A new year has arrived, and as we look around an increasingly ungodly, violent and troubled world we are grateful more and more for the steadfast love of the Lord. His love is foundational to everything that he is, and to our faith in him.
I think the world in general but also many Christians see God as powerful, holy, glorious, righteous and having an absolute stance on right and wrong that makes him seem stern and judgmental. That may well be so, but to stop there is to miss the most important attribute of all – love.
God IS love
“God’s love is unconditional; his love is very different from the love we experience with one another because it is not based on feelings. He doesn’t love us because we please him. He loves us simply because He is love. An entire passage found in 1 John 4:7-21 speaks of God’s loving nature. Love is not merely an attribute of God, it is his very nature. God is not only loving, he is fundamentally love. God alone loves in the completeness and perfection of love.” [Source]
Those of us growing up in disciplinarian households, or with distant or non-emotional parents, have a hard time seeing a father-figure as expressing love.
Rules and regulations, behaviour, standards, getting things done, endurance, self-sacrifice for the greater good – all these are the qualities easier to associate with leadership and service than parenting.
But, as Paul said, even if I strive for perfection, and am willing to endure the greatest hardship for Christ, but yet “have not love” I’m missing the point. 1Cor 13:3 “though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
Love is vital; love is central to God and therefore to his people. So much so that the final and most important command of Jesus as he left his disciples on earth was “love one another!”
Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end…. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
Right away in the Gospels it tells you WHY Jesus came to earth, his motive. It wasn’t to judge nor to condemn, but to SAVE, in LOVE.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
Judgement is about the Law, and the just punishment for breaking the Law of God is death. But Jesus summed up ALL the law and commandments in terms of love:
The Greatest Commandment of the Law
Matt 22: 34-40
“When the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, who was a lawyer, asked him a question, testing him, and saying,’Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said unto him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It’s fairly easy to see why Jesus replied to the trickery and hypocrisy of the law-abiding oh-so-righteous Pharisees in this way, because they epitomise the attitude of many law-abiding religious people, even to this day, who have purity of actions but no genuine love in their hearts.
Jesus did nothing but emphasise the very FIRST commandment (one that is often overlooked by legalists) that LOVE and devotion to God alone is the bedrock of all that God is and requires.
God began the 10 Commandments this way: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2-3). This First Commandment sets the tone for the first four commandments, which can be summarized as, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus Christ called this summation the great commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). [Source]
A Despot or a Friend?
For the world, a God who loves is perhaps a strange concept. For Christians, a loving God is not so strange. Jesus called his followers children and friends. He said that love will even cause a man to lay down his life for his friends:
John 15 9-13
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 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. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends“.
But Jesus not only laid down his life for his friends, he went further: he died for us while we were still in sin and rejecting him! He died for those who despised and mocked him! THIS is God’s love.
“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“.
God’s Love is Absolute
In the world in general, gods were not known for love. The Greek and Roman gods were despots; the Celtic ones were just as bad, striking down those who displeased them without mercy.
The world’s concept of gods is that of thunder-bolts and servile terror; irrational overlords, easily angered, who demand worship and service with no regard to human frailty.
And still today people outside and even inside the churches are prone to see God in the same way. They are eager to see God’s hands in a tragedy, as if punishment is being meted out on the ungodly by a rather petulant God who is quick to anger and slow to forgive (the exact opposite of the truth)
Yet when Jesus addressed the very same thoughts, he refused to pin the blame for tragedy on such a vengeful God.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. ’”
The Old Testament God
For some, the Old Testament is primarily about sin and the Law. It is the story of a nation called by God who were so often disobedient to God’s laws, that they were frequently overrun by their enemies and ultimately exiled because of their wickedness.
So it is that ordinary people blame God for disasters. They see the OT God in the same light as the other gods, resulting in a reluctance to respond to him or even believe in him, for fear of punishment. He is so exacting and punctilious that nobody can escape judgement, so don’t even go there!
They wrong the Lord in thinking so! They miss the entire point of God’s interaction with mankind.
Reading about a God who delights to stroll with his friends, Adam and Eve, in the cool of the evening, to have a chat and catch up on the news, to share problems and victories, just to enjoy one another’s company – this is a picture of fellowship not legalism!
There is nothing more sweet than fellowship with our loving Father! To be enabled, by the sacrifice of Christ, to enter his presence freely is one of the wonders of our faith, and a great privilege.
