“God is love” (1 John 4:6, 16). But what does that mean? What does it look like?
This attribute or perfection of God is communicable or transferrable to us because we are made in God’s image, he pours his love on us, and he gives us grace and power to share his love with others.
In this post love and mercy and lovingkindness will be analyzed together.
Let’s define it.
What do theologians say?
Mounce’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says that the Hebrew word ḥesed (pronounced khesed) “is one of the riches, more theologically insightful terms in the OT. It denotes ‘kindness, love, loyalty, mercy,’ most poignantly employed in the context of relationship between God and humans as well as between human and another—the former relationship using the word three times as often as the latter” (p. 426). Then he goes on to highlight the covenant relation God has with Israel. So ḥesed means “covenant love,” which further means he is totally committed.
In the New Testament, we focus on the main word for love: agapē (pronounced agapee or agapay). It too means total commitment and giving the best to the recipient. In secular Greek literature it was not used often, and it was neutral. So the New Testament authors picked up on it and transformed it.
Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams expands on it:
God is centrally the God of love. Love is the very essence of the divine nature … One does not need to go behind some loving action and ask why God did it. Since God is love, love is His self-expression. … God is holy, even thrice holy; yet it is never said God is holiness. Love is the very essence of God. It is not the love is God (which is an idolatrous statement), but that God is love. … [T]he love of God is spontaneous. God loves because love is His very nature; the world does not necessitate love. For God in Himself is love eternally—the mutuality of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus he does He does not need a world to express that love. He did not create the world and man in order to have some necessary outlet for expressing His love—without or without a world (vol. 1, 63, 65).
He goes on to say God’s love is self-giving, not self-seeking; apprehended by God’s actions; and unfathomable. It is connected to his grace, mercy, lovingkindness and goodness. (pp. 65-68)
This attribute or perfection of God means that he is totally committed to his people, and prompts him to deal kindly and mercifully and generously with humankind.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV here, unless otherwise noted. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
Yes, God is faithful to his covenant. Moses tells the children of Israel God also loved them, not only their ancestors, so he delivered them from the oppression of Egypt. However, this is the conditional Sinai covenant: “If … then.” If you pay attention to the laws, then the Lord will keep his covenant of love with you. The New Covenant is unconditional. But we can still draw the blessings and promises from these sacred verses.
8 But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. … 12 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. 13 He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you. (Deut. 7:8-9, 12-13)
Yes, God’s covenant love is conditional (v. 12), but God still maintained a remnant, so he kept his covenant with them due to his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3 and Rom. 11:5-6).
King David in the Psalms lists the blessing the Lord has bestowed on the king.
7 For the king trusts in the Lord; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken. (Ps. 21:7)
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Ps. 23:6)
Isaiah retells the steadfast love of the Lord:
7 I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Is. 63:7-9, ESV)
The Lord tells his people how long he has loved them
3 The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with lovingkindness.” (Jer. 31:3)
Hosea had a difficult calling. He was to marry a prostitute, and she became unfaithful, just like Israel became unfaithful and chased other gods. Yet still the Lord loved his people.
1 The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.” (Hos. 3:1)
God’s love has to be expressed. In this verse he gave it the ultimate expression:
16 “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)
This verse is a blessing because it is so personal:
5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Rom. 5:5)
So in that verse, the Holy Spirit is the agent or channel of God’s love.
This verse reinforces John 3:16, using different words, but the sharing the same essential message:
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)
The next promise is wonderful and is a restatement of God’s total commitment to us—his covenant love:
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 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. (Rom. 8:35-39)
Once again the theme of John 3:16 is reinforced here:
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Eph. 2:4-5)
These verses connect God’s kindness and love, teaching us that God’s mercy saved us, not our works:
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:4-5)
The Apostle John is famous for teaching us about the love of God. This verse stands in for many others:
1 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)
How do I know God better?
Let’s get to know God in his essence and very being. The fullest revelation of Scripture says that God is triune, three persons in one God. Before God made the heavens and the earth and the angels, God was love. They enjoyed communion with each other in love. The Spirit was the agent, as he was to us (Rom. 5:5). No situation arose when they had to show justice or undeserved mercy or grace or righteousness or justice. They had those attributes to their fullest, but they were not the core of their communion.
Next, God created the heavens and the earth and humanity in the beginning. He did this out of his love, not out of his need or sense of incompleteness. Now he shows us his love by giving all of humanity moral law which they can perceive through reason and conscience, also gifts of God. He did this so that humans could survive and thrive and not wipe each other out. Yet, humans did fight and quarrel and kill. Sometimes he had to judge them—the ultimate example is the moral lesson behind Noah’s flood. Yet, he ordained that humans could survive. He loved them and was totally committed to them. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Heb. 12:6). Sometimes love has to correct and discipline.
Further, God really shines and pours out his love on his people, the church. He can never stop loving his church. He could not contradict his nature. Love runs deep, undeniably part and parcel of his very essence. Can anyone square a circle? No. Can God stop loving you? No.
Finally, when God pours his love on his people, he expects it to overflow to those outside of the church. “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” (1 John 4:7-8). That is a guideline and goal to shoot for. Do we always love people? No (I surely don’t), but let’s pray that God’s love will overflow.
So, when you see someone who looks unlovable, whisper a prayer or say it in your mind, “God you love him. I don’t know him, and he looks unlovable. Just show him your love for me and through me.”
That is how we know God more deeply.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Love