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God is Love.

An explanation of God's character, which is love, its revelation to Israel and to us, and its implications

Chapter 3 in About God
this chapter by Ian B. Johnson.


Love defines God's character forever

God is love. Love defines his character.

He who doesn't love doesn't know God, for God is love... We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.
I John 4:8 & 16 (WEB)

Previous chapters have established that God is eternally one, of a single mind and purpose, unchanging. Therefore, if God is love, he is love forever, from before the creation of the world until after the end of time. He is love that never changes. He is not love today and hate tomorrow. He is not love in some situations and indifference in others. He is not love until I disobey him and then vengeance, love forgotten. His character is not dependent on my actions. All of his acts and all of his purpose are consistent with love (1).

God is everything the scriptures say love is

What, then, is the content of God's love?

First of all, because God is love, God is everything love is. For instance, love is patient and kind. I Corinthians 13:4-5. Therefore, God is patient and kind. The first three verses of I Corinthians 13 clearly demonstrate that the list of attributes in verses 4-8 applies to God, and not as a list of behaviors we must attempt to manifest in order to make ourselves like him. These verses state that even apparent spiritual gifts and acts of great charity -- giving all I have to the poor and giving my body to be burned -- will gain me nothing unless I "have" love. Paul does not say that I must "do" love, or "feel"love, or "act" lovingly, but that I must "have" love. God is love, so if I have God, I have love and actions will follow to the extent I give God freedom to act.

In an active sense, then, God is patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, and always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. In a passive sense, love is not envious, boastful, rude, self-seeking, or easily angered, does not delight in evil and keeps no record of wrongs. I Corinthians 13:4-7 All of these statements describe both love and God. Finally, love never fails. I Corinthians 13:8

God's covenant of love with Israel

To Israel, God revealed himself most of all as one who loves and keeps his covenant of love:

For you are a holy people to Yahweh your God: Yahweh your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, above all peoples who are on the face of the earth. Yahweh didn't set his love on you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples: but because Yahweh loves you, and because he would keep the oath which he swore to your fathers, has Yahweh brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that Yahweh your God, he is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and loving kindness with them who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations, and repays those who hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him who hates him, he will repay him to his face. You shall therefore keep the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day, to do them. It shall happen, because you listen to these ordinances, and keep and do them, that Yahweh your God will keep with you the covenant and the loving kindness which he swore to your fathers: and he will love you, and bless you, and multiply you...
Deuteronomy 7:6-13a (WEB)

As the God who keeps his covenant of love (1), he chose Israel from among the peoples to make them his own, redeemed them, sustained them and patiently sought their hearts and their love. God chose Israel because he loved their forefathers. Deuteronomy 4:37; Romans 1:13. Because he chose them, he set his love upon them, and drew them to himself with love. Deuteronomy 7:7, Jeremiah 31:3-4; Hosea 11:1-4. He brought Israel out of Egypt and carried them "on eagles' wings" to the place he had prepared for them. Exodus 19:4. He offered to walk among them and make them into a kingdom of priests who would all know him. Exodus 19:5-6; Leviticus 26:11-12. Moreover, when Israel collectively followed God in their own land, he showed them the blessings he had promised -- increase in numbers, long life, peace and abundant prosperity. Leviticus 26:3-13; Deuteronomy 28:1-26; Joshua 21:43-45, 23:1-11; 2 Chronicles 9:20. He defended Israel from their enemies, protected them and guarded all that they possessed. Deuteronomy 23:14; 2 Chronicles 16:9, 20:29. God made no similar covenant with any other people; the covenant blessings belonged uniquely to Israel. 2 Samuel 7:23-24.(2)

Israel rejected God's love, preferring rules and distance from God

But Israel declined to be a kingdom of priests who all knew God. Although God had treated them with great kindness, their fear that God would kill them was so great that they begged God not to speak to them directly, instead asking him to tell Moses what things they should do. Exodus 20:18-20; Deuteronomy 5:4-5, 22-25. It should be noted that, when Israel made this request, God was speaking to them directly and they were not dead [Deuteronomy 5:24; Exodus 24:9-11]; the perception that God desired to kill them was patently erroneous (3). Nevertheless, God honored their request and gave Israel the Law, the Tabernacle, the human priesthood and prophets. Exodus 20:20-21, 21:1, 24:17, 25:8-9, 28:1; Deuteronomy 5:22-31, 18:14-19. All of these institutions together were designed to permit any individual Israelite who was not a priest to maintain a relationship with God without ever seeing him, hearing him or speaking to him personally (4).

