Daily Bible Study Tips: Reader Questions Answered

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Were the three Persons of God, i.e., the Trinity, present from the beginning? If so, who exactly is being referred to when the scripture talks about the Lord, the LORD, or God, and are these names used interchangeably?

Trinity. Yes, the three Persons of God were present from the beginning; see Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters,” and John 1:1, 14, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.” Certainly the Spirit is referred to many times in the Old Testament, although it’s not clear to me that the Hebrews and Jews considered the Spirit to be a second Person. The Old Testament (OT), however, knows very little about the Son.
We worship one God in three Persons, and with 2000 years’ experience, we still sometimes find this concept a little difficult. Prior to their return from the Exile, the Jews worshipped God and about a dozen pagan gods off and on. My opinion – without any scriptural basis – is that God was having so much trouble teaching us to be monotheistic that he didn’t want to confuse us too early with three Persons, even though all three were always present.
Names. There are several Hebrew and Greek words that are translated God, GOD, Lord, LORD, Jehovah, Messiah, Christ, Spirit of the LORD, Spirit, and Holy Spirit. (Pay attention to the presence or absence of small caps in “Lord” and “God”; they are important.) You also see “the LORD God,” “Lord GOD,” and “Lord God.” These are all distinct in the Hebrew and Greek, so they are not completely interchangeable. Usually you can tell them apart in English if you know the trick, but I’m guessing that that’s only about 90% true and depends on what translation you are reading.
Just about any name for God in the Old Testament is referring to God the Father. God the Holy Spirit is usually explicitly called the "Spirit of the LORD" in the OT. God the Son has many names in the OT, but most are recognizable as a Person of God only if you have already read the New Testament. The prophets speak about the Messiah or “anointed one,” but this more often refers to an anointed prophet or king than it does to the Son.
In the New Testament, God the Father is normally called God or God the Father. God the Holy Spirit is normally called the Spirit or the Holy Spirit. God the Son again has many names, chiefly Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, Lord, Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man.
The table below gives you a brief guide to what words are usually translated as what. Some comments amplifying the table follow it.
Old Testament
Hebrew Literal Meaning of Hebrew Usual OT Greek TranslationLiteral Meaning of Greek Usual English Translation
YHWH Actual name of God Kurios Lord, lord, master, sir LORD or GOD, Jehovah
Elohim God or gods Theos God, god God or gods
Adonai Master or Lord KuriosLord, lord, master, sir Lord, lord
Ruach Spirit, wind Pneuma Spirit, wind Spirit
Messiah Anointed one Christos Anointed one Anointed one, Messiah

New Testament
Greek Literal Meaning of Greek Usual English Translation
Theos God, god God, god
Kurios Lord, lord, master, sir Lord, lord
Pneuma Spirit, wind Spirit, wind
Christos Anointed one Christ

YHWH is the actual name of God. No one knows exactly how to pronounce it, because for several thousand years no one said it out loud, and originally Hebrew was written without vowels. There are vowel points in later manuscripts that help the reader distinguish between words with the same consonants (for example, rd could be red, read, rid, rod, reed, or even aired). When you are reading Hebrew and come to YHWH, you think and say adonai. (This is to prevent you from blaspheming by accident.) The vowel points with YHWH in Hebrew Bibles are the vowels for adonai. “Jehovah” is a made-up name for God that uses the consonants YHWH and the vowels for adonai. When you see “Jehovah,” “LORD,” or “GOD,” nearly always the original Hebrew is YHWH and the OT Greek is kurios, which is the translation of adonai.

Hebrew uses the plural form for a singular entity in order to denote majesty or greatness. (Kings and queens do this in English; it is called the “royal we.”) Elohim is a plural form that means “gods” when the context is talking about pagan deities and “God” when it is talking about the one true God. The Greek theos also means either God or god, depending on the context. When you see “God,” nearly always the Hebrew is Elohim; and the Greek is theos.

The Hebrew adonai means “master” or “lord” or “Lord” or even “sir,” depending on context, and is translated accordingly. When talking about God, it’s nearly always translated as “Lord.” The Greek version of the OT uses the word kurios – which also means master, lord, Lord, or sir – as a direct translation of adonai. So when you see “Lord,” probably the Hebrew was adonai or the Greek was kurios.

When kurios is used in connection with Jesus, it’s usually translated “Lord,” even though its actual meaning to the person who was speaking depends on context. Prior to the crucifixion, it is likely that most people intended to address Jesus as sir, master, or lord (like an English lord). Probably the first person to address Jesus as kurios and really mean “Lord” was Thomas, when he said, “my Lord and my God.” That is pretty unambiguous. In the Gospels, you should probably understand “sir” or “master” when you see someone saying “Lord” prior to the resurrection. If a Gospel is talking about “the Lord,” or if it is after the resurrection or in the letters, you should understand “Lord,” because by the time the disciples and apostles wrote the New Testament, they understood that Jesus was God the Son.

Copyright 2007, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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