The Beatles famously sang, “All you need is love. Love is all you need.” Theologically speaking, that is kind of true but also kind of not true. It ultimately depends on what we mean when we speak, or sing, of love.
Love has been described in a million different ways. This wide variety of definitions has only added to the confusion. We live in a world that has cheapened and diluted it, or only focus on part of what it is. Some think of love as a feeling (butterflies), an act (sex), a chemical reaction (dopamine & serotonin), or as a verb (serving). As a result, some people feel a lot like the man who said, “If love is the answer, could you please rephrase the question?” Each of these can be part of what we mean by human love. But how do we translate those ideas into our understanding of God’s love?
Rather than starting with a subjective definition, let’s consider an objective one. The most famous definition of love, ever written, comes from the Bible. It’s from 1 Corinthians 13 – the love chapter. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the excellencies of love. He shows how superior and great it is, even when compared to faith and hope.
I’m sure you’ve heard this passage read at a dozen weddings. But I want you to slowly consider these words again. Rather than print a familiar English translation, I want you to read 1 Cor 13:4-7 as it was intended. Scholars mostly agree it was poetic. The beauty of these verses is best captured in the hardly-known English translation, the International Standard Version. It says:
Love is always patient; love is always kind;
love is never envious or vaunted up with pride.
Nor is it conceited, and never is it rude;
never does it think of self or ever get annoyed.
It never is resentful; is never glad with sin
but always glad to side with truth, whene’er the truth should win,
It bears up under everything; believes the best in all,
there is no limit to it’s hope, and never will it fall.
Last Sunday, we lit the Advent candle of hope. Today, we light the candle of love. Truly, it is in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus that we are reminded of what true love is. In fact, take a quick second and go back and re-read 1 Cor 13 above – but this time, everywhere it speaks of “love” (or “it”) substitute God or Christ. (i.e. “God is always patient; Christ is always kind…”) It is a simple but rich meditation. It will remind you of Who God is and what we can expect from Him.
The love of Advent, however, is most clearly found in another, even more familiar Bible passage. We see the reference graffitied on bridges or scribbled on signs at football games. The passage is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
When most people read that verse, they tend to put the emphasis in the wrong place. People tend to read it like this, “For God SOOOOOOOO loved the world…” We stretch out that vowel sound. To our ears, that shows us emphasis. We read it as though the word “so” means degree, amount, or quantity. Like when we say, “He put SO much chocolate on his ice cream.” In other words, we read it and think, “God showed us a huge amount of love by sending Jesus.”
That is true. God’s love is enormous. As one of my favorite hymns says:
Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole Though stretched from sky to sky
Indeed, God’s love is immeasurable. But at the risk of bursting your bubble, that’s not the best way to read the word “so” in John 3:16. The word “so” should be translated something like: “in this way,” or “thus,” or “in this manner.” In other words, the word “so” is not answering the question “How much does God love us?” but rather, “How do we know that God loves us?”
God loved the world thus. God loved the world in this manner – by sending His Son 2,000 years ago to be born of a virgin. The predominant spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving. And it was God who set this trend in motion by giving us His Son.
The Scriptures remind us that “we love God because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). John 3:16 tells us that Christmas is proof of this fact. God took the initiative. God went first. He saw our helplessness, our sin, our brokenness, our pain, and our grief. When we were unlovable, helpless, sinful His heart was moved with compassion and He demonstrated that love by sending His Son.
We did not deserve God’s love – but that’s what true love is. As 1 Cor 13 says, “love does not seek its own (good).” God sought our good by becoming one of us, by dying for us, and by rising to save us. He came to call us to put our hope and faith in Him. But as 1 Cor 13 says, “But now faith, hope, love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is love.” One day our hope in Jesus will become sight. One day our faith in Jesus will become a tangible. But love? That won’t dissolve. That won’t disappear. Love will remain forever and ever. And that’s the promise of Advent: the everlasting love of an everlasting God.
This morning as we light the second candle and think of our Savior, my prayer is that we will better understand John 3:16, “For God loved the world in THIS WAY that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”