God has more spiritual culture, for want of a better way of putting it, than to describe the love of Christ just with a string of superlative adjectives. Paul prayed that his Ephesians would be strengthened by the Spirit's working in the inner man, so that they would "be strong to apprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge" (Eph. 3:18,19 RV). There is a paradox here; to know something that can't be known, that passes knowledge. We can only know that love by God working on our inner man, so that we realize the experience we have of the love of Christ, and by seeing it manifested in others. Yet we are helped in this by the way the Bible brings before us men who reached such a high level of love that it to some extent typified the love of Christ. If we appreciate that what they manifested was a poor shadow of His love, we start to see something of this length and depth and height which we fain would "be strong to apprehend".
Take Moses. Israel hated him, they thrust him from them (Acts 7:39); due to their provocation he failed to enter the land. He had done so much for them, yet they bitterly rejected him- "this Moses", as they called him (Ex. 32:1,23 cp. Acts 7:35). But when God wanted to destroy them and make of Moses a great nation, he pleaded for them with such intensity that he achieved what few prayerful men have: a change (not just a delay in outworking) in God's categorically stated intention. And especially, consider that time when Israel had sinned with the golden calf. Moses said that he would climb that mighty mountain yet again, and "I will make an atonement for your sin" (Ex. 32:30). He knew well enough that no atonement was possible without the shedding of blood (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22; and see the similarity with Phinehas making an atonement for Israel’s forgiveness through the slaying of Zimri and Cozbi in Num. 25:8,13). And yet he hoped ("peradventure") that God would accept him as an atonement: "I will make an atonement". He intended to offer his own life as an atonement for them- for that people who hated him, who pushed him from them and in their hearts returned to Egypt. He climbed that mountain (nearly a day's work), and at the top he made an even finer and altogether higher offer to the Angel: "If thou wilt forgive their sin...blot me, I pray thee (notice the earnestness of his desire) out of thy book" (Ex. 32:32) (1). And he begged Yahweh to accept this for 40 days and nights, fasting without food or water (Dt. 9:17; 10:10). It wasn’t just a once off, emotional outburst of a moment. Omission of the name from God's book is a clear reference to a believer losing his part in God's Kingdom (Ex. 32:33; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 17:8; 21:27; 22:19). This was not an offer made in hot blood; after the hours of climbing the mountain, Moses had decided what he sorely wished to do: to offer his place in God's Kingdom, so that Israel might be forgiven one awful sin. This is just superb. To offer one's physical life is one thing; to offer one's eternal life is quite another. And he pleaded with God to accept his offer, just for the forgiveness of one sin, of a people who hated him and were evidently bent on fulfilling the lust of the flesh. If this is how much Moses loved sinful Israel, think how much more Christ loved them. And if that's the level of Christ's love for sinful Israel, consider (or try to) the level of Christ's love for us who at least try not to thrust Him from us, who wish, in our weakness, to follow Him to the end.
To be blotted out of the book God had written may have been understood by Moses as asking for him to be excluded from an inheritance in the promised land; for later, a ‘book’ was written describing the various portions (Josh. 18:9). The connection is made explicit in Ez. 13:9: “…neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel, neither shall they enter into the land of Israel”. To be blotted out of the book meant to not enter the land (surely Ezekiel is alluding to Moses’ experience). If Israel were to be blotted out there and then in the wilderness, then Moses wanted to share this experience. God had just spoken of ‘blotting out’ Israel from before Him (Dt. 9:14), and making a nation of Moses; but now Moses is asking to share in their condemnation rather than experience salvation without them. This was the extent of his devotion. On the last day of his life, Moses reeled off the great speech of Deuteronomy, knowing full well that he was to die without entering the land. In Dt. 9:18 he says that his prayer of Ex. 32:32 was heard- in that he was not going to enter the land, but they would. Hence his urging of them to go ahead and enter the land- to experience what his self-sacrifice had enabled. In this we see the economy of God, and how He works even through sin. On account of Moses’ temporary rashness of speech, he was excluded- and yet by this, his prayer was heard. He was temporarily blotted out of the book, so that they might enter. Moses’ fleeting requests to enter the land must be read as a flagging from the height of devotion he reached, rather like the Lord’s request to escape the cross in Gethsemane. But ultimately he did what he intended- he gave his place in the Kingdom / land so that they might enter [although of course he will be in the future Kingdom]. This is why Moses stresses on the last day of his life that he wouldn’t enter the land for Israel’s sake (Dt. 1:37; 3:26; 4:21). He saw that his sin had been worked through, and the essential reason for him not entering was because of the offer he had made. It “went ill with him for their sakes” (Ps. 106:32).
