God is love.
~ The Apostle John (1 John 4:8, 16)
I believe these are the three most beautiful words strung together in the English language: God is love.
However, to say “God is love” only communicates accurately if we know what love is. Is love an emotion? A sentimental sensation? A philosophical value? The Greek word used for love in 1 John 4 is agape (the Hebrew near equivalent would be hesed), which means an unconditional, honouring, and active engagement with a person. Agape is the will to work for the good of someone; it invests energy person to person. One chapter before John says “God is love,” he makes sure his readers have the right idea of what love is. John defines agape like this:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
(1 John 3:16)
Two things worth noting: first of all, John breaks the expected grammatical logic structure, which we would expect to be “Jesus laid his life down for us, so we ought to lay our lives down for him” (I can remember many a youth pastor saying “Jesus died for you, so the least you can do is live for him”). Instead, John says that because Jesus loved us, we ought to love other people. That is the repeated flow of New Testament ethics – when we are wondering what is the right way to treat someone in any given situation, we first ask, how has God treated us? And when we love others like God loves us, God is honoured. (See this ethical pattern in Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; 1 Peter 4:8; James 2:8; 1 John 3:14-16; etc.)
Secondly, Jesus is love embodied. He not only teaches us about love; Jesus shows us what true love is. Jesus is God’s “Show & Tell”.
Now back to those three beautiful words – God is love. On Sunday we walked through most of 1 John 4, the Bible passage that twice states the essence of God as pure, unadulterated, 100% love. The apostle John is the only writer of Scripture who speaks this directly about the essence of the Almighty, and he does so three times:
- God is SPIRIT, says Jesus in John’s gospel (John 4:24)
- God is LIGHT (1 John 1:5)
- God is LOVE (1 John 4:8, 16)
The Bible describes God as having other qualities, expressions, attributes, such as being holy, sovereign, and righteous, but these qualities are never described as God’s essence. The essence of God is the spiritual light of love.
Side Note: The author of Hebrews also says “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), which we will note is more metaphor rather than a plain labeling of God’s essence – and that “fire” is a vivid picture of the spiritual light of love. As King Solomon writes:
Love is as strong as death,
its passion unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
(Song of Solomon 8:6)
Now catch this: To say God is spirit, light, and love is to describe the same essence in three ways, not to say that God’s essence is made up of three different substances or aspects. There is not a”spirit” part of God attached to the “light” part of God next to the “love” part of God. God is 100% spirit, which is 100% light, which is 100% love.
(I have no idea why this perfectly delightful graphic is so fuzzy – or have I just been looking at the screen too long? Let’s keep moving…)
This is worthwhile establishing since sometimes some Christians try to play one description of God’s essence off of another. They say things like, “Sure God is pure love, but he is also pure light” as though they have just pointed out something else about God that balances out the declaration that God is love. Most of the time they then go on to argue that the “light” of God refers to his holiness, or sinlessness, and maybe even his white hot wrath against sin. Now they have set themselves up to argue that God is love AND wrath at his very core. But the text of Scripture simply can’t support this. God is not love + anything. The spiritual light of God is love. God’s love is light. God’s light is pure spirit, which is pure love. No matter how we slice it, God is all spirit, all light, and all love.
Consider the graph at the top of this page. We are talking about the essence of the Almighty, the DNA of the Divine, the actual guts of God. God is not the sum total of many qualities, but God is love – a love that is expressed in different ways. This means that every expression, everything that God does, is love because everything that God is, is love.
So God’s “guts,” the actual “stuff” of God, must be what God is in and of himself, apart from anything or anyone else. To say “God is love” is to describe:
- Who and what God was before God created anything.
- Who and what God is now in our lives.
- Who and what God will be forever in eternity.
To say that God is love is to acknowledge that this is what God is and not just how God behaves or feels or thinks. And what God is cannot be altered. This is really encouraging because it means that God’s love cannot be diminished in even the slightest way, for that would be the diminishing of God’s own self.
Think about this: the Bible says God is “holy” but not that God is “holiness”, as though being holy defines his essence, the way love does. If we try to say that God is “holiness” in his essence, we are actually saying something that is not only unbiblical but something that is, quite frankly, nonsense. To be “holy” means literally to be set apart from other things as unique or special or sacred. To be “holy” is to be different from that which is common. God is holy and forever will be because, among other reasons, he alone is the Creator and therefore is set apart from all else that exists because everything else is creation.
But now let’s rewind the clock to eternity past. before the creation of all things, to say that God was “holy” would make no sense. Before the creation of all things, God was not “set apart” from anything else. There was only God. Holiness depends on other things existing for it to be a true quality of God. Holiness, then, describes who God is in relation to us and everything else.
