Love is a beautiful and, yet, confusing word. The word “love,” like many other words in English, has a range of meaning. The two most prominent meanings for love are:
(1) An expression of intense and deep affection for another person (e.g., spouse, child, family, friends, etc.)
(2) an expression of interest and/or pleasure in something (e.g., the Saints, fishing, hunting, gumbo, brownies, etc.).
Sadly, in today’s society these above definitions have been conflated. Case in point is the common phrase: “God is love.” When I hear someone say, “God is love,” I immediately think, “what does s/he mean by ‘God is love?’” In my opinion, the phrase “God is love” is oftentimes a conflation of the above two types of love and has nothing to do with “love” being an attribute of God. In fact, oftentimes the phrase, “God is love,” says more about the person speaking than the creator of the universe. I would argue that “love” in the phrase “God is love” often means:
God accepts unrepentant sins.
God accepts the lifestyle we choose (this is not limited to sexuality).
God does not expect Christians to live a life of active faith.
God does not expect Christians to bear fruit that furthers the kingdom of God.
If this is what is usually meant by “God is love,” then the phrase simply means that God accepts everyone as they are. But such a belief is a misunderstanding of God’s love, as well as a cheapening of the Gospel.
“But Doesn’t the Bible Say God Is Love?”
At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Wait, the New Testament actually says, ‘God is love.’” If you are thinking this, then you are correct because the Apostle John wrote this in 1 John 4:8. But importantly, John connects the saying “God is love” with the incarnation of Jesus Christ (v. 9) and the salvation offered through his sacrificial death (v. 10). Thus, the love of God, as manifested in the lives of Christians, should be a sacrificial love—a love that mimics Jesus’ life, ministry, and character (vv. 11–12).
I will attempt to show how the advent of love tells us about who God is. The love of God in the Old Testament is identified in two important events: creation and covenant. In Genesis 1, the crowning achievement of God’s creation is humanity (Gen 1:27). Being created in the image of God is the embodiment of God’s love because by doing so God created a familial link between God and humanity. This familial link is brought into focus throughout the Old Testament, particularly through the covenant between God and Israel. The covenantal relationship is articulated best by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you . . . but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers. . . . Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments (Deut 7:6–9).
This covenant between God and Israel was characterized by three important metaphors in the Old Testament: father/son, husband/wife, and shepherd/flock.
First, God chose to describe his covenant of love as a familial relationship between a father and a son (see Deut 1:31; Isa 63:8; Jer 3:22), which is most clearly described in the book of Exodus.
Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me” (Exod 4:22–23).
The second metaphor is the sacred union between God and Israel through marriage. The prophet Ezekiel, writing in Babylonian exile, artistically describes the marriage between God and Israel.
When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine (Ezek. 16:8).
The final metaphor used to describe the covenant was shepherd/flock. Psalm 23 is the most famous Old Testament text, and it describes the relationship between shepherd and sheep (Ps 23:1–4).
By way of summary, creation and covenant in the Old Testament are rooted in God’s attribute of love. God chose to create humanity in his image. God chose to love Israel like a child, a bride, and a precious sheep. Each of these metaphors emphasize familial relationships.
“God Is Love” in the New Testament
The importance of these metaphors extends into the New Testament. The father/son relationship between God and Jesus is the evident throughout the Gospels (Matt 8:29; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:35; John 1:1–4). Two texts clearly capture this familial relationship.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:13b–16).
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).
The metaphor of marriage is continued in the New Testament when Jesus is described as the bridegroom and the church his bride, especially in Eph 5:25–27. The last metaphor, shepherd/flock, is one of Jesus’ favorites. In the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1–7), it appears that Jesus is drawing of the imagery of God as shepherd in Ezek 34:16. More importantly, the Apostle John records these famous words:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
These words of Jesus draw on Ps. 23, particularly “the Lord is my shepherd,” and possibly Ezek. 34:22–24, 28. In other words, the Pharisees in John 10 would have known that Jesus was declaring himself God when he said, “I am the good shepherd.”
In the New Testament, the relationship between creation and covenant become a reality with the incarnation. The Apostle Paul says as much when he uses creation and the metaphor of marriage together:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things have been created through him and for him. . . . And he is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:15–18).
In this text, the incarnation of Jesus is directly tied to creation in Gen 1. Paul is clearly stating that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love by being the first-born over all creation. Elsewhere Paul makes a similar claim:
Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:6–8).
Reconciled and Restored
To summarize, I began by criticizing the common phrase, “God is love.” By studying the concepts of creation and covenant through the Old and New Testaments, the phrase “God is love” has a much deeper meaning this Advent season than how it is commonly understood. God sent his son to live a sinless life, to redeem a lost and dying world, and reconcile wayward sheep through the death, burial, and resurrection of his son. Thus, saying “God is love” carries the weight of knowing every human is created in the image of God, making every person an image bearer of God. Second, it means the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, expressed in terms of love (i.e., familial relations and shepherding), included joy and heartache. Likewise, today the joy of God’s love is salvation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The heartache is the rejection of God’s love through salvation in Jesus Christ. This heartache is implied in the metaphors discussed above. A child rejects the love of a parent. A spouse cheats on his/her spouse. A sheep (i.e., food) is lost and the livelihood of the family is put in jeopardy.
Therefore, let me encourage you to think of God’s love this advent season in terms creation and covenant. Each of us are image bearers of God and his love heals a wayward child, an unfaithful spouse, and rescues a lost sheep. I think this is what the Apostle John meant when he said “God is love” in 1 John 4:8. Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, we are reconciled and restored to loving relationship with our creator and father. It is the love of God that sustains our relationship with him. We will fail; we will be unfaithful; and we will be apathetic, but his love will remain. It is this love that will restore us when we return to him (Jer. 3:22).