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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:The Unity of the Trinity and the Unity of the Church
Text:LD 8 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Trinity
 
Preached:2021
Added:2021-09-19
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 122:1,2,3                                                                         

Hy 4:1,2,3  [after Athanasian Creed]

Reading – John 5:16-30; John 17:20-26

Ps 135:1,2,10

Sermon – Lord’s Day 8

Ps 133:1,2

Hy 7:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in the Lord, there is mystery around who God is. We know God, we love God, because God has generously revealed himself to us in his Word, the Holy Scriptures. Yet there remains a sense of mystery around the Lord in his greatness. The first article of the Belgic Confession says that one of God’s qualities is that He is ‘incomprehensible,’ which means that God is not able to be fully known by us. His ways are not our ways, and his thoughts will always be far higher than our thoughts. It has been said that if God were simple enough to be understood, He would not be great enough to be worshipped.

Perhaps nowhere is the mystery of God more evident than in the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the truth that our God is one divine being, who exists in three persons. This is something that every Christian has to believe if they will be saved.

Look again at the line in Q&A 25, “Why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because God has so revealed himself in his Word…” I always tell my Catechism students that that’s the most important line in Lord’s Day 8: “God has so revealed himself in his Word.” We believe, even if the Trinity is impossible to understand.

At times, however, the Trinity can seem like an abstract doctrine, far removed from everyday life. Earlier we confessed our faith with the Athanasian Creed; in places, its language is unusual. The creed is wrestling with what God says about himself, as “one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.”

Sounds unreal, yet this mysterious Trinity is deeply involved in our lives. The persons and works of the Triune God are embedded and intertwined in all we do. We’ll see how this is a doctrine which closely relates to our life as church and as a communion of saints. For as in every aspect of our faith, right beliefs should lead to right behaviour. I preach God’s Word to you on this theme from Lord’s Day 8,

Together the church confesses our faith in the Triune God:

  1. the unity of the Trinity
  2. the unity of the church

 

1) the unity of the Trinity: When we study the Trinity, a point to emphasize is that there is one God. Talking about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit should never lead us to conclude that there are somehow three gods—there is just one. This comes out in the Athanasian Creed, and in Q&A 25, “these three distinct persons are the one…God.”

In many places Scripture teaches God’s oneness. The words of Deuteronomy 6:4 are familiar, “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Or Isaiah 44:6, “This is what the LORD says, Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.”

Our God is exclusively God. He is the only one who reigns over the whole earth, the only God who has actually lived and ever existed—and who lives and exists still! And that really drives home our privilege in knowing this God, doesn’t it? The only God in the universe—the God who is both first and last, the mighty and glorious one—is the God we’re allowed to be in communion with. We can draw near to him through prayer and in worship. We can hear his voice in his Word.

There is a second aspect to the ‘oneness’ of God. It doesn’t only mean that He is the only God. It also means that God possesses wholly in himself every power and perfection. He is not made up of many different parts; He doesn’t need to outsource anything. He is the one fountain of grace and truth and power.

We believe in one God—Scripture is very clear on this. Yet from those same pages we learn that this one God exists in three persons. In glimpses and glances, this truth was seen already in the Old Testament. Even in the very first chapter of the Bible, God says these mysterious words, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The Creator is speaking in this verse, as He has been throughout the chapter, but we wonder who is the ‘us’ that He suddenly addresses? “Let us make man…” And whose image is ‘ours’? We hear something similar in Isaiah 6:8. In that glorious vision of the LORD God in his temple, Isaiah hears God asking, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

If God is the only God, and not a being made up of different parts but completely one, how can He speak of himself in this way? This a teaching where we need the help of the full revelation of Scripture. In one of its articles on the Trinity, the Belgic Confession says that what was somewhat obscure in the Old Testament is made very plain in the New (Art. 9).

The church father Augustine once compared the Old Testament to a room which is fully furnished, but unlit. Until we have more light, we cannot see what is there. All the furniture and fittings are shrouded in the darkness. Once there is light, of course, everything is clear. Yet there is nothing in the room that wasn’t there before.

This is so true for the Trinity. The Triune God is fully present in the Old Testament, and we get a sense of him from a number of hints and clues. We’re groping around in the dark, feeling something is there, but not really being sure what it is. Yet once we turn the page from Malachi to Matthew, we start to see things clearly.

It happens even on one of the first pages of the New Testament, at the baptism of Jesus. There, the Triune God is revealed like never before, “Heaven was opened, and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove; and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16-17). Jesus is in the water, the Spirit is descending, and the unseen Father is speaking from heaven.

And by the conclusion of his ministry three years later, Jesus can commission the church to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). And in the New Testament letters that followed, time and again the apostles refer to all three persons side-by-side in all their glory.

