“Hear of Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
“You believe that God is one? You do well; the demons believe that also…and they tremble.” (James 2:19)
“A mediator means there is more than one, but God is one.” (Galatians 3:20)
“And now, Yahweh our God, please save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you, Yahweh are God and you alone.” (2 Kings 19:19)
“One who sacrifices to a god shall be destroyed; Yahweh alone — to Him alone!” (Exodus 22:20)
The Bible is clear that while God exists in three persons, he is one and exists over and above all things both that he has created and that has been created in the imaginations of men. The question sometimes gets asked, “Aren’t there other gods that people worship?”
To answer that question properly, one must first offer a definition of what constitutes a “god.” If, by a “god,” what you mean is anything that people worship (rightly or wrongly), then I suppose that we could say that there are many gods. There would be the obvious things that come to mind: images of Buddha or of the Catholic saints (or Mary), Asherah or Totem poles, and idols to Hindu gods like Shiva. Money falls into this category as people will pursue it with all of their energy rather than pursuing God with all of their energy. Famous people are another illustration of the gods people bow down before and fawn over.
Self also can be defined as a god by this standard. We live in a culture of narcissism and people obsess over their looks, their image, their pleasure, and their self-gratification. Body art, plastic surgery, and even “gender re-assignment” have become commonplace and drug use has become an epidemic. On one extreme, people are working to genetically modify embryos to emphasize “more desirable” traits and on the other hand, children are being murdered in the name of “Family Planning.” Worse yet, like the Israelites in Canaan who ignored and participated in the paganism in their midst rather than pushing it out of the land, the Church largely ignores these false gods in our midst rather than pushing these false gods out of our churches.
And further, when you broaden the definition of a word so much that it can mean almost anything, then the word ultimately means nothing. To put it another way, our ability to communicate with one another is predicated on the idea that words have a limited semantic range. If “god” is defined as anything that man bows down to, everything becomes a god and the word is ultimately meaningless.
To this end, let me offer a more narrow definition from a Christian perspective. And this is to borrow the definition that St. Anselm used when he was devising his “Ontological Proof” for the existence of God. His definition is: “God is a being which no greater being can be imagined.” To narrow that down even more, one might point out that this definition demands that God not be one of a subset of gods but instead, that God is in a class of his own — the being par excellence. By this definition, there can only be one God — and this is the definition found in the Bible. Whether people worship themselves, the works of their hands, or demons, none fo these are in the same class as God — he is truly unique and alone in terms of his person and character; none is like him, no not one.
And to this end, both Christian theology and Hidelberg Catechism, question 25 insist on God being defined as One being even when we are defining him as three persons. It is an essential of the faith and non-negotiable in Christian theology.
“who, though he was God in essence, did not regard it as something to be grasped — to be equal to God — ”
This is one of those verses, when taken in isolation of the teachings of scripture and not with an understanding of the Greek language, has led people down the road to heresy, for some will read this verse as saying that Jesus gave up his divinity to become human and such could not be further from the truth. In addition, there are also some who will read this verse in a way that implies that God the Son and God the Father are separable. Similarly, this is not the testimony of scripture as a whole.
Paul’s words in this verse begin with, “though he was God in essence.” Some of our English translations render this: “though he was in the form of God,” which is good Greek, but can be misleading in English. For us, something that takes the form of something else is a doppelgänger of sorts — a mimic or a copy, but not one with the original. The term that Paul uses here is morfh/ (morphe), which refers to the basic essence of something. Essentially what Paul is writing here is that all of the essential attributes of the Godhead were and are fully present in Jesus. In fact, given that the verb in this clause is in the imperfect state, the implication is that these divine attributes continue even into his dual nature. Jesus is God…he is the second person in the Triune Godhead, and he did not consider, reason, or think that his rightfully revealed glory was something to be clung to but he came to this world in the essence of a servant…a slave even.
Interestingly, Jesus’ behavior is just the opposite of Satan who was willing to sacrifice everything in the hopes of becoming equal in status with God yet was thrown down because of his rebellion. Satan demonstrates the results of pride; Jesus demonstrates a life of humility. How often, in life, even professing Christians pursue a life that looks more like Satan’s than Jesus’. And what is this language of equality at the end of the verse? It speaks not to ontological equality (equality in essence, something that has already been established) but to equality in status or glory…such would be the contrast that Paul is establishing in the following verse. There is an exchange not in essential Godhead but instead a willingness to veil his glory in the flesh of humanity for a season and for the purpose of saving humanity. What a mighty and great God we serve!