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What is love? Part 3: the nature of God’s love toward us

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8 minutes to read What does it mean that God is love, that he loves us, and that we are to love him? In part 3, I delve into the notion of triune love as “onetogetherness”, and what it therefore means when God says he loves us.

Continued from part 2, on the characteristics of triune love

So the nature of love itself, in God himself, is something like perfect unity between the persons—their wills are in absolute harmony and their relationships are indivisible.

But what does that mean for the nature of the love which God expresses towards us?

If love is fundamentally about unity or “onetogetherness”, then it follows that whatever God is doing when he loves us, it is aimed toward achieving something with us which is like the onetogetherness of the Godhead.

This is not to say that God intends to make us one with him in the sense that we become him. Rather, the way in which God intends onetogetherness with us must be as a personal relationship which reflects his triune nature, but does not share in it; we share not his essence, but his will. We are, as it were, of one mind with him—through our communion with him our desires conform exactly to his desires, our thoughts follow his thoughts, our purpose is consonant with his purpose.

There are a couple of lines of evidence in Scripture which stand out as pointing to this; one implicitly, and one explicitly.

Implicit evidence for God’s onetogetherness with us

The entire sweep of the biblical narrative is a story of redemption which starts with, is grounded upon, saturated in, and aimed toward the idea of Yahweh creating a family for himself.

For example, in Luke 3:38 we read that Adam was the son of God. That’s a phrase we typically associate with Jesus, because of course God represents his triune nature to us in familial terms. God’s created family is an extension of the triune family. Israel as a people is described with the same filial language (Hosea 11:1), and indeed is explicitly paralleled with Jesus himself (Matthew 2:15). Though we think of Israel as a nation, it was in fact a family descended from Abraham, and propagated through the covenant of marriage—which in turn was designed by God to model his covenant faithfulness (chesed in Hebrew—often translated “lovingkindness”).

Note also how the physical expression of marriage, which echoes the emotional, intellectual and spiritual relationship we call “love”, is described in terms of the couple no longer being two, but becoming one together (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:8; cf 1 Corinthians 6:16). Eve became one together with Adam by sharing in his physical nature, being made from his flesh, as a kind of physical analogy for the personal relationship between them. And working backward in the order of creation, we can infer that Adam became one together with God by sharing in his spiritual nature, being made into a living being by God’s own breath.

Which brings us full circle to the love of God again—in Ephesians 5:29ff, the love of Jesus for the church is described in terms of how we nourish and cherish our own bodies. We take the term “body of Christ” for granted as a kind of loose metaphor. But God doesn’t play loose with language. He chose that expression with care.

God’s love = God’s familial bond

Familial ties, and especially the ties of sonship and marriage, are close to the surface whenever God’s love is in view. God is so interested in familial relationships that he created not only mankind, but also a divine family—the beney elohim, “sons of God”, of which Michael, Heylel (Satan), and perhaps Gabriel are notable examples.

And when we come before God, Jesus bids us do so not as one would come before a king, or a warrior—though he certainly is those things—but as our father (Luke 11:2; Matthew 6:9).

I’m not sure how we could describe the essence of family, if not in terms of onetogetherness. Despite the fact that any given members of a family might be utterly different, and would want nothing to do with each other were they unrelated; in a good, properly-functioning family those people are subject to a mysterious bond that unites them. We call it “blood”.

Blood inclines us to loyalty. Faithfulness to the family. Properly functioning families try to be harmonious and united; they seek the common good of their members. Indeed, even wicked and poorly-functioning families do this—many crime syndicates are close-knit families.

God’s familial bond = the gospel

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that when we dig deeply enough into the doctrine of love, we end up hitting the gospel. But perhaps you haven’t seen it quite this way before.

Look at how astonishing and bewildering and confusing and outrageous it is:

God has made us his blood.

