2 – Trinity & Gospel as Understood by a First Century Jewish Messianic Believer: Paul

Home Learning Hub Creation & New Creation 2 – Trinity & Gospel as Understood by a First Century Jewish Messianic Believer: Paul
The concept of trinity in Paul’s thinking stemmed very naturally from his Jewish faith. The theme starts in Genesis 1, with creation itself being kicked off by light, spirit and word. These three were the presence of God within and for his creation. The light, spirit and word represent “God with us”, with his creation. Similarly, John’s Gospel (with an incarnational/“God with us” motif) starts with the same three ideas: light, glory (spirit) and word. John is writing a creational gospel, speaking of God moving from the first creation to the new or renewed creation through Christ. Here, God has come once again in Christ to renew his world.

The Genesis themes carry on through the Torah (the Law of Moses: first five books of the Old Testament.) The Torah is God’s presence with his creation, through his word, or wisdom. “The word in not in heaven that you must climb up and search for it there, nor under the world, but is near you, in your heart and mouth (for wisdom).” (Deut 30, Rom 10) The Torah was considered by the Hebrew people to be a representation of God with Israel. In this sense, in Jewish thinking, the word is the incarnational presence of God.

The word is the wisdom or presence of God speaking to us through his creation. See Psalm 19:1-4, which blends the word seen in creation with God’s word in Torah. The “let there be-s” in Genesis 1 are like the “thou shalts” of the Torah. He creates a new heart in us by the Torah (which in Christ becomes the living word), to love God and love neighbour, thereby creating a new world around us. This is the essence of Jesus’ teachings and of Paul’s gospel (2 Cor 4:6). It comes as no surprise, then, that John starts his Gospel with the incarnational word. This shows John is consciously speaking of ‘new creation’ through the gospel presence of God in Christ.

This presence of God in creation can also be seen in the Exodus. The Exodus represents the God of creation returned and come again, this time to create and be present among a new people and nation, to launch once again the royal Adamic project, to bring his sons into the world again through a new people, nation and royal priesthood.

Here, the Exodus is linked with the resurrection of Christ as its fulfilment (Heb 1:6). That is, the resurrection of Christ (who is the Israel of God) is the means by which God brings his new Torahheart, gospel children into this world, fulfilling the Exodus and Genesis creation projects. (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:26)

So in the Exodus, in that ‘new creation’ event, we see the same themes that are in Genesis 1. The pillar of fire (light), the Shekinah (spirit) within the tabernacle, his word of command to Pharaoh to “let my people go”, and his word speaking light and order in the Torah. This means that the Hebrew people, in Moses’ time and afterward, saw their Exodus as a new creation project. They saw their commission and identity in terms of Adam and Eve’s commission and identity, restored.

Proverbs 8 picks up the theme as well, showing how all creation is sustained by the presence of God’s wisdom. Wisdom, Torah, Spirit and Light, even his image in Adam and Eve, were all seen as God himself being made manifest to his creation and with or among his people.

So for God to become manifest in creation through Messiah, as John reports in John 1 – that is, for God to put on flesh, and for his light, spirit and word to be fully visible to us through his full image in Christ – isn’t a non-Hebrew theme. That is, incarnation is a Hebrew theme, which extends through creation in Genesis 1, to the Exodus and Torah, to the coming of God in flesh through Jesus Christ. The tabernacle also was an Old Testament incarnational theme. It was God with his people, through his Shekinah presence in the Holy of Hollies. The incarnation of Christ is the same God, but with different clothing, in a different type of tent: a human body.

Paul too used only his Jewish Old Testament faith to announce the divinity of Christ. It follows exactly on from Old Testament faith and expectation. Christ is simply held as God come in the flesh, as his light, spirit and word in bodily form. And, being born as a man, Jesus had the covenant right to undertake our redemption and new creation project. The incarnation is the story of God’s covenantal commitment to his creation project to redeem, reconcile and renew.

Thus, in Paul’s letters, Christ is depicted as God’s creational wisdom come in flesh, reconciling and restoring God’s whole world. Why did ‘word’ need to come in the flesh? Because God is still acting to save flesh and this whole material creation/natural cosmos which he lovingly created. The same wisdom that brought forth creation is now present among us to save and heal creation (1 Cor 1:24). Part of comprehending the gospel is to understand it in this Hebrew creational sense. In the gospel, God isn’t keen on taking us to heaven. That would be breaking his commitment with this world he created and loves.

