We've been reading Jonah to better understand what it means to say that God is Love in the same way that God is Holy or God is Just. When Berkhof finds himself needing to define the communicable attributes of God, he finds himself saying this:
The presence of God, as described by the Old and New Testament writers is clearly a personal presence. … God is represented throughout as a personal God, with whom men can and may converse, whom they can trust, who sustains them through trial, and fills their hearts with the joy of deliverance and victory. And, finally, the highest revelation of God to which the Bible testifies is a personal revelation. Jesus Christ reveals the Father in such a way the He could say the Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9) (64)In Berkhof’s view, this question of “communicable attributes” means that in some way, God is not so far above everything that he cannot be found. But it also means that God is not just found in theory, or found by analogy or in philosophy or doctrine. In Berkhof’s view, God can be found because he is in fact personal – and the ultimate expression of the personal-ness of God is in Jesus Christ.
The Apostle John utterly agrees with Berkhof. He just has a more personal way to say it. When the Apostle John wants to talk about this, he says, “God is love.” He actually says a lot more than that in 1 John 4:
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.God is Love, and we know what love is because of God loves through a person – through his own Person. This is what we mean when we say, “[the love of God] may be defined as that perfection of God by which he is eternally moved to self-communication.” We mean: God wants to tell us about himself, and while the telling is important, and gracious, good in a moral sense, it turns out that it is also something more. It is the way God is made personal to us and for us – initially by words and stories, but finally, and perfectly in Jesus Christ.
For John, the only way to know God, and to know love, is to know what Christ has done. That is: God loved us, and sent Christ to be the propitiation of our sin. That’s a perfectly fine theological word there, “propitiation.” But what John means is that God sent Jesus to deal with our sins because he loves us, and in order to make God content with us – to overcome wrath for the sake of God’s contentment with us.
What is at stake in the question of God’s love, then, is not merely factual information. What is at stake is whether or not we actually know God, whether or not we actually can relate to God, and whether or not we have any hope in God.
Jonah, unfortunately, doesn’t get it.
5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.
And then [Jonah] asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”In God’s view of this, what’s at stake here is that Jonah not just know the words. Jonah can say the words, “you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah can understand them well enough to run away from what they mean. What is at stake here is that God self-communicates to Jonah so that Jonah will know who God is. What is unfortunate for Jonah is that when he meets this God in the salvation of his enemies, he is angry at God. He would rather die than know this God.
See: God makes it clear that there is a huge gulf between Jonah’s ideas about justice and love and God’s own ideas about justice and love. The example he uses is the analogy between the plant and the city. God tells Jonah that even though he (Jonah) had nothing invested in the plant, and wasted nothing on it, he enjoyed it, and had pity for it. But the contrast is stark: God makes it clear how much greater it is that was at stake in the city, and how much more God had invested in it – both in time and in resources. Yet the city, which plainly had its evil deeds come before the Lord for judgment. And God says himself these people have no idea how desperate their own plight is. For God to say they were a people who did not know their left hand from their right is for Him to say that they are utterly ignorant, and may have no moral compass at all.
Yet even here, in the seat of an empire which has opposed God’s people for generations, God offers forgiveness for repentance.
Now, as we set ourselves up for the home stretch, there’s a subtext to this story which, it seems to me, gets missed. It’s the same subtext which John presents in his letter when he says explicitly that God is Love. It’s clear that Jonah thinks that God has or possesses love, right? That’s actually the starting point of his complaint when Nineveh is spared: God is full of Love. And then Jonah is brash enough to admit that it’s not just God having love or somehow feeling love which is aggravating to the prophet: the fact that God will actually love somebody – in fact, almost anybody – pushed the prophet to the brink of death. But as God chastises the prophet because this man who was saved from the giant fish now has more pity for a plant than a city full of people, God makes a point which is a necessary corollary of the fact that God is Love: God requires love in return.
When Jonah is first irate over the repentance of the city, God says, “Do you do well to be angry?” The implication is, “are you right to be angry over my love for the city?” But then when Jonah is beside himself over the death of the plant, God says again, “Do you do well to be angry” but makes the point, “for the plant?” See: Jonah has two sorts of anger here, but both are motived by his own self-centeredness, his own self-love. He is angered by the welfare of the city because these are his enemies who are spared; he is angered over the death the of vine because his own pleasure is at stake. When God draws this comparison for him, God is plainly saying, “Jonah: who do you love?”
In the Old Testament, we know for certain this is the ultimate question – it is captured in the greatest commandment, after all. “You shall love … who?”
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deu 6:5)Jesus says this is the greatest commandment. But why is this true? Is it because God demands it out of whimsy or ego? Certainly not: BEFORE God makes the demand that he be beloved, he makes it utterly clear:
Deu 4: 35 To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. 36 Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. 37 And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, 39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.God requires Love because he has, before any demand he has made, Loved first. This is why Jonah’s reaction to God is such an affront: he knows all the words. He can recite the orthodox formulas. But he cannot muster up a reflection of this attribute of God either for his fellow sinners, or for the loving God who stands above them all.
This is God’s point to Jonah, and 1000 years later this is John’s point to his fellow believers. When John says, “God is Love,” he is saying something in the context of his opening to this letter which must be remembered:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.John is trying to tell us about how and why God has come to us so that we may not only understand John, but to be with God. The goal is not merely to have God’s favor: the goal is to have God, to hear Him, to see him with our eyes, to touch him with our very hands. It means to have everything in common with Him – the kind of fellowship you can share only with the closest of family.
Think about what a different book the book of Jonah would have been if, rather than the Chapter 4 we receive it instead said, “and when Jonah looked upon the city, and upon his own salvation from death in the belly of the fish, he worshipped God and gave praise to him for his lovingkindness. And God was with him.” It could have been a story utterly foreshadowing the New Testament, utterly proof of the kind of faith Abraham had, in which God is both trusted and loved and believed for the best. Jonah could have been a friend of God. Instead it is a book which spells out for us in detail the difference between the kind of love Men as capable of contrasted with the kind of Love God brings into the world.
There is nothing unorthodox about Jonah’s confession – but when he finds God actually being full of Love, Loving with patience, Loving to the point of forgiveness, he is enraged. He thinks he has himself been wronged even though he is also himself a benefactor of such things. When John sees the love of God, his reaction is different. What John knows about God is superior to what Jonah knows about God – even though they have the same words for it.
Jonah has seen what God has done – and would die for both shame and anger. John has seen it, and he is overcome by it for joy. Jonah wants to repudiate God’s work to sake the lost, and John sees it as his only hope – the only way to even know what love is.
I think both men would know all the words to the children’s song about this rudimentary doctrine. “Jesus Loves Me. This I know, for the Bible Tells me so. Little ones to Him belong – they are weak, but He is strong. Yes! Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so!” The question, it seems, is which one believes it.