God's Messenger & the Trinity

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We continue our journey through the Gospel of Mark, mining for gold on Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity along the way. Here is our text:

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. (Mark1:2)

As what was written in the prophets?1 Mark is explaining that the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, Messiah, the Son of God came about … just as2 it is written in the prophets. The prophets foretold the Messiah would come. The prophets also foretold Messiah would be the Son of God. Now, Mark quotes a few passages rapid-fire to get this point across. This is a composite verse; it’s made up of two different quotations.

The Coming of the Messenger (Exodus 23:20)

Mark wrote, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face.” This is an exact quotation from Exodus 23:20 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which formed the Bible of the early church.3 What does Exodus 23:20 tell us? More importantly, what did it tell Mark’s audience, and what does this have to do with the doctrine of the Trinity? We’ll see what the text says.

Note of this angel (or “the messenger of mine” in the LXX, Exodus 23:20-23):

  1. He will lead the Israelites and protect them on their journey
  2. they must listen to Him and obey His voice
  3. they must not rebel against Him
  4. God Almighty says “my name is in Him,” that is, in the angel or messenger
  5. future blessings are contingent on obeying this messenger
  6. the angel will lead them to the Promised Land, and God will destroy all enemies

This angel is clearly distinct from God Almighty. Yet, further on in the Pentateuch, the One who leads the Israelites on their way seems to be God Himself (cf. Ex 40:34-38; Num 9:15ff). God’s presence which “filled the tabernacle” and dwelt in the Holy of Holies was the same divine presence which actually led them on their way through the wilderness in the form of a cloud.

Mark is identifying the angel as Jesus. He is God’s glory. He is God.4 “The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence,” (Heb 1:3). Mark wrote that the Gospel of Jesus, who is the Messiah and the Son of God, came about “just as it is written in the prophets.” Yet, as we have seen, God could speak of this “messenger of mine” as being distinct from Him on one hand, while on the other hand Moses could describe the angel as “the glory of the Lord” manifested in the form of a cloud!

The implications of this quotation in Mark’s Gospel for the doctrine of the Trinity are:

  1. Oneness. The Father and Jesus are one. They can refer to one another as separate Divine Persons (e.g. “messenger of mine”), yet the Spirit moved men like Moses to refer to the two as one single Being. Jesus is the angel who will lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, yet the very glory and presence of the Lord is the One who led them.
  2. Distinction between Persons. God sent the angel, who brought the Israelites to the place which God prepared. God’s name is in that messenger. The Israelites are to obey Him and do all God commanded them. Jesus will bring them to the land, yet God will destroy all enemies.

This is a wonderful example of how the New Testament, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, takes genuine distinctions between the Divine Persons which were already there in the Old Testament, and illuminates them for God’s people and makes them clear.

Preparing the Way (Malachi 3:1)

Mark grafted the second quotation right into the flow of Exodus 23:20, thus we have the text, “which shall prepare thy way before thee.” However, Mark changed the reference.5 The Hebrew Scriptures read “who will clear the way before me.” Yet, Mark wrote “who will prepare your way” (ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου); that is, the Messiah’s way. Mark quotes the passage as if God had been speaking directly to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit moved him to write it that way.   

What was Malachi even talking about? What does this have to do with Jesus or the Trinity? Here is what the context tells us:

  1. The Israelites in the land after the exile are almost completely apostate (Mal 2:17; cf. Mal 1-2). They “have wearied the Lord” with their hypocritical talk about “where is the God of justice?” Yahweh will show them the God of justice, all right …
  2. He is about to send His messenger
  3. This messenger will clear the way for God (“me”); he will lay the groundwork for Yahweh’s coming. At which time, presumably, these Israelites will learn about justice!
  4. And then6 the Lord whom the Israelites are seeking will suddenly come to His temple.
  5. Who is this Lord? He is the messenger of the covenant, and He “’is certainly coming,’ says the LORD who rules over all” (Mal 3:1).
  6. Nobody will be able to endure “the day” this Lord comes. He is like a refiner and purifier of silver. He will cleanse the Levites so they will offer God Almighty “a proper offering” (Mal 3:3).

Mark identifies the first messenger as John the Baptist. This is where Mark began His Gospel, because it fulfilled the Scriptures “just as it is written in the prophets.” John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. Yet, from the text in Malachi, God said the messenger would prepare the way for Himself. Jesus is referred to as God here; a clear example of Yahweh’s Oneness (cf. John 10:30).

Yet, there is more. After the messenger prepares the way for God, who came fully in the Person of Jesus,7 “the Lord you are seeking” will suddenly come to His temple. This Lord is not God. He is the messenger of the covenant. Which covenant? The New Covenant, of course. Jesus is obviously the messenger who heralded and inaugurated the New Covenant. Malachi went on to quote Yahweh as saying that this Lord “is certainly coming.” Once again, the messenger of the covenant is not Yahweh Himself.

This Lord, this messenger of the covenant, will refine the Levites and cleanse them, so they will then “offer the LORD a proper offering.” He is distinct from Yahweh. He works on behalf of Yahweh.

Anybody who has read the prophets knows God often switches pronouns in the middle of sentences in bizarre ways. God can speak of Himself in the first-person one moment, and then switch to the third-person immediately afterward.8 This would be bizarre if we didn’t have progressive, new revelation in the New Covenant Scriptures to illuminate this for us.

These are the implications of this quotation in Mark’s Gospel for the doctrine of the Trinity:

  1. Oneness. God said He would come once the messenger prepared the way, yet Jesus actually came. God spoke of His beloved Son as though the Son were Himself.
  2. Distinction between Persons. The “messenger of the covenant” is clearly not Yahweh Himself.

