By Pastor Glenn Pease
Tolstoy wrote a story called "Where Love Is, God Is." It is about an old cobbler named Martin who lived alone. One night as he read the story of Jesus visiting the Pharisee, and the poor welcome he received, he prayed that the Lord would visit him. In his sleep he heard a voice saying, "Tomorrow I shall come."
The next day Martin waited all day for his visitor. He saw a poor old man sweeping snow, and he called him in from the cold and gave him some hot tea. He kept looking out the window and the old man asked, "Are you expecting someone?" Martin told him of the voice. Sometime later he saw a shivering mother with her crying baby, and he brought them in and gave them some warm soup and a cloak to shield them from the cold. He told her about the voice as well.
It was getting late, and still the Savior had not come. He looked out one last time before closing, and saw an apple woman scolding a boy who had stolen an apple. He rushed out and made peace. He paid for the apple and persuaded the woman to forgive the boy, and they departed with the boy carrying her basket. That night Martin heard the voice again saying, "Martin, Martin, don't you know me?" "Who is it," he asked? "It is I," and he saw the old snow-sweeper. "It is I," and he saw the mother with the baby. "It is I," and he saw the apple woman with the boy. Then they all vanished, and Martin realized that Christ had visited him that day after all, and his heart felt strangely warm.
Tolstoy was saying by this story that where love is, God is. The presence of God and the Lord Jesus Christ is directly linked to love. Love is the fruit of the Spirit, and so if the Spirit is present, the first evidence will be love. If God is love, then love is a sign of His presence, and lack of love is a sign of His absence in Spirit. John say in verse 12 that no one has ever seen God. So how can we know if God is present? John says we know God is present because of love. If we love one another that is the evidence that God dwells in us. When you see love, you see God. When you feel love, you feel God's presence. God is present in love, for God is love. Where love is God is. The more we love, the more we experience the presence of God.
No wonder the Paul said everything without love is nothing. Even faith and great knowledge, and even sacrifice, are not worth anything without love, for love alone is our link to God, and only in love do we experience the authentic presence of God. Everything we do in worship is much ado about nothing if it does not lead us to love. Therefore, there is not greater good than to gain an understanding of what the Bible is saying in this simple but sublime sentence stated twice in this fourth chapter of I John: "God is love." The implications of these three words are so vast that one message on them is like trying to harvest a million acres of corn with a comb. There is no way to get all of the infinite riches they contain, but we will at least get a taste of what this love is. First lets taste-
I. THE INEXHAUSTIBLE ILLUMINATIONS OF IT.
R. A. Torrey, the great evangelist, said this is the greatest sentence ever written, and voices without number in heaven and on earth echo with an amen! Three little words made up of just 9 letters in English, and yet they are saying something that all the words of every language can never fully convey. They are giving us an inexhaustible illumination as to who God is. Read all the books of men, and search the universe, and you will not find a more important truth about God than these three little words that God is love. It is the brightest light we have by which to see who God is. Torrey said if he had to choose one sentence to sum up the entire Bible and is message to man, it would be these three words.
D. L. Moody, another great evangelist, felt it was the essence of the biblical revelation as well, and he had it put above the pulpit in the famous Moody Church in Chicago. This is the Gospel in a nutshell. This is why God sent His Son to die for us. This is why Jesus paid it all, and why he left his church here to carry this message into all the world. In this sentence are included all the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Love strong as death and stronger,
Love mightier than the grave,
Wide as the world and longer
Than the ocean's wildest wave.
This is the love that sought us,
This is the love that bought us,
This is the love that brought us
To gladdest day from saddest night,
From deepest shame to glory bright.
If God was not love, there would be no Gospel. Only love could come up with a solution to the fall of man and the sin problem. Only love would take on the guilt of the sinner and pay the penalty for their freedom.
