The oft-quoted remark that “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor” has been attributed to a variety of people, from Rousseau to Mark Twain. In any event, there is surely truth in it. The nature of man, left to himself apart from divine revelation, has displayed a tendency to create gods that are agreeable and manageable.
In the modern era, the gods that are honored involve such as pleasure, individualism, science and reason. But in the pre-Christian era of the Old Testament, the gods were hand-crafted deities of all sorts, representations of the powers of nature, etc. Often worshipped on high places in particular, they held an attraction for people longing to fill the God-shaped vacuum of the soul. And they so often even drew in the Jewish people, resulting in repeated disasters for the nation.
So the emphasis of the Old Testament was upon the essential oneness and singularity of God as the one and only true God. And probably the most famous and oft-quoted OT text would be the Shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear, Oh Israel. The Lord your God is one.” This was distinctively different than the panoply of Gods worshipped in the surrounding nations.
We would therefore not expect to see the idea of the Trinity particularly elucidated in the Old Testament. But even from the very beginning there are more than just mild hints that God existed in more than one person, yet with unit. By the very beginning, I’m talking about the second sentence in the Bible …
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And we see throughout the Old Testament that the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – would come upon various prophets, priests and kings for the purpose of divine empowerment. This was more than just a powerful influence, as the work and words coming from these indwelt people had a divine empowerment and first-person authority. David, after his sin with Bathsheeba, was terrified of the thought of losing the presence of God living within, praying in Psalm 51:10,11 …
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
As well, in various places in the OT, there is the presence of plural pronouns. For example, in Genesis 1:26 … Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
Though this may simply be a way of expressing noun-verb agreement, the early Church believed that this was an evidence of the Trinity, as have most scholars over the years.
And as the OT moves along, references to a future Messiah-King are seen. And though this looks forward to a physical and visible person, there are clearly divine attributes connected, the most well-known being those in Isaiah …
7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
9:6 – For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
That is about as clear as it can get for OT times, though comprehending this was a fuzzy experience before the incarnation. Fully understanding the eternal Trinity would take the events and writings of the time of Christ and the New Testament era. But the Old Testament is not without Trinitarian references as we look back upon it from our point on the continuum of time.
Speaking of the continuum of time, our minds cannot understand God’s position above and beyond this human limitation and sphere. He is above it and sees it all – past, present and future – all the same. And likewise, the limitations of the human mind make it difficult for us to grasp the three-in-one nature of the Trinity.
But there is a wonderful peace and comfort that can accrue to us as we grasp all that we are able about the knowledge of God, including the Trinity. It is wonderful to know that God is not locked-down as we are. Being above time, He is not limited … He is not making up the story and reacting to events as they happen. Rather, He is revealing the full story more and more as time goes by. We call this progressive revelation. The future is in God’s hands and is as certain as if it has already happened. Just as the doctrine of the Trinity was progressively revealed and understood as time passed, so also will all of God’s sovereign plan for the ages be increasingly evident as the years pass. And in that theological truth we may find great personal comfort, even in a broken world.