Anyone who does not love does not know God,
because God is love.
1 John 4:8 ESV
The words of the LORD must have hit with a thud in Abraham’s chest: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2). But we do not call Abraham the man of faith for nothing. He did as God commanded him. The next day he arose and made the journey with his promised son, the son whom God Himself had given to him and Sarah well past the years of fertility, the son that was to be his heir, through whom Abraham’s offspring would become more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham did not understand God, for what mortal could know the mind of the Eternal One? But he did trust the LORD. God would not contradict His own promise, so if He demanded Isaac to be sacrificed, perhaps He would then raise the boy back from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).
Upon the mountain, Abraham bound his son upon the altar and raised the knife to sacrifice Isaac. Yet the angel of the LORD interrupted, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). Though Abraham’s love for his son was great, he revealed that his love for God was even greater. Yet this testing of Abraham was much bigger than he ever realized. Although God spared Abraham’s son, He was foreshadowing a day when He too would sacrifice His only Son. But on that day, the knife would not be cut short. The slaughtering of God’s own Son would be fulfilled, and it would come to pass out of God’s great love for the very world that chose to reject Him.
GOD IS LOVE
There is likely no attribute of God that is more referenced yet less understood than the love of God. The fact that the Bible communicates to us that “God is love” is well-known even among non-Christians (1 John 4:8), yet our society is obsessed with love itself, not with God Himself. And we must indeed make a distinction between the two. By saying that God is love, John did not also mean the inverse. Love, in other words, is not God; it is an attribute of His holy being. Yet our society tends to deify love rather than worship and serve the God who is love.
This is a grave danger. Since God is the source of all true love, any love that divorces itself from Him is at best incomplete and at worst a blatant and twisted imitation. Indeed, from the Beatles’ declaration that love is all we need up to the present day, the world generally equates love with affection, the feeling of warmth and connection that flows up from the heart for another person or thing. Therefore, the ceaseless counsel to “follow your heart” is the logical next step. If your affections are the most important aspect of who you are, then why would you waste time with anything else? Pursue your desires. Love what you will love. Just let your heart guide you and all will be well.
Yet the prophet Jeremiah wishes to interject. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” he says, “and desperately sick; who can understand it” (17:9)? These words are harsh to modern ears (although I doubt that they stung any less with his original ancient audience). If we will ponder the prophet’s words, we will soon behold their truth. After all, whose affections have not betrayed them? My “love” of cinnamon rolls will certainly not lead to my health and happiness if I indulge it without caution. Or, on a more sobering note, what of the woman who continues to “love” her abuser from one battering to another. Or perhaps we could consider those who “love” their loved one into the abyss by refusing to confront destructive behaviors. The list unfortunately does go on because the heart is deceitful, and we are its main target. The bottom line is that our affections simply cannot be trusted. If we make love into our god, it will inevitably betray us. Subjective emotions were never meant to bear the weight of a deity.
Instead, we must look to the God who is love. The irony of idolatry is at play here. When elevated in the place of God, love ceases to be real love. Yet when received from the hand of God, “love is as strong as death… Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8:6-7). Apart from God, love is unstable and fickle, but when understood as an attribute of God, love carries the fullness of the divine nature with it. If love is elevated above God, it becomes nothing more than a vanity, but when understood as flowing from God, it is seen as truly divine.
Recall that God’s simplicity means that His attributes are not separate pieces of His nature; rather, each attribute is fully who He is. Thus, God’s love is best described via the other attributes. His love is beyond our comprehension. It is fundamental to His being. It is eternal, infinite, immutable, all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, good, true, right, jealous, merciful, gracious, patient, faithful, and holy. In other words, God’s love is not a vague abstract force, but it is His immovable and perfectly good character.
But again, we turn to the cross as the supreme display of God’s love. As 1 John 4:10 states, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The vastness of God’s love is best seen through the giving of His own Son in order to ransom sinners from our eternal debt against Him.
John 3:16 also affirms this truth, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” His love for us was not a squishy and fleeting emotion; it was a deliberate choice to love the very ones who had rejected Him. He did not simply love us at our best; He loved us while we were still covered in the filthiness of our sins. He made us His bride while we were still rebellious sinners, but then in love He also “cleansed [us] by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present [us] to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [we] might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). This love is “deep, very deep; who can find it out” (Ecclesiastes 7:24)?
Indeed, Fredrick Lehman’s hymn may capture best the endless and inexpressible magnitude of God’s saving love for us:
Could we with ink the oceans fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the oceans dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
LOVE GOD; LOVE NEIGHBOR
With a very brief snapshot of God’s love now in view, what application does it now have toward us? Because of God’s unchanging love toward us in salvation, we are now also called to love as He has loved us. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 5:1-2, saying, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Or as 1 John 4:19 states, “we love because he first loved us.”
Reflecting the love of God back to Him and toward our fellow man must be the supreme desire of all who follow Christ. Jesus, after all, summarized the entirety of God’s law into two commands:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.Matthew 22:37–39
We need the commandments of God because we do not love properly. Consider the Ten Commandments. If we loved God with the utmost over our entire being, we do not need to be told not to worship other gods, since we would already be worshiping the LORD with all of ourselves. Likewise, we would never worship manmade images instead of Him, nor would we ever take His name in vain. Instead, He would hallow His name with the greatest joy, delighted to praise and exalted the God whom we love. We would also give reverence to the Sabbath, viewing it as a gift of rest rather than as an unkind limitation thrust upon us.
Likewise, if we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we will give honor to father and mother. We will not commit murder, adultery, or theft. We will speak honestly to one another and about one another. Finally, love would have us rejoice in the blessings of our neighbor rather than covet them for ourselves.
As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:23 about the fruits of the Spirit (the first of which is love), “against such things there is no law.” There is no law against them because law is not needed. Law is given to us as a grace of God to restrain the effects of sin within this broken and fallen world. Love, however, runs contrary to sin. Sin grabs at whatever seems best for self, but love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Love imitates the God of love “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). His love toward us demands our love in return. It is our reasonable service to love Him without limit who first loved us without limit.
Or perhaps we should simply conclude by reflecting upon another hymn:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.