6. Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Talk from The Star Course.

International travel has never been all it’s cracked up to be. We all know about ‘Breakfast in London, Dinner in Boston, Luggage in Birmingham’ This is not a new problem. While hunting the Snark, one of the Crew set off with no luggage at all:

He had forty-two cases, all carefully packed, with his name clearly printed on each.
But since he omitted to mention the fact, they were all left behind on the beach.
“I said it in German, I said it in Dutch, I said it in Hebrew and Greek
But I wholly forgot, and it vexes me much, that English is what you speak.”

Sometimes people think that when Christians talk about the Trinity we go off into a wholly different language. Dim recollections of the ‘Creed of St Athanasius’ in the Prayer Book, with its “there are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.” What are we talking about?

Possibly inspired by Lewis Caroll’s Snark, James Joyce put in a throwaway line: “3 quarks for Mr Mark.” Physicists have borrowed this term for the mysterious sub-sub-atomic particles that they now believe underlie (almost) all matter. No-one has ever seen or directly detected a quark - they have very strange properties and they always go around in threes or twos. Yet almost all physicists believe in their existence. As we heard from John Polkinghorne FRS in talk 4:

set your doubts aside for a while and see how belief [he’s talking about Quarks, but applying the same principle quite consciously to the Christian faith]... enables us to understand a variety of phenomena … which otherwise have no underlying intelligibility.”

In these three talks we will try to explore the Trinity, how we can relate to God, and how we can be filled with the Spirit. These are some of the profoundest insights ever given to humankind. Our explanations will inevitably be inadequate. Please be patient and ask God to enlighten us all.

1—God is Love – God is Trinity

God is love (1 John 4:8) – love always means relationship. God is certainly not less than personal. Through their encounter with God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, Christians have come to realise that God is not just love towards us, but is a communion of love in His own nature. He is, if you like, Being as loving communion1.

The Trinity can sound odd, but then so do quarks. Indeed any concept of God that didn’t sound odd at first would be a pretty inadequate concept of God. But the world is full of reasonably helpful analogies where three or more distinguishable things merge into a united whole. We have three dimensions describing one reality of space, and for the musically inclined three ‘voices’ can make one harmonious piece of music2. An illustration I find helpful is three candles whose wicks are so close to each other that they give a single flame.

The ancient world was full of religions which believed in many ‘Gods’. Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Mars and Neptune were just some of the Roman Gods and Goddesses. But the Jews firmly rejected this: “Hear O Israel the LORD3 our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4, also Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:29-30, Luke 10:27)   the one and only god. The other ‘gods’ simply don’t exist, they are ‘idols’, “they have mouths but they cannot speak, eyes have they but they cannot see” (Psalm 115:5). “As for the ‘gods’ of the Heathen, they are but idols   for it is The LORD who made the heavens!” (Psalm 96:5)

Then Jesus, is recognised as “the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16) and Jesus himself can say “to have seen me is to have seen the Father” (John 14:9) “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30, cf. John 14:10). Father and son are bound together in the deepest communion of love, and a sharing of their very nature.

St Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus commanding the disciples:

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)4

What does this mean?

2—God the Father

It seems clear that if God exists (a being greater than which nothing can be conceived, in St Anselm’s famous definition) he is one, all-powerful, and totally above and beyond us.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes
Most Blessed, Most Glorious, the Ancient of Days
Almighty, Victorious, thy great name we praise.

Since God is above us and not below us, He must be personal or super-personal rather than sub-personal. But does God really care about us? Many philosophers concluded that He5 could not. ‘As flies are to wanton boys, so we are to the Gods, they kill us for their sport.’ How could a transcendent, unchanging God, ever really care, or love, human creatures?

And yet God has made it clear that He does love, He does care. And how could it be otherwise? An omnipotent being that could not love would not be omnipotent. And any being that can love, but does not, is to be pitied rather than to be worshipped. The Children of Israel felt the force of His love, often a jealous love (Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 5:9, 6:15, Zechariah 8:2). But no-one could have imagined the depth of his love.

When Jesus came into the world, he showed us that we can call God ‘Abba, Father’. That God does not just care for us the way a perfect king cares for his subjects, but as a perfect father cares for his children. God the Father combines total intimacy (Lord you have searched me out and known me - Psalm 139:1) with total power. And total love. Love within His very nature. Because, as Christians have come to understand, God in His nature is a loving community. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the perfect community. At the very beginning, God is elohim, the Hebrew word for God is in the form of a plural:

and God (elohim) said, let us make Man in our image, after our likeness ... So God created Man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does this mean? If God is just one person, how can creating ‘male and female’ be creating in his own likeness? But we now see that all three Persons6 of the Trinity are there, in the beginning. In the beginning we read that:

the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2).

The word in Hebrew is ruach, which can also mean wind and breath7. v’ruach elohim merahaphet al-pne hatom.

