I love to come to Ligonier. I just am so refreshed in hearing the other men and rejoicing in it, and I always feel a little bit, I don’t know, intimidated; you just need to be sort of profound to be here, you know, it’s a little bit of pressure. And when I was given the subject of “The Love of God” it reminded me that a number of years ago the publisher that I was working with at the time said to me, “You know, you’re pretty intense in your books, and they tend to be a bit combative from time to time. We would like you to write a more amiable book. We’d like to sort of change your image a little and maybe have you kind of reach a wider audience. So could you just write sort of a noncontroversial book for us? And we think it’ll make you more friendly, and we’d like to suggest that you write on the subject of the love of God.” I did, and I sent in the book to them, and they sent me back a letter that said, “This is not what we had in mind. This may be the most potentially divisive book you have ever written.”
I was sitting on the Larry King program some time back – which is always an adventure for me. And I have a strategy on Larry King. My strategy is very simple. I don’t care what the conversation’s about, there are two things I want to say: the Bible is the only authoritative word from God, and Jesus is the only Savior, and I just look for places to say those two things.
But I was sitting next to Father Manning, and between Father Manning and Deepak Chopra, who in one of his books says he’s God; and he was so distressed, because he’s a rather small guy and he had him cranking the chair up so he could get up with everybody else. It’s hard when you’re God to be shorter than everybody else. That’s a problem, isn’t it.
But anyway, we were talking, and Father Manning said, “My Jesus loves everybody.” And Larry King looked at me and said, “You don’t feel that way about Jesus, do you, John? You think if people don’t believe in Jesus and Jesus alone they’re going to hell, right?” And I said, “Right.” And there are people that question that if you believe that you could still affirm the love of God.
On the surface, the idea that God is love is the most tolerable and the most universally affirmed truth concerning God, and almost everyone is happy that God is love as long as you leave it in a simplistic kind of definition. The reality is that people, in fact, and most professing Christians do not understand the love of God. It is far more profound, it is far more complex, and frankly, it is incomprehensible, and at times disturbing to contemplate.
Setting aside the popular ideas I want us to look together to several scriptures. You can preach a topical message once a year if you ask for forgiveness. So I want to do that and bounce around a little bit. Have your Bible handy. We’re going to talk about the height and depth and breadth and length of the love of God. At least I want to give you sort of a primary scope to look at this incredibly important reality in the nature of God, and the place His love has in the panoply of attributes that make up His nature.
Clearly God is love, 1 John 4 tells us that. The Bible declares that. But at the very outset we’re going to have to break that love down, and for our purposes just to get a good sense of the overview, we’re going to break it into three categories. Category Number One is God’s love for Himself. This is what we will call intra-Trinitarian love, and this is the starting point of necessity for all of God’s love. Before there was any creature to love, God was still perfect love, and perfectly loved the members of the Trinity mutually.
Open your Bible for a moment to the 14th chapter of John. We’ll look at a couple of passages in John just as a starting point, because obviously we can’t get too far into these things or we’ll not be able to cover the breadth of what we want to say. But in John 14, just some statements that establish in our minds this intra-Trinitarian love. In verse 31 of John 14 we read, “but that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go from here.” Jesus said, “Let’s progress toward the inevitability of the cross, that the world may know that I love the Father, and I show that love in perfect and sacrificial obedience.”
In the 15th chapter, still in this wonderful Upper Room Discourse, the night of the Passover with His apostles, Jesus says, verse 9, chapter 15, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Again, perfect love demonstrated in perfect obedience.
In the 17th chapter of John, again we read of this intra-Trinitarian love. Verse 23 Jesus says, “I in them” – and this, of course, as you know is the High Priestly Prayer, as it’s often called – “I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me.” Again this emphasis is in verse 26, “I have made Thy name known to them, and will make it known; and the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them, and I in them.” Perfect love in the Trinity, perfect love from all eternity.
Two expressions of that love I want to sort of pull out of the text of John’s gospel just to demonstrate something of the character of it. We’ve already seen that it’s connected to the obedience of our Lord; therein lies the demonstration of His love back to the Father. But I want to show you the Father’s love to Him.
