Peter Sammons reflects on the love of God. Part 2 of 2.
Love in the fellowship: a truly New Testament perspective
In the first article we noted that the English word love is slippery, with disparate meanings. We explored at some length the reality of agape (love) that must characterize the life of Believers – and an extremely important point to note is that this agape is corporate, as well as personal. Many commands of Jesus in the Gospels, as well as the teachings of the apostles in their letters, are addressed to Believers about relating to each other. These instructions are to shape the life of churches (fellowships of Christians), teaching them about how brothers and sisters in Messiah Jesus are to behave towards one another, making a reality of the concept of ‘one new man’, or ‘one new humanity’ (Ephesians 2:14).
The demands of relating to other Believers makes for a salutary message, and a dimension of New Testament teaching often unfamiliar to Believers today, who can be inadequately aware of the corporate dynamic of the fellowship of disciples in our individualistic age, and culture. New Testament teaching about love applies today to every disciple of Jesus personally, and to every group of Christians that meet corporately.
Our agape love toward God: an essential easy to miss!
We have considered God’s agape love expressed in the single act in which he once gave his only-begotten Son as the perfect sacrifice for our sin so that we might not perish but instead have eternal life. We have also considered the agape love that believers in the fellowship are to have for each other. But there is another vital kind of agape love that disciples are to have – the agape love of the Believer toward Messiah Jesus.
Again, this is a dimension which is often missed, yet it is essential in the Christian Way. What exactly is this kind of agape love? It is obviously somewhat different from God’s love toward us; as we have seen God has provided for our greatest need in the person of his Son Messiah Jesus. God himself has no ‘need’ that we could meet as he is perfect and he already owns everything! There is a popular misconception about what our love toward God should be like.
Too often we encounter a ‘sentimental’ view of the matter which says it is like being ‘in love’ with Jesus. But that way of putting it is a usage in English which does not express the key that Jesus provided. Happily, Jesus did speak of the kind of love that every disciple is to have toward God, and it is extremely simple – straightforward enough for even the most uneducated believer to understand and live out. Jesus said: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my [agape] love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 14:10); and, “If you love [agape] me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The message is clear – obedience is central. Moreover, it is a
message directed to those who are already believers, so that they will continue, persevere, and abide in (agape) love. They are not to fall into disobedience to God; they are not to wander away into a position of unbelief or to adopt immoral ways of behaving.
The ‘R’ Word
In our first article we suggested a word beginning with “R” that best describes the nature and purpose of God. That word is ‘righteous’. Even a casual glance at a bible concordance shows the great preponderance of this epithet in relation to God. It is God’s righteousness that guarantees our eternal destiny – the profound mystery that God grants his righteousness to the penitent sinner. This amazing grace means that bad people can become good people as we exchange our sins for Jesus’ righteousness – imputed to us. That’s a big subject and would require it’s own article to fully explore.
Another “R” word that is helpful is ‘relationship’, although this is not stated as such in scripture. Yet it is a self – evident truism that God desires to have familial relationship with all people. He desires to adopt all to be members of his eternal family – to ‘adopt’ us as ‘sons’ with eternal inheritance rights; rights granted to us through grace – rights earned for us by Jesus – rights that are a mercy, not an entitlement.
Readers should study chapters 14–17 of John’s Gospel with these three questions in mind: *what did Jesus say concerning the love God has towards the disciples, and *about the love we are to have toward himself (Jesus), and *about the love believers are to have toward each other? Such study reveals that the love of God is very far from being ‘unconditional’. The word ‘unconditional’ does not appear in scripture, yet is often heard today! Jesus often says “If….” Note carefully the points at which he does so, in order to understand, and to minister the word of truth faithfully to others.
Favourite verse – for God so …
What of John 3:16, a verse considered by many to be the most important in the entire Bible, which includes the words ‘… for God so loved the world …’? Once again, a significant problem arises in translation:
The word often rendered ‘so’ means ‘thus’. It refers back to something else – the event referred to in John 3:14, in fact! From verse 14 we learn that God gave his Son ‘thus’ – in the same way as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert. The snake on the pole in that context was used by God to provide the way sinners could avoid the death sentence for their sin of disbelief and grumbling, for which they were being punished in the desert. This was why they were being killed by snakes, as a direct punishment for their sin. ‘Thus’ or ‘so’ indicates how Jesus being lifted up (on the cross) is, in the same way, the only means by which humans may have their sins forgiven and so be freed from the sentence of death that sin deserves.
