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The Jewish Origin of the Trinity

RCL - Trinitytide (Ordinary Time)  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  28:35
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This homily is the final one in a series on the Trinity and proclaims the good news that we as Gentiles serve the Jewish Messiah, whose kingdom will never end! It is focused on the four scripture readings of Psalm 110, Daniel 7:1-14, Luke 24:23-27, and Romans 15:7-13.

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Story Makers

To be human is to tell stories.
Our brains are designed to make sense of ourselves, others, and reality through them.
This is why things like COVID are not just an illness. No, there’s a conspiracy theory to explain it or it ties into a political agenda. 
We even stories at the daily, personal level to explain the behavior of our co-workers, spouses, roommates, people on the road, or those running for public office.
If you follow the news, you know that there are two dominant stories advocated by the two campaigns, which the various media outlets rally behind and promote.
Stories are powerful because when they shape what we think, they determine what we do.
This is why people care about “controlling the narrative.”
If you are a human being, you are not only a story maker but you also feature as a character in the stories of others.
Obviously, getting the story right matters deeply! 

Do I know what I see or do I see what I know?

So I’ve got a story for you...
Some of you know that my wife and I were missionaries with Mission Aviation Fellowship, or MAF, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Long before MAF was there, the American Baptists had founded a mission station with a bush hospital.
Some time before we arrived, Dan and Miriam Fountain had retired after spending 40 years serving as a doctor in the village of Vanga.
Dan was foundational in developing the medical department for the nation, and had expanded the hospital to over 400 beds. We were privileged to know the Fountains personally if only briefly before heading to Congo.
For anyone interested, the Vanga hospital and MAF both feature in a new Amazon Prime documentary called Beyond Isolation.
Not long after we arrived, I was talking with our flight follower, Kiayi, who was fluent in English, French, and numerous other languages.
I was asking him what he thought about the Fountains and why they had returned home.
His response stunned me! He said something in the direction of,
“Oh, Dr. Dan finally made enough money here in Congo to buy their retirement mansion on the river.”
There were so many things wrong with that statement that I was speechless.
Dan had given up a lucrative medical career in the US and proximity to family
to serve in a remote location that could only support the most basic medical technology, and
to raise a family in another culture and language.
How could the story be so wrong?
I painfully realized in that moment that the Congolese must have viewed me as the base manager of a “lucrative aviation service”!
What could lead Kiayi to draw those conclusions?
The short answer is that Kiayi was using his cultural paradigms of power, frameworks leadership, the historical plundering of his country by Belgian colonizers, and conceptions of America to interpret our ministry.
For Kiayi, leaders exercise power to benefit themselves and their tribe, no one would leave America, “the promised land,” to live in Congo if there weren’t some great benefit, and the world powers still cloak their continued pillaging of other countries under the umbrella of “aid.”
This is an illustration of what Paul Blair meant by his question,
Do know what I see, or do I see what I know?
From that perspective, his distorted interpretation of us made pretty good sense.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were profoundly misunderstood?
Can you relate to the deep ache that your story has been twisted?
What about the opposite? Have you ever gotten the story wrong?

Summary of Trinity Series

As you know, we end our homily series on the Trinity today.
We’ve considered numerous elements of God’s love story with us. 
Hule challenged us with A. W. Tozer (The Knowledge of the Holy):
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.“
If we get that part of the story wrong, our relationship with him will be suffer because we will be relating to a distorted perception of who he is.  What we think about the Trinity impacts our engagement with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Paul showed us that the nature of God involves an intimate dance of love and unity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who invite us into their dance.   The relational nature of God beckons us to share in his love and holiness.
Rick reminded us that the Trinity is not an abstract idea, but engrained in our identity. We ache for unity because it is in our DNA. If we live each day in recognition that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hold us in boundless love, the fabric of our very existence will transform.  We bear the nature of God in our very existence.
We are caught up in a love story, and every love story has a history.
So, we have our dancers, let’s talk about the dance floor.
How did we get here?
It should be obvious that whatever follows from here is the roughest sketch.

The Development of the Trinity

You probably know that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible.
But it may come as a surprise that the first person to talk about the threeness of God, even using the word trias, was Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE - 50 CE), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and contemporary of all the NT figures.
He discusses this when explaining Gen 18 and the three angels who visited Abraham at Mamre.
Obviously, the Jewish authors of the NT speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such as in
Matt 28:19
2 Cor 13:14
Gal 4:6
or Eph 2:18
among many others.
As Gerald Bray, a church historian and priest in the Church of England observes, the concept of the threeness of God is directly born from the experience of early believers, they simply described their dance with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The early church was obliged to confess the divinity of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, because that is the way in which believers experienced them in their lives, but at the same time they also knew that there was only one God.