And then, with the most amazing insight, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, St John tells us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him ...
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory,
Glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:1-2, 148).

They are all there, at the moment of creation, at the Big Bang if you like. They are all here now. (Matthew 18:20, John 14:23, John 14:16).

3—Who is the Holy Spirit

You can’t pin down God, in words or in any other way. Even a ‘mere’ human being is indefinable. However it is doubly difficult to use words to define or describe the Holy Spirit. After all, most people have some concept of ‘God’ and Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is relatively accessible as a human being. But the Holy Spirit? or worse, the Holy Ghost?

It’s all a bit confusing for 20th century people: we are used to the idea of powerful abstract forces: we find it easier to have a ‘mighty wind’ at the beginning creation than ‘the Spirit of God’ (Genesis 1:2 see the NEB!9) Yet experience shows that the Holy Spirit is ‘of one being’ with the Father and the Son, a Person rather than a thing.

[Jesus told his disciples not to be anxious when they were persecuted] for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:20)

St Luke has “the Holy Spirit will teach you what you are to say” (Luke 12:12)

The apostles … letter [said] “… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit …” (Acts 15:28)

Jesus told his disciples:

I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Advocate – the Greek word is parakletos which means one who is called to the side of someone to defend or help him10 – … the Holy Spirit… [he] will teach you all things … he will guide you into all the truth; for … whatever he hears he will speak and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 14:16-17, 26, 16:13).

I could go on. There is no doubt that, for Jesus and the New Testament writers the Holy Spirit is in no sense less than personal, not just some abstract force.

But remember that ruach means Spirit, Wind and Breath. ruach is also the word for the desert wind, unseen and powerful. The whirlwinds, or ‘dust devils’ were seen whirling across the wilderness, catching up dust and debris. So the Spirit of God catches us into the life of God.

4—His involvement with people

In the Old Testament we see that the Spirit came upon a man or woman, lifted them up and made them capable of exceptional activity.

4.1 Various OT Figures

4.2 Isaiah

In the book of Isaiah we read:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1)

This is particularly interesting, because it was both true for the Prophet himself and a prophecy which was perfectly fulfilled in Jesus (Luke 4:18). The Holy Spirit equips people to do the work of Christ, the Anointed One. Only those who can make ‘Come Holy Spirit’ their prayer can be equipped to do the work of Christ.

4.3 A new Heart – a new Spirit

But as God’s purposes unfold in time, we see in the Bible the promise that He is going to do something new. God gave His people the Law in ‘tablets of stone’ and through writings. But then he promises them that:

I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and will write it upon their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

The ‘heart’ in the Bible is not the centre of feeling as it is in the cards we send on Valentine’s day. The Centre of feeling was the stomach or gut (and we still speak of a gut feeling – St Paul writes of the bowels of compassion and John Wesley wrote the now un-singable hymn: “How blessed the man whose bowels move … with thoughts of mercy and of love). The heart is the centre of our willing and choosing, the core of our whole being and this is what God promises to do – to change us at the very centre of our lives11.

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
(Joel 2:28-29)

5—Jesus Arrives

But when? When would this happen? For over 300 years, devout Jews waited for this promise. They realised that it was bound up with the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ of God. The re-building of the Temple under Herod the Great gives them further hope. People like Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) would worship daily in the Temple, “looking for the consolation of Israel.”


Suddenly, the Holy Spirit begins to move in power, in a way never seen since the creation of the world. The greatest of the prophets (Luke 7:28) John the Baptist, is conceived by a miracle from a barren woman (Luke 5:24). Then a young virgin, Mary, is told of an even greater miracle: she will conceive a son directly by the Holy Spirit.

How can this be, since I have no husband?” [she asks12] … “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:34-35).

And indeed, in her perfect obedience to God’s will, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the most amazing event in history occurred, the Word became flesh. Mary became Theotokos, a Greek word which means the God-bearer. As we offer our wills to God, He can do amazing things through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Shortly afterwards Mary visited Elizabeth, her cousin and the mother of John the Baptist. Jesus and John were both in their mother’s wombs – what a meeting!

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is it granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:41-44)

5.2—John the Baptist links himself with Jesus

John the Baptist built up a tremendous following, and people wondered

whether perhaps he was the Christ. John answered them all: “I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:15-17)

And Jesus was the one.

When Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (Matthew 3:16).

And the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, he was, and is the anointed one.

He came to Nazareth … went to the synagogue …there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He… found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor …”
And he began to say to them: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21)

5.3—Jesus promises the outpouring

Not only is Jesus continually filled with the Holy Spirit, he tells his disciples that they will be given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Asked to teach them to pray, he gives them the Lord’s Prayer and then says:

Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened … If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11:9-13 see also Matthew 7:7-11)

He promises that the Holy Spirit will inspire them when they are persecuted (Luke 12:12). And he interrupts the final and greatest day of a major Jewish feast to proclaim: ‘If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as scripture says, “out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” and the evangelist explains: ‘He said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified’. (John 7:37-39). Jesus is referring to another great text in Isaiah:

I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams upon the dry ground.
I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing upon your offspring. (Isaiah 44:3)

The risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples, his life to be their life (John 20:22). And finally, at his ascension, he tells his disciples:

I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49)13.

