God’s love is, perhaps, the hallmark attribute of his character. Scripture says “God is love” (1 John 4:8). However, the reciprocal “love is God” is not true, because love does not exhaust his character. God is many other things: jealous (Ex 34:14), present everywhere (Ps 139:7-12), just (Deut 32:4), holy (Hos 11:9), all-powerful (Ps 115:3), etc. And so, we must guard against idolizing one of God’s attributes at the expense of the others. Each attribute is qualified by all the others, and all of God’s attributes work harmoniously together. Nevertheless, I offer a few thoughts on God’s love.
One Important Observation
Contrary to much popular teaching, there is no special word or word group for “love” in Scripture. In the New Testament “agape” and “phileo” are used interchangeably. The Father “loves” (agape) the Son (Jn 3:35) and the Father “loves” (phileo) the Son (Jn 5:20). Demas “loved” (agape) this world and left Paul and the ministry (2 Tim 4:10) and God so “loved” (agape) this world that he gave his Son (Jn 3:16). Jesus asked Peter three times “do you love” me (agape and phileo) (Jn 21:15-17), yet it is the same question each time. Finally, 2 Sam 13 (Septuagint, LXX) uses “agape” to describe Amnon’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Tamar, which is hardly self-less devotion.
Some Theological Observations
First, God’s love is everlasting and expressed toward his Son (Jn 17:24) and those whom he redeems (Eph 1:4-5; 2 Thess 2:13; also Ps 103:17; Mal 1:2-3; Rom 9:13).
God’s love is spontaneous. It is not output as a result of some input. Nothing whatsoever can be done to initiate God’s love. It is the sheer product of his will, wholly undeserved. In short, God does not “fall” in love with us; he has always been in love with us (see 1 Jn. 4:10; Rom. 5:8; Deut 7:7-9)!
Some Practical Observations
- We are commanded to love God (Deut 6:4-6; Mt 22:37). Yes. Love is a command! One reason is simply that we don’t naturally love him and even when we do, it’s never as we should. Our love for God, just as our love for others, can always increase.
- Jesus explicitly insists there is a relationship between love and obedience. Read Jn 14:15, 21, 23. Jesus is not saying “If you obey me, then you will love me.” Rather, he says “If you love me, you will obey me.” Obedience is a sign of love; it is the tangible, visible expression of love. All who love Jesus obey him, but not all who obey Jesus love him. It is unfortunate that many confuse the relationship between the love of God and the laws of God. Israel’s history repeatedly records this confusion between love for God and obedience to God (cf. Ps 51:16-19; Mt 23:23-24). The Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that the law was never to be seen as a means of establishing a relationship with God; a relationship that can only be established by faith in and love for God (cf. Gal 2:16; 3:15-28). Instead, God’s law is a means of maintaining a relationship that is already established by God (Rom 8:3-4; 1 Jn 4:19).
- Jesus promised that his burden would be light (Mt 11:28-30). Believers are not under the yoke of duty but bound by the law of love (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; Jm 2:8). Love is to obedience as motivation is to action. Obedience without love is mere duty, whereas love without obedience is raw sentimentalism. The former depersonalizes relationships, and the latter demoralizes them. We obey God because we love him and not vice versa.
- We are commanded to love our brothers and sisters in Christ (see Jn 13:33-34; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:11-18, 23; 4:7-12, 19-21; 5:1-2). Once again, we are naturally inclined to love ourselves first, and once again, contrary to much popular thinking, the Scriptures do not commend this to us. In fact, they assume we already love ourselves first, which is why we’re commanded to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philip 2:3).
- The apex of God’s love for us was shown in the cross of Christ (Rom 5:8) and it is this intense, eternal, spontaneous expression of God’s love that forever drives out any fear of death and judgment!
Meditations on God’s Love
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 Jn 4:16-18)
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13)
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 Jn 4:7–12)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”