THE UNFATHOMABLE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 13:14
3-1-81 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor
bringing the message entitled The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity.
In the long series covering several years on “The Great Doctrines of the Bible,”
this message this morning closes the section on theology, the doctrine of
God. Next Sunday morning, we shall begin the series on the doctrine of
Christology, the doctrine of Christ, and it will be entitled The Marvel
This message this
morning closes the long series on theology proper, on the study of God,
entitled The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity. As a
background text, the Trinity is named in the last verse of the last chapter of
the second Corinthian letter, 2 Corinthians 13:14, “The grace of our Lord Jesus
Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you
all. Amen”—a trinitarian, tri-personality benediction: the grace of the
Lord Jesus, the love of God, the communion of the Holy Spirit: the Triune God.
The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity: not that that is the only
unfathomable mystery; just that the unfathomable mystery of God reaches into
We live in the midst
of inexplicable mystery. We ourselves are a constituent part of it.
There is no more un-understandable, inexplicable, unfathomable mystery than you
yourself. Sometimes the Bible, the Lord Jesus, the apostle Paul will
speak of a man, of us as being a dichotomy. The Bible will refer to us as
a psuchē and as a soma, a soul and a body. Now how
could they be together, inter-commingled and commingled in one you? How
does spirit and materiality, corporeality mix together? Yet that’s you,
soul and body. Sometimes the Bible, and especially the apostle Paul, will
refer to us as a trichotomy. He will refer to us as a somatikos
man: soma, body, a material, physical man, a somatikos man.
He will also refer to us as a psuchikos man: psuchē, the
sentient man, the man that thinks and feels. He will also refer to us as
a pneumatikos man: pneuma, spirit, a pneumatikos man, a
man that is sensitive to the Spirit of God. Now, we are in one category
and in one sense a unity, a personality. We are also in another sense a
plurality, a trinity: a soma, a psuchē, and a pneuma.
Now, how do you put all that together in us? How could mind, and spirit,
and will influence matter? How does it move and breathe and live in
us? How am I both spirit, invisible and immaterial, and body, corporeal
and visible? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know. There
are limits to human understanding. In fact, we are limited in every area
of our understanding. All we do is just look and see and observe; we don’t
If this is true, the
unfathomable mystery of our own being, how much more infinitely is it
inexplicable and unfathomable when we reach toward the infinitude of the
mystery of the sacred Trinity God? In reading the life of Augustine, he
was walking by the side of the sea, and he saw a little boy digging a trench in
the sand. He walked over to the lad and asked him what he was
And the little fellow
replied, “Sir, I am digging a trench. I’m making a trench.”
“Why are you doing it?”
And the little lad
replied, “I’m going to empty the sea into my trench.”
The great thinker, the
greatest of the Latin fathers, continuing his walk and musing, “So the lad
thinks that he’s going to empty the sea into the little trench he’s made in the
sand. Sometimes,” he says, “we are like that. We propose to
encompass the infinitude of God in the small limits of our mind. It
cannot be achieved. It is impossible.”
If we cannot understand
or explain even the works of God—how did the sun get there? Who made
it? And how did we get here, and who made us? And how are we made? If
we cannot understand even the phenomena of the works of God all around us, the
mud and the muck and the mire that can burst into these beautiful and flaming
flowers—if we can’t understand the works of the Almighty, how much less can we
understand the great mystery of God Himself?
In the order of
creation, the higher the order, the more complex and inexplicable it
becomes. To begin with a rock or a clod, then rise to a tree, a plant,
then rise upward to an animal, then rise upward to a man, and finally to rise
upward to God—the infinite, unfathomable mystery of the Trinity.
Now, when we look and
study, there are two things that we learn. Number one: in the self-disclosure
and the self-revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures, He reveals Himself to us
as tri-personality. Second: in human experience, in our relationship and
our knowledge and understanding, our meeting God in human experience, we know
God as a tri-personality. Now the message that follows is a discussion of
those two things.
Number one: in the
revelation of God in these holy pages, He reveals Himself, discloses Himself to
us as tri-personality, one in three and three in one—all coequal, coeternal,
one in essence, three in subsistence. God is personality. He is
somebody. He reveals Himself as a person; He speaks, He thinks, He acts,
He communicates, He feels, He talks—that’s God. We are verbal creatures,
and God communicates to us in words, in language, in thoughts, in deeds.
