Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Deuteronomy 6.4.
The word “hear” in Hebrew is shema, which is why this whole verse is known as the Shema. The Shema is considered to be the most important prayer in Judaism and it is a mitzvah — a binding religious duty on Jews — to recite it twice every day. Hence it has become central to all Jewish morning and evening prayers.
To the Jews, the Shema is not only an assertion of monotheism but also of the singularity of God as opposed to the Christian belief in the triune nature of God. Looked at closely, however, this verse on its own asserts neither thing. It does not actually say that “there is only one God and he is the God of Israel” though that is what the Jews (no doubt rightly) came to believe. And the vocabulary used does not actually preclude trinity. The word for “one” is echad and it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for unity made up of several parts. Perhaps the best example is where God instructs Ezekiel: “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Ephraim’s stick, belonging to Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ Join them together into one (eched) stick so that they will become one (eched) in your hand” (Ezekiel 37.16-17).
Certainly, for those of us committed to a belief in the triune nature of God, it is not difficult to find evidence for it within the Old Testament. In the very first chapter of the Bible, God says: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness …” (Genesis 1.26). Us? Our? A pointer surely to a plurality of persons within the Godhead.
But most interesting and illuminating is the way that Paul tackles the traditional view of the Shema head on when writing to the church at Corinth. The context is whether it is all right for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. His answer is that Christians are monotheists like the Jews and so do not admit the existence of any other gods. There is only one God, so the meat is sacrificed to things that don’t exist. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one,” he says, “There is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
1 Corinthians 8.4,6). The “God” of the Shema has become “the Father” and the “Lord” of the Shema has become “Jesus Christ”. Bishop Tom Wright calls this an “explosive redefinition of the Shema” and so it is. And all the more remarkable when it comes from the pen of one who was and remained the most Jewish of Jews.
And what does it mean for me? Paul gives me permission, I think, to see Jesus in the “us” and “our” of Genesis 1. He gives me permission to see Jesus as one of the “three” who Abraham saw when God appeared to him — “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground” (Genesis 18.1-2). He gives me permission to see Jesus as the one working alongside God in creation: “I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind” (Proverbs 8.27-31). In short, he gives me permission to Jesus wherever I see God in the scriptures and in history — not someone who came into being only two thousand years ago in Bethlehem but one who “became flesh” two thousand years ago, and before that was with God and was God (John 1), co-existing with the Father and the Spirit, part of the Godhead, from eternity to eternity.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; I worship you today — one God, now and forever, Amen.