Turn to the 5th chapter of John, and I find this to be one of those compelling chapters, not unlike the 17th chapter. In the 17th chapter of John you are in the Holy of Holies, you are in the midst of communion between the Son and the Father, and here is much the same kind of reality. The words belong to Jesus, chapter 5, verse 19: “Jesus therefore answered and way saying to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do noting of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all these things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel. For’ – verse 21 – ‘just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to those whom He wishes.’ – verse 22 – ‘For not even the Father judges anyone, but He is given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.’” Now we can stop there.
Do you know what that says? Everything that the Father has He gave His Son – everything. The Son does what He sees the Father doing in verse 19. The Father shows the Son everything that He Himself is doing. Here is the magnanimity of the love of God; He holds nothing back. All His power He gives to the Son.
Verse 21 says, “Just as the Father raises the dead, gives them life, so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” God has the power to raise the dead, and so does the Son. “God has the right to judge,” – verse 22 – “but He’s given all judgment to the Son. God is worthy of all honor, but He’s given equal honor to the Son. God is the one to be believed, but He gives His word to His Son, who also is to be believed.” The Father gives life, the Son gives life. The Father executes judgment, the Son executes judgment. The magnanimity of the love of God to the Son is that all the Father’s knowledge, all the Father’s power, all the Father’s secrets, all the Father’s privileges, all the Father’s honor He gives to the Son and holds nothing back. And the Son, in perfect reciprocal love says that all that He has is only what the Father has given Him; thus He celebrates the expression of perfect love in consummate generosity that holds back nothing.
And in John 6, verse 36, we come to a familiar portion of Scripture, which takes us to a second illustration of how the Father loves the Son, and the Son in return loves the Father. In John 6, verse 36 and following – we’ll start at verse 37. Jesus says, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me.”
Now here you come to the glory of redemption. The Father loves the Son so much that He gives to the Son a redeemed humanity. You understand, don’t you, that God loving sinners is secondary, and God loving His Son is primary? He loves sinners insofar as by loving them He can express His love to His Son. We are nothing but an elect bride, the Father’s love gift to the Son. That’s why He said, “All that the Father gives Me, all that the Father gives Me, no man comes under Me unless the Father” – what – “draws him.”
And also in John 17 you have the very same reality expressed a couple of times, verse 11: “I am no more in the world; yet they themselves are in the world. I come to Thee, Holy Father. Keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Thy name which Thou hast give Me.” Verse 24: “I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am.”
So when you talk about inter-Trinitarian love, you’re talking about the love that exists, primarily expressed in the language between the Father and the Son, but not to leave out the Holy Spirit within the Trinity expressed in text such as we have just read. We must begin then with the primary intra-Trinitarian love, because it leads to the other loves. Because God the Father perfectly loves the Son, salvation is planned. As the Father seeks a bride for His Son, as the Son in perfect obedience and perfect love for the Father is willing to pay the price for that bride, the immense price of redemption, obeying the Father’s will out of love for Him and becoming a substitute and receiving the wrath of God for all who would believe.
God loving us, God loving people, rises out of God’s creating people to redeem a bride for the Son of His love. Now that’s a glorious subject in itself. I’m only introducing it tonight because it’s really not the focus of this particular address. Let’s go to a second category of love, letting that sort of settle in our minds for a moment. I want to move to the second category of love which is critical for us to understand, that is God’s love for humanity, God’s love for humanity.
It is true, God does love men and women; God does love the world. There is a love of God which is unconditional. You hear that used so many times, that adjective “unconditional” you would think that’s the demanded adjective to describe God’s love finally, ultimately; but it is not. But there is, however, an unconditional kind of love, an unlimited kind of love, an indiscriminate kind of love, a love extended to all people.
It’s like Titus 3:4 which says, “God’s love for mankind,” chrēstotēs. There is a kind of love extended to all men, and it is a necessary love, because God’s nature is love; and if God has any interaction with human beings it will be based upon His nature. If you have an interaction with another human being, another person, you are interacting with whatever the components of that person’s character and personality are. And when the sinful world interacts at all with God or God with them, the truth about God will be manifest, and the truth about God is that He is love, and so love is part of that relationship.
