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How Jesus defines “Love”

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One of the more shocking contrasts that we see between the mindset of the 21st century and that of Jesus in the 1st century is the way in which each defines “love”. Let me explain.

This reality was brought to my attention as I studied John 11 in preparation for preaching the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. John Piper points out in his message on this passage that “If you walk through life thinking that minimizing pain is the essence of love, the Bible will be a closed book to you” (John Piper). Why does Piper say this? The answer is found in several things we read in John 11.

First, Jesus was passionately preoccupied with glorifying the Father. We see this in v. 4 and again in v. 40. We also see this in John 9:3 where Jesus declared that the man’s congenital blindness was not due to the sin of his parents or anyone else but in order that the Father might be glorified.

Try to envision what your life would be like if you were to adopt the perspective of Jesus. Instead of bitterness or resentment or impatience or anger and frustration, or constantly asking “Why? Why? Why?” consider how your circumstances and experiences might serve to bring honor and praise to God. Everyone else in this story, including his disciples as well as Mary, Martha, and all their family and friends, could only see tragedy in the death of Lazarus. Jesus saw it as just one more opportunity to shed light on the majesty and power of God.

Second, look at John 11:3, 5. Here we are told that Jesus loved Lazarus, and again that he loved Martha and Mary. To many people, this makes no sense. If he loved them all so much why did he let Lazarus die? If he really loved Martha and Mary, wouldn’t he have spared them the pain and anguish of watching their brother die? What kind of love is it that has the power to deliver from sickness and death but chooses not to? But what Piper helped me see is that it is precisely because he loved these people so much that he made the decisions that he did.

Look closely with me at vv. 5-6. Here is how the ESV translates it:

“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6).

But v. 6 literally reads, “So, therefore, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, . . .” I think you can understand why most English translations ignore the word “therefore” (oun). It simply makes no sense to most people to say that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and therefore he chose not to make the journey to Bethany to heal him. If he loved them, why would he delay his trip?

Jesus appears calloused and uncaring. After all, he could have healed Lazarus without ever making the trip. We saw him heal a young boy in John 4:46-50 from a great distance. But he chose not to heal Lazarus. He chose not to alleviate the anguish and emotional turmoil and devastation in the hearts of Mary and Martha. Why? Because he loved them! That’s right, it was because he loved them. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But he loved them and therefore chose not to make the journey in time to deliver Lazarus from death. He could have dropped everything at hand and hurried off to Bethany. But he didn’t. Why?

As if to make matters even worse, we read in v. 15 that Jesus was “glad” that he was not present to prevent Lazarus from dying. His delay wasn’t because he enjoyed their grief. Jesus wasn’t a sadist by any stretch of the imagination.

My point is that Jesus saw in Lazarus’s illness two opportunities providentially orchestrated by the Father: (1) the opportunity to glorify the Father (v. 4), and (2) the opportunity to increase and deepen the faith of his followers and their confident, joyful satisfaction in all that God is for them in Jesus.

We will never understand this until we come to realize that “love” for Jesus was something entirely different from what “love” meant to people in his day and even in our day as well. For virtually all other people love means,

I will always do everything I can to deliver you immediately and completely from all suffering;
I will always do everything I can to make you feel good about yourself;
I will always do everything I can to affirm what you believe to be true about yourself and the lifestyle you have chosen to pursue;
I will always do everything I can to enable you to flourish physically, financially, and in every other way.

But that isn’t how Jesus loved people. And I hope it isn’t the way you and I do.

How many times have you been with someone who is suffering or facing challenging circumstances and they say to you: “Well, if Jesus loved me, he wouldn’t let me suffer like this. I simply can’t bring myself to believe that he really cares; if he did, he would do something about my trials and troubles.”

But here is precisely where Piper opened my eyes to the perspective Jesus had on true love. He reminds us all that the way Jesus loves you and me is by doing whatever it takes to enable us to see the beauty and all-satisfying glory of God. Jesus is far more concerned with the depth of our faith and the clarity with which we see and enjoy God than he is with our deliverance from suffering. That doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t ever deliver us or heal us or provide solutions to challenging problems. Of course he does. But even when he does, the ultimate aim is so that we might be enthralled and captivated by the majesty and splendor of who God is. I know this sounds odd to many of you. And I can assure you that it will always seem odd and topsy-turvy until such time as the Holy Spirit opens your eyes.

Affirming someone in the sort of sinful behavior that puts their soul in jeopardy of eternal condemnation is not love. Love is doing and saying whatever is needed in order to reveal to someone the glory, beauty, and all-satisfying majesty of God in Jesus. Love is doing and saying whatever is needed to enable a person to know God and enjoy God and spend an eternity in the unimaginable delight of beholding his beauty.

You and I often struggle to see this because we are man-centered, human-centered, rather than God-centered. To be God-centered is to see God as revealed in Christ Jesus as the greatest and most satisfying treasure in the universe. And to help someone else see and experience that treasure is the greatest expression of love you can display. You know God loves you when he does whatever is needed to open your eyes and heart to see and savor more of him, more of his beauty, more of his all-satisfying majesty. That’s why the very intentional delay of Jesus in going to Bethany was an act of love. It provided an opportunity for all concerned to see more of God’s glory and power at work!

I know how odd this sounds to many of you. The reason is that you were born with yourself at the center. And God is doing all he can to set you right side up again by placing himself at the center. And that is how he loves us!

So let me say it again. Love isn’t always the immediate removal of pain or the immediate relief from emotional distress or deliverance from death itself. Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus and therefore permitted them to suffer in a way that the world would insist was unloving. But his desire for each of them was to see and savor and be satisfied with the majestic glory and power of God. And that is what it means to say he loved them!

Those four days between Lazarus’s death and resurrection must have been sheer torture for Mary and Martha. They couldn’t see anything of the glory of God during those four days. And many of you are living in your own “four days” of anguish that you are persuaded will never end. For you it may be four years, or forty years, or a virtual lifetime. And how is God glorified in your circumstances? He is glorified when you trust him above good health and you treasure him more than earthly finances and you find satisfaction in him instead of in illicit sex and worldly ambition.

As Piper has said, don’t measure God’s love for you by how much you’ve got stashed away in the bank or invested in the market or how healthy and popular you are. Measure how much God loves you by how much of himself he reveals to you and how much of himself he gives you to enjoy and be truly satisfied.

2 Comments

I especially appreciate the spirit behind your choice of words:

"And God is doing all He can..."

This does not negate His sovereignty but explains how He chooses to use it.
The reason is that you were born with yourself at the center. And God is doing all he can to set you right side up again by placing himself at the center. And that is how he loves us!

Very well said, Sam, thanks.

God deals with us as His children. He/she is a lousy parent who always does everything to make life easy on their kids.

Lazarus' friends and family were given the extraordinary blessing of learning, as eyewitnesses, that Jesus is the resurrection. I know of nothing more comforting than knowing that Jesus is the resurrection. This life's been ruined by sin. We look for the city whose builder and maker is God.

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