In light of this, God wants us to work with him for the healing of our world – our neighbourhoods, our communities and our nations. He has called us to join in on his world-healing project. He doesn’t want us to have an escapist/ uncaring/ “use and throw away” attitude towards this world and towards people. Instead, his desire is that we work with him in the new creation of our relationships with others and with our environment. When John said, “do not love the world”, he was speaking about corruption, sin and greed, not of creation. God came in Christ because he loved the world. Indeed, we do not love the world in the sense of worshipping it, but we are instead to love the world in terms of loving our neighbour, building respectful communities of care for others, and being responsible in our use of the world God generously and abundantly gave to us.

When we see the apostles speaking of Christ as the second person of the trinity, they are speaking about re-creation. Christ was always spoken of in this way. He is God come in the flesh to save and restore God’s people and the creation project. This comes about through his Kingdom teachings, through his life, death and resurrection and through his ongoing work at the Father’s right hand in heaven. God continues this mediating work in Christ until his whole creation is renewed. The apostles saw Christ as God taking on flesh to fulfil man’s part in the creation over which he gave man dominion.

Paul saw Christ as God come in the flesh because he saw that, in Jesus, God was bringing to fulfilment all that he had promised to do for Israel and the world. In Isaiah and the prophets, God promised that he himself (YHWH) would come to Israel, and that he would accomplish certain things. He promised that he would take away their sin and restore them to himself. He pledged to restore Israel to their saving mission to the nations. He would overcome their enemies. He would rebuild his temple. He would transform all the world through them. He would defeat death. God said he was coming personally to do these things, so when Christ came and did all this, and built a new temple in his church, the apostles and early church understood Christ to be God come in the flesh.

For example, in Isaiah God said that he looked and found no man to help, so he would arm himself for battle and come to Israel himself to fulfil his promises. His armour was different to man’s armour. He was armed with truth, with righteousness and with salvation. His battle would be fought on the cross. Paul, a Jew, was expectant of God’s coming to Israel to fulfil these promises. So, when Paul’s eyes were opened and he saw all these promises fulfilled through the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the gospel message, he recognized that his Hebrew faith had come to fulfilment. Paul saw that Christ and the Holy Spirit were both God (YHWH of Isaiah), come into his creation to fulfil all his promises. Paul saw both Christ and the Holy Spirit as God come to bring about new creation. Both Christ and the Spirit are God with his creation.

So then why is Christ called the Son of God? From the perspective of the Jewish mind, there are two reasons. Firstly, ‘son’ means ‘one born among men’ and so ‘Son of God’ can be understood as ‘one of God, born among men’. ‘Son’ means man; ‘of God’ means from heaven. ‘Son of God’ means man from heaven. There has only ever been one who is both from heaven and yet incarnate, born on earth. The first man, Adam, was made of dust, but this second man was God from heaven, the lifegiving Spirit and Lord (1 Cor 15:45-47). The word in 1 Corinthians for ‘spirit’ is closer to the meaning ‘breath’. The ‘breath’ that made Adam alive is Christ: YHWH (translated “Kurios” or Lord in the Greek Old Testament Septuagint.)

Secondly, ‘Son of God’ means ‘the one appointed to rule’. Later, when we look at the Old Testament, we see that the reference to ‘Sons of God’ indicates those who rule the world with God. This title and privilege was once given to Adam and Eve, and it has now been restored to us through Christ. Christ is declared to be the Son of God, having dominion over all nations, by his resurrection, in order that he should rule (Rom 1:4-5). In Daniel 7, the ‘Son Man’, meaning one born from among men, is exalted to rule over creation from heaven. He is seen ascending on the clouds to heaven to rule. ‘Son of God’, in this sense, means the man who rules over creation, over the nations of the earth, from heaven. This is what Jesus meant when he said he would come (ascend on the clouds, come into his reign) in glory and be seated on his throne and judge the nations. He wasn’t referring to his Second Coming, but to his ascension.

When we look through the Old Testament, and at the faith of the Hebrew people in the days of Jesus, there is little expectation about going to heaven. That wasn’t foremost in their mind when they thought about the promises of God. They believed God’s covenant with Israel concerning land, his promise to renew and heal the world through the people of Israel, and the resurrection of our body to inherit this liberated creation forever. This is why Christ came: not to launch a new gospel unrelated to this world, but to fulfil the Hebrew gospel promised to the fathers. This Hebrew gospel, therefore, is God’s coming in Christ to bring his creation into new creation through his conquest of sin and death. It is simply an outworking of “your kingdom come, your will being done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ, on the behalf of God’s covenant, rules in heaven until his enemies on earth are subdued, and heaven and earth are perfectly united in shalom.

