How can there be three persons in one Trinity?

How can we speak of more than one “person” within the Trinity? And what implications does this idea have for our lives?

Here I’m not summarizing biblical evidence for the Trinity; this is easily done but it is frequently provided elsewhere. Instead I’m trying to offer one window into what we may mean when we speak of more than one person in the Trinity.

Not always speaking precisely

Greek and Latin theologians developed precise terminology in their languages, but no language that I know of always communicates precisely without explanation. For this reason, it may be that many who do not use others’ precise language may mean something very much the same, whereas some others who do use the language do not understand what they are supposed to mean by it.

I was surprised, for example, to discover that even some who speak of “modes” (using technically Sabellian language) mean something similar to what most Trinitarians mean by “persons.” Neither term (whether in English or Greek) is precisely biblical, but certainly the New Testament regularly distinguishes the Son from the Father. Granted, Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30), but Jesus also prays that believers may be one even as Jesus and the Father are one (17:22). Jesus is divine, yet he is “with” the Father, in intimate relationship with him (1:1-2, 18). Jesus models intimacy with God for us, doing only what he sees the Father do (5:19), reciprocally knowing (10:15; 15:15; 17:25) and loving (3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 14:31; 15:9; 17:24) the Father. Yet, distinctively, the Father sent the Son (5:23, 36-37; 6:44, 57; 8:16, 18, 42; 10:36; 12:49; 14:24; 17:21, 25; 20:21) and the Son expressed his perfect unity with the Father at least partly in perfect submission to him (10:18; 12:49-50; 14:28).

My agenda in this post is not to challenge Sabellian language, despite my disagreement with it; my point is simply to observe that not everyone uses their language precisely. In fact, most of us cannot match the precision of those theologians who, devoting their lives to the study of the Trinity, have developed very precise ways to articulate relations within the Trinity.

The supremely personal God

But coming back to the question: how can there be distinct persons, or distinguishable entities or actors, within one God? Although we as humanity are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27), analogies made from finite persons to an infinite Person, however valuable because of our desire to understand on some level, remain limited. Even the creation of male and female together as God’s image, which might be thought to reflect a sort of complementarity within unity and thus may provide an analogy, may not fully demonstrate or communicate the point. (If pressed far enough, the analogy of water, ice and steam that is sometimes used comes closer to illustrating modalism.)

The problem here, however, is more a problem of language and analogy than of God’s being. God’s personhood is on a higher dimension than ours; he is infinitely more personal than we are. Even with what we know from the world around us, we should be able to recognize that at higher levels of understanding apparent problems at lower levels can be resolved. This happens in theoretical mathematics, physics, and biochemistry. We perceive it ourselves when we distinguish different levels of causation (à la Aristotle): writing can be caused on one level by ink on paper, at another level by human muscles and nerves, on another by a human mind, and on yet another by the social and linguistic conventions that person uses to communicate, or by which that person is shaped. (Christian thinkers often apply this sort of analogy to levels of causation in creation.)

If God is infinite, God can be more personal than we are, and can be revealed in three persons, each of whom could also be no less personal than we are, while remaining one God. (As Richard Bauckham has argued, God’s oneness distinguishes him from all other reality, which is created. It does not prevent us from acknowledging distinctions within God where God has revealed those to us.)

Some trinitarian theologians have emphasized other-centeredness as a necessary attribute of God as love. They have thus contended for the necessity of more than one person within God. I am not sure that we would have thought of that connection had we not already believed in the Trinity, but the point nevertheless is well-taken. The deep love shared between the Father and Son, so emphasized in John’s Gospel, seems inseparable from their divine unity.

Implications for us

Because the Son, eternal in being, is worth more than all the cosmos, the love that God demonstrated in sacrificing Him for our sins is more vast than the non-human universe. One time in prayer I felt that God was saying, “The sea is vast; but it is not vast enough to begin to contain my boundless love for my children, nor to contain all the wisdom of my purposes. My giving love to you is greater than all the sands of the seashore, more vast than the seas, higher than the mountains, more awesome than the skies.”

How can one be confident that God’s love is so deep? The Father surely loved the Son, who shared his glory before the world began, more deeply than all creation. If he gave Jesus’s blood to restore us to himself, then surely he loves humans more than the rest of the universe. (So far as we currently know, in terms of information content we are the pinnacle of complexity within God’s creation.)

God’s love for us in Christ is beyond measurement, other than the precious blood of Christ. To be loved by an infinitely personal God is an incomparable and unending blessing, merited not by us but by Jesus, and initiated in the heart of God’s love.