In all this, Moses was typifying the death of the Lord. Is. 53:8 describes His cross as being “cut off [Strong: ‘excluded’] from the land of the living” (s.w. ‘the congregation’- of Israel), for the transgression of His people. This is undoubtedly reference to the self-sacrificial exclusion of Moses from the land, that Israel might enter. The Lord died the death of a sinner, He chose like Moses to suffer affliction with us, that we might be saved. The intense prayer of Moses for Israel’s salvation inspired David in prayer (Ps. 25:11 = Ex. 32:30,31). And Paul makes a series of allusions to Moses, which climax in an invitation to pray like Moses for the salvation of others:
2 Tim. 2:24,25
“the servant of the Lord
A very common title of Moses
must not strive
As Israel did with him (Num. 26:9)
but be gentle unto all
The spirit of Moses
apt to teach
As was Moses (Ex. 18:20; 24:12; Dt. 4:1,5,14; 6:1; 31:22)
As was Moses
Moses was the meekest man (Num. 12:3)
instructing those that oppose themselves
at the time of Aaron and Miriam’s self-opposing rebellion
if God peradventure will give them repentance [i.e. forgiveness]”
“Peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin” (Ex. 32:30)- and he prayed 40 days and nights for it.
And note too:
2:19 = Num. 16:5,26
2:20 = Num. 12:7
2:21 = Num. 16:37
2:22 = Num. 12:2; 16:3
2:26 = Num. 16:33
This is quite something. The height of Moses’ devotion for His people, the passion of his praying, shadowing as it did the matchless intercession and self-giving of the Lord, really is our example. It isn’t just a height to be admired. It means that we will not half heartedly ask our God to ‘be with’ brother x and sister y and the brethren in country z, as we lie half asleep in bed. This is a call to sustained, on our knees prayer and devotion to the salvation of others.
This kind of logical extension can be repeated in the consideration of David's love for Saul. Saul was his enemy, he drove David to absolute despair, his senseless persecution of David was articulated in every way he knew how. In all this we see played out the prototype of the hatred between the Jews and the Lord. Yet when Saul was slain for his sins, David's love for him was overflowing, to the point that his people saw that this was no political theatricism (2 Sam. 3:36,37). His lament over Saul was taught to the children of Judah (2 Sam. 1:18); and the chapters of 2 Samuel are full of examples of David's expression of love for Saul in every way he knew how. But it was not only at Saul's death that David had these feelings; after all, it's a lot easier to love someone when they're dead. Psalm 35 is David's commentary on his feelings for Saul: "They laid to my charge things that I knew not. They rewarded me evil for good to the spoiling of my soul (spiritually). But as for me, when they (Saul and his family, in the context) were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into my bosom. I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother (i.e. Jonathan, 2 Sam. 1:26): I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother" (Ps. 35:11-15). Bowing down heavily as a man weeps at his mother's graveside is a powerful image. A man's grief for his mother must surely be the finest picture David could have chosen. That sense of infinite regret that he didn't appreciate her more. "As one that mourneth for his mother". But David goes on: "But in mine adversity, they rejoiced...". It's as if David realized that he had reached the point where he knew that he really did truly love his enemies. He wept for Saul as a man weeps at his dear dear mother's graveside. And he did this for a man who was utterly worthless. And this is a poor, poor shadow of the Lord's peerless love for Israel. And how much more does He love us, who at least try to make up for Israel's cruel indifference?
And finally, consider how thanks to David building an altar at his own expense and asking God to kill him and his family, God stopped the plague upon Israel (2 Sam. 24:16,17- the stretched out hand of God in destruction was what David asked to be upon him and his family). Israel were suffering the effect of their own sin, in not paying the temple tax (Ex. 30:11-16); but in the spirit of Christ, David was willing to die for them. He seems to have sincerely felt that their sin was his sin (25:17). And his dominant desire was counted as if it had been done, and thanks to his self-sacrificial spirit, the people were saved when they personally were unworthy.
There are so many descriptions of the pain of Jeremiah for an Israel who plotted to take his life, who "devised devices against me, saying...let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be no more remembered" (11:19), an Israel whom he would fain run away from in despair (9:2). Yet in response to this, "for the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt...oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night (in prayer?) for the slain of the daughter of my people". And I could go on and on with passages like this. He broke into a new paradigm of grief and love for Israel, which his people couldn't understand: "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by (as he sat by the wayside weeping)? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me" (Lam. 1:12). God thrice forbad him to pray for Israel (7:16; 11:14; 14:11), yet they asked him to do so (21:2; 37:3), with the possible implication that they knew he was willing to do so. Finally, after all the Jews had done to him, they asked Jeremiah: "Pray for us unto the Lord thy God...then Jeremiah the prophecy said unto them, I have heard you, behold, I will pray unto the Lord" (42:2,4). Jeremiah went right against the specific prohibition of God because He so loved them. And Jeremiah's love, the real deep seated feeling, right deep in the very centre of his soul, was for a nation hardened against the Lord their God. And the love of Christ far, far exceeds anything Jeremiah reached.
