God is love. God loves his people. Those statements are among the axioms of Christianity. They are so familiar that we easily fail to notice how revolutionary they were in Jesus’ time.
After the Last Supper, after Judas departed, Jesus told his disciples, “The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them . . . Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:21, 23 NIV).
A little later, he said, “In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God (John 16:26-27).
The gospels contain no other similar statements!
God’s love in the Old Testament
In common with the Old Testament, Jesus frequently spoke of the requirement to love God. Certainly, the Old Testament contains assertions of God’s love for his people. For example, “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 commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
We can find passages like that easily with a keyword search in tools like Bible Gateway. Before that became possible, people could use a concordance to find them with only a little more difficulty. Here are a few more similar passages:
- And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
- But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors 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. 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 commandments. (Deuteronomy 7:8-9)
- Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him. (Psalm 32:10)
- For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 37:28)
- It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them. (Psalm 44:3)
- You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you. (Psalm 86:5)
From Jesus’ teachings and controversies, it’s clear the people of his day obviously failed to notice much of what Scripture taught about God. In the case of God’s love for his people, I have not quoted all the verses that speak of it, but it’s easy to miss them. Compared to his holiness and his wrath against sin, the Old Testament places little emphasis on his love.
God’s holiness, symbolized by the tabernacle and temple
Holiness means being set apart. The people of Israel were holy and therefore commanded to set themselves apart from the surrounding cultures. All those parts of the Mosaic law that we find strangest can be summarized, “You shall not do what the Canaanites do.”
Within Israel, the Levites were holy and thus set apart from the other tribes. The priests, descendants of Aaron, were holier than the rest of the Levites and thus set apart.
To the popular imagination, God lived in the temple, and before that, the tabernacle. More specifically, his presence dwelt most fully in the Holy of Holies. The law didn’t permit anyone but the high priest to enter there, and that only once a year. He had to follow certain rituals, or he would die there.
The Holy Place stood in front of the Holy of Holies. Only priests and Levites could enter. Anyone else who went near was put to death (Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 18:7).
People could and did go to the tabernacle, and later the temple, to seek God and pray to him. Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1 beautifully illustrates how ordinary people could approach God. But still, the law allowed them to go only so near. Jesus’ earthly life certainly exemplified divine love, but the revelation that the Father also loved them must have come as a surprise to the disciples.
God’s love in the New Testament
According to a common saying, God hates sin but loves sinners. Here are just a few of the verses that express that level of love.
- 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).
- But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
- But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Perhaps we take God’s love for sinners too broadly, however. Let’s not miss some important details. Jesus proclaimed eternal life to “whoever believes in him.” “Still sinners” and “dead in transgression” are past tense. Paul here is in complete agreement with Jesus, who said that the Father will love “anyone who loves me.”
But what of people who don’t love God, who choose to remain sinners? They remain dead in transgression.
- If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
- The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).
Receive the love of the holy God and return it with your own love for him. When you leave your body behind, you’ll live with him in loving fellowship forever. Otherwise?
No one can read very broadly in Scripture without noticing that God has severe punishment in store for anyone who does not love him. Jesus himself spoke of outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and of the hell of fire. Yet a teaching that denies the reality of hell and eternal punishment has become popular nowadays.
Don’t be deceived by the dangerous teaching that God’s love somehow negates his holiness.
We are family!
Jesus called God his Father, and former followers wanted to stone him for making himself equal with God. But in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to say, “Our Father.” When we claim God for our Father, we are not making ourselves equal to him, but we are confessing a revolutionary view of his love.
It would have been enough for Jesus to secure our salvation and save us from wrath. We could praise the goodness of a God who merely forgave us and let us live in peace. But God went way beyond that.
- See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
- For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:14-17).
Now, Paul speaks of sonship—not because he was sexist, but because in Roman society, daughters couldn’t inherit. If he had spoken of sons and daughters in regard to adoption, the women would have understood that they had no more status with God than in society. But the Holy Spirit saves another astounding aspect of God’s love for the very end of the Bible:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” . . . One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:1-4, 8-10).
God does not only accept the church as adopted sons but as his beloved bride. In the new heaven, we will have an intimacy with God of which human marriage is only a shadow. No human could have guessed such a thing. The Holy Spirit has revealed it. And now, what else could we expect of him than extravagant, unlimited love? Love isn’t what God does. It’s who he is.
Salvation Mountain. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Moses pleading. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Tabernacle. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Agnus Dei window. Some rights reserved by Trish Steel
Loving family. Some rights reserved by HazPhotos.
Bride of Christ. Source unknown