We have examples of this kind of love in history. Schanyl, the great Circassion leader of his people for 30 years revealed the power of love. Bribery was becoming so prevalent in his government that he announced that anyone caught bribing an official would receive 100 lashes. Not long after, his own mother was arrested for bribery. He could not let her go, for this would make a mockery of justice. His law had to be carried out, and so he brought her to the whipping post and the whipping began. At the fifth lash he cried halt. He released his mother. Then he bared his own back and took on himself the remaining 95 lashes. His love met the demand of justice, and set the prisoner free by taking the penalty on himself. This is what Jesus did for all of us, and not just for family and loved ones, but for the whole world of sinners who were enemies of God.
God's love is unique, for it is not directed toward those who love him, but even toward those who do not love him. It is of the very essence of his being to love.
Can ice cease to be cold, and still be ice?
Can light cease to shine, and still be light?
Can fire cease to be hot, and still be fire?
Can humor cease to be funny, and still be humor?
We could go on and on, and the answer is no, for you cannot take away the essence of a thing and still have it. Its essence is what it is, and God is love. Love is not something that God does, it is something that he is. Love touches all that he is and does. Every theological idea and concept we have must include this truth that God is love. If not, you are dealing with some other god than the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible has given us this truth about himself that illuminates all other knowledge about him.
Many people who have rejected God have not really done so at all. They have only rejected some imaginary god of human invention and speculation. When people say they do not believe in God you need to find out if the God they do not believe in is love. If not, then you can say you do not believe in the God they do not believe in either. The Christian does not just believe in God, but he believes in the God who is love. All other gods are not God. The gods that people reject should be rejected, for they do not exist, and they are poor images of the real God. Everything you believe about God must be consistent with this revelation that he is love, or you are walking in darkness rather than in the light of his Word. Hold everything up to the light of this truth to see if it fits, and if not you can be sure it is not a part of God's will.
Take prejudice for example. You can never make this evil look good in the light of God's love. All the arguments about differences in races and their abilities mean nothing, for no argument for being unloving towards people can resist being shattered by the laser beam of the light from the truth that God is love. If you want to be unloving toward anyone, you have to do it in the dark, for the light will not support you. God not only loves his enemies, he commands us to love ours, and thereby demonstrate that we are his children. It is a powerful proof that God is present in our lives when we can care about those who have no care for us, and who would not be loved, but hated, by the natural man.
Everyone can love family, friends, nation, and numerous other values and relationships. This ability to love anyone or anything is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, who is love. Even lost men love, for they are still a reflection of God's image. The worst of men still have some trace of the Creator, and they can love on some level. But John makes the radical statement in v. 7 that everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. This can be interpreted by the universalistic conviction that absolutely everybody is born of God, for everyone loves. This has been perverted to teach that since everyone does love to some degree, that all will be saved in the end, and none will be lost.
This is obviously not what John is telling us. He is giving Christians a simple way of identifying a child of God. Here is the birth mark that means you are in the family of God. The mark of the believer is love. It is love for God; love for the family of God, love for those still lost and not in the family; love for the needy of the world; love for one's enemies who hate all these other loves, and then all of the natural loves shared by all people. We are talking about an all pervasive love that has no cut off point, but is universal. Christians often fall short of this kind of love, but when they do they are not being Christian at that point. If one's love does not rise above the natural love of the world, one should examine his life to see if he really loves God, for he is not letting the God he loves be present in his life and attitudes. This is a test of how much we love God. If we do not have his love in us, we do not love him very much. It is only when we love like God loves that we are born of God.
It is not theology that makes us Christians. You can know enough to defend the orthodox teachings of the Bible, but if you are unloving you are not an asset to the kingdom of God. People don't care how much you know. They want to know how much you care. Jesus drew people to himself for a lot of reasons, but the primary one was because they knew he cared. He had bread for their stomachs, and truth for their minds, but they knew that above all else he had love for their hearts. He was living proof that God is love. He was God's visible expression of love.