The self-disclosure of God is always personal; God is not a philosophical
principle. God is not an academician’s abstraction. God is not a
barren, sterile, impersonal “first cause”; God is somebody. And He
reveals Himself to us as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of David, of
Isaiah, whose personal name in the Old Testament is Jehovah, Yahweh, whose personal
name in the New Testament is Iesous, Savior, Jesus our Lord.
Abraham is referred to
in the Bible as “a friend of God” [Isaiah 41:8;
James 2:23], not a friend of an abstract principle, but “a friend of
God.” And the same Holy Scriptures say that Moses spoke to God as a man
would speak to a friend, face to face [Exodus
33:11]. God in the Bible is personal. In the Holy
Scriptures, He is referred, He reveals Himself as tri-personal. There are
three eternal, coequal distinctions in the Godhead. And all through the
Bible, beginning at the first verse of the first chapter of the first book to
the last benediction, that Trinity, that tri-personality in the Godhead is
always apparent, ever present, always self-disclosed and revealed.
We shall look first in
the Old Testament: the Trinity, the self-disclosure of God as tri-personality
in the Old Testament Scriptures. In the first verse of the first chapter
of the first book: “In the beginning God; in the beginning God created the
heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void”; chaotic, “and
darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God,” the Spirit of
God, the ruach of Elohim, “moved upon the face of the waters” [Genesis 1:1-2]. “And God said, Let Us make
man in Our image, after Our likeness” [Genesis 1:26].
There is a plurality in God. In the first syllables of the first verse,
He is introduced to us—a plurality. The singular word for God is El.
You find it in a thousand combinations in the Old Testament Scriptures; El-Kanah
is the father of Samu-El [1 Samuel 1:19-20],
the combination of God, singular: El, E-l, El. The plural
is Elohim. Plural, Elohim, God, “In the beginning Elohim…”
I counted in this first
chapter of Genesis thirty-two times is that word Elohim used; God.
In the books of Moses, Elohim, God, plural is used more than five
hundred times. And in the Old Testament Scriptures, Elohim, God,
is used more than five thousand times. And all thirty-two times in the
first chapter of Genesis, all over five hundred times in the writings of Moses,
and all over five thousand times in the Old Testament, all of it, without
exception, Elohim is used with a singular verb. Elohim
plural: referring to the majesty and the abounding marvel and mystery of
God. And singular verb, He is one. That’s God!
The second introduced to
us in the distinctions in the Godhead, “The Spirit of God moved upon the face
of the waters” [Genesis 1:2]. The
Spirit of God—and all through the Old Testament Scriptures, there is presented
the Person of the moving of the Spirit of God.
The Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab that they might
contrive the beautiful artifacts and furniture and accouterments and
embellishments of the holy tabernacle where God was worshipped [Exodus 31:1-6].
The Spirit of God came upon David, Israel’s sweet psalmist and
singer [1 Samuel 16:13].
The Spirit of God left Saul, and an evil spirit troubled him [1 Samuel 16:14].
Zechariah the prophet: “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My
Spirit,’ saith the Lord” [Zechariah 4:6].
A tri-personality, eternal distinctions in the Godhead: Elohim,
God, ruach, the Spirit of God. “Let Us make man in Our image, and
after Our likeness” [Genesis 1:26].
There is another
somebody, another Person who appears all through the Old Testament Scriptures.
He is called the “Angel of God” or the “Angel of the Presence,” and He is
always there. In the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis is the
moving, marvelous story of the offering up of Isaac on Mt. Moriah. And as
Abraham raises his hand to plunge the fatal knife into the heart of his only
begotten son, a promise by Sarah [Genesis
17:15-17, 18:9-15], a voice speaks to Abraham [Genesis 22:10-11]. And this is the story, “And the Angel of
And the Angel of the Lord said to Abraham, By Myself have I
sworn, saith the Lord, because you have obeyed My voice, blessing I will bless
thee, and multiplying thee, I will multiply thy seed, and in thee shall all the
families of the earth be blessed.”
that “Angel of the Lord” who speaks to Abraham and says, “By Myself have I
sworn,” saith the Lord, “that in blessing I will bless thee”? [Genesis 22:15-17]. Who is that Angel of the
Lord? Or again, in the thirty-first chapter of Genesis: “The Angel of the
Lord spake unto Jacob saying, I am the God of Bethel” [Genesis 31:11-13].
Who is that Angel of the Lord that speaks thus to Israel, “I am the God of
In the third chapter of
the Exodus, Moses is keeping his father Jethro’s flock on the back side of the
desert, and in the day he sees a bush flaming, unconsumed. And he turns aside
to see why the bush is not burned [Exodus 3:1-3].