Father, Son, and Spirit: each and all three are called by the name God. Each and all three are described in ways that could only refer to one who is God, like being eternal and almighty. Each and all three perform works that could only be done by God, like resurrection and creation. Each and all three receive honour that could only be given to one who is God. Here then is the Christian faith: “These three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God” (Q&A 25). It is as simple, and it’s as difficult, as that.

So how do the three persons interconnect? What’s their relationship? They are bound together in a perfect unity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit enjoy an eternal union. Says the Athanasian Creed, “In this trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but all three persons are co-eternal with each other and co-equal.” Equal and eternal, they cooperate in their great works of creation, redemption, sanctification. Each has their own role and task, yet they do these works together, according to their unfailing purpose.

Because we’re just humans using inadequate language to talk about the glorious God, we can’t say too much about what this relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is like. Yet Scripture does tell us a few things. The book that speaks most about this is the Gospel of John.

The first chapter begins with a powerful echo of Genesis 1, “In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1). And then the very next phrase speaks of the unity of the Trinity, “and the Word was with God.” Jesus, the Son of God, is the Word. And John says that even long before Jesus was born as a man, He existed, for He is eternal and He is God himself.

In the beginning, He was “with God.” In John 1:1, it’s interesting that John doesn’t use the normal Greek word for ‘with.’ He uses a word that normally means ‘toward.’ Literally, “The Word was toward God”—that is, Father and Son live toward each other. They are for each other; they are living (in a sense) face to face, in a perfect union.

Later on, Jesus speaks about the close union of Father and Son. In John 5:19, Christ says, “Whatever [the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner.” They’re working together on this incredible project to save sinners: “For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that He himself does” (v 20). Because God the Father loves the Son, the Father shows him his plans and purposes. And because God the Son loves the Father, the Son seeks to please him.

The same is true for the Holy Spirit. Jesus says to the disciples, “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter” (14:6). Notice how in that short verse Jesus refers to the three persons of the Trinity as distinct and separate, yet clearly working on the same plan, each in their own role. The Father sends the Son to earth. The Son reveals the Father in heaven. The Father and Son send the Spirit. The Spirit testifies to the Son and works faith in the Father.

There is an agreement among them in their works, and a harmony in their persons. Like Jesus says in John 14:11, “I am in the Father and the Father in me.” This is what the creed means when it speaks of “one God in trinity and trinity in unity.”

The unity of the Trinity actually gives a different angle on the words in 1 John 4:16, “God is love.” We think of that love in relation to sinners, that the Triune God is eternally full of love for his people. And that is true. But we know that God is unchanging in every way, also in love. This means God has been love from eternity—God was ‘love,’ long before there were any humans on which to set his affection.

So whom did Father, Son and Spirit love eternally? They loved each other! They existed in a perfect love as the Trinity. Remember, in the beginning the Son was with the Father—He was ‘toward’ the Father—living face to face, together with the Spirit.

There’s an unbreakable bond that unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We certainly can’t understand this fully. Even so, we are grateful to confess faith in the Triune God. We praise him for his great glory, and we find unshakable comfort in him as our God. And here we also find a powerful lesson for the unity of the church.

 

2) the unity of the church: The church’s unity is a special gift. We sing in Psalm 133, where the Holy Spirit says, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (v 1). This pleasant gift is something we enjoy as congregation when we study Scripture together, or we worship together, or we help each other, or when we have fellowship together.

Another expression of unity is when we confess our faith together. A common New Testament word for ‘confession’ means literally, ‘saying the same thing.’ When we sing our creed, affirming faith in the Triune God, we are saying the same thing together. We don’t each bring forward our own ideas about God and who He is, but we humbly listen to what Scripture says, and then we confess it together.

A church of Christ not only confesses the same faith, but we are shaped by this faith. Remember, right beliefs should lead to right behaviour. And when we confess faith in the Trinity, the Trinity is actually a model for the way we should live together. In short, the beautiful unity of the Trinity should lead to the unity of the church.

This truth is seen clearly in John 17. This prayer of Jesus is sometimes called his ‘High Priestly Prayer.’ It is ‘high priestly’ because it’s largely a prayer of intercession. Back in the Old Testament, the priests would come before God at the temple and ask for his grace for the people. Here Jesus prays for himself, his disciples, and in the section we read, He prays for all believers.

It’s actually remarkable: Jesus is looking ahead in his prayer to how the church will grow throughout the many coming centuries—He is praying for people who haven’t even been born yet. In John 17, Jesus is even praying for us, here in this congregation!

He says in verse 20, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” The disciples haven’t yet gone out for their missionary task, but soon they will. And as they preached, many would come to faith in Christ.

