The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 3 – Luke 4

Chapters 3 and 4 of Luke contain three distinct references to the Trinity that chorus together to provide “big picture” details about the life and ministry of Jesus. One should note that whenever Jesus speaks of the Father and Spirit the Trinity is mentioned since the one speaking is One with those he mentions. But not even that subtlety is needed in the following passages.

In Luke 3:21-22 the Trinity is present at the baptism of Jesus. As this event and some of its implications were discussed in my post on Acts 10, the passage will not receive much individual interpretation. Be reminded, however, that this even happened as Jesus “began his ministry” (3:23).

Luke is not finished describing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: or, more specifically , the preface to Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus was baptized his ministry still not begin. The Holy Spirit that came upon Jesus at his baptism led him into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days (4:1). Just as the Father and Spirit were actively involved in the anointing of Jesus for ministry at his baptism, they each participated in the demonstration of his fitness for ministry in his temptation.

Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He was not led into temptation by the Holy Spirit, but led into the place where he would be tempted. Jesus did this with the fullness of the Holy Spirit: Jesus was in full communion with him.

Jesus endured the wilderness by relying on the word of his Father. The Devil’s temptations were centered on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (4:3, 9) and authority (4:6). With each temptation Jesus demonstrated his Sonship by relying on the authority of the Word of God. In each temptation, the highest concern of Jesus was to honor his Father: to honor his word (4:4); to honor his absolute deity (4:8) and to honor his holiness (4:12).

What was declared at his baptism was demonstrated at his persecution: Jesus was God’s Son anointed by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s will.

After such declaration and demonstration Jesus begins his ministry of teaching in the synagogues throughout the land of Galilee (4:14-15). While Luke does not present the lesson and aftermath in 4:16-30 as Jesus’ first message, it is the first lesson he presents. The hermeneutical idea of “the law of first reference” takes some abuse as the rule itself is easy to be abused. Yet the principle does have validity. Luke recounts this lesson of Jesus first for a reason: it continues the theme begun with Jesus’ baptism and continued with his temptation.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-19)

The Father and Spirit did not commune with the Son at his baptism and temptation only to leave him for the next three years. In this sermon on the text of Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus teaches that his entire ministry is fulfilled in communion with the Father and the Spirit. For the next three years Jesus will proclaim and demonstrate good news, liberty, and God’s favor. For the next three years he will do all of these things in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ references to the anointing of the Holy Spirit and to the ministry of Elijah form an unmistakable parallel (inclusio) to the account of his baptism by John. With such a construction Luke frames these events as paradigms for the entire life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus lives and serves in communion with and empowered by the Father and the Spirit.

Theologians speak of the perichoresis of the Trinity. This is the teaching that each member of the Trinity mutually dwells in or penetrates through the other members of the Trinity. Each member has complete unity with the others without being “mixed.” Whatever God is, the Father is. Whatever God is, the Son is. Whatever God is, the Spirit is. But the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father. The Son is not the Spirit, nor the Spirit the Son. The Spirit is not the Father, nor the Father the Sprit.

While these passages in Luke do not teach perichoresis, indeed no single passage does, they do form something of a support for it. Jesus never acted alone, in his own power, or on his own authority. Yet it was Jesus who acted, not the Father or the Spirit.

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The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 2

Just as in the sequel to his gospel, the book of Acts, Luke densely populates the beginning of his first work with references to the Trinity. Chapter 2 contains the fourth Trinitarian passage of the book (cf. 1:35; 1:41-45; 1:67-75).

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-32)

Just as in the first three mentions of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is seen as the powerful mover and communicator of the Trinity. Simeon is introduced as a man whom the Holy Spirit was “upon” (2:25). This is a significant description. While the Holy Spirit “filled” Elizabeth (1:41) and Zechariah (1:67), he was “upon” Simeon. This certainly seems to be something more than the momentary filling the parents of John the Baptizer received; yet it is not quite synonymous with the indwelling of the Spirit that New Covenant believers partake of. Commentator Darrell Bock is certainly correct in writing that Simeon was “a righteous man of rare spiritual quality and gift.” Such a statement is in some ways both the least and the most we can say about the work of the Holy Spirit in Simeon.