The Law, which if any man do these things he shall live, permitted the individual to know God's will in thousands of individual choice situations without taking the risk involved in asking him directly. Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 5:27-33; Psalm 119:97-104. The tabernacle permitted the people to perceive God as walking among them, yet at a psychologically safe distance -- he did not dwell in every Israelite's tent, but only in the Tabernacle, behind veils, where they would never be required -- or even permitted -- to look at him. Exodus 40:20-21, 34-38; Leviticus 16:1-2, 29-30; Hebrews 9:6-7. The priesthood gave Israel representatives who would appear before God in their place and offer on their behalf sacrifices to appease God's anger, greatly reducing the need to speak to him directly. Leviticus, generally; Hebrews 5:1-3 . The institution of the prophets permitted God to speak to the people when necessary without speaking to them directly. Deuteronomy 18:14-19; I Samuel 3:2-10. In this matter, God gave his people what they asked for -- the means to live in covenant with him, receiving his love without ever speaking with him directly.

There were and are always Israelites who know God's love.

However, throughout the time of God's exclusive covenant with Israel, there were Israelites who knew the open "secret" behind the law -- that God had always desired that each of his people know him. Psalm 36:5-10; Jeremiah 31:31-34. Perhaps the best example of these Israelites who knew God was David, who is called a man after God's own heart. I Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22. David was not a priest, yet he often spoke to God directly, as many of the Psalms attest. Moreover, David was not one of the institutional prophets, yet God sometimes spoke to him directly in answer to his prayers. E.g., I Samuel 23:4-5, 10-12, 30:7-8; 2 Samuel 2:1; Psalm 91:14-16, 108:7-9, 110:4. Nevertheless, David loved the Law as the means of knowing both God and how to live. E.g., Psalm 119:129-136. Further, while David never administered a ritual sacrifice, he understood that the sacrifice God truly desired of his people individually was a broken and contrite spirit, a spirit which rejoices to be in his presence. See, e.g., Psalm 16:11; Psalm 51:11, 16-17; Psalm 65:2-4. 100:4-5. David is only one example of many individuals during this period who also had personal relationships with God (5).

God eventually removes part of His protection from those who do not want Him around. Then bad things happen.

Although God had promised his protection to Israel, throughout their history there have been times when he removed a portion of his protection (which they perceived as interference) and let them have the fruit of their own way -- judgment by fear, famine, disease, violence, war and exile. Jeremiah 6:16-19. These judgments were not what God intended for Israel: he told them to choose life and the blessings of obedience. Deuteronomy 30:19-20. But God had spoken blessings on their obedience and curses on their disobedience, and the people had voluntarily taken these blessings and curses upon themselves. Deuteronomy 27:12-26; Joshua 8:30-35.

However, Israel was a rebellious people. Ezekiel 12:2, 21:24; I Samuel 15:22-23. They sinned repeatedly in their rebellion. See, Judges 2:16-23; Ezekiel 16, 20. They received the curses appropriate to their rebellion. Jeremiah 5:23-25; Micah 6:9-15; Amos 5:1-3. Israel was judged by the words God had spoken and they had taken upon themselves. John 5:22-23; 12:47-48; Rom. 2:12; Rev. 19:11-16.. Nevertheless, God was patient with Israel, protecting them for the sake of his covenant for some time after they had collectively rejected him and sending prophets to warn them of the consequences of their way. Zechariah 1:2-6. However, because Israel had the right to choose who they would serve, after patiently warning them, God withdrew part of his unwanted protection and let them bear judgment. Jeremiah 5:24-25; Hosea 4:4-7.

Nevertheless, God never withdrew all of his protection. He always preserved a remnant who served him out of Israel. Isaiah 10:20-21, 11:10-12, 37:31-32; Romans 10:21-11:5. He never ceased pursuing Israel, seeking to win the heart of his unfaithful bride. Hosea 2:14-3:5; Jeremiah 3. He always restored Israel after their times of judgment, and always will. E.g., I Samuel 12:6-11; Micah 5:7-9; Romans 11:25-26; Revelation 7:1-8, 14:1-5, 21:10-12. God keeps his covenant of love with Israel to this day. Isaiah 46:3-4; Jeremiah 23:3-8..

God shows His love to, within and through the Church.

To the Church, and to people of the present age, God plainly reveals himself as the God who has loved his people since before the foundation of the world and therefore lives not just among them, as was true of Israel, but within them. Jesus stated this when he prayed:

Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world hasn't known you, but I knew you; and these knew that you sent me. I made known to them your name, and will make it known; that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.
John 17:20-26 (WEB)

God's love is revealed to us and to the world by Jesus, who gave himself for us, dying for our sins so that anyone who believes in him may be saved. John 3:16-18; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 5:1-2; I John 3:16 & 4:9. God's love is also revealed to us and to the world in the way the natural world which he created provides for human needs in spite of human sins. Matthew 5:44-48. God reveals his love to the world in our love for each other. John 13:34-35 & 17:20-23.