Those who oppose the doctrine of the Trinity often resort to some version of a “restoration theory.” It usually runs something like this:

  1. Jesus and the apostles were unitarian monotheists
  2. The early church was unitarian monotheistic
  3. Christianity changed the apostolic teaching because it was corrupted by Grecian philosophy (or something else sinister and nefarious)
  4. We alone have the truth—follow us

One conservative Unitarian wrote, “I believe that history shows an enormous difference between what has through the centuries come to be known as the Christian faith and what we find reported as first-century Christianity.”9 Likewise, a Oneness Pentecostal theologian quipped,

In what amounts to a great irony of history, if the apostles were somehow magically dropped into a christological discussion by church leaders of the fourth or fifth centuries—ostensibly those whose very lineage was based upon the teaching of the apostles—it seems altogether certain that the apostles themselves would not have the least clue as to what was being argued.10

Once you begin to closely examine the actual text of Scripture, these arguments look less and less convincing. We have seen two such examples in this little article. Don’t believe the doctrine of the Trinity simply because of your confession or local church’s statement of faith. Believe it because it is the true and accurate systematic formulation from all the evidence in the Scriptures.

Notes

1 The UBS-5 and SBL Greek texts drop the reading “the prophets” (τοῖς προφήταις) in favor of “in Isaiah the prophet” (τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ). Just based on context, not external evidence, the Textus Receptus and Byzantine text are clearly correct here. Mark quoted from Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3.

A.B. Bruce, in a transparently desperate attempt to cling to the critical text reading, conjectured thus, “an inaccuracy doubtless, but not through an error of memory (Meyer and Weiss), but through indifference to greater exactness, the quotation from Isaiah being what chiefly occupied the mind,” (The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 1 [London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910], 342).

Bruce Metzger and the UBS-4 committee went with “in Isaiah the prophet” based on the theory that this is the harder reading, and was thus likely changed to the allegedly more appropriate “in the prophets,” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. [Stuttgart, GER: UBS, 1994[, 62). Philip Comfort likewise followed suit (New Testament Text and Translation Commentary [Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008], 93). Mark Strauss surmised that “a better solution is that Mark is affirming that the ‘beginning of the gospel’ represents the fulfillment of Isaiah’s broader vision of eschatological restoration and renewal. No OT prophet brings out this vision of redemption like Isaiah,” (Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 63). It seems easier to simply keep the Textus Receptus/Byzantine reading.

2 The UBS-5 and SBL text have the conjunction Καθὼς, which expresses comparison (“just as”). The Textus Receptus and the Byzantine (Robinson & Pierpont) have the adverb Ὡς. The conjunction Καθὼς gets the point across better.  

3 The quotation is only exact if you retain the Textus Receptus and Byzantine readings. The UBS-5 and SBL drop the ἐγὼ in Mark 1:2. I think it should be retained, in large part because it is a quotation from the Exodus 23:20 in the LXX, which has ἐγὼ.

4 Douglas Stuart even identified “the angel of the Lord” as God Himself (Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary [Nashville: B&H, 2006], 110–113).

5 “With this change Mark allows for a messianic interpretation and also implies that Jesus is the embodiment of Yahweh himself,” (Mark L. Strauss, Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 62).

6 The LXX has the conjunction καὶ, which I take to be expressing chronological time. Most English translations translate the Hebrew the same way, either explicitly (“and then,” NIV, ISV) or by implication (“and the Lord,” KJV, RSV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, LEB).  

7 Jesus is not 1/3 God. He is fully and completely God in and of Himself. So is the Father. So is the Spirit. That is why the “three-leaf clover” analogy for the Trinity should be put out to pasture.

8 See, for example, Zechariah 2:8-9, 11; 12:10.  

9 Anthony Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus (Morrow, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2007; Kindle ed.), KL 297-299.  

10 David S. Norris, I AM: A Oneness Pentecostal Theology (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 2009; reprint, Kindle edition, 2011), KL 323-325. 

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There are 3 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

I find it interesting that sects which boast a heretical Christology very rarely ever produce exegetical commentaries of any weight. For example, David Bernard (General Superintendent of the UPCI), has a commentary on Colossians and Philemon available that is a whopping 190 pages. I'm thinking of getting it so I can see how they attempt to deny the Trinity from the Greek.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

I can see a lack of Arian/Unitarian commentaries in the years up to about 1700, when heresy was as a rule punishable by law, but it is interesting that ideas that had their roots in Greek philosophy (Arianism) are even today so unwilling to put pen to paper (bits to document?) and formulate things.  I would dare say that it just might have something to do with the inherent indefensibility of the proposition; evidence for the Trinity is scattered throughout Scripture, so you can't just use a couple of passages and talk around a couple of others and call it a day. Moreover, those who really do investigate, with a few exceptions, tend to become Trinitarians.

Related observation; if you've seen Mormon or JW literature, apart from being "professionally" done, the intellectual content is just not there--at times it makes a "Chick" tract look positively academic in comparison.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm thinking the best thing we can do is examine their Bible translations. The JW's obviously have their own translation. A conservative Unitarian (Anthony Buzzard), who I mentioned earlier in this series and in this very article, has his own translation of the NT out, which I plan on buying. Anthony Buzzard knows Koine Greek very well, and taught (teaches?) Bible at Atlanta Bible College for many, many years. Looking at how they translate the Scriptures is probably one of the best ways to see their interaction with the Greek.

I am disappointed these groups don't have any exegetical commentaries. I believe the UPCI will have them soon. They''re really trying hard with their seminary. I believe it's regionally accredited now.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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