The above would have been Paul’s thinking and background. Paul’s twofold theology was creational and covenantal. God was seen by the Hebrew people as both creator and covenant maker. These were the two main themes in the Hebrew understanding of their relationship with God. God creates the world, but creation goes wrong through the freewill of humanity. So God sets out to rectify this problem of sin through his own self-giving and, for those who desire it, to restore man to his initial dominion. By so doing, he restores the world man was created to govern, thus delivering the world from its corruption. This is the summary of Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans.

God’s rectification of his creation is brought about by his covenant. He covenants with Abraham and with Israel to use them to set his creation right. Then, working through Israel, God fulfils this covenant himself by coming in Christ, the seed of Israel from heaven, coming as a man to perfectly fulfil the covenantal conditions. In defeating evil, sin and death, he brings about his new creation project.

It makes sense, then, that in the Hebrew faith God reveals himself as the creational and covenantal God. Both of these functions come together in Christ. In Christ, God keeps his covenant and brings about a new, restored creation. Since disobedience, death and the breaking of the covenant came through a man, the covenant must also be fulfilled through a man. However, only God could faithfully do this. Therefore, God came, in Christ, to be the fulfilment of his own promise.

The new creation began with Christ’s resurrection and then permeates the whole world like leaven in a lump of dough. To carry out this full transformation, Christ reigns at the Father’s right hand until the last enemy – death – is put under his feet. Then, God’s creational plan is complete, and God becomes “all in all” (1 Cor 15:24-28). This is Hebrew monotheism working out its plan in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s the story of one God acting in, through and for humanity, and for his whole creation. God manifests in trinity for the sake of our redemption. He comes in his Son to redeem us and to make intercession for us through the covenant, to gather and set free his creation, and he comes in his Spirit to fill and transform us. In the covenant, not in eternity past, Christ proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit from Christ, but these are the one and same God.

This is how Paul understood the mystery of God in Christ.

“…great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” (1 Tim 3:16) The mystery of Christ, and how he fits into the Hebrew gospel, was, as Paul saw it, a matter of “God in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). When we see Jesus letting go of his divine rights to do the will of his Father, we see God’s own service and love in Christ, for the creation he loves (Phil 2:5-11). Paul said the actions of Christ in Philippians 2 were the actions of YHWH. (Isaiah 45:23) And yet Jesus does it in a human relationship with his Father, and God condescends in Christ, to walk out this human relationship of obedience and love, because of love for his creation, because this is what fulfils the covenant. Yet, it is still one God acting by his mysterious power and plan.

Such an example of a loving God who humbled himself, and who suffered himself in Christ, teaches us to give our own lives for others. The Bible tells us to know and follow God in this way: “Follow God as dear children… submitting yourselves to each other in love.” (Ephesians 5) This humility of God sets the tone for our own relationships with others. Instead of our social relationships being shaped by a hierarchical view of God, we see a self-giving God, a God of love who gave himself for us. This means that authority is expressed through self-giving for others, even for our enemies. This makes a huge difference to our cultures and family relationships.

Just a note about the plural Elohim in creation, and on the “word was with God” in John 1:1-2. In Hebrew linguistics, the plural speaks of God’s fullness of majesty, power and honour. And one more note below from James Dunn, on the Wisdom background to Word in John 1:1-2:

“It is very unlikely that pre-Christian Judaism ever understood Wisdom as a divine being in any sense independent of Yahweh. The language may be the language of the wider speculation of the time, but within Jewish monotheism and Hebraic literary idiom, Wisdom never really becomes more than a personification – a personification not so much of divine attribute (I doubt whether the Hebrews thought much in terms of divine ‘attributes’ [which is more a Greek idea], a personification rather of a function of Yahweh [God revealed in Israel’s creational and covenantal history], a way of speaking about God himself, of expressing God’s active involvement with his world and his people, without compromising his transcendence.” J. D. G. Dunn, [] added.

This leaves us with many passages to consider from the perspective of Hebrew creational and covenant theology. Just one passage as an example: Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Here, Christ stands in as the new temple of God, through which God fills and heals his new creation. The glory Jesus spoke of is the Shekinah presence of God in Christ, which he gives to the church, and which the church shares with the world through the Spirit and through our same self-giving. God empties himself into Christ; Christ empties himself into his church; and his empties herself into the world. This was God’s incarnational plan for the world before its creation.