Even after the pure fellowship that God had with Adam and Eve was tainted and marred by rebellion, God’s reaction was one of recovery and damage limitation, not rage and abandonment. Can we believe that God’s heart was broken at the loss of his friends?
Love! God created mankind in love, and relates to it in love.
That is the motive for God’s actions during the long course of man’s history – that of a shepherd seeking his “lost sheep”, a father embracing his runaway son.
It is a master forgiving his servants a great debt and also (for both Old and New Testament believers), it is a Bridegroom wooing a Bride!
The Law or Loving God?
Reading the books of the Prophets in the Old Testament we might be forgiven for seeing it as a centuries-long battle between God’s commands and man’s wickedness. Yet there we can uncover the truth about God’s love.
At base, God called the nation of Israel as his “wife” – their relationship was that close and personal.
God joined himself to Israel, at times appearing to them as the Angel of the Lord, or the Glory in the Temple. During their long trek through the wilderness they were led by the Lord as a Pillar of fire or cloud.
Moses received the hand-written commandments during a face-to-face encounter with God, seen on the mountain as fire and clouds. (And read Hebrews 12:18-24)
We know that judgement came upon Israel many times (yet not without promises of restoration). But God declares that they “brought it upon themselves” by forsaking his love. (Jer 2:17)
When a Wife is Unfaithful
Let’s see what God hated most about Israel’s actions: not their injustice or law-breaking so much as their UNFAITHFULNESS towards him. God’s wife played the Harlot, and offended the deep love of God. (And compare Revelation 17).
God is married to Israel (Jer 3:14) and her sin was to forsake her divine Husband and turn to other lovers, other gods, other nations. She trusted in others, not God. This is the basis of all idolatry. “But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,” declares the LORD.” Jer 3:20
Thus came her punishment, banishment and exile.“I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries”. Jer 3:8
Just as with Adam and Eve, as with Israel, as with the Church today, God is offended at idolatry – the sin of caring more about something else than God alone [be it money, fame, security, health, safety, other people…].
Idolatry today may be the worship of self, or prominence, or career, or possessions. It may be the decision to tone down our faith so as not to offend our family, because good relations with other people is more important than the truths of the gospel. Anything that turns our heads away from the pure unadulterated love of God is breaking the very first commandment. Sin follows closely on the heels of that defection!
It was not bad behaviour in itself that brought spiritual death and the end of fellowship to Adam and Eve. Sin followed in the wake of their decision to seek something for themselves, apart from God.
The death of their relationship with Jesus in the Garden was not so much a punishment as a consequence. Remember that. And all it took was desiring and yearning after something ‘good’ like wisdom and knowledge, but outside of the guiding hand of LOVE.
Losing Your First Love
When Jesus commanded that his words be conveyed to the church at Ephesus, he appeared to describe them in glowing terms, and their conduct would have made any church today proud, yet he had this against them: you have lost your first love, the love you had that was so all-consuming that you would have died for Me, when you were first saved. (Rev 2:4).
These fine Christians had patience, endurance, faith, good works, zeal for truth – they courageously confronted false apostles and heretics and dealt with them – they defended the faith, upheld biblical truth, YET Jesus has “something against you” – their love for him had dimmed.
They were zealous and courageous, doing all the right things, but they needed to repent all the same, for not loving the Lord God with ALL their hearts, minds, souls and strength, and setting God at the high pinnacle of all their endeavours, as supreme and unmovable love.
Do we all need to take heed?
5 You burn with lust among the oaks
and under every spreading tree;
you sacrifice your children in the ravines
and under the overhanging crags.
6 The idols among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion;
indeed, they are your lot.
Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings
and offered grain offerings.
In view of all this, should I relent?
7 You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill;
there you went up to offer your sacrifices.
8 Behind your doors and your doorposts
you have put your pagan symbols.
Forsaking me, you uncovered your bed,
you climbed into it and opened it wide;
you made a pact with those whose beds you love,
and you looked with lust on their naked bodies.
9 You went to Molek with olive oil
and increased your perfumes….
11 “Whom have you so dreaded and feared
that you have not been true to me,
and have neither remembered me
nor taken this to heart?
Is it not because I have long been silent
that you do not fear me?
12 I will expose your righteousness and your works,
and they will not benefit you.
13 When you cry out for help,
let your collection of idols save you!
Fredrick Martin Lehman (1868-1953) was the author and the composer of this hymn. It is said that the words of the final verse of this hymn were found written on the wall of a mental hospital ward.