Over the first several centuries, challenges to the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit arose and four ecumenical councils attempted to define the Trinity.
As you can imagine, each attempt to do this raised further questions and difficulty.
These councils my be summarized as follows:
Nicea (325) - emphasized the oneness of God
Constantinople (381) - emphasized the threeness of God
Ephesus (431) - emphasized the oneness of Jesus
Chalcedon (451) - emphasized the twoness of Jesus, (fully God, fully man
This historical development is the church articulating truth in response to ideas that challenged it.
I am, of course, skipping over lots of posturing, power grabs, and rivalries; after all sometimes the dance floor sees an occasional fight or two!
But enough about its later development, let’s get back to how the dance floor was built in the first place.
If the later councils are defining the details and if early writers are simply following the NT, aren’t the NT authors the ones introducing something new?
If anything represents something non-Jewish, surely it’s the Trinity! Right?
For the time that remains, I would like examine our story.

The Origin of the Trinity

Of course, God the Father and the Holy Spirit were both known in the OT.
Wisdom is personified in Proverbs.
And Philo refers to the logos as God’s “firstborn son” (Conf. 14.61-63) with no problem posed to monotheism.
But what to do with Jesus?

Luke 24

In Luke 24:27, where does Jesus turn to explain himself to the Emmaus believers?
He doesn’t transfigure, show him the holes in his wrists, walk through a tree, or point out that he himself was resurrected.
No, he turns to Moses and the Prophets because it was still critical that they comprehend the kind of Messiah that he is.
And It is still critical that we grasp that today.
The implicit question posed was,
“How can Jesus be the Messiah, Israel’s Savior, if he has now been crucified?” (Early Christian Reader, 461)
Contemporary visions of Messiah did not involve them dying, for how then would they deliver Israel? You can’t defeat enemies from the grave!
That is as ludicrous as us imagining a humble, self-emptying, and yielding world leader today.
Do you remember Jesus saying, “my kingdom is not from this world”?
Thus, Jesus is particularly concerned with helping them understand that that the Christ, or Messiah, had to suffer and die.
Both of our English words, Christ and Messiah mean the same thing. Christ is a transliteration of the Greek, Χριστός, which translates the Hebrew, משיח.
So when we say Christ, we are simply using the Greek word instead of the Hebrew, although the force of “Messiah” is typically lost when we use “Christ” and many think that this is just his name.
While contemporary Jews were looking for “the Messiah” or a couple of them, the word in the OT simply meant anointed one.
It was applied to prophets, priests, and kings, and referred to the ritual action carried out to indicate divine authorization.
It was during the Second Temple period that this term began to take on a sense related to an eschatological figure who would deliver Israel.
This expectation was rooted in the OT story, the promises made to Israel, and Jesus was using the OT to reconstruct their frameworks, assumptions, and paradigms so that they could understand the story more accurately.
For Jesus, everything that one needed to know to understand him was available in the OT.

Psalm 110

Psalm 110 is one common text that NT authors used to explain Jesus.
In Mark 12:36, Jesus uses it himself in an example of revelation derived through interpretation.
Here, Jesus from the specific wording of David, the author of the Psalm, that he cannot be talking about a merely human descendant who would rule.
As Jesus argues, David says by the Holy Spirit,”
“The Lord,” that is God the Father,
“says to my Lord,” that is, someone else besides David who is already in existence,
“sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”
In Acts 2:29-36, Peter also emphasizes that this Psalm cannot be about David because
"he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”
For Peter, this is a clear prophecy that David spoke of the resurrection of the future Messiah, the Davidic king whose kingdom would never end.
Jesus’s ascension into heaven was when Jesus sat down at God’s right hand.
The author of Hebrews also uses this Psalm in several places to explain how Jesus is superior to angels (Heb 1:13) and can be both king and priest at the same time (Heb 5:6, 10; 7:17, 21).
He is a priest-king after the order of Melchizedek, who is mentioned in Genesis.

Daniel 7

There’s another famous place where power to rule is granted to a human-like person who is not merely human, and that is Daniel 7’s “son of man.”
Most interpreters think that “son of God” refers to Jesus’s divinity and “son of Man” refers to his humanity.
Ironically, this is backwards.

