Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
We are roughly at the middle of our 40-day reflection on Being God’s Love. How are you doing so far? We’ve focused mostly on the Old Testament so far. Has this helped you rethink some assumptions about the God of the Old Testament? Do you begin to see that contrary to the popular perception that the Old Testament God is primitive, vengeful and bloodthirsty, the Old Testament God, from start to end, actively and persistently loves Israel and desires to be in loving relationship with the whole world?
I decided to finish off this stage of our journey with a summary that comes not from the Old Testament, but the first letter of John in the New Testament. This is probably one of the last written books of the Bible, and so it very nicely bookends our beginning in Genesis 1, which is probably one of the first written books of the Bible. John, who lived a long life, had much time to ponder the mysteries of his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, whom he later recognised as the Logos, the Word, who was with God in the very beginning and active in the process of creation. John has penetrating insights into the heart of God. He also has an exceptional grasp of the long narrative of salvation story, from the very beginning.
John’s first letter addresses a number of themes that are not important for today’s reflection. He wrote this letter – perhaps more a sermon than a letter – to strengthen Christians as they grappled against a false theology that came from Christian Gnostics. A particularly important part of this false teaching was Docetism, which denied that Jesus actually became human, died and rose again – he merely appeared to be human, to die and rise. They emphasised a secret knowledge (gnosis) and believed that everything physical was unimportant and evil (and on these grounds felt free to engage in all kinds of physical pleasures).
One of the important themes that resonates through John’s letter is love. 1 John 2:3-11 emphasises Christ’s command to love and the importance of living out love for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:11-24 restates the important command to love one another, linking it at the end of the passage to Christ’s command to believe in Jesus and love one another. 1 John 4:7-5:3 describes God as love, revealed in Christ, setting us the example of love for one another, which is his command. In total, 41 of the letter’s 105 verses (over a third) speak about love – God’s love for us, our love for one another, and Christ’s command to love!
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been emphasising two aspects of God’s love. First, I have emphasised that love is at the centre of God’s being – love is embedded in the character of God. Theologians speak about this as the immanent Trinity, referring to the internal functioning and being of the triune God – who God is as God, within God’s self. Second, I have emphasised God’s loving actions throughout human history, from the start of creation until the end of the Old Testament. And I shall continue to emphasise God’s loving actions in the New Testament – supremely through the Son of God, who is the embodiment of love. Theologians speak about this as the economic Trinity, referring to God in action, the God we see working in human history, what God has chosen to reveal to us about God’s self.
Many theologians are cautious about speaking with too much certainty about the immanent Trinity, about who God is within God’s self. This is because we really don’t know God that well – we know God through God’s actions (the economic Trinity) and then we make inferences from what we see and experience to what we think God is like internally (the immanent Trinity). But I have argued that what we do know about the immanent Trinity is that God is triune. And based on that I have argued that relationship is inherent within the being of God, and based on that I’ve argued that love is found in the being of God.
1 John picks us these same themes: that God is, in God’s being, love; and that God’s actions demonstrate God’s love for humanity. We see this most clearly in the 1 John 4:7-5:3.
Twice in this passage, John writes, “God is love” (4:8 & 16). The phrase appears nowhere else in the Bible. Just these two occurrences, twice, eight verses apart. The first occurrence in verse 8 is particularly illuminating. John writes, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” John emphasises love as the essential characteristic of God. It is not just that God acts in loving ways; more than just that, God is inherently, characteristically Love. In much the same way that Jesus says that the Great Commandments sum up the whole law and the prophets, John here says that Love sums up the whole of God – Love is who God is. Because Love is so defining of who God is, says John, if we do not love, we cannot possibly know God, because we will be cut off from The Defining Characteristic of God.
In verse 16, John says, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” Here John makes this character statement about the being of God, and then says that if we live in love then we live in God and God lives in us. Love is so defining of who God is that Love becomes almost a synonym for God, so that living in Love is equivalent to living in God. Because God is quintessential love, when we find love we will have found God, because God is love. There is no authentic love outside of God. John says similar things elsewhere, for example, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (4:7).
Most of the rest of this passage speaks to God’s love in action. Having described wind, John provides examples of how we will see wind, through the effects of the wind – sand being swept up, trees waving, flags flapping. We cannot see the wind itself, just like we cannot see the essential being of God. But we can see the effects of the wind, just like we can see the outworking of God’s love.
So immediately after verse 8, where John wrote, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love,” John explains, “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” (4:9). Love as the essence of God is not something we can grasp or perceive, but we can recognise this love in action, and John gives us the most sublime and vivid example of love in action – the coming of the Son into the world, which we call the incarnation. Of all of God’s loving acts in the history of the world, the coming of the Son into the world is the most powerful, clear and irrefutable demonstration of the infinitely rich love that lies within the heart of God.
John continues, “This is love” (4:10a). He recognises that love is a rather abstract term, and requires a concrete example. The example he now provides is this, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10b). God is, in God’s being, love. And God demonstrates this love by sending his Son to deal with our brokenness and our estrangement from God. Jesus’ entire life – from his incarnation, through his life and ministry, to his death and resurrection – is Love-in-Action. Jesus is, in effect, love with skin on. He is the embodiment of love – love incarnate, love enfleshed.
The whole of scripture is a great love story. It is the story of God’s great love for humanity, a love that is rooted deep in the core of God’s being, demonstrated over and over, regardless of the fickleness of humanity, regardless of how often we ignore, turn away from or reject God. We can be confident that the love story continues through our own time. And you can be confident that the love story includes you – that you are one of the characters who is much loved by God, God’s beloved.
Meditation for the Day
Meditate on this phrase, “God is love”. Repeat it over and over, slowly, in an attitude of prayer. Listen to God speaking to you. Open your heart to know this God who is love.
Prayer for the Day
My God, you are Love.
 Coetzee, J. C. (1993). The letters of John. In A. B. du Toit (Ed.), Guide to the New Testament (Volume VI, pp. 201-226). Halfway House, South Africa: N.G. Kerkboekhandel, p. 207.
 Moltmann, J. (1993). The Trinity and the kingdom. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress. Rahner, K. (1967). The Trinity. New York: Cross Road Publishing, pp. 1-2.
 Rahner, p. 102.
 Moltmann, p. 151.