In a succinct statement, the Apostle John says “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In it, he compresses into one word the truth about God. It arrests our attention because of his authority and his long and deep experience at the centre of God’s dealings with man in His beloved Son. “God is love” is his summary!

Earlier, Moses was desperate to know God and was given the first recorded definition of the character of God: “The LORD, The LORD God [Heb El], merciful [racham, the compassion as of a parent for a child] and gracious [channun, the kindness shown to the lowly], longsuffering, and abundant in goodness [chesed, steadfast love] and truth [emeth, faithfulness], keeping mercy [chesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will be no means clear the guilty …” (Exod 34:6–7). To Moses was revealed what Paul would later describe as “the goodness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22). In this, it is notable that the merciful aspect is emphasised by mention of all the beautiful facets that make up God’s love and by its placement before the negative aspect, that of severity. It is significant too that chesed, steadfast love (always so translated in the RSV), occurs twice here. Essentially, this is in accord with John’s definition above.

These wonderful characteristics were seen in their perfection in the life and ministry of the Son of God. In him “the Word was made flesh” and men beheld the glory of the Father in the Son, who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus was the “express image of his [God’s] person” (Heb 1:3), and could align himself with his Father in the following remarkable way: “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3)! He could equate knowing him with knowing the Father: “I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me” (v6). His life recorded in the Gospels must therefore be the focus of all seeking to know God.

Just how much this knowledge of Yahweh’s character meant to saints of old can be seen by tracing references to His character in the Psalms and the prophets. Its absence was lamented by Hosea: “the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth [emeth], nor mercy [chesed], nor knowledge of God in the land” (4:1). This precious “knowledge of God” undergirds the hope and trust of saints, and a wonderful example of this can be found in Psalm 103, written by David, “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22).

Love and chastening

The world dismisses the existence of a merciful God on the grounds that if He exists, the sufferings of mankind cannot be explained. On the surface, that position appears to be justified, but it does not take into account the revelation of God in His Word, the witness of His Son and the wonder of Creation. Rejection of this evidence makes man culpable, and the judgments of God are soon to be poured out on a guilty world (Isa 24:3–6).

God’s merciful nature does not mean His servants are immune from pain and suffering. It is a paradox that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb 12:6; Prov 3:11–12). Chastening in its myriad forms is in fact proof that God deals with us as sons and daughters. Just as parents correct their children to develop their characters, so our heavenly Father will bring to bear unpleasant circumstances in our lives. He knows our needs and weaknesses; and we have the assurance that He will not cause us to suffer above what we are able to bear. We know that life’s experiences – many adverse, painful and longstanding – enrich character and make us better people, more able to empathise with others. There is a sense that we are only as good as what we have had to bear and experience. Our Lord illustrates this, and although he was the Son of God he “learned obedience by the things that he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb 5:8–9). Hymn 141 says:

“E’en the hour that darkest seemeth

Will His changeless goodness prove;

From the mist His brightness streameth–

God is wisdom, God is love.”

Psalm 119, evidently written by David but plainly Messianic, gives us remarkable insights into the mind of Christ. In the following verses we can see how his (their) knowledge of God enabled him to cope with and surmount trials: “I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness [emunah, from the same root, aman, as emeth] hast afflicted me. Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness [chesed] be for my comfort, according to thy word unto thy servant. Let thy tender mercies [racham] come unto me, that I may live: for thy law is my delight” (v75–77).

Isaiah, upon becoming aware that no nation, not even Israel, would be on the Yahweh’s side at Armageddon, makes an impassioned appeal to God to reconsider. His introductory words show his “knowledge of God”: “I will mention the lovingkindnesses [chesed] of the LORD, and the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD hath bestowed on us, and the great goodness [tub] towards the house of Israel, which he hath bestowed upon them according to his mercies [racham], and according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses [chesed]” (63:7). Micah, a contemporary prophet, is awestruck by the wonder of Yahweh’s goodness: “Who is a God [El] like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger forever, because he delighteth in mercy [chesed]. He will turn again, he will have compassion [racham] on us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth [emeth] to Jacob, and the mercy [chesed] to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old” (7:18–20).

Before Moses

We might wonder why God’s name was not revealed prior to the Mosaic era. But when we look beyond that era we learn that “Noah found grace [chen]” (Gen 6:8); and that Jacob would say in his prayer, “I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies [chesed], and of all the truth [emeth], which thou hast showed unto thy servant” (Gen 32:10). God was clearly known to the patriarchs, and His ways were the subject of their household conversation.

After Moses, Scripture abounds with “the knowledge of God”. God promised David that His “mercy [chesed] shall not depart away from him [the seed of David], as I took it from Saul …” (2 Sam 7:15). Interestingly, the essence of the reward promised in Christ, eternal life, is defined as “the sure [aman] mercies [chesed] of David” (Isa 53:3). These words are translated in the RSV as “my steadfast, sure love for David”. The preceding words are “hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you”.

The love of God in Christ

The pinnacle of the love of God can be seen in that He sent His beloved Son into the world: so great was His love that He was prepared to give His Son for the world’s redemption (John 3:16). Jesus knew how great His Father’s love was for him and hence how great His love was for the world: “In this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). This remarkable love for us has moral implications we cannot ignore or pass over. It must influence our attitude towards each other, for John says in this context, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (v7). Awareness of this compelling love must permeate all aspects of our lives; it must be with us now, as it will be in the eternal future in the Kingdom.

We need to ask ourselves this: Does the love of God abide in us? It is imperative that it does, for John continues, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (v8). John then tells us that the love we have for God did not originate within us: ours is a response to God’s love; there is nothing meritorious in us. The outworking of this love of God in us should be seen, says John, in our relationships with brethren and sisters: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (v11). This is logical and irresistible, but how far short we so often fall! So often we speak and act as if we have no consciousness of this compelling love that should inhabit us and motivate our lives. The final thought in this section of John’s epistle elevates the mind by reminding us that no one has seen God, but “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us” (v12). So God is seen in us when we act with loving consideration in word and deed towards the brethren! We need to undertake self-examination, to assess our lives and ask whether this is true of us personally. That is the power of John’s words.

“The love of Christ”

The sacrifice of Christ involved the Father working with and co-operating with the Son. As Isaac and Abraham “went both of them together” to Moriah (Gen 22:6), so our Lord yielded to his Father’s will and went to the same mountain. As our beautiful Hymn 140 says:

“Wondrous was thy love in giving

Jesus for our sins to die;

Wondrous was his grace in yielding

To the great behest from high.”

Our Lord told the disciples, and you and me: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

We need to remember this at all times. Life is our most precious possession (Matt 16:26, RSV), and our Lord so loved us that as the Good Shepherd, he would “lay down his life for the sheep” (John 10:15). The great Apostle Paul remembered this. His life of sacrifice was driven by it, “For the love of Christ constraineth [RSV “controls”] us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead”. And what is his logical deduction for this? “That they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5:14–15). This love is something all saints will ever be in awe of and must strive to comprehend (Col 3:17–19; Eph 3:17–19).

In the remaining days of our probation, we need to think about the wonder of our heavenly Father’s grace, and in response seize whatever opportunities come our way to serve our fellow servants, to show in some small measure the love of the Father and Son in our own lives. And remember that the King, the Judge, said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt 25:40).