What do an egg, water, and candy corn have in common? Each is a common illustration used to explain the mystery of the Trinity.
Of course, there are many more illustrations of the Trinity, and every one of them runs into serious theological problems.* Illustrations aside, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity has aroused controversy from the beginning because it seems to imply a contradiction. Some even wonder if the doctrine of the Trinity renders Christianity irrational. How could God be both one, as the Old Testament strongly affirms (Exo 20:3, Deut 6:5), as well as Three, as Christians believe (Matt 28:19-20)?
Many passages support the doctrine of the Trinity, but one passage has been more helpful and persuasive to me than any other (you can check out other passages below). That passage is none other than the Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20. The reason why may not be clear at first, but a close look at the verse reveals the glorious doctrine of God’s being.
Jesus’s last words are famous: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20).
While the passage obviously includes a reference to each member of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), the full weight of the text comes from how these three members are linked together. Look at the verses again. Do you notice anything unusual?
Name is singular. Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples and baptize in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How could God’s name be one name, yet include the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
While this might seem to be an interesting Biblical factoid, the Old Testament’s teaching about the name of God makes it truly impossible to overstate the importance of Jesus’s final words. This passage is nothing short of revolutionary.
God’s name, the third commandment tells us, is to be held in highest honor (Exo 20:7). It is not to be taken in vain, because it is holy. Most of us were taught this commandment means God’s name shouldn’t be used as a curse word (which is true), but it means much more than wincing at lines in a PG-13 movie or substituting gosh for God.
God’s name (like many other biblical names) describes God’s essential character. When Moses asked God who he should say sent him, God revealed his name to Moses as the great I Am. God swore his promises to Abraham by his own name (Gen 22:16) because there was nothing greater in the entire universe by which he could swear (Heb 6:13). Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us in the path of righteousness for the sake of his name.
Even today, when orthodox Jews read the Hebrew Scriptures, they refuse to speak the name of God aloud because they hold it in such high esteem. Nothing is more sacred than God’s holy name.
Jesus knew this—in fact, he had to have had this precisely in mind—when he gave his final commandments to his disciples. Let that sink in. God used his own name to swear to Abraham that all nations of the world would be blessed, and it is this same name that Jesus tells his followers to go to the world, make disciples, and baptize. And according to Jesus, this single name of God includes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.** No wonder they wanted to kill Jesus, and no wonder he couldn’t stay dead!
Of course, the fact that Jesus claimed that the name of God is Three doesn’t answer the question as to whether the Trinity is irrational. Does belief in the Trinity defy our sense of what is possible? As we consider that question, we should ask ourselves, should it surprise us that the God who created all things knows all things, and holds all things together is beyond our total comprehension? Should our finite, material minds be able to fully explain the spiritual infinity of God? As John Webster says, “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.”
This is where illustrations, flawed as they are, may help us see that what is beyond explanation is not necessarily beyond possibility. As mysterious as the Trinity is, what is clear is that when we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we baptize in the Triune name of God.
*Unlike the Trinity, the three parts of an egg (shell, white, yolk) are completely different in their essence; they are three totally distinct and different parts, not three-in-one. The Bible says that Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature.” Is the yolk the glory or exact imprint of an egg shell? Water presents the exact opposite problem. The essence of water is always the same (H20), but water can never be water, liquid, and gas simultaneously. It can be one, then another, and finally another, but never all three at the same time. Candy corn, well, the best explanation of why candy corn is used to explain the Trinity is because it can keep kids’ attention. Other than that, it happens to have three colors that all make up one piece of candy.
**The rest of the New Testament fleshes this out as well. Paul says that Jesus has received the name that is above every other name, and that every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). Paul is quoting Isaiah 45:23, a passage he knows refers to the name(!) of God that he claims belongs to Jesus. John tells us that Jesus referred to himself as the I Am, an act that caused certain Jews to want to stone him for blasphemy (John 8:58-59). The entire first chapter of Hebrews is devoted to showing that Jesus is not a man in the line of other prophets, but rather He is the incarnate God to whom all the prophets and promises of the Old Testament point. The early witness of Paul, especially, shows that belief in the divinity of Christ, and by extension, the doctrine of the Trinity (2 Cor 3:17), was not a later innovation of Christian memory, but was rather an essential part of the earliest Christian witness. Jesus himself was charged with blasphemy, and Paul accused early Christians of the same. These passages also make it clear that God was not first Father, then became Son, and is now Spirit, as modalists suggest. God is simultaneously Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this in a number of places, but perhaps most clearly at the baptism of Christ (Math 3:13-17).