So yes, forevermore, throughout an eternal future we will properly relate to God as “holy” precisely because there is a “we” to relate to God. As God is to the angels forever, so is God to us forever – the eternal three times holy God:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
(Isaiah 6:3; also see Revelation 4:8)
Even more obvious, God was not a “just judge” who was “wrathful” before the creation of all things. To be a judge is to be a judge over something or someone else. God was never a judge over himself. And he was certainly never wrathful about anything within his own being, and before God created all things, there was never anything external to himself to be wrathful about. God’s judgement of wrath is a concept that only makes sense after God created us, and after we went astray.
But wait. What about Bible verses that say God “hates” some people?
It’s true, sometimes we read that God hates specific people. Here are two examples:
“I have loved you,” says the Lord.
“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”
(Malachi 1:2-3; also see Romans 9:13)
There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
In Proverbs, at first we are told that God hates the body parts of a person that does evil. Then we learn that God actually hates the person who does evil. And what about poor Esau in Malachi and Romans – was he “hated” by God from birth?
First of all, we don’t deduce from these passages that God is partially love and partially hate. God is love – the spiritual light of love. This means that everything God expresses will be an expression of pure divine love, including what the Bible sometimes calls “hate.” In Hebrew thought, if love (hesed or agape) is a choice, a decision, an act of the will to bless, then hatred in these contexts means to not be chosen for that blessing or that special honour. Esau was not chosen for the mission that God chose for Jacob. Likewise, a sinner is not chosen for blessing, but is opposed by God. Yet, that act of opposition, of judgement, of discipline is always an expression of love, because God is love.
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.
(Proverbs 3:11-12; also see Hebrews 12:6)
Everything God does is love, because everything God is is love. (To see more of what God “hating” Esau looked like – spoiler alert, it looks like love, just without the special calling on Jacob’s life – see Deuteronomy 2:4-6; 23:7; Amos 9:11-12; Hebrews 11:20.)
Jesus helps us see that, in biblical language, “hate” is not the opposite of love but a potential expression of love. When Jesus instructs his followers to make him their sole priority, to choose him above all others, including our own families, he puts it this way:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
We are instructed by Christ to hate those closest to us, and even our own lives. And yet we know that Jesus also says,
“‘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.”
Jesus calls us to love all people – our friends, our neighbours, our enemies, and ourselves. So again we see that “hating” our families and our own lives does not mean that we are being unloving in those instances, but that we are loving Jesus first and foremost. God himself loves everyone, even the sinners that Proverbs says he “hates”:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:6-10)
God loves everyone, including the ungodly, the sinners, God’s enemies – because God cannot do otherwise. God is love. In the most well known Bible verse, God’s love for everyone is identified as the preceding motive behind God giving his son:
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. (John 3:16)
God is love. And this means that every experience we have of God is an expression of love (James 1:17). Now keep in mind: not everything we experience comes from God. But everything that does come from God is an experience of love. Sometimes that love will be experienced as an encouraging embrace. Other times, when we are fighting back against God’s best for our lives, that love will feel like hot coals poured upon our heads (see Romans 12:20). Our experience of God’s love will be determined by whether or not we embrace or reject it, but everything that comes to us from God will always be love.
“But don’t we have to balance out our picture of God?” I’ve heard too many Christians reason this way. And the answer is – No! We never “balance” God’s love with some equal but opposite quality, a yin to the yang. The yin-yang is not a Christian God concept. God is love!
So now what? Do you want to embrace, even as you are embraced by, the radically imbalanced, lopsided love of God? Jesus is the key. Jesus is God with us, come to SHOW US God’s love, the essence of the Almighty (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is love incarnate, love in history, pure love walking and talking. This cannot be said of anyone else. There is no higher reality to study, teach, talk about, sing about, or meditate on than God seen in Jesus, because, as Jesus said:
The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.
And again, Jesus said:
“If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
Jesus is teaching us how to remain, abide, live, dwell in the amazing love that is the essence of God, and the way to do this is following, obeying, practicing the teachings of Jesus. When we not only read and listen and sermonize about God’s love, but really soak up, meditate on, discuss, and apply Jesus’ will and way of being in this world, we are living in and not running away from God. Jesus, his teaching lived out in our lives, is the key for us to see and experience the love that is the essence of God. And that experience is pure joy.
PS: For more on “God is love” in relationship to the idea of the Trinity, see this post… God’s Love Life: You, Me, & The Trinity. Also, check out chapter 7 in (re)union: the good news of Jesus, for seekers, saints, & sinners.
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