The Layers of the Great Love of God
As believers, the apostle Paul longs for our hearts to be rooted in the richness of God’s love. He prays in Ephesians 3:16 that the Father would strengthen us by the Spirit so that we might increasingly know ourselves rooted and grounded in the breadth, length, height and depth of divine love. This supernatural capacity in the church is a priority for Paul because of what it produces in the saints. There is a liveliness (rooted), a perseverance (grounded), and a fruitfulness (filled) that permeate our inner man through an experiential awareness of the love of Christ.
The way Paul talks about it here, this encounter with God’s love is guided and guarded by propositions (“knowledge”), but ultimately surpasses them in the power of the Spirit. In other words, the fact that he says “the love of God has heights and depths and widths and breadths” means there are more and greater dimensions we can realize than we do now. And the fact that he says, “it takes the Spirit to be rooted and grounded in this love” means that we need to be moved from realization to revelation. When the Spirit takes truth we know and touches our heart with its power, the effect in our inner man is likened in vs 20 to our resurrection from the dead (see 1:19-20)! Realization and revelation work together like fuel and fire. Fuel without fire is unhelpful. Fire without fuel is unsustainable. Fuel with fire is encounter! This is what Paul prays God will do in the church, for our good and His glory (vs. 21).
So, as believers who have been predestined by the love of the Father (Eph. 1:5; 2:4), reconciled by the love of the Son (5:2, 25), and sealed by the love of the Spirit (1:13; 3:16), we have access to this love. It is not foreign to or outside of us. It is the reason we are alive and it is the animating principle of our life. We are children of God’s love – and our inheritance is an ever greater awareness of the God who is Love. That inheritance begins, in measure, today. We can make a life out of realizing the great love of God (see Ps. 111:2). And we can pray for the spiritual work of revelation.
The place we should start in our study of the love of God is admitting with Paul that there is more to know that we do today! As Frederick Lehman teaches us to sing: The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell! What we mean when we call God’s love rich and deep and great is that the love of God has layers. It is greater far! It is not flat or shallow. It is not one dimensional. It is not easily encompassed. Rather, it is complex, like the taste of a fine wine. It is textured, like the plot of a great novel. It is rich, like the counterpoints of a great symphony. It has depth, like the perspective of a great painting. This is why Paul pushes us to consider four dimensions of love all at once, with each axis surpassing knowledge! The love of God is great! It has layers.
If that seems strange, think about your own heart, made as it is in the image of God. We have no problem sorting out what we mean when I say “I love pizza”, or “I love the Bronocs”, or “I love my country”, or “I love my church”, or “I love my wife”. No one would confuse these statements of love as being the same. Nor would anyone argue that because they are different, one or more must be disingenuous. The short way to say this is “my love has layers”. And if this is true of my love as a dependent, finite creature, how much more are we justified in expecting the love of the uncreated, independent, infinite God to have layers! Here is one aspect of the surpassing greatness of His love.
We can illustrate this greatness briefly from John 3. John 3 is known for its declaration of the love of God in vs 16. And the love of God for the world that vs 16 proclaims is an astounding love! But if we stop here (which most of us may do) we miss much that is said about the surpassing love of God. There are at least 3 layers to God’s love in this chapter.
(1) Layer 1: God loves the World. John 3:14-17 says that the way God loved the totality of the wicked world is to lift up His Son so that whoever looks at Him in faith will live. John 3:16 is there to explain why Jesus connects Himself with a snake in vs 14. Talking with Nicodemus, Jesus takes him to Numbers 21 where God sends fiery serpents into Israel’s camp to kill them for their sin. When Moses intercedes, God has him make a bronze serpent, an image of their curse, and lift it up on a pole. If anyone looked at the serpent they were healed from the mortal bite. And Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has come to fulfill that type. The way God loved the world was to lift His Son up under the curse of sin. Because of this loving provision, anyone from among those who are sin-bitten, if they will look to Christ in faith, can live!
Layer #2: God Loves His Bride. But this is not the end of the love of God. In Numbers 21 not everyone who was bitten looked at the snake. Similarly, in John 3:19, not everyone looks at the lifted Son. Light has come. Love has come. But some hate it and will not come to it. What makes the difference between those who look and live and those who avert their eyes and remain under wrath? As Jesus explains to Nicodemus, the difference is made by the sovereign blowing of the Spirit, causing hearts to be born again. This new birth, where Spirit gives birth to spirit, opens their eyes so that they see the lifted Jesus as strong, wise and beautiful rather than weak, foolish and offensive. The group that receives this sovereign work of the Spirit is called, in John 3:29, “the bride.” Jesus here is referred to as the bridegroom whose voice John the Baptist now hears come. So we have in vs 16 a coming to the world out of love as a sacrifice for whoever will. And we have in vs 29 a coming to the bride out of love as a bridegroom for those given Him by the Father (17:6) and born again by the Spirit (3:8). The love of God has layers. It is true love for the world. And it is true love for the bride, whom He calls out of the world. But it is not the same.
Layer #3: The Love of God for His Son. At the end of John 3 we reach the high point of God’s great love as it is presented to us in this chapter. Vs 35 tells us “the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.” This is a love greater than God has for the world, where He gives His Son as a sacrifice for sin. It is a love greater than God has for the church, where He gives His Son as a bridegroom. It is a love between God and the perfect image of God who shines back to Him the glory of God (1:1; 14) that provokes an affection so intense He gives all things into His hand! This is a love of eternal duration, infinite intensity and overflowing delight!
It is remarkable, as we reflect on the love of God for His Son, that we have been caught up in, acted on by, and invited to participate in this love! Jesus prays to His Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them” (Jn 17:26). Paul takes his cue from Jesus and prays that we would be strengthened by the Spirit to experience the surpassing love of God (Eph. 3:16). So let us sing with Lehman, “Oh, love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong! It shall forevermore endure – the saints’ and angel’s song!” And let us give ourselves to growing in the great – and layered – love of God!