordination and inferiority. There is a vast difference. Jesus, whilst on earth, was emphatically not inferior to God the Father. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was dragged all over Europe by his father to give celebrity concerts - even whilst he was still a small boy. He was subordinate to his father’s will, but never inferior in any way. It is rare that anyone ever plays the music of Leopold Mozart, but his brilliant son’s music is known and loved by millions.

Jesus, though “under orders” - that’s precisely what subordinate means - could nevertheless claim, with absolute truth, that “Before Abraham was, I am” and, in addition, could pray, “Glorify me with the glory I shared with Thee before the foundation of the world” (John 8:58; John 17:.5). Subordinate to God the Father, yes; but never, on earth or in heaven, inferior!

Glimpses of glory: worship and the trinity

Worship Defined: the biblical pattern
We need to remember what worship is really all about. Derived from the now obsolete word worthship, it means “to recognise the worth or value of” something or someone - in a sacred context, of course, of God Almighty. In practice, for some years now, worship has come to mean an extended time of singing. This is very unfortunate for, in the days of the early Church, everything believers did together was regarded as worship. And every participant in song, testimony, preaching etc should do whatever he or she does as an act of recognition of the worthship of God.

Ideally our worship should, in addition, as far as possible, reflect the worship of Heaven itself as depicted in such “glimpses of glory” as are given to us. Isaiah chapter 6 is one such glimpse. Isaiah sees the throne of God and, hovering around the throne, the mysterious six-winged seraphim in worship

~qWith two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying... and they called to each other saying, Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD Almighty…
Isaiah 6:2-3q~

Witnessing this, the prophet is deeply convicted of sin: “I am ruined...my eyes have seen the King...” He fears for his life as he trembles before the Thrice Holy. Seen in the light of such an experience much of our worship might seem lightweight and frivolous in comparison.

Turning to the NT, it is quite obvious that the writer of the Apocalypse is very much indebted to Isaiah 6. But chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Revelation do not merely repeat Isaiah’s words. Inspired by the Spirit the writer adds details to the canvas in the light of the revelation now completed in Christ. The throne of God is there; but “in the centre of the throne” he sees a Lamb bearing the marks of slaughter (Revelation 5:6). Surrounding the throne are seven blazing lamps - the Seven Spirits or, better still, the Sevenfold Spirit (compare Isaiah 11:2). Cries of “Holy, Holy, Holy” again echo through the heavenly courts; but that cry is supplemented by the grateful songs of the redeemed:

~qWorthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth, wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise…
Revelation 5. 12q~

Here a fascinating truth has been observed by a number of scholars: in Isaiah 6 the prophet is asked by the Lord, “Who will go for us?” In Revelation chapters 4 and 5 the significance of the “us” is made plain: it is a reference to the plurality of the Persons of the Godhead - a plurality clearly portrayed in John’s “glimpse of glory”. What is implied in Isaiah is explicit in the Apocalypse. The threefold “Holy” also takes on a new significance: it not only emphasises, as in Isaiah, the thrice holiness of God but it also underlines that God is tripersonal.

Worship in heaven, as depicted by John, is clearly trinitarian: the Father is worshipped as Creator and Lord; the Son is worshipped as the Redeemer; the Spirit - He is the One nearest to the creatures and the redeemed - is worshipped as the agent of God’s purposes, the “Lord and giver of life” of the Nicene Creed.

Speaking of that venerable confession of faith takes me back to my early days as an Anglican choirboy. And I well remember how moving was the Communion service then. Ideally, in the act of Communion in mingled penitence and gratitude we remember the Father’s gift, the Son’s substitutionary death and, last but certainly not least, we experience forgiveness and renewal by the power of the Spirit. Communion is essentially a trinitarian activity as much as is prayer.

In short, if our worship is to reflect the worship in heaven it can only be done, as with John the Divine referred to above, “in the Spirit” and in grateful recognition of our indebtedness to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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