And when God saw that he turned aside, He spake unto Moses out of the flaming
bush. And do you remember the story? “And the Angel of the Lord spake unto
Moses out of the burning bush saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and
Jacob’” [Exodus 3:4-6]. Who is this
Angel of the Lord that is speaking to Moses out of the flame and the
fire? Who is He?
Or take again, in the
story of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan: having crossed the Jordan and
surrounding Jericho, Joshua sees there standing before him, a Warrior with a
sword in His hand. And Joshua approaches and asks the Man, “Are You for
us, or are You against us?”
And the Man replies, “As Captain of the hosts of the people of God am I
come.” And Joshua
falls down and worships Him, and the Warrior says to Joshua, “Take your shoes
from off your feet, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground” [Joshua 5:13-15]. Who is that Warrior who appears before
Joshua and announces Himself as being Captain of the host of the people of
God? Who is He?
Or take again, in that
incomparable story in the third chapter of Daniel: when the furnace is heated
seven times hotter and the three Hebrew children are cast therein [Daniel 3:19-21], Nebuchadnezzar watching the
three to be burned and consumed by the fire and the flame, he, in astonishment,
says, “Did we not cast three into the fiery furnace?” And the servant said, “My lord, yes.” And
Nebuchadnezzar says, “But I see four walking loose in the midst of the fire; and
the fourth in form is like unto the Son of God” [Daniel
All through the Old
Testament Scriptures, He appears. You can call it an epiphany, you can
call it a Christophany; it is a pre-incarnate presence of Jesus our Lord.
And the three are always in the Old Testament Scriptures: Elohim, God; ruach,
the Spirit of God; and the Angel of His Presence, whom we come to know as
Jesus, our Lord. In the Old Testament, God reveals Himself, He discloses
Himself as tri-personality, eternal distinctions in the Godhead. When we
turn to the New Testament, the same marvelous, mysterious, unfathomable
revelation and self-disclosure of God is made—just as in the Old Testament, so
in the New Testament—a Trinity in the personality of God. It starts off
In the first chapter of
the Gospel of Matthew, the Spirit of God has conceived in the womb of the virgin
Mary a Child, conceived of the Holy Spirit [Genesis
1:20-21]. And this was done according to the word of the Lord,
according to the word of God, when He said by Isaiah the prophet, 7:14, “Behold,
a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,
‘With us is God’” [Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23], all
three of them are there in those two verses in the first chapter of Matthew;
God our Father, the Holy Spirit, who conceived the Child in the womb of Mary. “And
His name shall be called Joshua, Savior, Iesous, Jesus: for He shall
save His people from their sins [Matthew
1:20-21], being Immanuel, “God with us” [Matthew
In the beginning of His
messianic ministry, the three are named together. In the passage you just
read, the Son of God is baptized in the Jordan River, and the Spirit of God in
bodily form as a dove, lights upon Him: And the voice of the Father is heard
from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:16-17], the Trinity in God’s
personality. And the book closes like that; as it begins and as His messianic
ministry opens [Matthew 3:16-17], so it
consummates in that same Trinity, “Go unto all the world and make disciples of
all the people, baptizing them “in the name,” singular, in the name of—I have
three names,” God has three names—“In the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 28:19].
So throughout all of the New Testament, all of it, the Trinity is presented,
the self-disclosure of God is named over and over and over again:
You will find that Trinity named in Luke 1:35.
You’ll find the three named in John 14:26.
You’ll find the three named in John 15:26.
You’ll find the three named in Galatians 4:6.
You will find the three named in 1 Peter 1:2.
You’ll find the three named in Jude 20-21.
You will find the three named in Revelation 1:4-6.
I went through the Book
of Ephesians this last week, and you will find the three named in that one book
in Ephesians 1:17;
in Ephesians 2:18;
in Ephesians 3:14-16;
in Ephesians 4:4-7;
in Ephesians 5:18-20;
in Ephesians 6:17-23.
And the beautiful text of the morning, in 2 Corinthians 13:14: “The
grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love God, and the communion of the Holy
Spirit, be with you all. Amen.”
Woven throughout the New Testament is the self-disclosure
of God as a tri-personality: God our Father, God our Savior, and God in
our souls, moving the Holy Spirit of the Lord.