“… so the world may know that you sent me, and have loved them, in the same way that you have loved me”—John 17:23b

“For this is the way that God loved the world: he gave his only Son”—John 3:16a

Can any good thing come from Nazareth?–John 1:46

Nathanael’s question about Nazareth performs a special function in its context in John’s Gospel. The reader of John’s prologue knows that Jesus is not primarily from Nazareth, but from God. This is something that Nathanael, however, is about to learn, and Jesus will explain it partly in terms of Jacob’s ladder, the connection between heaven and earth.
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Loyal to the death—John 13:34-35

When Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us, why does he call this a “new” commandment (13:34)? Did not God command all believers to love one another already in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18). What makes this commandment a new commandment is the new example set by the Lord Jesus.

The immediate context makes this example clearer. Jesus takes the role of a humble servant by washing his disciples’ feet (13:1-11)—a role normally performed by servants or those adopting their posture. Then Jesus calls on his disciples to imitate his servanthood (13:12-17). In the same context, we understand the degree to which he became a servant for us by noting what he would suffer: Jesus and the narrator keep talking about Jesus’ impending betrayal (13:11, 18-30). Jesus explains that he is being “glorified” (13:31-32), i.e., killed (12:23-24); he is about to leave the disciples (13:33), and Peter is not yet spiritually prepared to follow Jesus in martyrdom (13:36-38).

This is the context of loving one another “as” Jesus loved us. We are called to sacrifice even our lives for one another! As 1 John 3:16 puts it explicitly (my paraphrase), “This is how we recognize love: He laid down his life on our behalf. [In the same way], we also owe it to him to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ.” The next verse (1 John 3:17) suggests that if we can lay down our lives for one another, certainly we can seek to meet one another’s needs in less demanding ways.

The rest of the Gospel of John illustrates more fully Jesus’ example of love and servanthood, which culminate in the cross.

In many places in the world our brothers and sisters are suffering. Indeed, many even near us may be hurting. What would Jesus do? Now that his Spirit is active within us (John 14:23), what would he have us do?

The devil in the details–Satan in the Gospels

Christianity Today recently invited Craig to write an article addressing the deletion of the devil from the new Son of God movie, but also explaining Satan’s role in the Gospels. With the help of a CT editor, Craig contributed the article at the link below.

Satan does play a key role in the Gospels, where he is mentioned more than 30 times and is described performing various activities. These passages help us to better understand Christ’s mission, the challenges we face, and the reality in which we live.

The full article is now online at:

In God’s presence—John 14—16

Some of us feel that we have to earn our way into God’s presence when we pray—that somehow if we pray a certain way or for a particular length of time, God will start hearing us. Some even think that we lack access to God’s presence until Jesus’s return. When Jesus sent his disciples to the world, however, he equipped them with his Spirit (John 20:21-23). This is the same Spirit he had explained to them earlier, who would continue Jesus’ presence among them (John 14:2-23) and in the world (16:7-11).

Jesus begins hinting at this even before he becomes fully explicit. We typically quote John 14:2-3 as if it referred only to Jesus’ future coming: “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places … I will come again and take you to myself.” But as wonderful as our future hope is, Jesus intended something more than this here. The Father’s house is the place in his presence, and we do not belong to it only in the future. The only “coming” Jesus explicitly refers to in this context is his return to them after the resurrection to give them his Spirit (14:16-19, 23), a promise fulfilled in 20:19-23. The Greek term for “dwelling places” in 14:2 occurs in only one other text in the Bible—later in this very conversation (14:23), where Jesus and the Father will make their “dwelling place” within the believer.

If such an understanding seems difficult to us, we should remember that it was no less difficult for the first disciples. Jesus promised to prepare them a place in the Father’s presence, where he was going (14:2-4), but they protested that they knew neither where he was going nor how to get there (14:5). Jesus replied that where he was going was to the Father, and they would get there by coming through him (14:6). Today we understand that we do not have to wait for Jesus’ future return to come to the Father through Jesus; we come to him by faith when we accept him as our Lord and Savior.

In other words, we enter the Father’s presence at the moment of our conversion. Whether or not one recognizes that 14:2-3 speak of present experience, certainly 14:17 and 23 do: the Father, Son and Spirit come to make their dwelling place in believers. This means that, if you have surrendered your life to Jesus, you are in his presence this very moment. The same Jesus who taught and healed in Galilee, who washed his disciples’ feet, who died for our sins and rose from the dead, is with you right now as you are reading this article. He is with you every moment of every day, living inside you and eager to teach you his ways.

