GOD IS LOVE (JOHN 3:16)
What is love? It’s been said:
“Money can build a charming house BUT
Love can furnish it with the feeling of home.
Duty can pack an adequate sack lunch BUT
Love would decide to tuck a little love note inside.
Money can buy a television set BUT
Love controls how much it is watched, and what is watched.
Obligation sends a child to bed on time BUT
Love tucks the covers in just right and passes out kisses and hugs.
Obligation can cook a meal BUT
Love embellishes the table with a potted ivy trailing around slender candles.
Duty writes letters to a child at camp BUT
Love tucks a joke or a picture or a fresh stick of gum inside.
Compulsion keeps a sparkling house BUT
Love and prayer produce a happy family.
Duty is easily offended if it isn’t appreciated BUT
Love learns to laugh and to work for the sheer joy of doing, giving and contributing.
Obligation can pour a glass of milk BUT
Love adds a little chocolate to it.”
Christianity is unique and distinct from all the religions of the world for its teaching and emphasis on love. The Greatest Commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second greatest is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31) and the new commandment Jesus ushered in is for us to “love one another” (John 13:34-35). As you can see, the narcissistic theme of loving oneself is far from the ideal and alien to the gospel.
John 3:16 is the world’s best known Bible verse and the most memorized verse. It is popular on T-shirts and bumper stickers and at ball games. When pitchers, free-throw shooters are about to release the ball a guy with this verse could well be in the stands. Every preacher has to preach it one time in life; but single verse sermons are the hardest to preach!
What are the characteristics of “agape” love? Why is love the greatest virtue of all? How did God risk His all for love?
Love is Active in Stride
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
One of my favorite Broadway musicals is “The Fiddler on the Roof.” In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” Teyve the Jewish milkman discovered his daughters had arranged their own weddings, marrying against their wishes, one to a jailed revolutionary husband and another to a poor tailor.
Teyve grappled with the new world of love by asking his wife Golde three times: “Do you love me?” Golde sneered: “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”
Tevye responded: “Golde, The first time I met you was on our wedding day.
I was scared.” To which Golde admitted: “I was shy”
Tevye said, “I was nervous.” Golde concurred: “So was I.”
Tevye disclosed: “But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other.
And now I’m asking, Golde, ‘Do you love me?’” Golde shouted: “I’m your wife.”
Tevye whispered: “I know...but do you love me?” Golde questioned: “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?”
Tevye roared: “Then you love me?” Golde snapped: “I suppose I do.”
Tevye acknowledged: “And I suppose I love you too.” They concluded: “It doesn’t change a thing but even so. After twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”
The Greeks distinguished between philos, which is personal liking, relational and emotional in nature; eros, which is physical affection, sexual and passionate in kind; and agape – perfect love, which is unconditional and unchanging, the word for God’s love.
John is the gospel of agape love. The verb “love” occurs five times in Mark, eight times in Matthew, 13 times in Luke but an incredible 37 times in John - three times more than Luke, seven times more than Mark, and more than the Synoptics combined.
The noun for “love” makes for greater contrast and drama in the gospels. It is not found in Mark, found only once in both Matthew (24:12) and Luke (11:42) but seven times in John (5:42, 13:35, 15:9, 15:10, 15:10, 15:13, 17:26).
Agape love is not a feeling or a sentiment but an action. It is an active verb. Interestingly enough, the passive voice for the verb is not found in the New Testament. All 140 occurrences of it in Greek are in the active voice – “love” instead of “be loved” or “was loved.” There is no case for passivity in love. As Francis of Assisi once prayed, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.”
Agape love is characterized by God’s relentless, passionate and unfathomable pursuit and wooing of sinners. As the Bible say, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love does not sit back and fold the arms. It does not say, “Your death is your business.” Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17); “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45); and “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
God is actively involved in our lives and in the world. He is actively at work in His creation and in His children to bring about healing and restoration, loving and caring, salvation and transformation.
