Zephaniah 3:17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
1 John 4:9-11 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 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. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
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During Advent, we talk a God who ‘put on flesh’ (incarnated) and took the penalty for our sins against Him upon himself (John 3:16-17). In many different places, the Bible is clear about why that happened: Jesus loves us (1 John 4:19; Romans 8:35-39).
This is pretty straightforward, but to understand what it means that God loves us, we have to understand what love is. So let’s talk this morning about how we get past our filters and misunderstandings to better appreciate God’s love for us and better pass on God’s love to others.
First, God’s love is supernatural. In the New Testament, the word for the love God has for us is the Greek word agape.[i] In the Greek literature we have recovered, there is very little use of this word because it wasn’t a kind of love they valued that highly. In the New Testament, agape is used 320 times. The church took a seldom used Greed word, refined it, and introduced a radical new way of understanding love in light of God’s love for us.[ii]
Agape love… is the most self-sacrificing love that there is. This type of love is the love that God has for His own children. This type of love is what was displayed on the cross by Jesus Christ. In John 3:16 it is written that “God so loved (agapao) the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”[iii]
"Unconditional love that is always giving; it is impossible to…be a taker. It devotes total commitment to seek your highest best no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not."[iv]
Through common grace, all other forms of love are accessible to everyone. Not this one. If I am reading Scripture correctly, no one can experience or give agape love apart from the supernatural work of God (1 John 4:8). So what does this look like?
“Jesus gave himself up for us. Jesus the Son, though equal with the Father, gave up his glory and took on our human nature (Philippians 2:5ff). But further, he willingly went to the cross and paid the penalty for our sins, removing our guilt and condemnation, so that we could be united with him (Romans 6:5) and take on his nature (2 Peter 1:4). He gave up his glory and power and became a servant. He died to his own interests and looked to our needs and interests instead (Romans 15:1-3). Jesus’ sacrificial service to us has brought us into a deep union with him and He with us.“ (Timothy Keller)
Second, we don’t have to earn it. God loves people: not because he needs us; not because we complete him; not because we are worthy, or lovable, or pure, or spiritually impressive; not because we please God or represent Him well. As one pastor noted,
While eros and philia thirst, agape simply overflows. This means – please stay with me here – that God’s love for us, in the end, has absolutely nothing to do with us. In other words, God does not love us because of who we are. Or because of what we do, or can do for God. Or because of what we say, or build, or accomplish, or change, or pray, or give, or profess, or believe… God simply loves us...
- When I pray regularly and passionately, God’s love does not fail. When I don’t, God’s love does not fail.
- When I was chained in sin and when I was freed…
- When I ignore Him and when I am enamored with Him…
- When I am depressed or happy, anxious or at peace, self-loathing of self-loving…
- When I pastor well and when I do it terribly...
- When I am loved by others and despised by others…
If you ever think, “How can God possibly love me? I’m a disaster,” take heart: God specializes in saving disasters. God has never waited to love people until they were good enough to be loved. He loves people because He is God. And that gives me great hope indeed.
Third, God’s love will never be seen perfectly in people. None of us are Jesus. Because of the work of the Holy Spirit in surrendered lives, we are being transformed into his image, and we are becoming more and more like Christ. But we won’t nail it until we are in Heaven, so on this side of eternity we will fail to adequately represent what the love of Jesus looks like. We have to be ready for this. We will inevitably distort the genuine nature of godly love, and so will others. I don’t mean to be depressing; I’m just trying to be honest. With God’s help, we will often represent God’s love well, but we will never be perfect.
That doesn’t bring me despair; that actually brings me hope. God’s love is better than even the best love that I have experienced when it comes to human love. God’s love is deeper, more faithful, more present, more life-changing, more holy and pure. Awesome. I love the glimpses I get from others, but I’m never going to mistake them for the fullness of the kind of love God has for me.
That gives me the freedom to see failure in others and not be disillusioned. It gives me the freedom to take people off a pedestal and let them be people instead of wishing they were perfect like God. And it gives me hope that people who do it so badly still bring such tremendous love into the world. If there is this much good in a fallen Earth, I can’t imagine the goodness in the New Heaven and Earth.
Fourth, God’s love helps us love others well.