Anyone who claims to be a child of God had better exhibit the key family trait that we see in our elder brother Jesus. That is our birth certificate. It is our proof that we are born of God. You cannot say you are born of God is you do not have they key characteristic of God, which is love. How can anyone say they are born of the Spirit it they do not have the first fruit of the Spirit, which is love? An apple tree that never has any apples is an apple tree in name only. A pear tree that never has any pears is a pear tree in name only. And a Christian without love is a Christian in name only.
John's point is that what God is the Christian is to be. God is light, and so the Christian is to walk in the light. God is righteous, and so the Christian is to walk in righteousness. God is love, and so the Christian is to walk in love. Love is to infiltrate and dominate every aspect of our lives until we become Godlike. Clement of Alexandria said many centuries ago that the Christian is one who practices being God. That is a radical way of saying it, but it is the goal. The love of God can only be seen in us when we practice being God, and being channels of his love to others. We are not being God, but we are being Godlike, and Christlike, and this means their love is seen in and through us. This is like trying to channel the flow of Niagara Falls through a straw. Only a fraction can get through, but it can be enough to change the world that we touch.
We are never nearer God than when we love, and we are never nearer to being what he wants us to be than when we love. Love comes from God, and love leads to God. God's goal is to complete the circle by making us both the objects of his love, and the source of love for others. We are to be both receivers and transmitters of love. Love can never be content until it is flowing out to others. When we are not being loving we are like the parked car, or the light that is turned off, or the heater unplugged. We are not functioning for the purpose for which we are born. Martin Luther concluded that the greatest sin in our lives is simply not being loving. This is especially true when we are aware of how much God has loved, and does love us.
We can never exhaust the love of God, for it illuminates every other attribute of God. Love is eternal. Love is infinite. Love is holy. Love is omnipotent. Love is omnipresent. Love in inexhaustible in its illuminations. We can never exhaust it for all eternity, and so we will be able to grow in our knowledge of God forever. But we can know all we need to know to let this truth fill us with the assurance and security so that we can say with Whittier,
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel of surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
The second thing we want to taste concerning the truth that God is love is-
II. THE INCREDIBLE IMPLICATIONS OF IT.
The implications of these three little words are so vast they are beyond our comprehension, for they are infinite, and they influence, not only everything we can know, but even those secret things that belong to God alone that we can't know. One of the really radical implications of this reality that God is love is that his being love is why the problems of life, and the evils of the world, are not quickly solved and eliminated. If God was not love, but sheer power without obligation to love, the problem of evil could be solved in seconds. If God was a tyrant whose will was done without regard for the freedom of other wills, there would be no problems in the first place, and any problem that could begin would be nipped in the bud instantly.
Sometimes we pray as if God is not love, but just such a tyrant. We assume that being Almighty he can do whatever we feel he ought to do, or at least what he wants to do. We completely forget the enormous limitations that love puts on one's choices. A tyrant whose motto is might is right has only the limitations that are on his power. But to the extent of his power he can do anything he chooses. He can execute millions of innocent people if he wishes. He can rob and plunder, and take from other nations, if he has the power to do so. He is free to the extent of his power.
Love has no such liberty. Love is bound to respect the rights of others, and love is obligated to act justly and fairly. Love must even go beyond justice to show mercy, for love keeps the law, but does not stop there. It seeks to find a way to forgive and be reconciled with the offender. You see, love really puts a crimp in your style if you are all-powerful, and expect to get your will done by sheer power. Someone said, and I think it was everybody who ever thought about God's relationship to evil,
If I were God,
And man made a mire
Of things; war, hatred
Murder, lust, cobwebs
Of infamy, entangling
The heart and the soul
I would sweep him
To one side and start anew
(I think I would)
If I did this
Would I be God?
The answer is no. You would not be God. You would not be the God of the Bible, for he is not just power, but he is love, and love has a totally different approach to problems than does power.
Power eliminates an enemy by destroying the enemy. Love eliminates an enemy by making him a friend. This is a whole lot harder and slower, but the other option is not open to a God who is love. His greatest asset is also his greatest liability and limitation. His power must be subordinate to his love, and so he cannot be true to his nature and exploit people for his ends without their cooperation.
