The “Sh’ma” of Israel is at the heart of her monotheism. it represents the first Hebrew words of a prayer, central to the morning and evening prayers of observant Jewish people.
“Hear O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the LORD God of your fathers has promised you — ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4).
This historic confession is one reason many Jewish people have taken such a hard line against Jesus. One generation after another has used the Sh’ma as a strategic argument against Christian missionary efforts. In the 12th century, Moses Maimonides, later revered as one of the most honored of Israel’s rabbis, taught that when describing God, only negative descriptions are valid. Therefore, when thinking about the meaning of Sh’ma, one does not say “God is One” but rather, “God is not multiple.”
Even in Jesus’ own day, the argument by some influential leaders was that when Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” he made himself guilty of blasphemy by claiming to be equal with God. (John 10:30-33).
Jesus did not immediately defend his equality with the Father but pointed to an obscure Old Testament text that talks about people as being “gods” (lit mighty ones). Instead of pressing his equality with the Father at that moment Jesus reasoned that, if the Scriptures (which cannot be broken) refer to those to whom the word of God came as “gods”, why would they want to kill him? Then he said, “If I do not the works of my Father, do not believe in me” (John 10:37). That made the crowd even more angry.
Interestingly, in the second chapter of Genesis, Moses gives us a precedent for plurality within “one” when he says that man and woman will leave father and mother, cleave to one another, and become “one” flesh (2:24).
Down through the ages followers of Christ have discussed and argued among themselves as to whether the tri-unity of God amounts to one God taking three distinct roles in revealing himself, or whether he is, even though we cannot understand or explain it, actually One God who exists eternally in 3 distinct, co-equal, and perfectly united persons?
Orthodoxy today maintains that the Scriptures support the real plurality of distinct, equal Persons who share the substance of the Godhead. It’s what the Scriptures seems to want us to believe when they describe one who prays to his father, and who claimed to be the Messiah, anticipated by Isaiah with the words, “Unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6).
The practical significance for us involves many implications. One is that if Jesus was fully God, then it helps give us a clue about the eternal value of his death and separation from God for us.
Another important implication is showing up once again especially in younger congregations rediscovering the importance of community. Such persons ask, “If God is three-in-one, then doesn’t our community itself begin with the Godhead? Don’t the mutual love and interdependence between Father, Son, and Spirit show why it is so important for us to be cultivating our own “community” that is seeking to model both individuality and oneness in Christ?
Both the doctrinal and practical implications are as important to our faith in Christ as the tri-unity of God is impossible to adequately explain.