The agape love of God is not dependent on the merit, worth, distinction, attraction or goodness in its recipients. It is in the nature, kindness and compassion, mercy and initiative of God.
Love is Objective is Scope
A missionary to Hong Kong told me this story: During the early days of missionary work in Hong Kong, the foreign missionaries had to study the local dialect for ministry. They even had to study the Cantonese people’s preference to use colloquial expressions such as the shorter- and local-sounding “Tang people” and not Chinese people, and to say “tang” not “sha” for “killing chicken.”
The missionaries were often reminded to spare and not slander the language with their awkward inflections. They were told to pay special attention to John 3:16, to say “God loves the world” with a light tone and not to upset locals with the embarrassing and harsh-sounding “God loves the Westerners.” In fact, they were discouraged from trying that line in the pulpit, but who could blame the brave ones for wanting to quote the most famous evangelistic phrase and the most popular verse in the Bible?
One upstart and smart-alecky missionary had a mind of his own and decided that he was ready for the big test. On the big day, he rose up in an evangelistic meeting to speak to an unconverted crowd. When the announced text was John 3:16 the church leaders groaned in worry, wringed their hands and rolled their eyes, thinking, “Here we go again. Another missionary murdering the language.” But the missionary was ready to spring a big surprise on the unsuspecting audience. He said, “I know you expect me to bungle on reading John 3:16 and say “God loves the Westerners.” But let me tell you, God loves the world.” At this point, the leaders heaved a sigh of relief. But the missionary, wanted to demonstrate his mastery of the language, that he was ahead of the curve and to tell of God’s love for the Chinese, added, “In fact, God not only loves the Westerners, he also loves “killing people,” unfortunately substituting the lighter tone for “Chinese” people to make it sound like God loves “killing” people – the harsher tone.
I have always thought love is not emphasized in the Old Testament, but it is not true. Some remarked that the concept of God loving people is alien to the Old Testament, which is not true, too. The verb love occurs 209 times in the Old Testament, describing the love of men and women, parent and child, love of friends (1 Sam 18:1), love to neighbors (Lev 19:18), alien (Deut 10:18), slaves and masters (Ex 21:5). Love is everywhere in the Old Testament, but with a twist. God declared His love for Abraham (Isa 41:8 “friend” or “love”), Jacob or Israel (Isa 43:4, 48:14, Hos 11:1, Mal 1:2), the forefathers (Deut 4:37), the Israelites or Jewish people (Deut 23:5).
So John sprang a surprise on his readers, who had read the Old Testament countless times and know of God’s exclusive love. The context of John’s bold statement must be seen in the light of the night visit by Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council (John 3:1) and Israel’s teacher (John 3:10). Jesus ambushed him with this statement on love instead. Jesus did not say, “For God so loved Israel” or “For God so loved the Jews,” but “For God so loved the world.” This teaching was even more amazing because it is the first record of love in the New Testament. The outrageous and controversial and revolutionary statement was made early in the gospels, before John the Baptist was imprisoned (John 3:24).
God’s eyes of love are not tinted by color, skin or language. His love is not confined or restricted to a race, a nation, a community, a background or an upbringing. It is for the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the chosen and the outcast. In the early church it meant that the gospel was not only for the Jews, the God-fearing Gentile or the Gentile proselyte who frequents the temple, but for those not converting to Judaism. The intent of God working in and through the Jews to bring the Gentiles to salvation was lost on the Jews. It bred an exclusive relationship, a national interest and holier-than-thou attitude.
Love is Positive in Spirit
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
One of the scariest places I have been to is Singapore’s Tiger Balm (Haw Par) Garden, where the Ten Courts of Hell were displayed to uneasy tourists. Besides the worst criminals and crooks, those punished in hell include landlords or agents who cheat on renter’s deposit, incompetent physicians, matchmakers, the ungrateful, those disrespectful to elders, high-interest money lenders, those wasting food and those neglecting the old or the young. Seems like nobody is let off the hook!