But the Spirit not only mediates Jesus’ presence to us; the Spirit also mediates Jesus’ presence to the world. Just as Jesus convicted the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment during his earthly ministry, the Spirit will continue to do so by presenting Jesus to the world (John 16:8-11). But the text also suggests that the Spirit will work especially through Jesus’ followers even to mediate Jesus’ presence to the world (15:26-27). Jesus promised to send the Spirit not to the world, but to believers (16:7); through our testimony of Jesus the Spirit would convict the world by confronting them with the presence of Jesus himself (16:8-11). Because Jesus lives inside us, we can be confident that when we live his ways and share his message, God himself will touch the hearts of the people we share with.

This is adapted from an article Craig wrote in 2004; Craig is author of The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic).

Knowing the Shepherd—John 9—10

Today as we seek to walk intimately with our Lord, we can remember an occasion in the Gospel of John where Jesus talked about knowing him. Although Jesus addressed one situation, the principles in John 9—10 apply to believers in all cultures.

When Jesus heals a man from blindness on a mandatory day of rest, some religious leaders expel the man from their community for following Jesus. Jesus then confronts these leaders in John 9:40—10:18, explaining that those who were truly Jesus’s sheep—like this formerly blind man—hear his voice. By contrast, those who try to lord it over the sheep however they see fit—like these religious leaders—are like thieves, robbers or wolves, who come to devour the sheep (John 10:1, 5, 8, 10, 12). Jesus is the good shepherd, who will lay down his life for the sheep to protect them from the robbers and wolves (10:11).

Hearers who knew the Bible well should have understood what Jesus was implying here. In Israel’s Scriptures, God is the chief shepherd, and his people Israel are his sheep; ungodly leaders who exploit the sheep would stand under God’s judgment (Ezek 34; Jer 23:1-4). It does not matter whether the religious leaders have kicked the healed man out of their religious community. The rightful shepherd declares that the healed man belongs to his sheep, i.e., is one of his people! Most scholars today believe that many members of John’s own audience had been kicked out of their religious communities for following Jesus. John recounts these earlier events about Jesus to encourage his audience that what matters is not the approval of people but the approval of the Lord himself.

The religious leaders, sure of their learning and piety, reject the faith of the man they think had been “born in sin” (John 9:34). By meeting Jesus, however, the blind man enters a relationship much more important than any of the elite members of his people could have offered him. Jesus insists that his own sheep will follow him because they know his voice, the way sheep normally follow only their own shepherds (John 10:3-4); they will not follow the voice of strangers (10:5).

Then Jesus offers an extraordinary claim: his own sheep know him “just as” he and the Father know each other (10:14-15). The same kind of intimacy that the Father has with the Son is the kind of intimacy Jesus wants us to have with him. (John illustrates this elsewhere; for example, the same Greek term is used for Jesus’ intimate position with his Father in 1:18 and for the beloved disciple’s intimate position with Jesus in the banquet in 13:23.)

Jesus was intimate with his disciples. In ancient literature, someone who shared the deepest confidences of his or her heart was a true friend; Jesus shared with his disciples whatever he heard from his Father (John 15:15). But this relationship did not vanish when Jesus ascended to the Father; he promised the Spirit, so that whatever the Spirit hears from Jesus, he will continue to make known to us (John 16:13-15). This means that we can be just as intimate with Jesus as, and experience his presence no less fully than, the disciples he walked with 2000 years ago. When we embrace Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we begin a new life of relationship with him.

Like the formerly blind man, we have entered into a relationship that matters more than what anyone else thinks of us. We may be lowly or despised in the eyes of others. But in prayer and a life of faith, led by God’s Spirit, we commune with the king of all kings. His sheep still know his voice, and we continue growing to know his voice better through studying Scripture and walking daily with him.

Perhaps thirty-five years ago, soon after my conversion from atheism, I had an unexpected experience. Reading my Bible day after day, I longed to hear God like the people in the Bible did, but I did not know that it was possible. One day the longing was so intense, and yet the Spirit sparked faith in my heart to trust God to open my ears to hear his voice. What I heard was the deepest love and kindness I had ever experienced, a love that I had never before known, a love that I yearned to reciprocate by devoting myself wholly to God’s will. Each day I was eager to spend more time learning his heart. I have not heard God as clearly in every season of my life as I did in seasons like that one, but he is eager to share his heart with us. Jesus touched me, as he touched the blind man in John 9. May we all cry out to the Savior to open our ears to hear his precious heart more and more!

Craig is author of The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic).