“Trinity Sunday: Understanding the Father & Understanding Ourselves”
John 16:5-15; 17:1-5, 20-26
June 12, 2022
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
Today we come to the first Sunday after Pentecost, a Sunday that has come to be called “Trinity Sunday.” That designation is of relatively recent origin compared to the other days of the church year we tend to recognize, and it’s not a day we have done much with here in the past. But it seemed to me that there is wisdom in having a Sunday each year where we are especially focused on the doctrine of the Trinity, and its implications for our lives.
And so, our topic today will be the Trinity. Next Lord’s Day, we will return to the Book of Colossians.
More specifically, our topic this morning is on the fatherhood of God the Father.
With that in mind, we will hear now from the Gospel of John, from chapters sixteen and seventeen.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
First, from John 16 beginning in verse 7 (a couple verses in from what’s printed in the bulletin). Jesus said:
I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Moving down now to chapter 17 verse 1:
1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
And then, jumping down to verse 20:
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, you are our hiding place and our shield,
we hope in your word.
Help us to turn from all false ways,
and keep instead the commandments of you, our God.
Uphold us according to your promise, that we may live,
and let us not be put to shame in our hope.
Hold us up, that we may be safe
and have regard for your statutes continually.
For we know we will one day stand before you and give an account,
and so, with that in mind, help us now to attend to your word.
Grant this in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:114-117, 120]
This morning we are going to consider the fatherhood of God the Father, within the Trinity, and then, from there, we will consider what those truths mean for how we understand ourselves.
That might seem like an odd combination or connection … but really, it’s not. As Christians we believe that human beings are made in the image of God. Therefore, what we learn about God has serious relevance for how we understand ourselves.
So, first, we will consider the fatherhood of God the Father, as a Biblical truth, against theological individualism. And then we will consider the implications of that biblical truth for humanity, made in God’s image, as a point against anthropological individualism.
The Fatherhood of the Father: Against Theological Individualism
So we begin by considering the fatherhood of God the Father.
And to do that, I want to especially focus on two verses that we have just heard. First from John 17:5. There we read Jesus saying, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” And then, a little later, in verse twenty-four Jesus says to the Father that he – the Father – gave him – the Son – this glory, because, he says to the Father: “you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
God the Father loved and glorified God the Son from before the foundation of the world. God the Father loved and glorified God the Son from all eternity. There was never a time when God the Father did not love and glorify God the Son. That is the implication of these verses.
Now, often, when we consider those ideas, we mostly focus on applying them to how we understand God the Son – we apply them to how we understand Jesus. Jesus, in his deity, as God the Son, has existed, and has been glorified and loved by God the Father from all eternity. That is, of course, true – it is foundational to what we believe as Christians about Jesus – and it is an important thing for us to talk about.
And so we often focus on the implications of these truths for God the Son.
But this morning I want to consider the implications of these truths for how we understand God the Father. And to do that, I will be drawing quite a bit from Michael Reeve’s little book titled Delighting in the Trinity.
Our problems start, Reeves points out, with the fact that many of us have absorbed modern Western assumptions about God from the secular culture around us, often without really even noticing. We speak simply of “God” as if what we mean by that term is self-explanatory, and as if the term easily moves between Christian and non-Christian frameworks. But when we use the term “God” that generally, what sort of being are we usually thinking of?
For one thing, Reeves points out, we’re not usually thinking of or assuming a triune being.
The Bible teaches that there is one God, but that this one God is three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God – the same in substance, equal in power and glory. But there is one God, not three. This is, in a very simple form, the doctrine of the Trinity.
But when we, in our setting, speak with Christians or non-Christians, and we use the term “God,” we are often using it in a way consistent with our culture’s assumptions. And the default assumption is of a one-person, not a three-person God – and individualistic rather than a tri-person God. That tends to be the default starting point.
“That, ironically,” Reeves writes, “is often why we struggle with the Trinity.” He goes on: “Instead of starting from scratch and seeing that the triune God is a radically different sort of being from any other candidate for ‘God,’ we try to stuff the Father, Son, and Spirit into how we have always thought of God. Now, usually in the West, ‘God’ is already a subtly defined idea: it refers to one person, not three. So when we come to the Trinity, we feel like we’re trying to squeeze two extra persons into our understanding of God – that is, to say the least, rather hard.” [Reeves, 16-17]
And so our tendency is to treat God the Father as the unitary God – the individualistic God that our culture tends to assume. And then we need to figure out how to also get the Son and the Spirit in there.