You have the history of God's own people. They were blessed like no other people ever, and yet they were also judged like no other people as well. God could have by sheer power taken them out of Egypt and brought them to the promise land, but he could not by sheer power make them obey him. They had to choose to do that. God could not treat them as mere pawns on a chessboard. It would make the game of history go faster and be more efficient if he could, but he cannot do it without ceasing to be love, and God cannot cease to be love, for that is what he is. Jesus could by sheer power still the raging sea, but he could not by power alone make the rich young ruler sell all and follow him. He could not make the people of Jerusalem accept him. He said, "I would, but you would not." Power was not enough, for they had to choose to believe, and they wouldn't do it.
It is superficial when we think that because God has all power he can do as he pleases, whenever he pleases. That is why people blame God for everything that goes wrong. They assume that he could prevent it if he chose to do so. This is practicing theology in the dark, and not in the light that God is love. It is like trying to put together a thousand piece puzzle in the pitch blackness of an underground cave. You do not know God, says John, until you turn on the light and recognize that God is love. We are so hung up on power that we think that is the answer to everything. It is not.
I have the power to open my sons mail before he comes home. It comes before he gets here, and it would be no problem for me to simply open it. But I do not do it, not because I lack the power to do so, but because it would be an unloving thing to do. My love for him and respect for his privacy limits my power. Power that is not limited by love is dangerous. God's power is limited by his love, and the paradox is that this is what makes the world a place of such widespread evil. God cannot in power just rid the world of evil, for his love makes it necessary to try and save those who are doing the evil.
It is amazing to read in Rev. 2 of how Jezebel has corrupted the church, and has led Christians into all kinds of idolatry and immorality, and then listen to Jesus say in verse 21, "I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling." What kind of nonsense is this? A God with all power, and who can wipe out the whole planet as fast as we can wipe a drop of sweat from our forehead, and he is going to give this evil person a second chance? But this is the kind of God we are dealing with in the Bible. It is the greatest wonder in the universe that a hell-bound sinner can become a heaven-bound saint because God's power is under the control of his love. We sometimes find this hard to take, and prefer the hero to take the evil guy out and ride off into the sunset victorious. God's love is sometimes so slow, and he seems to give the bad guy too many chances. That is the price you pay for God being love.
In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the slave George Harris says, "They buy and sell us and make trade of our heart's blood and groans and tears, and God lets them, He does; God lets them." It makes man mad that God lets them, and their are a thousand other evils God lets them do as well, and we do not like it. God stirs up man to fight the evil, and eventually slavery gets eliminated, and eventually the haters of history are pushed off the stage, but where is the lightning? Why all the delay? Why not damnation by dawn instead of by decades?
The answer is, God is love. What this means practically is that not even God can have his cake and eat it too. He cannot damn the sinner at the moment of his transgression, and yet still in love provide a way for the sinner to be forgiven and restored to fellowship. We do not like what it does to a world to have God choose the way of love, for it gives too much freedom to evil, but we would like it a whole lot less if he chose the alternative. It would eliminate all evil in the world if God judged all sin and evil on the spot. The only problem is that all of us would end up in hell, and forever separated from God. It is God's love that keeps the life of every sinner going long enough to be forgiven and restored to fellowship. This leads to a world full of suffering because of evil, but remember, God is the one who has to suffer the most. He had to give his Son, and the Son had to give his life in great agony to atone for the sin of the world. The cross is the physical symbol of the fact that God is love.
The cross says to us that God takes being love very seriously. He would rather pay the price of the cross than to be unloving. God had other options. He could have never made man in the first place. He could have made him a machine incapable of choosing evil. He could have made him with no plan to save him. The only problem with all the options are that they are not choices that a God of love would make. A God of power alone could have made the other choices, but a God of love had to make man as he did, with freedom to choose, and a respect for that freedom that would let it be exercised. It is hard on all of us at times that God is love, and it is harder on him than anyone, but that is who God is, and we must see all of life, and all truth, in the light of this reality that God is love.