When we study something, we try and understand it. But who can understand God loving the world? How can we talk about God giving his only Son to us? And who can understand a Saviour needing to die as he did to save us (John 3:15-16)?
But we need to know these things. God loves us. And his love is not mere posturing, or experimenting. He knows what is needed and sees that it’s done.
Here’s some pointers about the death of Jesus as a work of love—from Jesus and then the apostles. (I’ll use ‘the cross’ as shorthand for all that happens when Jesus is crucified.)
First, the cross shows that love is God’s project before it is ours.
It may sound cheap to talk about God’s ‘project’, but I do so because Jesus comes with a purpose, and before he dies, he announces, ‘It is finished’. He says he came that we may have a full life (John 10:10). This must mean he will teach us to love because it is where we love that we actually live.
But love is a ‘God thing’ (1 John 4:7). It begins with him. But it also is him. He doesn’t need our loveliness, or even our need, to attract him. He just loves.
If, on the other hand, we imagine that love is our nature and project, we begin to unravel—personally and socially.
Can we create a society that is good and loving? Indications are that we can’t. If we imagine it to be so, our insights shrink until we only see what pleases us. And our horizons shrink until they only include the people we agree with.
But what God does through the cross is a power that creates love. It’s an action we need to live in. Jesus’ death constrains us to love—that is, it encloses us on both sides and moves us from behind into all that life now can be (2 Cor. 5:14).
Second, the cross shows love is God’s priority
It’s easy to give first place to getting things done or accumulating whatever makes us feel secure. But Jesus is putting his life on the line for love. Everything else can come or go, but not love. Here’s some things he says just before he dies (all quoted from John’s Gospel).
He will love his people ‘to the end’ (13:1). He wants us to love him (14:24). He will go to the cross so the world will know he loves his Father God (14:31). This is his first love. He knows the Father’s love for him and that’s how he loves his disciples. This is where he wants us to live as well—in his love (15:9).
He prays that the love he receives from the Father will also be in his disciples (17:22, 26). He wants us to love one another like he does (13:34; 15:13). And he knows none of this will ever happen unless he dies.
Jesus has already told us that the greatest call on our humanity is to love God and to love one another (Mark 12:28-31). Now, he will do just that. If we’re not interested in love, we can let Jesus pass without a thought. But if love is the way to live, and if it’s what we want, we need to know what happens when Jesus dies.
Third, the cross shows love is not deserved.
Jesus is the ‘friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34). So-called ‘righteous’ people don’t need his help (Mark 2:16-17).
Paul helps us think about this (Romans 5:6-10). We are weak. That’s about as low as you can get—someone without the power to be properly human. Then we are ungodly—we coast around as though the world doesn’t need a Creator, let alone a Saviour. And then, we are sinners—we just don’t ‘get it’ and constantly miss what we are supposed to do.
That’s where we are when Jesus dies for us. We are not lovely people. God is saying, ‘Look at me. What kind of God am I?’ He is asking us to think about whether his love is real or not.
Jesus gets closer to us than we can get to ourselves. The thought of us being wrong, polluted, unlovely and arrogant doesn’t fit easily into our thinking. Jesus sees all of that in us and still says, ‘I want to be with you. I’ll wear what you are. I’ll suffer what you deserve.’
And he also says, ‘I’ll give you all that I am so you can be pure before my Father, and before your Father.’
Fourth, the cross destroys love’s enemy—fear.
What kills love is not busyness or difficult people. It’s threat and shame. Jesus lovingly does something about this. He is sent to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin—a propitiation (1 John 4:10). He needs to turn the wrath of God away from us, and does so by bearing it himself.
We’ve noted that there’s something deeply built into us that wants to make love our project. But love is ‘of God’. He is where it comes from and why it works (1 John 4:7-12).
Because Jesus so comprehensively endures God’s wrath, there is no fear of it touching us. We no longer need to fear meeting God (1 John 4:17-18). Love and fear don’t belong together. But, if fear is gone, love can thrive!
John explains this by saying, ‘as Jesus is, so are we in this world.’ In other words, Jesus is in heaven. We are on the earth. But we are as he is.
Think about what this means. There was a time when Jesus was in torment—on his cross. He could not say ‘Father’ as he usually did. He said, ‘My God. Why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). He is in torment.
But then, he announces that his work is finished (John 19:30), and entrusts his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). And God raises him from the dead. He raises him to sit by his side to administer the kingdom. His torment is over. This is how he is now. And we—in this world—are as he is.
Our torment is over. Love has begun. ‘God abides in us and we are made perfect in love’. This is not about us being perfect in love, but about God’s love being perfected or coming to its goal in us. He is confident that his work will bear fruit and cause us to love.
Lastly, the cross creates something entirely new.
To see the cross as God’s revelation and gift of love is to be a new person. Love is not strange to us now. One man dies for all. So, that is the end of all we have been. What happens from now on is all new—made by God (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). Life comes to us, and sometimes, at us, with many difficulties. But the cross is our assurance that nothing that ever happens around, or to us, will separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).