The work of the Holy Spirit “upon” Simeon meant at least two things: he had received a revelation that he would see the promised Messiah (2:26) and he was led to the right place at the right time to see that Messiah (2:27). But the work of the Spirit continued to manifest itself in ways similar to what we have seen already in Luke.

Just as in the first three references to the Trinity, the Holy Spirit moves a person to praise the Father for sending his Son to accomplish the work of man’s deliverance. God is sending his Son to be the light and glory to Israel and the nations (2:32), the work of the Spirit causes man to praise God for this great goodness.

Secondly, while the Holy Spirit fills and empowers people to recognize God’s work and praise him for it, their praise is always connected to previous revelation. The revelation they receive is added and based upon the revelation they already had. It might be said that in each case, the Spirit gives newer revelation but not new revelation. This is not revelation ex nihilo.

The Trinitarian comfort offered to Mary in 1:35 is in fulfillment of the promise of God to David (1:33 cf. 2 Sam. 7:8-16 noting the use of the key terms throne, house, and kingdom). The Trinitarian praise of Elizabeth is based upon the “fulfillment of what was spoken to [Mary] from the Lord” (1:45). The Trinitarian praise of Zechariah is based upon the Lord’s faithfulness to accomplish all that “he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old” (1:70). Such mercy promised to the fathers stretched all the way back to “the oath that he swore to…Abraham” (1:72-73). Similarly, Simeon’s praise for God’s salvation draws from the vocabulary of OT passages such as Psalm 98:2-3; Isaiah 9:2; 42:6-7; 60:1-3. Even as he breathes out new words from God, the Holy Spirit continues to move recipients of new revelation in the sea of the revelation already given.

Finally, we see from the very beginning of the life of Jesus his life was meant to impact “all peoples” (2:31). Just as he did in Acts (cf. 8:26-40; 10:44-48; 11:15-18), Luke demonstrates that the work of redemption accomplished by the Trinity is intended for all nations. Granted, Luke wrote this book as the gospel was going or had gone into the entire world; and he was writing to Gentile, Theophilus. But he was not a revisionist. Simeon drew upon numerous OT texts pointing to the salvation of people from all nations. Zechariah and Mary both mentioned the promise God made to Abraham: that promise that all nations would be blessed.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is God of all nations. To all nations his blessings flow.

The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 1 (Part 3)

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Luke 1:41-45

Luke follows the Trinitarian account of the annunciation with a Trinitarian celebration of the annunciation. Soon after the angel gave the good news to Mary, she ran quickly to share the news with her relative Elizabeth. Like any woman who receives such news she has to share!

In the annunciation to Mary (1:35), each person of the Trinity is declared to be involved in the conception of Jesus. Now, each person of the Trinity is mentioned in the confirmation of the good news Mary has received. The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth to worship the Father for what he is doing in the giving of his Son. Herein is one of the significant aspects of this passage.

There is a necessary gap between the “biblical theology”—what the Bible specifically states—of the Trinity and what would become the orthodox “systematic theology”—what the Bible necessarily intends—of the Trinity. Since every heretic has his text(s), the battle for orthodoxy was as much about what the Bible means as what it says. This passage in Luke points toward certain dogmatic truths the church fathers would elaborate upon and perpetuate.

First, there is a distinction in the actions of each person. The pattern seen in these few verses fits into the larger teaching concerning the customary actions or roles each member of the Trinity performs. The Father is plans and declares what will be so (1:45). The Son carries out the decrees of the Father and is the ladder between heaven and earth (1:43-44). The Holy Spirit opens the eyes of God’s people to His acts of gracious mercy in Christ and empowers them to respond appropriate worship and obedience (1:41-42).