This approach can, of course, lead to big problems for how we understand the Son and the Spirit …but it also can lead to big problems for how we understand God the Father. And that’s what I want to focus on today.
Because John 17:24 tells us that Fatherhood is essential to understanding who God the Father is. It’s not an add-on. It’s not just a helpful and warm analogy for us. But it is eternal and foundational.
In John 17:24 Jesus says that before the foundation of the world – from all eternity – God the Father loved and related to God the Son. That’s what he was doing. That’s who he was. That’s who he is.
Reeves writes: “The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father.” 
He was a Father before he was a Creator, because he loved God the Son as a Father before anything was made. He was a Father before he was a Ruler, because he loved God the Son as a Father before there was anything to rule over. And that has implications.
Michael Reeves, again, puts it like this – he writes: “Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being a Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. That is who he is. He creates as a Father, and he rules as a Father.” [Reeves, 23]
Fatherhood, in other words, is core to who the first person of the Trinity is. And, therefore, love is core to who the first person of the Trinity is. Jesus’s point in verse twenty-four is that God the Father has been loving God the Son from all eternity. As Reeves puts it, that means that “love is not something the Father has, merely one of his many moods. Rather he is love. He could not not love. If he did not love, he would not be Father.” 
You see, the eternal existence of God the Son tells us not just about who God the Son is. It tells us about who God the Father is. Because it means that God the Father has been eternally relational, and eternally loving. [Reeves, 26-27] “He did not become God the Father at some point,” but he was eternally the Father – “his very identity is to be the one who begets the Son. That is who he is.” [Reeves, 34]
God the Father is not the individualistic person of the Trinity. He’s not the distant, separate, isolated person of God, who later had the Son and the Spirit tacked on. Rather, from all eternity, God the Father has been lovingly relating to God the Son and God the Spirit. And so God the Father cannot be defined individualistically, apart from those loving relationships.
And yet, we often try to do that. We often attempt to understand the first person of the Trinity in a different way – in a way that makes his Fatherhood and its implications something of an add-on.
Sometimes this takes a philosophical form. The heretic Arius preferred to call God the “Unoriginated” rather than the “Father.” For Arius, who denied the eternal deity of Jesus, Fatherhood could not be core to defining who God is. So the fact that he was “uncaused” or “unoriginated” was, for Arius, a better – and really a more pious – way to describe God. Against this Athanasius argued that the biblical language signifying God as Father was actually more accurate and more pious than the philosophical language that Arius tried to use in its place. [Reeves, 21-22]
Other times this tendency to separate God the Father from his fatherhood takes a more emotional and experiential route.
Perhaps your earthly father was not a good one. All earthly fathers fall short, but some fall much more short than others. Some fall disastrously short. Perhaps your father was neglectful or abusive. Perhaps he was harsh, or apathetic. Perhaps he harmed you, or he didn’t seem to care about you. The thought may come into your head “So is that what I’m supposed to think God the Father is like?”
And the answer, of course, is no. God the Father is not an inflated version of your earthly father. Rather, God the Father is everything your earthly father was supposed to be. Every time your earthly father fell short, every time he sinned against you or someone else, every time your heart looked at your relationship to your earthly father and cried out “This is not the way it should be” – in those moments, when you saw things correctly, the thing that your heart was comparing your earthly father to – the unconscious picture you had of what a Father really should be, was a picture, written into your heart, of God the Father. He is the standard by which you know that an abusive or negligent father is not the way things should be.
That is true for particularly flawed fathers … but it’s also true, to different extents, of any earthly father. Because they all fall short in this life.
Which is why, for the fathers in this room, your ultimate calling is not to point your children to you. Yes, you should strive to live as a Christian example before your children – as an image that points to God the Father in your kids’ lives. But don’t for a minute pretend with yourself or with them that you are doing it perfectly. Part of your calling is to strive to be to them like God the Father is. The other part of your calling is to openly admit and confess to them the ways you fall short, and then to point them to their heavenly Father more than you point them to yourself.
