Three little words form a sentence that sums up the most important lesson of all the biblical writings, and of any writings, for that matter: "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:16). Jesus exemplifies and demonstrates this lesson in his life, death, and resurrection. The lesson embodied in Jesus is that his Father's very nature is self-giving love (agape). God's being loving is not just one among many equally important features of God. God's being loving identifies the very heart of God's character.
In overdrawn confidence, we humans talk much about love, as if we were experts on love. Actually, apart from God's demonstration of love, culminating in Jesus, we have at best a foggy notion of love. We certainly do not find in our own conduct a consistent demonstration of genuine, self-giving love. We need outside help if we are to come to grips with what genuine love is and requires. We need the intervention of a perfectly loving God who shows us what love truly is. Fortunately, we have just this in Jesus, God's beloved Son.
If God's being loving is the heart of His character, we do not have to earn God's love; nor then can we earn it. God's love is always prior to our love. It always comes first, before ours, for God is inherently loving:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 Jn. 4:8-12, NIV).
God first loved us, His enemies, before we even thought of responding to Him. He even sent Jesus, His beloved Son, into enemy territory to prove His self-giving love for us. Genuine love is exemplified not by our loving God, but rather by His loving us in the sending of Jesus to reconcile us, through a free gift of friendship, to Himself.
The apostle Paul states: "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus] and through him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col. 1:19, NIV). Paul puts a similar idea in the language of love (agape): "God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). If you want proof of God's love, look to the crucified and risen Jesus. He is the living proof. Paul acknowledges the Holy Spirit as the means of bringing God's love to us directly: "God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us" (Rom. 5:5). Paul suggests that the same divine love that guided Jesus through Gethsemane to the cross and the resurrection is available to us by God's Spirit within us. God's gift of Jesus is brought home to us, even within us, by the Spirit of God sent to abide in us. God's love-gift of His Son Jesus is thus wrapped in the love-gift of God's Holy Spirit.
God's love is not an abstract idea, a mere feeling or emotion, or just an attitude of tolerance. It is a passionate commitment of God's will to what is good, even to what is good for us. God's love is personified in human flesh in the earthly Jesus, the same Jesus who was crucified and raised from the dead for our reconciliation to his Father. God's love is decisively active; it goes to any extreme, even any painful extreme, to reconcile us to God in true love. This is the core of the Good News of Jesus. The Maker of heaven and earth seeks, out of self-giving love, to adopt us freely into His family as beloved children. Jesus thus called God "Father" (Abba), and he invites us to do the same as we receive the free gift of reconciliation underwritten by Jesus with his life, death, and resurrection. If this isn't Good News, nothing is. We don't deserve it, but we are uniquely blessed to have it, despite ourselves.
In John's Gospel, Jesus sums up his unique mission of divine love:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed 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, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command (Jn. 15:9-14, NIV).
The self-giving love of Jesus for us is anchored in his Father's love for him. Indeed, Jesus abides in his Father's love by faithfully obeying his Father, and he commands us to obey his Father likewise. A big surprise here is that the divine love commands have a goal: joy. God intends His self-giving love among us to flow into joy, the uplift of one's soul by God that endures come what may, even in suffering. Joy is thus the litmus test of the presence of divine love. It separates the genuine article from the morass of counterfeits.
We properly receive God's love only by treasuring it above all else, with heartfelt thanksgiving, and conforming our will to His in faithful obedience. In short, we properly receive God's love by crowning Jesus as Lord with all we are and have. We must count as rubbish all things that interfere with crowning Jesus as Lord of our lives (Phil. 3:7-11). That is, we must renounce all of our idols as pointless and even repulsive. Nothing must be allowed to diminish the power of God's love in our lives. Not even knowledge and prophecy take precedence over divine love. As Paul remarks: "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge..., but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). God's amazing gift of love in Jesus saves us from being nothing. Will we receive this gift of life?