Now in my studying, I
came across one of the most amazing things that I have ever found in the Bible,
and it is this: wherever the three personalities in the Trinity stand
together, without exception—and they stand together all through the Bible—wherever
all three of them are seen together, are presented together, it is always in
redemptive blessing, in merciful loving-kindness, in salvation and
deliverance. There’s no exception to that.
May I say that by
contrast? Sometimes when the Father is presented alone it is in a fury of
judgment, such as the Father is clothed, God is clothed in thunder and in
lightning and in judgment as He delivers the Commandments on the top of Mt.
Sinai; the very mountain shook with the darkness of the flame and the
fire. If an animal touched it, it died. It was awesome—God, the Judge
of all the earth [Exodus 19:11-18].
Take again the Lord Jesus Christ; in His address in the temple, in the last and
Passion Week of His life, He spoke of Himself as being the stone of
stumbling. And if the stone falls upon a man, it will grind him to powder—Jesus
as a judge of men who reject Him and disown Him [Matthew
21:42-44]. It’s awesome! Or take again the appearance of the
third in the Trinity by Himself. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of
Matthew, if a man blasphemes God, he can be forgiven. If a man blasphemes
the Son, he can be forgiven: but if a man blasphemes the Holy Spirit,
there is neither forgiveness in this world nor the world to come, but he has
committed an unpardonable and a forever eternal sin! [Matthew 12:31-32]. It is awesome! [Matthew 12:31-32].
But when all three of
them appear together, when they stand together, when they are revealed
together, without exception in the Bible, it is always in mercy, and in grace,
and in loving kindness, and in salvation.
I want to take two
passages, just looking at that: one in the Old Testament and one in the New
Testament. In the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah, verses 7 through ,
all three Persons in the Godhead are named, and look how they are named:
I will mention the loving-kindnesses of the Lord, and the
praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord hath bestowed upon us,
His great goodness toward us.
For He said, Surely they are My people: so He was
In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of
we speak of that a moment ago?—
And the Angel of His Presence saved them;
In His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare
them, and carried them all the days of old.
beautiful picture of the great triune God!
Now, in the New
Testament, in the first chapter of the Revelation, there the Trinity is
presented again. Revelation 1:4:
John to the seven churches which are in Asia:
Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which
was, and which is to come—
God the Father—
And from the seven Spirits which are before His throne”;
word seven means the plentitude, the overflowing grace and mercy of the Spirit
of God. That’s the Spirit. And now the third Person of the Trinity:
And from Jesus, who is the faithful witness, the first
begotten of the dead, the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that
loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and made us kings and
priests unto God and the Father; to Him be glory and dominion forever and
the three are self-disclosed, are presented in the Bible, it is always in loving-kindness,
in tender mercy, in redemptive love and deliverance. That’s God!
Now, the second part of
my sermon—and the time’s already gone. We know God in our human
experience as tri-personality: God the Father, transcendent above all; God the
Son, immanent in all; and God the Holy Spirit, inherent in all. And we
know God like that. Our experience is trinitarian. God is holy; how
could a sinful man ever approach the divine holiness of God? No man can
even see His face, and live [Exodus 33:20].
We cannot even look at the sun, which is one of the small creations of His hand
[Genesis 1:14-18]. Much less could
we look into the face of the glory of God Himself, the transcendent God.
We approach our Lord’s—our great God—we approach Him in our Lord’s loving kindness,
and favor, and redemptive love, in His blood of sacrifice that covers our sins
and washes the stain out of our souls [Revelation
1:5], and we approach God in Christ. We are creatures for whom He
died [Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians
5:2]. We are sinners whom He saved [1
Timothy 1:15]. We know God only as Jesus opens the door that we
might approach His presence. And the Spirit of God moves in our hearts
thus to bring Him to us in loving salvation [John
When I preach, the
Spirit of God is in your heart, and He confirms the witness of the Word by the
moving in your souls, and thus are we brought to the great heavenly Father [Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6]. And we are
invited to come boldly—sinners as we are, unworthy as we are—”come boldly, that
we might find grace to help in time of need” [Hebrews
4:16]. That’s God. And we experience the salvation of God in that
trinitarian form. Jesus died for us [1 Corinthians
15:3], covered our sins in His own sacrifice and love [Romans 3:25], and the Holy Spirit takes the
message of Jesus and woos and pulls in our hearts [Romans
8:16], and we come before God in His name, in His grace [Ephesians 2:8]. That’s the way we were
saved, and that’s the way that we live as Christians. That’s the way we
“Behold,” said Abraham,
“I take it upon myself to speak unto Thee; I, who am but dust and ashes” [Genesis 18:27].