A few passages that are important in that regard: Matthew, chapter 5. Matthew, chapter 5, and I want to show you a little bit about this sort of unconditional, indiscriminate, general, unlimited love that extends to all people. Matthew, chapter 5, verse 44: “I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Never are you more like God than when you love your enemies. God loves His enemies. God’s love is not restricted to the redeemed. This is an unqualified, unconditional love.
Another illustration of this is found in the 10th chapter of Mark, which I think is sort of tucked into that 10th chapter and perhaps overlooked, unless you’re reading thoughtfully. Verse 17: “As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him” – Mark 10:17 – “knelt before Him, and began asking Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life’” This is the well-known rich young ruler. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’”
There is a deluded man. There is a confused man. Here is a man who cannot receive eternal life because he does not understand the wretchedness of his own condition. He believes himself to be righteous in spite of the fact that he would not accept the diagnosis that Jesus gave of his condition, or endeavor to expose. It says in verse 21 – and I’ve always been fascinated by this: “And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him.” Amazing.
“Looking at this obstinate, self-righteous rejecter, Jesus felt a love for him and he said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”
There are two conditions upon which this man would put himself in the place to receive eternal life, and one was to understand that he had broken the law of God, and two was to understand that he was being asked to submit to the lordship of Christ, whatever Christ commanded. But in neither case would he respond. And verse 22 says, “At these words his face fell. He went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property.” And Jesus’ comment was, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” Here was a man who didn’t enter the kingdom of God, and yet Jesus had a love for him. God loves humanity.
There are four ways in which we see this unconditional, indiscriminate love. Number One is what theologians have always called common grace. If for a moment you could look at Matthew, chapter 5 again, you would notice the latter half of verse 45 where He says, “Love your enemies in order that you may be sons of your Father who’s in heaven, for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. And if you only those who love you, what reward have you? Tax collectors do that.”
God loves those who don’t love Him, and that love is manifest – listen – in an earthly, physical, temporal fashion, by rain and good. You understand that, of course, because you know that the soul that sins, it shall die; the wages of sin is death. And yet the world is constantly, from the very start, populated by people who sin, and sin continuously in an unbroken pattern and go on living. And it’s not as if this is outside the control of God, because it’s in God we live and move and have our being. And God says to Adam, “In the day you eat of the fruit of that tree you will die,” – and Adam lived over 900 years. What is that? And so did all the other sinners that are listed there early in Genesis, living for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Can you imagine, by the time you get to be 60 or 70 you life is so full of sin, what would it have been like if you lived to be 900? How would you like to deal with that memory bank of garbage?
The very fact that the Lord lets the unregenerate get up in the morning and smell the coffee and have a good breakfast, and kiss the person they love, and hug a baby, and go off to a stimulating career, and enjoy a great meal in a comfortable car, and a sunset, and a beautiful seascape, and hear music, and enjoy all of the common grace of life is an expression of God’s love for humanity. He loves all men unconditionally in that physical, temporal sense. And we have to understand that that is God’s love.
Listen to Acts 14:17, “He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Who was Paul saying that to? A bunch of idolaters who tried to turn Paul and Barnabas into gods. That’s common grace.
The second way in which God loves humanity is compassion, compassion; and certainly it’s tied into the reason that God expresses common grace. God’s love for mankind is revealed in His universal pity, His universal grief over lost souls. Ezekiel 18:32, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” God finds no pleasure, no satisfaction there.”
I always love reading Jeremiah, particularly when I’m feeling sorry for myself and need somebody to cry with me. Jeremiah 13: “Listen and give heed, do not be haughty or proud, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God, before He brings darkness and before your feet stumble on the dusky mountains, and while you’re hoping for light He makes it into deep darkness, and turns it into gloom. But if you will not listen to it,” – listen to this – “my soul will sob in secret for such pride; and my eyes will bitterly weep and flow down with tears.” That’s the compassion of God weeping through the eyes of Jeremiah.
It’s the 48th chapter, I think, of Jeremiah, if I remember right, down in verse 30 and following where God literally weeps and wails over the destruction of Moab. Moab was cursed, but God found no pleasure in their iniquity or their judgment.