- “This is my command: love (agape) each other.” (John 15:17)
- I am to love (agape) my wife like Christ loved (agape) the church (Ephesians 5:25)
- “Anyone who does not love (agape) does not know God, because God is love (agape).” (1 John 4:8)
When we have trouble loving God or others well, we often focus on how to love better. That’s a good and necessary focus, but it’s the wrong starting point. We need to first refocus on the one who loves us. We need to experience and understand God’s love.
If a person is not loving, John says, he or she does not know God (1 John 4:8). How will that individual become more loving, then? Can we grow in love by trying to love more? No, our attempts to love will only end in more frustration and less love. The solution, John implies, is to know God better. This is so simple that we miss it all the time: our means for becoming more loving is to know God better. (Marva J. Dawn, Truly the Community: Romans 12)
The fact is, I need God to help me love God. And if I need His help to love Him, a perfect being, I definitely need His help to love other, fault-filled humans. Something mysterious, even supernatural must happen in order for genuine love for God to grow in our hearts. (Francis Chan, Crazy Love)
“We are thirsty, thirsty people. We long to know that we have worth, and value, and beauty. We ache to belong, to be included. But we run around our whole lives going after the sorts of love which will never completely satisfy this thirst. But in Christ, in the agape love of God, we find a love, the only love, which can fill us, and satisfy us so that we find ourselves, now overflowing, finally able to also love in a way that no longer seeks to take, but only to give.
Yes, Jesus wants you to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. Jesus wants you to love your neighbors as you love yourself. He wants us to love with agape love. But if we try to love others, even God, like this without first realizing that we are already loved like this, all our efforts will only lead to despair. You see, agape love never flows from us. It only flows through us from the one who loves like we, on our own, never could.[v]
Fifth, love is costly. Paul talks about Jesus taking on humanity and “becoming obedient unto death, even a death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8). David said that he would not give God a sacrifice that cost him nothing (1 Chronicles 21:24).
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” C.S. Lewis
Love will be costly because it will break our hearts. It will force us to walk into the hard work of life when all we want to do is wrap ourselves carefully with hobbies and luxuries and silence and entertainment and selfishness.
- I cannot love my boys without a cost to myself: time, energy, priorities, attitudes, money, naps, “me time”…. I can wrap up my heart and put me first, or I can be poured out for my boys.
- I cannot love my wife without a cost to myself: conversations about hard things; late nights and long days because of work, or household chores andjuggling responsibilities; forgiveness. I can wrap up my heart, or I can be broken for my wife.
- We cannot love our friends without a cost to ourselves. Sometimes it’s messy (hurtful things said or done). We can wrap up our hearts and never let them see us, or we can be vulnerable.
- We cannot love our neighbors without a cost to ourselves. If my neighbor is far from Christ, then a lot of things they do, say and love will be far from Christ. Love – real love – will be costly as we get to know and understand, as we listen and love, as we seek to speak truth with love and grace, and we seek to represent Christ and speak the gospel with humility and boldness.
- We cannot love the church, the body of Christ, without a cost. We are not perfect people. We will have to “bear each other’s burdens,” because we all bring burdens that other people will have to bear. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. Showing the kind of love to others that God showed to me demands something of my life. Love is costly.
Jesus at times WEPT. His heart was wrung out and broken. When we set out to love people with the love Christ showed to us, it will cost us something. Like Paul said, there will be times we are poured out like an offering (Philippians 2:17).
Sixth, God’s love is transformational. The cost is only part of the story of love, and by itself, sounds hard. But what love offers – what Christ offers - in exchange for that cost is transformation.
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)
It’s the exchange of beauty for ashes.
- The disciples – from petty, self-centered cowards to martyrs
- Mary Magdelene – from demon possessed (7!) to eyewitness to the Resurrection
- Paul - from persecutor to follower
Is there anything else that captures this transformative power of God’s love better than this commentary Paul offered on the church in Corinth: “All these things you once were…” (1 Corinthians 6:11) he says after listing off the sins that had defined their lives.
When Jesus came, he offered LOVE, and in this love was the hope of transformation of the world that is also played out in individual lives all the time. It wasn’t some generic “Heal the World” campaign, it was a deeply personal offer to transform you into something new, and keep transforming you until you are perfected in eternity.
[i] The Greeks used a number a words for love: there is one for erotic love (eros), one for friendship love (philia), one for family affection (storge) and one for self-sacrificial love (agape).
[ii] From Strong’s Concordance: agápē – properly, love which centers in moral preference…. In the NT, (agápē) typically refers to divine love (= what God prefers).