“The Unlimited Love of God”
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) is often regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. His work influenced the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jürgen Moltmann and John Updike. What's more, he actively opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, and vigorously attempted to prevent the Nazis from establishing a state church.
On one occasion, Barth was asked, "What is the most profound thought that ever entered your mind?" After a brief moment of reflection, this learned theologian replied, "The most profound thought I have ever known is the simple truth: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The love of God stretches human comprehension and "surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:19). Jesus' statement in John 3:16 succinctly describes the infinite dimensions of God's love.
First, God's love is universal. God loves the entire "world." There is no qualifier or prerequisite. God's love is not conditional. Even our sins don't stand in the way of it. His love extends to everyone, even those who slip through the cracks of society, the marginalized, the forgotten and the despised. He "desires all men to be saved..." (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). His grace appeared "bringing salvation to all men" (Titus 2:11). There is no one so low whom God's love does not reach.
And God's love is not simply a warm feeling of affection. It is deeply personal and intimately tied to each one of us (Mt. 10:30). He knows everything about us. He knows our needs, our joys, our desires and our sorrows. And in sending Jesus to share in the human experience, that knowledge is empathetic (Heb. 2:14; 4:15). We might even say, despite knowing everything about us, God still loves us. What a thought! "To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” (Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage).
Second, God's love is unselfish. When Jesus says, "For God so loved the world" he is saying "God loved the world in this way" or "This is how much God loved the world." Jesus shows both the degree of God's love and the manner in which he chose to express it. We tend to love those who love us, those we deem deserving of it or at least capable of giving us some return on our investment. But God loves even his enemies, "the ungrateful and the evil," and teaches us to do the same (Lk. 6:35; Rom. 5:6-8).
Consider also that God gave his "only Son." The word "begotten," found in some translations, is unfortunate because it may imply a metaphysical relationship. Here, it means "unique" or "one-and-only" (see Jn. 1:14, 18). The same word is used to describe Abraham's son Isaac in Hebrews 11:17. Isaac was, strictly speaking, not Abraham's only child (remember Ishmael?) but Isaac was Abraham's unique child, the child of God's promise (Gen. 22:2). In a similar way, Jesus is God's "unique" Son, the only one of his kind. But whereas the voice of God intervened to prevent Isaac's sacrificial death (Gen. 22:12), the divine voice was silent while Jesus died on the cross. Knowing what his death would accomplish for us (Isa. 53) and that he would be raised from the dead (Psa. 16), God "gave his only Son" for us.
Third, God's love is unending because those who believe in Jesus "shall not perish, but have eternal life." The goal of God's love is to usher us into an eternal relationship with him where we give and receive one another's love. Love "never ends" (1 Cor. 13:8), and by the power of God's love, neither will we!
Notice that there are only two alternatives: perishing (a death beyond physical death) or eternal life (a life beyond physical life). Though we deserve to perish due to our guilt and sin (Jn. 3:17; Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:1-3), in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has provided a way to give us life while maintaining his just nature (Rom. 3:25-27). God is able to give us the life of Jesus on the basis of our faith in him (Eph. 2:4-10).
God's love is truly unlimited. His love is without equal in its scope because it is given universally. His love is without equal in its extent because he unselfishly gave his unique Son. His love is without equal in its duration because it is itself unending and able to bring us into an eternal relationship with him. God loves us and there is nothing we can do to stop it. However, to fully benefit from his love we must turn to him in faith and give him all we are, for this is what he has done for us in his Son Jesus. While the love of God is unlimited, God's power to save is limited to those who have faith (Rom. 1:16).