And then Matthew 23:37, what is Jesus saying? “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I would have gathered you as a hen gathereth her brood and you would not. You just kill the prophets that are sent to you.”
In Luke 19:41 He says He looked over the city and He wept. And He wept over the tomb of Lazarus. Why? Because He was sorry Lazarus died? No, because He wanted Lazarus dead. Don’t you remember? He stayed up by the Jordan until he was good and dead, until he’d been dead for three days. And the Jews didn’t embalm. He would have been in some seriously bad shape by then. He was not weeping because Lazarus was dead, He was weeping because He was absorbing the horrible consequence of sin, namely death for all. This is a love of compassion that is not motivated by the present value of someone, but by the lost value. When Moses wanted to see God, God said, “I’ll show you My compassion.”
There’s a third element of this love for humanity, and I guess we could put it in the category of warning. God’s love for mankind is revealed in His incessant warnings. All through the Scripture – we won’t take the time to recite them. I always think of a text that I first heard from R. C. many years ago when I listened to his series on the holiness of God – I think it’s in that series – taken out of Luke 13 where they came and asked Jesus about the tower that fell on the people, and then the people who were in worshiping, and the soldiers came in and sliced them up, and Jesus’ response was, “Hey, you’d better take a look at your own lives. Same thing’s going to happen to you. You’re not exempt.” It’s not that they were worse than anybody else. The fact of the matter is, it’s only grace and love that gives you another breath.
You know, when you think about that text in 1 Timothy 4:10 it’s a very provocative text where it says that “God is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.” I know that’s disturbed a lot of people. Universalists like that text, right, God’s the Savior of all men. But God is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe, malista, a little adverb there. In what sense is God the Savior of all men? In a physical and temporal sense in that He withholds from the sinner what the sinner deserves when He deserves it, and it is that that Paul says in Romans 2 is the patience and forbearance of God that you should have leading you to repentance. New Testament, the Old Testament, filled with warnings, filled with warnings.
There’s a fourth category of this unconditional love, and I guess we could call it the gospel offer. God’s love for mankind in the broadest sense is revealed in His incessant and extensive offer of the gospel. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to everyone, everyone.” The path to salvation has been made known to all. “That which may be known of God” – Romans 1 “is in them.” It is that logical process built into the mind, that cause-and-effect pattern in human thinking that is the operation of logic. I mean it’s basically the simple building block upon which all reasoning takes place, and when you get into that pattern, it takes you back to the ultimate cause; and then God puts Himself on display in His creation.
Chapter 2 of Romans it tells us that He’s written His law in our hearts and He’s given us a conscience to react to that law and convict, accuse, or excuse. Christ is the light that lights every man. There is a path built into the human heart which when followed leads to truth and to God, and as we are faithful to proclaim, to the ends of the earth, to the hearing of the gospel. Hyper-Calvinists tell us we shouldn’t preach the gospel to everybody, because we don’t know who’s the elect. That’s not what the Bible tells us. Every sinner, as far as I know – I have to operate on this basis. Every sinner that I meet, if he or she believes in Jesus, will be pardoned and saved.
John 6:40, “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, will have eternal life; and I Myself” – Jesus said – “will raise him on the last day.” The divine Savior is revealed to sinners indiscriminately, in an unlimited fashion. To the ends of the earth we are to go with this message, whether it’s Psalm 34:8 which says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man that trusts in Him!”
Proverbs 1:24, “I have called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no man regarded.” Or Isaiah 55, “Come, buy, and eat. Buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Or Isaiah 65, “Behold Me, behold Me, unto a nation that was not called by My name. I have spread out My hands all the day unto a rebellious people.”
And in Matthew 22, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who made a marriage for his son. And he sent forth his servant to call them that were bidden to the wedding, and they wouldn’t come.” And Luke 14 which says, “A man made a great supper and bade many. He sent his servants at suppertime to say to them who were bidden, ‘Come, all things are ready.’ And they all with one consent began to make excuse.”
Jesus said, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and heavy laden, I give you rest.” Jesus said, “Him who comes to Me, I’ll never turn away.” And so there is an extensive gospel offer, a manifest love to humanity.