The offenders punishment includes extreme thirst and hunger, soaking in ice, dipping in volcano, bathing in filthy blood, being tied to a red hot copper pillar and grilled, pounding by a stone mallet, hurling onto a hill of knives, sawn into halves, one’s tongue being pulled out, frying in a wok of boiling oil and getting crushed under boulders.
However, the Greek word for “perish” or “destroy” is used cautiously and not gleefully in the Bible. The only ones Jesus destroyed on earth were evil spirits, which he did on two occasions (Mark 1:24, 9:22, Luke 4:34). The only other record of someone perishing at His coming was none other than Christ himself – due to an impressive list of people plotting his destruction, including the Pharisees (Matt 12:14, Mark 3:6), the chief priests (Matt 27:20, Luke 19:47) and the elders (Matt 27:20), the Herodians (Mark 3:6), the teachers of the law (Mark 11:18 , Luke 19:47) and the leaders among the people (Luke 19:47).
The agape love of God is positive, not negative. John cared that people believed in the gospel, even though he occasionally warned against not believing; even then, the admonition ratio of “believing” to “not believing” is 77 to 23 occurrences – more than three times for the positive exhortation. John speaks 17 times on the subject of “eternity,” more than any other gospel. Matthew has six references, Mark has three and Luke has four, but all 17 references in John to eternity have to do with eternal life – 13 times “eternal life” and four times the reverse, “life eternal” in Greek word order (John 4:36, 12:25, 12:50, 17:3). In fact, John talks more about eternity than any book in the New Testament, and always in the positive sense. All the negative references and connotations to eternity are in the first three gospels, such as the words “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8, Matt 25:41), “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), and “eternal sin” (Mark 3:29).
The claim that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world” is often challenged by atheists, unbelievers and liberals, who often charged that the Bible and Christians are intolerant, unloving and downright hateful to say that Jesus is the only way of salvation and to God, and that believers like nothing more than to see sinners burn in hell.
Why did Jesus then insist that He did not come to judge or condemn the world at His coming? Well then, who was judged if not unbelievers when He came? John 16:11 says, “The prince of this world now stands condemned.” If he did not come to condemn the world, why does condemnation still exist? Paul gives us the answer: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). Our thoughts, words and actions were judged by the law, not by Christ. The law was the measuring stick, our evaluation form and our approval rating, and by the standard of the law, we all have a failing grade, a dreaded C with no repeat test.
Again, does it mean that there is no judgment? That Jesus is not any judge at all? John 12:48-49 says that judgment is awaiting the one who rejects Him and does not accept His words, but the condemnation will happen at the last day. The theme of judgment on the last day by Jesus is consistent with the rest of the teachings of the Bible (John 5:30, John 8:15, Acts 17:31, 1 Cor 4: 5). He will judge the living and the dead at His coming (2 Tim 4:1, Heb 10:30, 1 Peter 4:5, Rev 11:18, 16:5, 19:2, 19:11, 20:12)
Conclusion: 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” The greatest love of all is not the love you have for yourself, the love for your neighbor, the love you have for God or even the love of God for you. The greatest love of all is not God’s love for the world, but God’s love for His Son. It is pre-history, the oldest and the truest. The Father’s love for the Son is well-documented in the Bible, again only in John (John 14:31, 15:9, 17:23-24, 17:26). John 17:23 says that the Father loved the world even as the Father had loved the Son, and John 17:24 says that the Father loved the Son before the creation of the world. Yet God the Father sacrificed His Son for lost and unworthy sinners like us. John is not only the gospel of love; it is also the gospel of belief. The word occurs nine times in Luke, 11 times in Matthew, 15 times in Mark, and an astonishing 100 times in John. Have you participated in and shared in the greatest love of all – God’s love for His Son? Do you know recognize your Maker (John 1:10), the Lamb of God, who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29)? Do you know no one loves you more than Jesus Christ, who demonstrated His love for you by dying for sin and taking your place on the cross?
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