I would imagine that most people reading this know that love emanates from Jesus’ life and teaching. It is the reason He came (John 3:16). It is the core of His commandments (Matthew 22:37–39). It is His essential and motivating characteristic (John 15:9–13). And it is the essential characteristic He passed on to us to live out (John 13:34–35). So we get it. Jesus loved, is love and conveys His love.
The issue of misunderstanding anyone might have with love as Jesus expressed it is rarely if ever in the word “love” or in Jesus’ ability to live it out. The misunderstanding that many have rests in understanding what love looks like in its entirety when Jesus lived it out in Scripture and how it is lived out now by His Spirit today.
It is easy to understand love when we view it in the form of sentiment or sacrifice. Jesus is famously noted for loving both in ways that warm our hearts (sentiment) and inspire our devotion (sacrifice). He demonstrated or was responded to often for His endearing attitude to the lowly and needy as well as His unequaled sacrifice on the cross and lesser demonstrations of the same. He welcomed children when others forbade them. He healed the lame, blind and unclean when others were known for turning them away. He spoke gently to a woman who had been bleeding for years and carried shame along with her uncleanness. He was gentle with the women who anointed Him and with Mary and Martha in the loss of their brother. He wept at the news of his good friend’s death. These are demonstrations of philos (affection-based love). We understand these and are attracted to them.
Then there is agape (sacrificial love). He sacrificially fasted for 40 days in deep relationship with the Spirit. He refused to accept the praise that was due Him and exchanged it instead for constant rebuke and ridicule. He was beaten, crucified and then died out of love for us. He prophetically held that up as the gold standard of love to His disciples (John 15:13). Jesus’ love in this manner was certainly altruistic and based on something much more gritty and extensive than emotional love. It was sacrifice.
My curiosity is not about love expressed through sentiment and sacrifice. It is more about how Jesus related with people at times without fitting neatly into either of those categories. His love takes unpredictable and sometimes puzzling shape. For instance, it is difficult to translate the seven woes of Matthew 23 into sentimental or sacrificial expressions of love. But we know that Jesus loves the sinner and even the arrogant ones. His love is difficult to recognize as well when it takes expression in Luke 12 where He offers some rather stern warnings and some cautionary statements about sin that is hard to forgive. There is no warm sentiment or expressed sacrifice when He overturned temple tables when people were hawking their wares. It is not particularly sacrificial when He warned the rich young ruler and chided or challenged Nicodemus for not knowing and doing more than they knew or did.
I just happen to believe, however, that Jesus is love. I believe He did and said these things out of love. When He told the lame man whom He had healed to “stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14), there was love in the warning. Similarly, I believe that Jesus had already demonstrated love to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–10) by His kind deliverance and was truly on the same trajectory when He said something rather abrupt: “Leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). In fact, there are many instances of Jesus sounding harsh or almost accusatory to people like His speaking to the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30) with whom He sounded dismissive, who simply wanted her daughter healed. There was a strong scent of love when Jesus rebuked Peter a number of times — once comparing him to Satan (Matthew 16), another time asking if he had no faith (Mark 4), and yet another time asking him if he was simply unable to stay awake for a friend in a time of crisis (Matthew 26).
All one has to do in each of these cases is to see that Jesus did or said something wonderful, helpful or instructive surrounding each of these puzzling comments. We have good reason to believe that Nicodemus wound up a believer. The woman caught in adultery was forgiven and rescued. The man who sat by the pool was healed and forever changed. The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter was delivered. And Peter went on to become one of Jesus’ hand-selected, Spirit-filled apostles who led the church from Pentecost forward.
Jesus loved at all times. Sometimes His love captures our hearts. Sometimes His love turns us around the hard way. Sometimes His love challenges us to more and better. His love is always precisely what is needed.
Bishop Matthew Thomas has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.