Secondly, there is a unity in the persons. In verse 43, the Son is called “Lord.” In verse 45, the Father is called “Lord.” As Jesus himself would state, no man can serve two masters. Yet if the record of Luke is to be trusted, here we have an Old Testament saint calling the God of Israel and his as yet unborn Son, “Lord.” She does not do this in a moment of pre-partum euphoria. She is not speaking as a confused simpleton. Her declaration is a direct response to the work of the Holy Spirit. As such, it has all of the authority anything Moses, David, or Isaiah ever prophesied. The work of the Holy Spirit provokes people to acknowledge the Father and Son are both Lord while still proclaiming there is only One Lord.

The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 1 (Part 2)

Luke continues to present the work of the Trinity in preparation of the incarnation:

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:67-79

Everything that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, says is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit within him moving him to prophesy. In this proclamation of praise the Holy Spirit moves Zechariah to exult the work of the Father and the Son.

The Father is identified as the Lord God of Israel (1:68). Interestingly, the Zechariah declares that the Father spoke by the mouth of the prophets. This is certainly congruent with typical Old Testament thought. It is only later in the history of redemption that the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiration is made explicit. The Father, as he was in Luke’s first reference to the Trinity (1:32, 35), is again called “the Most High.” This is a title that Luke seems particularly fond of. It is found 9 times in the New Testament, with 7 of the uses by Luke (Mark 5:7; Luke 1:32,35,76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17; Hebrews 7:1).

The Son is identified picturesquely as the “horn of salvation” (1:69) and “the sunrise from on high” (1:78), and more traditionally as “Lord” (1:76). What does Zechariah know and believe of this Lord? What does he comprehend of his relationship to the Most High God? These are curiosities that we are left to wonder at. What we do see is that already among God’s people, there is an expectation for God to act on their behalf in the person whose body was still being prepared in the Virgin’s womb.

In the first chapters of Luke’s gospel Zechariah’s speech functions as a natural progression from the Trinity at Jesus’ conception to the Trinity at Jesus’ manifestation in chapter 2: which we will see in the next post in this series.

The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 1

Before going on in my study of the Trinity in Scripture I had hoped to organize and harmonize all of the posts on the Trinity in the book of Acts. In each post I have tried to just stick with the biblical witness in that passage alone. The next step will be to systematize all of those individual observations into what the entire book of Acts teaches on the Trinity. But twenty pages and 10,000 words later, that is not something that is going to happen overnight. So while I am working on that I thought I would go ahead and start in on the next book.

In the coming weeks, while you anxiously await the Acts compilation, I will be going through the book of Luke. Perhaps it would have made more sense to begin Luke and then progress to Acts, but I am not sure the order is more important than the information. In any event, I think we will see that the abundance of Trinitarian references in Acts was no accident. Luke was not only a doctor of the body, but of the soul. His heart was captured by the love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

From the pomp and splendor of the temple worship in Jerusalem, Luke takes us to the anonymity of Nazareth. There the normal life of an unknown maid is forever changed:

And the angel answered her, “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 1:35)

Untangling the mystery of the Trinity was among the least of Mary’s worries at this moment. Yet the angel Gabriel makes it clear that the conception of Jesus was a work of the Father and the Holy Spirit. As a response to Mary’s question about how she could possibly bear a child, Gabriel’s answer seemed to allay her fears.

What would Mary have thought of this response? “Holy Spirit” does appear in the Old Testament, but it is uncommon (Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10-11). The idea of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon someone was much more common, so that probably helped matters. From this Mary recognized she had been chosen by the Lord for a special task and that she would receive power to accomplish his will.

What would she have thought of “the Son of God”? Again we do not know. Psalm 2:7 certainly lays groundwork for the notion of God having a son, and it was a common notion in surrounding nations that kings were sons of the gods. Mary was perplexed, but submissive. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38).

At the introduction of the conception of Jesus, the Trinity is present. The simple fact is that Mary did not know the depths of what this verse contains. And frankly, neither do we. Mary heard the word of God, and submitted to it. She treasured up all these things in her heart. We should do likewise.