IS GOD ONE, OR THREE-IN-ONE?
What kind of God do we worship? A single Person or three Gods? Fundamental to Jewish, Christian, and
Muslim theology is belief in the oneness of God. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD
our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Why does the Bible insist on the oneness of God? Why do
Christians deny believing in three Gods? The nations surrounding Israel were polytheists, worshiping a pantheon of nature,
tribal, and demon gods. Each element of nature was controlled by a separate god making it necessary for people to appease
many little gods in order to survive in a hostile world. Plural gods of necessity are small gods with small dominions in conflict
with each other. The God of the Bible is the God of creation -- the whole universe (Isaiah 40:26). He has no rivals. In the
ancient polytheistic world the concept that there was only one all-powerful God adequate to meet all human needs was
Is God a single individual? If so, how did He live before He created intelligent beings? Was there an
eternity in the past when He was all alone in an empty universe? Aristotle described such a god, the Unmoved Mover, who is
eternal, single, and unable to be moved by anything else, who thinks only of himself, and who moves only by attracting others
to himself. Aristotle’s god was not capable of giving or receiving love. Would a single God be a God of love? Would
He relate to human beings like us?
What about the concept of three gods? If there were three separate gods, not in unity with each other,
what power struggles they would have! With the universe for their resources and staging ground, what devastating battles
they could fight! The universe would become a multiverse controlled by rival gods of limited power. No place would be safe.
How about a unity of three Persons? Love cannot be solitary. One is solitary; two is exclusive; three is the
number of unselfishness. With perfect love and unity there is no rivalry, only harmony. With unity there is also unlimited power.
(Disunity limits power.)
The Bible does not explain the nature or being of God: rather, it reveals Him acting in relation to His
creatures. By observing Him in Scripture we can determine whether He is a lone individual or a loving unity.
Was there anyone with God when He spoke the world into existence? Solomon’s description of
creation makes it sound as if there was:
When [the LORD] marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men (Proverbs 8:29-31).
Closer examination reveals that the passage is actually personifying Wisdom as someone who was with
God from the beginning. So this passage is not conclusive.
But the first chapter of Genesis, which introduces us to God, also suggests that He was not alone. It refers
to Him not as the singular El or Eloha, but the plural, Elohim. This is followed by the first person
plural pronouns: “And Elohim said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness”
(v. 26), implying consultation between two or more individuals. The plural pronoun is continued in 3:22: “The man
has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” (For God as us, see also Isaiah 6:8.) The
plural pronoun (“Let us make man in our image”) could not include the heavenly hosts, as
some scholars suggest, because angels could not make man, and man was not created in the image of anyone lesser than
We can learn more about God by looking at “man,” created in the image of God.
“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female: at
the time they were created, he blessed them and called them man” (Gen. 5:1-2). The two are
called man. It took two individuals in a love relationship to image what God is like. Can two be one? The text says:
“They shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). “Man,” then, is a collective noun -- a union of two
(and the prospective child). Is Elohim also collective? Is God a union of three in a relationship of love?
The possibility that there is a third Person of the Godhead (the Holy Spirit) can be implied from Gen. 1:2:
“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
The Angel of the LORD
God has a mysterious Companion who often appears in the Jewish Scriptures. Not only is he “the
angel (or messenger) of the LORD,” He also is called the LORD. He doubles as the LORD. He is the LORD and
yet distinct from the LORD. Are there then two Beings called LORD? Note the following examples:
When Hagar fled from her mistress, Sarah, “the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of
water” (Gen. 16:7). He is called both “the angel of the LORD” (Gen. 16:7, 9, 11) and the
LORD Himself: “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are the God who sees
me’” (v. 13). Hagar was amazed that she had seen God and remained alive (v. 13). The LORD who
spoke to her was the messenger of another LORD.
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22), but at the crucial moment the angel of the LORD called
from heaven reversing the command (v. 11). In his second speech he says, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you have done this ... I will surely bless you” (vv. 15-17). Once again the LORD’s messenger
is identified as the LORD.
When Jacob blessed his grandsons, he recognized the angel as God: “The God before whom my
fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has led me all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me
from all evil, bless the lads” (Gen. 48:15-16).
When Moses was tending his flocks in the wilderness, “the angel of the LORD appeared him in
a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2). This “angel” was no less than God Himself:
“When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush” (v. 4). God told him
to take his shoes from his feet because he was standing on holy ground (v. 5). Then “he said, ‘I am the God
of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was
afraid to look at God” (v. 6).
During the exodus from Egypt the angel of God traveled with Israel in the pillar of cloud, separating
Israel from the Egyptians (Ex. 14:19). In the morning the LORD looked down from the cloud and troubled the
Egyptians (v. 24). God’s angel, traveling with Israel in the cloud, was the LORD.
God tells more about this angel in Ex. 23: “Behold, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you
on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel
against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him. But if you hearken attentively to his voice and do
all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. My angel will go ahead of you
and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites,” etc. (vv. 20-23). This angel is distinct from God -- he is sent by
God. The distinction is further emphasized in God’s pronouncement after the golden calf incident: “I will send
an angel before you ... but I will not go with you” (Ex. 33:2-3).