Thomas Boston, the Puritan preacher, used the analogy of a king. “It was like a king” – he said – “appointing a physician for the nation, and that physician was available to all the people, the official doctor of that society, whether people chose him or not. He was the official physician for that nation.” Well, Jesus is the Savior of the world, declared so by God, and available to all who come to Him for spiritual healing.
In John 5:40, Jesus said, “You are unwilling to come to Me, that you might have life.” We can’t forget that, that is God’s love for humanity. God loved the world so much that He provided a sufficient Savior. But sinners refuse to come and are guilty for that refusal. Jesus said, “You will die in your sins, and where I go, you will never come, because you didn’t believe in Me.”
That takes us to the third aspect of God’s love, not only God’s love for Himself, intra-Trinitarian love, and God’s love for humanity, but God’s love for His own, God’s love for His own. Listen carefully; though God genuinely loves the world, He loves them enough to give them common grace, He loves them enough to feel compassion and extend it to them, He loves them enough to warn them, He loves them enough to give them gospel opportunity.
That love has no limit in extent – listen – but it has a limit in degree. This is always challenging for us, but nonetheless true. He loves and saves in a temporal physical sense all men, but He especially loves and saves believers. His love for His own is eternal. It is limited in extent and unlimited in degree. It is conditional and it is uninfluenced. It is a love based upon nothing but sovereign determination.
Turn to John 13. Of all the passages where in a straightforward and direct sense, you can see this love. This is foundational: John 13. Our Lord here is on the brink of His own death, gathered with His obstinate blockhead apostles, the “O you of little faith association,” and they’re gathering together to celebrate the Passover the night that, of course, Judas would betray Him, and He would be then arrested and murdered.
And verse 1 captures me: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father,” – listen to this – “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” Having loved – past tense – with ongoing force. Having always loved His own who were in the world, He loves the world.
But there’s another kind of love. We know He loves the world, but He has another love for His own who are in the world. And what is it? He loved them to the end. And I think the Lord picks a really marvelous time to have John express that, because the disciples at this point in the upper room are having an argument about which of them is going to be the greatest in the kingdom. I mean they’re just so self-centered, so immature, selfish, ambitious. Jesus had told them what was going to happen, and as He is there in the shadow of the cross and the dark night is falling over Him, all they can think about is their own glory.
And here in their ugliest moment when they are utterly indifferent to His coming suffering, when whatever the indications of His own sorrow were as He gathered with them in intimate fellowship for hours that night, they never picked up anything. This was when they were the ugliest of all. And it says He loved them eis telos. Who is it that He loved? His own who were in the world, eis telos.
What does that mean? It means in one sense, to the max, unto the end, in the sense of complete and perfect and full. He loved them to the max. Another way to say that would be He loved them to the end of His capacity to love them. And that cannot be said of His love for humanity.
It could say He loved them to the last. They deserted Him. They denied Him. They were ashamed of Him. They were cowards. They were disloyal. They were fearful. They were scattered very soon from this time.
And you remember when they rendezvoused up in Galilee after His resurrection. What was Jesus’ thrice repeated question to Peter? “Peter do you” – what – “do you love Me?” You see, Jesus was used to love being demonstrated by obedience, because that’s how He loved His Father. And Jesus had told Peter to go to Galilee and wait for Him, and Peter went back to His old career. He loved Him in their disloyalty. His love for them is so astonishing. You can see it in the events that follow. When you get into His promises in this Passover evening, this legacy of Jesus that He gives to them and promises them all these things, He pledges His love to them. He shows His love to them by washing their filthy feet while they were debating who was the greatest, and none would stoop to do that.
He shows His love to them later in in the garden. Do you remember the soldiers came in the garden to take Jesus captive, and Jesus knew very clearly that these men could never survive if they were taken captive; He knew that. He knew that it would be more than they could bear, more than their faith could handle. And so John 18 says that, “When they came to take Jesus, Jesus went forth,” – moved, didn’t hide – “moved right toward the Roman cohort, and officers, and chief priests, and Pharisees with lanterns, torches, and weapons.”