As He thinks about how the body of his believers will grow and swell to become many millions spread all over the world, Jesus prays for them. And his very first petition to the Father for the future church is that they be unified. Verse 21, “[I pray] that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.”

Notice how Jesus refers to the close unity of the Father and the Son (and the Spirit, of course). This is the unity we explored in the first point. It is how all three persons of the Trinity share a common being, a common sovereignty and purpose. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are committed to each other, and they are in an eternally loving relationship together. They are one! And this unity of God must set a pattern for the unity of the church: “I pray that all my believers may be one, as we are one.” The intimacy of the Triune persons should transform our relationships with one another.

Jesus continues in verse 21, “that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” See what Christ is saying: real unity is always visible. Unity should be obvious to any observer. A simple example: if two people at school say that they are friends, you’ll see it. They’ll be together on the playground. They’ll help each other with homework. Time and again, you notice how they back each other up. Unity isn’t worth much if it isn’t seen in real life.

So for the unity of the church. Jesus says it should be a oneness which the world can see, a oneness that actually conveys a message about God: “that the world may believe.” Unity among believers in Christ says something about the grace and power of God, a grace and power that are able to overcome division and difference.

And just as Jesus prayed, this began to happen in the life of the church. As the apostles went out and preached, and people came to faith, the church quickly became a really diverse collection of nationalities. Needless to say, this posed some problems for the church.

Most obvious was the hostility between Jew and Gentile. For centuries, God’s people had been told to avoid the impure ways of the heathen, not to associate with them, not to marry them, not even to share meals with them—but now hundreds of thousands of Gentiles were joining the church. This brought tensions over things like circumcision and food, yet the answer was really quite simple. As Paul says in Ephesians, Christ has torn down the dividing wall of hostility and He has made one man—one people—in himself. And in time, the unity became evident, and this unity became the church’s great strength. So it must continue today.

Yet unity remains a great challenge. It is so easy to associate only with people similar to you, people of the same class, the same colour, the same interests and opinions. We like people who are like us! The whole world is divided, perhaps more divided than ever before, into rich and poor, black and white, male and female and non-binary.

In our divided time, the church must be a visible alternative. Jesus prays that just as Father, Son and Spirit are one, his believers should be one as a witness to the world. Jesus repeats this in verses 22-23, “The glory which you gave me I have given them, that they may be one just as we are one: I in them, and you in me.”

The church is made up of many individuals. We have our own characteristics and histories, our own unique gifts, our peculiar characters and opinions. No two people are alike, even identical twins who have the same DNA. Scripture says that these differences don’t have to be a liability, but they can be a great strength when we are united in the Lord.

Listen to what it says in Ephesians 4:3-6, “[Endeavor] to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Believers in the true God are one, made for fellowship, made for unity—just like our Triune God lives in a beautiful unity.

How do we show the unity of the church? One way it does is through the ties that we have with churches all around the world. We seek to express our bond of faith with other believers. And this international unity really does show how Christ unites people of very diverse backgrounds.

When you look at believers in this country, alongside believers in Korea, and believers in Indonesia, and in South Africa, and Singapore—and many other places—there are dozens of differences you could point to: language, culture, tradition, church practice, liturgy, and more. Yet we have a profound unity in our Lord Jesus Christ.

We see the unity of the church not only internationally, but maybe even more importantly, we see it locally. As church we get to live in community with each other. As congregation of believers, we can share our gifts, our talents, our struggles. We have a common table where we eat and drink in remembrance of Christ.

Beloved, we’ll probably always face the temptation to fragment and to exist in isolation from each other. We prefer our like-minded friends. We look down on other people very quickly if they have different viewpoints than us. It can be uncomfortable to associate with one another, because other people are messy and sometimes irritating. But we should not divide from each other, nor should we be detached from the body of Christ. God’s design is that we be together.

Remember that just as the Triune God is united in love, so we must be united in love. We cannot love God, whom we have not seen, without also loving our brother, whom we have seen. So Jesus’s words make us ask: Do I love other believers the way that God the Father loves God the Son? Do we live ‘toward’ each other, with eyes open for each other? Do I have a persevering love, even when people are difficult to love?

Scripture speaks of how we should have a deep involvement with each other. When people get sick, or when they struggle in the faith, or when someone is weak, we should have an enduring love and active care: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor 12:26). We suffer together, and want to help each other.

So let us live in our unity in the Triune God. Endeavour to keep the unity in the bond of peace. Find ways to show this unity: reach out to another family, encourage a lonely or struggling person, forgive the one who has sinned, be loving, be generous, be hospitable.  Such unity will bring praise to our glorious Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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