Not only has he adopted us (Romans 8:23; Ephesians 1:5), but he has made us literally his blood. Jesus became a human being like us, and bought us with his blood. We are his blood-family. He sets his loyalty unerringly upon us. He works all things together to bring us into harmony with him. He seeks our good. We are his family.

Explicit evidence for God’s onetogetherness with us

The second line of scriptural evidence (and I am sure there are others, but these are the ones that strike me) is in John.

John has a great deal to say about love. He himself was the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. He is the one who refers to God as love. He repeatedly emphasizes that loving God involves keeping his commandments. He had a keen insight into love.

But for our topic, the most notable part of his writing is the high priestly prayer he records of Jesus in John 17.

11 Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given to me, so that they may be one, just as we are … 20 And I do not ask on behalf of these only, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, 21 that they all may be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, that they also may be in us, in order that the world may believe that you sent me. 22 And the glory that you have given to me, I have given to them, in order that they may be one, just as we are one—23 I in them, and you in me, in order that they may be completed in one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me. 24 Father, those whom you have given to me—I want that those also may be with me where I am, in order that they may see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 Righteous Father, although the world does not know you, yet I have known you, and these men have come to know that you sent me. 26 And I made known to them your name, and will make it known, in order that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I may be in them.John 17:11, 20-26

This all seems a little confusing unless you know that in the Old Testament, “the name” (ha-shem) is a kind of keyword to describe God’s essence; and to “know” is a keyword to describe an intimate relationship. Thus, for Jesus to “have” the Father’s name is for Jesus to have the Father’s essence—ie, to be God himself. And for the elect to “know” or be “in” the Father’s name is for the elect to have an intimate relationship with God’s essence. (Notice, however, that we don’t “have” the name.)

With this in mind, verses 11 and 26 act as bookends which “decode” the prayer—notice the parallel between them:

  • The elect will be “one” by being “in” the Father’s name (v 11)
  • The elect will have love by “knowing” the Father’s name (v 26)

So the elect are “one” in the sense of being all together in intimate relationship with God. We are one with each other because we are each one with God. God is what binds us together. Verses 20-25 reiterate and nuance this overall thesis—in particular, they emphasize the priority between the Father and Jesus and the elect:

  • Verse 21: the elect will be in the Father and Jesus, just as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father
  • Verse 22: the elect have glory because it was given them by Jesus, who has glory because it was given him by the Father
  • Verse 23: Jesus is in the elect and the Father is in Jesus
  • Verse 23: the Father will love the elect just as he has loved Jesus

If we were to simplify a little, we could write it something like this:

[ Father ↤⇒ Son ] ↤⇒ [ me ⇠⇢ you ⇠⇢ Christians ]

Notice how the relationships are always two-way, but they are initiated “from the left”—the Father gives to Jesus, who gives to us.

How Jesus is “in” us

John 17 explains that we are “in” God; that we “know” his essence—but it doesn’t explain how. Understanding this helps us to round out our grasp of God’s plan, of God’s love for us, much better. It lets us fit the pieces together and see how they mesh with the overall jigsaw of theology. John himself gives us some clues in his gospel—for example:

“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.John 14:20-23; cf 2 Corinthians 13:5

And he explains in another place:

Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.1 John 3:24; cf 1 John 5:20

By the same token, Paul says that “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:17), which is how we can understand the Lord—because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). This in turn results in a progressive transformation in us:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18

And John again observes that “we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

God’s love = God’s plan to make us the exact imprint of himself

All this leads us inexorably to conclude that God’s intention for his elect is to make us so like him that we are “one mind”. Although we will not be God, we will be so like him as to be almost indistinguishable from him—something he will achieve by “connecting” his Spirit to us, so that we are “in” him and he is “in” us in a way that is somehow like the essential bond of existence within his own three persons.

This is the love of God for us. He doesn’t merely desire our flourishing; he desires our onetogetherness. Which gives us a pretty good idea of what our love for him should look like—and by extension, our love for each other. Something I will flesh out in the next part of this series.

Continued in part 4, on the nature of our love for God and neighbor

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