Verse 4, John 18: “He went forth and said, ‘Whom do you seek?’” In other words, “He said, ‘I want to know what’s on your orders. I want to know who the warrant is for.’ And they answered Him, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ He said to them, ‘I am He.’ When therefore He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” Boom. Just the sheer force of His name, the name of God, I Am.
“And again He said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ and they said, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’” And He was affirming by their own lips that they had absolutely no right to take those disciples prisoner. Why? Verse 8: “He said, ‘I told you I am He; if therefore you seek Me, let these go their way.’”
Why? They couldn’t have handled it. It would have been more than their faith could bear, and so He protected them, and He said this, verse 9, “that the word might be fulfilled which He spoke, ‘Of those whom Thou hast given Me I lost not one.’” Did you understand that passage? What Jesus is saying is, “If I allowed them to get into that situation and be arrested, I would have lost them.”
You say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. He can’t lose His own.” That’s right, He can’t lose His own because He won’t lose His own; not just because He said He won’t, but because He enforces what He said. He never lets you be put in a position where your faith could fail to that degree. He protected them from what would have been shattering to them.
Later on after the resurrection He forgave them, even though they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and they’re walking along talking to Him and moaning about the fact that He’s dead. He restored them, even though they were disobedient. “He sent them His Holy Spirit,” – Acts, chapter 2 – “and empowered them to preach the gospel.” He loved them to the max. And, of course, He showed it on the cross: “Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friends.”
This love, by the way, is eternal, because in John 14, Jesus said, “Stop letting your heart be” – what – “troubled. You believe in God, don’t you? Believe in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I’ll come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” And you want to know something? There are no empty rooms in heaven. The rooms He prepares He fills, which means He keeps the people to whom the rooms have been promised. They don’t oversell heaven, nor do they undersell.
He faces the cross: sin-bearing, agonizing, execution, painful, lonely, forsaken, yet like a father who loses himself in the love of his children, as He Himself faces death, Jesus makes sure He holds onto His own. And then as He knows in His own heart He’s going to the cross and He’s going to be separated from the Father when He says, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” He’s expressing whatever the reality of that separation was.
I think He anticipates that in John 17 when He says, “Father, I kept them while I was here, now You keep them.” It’s almost as if He says, “I’ve held onto them up to now. In that moment when I might not be able to hold onto them because I am bearing the wrath for the sins of all who would ever believe, Father, hold onto them.”
This is what the hymn writer said: “The love of Jesus, what it is, none but His loved ones know.” It is not just that general love that gives common grace, compassion, warning, and gospel opportunity, it is this love that is way beyond that. It is this saving love, this covenant love. And, honestly, I could never ever preach a sermon on this subject without going to Ezekiel 16, because it is the greatest illustration of this.
You have to turn to Ezekiel 16. And I think at an earlier Ligonier Conference when I was speaking on a related subject, I drew attention to this chapter. This is so monumental to me. Here is this covenant love, this unbreakable love, this love which Romans 8 says you can never be separated from. And it’s so graphic, it’s just an unforgettable chapter.
The word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel in verse 1: “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem, your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother was a Hittite.’” I mean the bottom line here is this is a basic address given toward Jerusalem and Israel for her abominations, her idolatries. The Amorite and the Hittite, simply general names for the dwellers in Canaan, and here refer to the pagan origins of the people of Israel, and to the fact as well that the people of Israel had gotten involved in pagan conduct and pagan idolatry.
Jerusalem is very Canaanitish as this point, and He reminds this nation in verse 4 of her birth: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleaning; you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths.” The imagery is just so vivid. This is a throwaway baby. “You were a throwaway baby, as far as the people from whom you came were concerned.”
When a baby was born, of course, the cord is cut. The baby is washed, cleansed, rubbed with salt as a disinfectant, wrapped carefully in cloth, and cared for in a tender way. He says in verse 5, “No eye looked with pity on you to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for you were abhorred” – or hated – “on the day you were born.” This was not uncommon. When Israel, as it were, was thrown out of Egypt, when they were cast out into that field hated and despised.
Verse 6 says, “When I passed by you, saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’ And I made you numerous like plants of the field, and you grew up and became tall, and reached the age for fine ornaments; your breasts were formed and your hair had grown. Yet you were naked and bare. And then I passed by you and I saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you, covered your nakedness.” That was a custom that symbolized espousal.
