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. (Jonah 4:5-11)
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.
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.