The first phase of John 3:16 ends with the words, so loved the world. When we turn our attention toward God, He helps us look beyond ourselves and start looking at the world through His eyes of love.
Throughout history, love has been idealized as one of the greatest virtues of humanity. The power of love to stir the hearts of humankind to action has been witnessed time and time again, from the bystander who exhibits superhuman strength to lift a car off a fallen victim, to the unity of those willing to stand against the unjust exploitation and murder of other human beings. Truly, love is one of the greatest motivators and unifiers known to the world.
According to John 3:16, God’s love is what moved Him to send Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. However, there is a lot about the idea of love that the world gets wrong. Some of the confusion about love comes from the way we use the word for a wide range of situations. For example, a person who is very passionate about Italian cuisine might say, “I love lasagna.” This is kind of love is very different from that of a mother who pulls her baby close and whispers, “I love you.” Then there is the love between husband and wife, which differs greatly from the love between other relatives or friends. This one English word can have many different meanings depending on the context. But these kinds of love all have in common that they are all human in origin and reciprocal to varying degrees.
In contrast, though God’s love can certainly be felt, it is not conditional on human emotion or experience. It is based solely on the lover—God Himself. Thankfully, God has explained His love toward us with various examples and explanations throughout the Bible.
The first time the Bible mentions God’s love is Deuteronomy 4:37, which says,
And because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them; and He brought you out of Egypt with His Presence, with His mighty power.
This verse introduces us to at least five particular dimensions of God’s love.
First, God’s love is intentional. God loves us on purpose, no by accident. Notice how God, speaking to Israel, chose them based on His love for their forefathers. God’s choosing traces back to Genesis 17:6-8, where God makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham:
I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
Here, we see how God intentionally made a covenant with Abraham that included a promise toward Abraham’s descendants, who weren’t even born yet. This shows how God’s love is not accidental, but intentional.
Second, God’s love is unconditional. God loves regardless of whether we love Him back. In Genesis 17:6-8, when God made the covenant with Abraham, that covenant very one-sided. Notice how God promised to do all the work. In fact, God had only one requirement for Abraham, as God explains later, in Genesis 17:10-12:
This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.
The mark of circumcision was the only requirement God placed on Abraham’s descendants. And this requirement was not a payment or recurring activity, but rather, a physical mark in the flesh—a sign reminding Israel about God’s covenant with their forefather Abraham and how He chose Israel collectively to be His chosen nation long before any of the Israelites were able to reciprocate God’s love by choosing to love God back.
Third, God’s love is active. God’s love isn’t mere lip-service; God always follows His words with actions. As we read in Deuteronomy 4:37, God showed His love for Israel by bringing them out of Egypt. Israel’s slavery in Egypt and deliverance by way of the Red Sea is detailed in Exodus 1-14. Those chapters tell how God heard Israel’s prayers, brought the judgment of the 10 plagues on Egypt, and parted the Red Sea so Israel could escape the Egyptian army by crossing into the wilderness. These miracles show God’s unwavering devotion to take action on behalf of everyone He loves.
Fourth, God’s love is present. According to Deuteronomy 4:37, God did not bring Israel out of Egypt only to abandon them in the wilderness; rather, God delivered Israel with His presence. God desires a deeply personal relationship with all of us. This is true going back to Adam and Eve in the garden. Immediately after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, Genesis 3:8-9 says,
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
The Bible doesn’t say for sure whether God walking in the garden was Him taking a physical form or if it’s a word picture about God’s presence with Adam Eve. However, it’s quite clear that God regularly spent time with Adam and Eve and that they enjoyed a very close relationship with God. Sadly, the closeness of that relationship was lost for all of us when Adam and Eve rebelled by sinning against God. Now, sin is a wall between us and God that we can’t tear down ourselves. Thankfully, God is greater than sin and He took action so we could receive His presence again in our lives.
Fifth, God’s love manifests in power. We mentioned the many miracles God used to rescue Israel from bondage in Egypt. The abiding presence of God in our lives shows up in power to flee temptation, walk in victory over sin, and share the love of Christ in a world that couldn’t care less what God wants. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says,
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
When we believe in Jesus Christ, God performs surgery on our hearts, spiritually transplanting His Spirit as a kind of spiritual pacemaker alongside our own. The Holy Spirit comes alongside our hearts, monitoring our intentions, detecting spiritual anomalies, and sending spiritual pulses to convict and challenge us so we can change and become more like Jesus. Why? So that we can live fearlessly as witnesses of the love of Christ and not fall prey to the empty philosophies of the world.
These five dimensions of God’s love: intentional, unconditional, active, present, and powerful, are not exhaustive, but they begin to help us understand God’s great love for us. A love so great it moved the Father to do whatever was necessary to reconcile us to Himself.