Year A – 2nd Sunday in Lent

The Number Three

(Gen.12:1-4a; 2Tim.1:8b-10; Mt.17:1-9)

Some people love numbers; they’re fascinated by the patterns they find in them. So, today I’d like to talk about the number 3.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Pythagoras (c.570 – 495 BC) taught that numbers have meaning and that 3 is the perfect number because it represents harmony, wisdom and understanding.

In the Hebrew language, numbers also have meaning, and this is reflected in the Bible which is full of numbers. Indeed, numbers are never used randomly in Scripture; they always mean something.

In Hebrew, the number 3 (shelosh [f.], sheloshah [m.]) represents harmony, completeness and new life, [i] and it appears in the Bible almost 500 times. When it does, this number typically represents something that’s solid, real and substantial, and it points to something important, such as God’s plan for our salvation. [ii]

Consider these examples from the Old Testament. On the third day of Creation, God made the dry land and it began producing fruit. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the three fathers of Israel. Noah had three sons. Three strangers visited Abraham, and Jonah was freed after three days inside the belly of a whale.

The three strangers in Rublev’s Trinity, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

In the New Testament, the Holy Family has three members. The Wise Men bring three gifts. Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months. Jesus is lost for three days at the age of twelve. He is tempted three times in the desert. His public ministry lasts for three years. Peter denies Jesus three times. Saul is blinded for three days. Jesus prays three times in the Garden of Gethsemane. And at the age of 33, Jesus also dies at 3.00pm, and rises from the dead on the third day.

But this triune pattern isn’t confined to Scripture; you can find it all around us. Every atom, for example, has three constituent parts: protons, neutrons and electrons. There are three basic stages of existence: birth, life and death; water has three states: solid, liquid and gas; we all have three abilities: thought, word and deed; and time has the past, present and future. There are three primary colours: red, green, and blue. Humans can perceive three spatial dimensions: height, length, and width.

The earth also has three layers: core, mantle and crust; there are three main types of rock: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary; there are three types of earthquake waves, and three types of volcanoes.[iii] And all living organisms on earth use the same three-letter DNA code. [iv]

Clearly there’s a pattern here, and it all seems to point to our Creator God who is himself the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St Augustine had a great interest in numbers, and said that ‘mathematics is music for the mind, and music is mathematics for the soul.’ He believed that patterns in music and number reveal something about God and his creation. [v] St Jerome and St Gregory 1 also wrote about the significance of numbers in God’s plan of salvation.

It certainly seems that God has embedded evidence of his triune nature into the basic design of his Creation. But why? I’d like to suggest three reasons:

Firstly, this three-fold pattern reminds us of where we’ve come from. Indeed, we have all been made in the image and likeness of our Trinitarian God (Gen.1:26-28).

Secondly, it reminds us of who we are today. Through our Baptism, we have become disciples of Jesus, warmly welcomed into God’s Trinitarian union.

And thirdly, it reminds us that we’ve all been designed for community. We are not meant to be alone. Rather, we’ve been created to use our three-fold blessings of head, heart and hands to develop relationships and live and work in loving communion with others.

And just as three-ply yarn is stronger than single-ply yarn, so we all benefit from our close interconnections with others.

In today’s Gospel, three disciples – Peter, James and John – witness three heavenly beings talking together atop Mount Tabor. These disciples are amazed to see Jesus’ face shining gloriously as he speaks with the prophets Moses and Elijah. And they hear a voice say, ‘This is my beloved son, listen to him!’

Peter wants this incredible experience to continue, and suggests that they erect three tents. But this mystical moment isn’t meant to last. It’s only meant to encourage the disciples in their journey of faith.

So, Jesus leads them back down the mountain, where they witness him saving a boy’s life (Lk.9:37-44).

This Lent, as we prepare our hearts for Easter through the traditional trio of almsgiving, sacrifice and prayer, let’s remember that these three Lenten practices are very much part of God’s design for us.

Just like the rest of his Creation.

[i] Hebrew Numbers 1-10,

[ii] The Significance of Numbers in Scripture


[iv] Three is the Magic Number

[v] Augustine on Number, Music and Faith