Caleb was a Gentile who became adopted into the tribe of Judah and became a leader of the tribe. Yet he was graciously given an inheritance in the land of Israel. By his spiritual ambition, he was granted Hebron as his inheritance. He went up there and drove out the tribes with a faithful zeal unmatched in Israel. And yet, he gave away that city- for Hebron became a priestly city for the Levites to live in. He gave his place in the Kingdom to others (Josh. 14:12)- that was the level of love this great man reached.
Paul had the spirit of Moses when he could say that he could wish himself accursed from Christ for the sake of his Jewish kinsmen. He was willing in theory to give up his salvation for them, even though he knew that in actual fact this is not the basis on which God works. He emphasizes that he is not using mere words: "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not [note the double emphasis], my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 9:1-3). The Holy Spirit confirmed that what he felt in his conscience for them was in fact valid; this really was the level of devotion Paul reached for a nation who systematically worked for his extermination, and even more painfully, for the infiltration and destruction of his lifetime's work. The Jewish infiltrators had indirectly had their effect on Corinth, who mocked and denigrated the Paul who would have laid down his life for them. And yet time and again he calls them his brethren, he sees them as an innocent Eve in Eden, about to be beguiled by the snake of the Jewish infiltrators; he sees them as a chaste virgin. But remember how they denigrated him, in the cruellest ways. Yet his love for them was surpassing. And now with intended repetition, I make my point again: the love of Paul for Israel, for Corinth, the love of Jeremiah and Moses for Israel, the love of David for Saul...all these fantastic peaks of human love and sacrifice were only dim, hazy shadows of the love of Christ for wayward Israel, for whom primarily He died (Gal. 4:4,5). If this was his love for those who rejected Him, how much higher is His love for us who follow in weakness.
In the New Testament, we see the love of Christ directly, openly displayed. Particularly on the cross we see the very essence of love. Having loved His own, He loved us there unto the end, to the end of the very concept of love and beyond (Jn. 13:1). He knew that in His death, He would shew "greater love" than any man had or could show. There He declared the Name and character of God, "that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them" (Jn. 17:26). "Walk in love, as Christ hath loved us (in that) he hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2). "Hereby perceive we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 Jn. 3:16 Gk.). The death of the cross was therefore the very definition of love; love is a crucifixion-love, a conscious doing of that which is against the grain of our nature. And you will have noticed that all these references add that we must therefore respond by showing that love to our brethren. It is not an option. To be unloving is to deny the very essence of the cross of Christ. Paul states that because of the Lord's death "as an offering for sin", thereby the 'commandment ["requirement" RVmg] of the Law is fulfilled in us' (Rom. 8:3,4). But in the practical part of that same letter, Paul defines the requirement / commandment of the Law to be one thing- simply "love" (Rom. 13:10). Love as God understands it is that we keep or fulfil His commandments (1 Jn. 5:3). What, then, is the connection? How could the Lord's death on the cross lead to the fulfilment in us of the Law's commandment / requirement of love? Quite simply, because it is now impossible for a man to be passive before the cross, and not to be inspired by Him there towards a life of genuine love. Paul isn't simply making some mechanistic, theological statement- that the cross fulfilled the Law, because it fulfilled all the types etc. It fulfilled the Law in that the Law intended to teach love; and the cross and dying of the Lord Jesus is now the means by which we can powerfully be inspired to the life of love which fulfils the entire Law.
He died as He did so that the love of God, the real meaning of love, might be displayed in a cameo, in an intense, visual, physical form which could be remembered and meditated upon. Observing the memorial meeting is the very least we can do to this end; and this itself is only a beginning. "The love of Christ constraineth us" not to live for ourselves, but unto him that died for us, and to show this by our concern for our brethren (2 Cor. 5:14 and context). Marvin Vincent has a telling comment on the Greek word translated "constraineth": "The idea is not urging or driving, but shutting up to one line or purpose, as in a narrow, walled road" (Word Studies Of The N.T.). We shouldn't be driven men and women; we are not urged or driven by the cross, but shut up by it to one purpose. There are only two ways before us, to death or life; and we are shut up by the cross in that road to life. In this lies the sustaining and transforming power of the cross, if only we would meditate upon it. It is an epitome of every facet of the love of God and of Christ. There the Name of God was declared, that the love that was in the Father and Son may be in us (Jn. 17:26).
