LOVE IS ...
These are my notes for teaching at the Cornerstone Church on Sunday, September 8, 2019.
Text: Exodus 34:1-10
INTRODUCING SCANDALOUS LOVE
This fall, we're taking a deep dive into love. For several weeks, we'll survey what God's love is like. And then, we'll spend several more weeks figuring out how to live a life of love in response to God's love for us.
This is good stuff because it speaks to the most important issues of life: God, people, love. I believe this series will help you mature in your faith. It will improve your worship. It will most certainly help you focus on what matters most.
GOD IS LOVE
I'm not a philosopher, but can we get a little philosophical for a moment? 1 John 4:8 says that, "God is love." That's a metaphysical statement because it does not say that God does loving things. No, it says that God IS love. In his being, his essence, his nature as God, he is love. Love, John Wesley taught, is God's reigning attribute.
That's quite a statement. It means that everything God does is the overflow of his loving nature. He only does loving things even when he is being just or righteous. He cannot do anything else because to act in a non-loving way would mean that he is not God because God IS love.
Does that change some things for you? It did for me. It's easy to get a twisted view of God. Our experiences can influence how we think about God. We might follow an unhelpful Bible teacher. What we think about God influences everything.
When I thought carefully about what it means that God IS love, it shook me up. I had to change what I believed. And how I lived my life. I stopped feeling insecure and unsafe. My stress level dropped dramatically. I sleep like a baby. Love is not a peripheral issue; it is at the core of our wellbeing and our worship.
GOD REVEALED HIMSELF
"God is love" is a short statement in one verse in the Bible. It's probably best not to develop a whole theology of God based on that alone. So, is there another passage that can support it? Yes, there is. Turn to Exodus 34 to find it.
The book of Exodus is very important because it contains foundational ideas for the nation of Israel. Remember the situation: God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. Then, he led them through the desert to the promised land. On the way, he revealed himself to them and made covenant with them; do you remember Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments and so on?
Here, in Exodus 34, we have another revelation of God. It's an important passage because God doesn't just SHOW who he is in cloud and fire and thunder, he actually SPEAKS about who he is:
(Exodus 34:5-7) Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
The LORD is self-existent. That's what his name means. LORD is YHWH or Jehovah in Hebrew and it is the personal, covenant-making name of God. It means I AM (Exodus 3:14-15). "I AM" speaks of God's existence. It says that he is self-existent; that is, he exists without any help from anyone. He is not created. He simply is.
Since he is self-existent I AM, the Lord must also be eternal. Theologians tell us that he exists forever outside of our time and space. Revelation 1 confirms this:
(Revelation 1:8) I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
That's a profound revelation. God simply IS. He doesn't grow older. He existed before time and apart from time. I can say the words, but I don't really understand it at all.
Bottom line: here in Exodus 34, we have a mind-blowing revelation of God that should rock our world and grip our hearts: There is a God and he is beyond words amazing.
GOD REVEALED HIMSELF AS LOVE
God proclaimed his name, but what else did he say about himself? Look at the descriptions in verses 6-7: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in (covenant hesed) love and faithfulness, maintaining love, forgiving all kinds of sin, and yet just and righteous (to punish those who do not want his forgiveness).
Now, remember what I said: these are foundational ideas for the nation of Israel. They were to build their lives, their families, and their nation on the existence of this eternal, self-existent, loving compassionate, faithful, forgiving God. Do you agree that these are important foundations for us today? Yes, of course. What does God want us to know?
He is unique. He is slow to anger and faithful and just. He's not like the gods of the other nations of that day. Molech and Baal, for example, were cruel and undependable and demanded child sacrifices. No, the LORD isn't like that at all. He does the right thing in the right way, all the time, without fail. Know this: if it's wrong, if it's unjust, if it's evil, God didn't do it.
He wants a relationship with us. For that to happen, he must forgive our sins, and for that to happen, he must be compassionate and gracious. And that's exactly what he is. He is not an absentee god who can be represented by a wooden statue. He is present and he is looking for a relationship with us. He "stood there with Moses." Later, Jesus came into the world to stand here with us. He came to seek and to save.
Driven by his compassionate, loving nature, God pursues a connection with all the grace and forgiveness we need. We can never out-sin God's grace (Romans 5:20).