“I took you to pledge to you to marry you, and I passed by you and I saw you,” – He says – “and I took you for My own. I swore to you. I made a covenant, a promise. I entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,” declares the Lord God. “And so I bathed you with water, and I washed off your blood from you, and I anointed you with oil, and I clothed you with embroidered cloth, and I put sandals of porpoise skin on your feet.”
I’d love the environmentalists to read that. “I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments. I put bracelets on your hands and necklace around your neck. I put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears, beautiful crown on your head. You were adorned with gold and silver. Your dress was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey, and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.” God is talking about, I think, the glory of the Solomonic era, isn’t it.
“Your fame went forth among the nations.” Remember the Queen of Sheba came and just said it was beyond anything that could ever be described. Oh, verse 15, “You trusted in your beauty, you played the harlot.”
That’s a sad story, isn’t it? I mean just imagine if this were an actual account of a man who did this, and took this person and did all this, and then the woman played the harlot. Well, that’s what Israel did. “You poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing.”
“You became a prostitute, a street walker. You took some of your clothes, made for yourself high places of various colors, played the harlot on them, which should never come about and happen.” This is talking about the idolatrous high places in Israel. “You took your beautiful jewels made of My gold and My silver, which I have given you, made for yourselves male images that you might play the harlot with them.” This is idolatry.
“And then you took your embroidered cloth and covered them, and offered My oil and My incense before them, and My bread which I gave you – fine flour, oil, honey – which I fed you, you would offer before these false gods a soothing aroma. And then you took your sons and daughters whom you have borne to me, and you sacrificed them to idols to be devoured. You burned your babies on the altar to Molech. You slaughtered My children, and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire. And besides” – verse 22 “all your abominations and harlotries you didn’t remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare and squirming in your blood. You forgot what I took you from.”
Down in verse 28: “You were not satisfied with harlotry with the Assyrians and the Philistines. You played the harlot with them and still were not satisfied. You multiplied your harlotry,” – in verse 29, and it just goes on and on like that, describing this horrible behavior.
“And you were worse” – He says in verses 46 and 47 – “you were worse than Samaria, your sister, taken captive in the northern kingdom. You’re worse than Sodom.” The end of verse 47, “You acted more corruptly in all your conduct than they did.” And, of course, the shameless, abandoned Israel flaunted herself before all the idols that surrounded the nation, spurned the loving, loyal grace of God, and became devoted to the insanity of worshiping idols.
And, of course, in this chapter as well you have the pledge, as it were, in verse 35 down through verse 43, that God’s going to bring the Babylonian captivity; He talks about wrath there. And then in verses 44 to 59, more of the iniquity and the sin. We won’t take time to go into all that.
But drop down to verse 60 and we’ll kind of wrap it up at that point. The first word in verse 60 is amazing. The Lord has just said in verse 58 about “your lewdness, your abominations, and how you have despised the oath, you have broken the covenant.” And then He says, “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. There will be a day” – He said – “when you will remember your ways, and you will be ashamed.”
Verse 62, “I will establish My covenant with you; you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation. I know how I’m going to humble you; I’m going to humble you by forgiving you.” Isn’t that amazing? Amazing how gracious God is to a people of His covenant.
Sodom was destroyed. Samaria – unredeemed, disappeared. And Israel was worse that Sodom, and Israel was worse than Samaria, yet God forgave Israel. To those whom He chooses to love in a covenant way His love is perfect, complete, saving, and eternal.
Listen to Jeremiah 31:3 says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.” Before the foundation of the world God set His love upon His own. Is that not true? And He loves them with an everlasting love.
In Ephesians 2 it says, “This love forgives. This love gives life. This love promises eternal glory. This love grants to us kindness and produces righteous behavior, and it’s all of grace.”
In Ephesians 5 it says, “This love cleanses, purifies, makes holy, nourishes, cherishes.” In Luke 15 it says, “This love lavishes, rejoices, overlooks past sin, restores, enriches.” Prodigal son. In Romans 8 it says, “This love is inseparable, unconquerable love.