God's love is revealed to us because he has made us his children. I John 3:1-2. Because of his great love for us, God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions. Ephesians 2:5. God's love is revealed to us -- we know that we live in him and he in us -- because he gave us his Spirit. John 14:15-17; I John 4:13; Romans 8:15-16. God pours out his love in our hearts through his Spirit which lives in us. Romans 5:5. God's love in our hearts produces peace, joy, hope, confidence in God and freedom from fear (6). John 14:23-27; I John 4:15-18; Galatians 5:6, 22-23. Because of his love, God gives us eternal encouragement and good hope and strengthens us to do every good work. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17. He directs our hearts into his love and perfects his love in us. 2 Thessalonians 3:5; I John 4:12. It is God's desire to live through us, that Christ may be seen in us. Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:1-4. God desires more than merely that we comply with his written instructions, as was his requirement in Old Testament times; rather, now God desires that his Son live through us in a way so intimate that it is described as eating his flesh and drinking his blood. John 6:53-58.

God's love is also made obvious to us in that, through his Son, God graciously gives us all things. Romans 8:31-32. The love of God for us is also shown by his promise to do anything we ask in Jesus name (7). John 16:23-28. God's love is also revealed to us in his discipline and correction of us as his children. Hebrews 12:5-11. We are more than conquerors in this love from which we cannot be separated. Romans 8:35-39.

Indeed, knowing from experience the depth of God's love is so important that Paul prayed:

That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ's love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:16-19. (WEB)


End notes

  1. The NIV renders "covenant and loving kindness" in this text as "covenant of love." This is actually closer to the meaning of the original text, which implies not just that God keeps His covenant and love, as separate quantitities, but that his covenant consists of love and kindness.
  2. This statement does not deny the reality of punishment for sin. Rather, it denies that love and punishment are incompatible, that God must momentarily cease to be love when punishment occurs. Abounding love and punishment are both parts of God's name, but love is named first. Exodus 34:6-7.
  3. This should not be understood to imply that God confined the manifestations of his love to only the members of one race during Old Testament times. Gentiles to whom God manifested his love in the scriptural record include Abram before he was given the sign of circumcision (Genesis 12-16), Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14 & 21:17-20), Ishmael (with a promise concerning his descendants) (Genesis 17:20 & 21:13), Abimelech King of Gerar (Genesis 20), at least 14 of David's "mighty men" (2 Samuel 23:8-39), Job, Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1-7), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4 & 5), Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5) and the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:9-10). What Israel had was a unique covenant, not sole claim on God's love. Matthew 5:44-45;Acts 17:24-31.
  4. A human is only in danger in God's presence because of his own fear, which springs from a defiled conscience. Matthew 7:1-2; Romans 2:12-16; I John 3:19-22.
  5. This is not intended to imply that shielding men from God was the only purpose of the Law, the prophets and the tabernacle. The Law was also given to restrain evil in the world, to state the curse that applied to transgressors, and to teach men that they could not keep it and needed a savior. Deuteronomy 28:15-68;Galatians 3: 10,19-25. The prophets were also given to alter the course of history, speaking God's word into the world, tearing down and overthrowing kingdoms, and building and planting them by their words. Jeremiah 1:9-10; Deuteronomy 18:17-22. The tabernacle was also given to serve as an earthly picture of the real temple in heaven, pointing to the need for Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice for sins. Hebrews 8:5-6 The priests were also given as pictures of Jesus' offering of himself for us and of Jesus who hears us and sympathizes with our weakness. Hebrews, passim. But the motivating cause behind all of these was the people's request to be shielded from God.
  6. Here is a non-exhaustive list: Moses (numerous references); Aaron (Numbers 18); Joshua (Joshua 1:1-2); Deborah (Judges 4:6); Gideon (Judges 6:12); Manoah and his wife (Judges 13); Samuel (I Samuel 3); Solomon (I Kings 3:10-14); Elijah (I Kings 19:9-18); Isaiah (Isaiah 6); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10); Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:1-3); Hosea (Hosea 1:2).
  7. Of course, we can prevent all these things, wholly or in part, by resisting the Spirit and by refusing to obey God's word. John 14: 21, 23-24; John 15:4-6; Ephesians 4:30; I Thessalonians 4:19.
  8. The context of these promises demonstrates that "in Jesus name" means "on Jesus' behalf" -- i.e., asking for that which Jesus desires. We are commanded in other places to pray "in the Holy Spirit." Jude 20. This is the same thing as praying in Jesus name -- both mean listening to God, listening to His word, and praying for what God wants. Matthew 7:10. God has not promised to give me whatever I want as long as I add the words "in Jesus' name" to my prayer. See, James 4:1&45;5.

Ian Johnson
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© 1998, 2005 Ian Johnson

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