You may know that I am an enthusiast for reading through a Gospel record in one or two sittings. One theme that jumped out at me once when going through was that whenever the Lord starts talking about His impending death, the disciples change the subject! And so it is with us. There is something that makes us turn away from the real import of the cross. The way exhortations so often stray from the essential point, the way we return so quickly to the things of here and now after breaking bread... we all know our guilt. Isaiah laments that despite the wonder of the atonement God would work out on the cross, scarcely any would believe it, and men would turn away their faces from the crucified Christ (Is. 53:1,3). And so it happened. Men and women went out that Friday afternoon to behold it, they saw it for a few moments, beat their breasts and returned to their homes (Lk. 23:48). My sense is that most of that crowd still died in unbelief, untouched by what they saw that day. And so it is with us. We break bread, and we rise up and go on our way, we return to the pettiness of our lives, to a spirituality which often amounts (at its best) to little more than a scratching about on the surface of our natures. But let's not look away, and change the subject; let's see the love of Christ, behold it, and by this very act be changed into that same image, from glory unto glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).
And then we will come to know the mind of Paul, as he penned, albeit under inspiration, what to me are some of the finest pieces of writing of all time: "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life...nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord...the love of Christ constraineth us...the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge...the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things...God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world " (Rom. 8:37-39; 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 3:19; Phil. 3:8; Gal. 6:14). Passages like these reveal the spiritual climax Paul reached as he meditated upon the real import of the love of Christ; they are written in what I would call intellectual ecstasy, Paul's inspiration notwithstanding, in deep personal realization of the height and depth and breadth of the love to which we stand related. And that ecstasy of realization, that mountain peak, is there for each of us to reach.
To achieve a lifestyle and way of thinking dominated by the love of Christ and the love which this inevitably brings forth in us is the absolute crowning climax of our Christianity. This is God's ultimate intention for us. I believe, seriously believe, that God is working in the lives of each of us towards this ultimate goal, through every niggling frustration of today and yesterday and tomorrow, and through every major blow on the anvil which we occasionally receive. We may die having fallen short of fully realizing this goal, our innate bitterness and selfishness may be that strong, we may be that lazy to tackle it; yet by His grace we will still be accepted into His Kingdom- in the same way as men like Jacob and David still had some evident aspects of spiritual immaturity in them at the time of their death, and yet they will still be accepted. There are verses enough which indicate that knowing the love of Christ, seeing the real meaning of the cross where that love was so intensely and publicly paraded, is the ultimate climax of our walk in Christ:
- The end of the concept of commandment is love out of a pure heart (1 Tim. 1:5). This is where it all leads. All commandments are "briefly comprehended" in that of love (Rom. 13:9).
- "Above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness" (Col. 3:14); love is the ultimate spiritual maturity.
- "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected (matured) in us" (1 Jn. 4:12). This is maturity; to grow to a point where the love of God dwells in us, and our love for each other has let that love reach the maturity it is intended to produce.
- If love is made mature, we may have boldness in the day of judgment; a mature love will cast out all fear of rejection (1 Jn. 4:17,18). These words are a real challenge. The fear most of us have of the judgment is because we have not yet reached that maturity of love. But then that, presumably, is why we are still alive, living through this process of development.
- Our experience of tribulation leads to the development of patience, then real hope of salvation, and above all, as the final stage of maturity, "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us" (Rom. 5:5). 2 Pet. 1:5-7 describes a similar upward spiral of chronological development, again culminating in brotherly kindness and then, love. And then, Peter goes on, we will know the Lord Jesus Christ (v.8). This is not to say that we cannot show love in our days of spiritual immaturity, but "love" in the sense of that final state which is saturated with the experience of Christ is the ultimate end which God is working in us to achieve.
All this explains the constant emphasis on the supreme importance of reflecting the love of Christ: "Above all these things, put on charity" (Col. 3:14); "above all things have fervent charity among yourselves" (1 Pet. 4:8). This is why John so often drives home the point that if we have reflected the love of God, then we are assured of salvation, for we have assimilated the essence of the Gospel and Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. It's not for me to explicitly exhort you how better and more enthusiastically to reflect the love of Christ in your life. You will see how. For if you seriously behold it, the love and cross of Christ of itself will constrain you.
(1) It is difficult to interpret the Hebraism here. Moses may have meant: 'If you bar them from the Kingdom, then take my part out of it too; I don't want to be there without them'. Considering how they had treated him, this likewise shows his great love for them. A lesser man would have reasoned that being without that rabble of apostate renegades was what he looked forward to in the Kingdom.