6—The Birthday of the Church

At last, on the feast of Pentecost (the Jewish festival of the first fruits of the harvest) – the first Pentecost after the resurrection, it happened. The Spirit was poured out on the disciples in a unique and unmistakable way. The crowd was ‘amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “what does this mean?”’

Then Peter…addressed them: ‘…This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: … “… I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh …” Jesus…exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. … know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ When they heard this they were cut to the heart, and they said to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all who are far off – every one whom the Lord our God calls to him’ (Acts 2:14-39).

And just in these two verses, they are all there, the Blessed Trinity in perfect love and unity. We are all invited to be drawn more and more deeply into the divine life of the Trinity, the life of love, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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1 There is an ancient distinction between the ‘Economic’ Trinity ie that God is only Trinity and love as perceived by us, and the deeper reality ‘Essential’ Trinity, ie that God is a relatedness of love in His own being, and it is because He is this do we know Him as love for us and in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

2 Probably the greatest example of this is the ‘St Anne’ Fugue where three quite different tunes merge to form one tremendous piece. (JS) Bach clearly wrote this as an illustration of the doctrine of the Trinity.

3 The LORD in capital letters refers of course to the Divine Name HwHy (YHWH) which is sometimes written Yahweh. For complicated reasons this was mistranslated as Jehovah in old translations, but this never was the Divine Name, and thus the very name of the “Jehovah’s witnesses” (as well as most of their distinctive doctrine) is based on a mistake. The Divine Name was and is regarded by Jews as too sacred to be spoken at least in public, and this was almost certainly the case with the Early Christians. Thus almost all translations other than the Jerusalem Bible write and speak The LORD for the Divine Name. (The reason for ‘Jehovah’ is that Hebrew originally had no written vowels, so people would just have to know which vowels to say. When knowledge of spoken Hebrew began to die out, some Jewish scholars added the vowels with signs above and below the letters. Because when you read the divine name aloud you said “Adonai” which means the Lord, they put the vowels for Adonai under the consonants for the Divine Name, which made (roughly) YaHoWaH. St Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin, latinised this.).

4 It is considered probable that this was not the ‘original’ ending of St Matthew’s Gospel. But it is undoubtedly the ending of the Gospel as accepted by the Church.

5 We restore the ancient usage of capitalising He to make it clear that God is neither male nor female.

6 ‘Person’ here is a technical theological term – it does not mean person in the ordinary sense. The dictionary defines it as “Applied to the three modes of the divine being in the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) which together constitute the Trinity.” The Greek is hupostasis (upostasiV) . This is the word used in Hebrews 1:3 “[Jesus] reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature”.

7 Driven by ‘Feminist theology’ people often claim that ruach is feminine in Hebrew. But in fact its grammatical gender (and this is not the same thing as its presumed sex, as everyone except people who only speak English knows) is sometimes masculine and sometimes feminine and sometimes indeterminate.

8 In creation, God SAID let there be light. (Genesis 1:3). By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made. (Psalm 33:6)

9 The Greeks tended to think ‘if it moves, personalise it’ whereas we have perhaps gone to the opposite extreme.

10 Apparently, Trades Unions remind people called to Tribunals, "You are entitled to bring a friend”.

11 See eg the Glossary of the English Translation of Philokalia (a compendium of spiritual teaching complied by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth). HEART: not simply the physical organ but the spiritual centre of man’s being, man as made in the image of God. His deepest and truest self, or the inner shrine, to be entered only through sacrifice and death, in which the mystery of the union between the divine and the human is accomplished. (Glossary p383 vol. II Faber & Faber 1981).

12 They knew the ‘facts of life’ perfectly well in those days. Furthermore, for Mary, having an illegitimate child was not just impossible for biological reasons, it was, quite literally, social suicide. She would have been cast out of the community and should, according to the Law, be stoned. Like many of the ‘scientific objections’ to Christian faith, modern science raises fewer difficulties about the Virgin Birth than were formerly supposed. Spontaneous changes to genetic material happen all the time: God plainly ensured that on this occasion one of Mary’s cells mutated in a very specific way to produce the embryo of Jesus, with the genetic code that God wanted. The ‘probability’ of this happening is very low, but God is Lord of probabilities and He only needed it to happen once.

13 One of the reasons why God arranged the Ascension in the way He did (Acts 1:9) was presumably to get people thinking about the link between Elijah and his disciple Elisha, who was promised that ‘if he saw Elijah ascending, he would receive a double portion of his spirit (that given to the designated heir and successor (Deuteronomy 21:17)’ (2 Kings 2:9-12).