Now that leads to a final question: Why did God not choose to love everyone like that? Isn’t that the question? And anytime you pose a question “Why?” about God’s ultimate sovereign determination, “You are outside My limits.”
But I’ll give you a good guess; and maybe not a guess. The reason God did not choose to love everyone savingly is because the love of God is qualified and controlled by His glory, by His glory. God is not obligated to be the unqualified, equal opportunity Savior of everybody. God is not the prisoner of His love, and He is not the prisoner of man’s expectation. God’s love is never separated as if it is superior or dominant over all His other attributes, such as justice and holiness and righteousness and wrath.
In the end, it pleased Him to do it as He did it, because it gave Him glory. And if the gospel is for some a savor of life unto life and death unto death, it is because God determined that it should be. For the purpose of His eternal glory He does what He does. While He feels compassion for all, He warns all, He calls for the gospel to be preached to all. He is still glorified in the salvation of some and the condemnation of some.
And I guess the hard question is, if we didn’t make that choice, why should we be condemned? And then answer is, you did make that choice; that’s clear in Scripture. It’s not apart from human rejection that we are condemned, but because of it. No matter how far you go back trying to discern this in the mind of God, it’s really bound up in nothing more than His glory, and we rest there.
Let me close with Romans 9. R. C addressed this in our conference so ably. I just want to make a couple of quick comments on Romans 9, because this is where you end up when you’re talking about the love of God.
The question that comes in the first five verses of Romans 9 is simply, why, if God has brought His gospel into the world, and His glory, and His covenants, and His giving of the law, and temple service, and promises, and gave to Israel the right to the heritage, the patriarchs, and brought Christ from the line of Abraham, if God has done that and God has blessed them all with such immense blessing? But Paul says, “Look, I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart, because they have all this, and yet they don’t believe.”
The question is, why, if they had all these privileges, is Israel not saved? The answer is shocking. Verse 6 says, “The word of God failed.” No. “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.” From the very beginning God never intended to save all of them, but rather it was through Isaac. That leaves Ishmael and his bunch out.
And then He comes down into verse 11 and starts to talk about the twins: Jacob and Esau. “And before they had done anything good or bad in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who call, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.” That was absolutely sovereign. Before they were ever born God determined what would happen. “Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Malachi 1. Now what you’re hearing there is – the answer to the question is God never intended to establish a covenant love with all of those Jewish people, never did.
Well verse 14, “What do we say?” That sounds like an injustice. And you know what His answer is? “Shut up.” Right? Mé genoito, “May it never be! Don’t even voice that!”
Do you remember – verse 15 says – do you remember that He said to Moses in Exodus 33? “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy. I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. And it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” That is just clear as it can be. There’s nothing ambiguous there at all. Then He goes on to give an illustration of Pharaoh.
Hurrying down to verse 19: “You will say to me then, ‘Well why does He find fault? I mean this is the way it is. Who can resist His will?’” And this answer, again, is so interesting: “O man, who are you who answers back to God?” It’s the same answer: “Keep your mouth shut.”
“The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Doesn’t the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?”
I mean that’s so obvious you can’t miss it. If you’re the potter and you’re making the pot, a pot doesn’t talk to a potter. It’s a huge gap, huge. Pots don’t talk – huge. And the gap between a pot and a potter is infinitesimal compared to the gap between you and God. You don’t talk.
“What if” – verse 22 - this is the answer. “So what if God wanted to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known, and thus endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” He did it so in order that He might make known the riches of His, what, glory. The riches of His glory wouldn’t shine as brightly if it weren’t against the backdrop of His judgment. In the end it’s His glory. I rest there, I’m okay with that. Are you? I’m okay with that. Let God be God.
You know, prisoners who are handed pardons like us escape death based on the pardon. We don’t go around questioning whether such pardons were granted to everybody, we grab our pardon and run.
Father, we thank You for our time tonight to consider Your great love, Your everlasting love. It is mystery; we understand that. We cannot unscrew the inscrutable. We cannot fathom the depths. We are pots, You are the potter. Your glory is everything. Glorify Yourself, Father, as You choose to do. Put Your great majesty in all its fullness on display for all the holy angels and the redeemed saints to see both now and forever. Amen.
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