Because God the Father is the Father we most need.
Still other times, the ways we separate God the Father from his eternal fatherhood in our minds is more mundane and unthinking.
For many Christians, we tend to fall into our secular culture’s default of thinking of God as more distant – and we seem to especially apply that to the first person of the Trinity. And so in our minds, God’s work of creation or his sovereignty tend to be more foundational than his fatherhood in how we relate to him. And that can have serious implications for how we relate both to him and to the gospel.
Because if God the Father is primarily and foundationally a Ruler, rather than a Father, then, Michael Reeves writes: “My relationship with him can be little better than my relationship with any traffic cop […]. Let me put it like this:” he writes,” if, […] some fine cop were to catch me speeding and so breaking the rules, I would be punished; if […] he failed to spot me or I managed to shake him off after an exciting car chase, I would be relieved. But in neither case would I love him. And even if, like God, he chose to let me off the hook for my law-breaking, I still would not love him. I might feel grateful, and that gratitude might be deep, but that is not at all the same thing as love. And so it is with the divine policeman: if salvation simply means him letting me off and counting me as a law-abiding citizen, then gratitude (not love) is all I have. In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God.” [Reeves, 20]
But a Father is different. A Father we can love.
The question is: Is that how you view him?
When you pray, or when you read the Bible, or when you simply think about or imagine God, do you tend to think of the first person of the Trinity as cold and aloof? As foundationally a Judge or a Ruler? As, generally, the more closed-off and individualistic member of the Trinity?
And if so, how does the Biblical fact of the eternal Fatherhood of God the Father challenge that perception?
The Bible tells us that God the Father is not aloof. He is not isolated and apart. He is not cold. Relationships are not an expendable add-on for him. In fact, there never was a time where he was alone. He always has been in relationship. He always has been loving another – from before the foundation of the world, as Jesus tells us in verse twenty-four. The Trinity of God and the eternal Fatherhood of God the Father tell us that love and relationship is essential to who God the Father is.
Our text this morning, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Bible as a whole, and God the Father himself call you to challenge your unthinking assumptions about God the Father. They challenge you to see him in his eternal Fatherhood – warmly loving the Son from all eternity.
And that makes the God of the Bible so different from every individualistic view of God that is out there. For an individualistic god, who is one person, that god did not begin relating to others until he or she created them. Relationships really are an add-on feature to that god’s nature. Love is not an eternal attribute of that god. Because you cannot love when there is no other person to love. Love was added on to such an individualistic god when they decided to make something to love.
But the God of the Bible is different. Reeves writes that the God of the Bible “simply will not fit into the mold of any other [god]. For the Trinity is not some inessential add-on to God, some optional software that can be plugged into him. At bottom this God is different, for at bottom, he is not Creator, Ruler, or even ‘God’ in some abstract sense: he is the Father, loving and giving life to his Son in the fellowship of the [Holy] Spirit. A God who is in himself love, who before all things could ‘never be anything but love.’ Having such a God happily changes everything.” [Reeves, 38]
So that is the first thing for us to see here: the fatherhood of God the Father, and how it overturns theological individualism.
Humanity in the Image of the Triune God: Against Anthropological Individualism
The second thing for us to see is that if that is so, then it also has serious implications for how we understand ourselves. Because it challenges the individualism that is so entrenched in our culture and in our own hearts and minds.
Because here’s the thing … that picture of God as an isolated single person … that picture of an individualistic God … that’s how most of us view ourselves.
Now, let me explain what I mean. I don’t mean that we’re all anti-social. Some of you are raging extroverts. But, even so, I would argue that you still think of yourselves in heavily individualistic terms. Which is a problem if we are made in the image of a Triune God – a God who is not fundamentally individualistic.
And our individualism can take different forms. [Much of what follows is drawn from Robert Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart]
For some of you, life is about what you do as an individual – about personal achievements. For you, life is tough, and the world is cold, but what defines a person – what a person’s highest calling is – is to go out there and to make their own way: to prove themselves and provide for themselves.
This is what sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues referred to as “utilitarian individualism.”