In Joshua’s encounter with the LORD outside of Jericho, there are two Persons mentioned.
“As commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:14). The commander
of the army is presumably second in command to the LORD of the army. But in his instructions to Joshua regarding the
conquest of Jericho (Josh. 6:2ff), this commander of the army himself is called “the LORD.” So again there is
the LORD on earth speaking to Joshua in behalf of the LORD in heaven.
“The angel of the LORD” encouraged Gideon to conquer the Midianites with the
assurance, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). The LORD was closer to Gideon than
he realized, because it was the LORD who was speaking to him! “The LORD turned to him and said, ‘Go
in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?’” (v. 16). He
departed by setting fire to the sacrifice Gideon offered him and disappearing in the smoke. Supernatural fire consuming a
sacrifice is evidence of the presence of God (Leviticus 9:24; 2 Chronicles 7:1; 1 Kings 18:38). “The angel of the
LORD” was God.
When the angel of the LORD appeared to Manoah’s wife to instruct her about the birth of
Samson, she thought he was a “man of God,” but added, “He looked like an angel of God, very
awesome.” She didn’t ask, but was curious to know his name and whereabouts (Judges 13:6). When
Manoah inquired, He responded, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (v. 18).
Manoah’s sacrifice was consumed by fire and the angel ascended in the smoke (vv. 19-20). Manoah’s
reaction was, “We are doomed to die! We have seen God!” (v. 22). Once again the distinction between
the angel of the LORD and the LORD Himself is blurred. The angel’s question, “Why do you ask my
name?” sounds like the angel’s response to Jacob (Gen. 32:29), and the awesomeness of his name
(“it is wonderful”) suggests that he was indeed the LORD (compare Isaiah 9:6).
From these passages a number of facts emerge about “the angel of the LORD”:
• The term is often synonymous with the LORD Himself (all of the above).
• He is also identified as God (Gen. 48:15-16; Ex. 3:2, 4).
• Through the pillar of cloud He guided Israel to the promised land (Ex. 14:19, 24; 23:20).
• He is the commander of the LORD’s armies (Josh. 5:14).
• God’s Name is in Him (Ex. 23:21).
• His name is wonderful (Jud. 13:18).
• Though He is God, He is sent by God and is distinct from God (Ex. 33:2-3).
Why is God called “the angel (messenger) of God”? Does God have an Associate, who is
also God, whose function it is to communicate with His creatures? Is this “angel of the LORD” none other
than the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ?
The Double Use of LORD
The story of God’s visit to Abraham in the form of a man (Gen. 18) raises questions about the
nature of God. Who was running the universe while God was on the road with Abraham? Did He have the universe on
auto-pilot? Could He be on His throne and on the road to Sodom at the same time? Since He operates such a vast universe
yet is so intimate with individual creations, can He be in many locations and forms simultaneously? Or does God consist of
more than one Person? The latter is clearly indicated in the sequel to the story about Abraham: “the LORD”
-- the one who had appeared to Abraham as a man -- “rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah from
the LORD out of the heavens” (Gen. 19:24). There are two distinct LORDs here -- the one on earth who talked
with Abraham and called down fire, and the one in the heavens who sent the fire down to earth.
At Mount Sinai the LORD spoke to Moses about another Person called LORD. The LORD said to
Moses, “Do not let ... the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest he break out against
them” (Ex. 19:24; see also v. 21). Normally the LORD would say, “Do not let the people come close
to Me lest I break out against them” as we see in the next few verses where God uses the first personal
pronoun when speaking of Himself: “God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your
God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’” (20:1-2). But in the previous passage the LORD warns
Moses against letting the people come too close to God -- one divine Person speaking about Another.
The passages we have reviewed clearly identify more than one Person known as “the
LORD.” It is significant that God revealed Himself to Moses by proclaiming His name three times.
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD.
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God
....” (Ex. 34:5-6)
Is this three persons, united under one name?
The great verse for the oneness of God is Deut. 4:6, the shema. The Hebrew literally reads,
“The LORD our God the LORD one.” God’s name is again mentioned three times, (or if
“the LORD our God” is a unified term, two times). In view of the texts above showing more than one who
are called LORD, could it be that the shema itself tells us that there are two divine Persons, “The LORD our
God” and “the LORD”? Is the shema telling us that these two are one? The Hebrew word
one (echad) is related to the verb yachad which means to unite. God is a unity of three Beings in one.
Three because God is love and love cannot exist alone. One because love unites Them in character, mind, and purpose.
1 LORD in capitals indicates the divine Name, YHWH.
2 The shema also implies that as God in His three persons is one, so
man in his three parts (heart, soul, and strength) is to be one through love to God. The sequence of thought -- “The
LORD is one .... And you ...” -- suggests that there is a relationship between God’s nature and
man’s. Since God is one, the human is to be one by being “all” for God. “And you shall
love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”
(Deut. 6:5). When a human being is totally devoted to God emotionally, spiritually, and physically, he shares God’s
nature of oneness and wholeness.