Thoughts on the Love of God
Howard Coles, Coleford, England
In the Old Testament special emphasis is placed on man's obligation under divine law to love God: in Deuteronomy alone the requirement is repeated over a dozen times, e.g. 6. 5 and 10. 12, and it was an all-engrossing demand - to love with all one's heart, soul and might, reminding us of man's tripartite nature. The Lord Jesus only mentioned love as an obligation in answer to a question, Matt. 22. 37; Mark 12. 30; Luke 10. 27. His stress was on God's love for us. We also note that in the Old Testament God's love for Israel is emphasised - past, present and future, e.g. 2 Chron. 9. 8; Deut. 23. 5; 1 Kgs. 10. 9. While in the New Testament He loves the world in general and believers in particular, John 3. 16; 1 John 3. 16. We must not forget however that He said to Israel - 'I have loved thee with an everlasting love', Jer. 31. 3. He has not forsaken His people, but will take them up again in the future, see Rom. 11. At the moment He is chastening His earthly people, 'whom the Lord loveth he correcteth', Prov. 3. 12.
God loved Israel for no other reason than that He loved them and that He had made an oath to the patriarchs. However, having loved them, He expected them to love Him in return. This is seen in the passage that records the longest discussion of the subject in Deuteronomy - 'The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations', Deut. 7. 7-9. His love to those patriarchs - the fore-mentioned fathers - was also for His own pleasure: 'the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people', Deut. 10. 15. In the same way God has acted towards believers today to bring about His pleasure -see Eph. 1. 5 and 9.
Given the holiness of the divine nature, it is no surprise that 'The Lord loved righteousness', Psa 11. 7; 'the righteous', Psa. 146. 8 and Prov. 15. 9; 'judgement', Psa. 33. 5; 37. 28 and Isa. 61. 8; and 'holiness', Mai. 2. 11. Neither is it surprising that He is protective to them that love Him, Deut. 7. 9; Psa. 145. 20; Dan. 9. 4; Neh. 1. 5. However, it is astonishing that He still loves those who behave badly towards Him. This is illustrated in the instruction to the prophet Hosea - 'Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the Lord toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods, and love flagons of wine', Hos. 3. 1. Some in Israel even went as far as denying the existence of God's love. 'I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us?', Mai. 1. 2. Still He loved them and He loves them still.
(a) The Gospels
The principles illustrated in the Old Testament do not really change in the New, but the subject of divine love comes into greater prominence. In the Gospels for instance, the Lord Jesus charges His religious enemies, first with passing by the all-important love of God while concentrating on unimportant minutiae, Luke 11. 42, and then with not having the love of God in them, John 5. 42. From this we learn that He expected those who professed to serve God to put His love first and also to have it in them. In fact, He equated serving God with loving Him, Luke 16. 13.
While the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) stress love as an obligation on those who want to serve God - love for neighbours and even enemies, Matt. 5. 43-46; the subject of God's love is rarely mentioned. However, the subject features strongly in John's gospel, where we find the word love more times than in all the other gospels put together. It is here that we learn that God loved the world; the Father loves the Son, 1 5. 9; 17. 23, 24, 26; the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, loved the Father, 14. 31; and He also loved Mary, Martha, Lazarus, John and His disciples. It is here recorded that Peter was asked, 'lovest thou me?', 21. 15-17. And it is here that the Lord Jesus Christ requested the disciples to love one another, 15. 12, 17. In fact the true test for being a believer is love: 14. 15. However, we instinctively think first of John 3. 16 when we contemplate the subject of the love of God. Here the word 'so' means 'in this way' - just as it does nine more times in this gospel, e.g. 3. 14; 5. 21, 26, and not 'so much', as is often said, although of course this is not to say that His love is not great, Eph 2. 4! Thus God's love addressed the true need of the world, for it is in this way that He loved the world, He gave His only-begotten Son. Love is best tested by what it will give and is prepared to give up for the one loved.
From the Lord Jesus we learn 'the secrets of the Father's breast'. For instance the Father has always loved the Son, and because of this has given ail things into His hand, 3. 35; and also has shown Him everything that He does, 5. 20. Then we learn that a further reason for the Father's love is that the Son, as the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for the sheep, 10. 17. The Father's love then goes out to those who love the Son: 'If any man will love me ... my Father will love him', 14. 23; 'As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you', 15. 9; and 'the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me', 16. 27.