A good way to tell if you are a utilitarian individualist is to see how quickly you get offended if someone begins to point out the things in your life that you didn’t earn but were given – whether advantages from your family, or privileges within society, or accidents of history.
Because while we are called to work hard and do our best in life, the Bible is clear that almost everything we have – from our starting point socially and financially, to the opportunities that are open to us, to the raw talent we begin with it, to our very existence – all of it was given to us without us earning it. On one level this is obvious. It’s what Paul says in First Corinthians 4:7 “What do you have that you did not receive?”
But since a utilitarian individualist wants to see not just everything they do, but everything they have primarily in individualistic terms, and primarily as individual achievements, this truth of the unearned gifts they have received is an affront.
But that’s not the only form of American individualism.
For others of you, life is not primarily about achievement, but about how you express yourself and live out your life authentically in this world.
For you, the world is a deceitful and even oppressive place, always trying to tell you who you are and who you should be. But for you, your highest calling is not to give in to the world, but to look inside: to find in your heart what you most desire … to find in your heart who you really are … detached from what other people might tell you … and then go and live that out in an authentic way.
And that pattern, of looking inward to find the true you, is really, in your mind, the only way to live rightly in any area of life: whether how you live spiritually, what kind of work you do, how you define yourself sexually, what you believe about social issues, cultural issues, and more.
This is what Bellah and his colleagues refer to as “expressive individualism.” Expressive individualism is the idea that the real me exists deep inside, uncorrupted by society, and my highest calling in life is to dig deep, discover what’s there, and then live it out in every area of life, no matter what other people think or say.
A good way to tell if you are an expressive individualist is to see how quickly you get offended if someone begins to point out the aspects of your identity that you didn’t choose but that were given to you from the outside – whether from family, culture, history, or just basic physical reality.
Now, of course it’s true that, as Augustine put it, the human heart is an immense abyss, and we each reflect God’s image in unique and beautiful ways. But the Bible also reminds us first that our hearts are often deceitful and broken. We often want things that are bad for us – bad things that no one had to teach us to want. And the Bible also reminds us second that other people have often shaped us towards better goals in life than we ourselves had come up with – and that has been a good thing. We rely on other people to learn not just who we are, but who we should be.
And even fervent expressive individualists have to admit this, because they, like us, needed other people to teach them that they should be expressive individualists. Because even that is not something any of us found in our hearts, but it is a culturally developed Western worldview that we all had to be taught.
But since an expressive individualist wants to see every aspect of who we are as an individualistic expression, these truths can be an affront.
Now most people, Robert Bellah and his colleagues would argue, are not pure utilitarian individualists or a pure expressive individualist, but a combination of the two, gravitating to one or the other in different areas of life.
Which is why, I would argue, most conflicts in our culture today are not between individualists and anti-individualists. They’re not even between pure utilitarian individualists and pure expressive individualists. Rather, many of the most heated conflicts in our culture are simply about which areas of life should operate according to the rules of expressive individualism, and which areas of life should operate according to the rules of utilitarian individualism.
Most people in our culture expect to live as expressive individualists in the privacy of their homes, and to live as utilitarian individualists in at least some aspects of their economic lives. But should schools be a place to train us for utilitarian individualistic achievements, or a place to help us develop authentic individualistic expressions? How much should the workplace be a place of individualistic expression vs individualistic utility? Which parts of life should be realms of individualistic competition, and which should be realms of affirmation for our individual expressions? Those are actually the kinds of conflicts that so dominate us today.
C.S. Lewis, in one essay, wrote this – he said: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. […] Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.” Lewis continues that the same is true for us – that the great blindnesses of our day are not found in the differences between warring cultural tribes, but they are found in the assumptions of our age that are shared by both sides of the cultural battle. [Lewis, Preface to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, 12-13]
For us, one of those assumptions that spans the differences across our culture wars is our deep anthropological individualism – what Bellah called “ontological individualism”: the view that the individual is the primary reality, and that society and relationships are always second-order things, derived, or artificial constructs. [Bellah, 334]
In other words, it is the assumption that fundamentally people are isolated individuals, and every relationship is simply an add-on to that individualistic foundation. It is the assumption that we are really made in the image of a one-person God … an isolated, individualistic God.
But the Bible says we are not. The Bible says that we are made in the image of a Triune God. And that has huge implications.
