We often hear the words, ‘God is love’, but what do they really mean? I ask this because too often our understanding of God’s love is shaped more by our culture rather than the Bible. In 1 John 4:10 we read, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. Our English word ‘love’ is used to translate four different Greek words – words for friendship (phileo), for parental and filial, family love (storge or philostorgos as in Romans 12:10), emotional love (eros), and a love that springs from decision within, from the will (agape). This is the word we find in 1 John 4:10.

What is interesting is that eros is a word that could have been used by the New Testament writers to speak about our relationship with God. Plato, for example, used eros to describe the irresistible attraction for the supernatural. Later, the mystery religions in Greece used eros to speak about the ecstatic religious experience they felt. Pagan religions have long had an interest in eros as part of the mystical experience of the supernatural. Indeed one form of yoga exploits sexual intercourse as a technique for achieving spiritual enlightenment.

John’s and, indeed, the New Testament’s choice of the word agape is significantAgape is a practical and unemotional love. When John says ‘God is love’, he is not referring to an ecstatic experience, but to Jesus on the cross. He speaks of a love that is willing to make sacrifices for the good of others. Eros is a word that seeks self-gratification; it is a demanding, craving love. Agape is about self-forgetfulness. It is a generous, sacrificial love that is more interested in the welfare of the one who is loved. Eros wants to take. Agape wants to give.

John’s language about God sending his Son, indicates that God’s Son has always existed. Here we see that God’s love is seen not so much in the Son’s coming, but in the death his Son died. This was the action of a holy and just God whose love found a way to forgive, rescue and restore men and women who had shown no love for God. God, in his love, was willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for us. Tragically, we too easily miss the significance of this.

In our age of ‘tolerance’ we overlook the reality of our broken relationship with God. We treat God more as a glorified Santa Claus who is always there when trouble strikes. We ignore the fact that, in our natural state, none of us can look God in the eye and expect to see his love. Our lives simply don’t measure up for we are more interested in serving Self rather than God.

It is only when we stop and consider what Jesus’ death meant that we begin to understand. For in Jesus’ suffering we see the outpouring of God’s fierce and just anger, being met in equal measure by the power of God’s love. To use Paul’s words in Romans 3:25, instead of showing his horror of sin by judging us according to his law, God has displayed the same horror, the same pure justice, by putting Jesus to death in our place.

No, Jesus’ death was not child abuse, as some will opine. In John’s Gospel we read that Jesus laid down his life of his own accord (John 10:17-18). He volunteered. Jesus death is, ‘the one perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’ (BCP, 1662).

Before you go to bed tonight will you consider your response to God’s love: Honesty and humility – that Jesus Christ died the death you deserve? Gratitude – that God was willing to sacrifice his only Son so that you might be forgiven? Love – remembering that God in his love has now made you at peace with him? Loyalty – inspired afresh by God’s unswerving love, will you offer your life afresh to him in love, loyalty and service?