It's universally popular. You can find it cross-stitched on Granny's mantle-piece and emblazoned on a rock star's T-shirt. It tumbles from the lips of bible-thumping fundamentalists and soft-spoken gurus. But what does it mean?
Let's consider four points...
Because God is love, there is relationship, radiance, room and response.
1 John 4:8 says “God is love.” It doesn’t say ‘God is loving’, which would be true. But God is love.
This could not be true of a single-personed God. Just imagine an eternity past of utter solitude. If God was an individual, He'd never know anything of love, of sharing, of give and take, back and forth. He is defined by being alone. He is defined by being supreme.
If such a god brings creation into existence it will be the first time he has had to relate to anything. And such a god is definitionally supreme. So how is this god going to relate to its creatures?
This god can only dominate you. This god can only lord it over you. The very being of this god is power and supremacy. And you must be its slave.
But what about our God?
Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as 1 John 4:9-14 unpacks). Therefore, for everlasting ages past there has been giving, sharing, back and forth, give and take, exalting the other, blessing the other. The early church used to refer to it as a dance (perichoresis). And it’s a dance like all the best dances when the partners bow to each other and defer to each other.
That has been the Trinity's existence from all eternity. Our God enjoys having others alongside. Our God lives to bless the other. Our God is love.
When you read “God is love” in context you realise that "God" refers particularly to the Father. In the next verse we read how “God” sent His Son. So “God is love” tells us particularly of the Father’s being. Eternally He has been defined by love because that is who He is – He is Father. And fathers beget. Fathers give life. That is the definition of a father. You are not a father unless you have given life. But the Father has been eternally life-giving.
Wind back the clock into the depths of eternity and you will always find the Father begetting His Son. (This is what the Nicene Creed means when it says that Jesus is "eternally begotten of the Father." The Father has always been giving life to His Son). There has never been a time when God was not Father - when He was not Life-giver, Lover.
There was a whole eternity when God was not Creator. There was a whole eternity when God was not Lawgiver. Creator and Lawgiver are not fundamental to who God is. Of course we readily imagine that God's prime job description is Maker, Ruler or Judge. But it’s not. And Trinity means it can’t be. Far more fundamentally God is Love. And He was love long before He was Creator, long before He was Law-giver. Long before He was Judge. His Fatherliness is the most basic thing to say about Him.
Which means that God has always had a radiating quality. The Father has always been giving life (begetting), always shining His Light (Hebrews 1:3), always speaking His Word (John 1:1), always loving His Son - and this in the power of the Holy Spirit. God's very nature is an outgoing, radiating nature. He is a Fountain of life and blessing, because "God is love."
All of this means that there is room in God. Perhaps that sounds like an odd phrase, but just listen to how John speaks in verse 16:
God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)
What an astonishing thought! "Dwelleth in God."
Think of the lonely god for a second. With such a god you might make your way towards him if you slave really hard. But you would always be outside Him. Now think of the Trinity. By the Spirit we are grafted into the Son and brought to the Father. In other words, by trusting the Son we are brought in on the love that God is. We dwelleth in God!
All the other gods keep you at arm’s length. In Islam only a few of the righteous will even get to see Allah, on one day and from a great distance. But because the Living God is Trinity we are wrapped up in God. Filled with the Spirit, clothed in the Son, doted on by the Father. 2 Peter 1:4: “We participate in the divine nature.”
Finally, there is response in God. Think of the dearly beloved Son of God. For all eternity He has responded to His Father - receiving His love, trusting His care, obeying His words, offering His praise - and all by the power of the Holy Spirit. But at Christmas time, this perfect response to the love of God was earthed into our humanity. Here's what John says:
God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (1 John 4:8-9)
The Beloved Son takes flesh and lives a fully human life of response to God. He receives, trusts, obeys and praises the Father in our name and on our behalf. And now, says John, we live through Him. In other words, we come in on the perfect response of the Son. We live in perfect correspondence to the Father through Jesus.
Just as Christ lived our life in our name, now we live His life in His name. We not only pray "in Jesus' name" but do all things, whether "in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him." (Colossians 3:17).
The wonder of "God is love" is immense. But without the truth of Christ's response, "God is love" could only condemn me. "God is love" but I'm full of hate and indifference. "God is love" but my heart is sluggish and cold. Yet God sent the True Responder to His love into the world. And now we live through Him. Hard-hearted, hate-filled sinner though I am, Jesus has saved me. He has propitiated the Father's wrath (v10) and offers the perfect response of gratitude and worship on my behalf.
God is love and now, through Jesus, I dwell in love. Hallelujah!