He loves us. He is abounding in (covenant) love and he maintains (covenant) love to thousands. Thousands reminds us that God does not restrict his love to certain people in certain times and places. No, he loves everyone he has made through every generation. Many hundreds of years later, the prophet Jeremiah wrote:
(Jeremiah 31:3) The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
The gods of the nations dominated their people and made cruel demands on them. But the LORD loved his people and was good to them. And he loves us today. My study Bible notes are so insightful: "God’s love is amazing not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad" (NIV ZSB Notes). This is clearly expressed in:
(John 3:16-17) 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. (NIV ZSB Notes: "For John, the world is usually not the universe in general but the created order, especially humans, in rebellion against its Creator)
What does it mean that God is abounding in love? His love overflows from his very being so there is more love than we'll ever need and it will never run out. You can always know that whatever you're going through, God is there to love you through.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM GOD'S LOVE
What should we expect from God's love? You might be surprised:
God's love will be fierce: He came down in the cloud (in Exodus 19:16, the cloud was filled with thunder and lightning, trumpet and shaking). Later, when Solomon consecrated the temple, the Lord revealed himself in the cloud of fire and glory, which sounds very intimidating, but the people saw it as a revelation of God's love:
(2 Chronicles 7:3) When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever.”
His love is not a vague, mushy, romantic feeling. Instead, it's the overflow of his being; it's the blazing fire of his energy and presence in our lives for our good. God's fierce love is supremely revealed in Christ at the cross. There, suffering replaced thunder:
(1 John 4:10) This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
God doesn't love half way. His love isn't words without actions. His love is sacrificial and costly. It's a life-giving force waiting to be unleashed in your life. But he won't force it on you. As soon as you say "yes," that's when the flood will sweep over you.
God's love will fill you up. Israel soon abandoned the LORD and looked for satisfaction in the gods of Canaan. And we have done the same so often: trying to fill our emptiness with things that fail us in the end. It often takes a painful event to show us how misguided we have been.
Only God's love properly satisfies us because it is an endless flow of what we need the most - a relationship with him. That's what fills us up (Ephesians 3:19):
(Psalms 90:14) Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
(Psalms 36:7-9) How priceless is your unfailing (hesed, covenant) love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 8 They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. 9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
God's love never fails - he will never let you down. We'll never wake up one morning to hear God say, "Nah, I don't love you anymore." God's faithful, covenant, love never fails.
Psalm 136 is twenty-six verses long and twenty-six times it says, "His love endures forever." Why tell us over and over? Because we are forgetful people. I'm as forgetful as anyone else. Often, when my life hits a speed bump, my mind wanders off into dangerous territory: "God doesn't love me; he's punishing me; he doesn't care about me; woe is me." The remedy is to say one hundred times a day, "His love endures forever. His love endures forever. Whatever happens to me today, he loves me forever."
We can't exhaust God's love. It never fails because he never fails:
(Romans 8:38-39) For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That kind of love will never let you down. It is wide and long and high and deep enough for whatever happens today (Ephesians 3:18-19). His love for you is unbeatable, unstoppable, untamable. It's unlimited, abounding, never-ending, faithful love.
LOVE IS ...
Do you want to know why I study theology? It's because I want to know God, not just "about God, to actually know him so that I can worship and delight in him and have a relationship with him. I want to know his compassion for me. I want to know his grace to me. I want to know his faithful, abounding love for me.
I also want to know what to expect from his awesome love. We already saw that it is sacrificial, costly, suffering love. Etch the image of Christ on the cross onto your heart and never forget it. We should never, ever, question God's love for us. The cross settles it.
There are so many other descriptions of God's love in the Bible and we'll look at some of them in the weeks to come. The Bible tells us that the Lord is a shepherd who loves his sheep; he is a husband who adores his bride; he is a father with his arms around his child; he is a mother hen whose wings cover her chicks; he is rabbi patiently teaching his disciples - both women and women, and on and on, image after image of such awesome love for us.
I wonder if you've ever thought of God's love in the following way? In 1 Corinthians 13, there is a description of love that is often read at weddings. It is the ideal, perfect love, something we should all aspire to and, because it is ideal, I believe it is the love that God models for us. Let me read it from that perspective:
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8) The Lord's love is patient with you, and his love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 The Lord's love does not dishonor you, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 The Lord's love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 His love for you always protects you, always trusts you, always hopes for you, always perseveres with you. 8 The Lord's love for you never fails.
Let that love capture your heart and fill your mind. Do you receive it?
(2 Thessalonians 3:5) May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance.