Twice over in the space of a few verses John states that "God is love" (1 Jn 4.8,16). Any attempt to consider the love of God must start with this. That He is love means that this is an essential quality that is in His nature. Just as He is holy and cannot leave holiness aside, so He is love and cannot leave love aside either. He can never be found without these essential characteristics.
An eternal feature of Gods being
Love is a quality that does not exist in isolation. Love must have an object. Given that God is One but in three Persons it is clear that love was enjoyed within the Godhead before any creature was brought into being. Neither angel nor man was required for God to be love.
This truth is amply confirmed by the description of and the words of the Lord Jesus. He is "the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father" (Jn 1.18). It is difficult to do other than conclude that this means that the Father and the Son have always had a relationship marked by love. It is then not surprising to hear the Lord say, "The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand" (Jn 3.35). Conversely, the Saviour states, "I love the Father" (Jn 14.31). Again, in the same verse, evidence is cited that this true since, "as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do".
But what is love?
Love is difficult to define and it seems to me that, in part, the answer to the question so far as Scripture is concerned is that though it may be hard to explain it can be easily seen. In the examples quoted above the evidence of love is that the Father "gives" and that the Son says, "so I do" in obedient response to the Father.
Similarly, when Paul calls for love to be the motive for service and sacrifice he describes it like this: love "suffereth long, and is kind", it "envieth not", and to these he adds a further set of graces that give evidence of love in the one who shows them.
Love is therefore an inner quality that leads to activities that are for the good of the one who is loved. Love has only the best in mind for the loved one. "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" in order that it might be "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing" (Eph 5.25-27).
Why does God love?
In considering Gods love and His command to us to love, it is important to know why God loves. At the time the New Testament was written there was more than one Greek word for love. One of these referred to sensual love, and is not used in Scripture. Another, agape, described the affection of friendship, is often used, and is the word in John 3.35 referred to above.
A further word was used of affection within a family. A derivative of this is found in Romans 12.10 where it is translated "kindly affectioned".
The main word, however, is agape. One feature that sets it apart is that it is a love that has no reasons. Neither sensual attraction, the returned warm affection of a friend, nor the ties of family are required for this love. It answers to the grand statement of Deuteronomy 7.7,8: "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because But because the Lord loved you". God loved Israel as a matter of His own choice and without there being anything about the nation that made it attractive to Him.
Who does God love?
We have seen that there has always been love within the Trinity and that so far as the world of mankind is concerned God loved, and still loves, the nation of Israel: " as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers sakes" (Rom 11.28). Now that love for them persisted through a continuing cycle of rebellion and restoration. The book of Judges is just one portion of Scripture to which one can turn to find this exemplified. So much is this the case that the final book of the Old Testament begins with, "I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us?". This is a word to the nation but directed at individuals. It is the case that God loves those who do not love Him.
The most startling picture of this is given by Hosea (3.1) who is instructed by God, "Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress", and this is pictorially "according to the love of the Lord towards the children of Israel".
While perhaps less striking, it is significant to note that the rich young ruler who came to Christ yet left "sad" and "grieved" was one of whom it states that "Jesus beholding him loved him" (Mk 10.21). One who turned away, rejecting Him, was loved.
With passages of Scripture such as these in mind it is surely not difficult to conclude that John 3.16 should be taken at face value. The preacher who looks at an audience and claims that God loves them has "God so loved the world, that he gave" as his proof and can rest on the fact that God is love and has always has the best for His creatures before Him.
That within this overall characteristic of God there is a love that chooses in a special sense is clear. The nation of Israel is one example of this. No other nation has the same status in His love. We have already noted that "Christ loved the church", and it seems obvious that we are intended to understand from this that He had the church in mind at Calvary, not as an anonymous group but as clearly known to Him as a man knows his wife.
Again one can consider Paul, and find a similar truth. He speaks with warmth of "the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal 2.20). That he saw himself as a specific beneficiary of that love is clear from his words in ch.1 of the same letter where he says that God "separated me from my mothers womb, and called me by his grace" (Gal 1.15).
But what about Esau?
If God loves the world then why does Scripture say that He hated Esau? We have referred already to the beginning of Malachi and it is there that we read, "I loved Jacob, And I hated Esau" (Mal 1.2,3). This is repeated in Romans 9.13.
It has been suggested that the hating is national. That is to say that there is no reference to the individual man. It is true that in Genesis 25 the word to Rebekah was simply around the idea that "the elder shall serve the younger" (v.23), and it is not until Malachi that the reference to Gods hating Esau is found. It is also the case that in Malachi, as in Obadiah, the wicked behaviour of Edom towards God and His people is noted, condemned and judged (see Obad vv.10-14; Mal 1.3,4). Yet the way in which the two statements are cited in Romans 9 suggests that both were prophetic words from the Lord. If so, both come under the phrase, "the children not being born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God might stand" (vv.11-13).
In Romans, attention is drawn to Gods absolute ability to do His own will and accomplish His own purpose without having to give an explanation to men. So, "Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" (Rom 9.20). In an earlier article I have drawn attention to the experience of Job. We know that God is love. We know that God hated Esau. If we cannot understand how these relate to one another then it is because He does not explain and we are unlikely to understand even if He did!
However, we can say this much. Gods prophetic word is more than simply a result of His knowing things before they happen. Gods purposes are worked out in an evil Esau whose series of choices are such as to justify completely the hatred and judgment of God whose holiness was offended day-by-day by that profane man. But we cannot say that God did not at the same time have good for Esau before Him. He is "longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet 3.9). Again, as considered in a previous article, we cannot disentangle our responsibility and Gods sovereign purpose.
How ought we to respond?
To Israel the call was, "Love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might", and, "thy neighbour as thyself" (Deut 6.5; Lev 19.18). These are repeated by the Saviour (Lk 10.27). Paul then takes this up and writes, " if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Rom 13.9). Thus I learn that while it is true that I ought to love my brothers and sisters in Christ (for example, "Beloved, let us love one another", 1 Jn 4.7), I have a responsibility to show love beyond that circle even as God Himself does. Even in relation to the call to love our brethren, too often we tend to think of it as only applying within our own assembly ambit. But we have kinsfolk in Christ who do not meet with us. We owe them also our love.
To be continued.