Son of God

“Son of God” consistently refers to the enthronement of the human king in the OT, such as with Ps 2:7, where it says,
“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”
When the Gospels refer to Jesus as “God’s son,” and Jesus being “begotten,” such as at his immersion and the transfiguration, which Jim performed for us minutes ago, they are pointing to his right to rule as a Davidic descendent (Matt 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 3:22; 9:35.
Rick also mentioned the transfiguration when God said,
“listen to him.”
The Father is no doubt delighted in the Son, but he is also identifying Jesus as the prophet like Moses promised in Deut 18:15.

Son of Man

“Son of man,” Jesus’s favorite self-designation, on the other hand, points to his divinity.
This is clear from its significance in Daniel as well as contexts in the Gospels where the Son of Man
forgives sin (Mk 2:28)
judges humanity (Mk 8:38)
will rise from the dead (Mk 9:9, 31)
is a ransom for sinners (Mk 10:45)
will come in clouds with power and glory (Mk 13:26)
will be seated at God’s right hand (Mk 14:62)
In Daniel, there are two divine figures and two thrones
an older ancient of days
a younger son of man who comes on the clouds of heaven, which always indicates the appearance of God in the OT
As one scholar put it,
“if Dan 7:13 does not refer to a divine being, then it is the only exception out of about seventy passages in the OT.” (J. A. Emerton, “The Origin of the Son of Man Imagery,” JTS [1958]: 231-32.)
My Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand?
Father and Son?
What Daniel points to is understood in later Judaism as binitarianism, or the “two powers in heaven” according to later Rabbis, wherein God’s nature is one expressed in two persons.

Suffering Son of Man

But what about the suffering Son of Man?
Typically, Christians turn to Isaiah 52-53 to demonstrate the OT roots for a suffering servant.
Contrary to popular opinion, as one Jewish rabbi, Daniel Boyarin, points out,
“many Jewish authorities, maybe even most, until nearly the modern period have read Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah; until the last few centuries, the allegorical reading was a minority position” (Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 152).
But he makes another important observation:
In Mark 8 and Mark 9, which sandwich the transfiguration account, Jesus explicitly connects his suffering with his identity as the “Son of Man.”
Mark 8:31 says:
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jesus is again using the OT to reconstruct their frameworks, assumptions, and paradigms so that they could understand him more accurately.
It is very possible that the three days derives from Daniel’s “time, times, and half a time,” often interpreted as 3 1/2 years.
On Boyarin’s reading it would be after a day, two days, and part of a day, or 3 days.
Whether Boyarin is correct on the three days deriving from Daniel, it is clear from the foregoing discussion that the idea of Jesus being God is at home in both the Jewish Scriptures and in the Jewish thought of Jesus’s time, even though I was not able to discuss any of that literature that would demonstrate this.
If you are interested, I highly recommend Boyarin’s, Jewish Gospels.
Boyarin concludes,
“The great innovation of the Gospels in only this: to declare that the Son of Man is here already, that he walks among us” (Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 101).

Romans 15

As we conclude with Romans 15:7-13, it is important to note the following:
The Messiah has become a servant to the circumcised to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs of old, that is, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The promise to Abraham included the blessing of the nations or gentiles
Paul connects this blessing of the Gentiles to the Davidic Messiah as he cites Ps. 18:49; Deut 32:43; Ps 117:1; and Isaiah 11:10.
“The root of Jesse” in Isaiah refers to a king who will also “rule the Gentiles” and in whom “the Gentiles shall hope.”
The good news friends is that we as Gentiles serve the Jewish Messiah, whose kingdom will never end!
And as Jim reminded us through James, “this changes everything”!

Conclusion

As it regards our story about the Trinity, faith in Jesus, or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is nothing non-Jewish about this.
The first believers were Jewish
the NT is Jewish literature
and it uses the Jewish Scriptures to explain who Jesus is.
Yet, the remarkable thing about all of this is not that it is Jewish!
Rather, it is remarkable that we are accepted as Gentiles into the eternal kingdom of the Messiah of Israel.
What threw the first believers, who were all Jewish, was what to do with Gentiles, and today we’ve flipped the question upside down to the point that Jews think they must become non-Jewish to believe in Jesus.
We have re-erected the dividing wall that Jesus tore down.
This is a deep tragedy that we need to reverse.
Let us know our Jewish faith better.
Let us repent of our anti-semitic past, practices, and beliefs, such as that the church has replaced the Jewish people.
Let us proclaim the good news in such a way that it is good news to Jewish people, because if we aren’t, it’s not the good news of Jesus.
On a more general note,
let us scrutinize the stories we tell about one another and listen well to others.
let us lay aside any false allegiance that we may be giving to the kingdoms of this earth. We have one king, Jesus, and his kingdom is not from this world.
Let’s get back to dancing, shall we. May God’s kingdom come and the dividing wall fall for good. Amen
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