The Love of God As Revealed in the Scriptures
Before we move on in this study of Divine Love, let’s recap by reading a quote from Theologian Karl Barth regarding the love of God as expressed through creation,
God is he who, without having to do so, seeks and creates fellowship between himself and us. He does not have to do it, because in himself without us, and therefore without this, he has that which he seeks and creates between himself and us. It implies so to speak an overflow of his essence that he turns to us… But it is an over flow which is not demanded or presupposed by any necessity, constraint, or obligation, least of all from outside, from our side, or by any law by which God himself is bound and obliged. On the contrary, in itself and as such it is again rooted in himself alone (273).
It is only after establishing the transcendence (That which is beyond human ability to fully comprehend) of divine love that one can then begin to properly study the doctrine as it relates to immanence (That which is understandable or relatable to human understanding and experience). It is clear that, in one sense, finite humans cannot grasp the depth and the magnitude of the love of the infinite God. However, it is also true that God has provided mankind with revelation and in that revelation, has communicated to people in a way where we can grasp sufficient knowledge and understanding of his love. Human beings bear the image of God and in that have been given the ability to reason and to feel emotion. Humans most certainly experience love and personal experiences of love most certainly aid an individual in understanding God’s love. In fact, Scripture itself testifies to this. For example Matthew 7:9-11 states,
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
It is clear from this passage that Jesus is seeking to teach his disciples something about God’s love by appealing to the love a human father has for his son. Throughout the Old Testament, there are numerous examples of God referring to himself as a Father to the nation of Israel. God adopted Israel, led them, cared for them, protected them, and nurtured them.1 Overtime, Israel naturally developed an understanding of God as their divine Father. This would also ultimately lead to the fathers in Israel to pattern their fatherly love after God.
The first time God defines himself as being love is in Exodus 34:6,
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
As God reveals his glory to Moses, there are two realities that God wants Moses to know. First, he wants Moses to know that he is a loving God, and, secondly, he wants Moses to know that he is a holy God. In this passage, God describes himself as merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love for thousands, and forgiving of sin. Up to this point in redemptive history, God has already demonstrated these attributes of love over and again to fallen people:
-God was merciful in the Garden when Adam and Eve sinned. He could have immediately killed them, but instead God killed an animal and covered their nakedness.2
-God demonstrated mercy shortly after this when Cain killed his brother. God not only allowed Cain to live, but put a mark upon Cain so that others would not kill him as he was sent out of his presence.3
-God demonstrated that he was slow to anger as he told Abraham that it would take four generations before his wrath against the Amorites was full.4
-The Lord demonstrated that he was abounding in steadfast love to thousands as he heard the cries of Israel and delivered the nation Israel from the bondage of Pharaoh, as well as, made a covenant with them that they would receive a promise land flowing with milk and honey.5
-Finally, the Lord had shown that he is forgiving of iniquity, transgression, and sin when just before this encounter, the people of Israel had built for themselves an idol and worshipped it instead of the living God.6
All of these events, and many more within just the first two books of the Bible, give some clarity to what divine love looks like. However, the picture of divine love does not end here. The Lord goes on and declares that even in the midst of all of this grace, he will not let the guilty go unpunished. What this means for the person who is seeking to understand God’s divine love is, that God’s divine love is a holy love. God never reduces his holy standard in order to love. Divine love is not a love that overlooks sin, it is a love that is willing to do whatever it takes to heal the chasm sin brings between God and his creatures. This reality is what leads to the apostle John stating in 1 John 4:10,
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.
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- John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2006), 109.
- Genesis 3:21
- Genesis 4:15
- Genesis 15:16
- Exodus 3:8-9
- Exodus 32-33:17