People tend to think that John 3:16 means God loves (in a continuous sense) the world so much that he gave his Son. But it actually means that God acted once in the sacrifice of Jesus (in agape love). The aorist Greek tense is used, signifying a one-time act of love (meeting the need of unworthy sinners whose sins deserve death). The one sacrifice was sufficient to meet anyone’s need for forgiveness if they would go on believing in Jesus. It is a verse which, when properly understood, encourages the believer to go on believing, and so have eternal life as a present possession. It is also a verse that, if properly understood, may help the unsaved sinner to see that Jesus’ once for all sacrifice can be their means of salvation, too.
When the love of God is expressed in the New Testament it is not expressed as being directed towards the world at large. Elsewhere it is clearly stated, if you love the world you hate God! (1 John 2:15; James 4:4). God is hardly going to break this clear statement! No, when the love of God is expressed it is in terms of his love for his people, those chosen before the world began (Ephesians 1:4). The technical theological term for these being the elect (from Luke 18:7; Romans 8:29).
Surprising as it may seem, Jesus did not preach a gospel of love. If you doubt this, then please find it clearly stated in His words. In fact the only reference most people are likely to conjure up is John 3:16, but we have already seen there is a basic sense of questionable translation in modern English. (The 2011 ‘Christian Standard Bible’ correctly renders this in modern as “God thus loved the world ……”, but I am unaware of other translations that correctly place this in modern English. The King James was the first to use the formulation “God so ….”, but in seventeenth century English the word “so” meant precisely “thus”!)
Likewise the apostles did not preach a gospel of love – read the great sermons of Paul and Peter and you will not find “love” in their messaging. Many ‘Christians’ today detest the apostle Paul, yet it was this detested apostle who wrote the great hymn of love in 2 Corinthians 13. And to whom did Paul direct this letter? To unbelievers? No, to the Believers in Corinth!
It may be that some readers will be mightily discombobulated at this point. If so, then I am sorry – but we really do need to get this right. Sadly too many non-Believers consider that God loves then ‘so much’ that he does not want or expect them to change. Indeed there is a modern message that God expects you to come ‘just as you are’, but Jesus never suggested such a thing. The idea is completely wrong. We are to be clothed in righteousness as we come before God (Isaiah 61:10; see more here https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Clothed-With-Righteousness ).
In reality, of course, we DO have to come before God when we first encounter him, as we are. But we do so as Jesus demanded, in repentance, seeking God’s forgiveness and accepting Jesus’ righteousness in exchange for our sins. Jesus put it beautifully – see John 5:10. What a wonderful truth! The one word that summarizes this truth is “rebirth” – see John 3:3 and John 3:5.
God’s wonderful love expresses His nature
At a church I used to attend, we had a lovely retired organist. When he prayer he would always preface his prayer with the words “loving heavenly father” …… At one level this is fine, yet we need to recall that those words are not found anywhere is Scripture. When Jesus prayed, he prayed to “Righteous Father” (John 17: 6). It is the righteousness of God that Scripture most celebrates – and it is the righteousness of God that guarantees our eternal destiny, if we come to him in faith and repentance. That’s a subject for another day …… !
Love, or Loving-kindness, or Mercy, in the Old Testament is a translation of the Hebrew ‘hesed’, which really reflects covenant faithfulness – God covenanted to bless Abraham and his descendants, and God’s mercy is him doing precisely that, because he has covenanted to do it. But this does not mean that God is doing this ‘through gritted teeth’! God’s hesed is much deeper than that. It is his overarching purpose ……. God’s Love is expressed in a relational way – we are born again into His family, so it’s a familial love (although much more than just phileo or storge – it’s agape.
Think upon these things as you contemplate the agape of God. Today I tend to use the word agape as it is so much clearer than the slippery English word ‘love’. Let us not sentimentalize Jesus and his love. Let us not misrepresent whom Jesus is and what he stands for. Let us not misrepresent what he has achieved for us. Let us not ‘sell Jesus short’. Perhaps we should reflect more in this way, God’s love is not unconditional. No, the condition attached is the blood of Jesus; that puts the whole subject in its correct context. Let the Bible have the last word on this: God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Messiah died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, shall we be saved from wrath through Him. (Romans 5:8-10)
Praise God indeed!
Here are some further insights into the love of God: http://www.Messiahian-publications-int.com/images/PDF/BibleStudent/25_LOVE.pdf
A recent article on a similar theme:
Peter Sammons’ book “Rebel Church” is freely available as a PDF file here: https://www.Messiahian-publications-int.com/images/PDF/RebelChurch.pdf