Think about it even just in terms of what we have said about God the Father. God the Father is eternally Father. He is foundationally relational. Relationships are not an add on, but at root he is relational. And human beings are made in his image.
This truth is written into the creation account of humanity. In Genesis two God begins making humanity by simply making Adam: one man. And God looks at this truly induvial man, and what does he say? He says: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” And he makes Eve. And from that moment on, every human being has been fundamentally relational.
We can only be born through a relationship with another. We can only survive as babies through relationships with others. We can only learn how to function in this world as we grow up through relationships with others. We are, from conception to death, understood, supported, and defined, by our relationships with other people. We are not fundamentally individuals, with relationships added on to us. We are fundamentally relational.
And yet … in our culture we so often try to deny this. Our default way of thinking of ourselves in the Western word is to think of ourselves primarily as individuals, with relationships just added on. And this can create challenges for us even as we try to relate to others in Christian ways.
We often try to live loving lives … but when we try to do that within an individualistic framework, we quickly run into problems.
Because if we adopt a fundamentally individualistic way of looking at our lives – whether expressive or utilitarian – if we primarily think of ourselves and our lives in individualistic terms, then we will soon view every other human being in our lives as either an obstacle, an instrument, or an audience member.
Some people we will simply see as obstacles. If our highest calling is personal achievements, then they are the ones who get in the way by making other demands of us. If our highest calling is expressing ourselves, then they are the ones challenging us or obscuring our understanding of ourselves. Either way, they are obstacles. And so they elicit our anger.
On the other end of the spectrum, other people are instruments. They are helpful tools to us, either in achieving our personal goals or in finding the best way to express and lay hold of our inner desires. We may not necessarily love them, but we value them as helpful means to our own personal ends in life.
And then, in the middle, other people are our audience. Because in an individualistic mindset, we need an audience. Someone has to acknowledge and affirm our achievements after all, for them to feel like real achievements. Someone has to behold and affirm our wants and desires and self-expression for them to feel legitimated. We need an audience.
So we are angered by those who become obstacles, we use those who are instruments, and we need those who would be our audience.
But in this framework, we don’t really love anyone. In this framework, every relationship becomes fundamentally hollow. It becomes all about us. And we are fundamentally separated from others.
But a vision of humanity made in the image of the Triune God is different. In such a vision, our achievements still matter, and the desires of our hearts still matter – those things don’t go away. But they are put in proper perspective. Because our relationships are more foundational than our achievements. Our relationships are more foundational even than our personal desires.
Which is why the Bible tells us that our highest calling is not individual achievements or individual expressions, but love: loving God and loving the people around us.
How you love the people around you will, in the end, be far more important than whether they helped, or hindered, or applauded your efforts of achievement or self-realization.
Which means that many of us need to seriously rethink how we view and how we treat the people the Lord has placed in our lives.
And then, beyond that, the Bible also says that your actual relationship to God himself is far more important than whether you feel like he has helped you achieve your goals or fulfill your desires in this life. Just as an actual loving relationship to an earthly father is of far more value than the stuff he can give us, even more so, an actual loving relationship to our Heavenly Father is far more valuable than whether or not he helps us in our quests of achievement or self-fulfillment in this life.
And God the Father … is very good at being a Father. Perfect, in fact. And he’s been doing it for all eternity.
We might not be very good at being his children. But his excellence at being a loving Father will far outweigh our deficiencies if we come to him humbly, trusting in Christ, and simply seeking his forgiveness and his love.
Our God is not an isolated individual, but an eternal Trinity. God our Father is not an isolated individual, but an eternal Father, always loving and relating, from all eternity. And we are made in his image.
So let us love one another, knowing that that is our high calling. Let us enjoy one another in deep relationships, knowing that that is what we are made for. And above all, let us seek a loving relationship with God the Father, by the power of the Spirit, through Christ his Son. For he truly is our loving Father. And it is our highest joy to know him, to love him, and most of all, to be loved by him.
This sermon draws on material from:
Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkley, CA: University of California, 2008 Edition. (First Edition: 1985)
Lewis, C.S. “Preface from the First Edition” in On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius. Translated by John Behr. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.
Reeves, Michael. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.
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