Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 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.—1 John 4:8–10
Describing the love of God is like trying to tackle a pool table. You can give it your best shot, but ultimately it is far too big for you to get your arms round, so any attempt you make will be hopelessly limited. There is so much that we could say about the love of God—and the even more amazing truth that God is love—that in this reflection we will restrict ourselves to looking at what John says about it here. In these three beautiful verses, John points out the love of God in his identity (“God is love”), in his incarnation (“God sent his only Son into the world”), and in his initiation of relationship with us (“not that we have loved God, but that he loved us”). Each is powerful and moving.
Come with me back in time, to before the foundation of the world. There is no sky, no earth, no cornflakes, and certainly no you. How can God have been love then? What else was there to love? We would be incapable of love in such a situation, but John informs us here that love is something God is, not just something he does. So who or what was he loving? John 17:24 provides the answer:
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
God was loving God! Before anything existed, there was a loving community in the Godhead, with each of the members of the Trinity loving one another. The Father, when faced with the radiance and perfection of the Son, could have no other reaction than love. The Spirit, watching the compassion and might of the Father, could like-wise not respond with anything but deep affection. God does not just love sometimes, or even all the time; he is love, so much so that anyone who doesn’t love doesn’t even know him.
Now come to a cowshed in the Middle East in 4 BC. Love is not a fuzzy feeling, but a self-giving commitment that results in action, and here we are going to get an example of what that involved. It involved sending the Son, from his position in heavenly glory and sinless perfection, to earth, to become flesh. You know the shock your body gets when you jump from a hot tub into an icy pool? (If you don’t, try it sometime.) Now imagine going from a place where there was no sin at all, to a place like Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, or London for that matter. It involved the Son laying aside his majesty and becoming an infant who fell over and vomited and soiled his nappy and grazed his knees. It involved walking a mile in our shoes, facing temptation of all kinds, misunderstanding, bereavement, and rejection. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).
Now come with me about ten miles north of there, to a rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, thirty-three years later. Much has changed. The infant, the most powerful symbol of the love of God that could ever have been given, has grown up into a man, but a man no longer physically recognizable because of the welts on his face and the ripped flesh across his chest and back. The sky above him no longer has bright stars in the night, but dark clouds in the day. The two people next to him are not loving parents, but common criminals; the crowds have changed from saying, “Hosanna in the highest” to “His blood be upon us and our children.” His earthly father has died. His closest friends have abandoned, denied, or betrayed him. His enemies have mocked and humiliated him. The government has stripped, tortured, and cru- cified him. And the wrath of God at all our lies and lusts and pride and envy and greed is being poured out on him, breaking utterly the fellowship with the Father and the Spirit that he has experienced and exulted in since before the foundation of the world.
If that doesn’t explain to you what the love of God is, come closer to the cross, and listen to what Jesus is saying. The only one who matters is thinking of his mother, his friend, and even the criminal next to him. The God who created water is asking for a drink. The God-man whose presence had never borne any sin is crying out in anguish at being forsaken by his Father. The man with nails through his wrists and feet, his lungs slowly filling with his own blood, is crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Astoundingly, the one who decided to allow man to make his own choices, now fully experiencing their consequences, is shouting triumphantly that those consequences have been dealt with, finished—a victory cry that still resounds across history, affirming once and for all that the love of God is a love of both power and passion, both perfection and propitiation.
“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.” Amen and amen.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and has theology degrees from Cambridge (MA), London School of Theology (MTh), and King’s College London (PhD). He is a columnist for Christianity Today and has written several books, including Unbreakable and God of All Things.