The Key to the Trinity: The Importance of Believing Both

Did the Lord Jesus deny the triunity of God? We first met this objection in the article on Hebrews 1:8-9. We return to it now, this time by way of John’s gospel. The objection goes like this: Jesus called the Father “the only true God” (Joh 17:3),[1] and taught that the Father was greater than He (14:28). The doctrine of three Persons in one God contradicts, therefore, the clear teachings of Christ. There is one true God – the Father – and Jesus is the one true God’s eternal Son (20:31).

This objection is weighty and clarifying – weighty because it quotes the words of our Lord, and clarifying because it’s in grappling with it that we discover just how compellingly the Bible drives us to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Our response must start with a fresh commitment to believe everything our Lord teaches. If He calls the Father the only true God (and He did), then the Father is the only true God. And if He said that the Father is in some sense greater than the Son, then it is true in the sense that He intended.

But let’s remember that our Lord’s words are not limited to the red letters of some Bible editions. His self-witness in the rest of John’s Gospel and in the entire NT is just as authoritative as His words in John 14:28 and 17:3. We must believe His word that the Father was greater, and we must believe His word that He and the Father are equal (Joh 5:18; 10:30; Php 2:6). If in one place He says that the Father is the only true God, and in another that the Son is the true God (1Jn 5:20),[2] we accept both truths. And when we do, we find the Bible pushing us to confess the triunity of God.

Reading in Context

John 14:28 and 17:3 must be read in their context. The book begins with a prologue designed to orient us to all that follows (1:1-18). The riddle with which John begins his prologue (see the previous article) is repeated at the end: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (1:18 NIV, my emphasis).[3] The “riddle” is that Jesus is both. Twice, in the space of 18 verses, Scripture teaches that Jesus is God and is distinct from God. Because He is eternally with God, and is God, He is infinitely qualified to reveal God. Murray Harris puts it beautifully: “Jesus Christ made visible the invisible nature of God … and laid bare the heart of the Father.”[4]

In other words, we will never become faithful readers of John if we don’t learn to reckon with the word both. Who is the Alpha and Omega – the Father or the Son? Both (Rev 1:8,17; 22:13).[5] Did Jesus Christ come by water or by blood? Both (1Jn 5:6-8). The Word was with God, or was God? Both. Is the Word God, or human? He’s both (Joh 1:14). Who is the only true God — the Father, or the Son? And is the Son equal with the Father, or is the Father greater? In this and subsequent articles, I will argue that the correct answer is both.

“I am”

Let’s continue to examine John 14:28 and 17:3 in the context of the whole book, stopping this time nearer the middle. Before the reader hears Jesus calling the Father the only true God, we first hear Him identify Himself as “I am” (egō eimi): “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). This is loaded language, echoing Yahweh’s self-declarations of egō eimi in Isaiah 40-55.[6] Significantly, this section of Isaiah is a bastion of monotheism. “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (43:11). Repeatedly Yahweh asserts that He is “I am,” encapsulating His “claim to unique and exclusive divinity” (41:4; 43:10; 46:9). If Jesus is repeating these claims in John 8:58, He “is unambiguously identifying himself with the one and only God, YHWH, the God of Israel.”[7]

Anti-trinitarians must therefore deny that Jesus is echoing the words of Yahweh. They do this by noting that the blind man in the following chapter says egō eimi, yet no one thinks he was claiming to be Yahweh (9:9). And the reason why the Jewish religious experts wanted to stone Jesus was not because He was claiming to be Yahweh, but because He was claiming to pre-date Abraham (8:59).

The problems with this view are many. No one is claiming that every occurrence of the words “I am” in the Bible is a claim to deity. But in certain contexts they are, such as when Babylon utters them (Isa 47:8,10).[8] In the case of John 8:58, many contextual indicators show that Jesus is repeating the words of Yahweh, not just claiming preexistence: (1) He could have said, “before Abraham was, I was”;[9] (2) the close correspondence between other “I am” texts in John and Isaiah;[10] (3) the hostile reaction of the Jews makes more sense if He’s claiming to be God. Bauckham is right to conclude: “Just as ‘I am he’ in the Hebrew Bible sums up what it is to be truly God, so in John it identifies Jesus as truly God in the fullest sense.”[11]

In the next article we’ll finish examining the overall context of John 14:28 and 17:3 by considering the end of John, and then turn to these two texts themselves. For now I re-emphasize that the One who called the Father the only true God also claimed to be the God of Israel. We must believe both.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] My position is not dependent on the final clause of 1 John 5:20 referring to Christ, but for the likelihood that it does, see Gregory R. Lanier, Is Jesus Truly God? How the Bible Teaches the Divinity of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[3] For a solid defense of this rendering, see Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 73-103.

[4] Harris, 102.

[5] Robert M. Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 177-81.

[6] Not of Exodus 3:14. See Richard Bauckham, “The Trinity and the Gospel of John,” in The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance, ed. Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 107.

[7] Bauckham, 107.

[8] David Gooding, “Does the Lord Claim Deity with the Use of Egō Eimi (I Am)?,” 2003,

[9] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 530-31.

[10] Bowman and Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, 176-78.

[11] Bauckham, “The Trinity and the Gospel of John,” 108.