To say God is love is to say more about love than about God. As one commentator put it, when we say God is love, “We are not making an ontological statement describing what God is in his essence.” Nor, I would add, are we imputing our own definition of love into the statement and allowing the presence of the divine name to validate our definition.

What we are saying is love is bound up in the very nature of God – as are all the divine attributes. Therefore, our knowledge of what love is does not start in the abstract, but should start with our concrete knowledge of God (who he is and what he does). And then, we allow our knowledge of God to fill in the content of what love entails. This way of approaching our understanding of love comes directly from the teaching of 1 John 4:7-21.

Love One Another
In this passage, and really the whole book of 1 John, the apostle John is concerned with providing assurance of salvation to the covenant community (1 John 1:1-4, 4:13-16, 5:13-15). Unsurprisingly (Jesus gave “loving one another” as a new commandment – John 13:34), loving one another becomes (1) the principle way by which we receive assurance of salvation, and (2) the principle way we demonstrate to others we are a true follower of Christ (1 John 4:7).

At this point in the letter, John grounds our understanding of love in God: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (vs. 8). By grounding the definition of love in the very essence of God, John subtly defines the character of the love we ought to have toward one another in three distinct ways.

Otherworldly and Other-focused
First, John tells us genuine love comes from God – it is otherworldly. We see this clearly in verse 9a: “In this the love of God was manifested among us.” According to John, the manifestation of love comes from God. Therefore, God is the source and origin of love, which means authentic biblical love is derived from him.

Second, not only is the character of love otherworldly, it is also other-focused. “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (vs. 9b). Here we see love not in the abstract, but in a concrete reality. It is not because of mere sentimentality or a weak-in-the-knees feeling God gave the son to die in our place (though God does express joy in and over us, Zeph. 3:17). It is because the character of God’s love is other-focused. God gave the Son up as a propitiatory sacrifice for our salvation that we may be reconciled to him. God’s actions in redeeming his people are the epitome of being other-focused, especially in light of the fact we were incapable of reconciling ourselves to him.

An Outrageous Love
Lastly, the character of this love reveals it is profoundly outrageous. John tells a bunch of broken, troublesome, quarrelsome, sniff necked rebels that their God is Love. Which they probably understood to mean he would be faithful in securing their salvation (1 John 4:10), even though it is assured they wouldn’t be faithful to him (1 John 1:8).

You would be perfectly right in thinking this is flat out outrageous. After all, why would a Holy, majestic, beautiful, glorious, magnificent, and beneficent God provide love for us worms? Well, that’s just outrageous love. It only makes complete sense if and when you realize it doesn’t need to make complete sense.

This doesn’t mean we don’t try to understand what love is. It just means at some point in the search to understand, we hit a wall. And that’s when we realize what kind of love we are up against – a love that is otherworldly, other-focused, and completely outrageous!