(b) The Epistles
(i) By the apostle Paul
We discover three great facts about God's love in Romans: first that unlike human love that only loves the lovable, God demonstrated His love toward us in loving us while we were still sinners, and sent His Son to die for us, 5. 8. This divine love has been poured out [shed abroad] in the hearts of believers, 5. 5. God is not sparing with His love - it is poured out, not measured out! This has been effected through the Holy Spirit 'which is given unto us'. Thereafter nothing at all is able to separate us from this love, 8. 39, nor from the love of Christ, 8. 35.
Paul combines the expressions 'the love of God' and 'the God of love' when he writes his second epistle to the Corinthians. He explains that having the God of love with them as a real future experience depends in part on their present behaviour, 13. 11. However his constant prayer is that 'the love of God . . . be with you all', 13. 14. Likewise, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul brings the love of God into two prayer requests. First he looks to 'our Father, which hath loved us' to 'comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work', 2. 16, 17. Thus our expectations of divine comfort and help are based on known divine love. Then he prays 'the Lord direct [guide and remove all hindrances] your hearts into the love of God', 3. 5. Hence the love of God is a right state of heart for us to be in. Paul's last recorded thoughts on the love of God go back to basics - 'when the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared . . . he saved us', Tit. 3. 4, JND. The gospel has brought the divine qualities of kindness and love to light as never before.
(ii) By the apostle John
John in his epistles again takes up the theme of the love of God as he had done so frequently in his gospel. However, we must understand that he was writing in a day when many who were associating themselves with believers had no spiritual reality in their lives. Some had even defected from the faith and were now enemies of it. Consequently the love of God is set as a standard against which to judge the authenticity of those who made a profession, as well as being made a challenge to those whose profession was true. For instance, 1 John 3. 16 begins in the same way as its gospel counterpart, John 3. 16, 'Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us'. But then it goes on to state the expected consequence of that divine love - 'we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren'. We are not often asked to go to this extreme, nevertheless our attitude will show if our profession is true, 'But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?', v. 17. The love of God should find a permanent dwelling place in the hearts into which it has been poured. In fact all obedience to divine commands brings believers a knowledge that God's love has come to fruition in their lives, and this in turn is an added assurance that 'they are in him', 1 John 2. 5.
The longest discussion of the love of God is in the fourth chapter of John's first epistle, where we find the profoundest statements about the nature of love. It is of God, and hence when we love it implies that we are born of God and that we know Him, 1 John 4. 7. At the same time, the opposite is also true, 'He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love', v. 8. So we see that the most significant statements, that love's origin is God, and that God is love, are associated with our behaviour, and are the proof or the denial of our having a true relationship with God.
Love's manifestation and definition follow (an echo of John 3. 16 and Rom. 5. 8), 'In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world . . . Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us', 4. 9, 10. Then, as now to be expected in this epistle, come the practical consequences - 'if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another', v. 11; and, 'If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us', v. 12. God Himself will bring His love to maturity in our hearts if we allow Him to. It is not a matter of our trying to work up right feelings, for God alone will truly love the unloveable. Of course, this truth like all others is to be balanced by other statements in the epistle. Here for instance we can set this against the latter statement, 'For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments', 5. 3; so we are responsible to obey. The love of God in our lives is something concrete and demonstrable and not something devoid of practical evidence. When we have properly appreciated this we can more readily understand the last great statement - 'we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him', 4. 16.
(iii) The Last word
The last explicit statement about the love of God in the Bible is a poignant plea to those living in the last days, who are being pressurised to move away from the essence and reality of divine things - 'Beloved . . . keep yourselves in the Jove of God', Jude 20, 21 (cf. 2. Thess 3. 5). They were urged to show 'watchful care of a present possession' [i.e. keep], as one has translated. Are we really in the love of God? Does it really dwell in us? Or have we been moved away from that blessed position of reality and truth?
'Love that no tongue can teach,
Love that no thought can reach,
No love like His'.