But we come, unworthy as we are, we come before God in the name of
Jesus; that is, we plead, we ground our hope and faith in His righteousness, in
His loving mercy. We come in Jesus’ name [Luke
11:9]. And we come moved by the Spirit of God in our hearts [Galatians 5:25]. Were it not for the
Spirit of God, we’d never come. We’d never trust. We’d never
believe. We’d never pray. But the moving Spirit of God leads us to
the Lord [Ephesians 2:18]. That’s
Now may I sum up one
other truth? Whenever anyone departs from the revelation of God as a tri-personality,
he immediately falls into a barren and sterile faith without comfort and
without hope. That is true with regard to Jesus our Lord. If we deny
the Trinity, then Jesus is just another man. And He died as all other men
have died, and He is in a grave somewhere as all other men are in their graves.
He could not perfectly represent to us the Father—He is another man. We
would have no assurance: He doesn’t hear our prayers, He doesn’t comfort our
souls. He doesn’t have any word of grace and salvation. He can’t
pardon our sins. He can’t sustain and keep us. He is a man as all
We’re not like
that. We accept the revelation of God. Jesus is the great,
wonderful Savior, the second Person of the Trinity who reveals to us our Lord
God and who brings us in salvation into His saving presence [Hebrews 19:19]. And however others may
scoff or scorn that we worship a creature, a man—not to us. He is revealed to
us as God, and He represents God in the flesh. If I want to know God, He
is God [John 10:30]. If I want to
see God, I look at Him [John 14:9].
And if I want to worship God, I worship Him [John
In digging through
those ruins in ancient Rome, on a wall of the Palatine Palace, there was
scratched a caricature. It was this: it was the picture, rude and
crude, of a man with an ass’s head nailed to a cross. And in front of the
ass’s headed man nailed to the cross was a crude picture of a man kneeling in
worship. And then underneath was the caption scribbled in incorrect
Greek, “Alexamenos adores his God.” That was the attitude of the
scornful, contemptuous Greek and Roman in the first Christian century.
But by the side of Alexamenos, we also would kneel before that cross, numbered
among those who believe that in Christ we have the full-orbed revelation of
And thus, we believe in
the Holy Spirit. And thus, we believe in the infallible and inerrant
Scriptures that have revealed to us this tri-personality of God, and thus, we’re
brought to worship the true God of heaven and earth.
May I make one last
observation? Whenever men worship an inferior god, no matter what you
call him, the man is debased and degraded. There’s no exception to it in
history. Whether the god that is worshiped is made out of stone or gold
or silver or any kind of an idolatrous image, the worship is a degrading thing
to the man who bows before it.
The same is true in
modern life. When men today worship an inferior god, such as the
deification of man, called humanism, or whether they worship pleasure, or fortune,
or ambition, or fame, or success, whatever they give their lives to, if it is
an inferior god the man in his soul and in his life is debased and
degraded. But when a man worships the true God, when he bows before the
Lord Jesus Christ, when he accepts the testimony of the Holy Spirit in his
heart that points to the saving grace of Jesus [John
16:7-15], the man is exalted; he is lifted up, he is edified. And
everything that concerns his life is sanctified, and hallowed, and made
heavenly and holy. That’s God. There is one God, and His name is
God our Father, and God our Savior, and God in our souls—the moving grace and
witness of the Holy Spirit [Romans 8:16].
Now may we stand
Our Lord, in Thy
presence we are so feeble, like dust, like worms. Lord, Lord, who could
stand in the fierce brightness and holiness of Thy throne? Who could be his
own defense in the day of judgment? How does one stand in the day of the wrath
of God? Only in the love and mercy, in the grace and goodness of Jesus our Lord,
the Angel of the Presence in the Old Testament, the risen Savior of the New
Testament, the great King who is coming again in the consummation of the
apocalyptic age [Matthew 25:31]. O
divine Holy Spirit of God, take the things of Jesus and reveal them meaningful
And while our people
stand in the presence of God, a family you, a couple you, or one somebody you
to give yourself to the Lord, to come into the fellowship of His church, “Today
I have decided for God, and I am answering with my life.” Make the decision
now, and in a moment when we sing, down one of those stairways out of the
balcony, down one of these aisles in this lower floor, “Pastor, I am coming.” God
bless you and angels attend in the way as you come. Thank You, Lord, for the
sweet harvest; a precious gift to lay at Thy dear feet, amen. While we sing,
while you come.