Part Two—Varying Degrees of Love
It is important for us to understand that the God who is love manifests and directs his character in many ways. He shows his love in varying degrees and ways as suits his purposes for his own glory. We also need to grasp the truth that God’s ways are higher than our ways or thoughts.
Because God is love, and because 1 Corinthians 13 and other Scriptures teach about the characteristics of such a love, it should not surprise us to see God suffer long, show kindness and mercy, and do good to all his creatures. We know that “love suffers long and is kind.” When we go to Matthew, chapter 5, we see that God has revealed the following about himself:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48).
In this passage, we learn that the purpose of the very call to love our enemies is to manifest that we are children of God. In other words, we are being imitators of God; we are like him when we love our enemies this way.
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children, and walk in love… (Eph. 5:1-2a).
From where does this love come? It comes from the Holy Spirit – from God. Therefore, God loves our enemies through us in our acts of kindness towards them.
God demonstrates his nature as a God of love even in his dealings with his enemies.
The LORD is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works (Psalm 145:9).
Deuteronomy chapter 10 defines practical actions of doing good as love.
He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:18-19)
It rains on the just and the unjust. The sun shines indiscriminately. People experience joy, happiness, and goodness because of a loving, good, and gracious God who “loves the stranger.” He loves the one who is not his own. This is not to say that he loves strangers as though they were his own people. “Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). God bore witness of himself and his loving character. Because God is love, even his enemies receive goodness and mercy. This in no way annuls his judgment. One does not contradict the other; both are true, because that is who our God is.
In Mark 10:21, we read that Jesus loved the rich young ruler. He manifested that love by calling the man to take up the cross to follow Jesus. Some may argue that this young man is one of the elect and later is saved. They say this because they cannot believe Jesus would have any love for a goat. Yet every indication in the Word is that this man leaves forever. Jesus, however, manifested love to him. It seems he had compassion towards this unrepentant lover of mammon.
In the following passage in Isaiah, verse 9 tells us that God, in his love, redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, though most of the Israelites were unbelievers.
I will mention the lovingkindnesses of the LORD and the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies, according to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses. For He said, “Surely they are My people, children who will not lie.” So He became their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity he redeemed them; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; so He turned Himself against them as an enemy, and He fought against them. (Isaiah 63:7-10)
This paragraph describes God’s loving kindness – his love. He displayed his love in physical ways to these people: unbelievers and believers together. Notice that this loving kindness is temporary. Though he suffered long, he did not endure their rebellion forever. He ceased doing them good and turned himself against them as an enemy. It is a temporal love that, in time, God removes and turns to hate and eternal judgment. It clearly is not the same everlasting love with which he loves his elect children.
The same concept is evident in the use of the word savior in 1 Timothy 4:10.
For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.
Here, the biblical text points to Jesus as the savior of all men. He is the savior of the entire world. In fact, he is the only savior of the world, and God presents him as such – as the savior of all men. In other words, he is the official, appointed savior of the world. He is the designated and only savior for the world. There is no other. This is especially so for those who believe, for they enter into the covenant relationship of that so-great salvation. The savior presented to all men actually saves those who believe. In the same sense, we could say that God loves the world, but especially those who believe.
Confusion sometimes accompanies our attempts to understand God’s love for the nation of Israel. How we understand various uses of the term redemption, such as in Isaiah 63:9, is important. Israel is a redeemed people. God, however, redeemed them physically and not necessarily out of the pit of sin. Only those who individually believed the gospel of Christ were redeemed spiritually. God demonstrated his love for this unbelieving nation in a physical redemption.
God shows compassion and pity, not because of anyone’s intrinsic value or worth, but because he is love. God is love and so he demonstrates compassion and pity for his own name’s sake and in line with his purposes.
In Deuteronomy 23, God turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing “because the LORD your God loves you” – you refers to the physically redeemed nation made up of mostly unbelievers. How did God manifest this love? He extended their lives and did not wipe them out. Later, in Hosea, God speaks again of his temporary expression of love to this adulterous nation, but warns that if their rebellion persists, the long-suffering will end and will turn into hatred; he will love them no more (see Hosea 3:1; 9:15, 17; Jer. 16:4-5, 10-12). The problem is not that God is not love, but that they are rebellious (cf. Psalm 107:8-11). God’s nature of love is why he issues gracious calls to repentance (cf. Joel 2:12-13).
We see God, even in righteous judgment, act with compassion to give a loving warning before judgment strikes (i.e. Jer. 13:13-16). In passages such as Jeremiah 48:30-36, we read of God weeping for Moab. In Matthew 23:37, we find Jesus weeping over unbelieving Israel. This is even clearer in Luke 19:41-44, where Jesus refers to those Jews who will die in unbelief in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. He was not weeping because they were so wonderful, but because their rejection of him would have such serious consequences. His tone is full of sadness, pity, and compassion because they forsook the glory of God. It is sad to reflect upon what they could have had and could have been, had they not, in pride, destroyed themselves in forsaking the God of love.
God warns of coming judgment to those who are unrepentant. This, too, grows out of the nature of the God who is love. The Scriptures resound with warning. Even Judas received warning from Jesus. Why would Jesus do this? We do not sense in Jesus the attitude of hate towards Judas, as if he would say, “I despise him. I will not tell him anything. I cannot wait to destroy my betrayer” No, instead we see a loving warning. How merciful of God to show loving kindness by warning men and women!
In Luke 13:3-5, Jesus warns his listeners that apart from repentance and faith in Christ, they will perish. The Scripture is full of God’s concern over people’s destiny.
In Matthew 22, Jesus unfolds a parable.
And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.” (Matt. 22:1-7; see also Luke 14:16-24)
We see here that some kinds of love are temporary and conditional. This king invited beloved guests, but his love turned to righteous anger when those guests continued to spurn his love. Verse 14 reveals that God calls even to the non-elect. The gospel goes out to those who will not come. Yet, the gracious kindness that stems from the fact that God is love will end. It is of a temporary and limited nature; the wrath of God, however, will abide on them eternally – with no love at all: no mercy; no kindness; no goodness; no compassion; no pity.
God warns and calls:
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15b).
Those who refuse to believe and repent spurn the love of God: the God who says,
“Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live? …Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord GOD. “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!” (Ezek. 18:23, 30-32; see also Ezek. 33:11)
In John 5:40, Jesus makes a similar statement to some of the Jews who sought to kill him.
“But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”
This is all consistent with the nature of our God who is love.
In Romans 10:21, Paul quotes the Lord speaking through the prophet Isaiah when he says, “All day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” God stands with arms outstretched to a stiff-necked and rebellious people. Why would God do that? He is love. It is just like him!
In his goodness, God commands all human beings to repent and he presents Jesus Christ as the only acceptable Savior from sin. Ultimately, however, rejection of God’s love and goodness and Savior leaves only wrath and anger, for “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22). And thus, “says the LORD, ‘I will not pity nor spare nor have mercy, but will destroy them’” (Jer. 13:14b). “And you, son of man, thus says the Lord GOD to the land of Israel: ‘An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end has come upon you, and I will send My anger against you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abominations. My eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity… Therefore I also will act in fury. My eye will not spare nor will I have pity; and though they cry to My ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them” (Ezek. 7:2-4a; 8:18).
There is a day appointed, but until then the Lord stretches out his arms of mercy toward you, sinner. Today is the day of salvation – if only you would repent and believe in Christ. Do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance? Why should you perish when there is such an all-sufficient Savior?