The Ethical Image of God

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ethical image of God is a hot-button issue today because of the proclivity of many pastors and Christians to view God exclusively through the lens of love, as we read repeatedly through the writings of the Apostle John: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Matthew’s double love command is likewise frequently cited:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?  And he said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40)

The Greek word for love (ἀγαπάω) is the same in both cases and means: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love” (BDAG 38.1). Agape love provides little help in understanding God’s character because of the wide scope in Greek usage. More useful is focus on the word depend (κρέμαμαι) in Matthew 22:40, which means: “to cause to hang [like a hinge].” (BDAG 4395.1), because the law and the prophets hang on love, but they also inform love’s meaning. The law and the prophets inform Matthew’s use of the word, love.

Covenantal Love

In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated “steadfast love” here (חֶ֥סֶד; hesed) means: “obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants, &c.; unity, solidarity, loyalty” (HOLL). The context makes it clear that the type of love in view here is not a generic agape love, but a more specific covenantal love focused on keeping one’s promises. We honor God and our neighbor by treating them with respect and keeping our word, especially when it hurts. This is a heart-felt relationship, but it is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

The fact that love is not the first characteristic of God, mercy is, reinforces the idea that love requires an interpretation beyond the warm and fuzzy agape love that so many cherish. When we say that Jesus died for our sins, we experience his love by means of (or through the instrument of) his mercy. The point that mercy is more primal than love is also reinforced in Jesus’ Beatitudes: mercy is listed; love is not (Matt 5:3-11). When we experience God’s love through his mercy, covenant keeping love, not warm and fuzzy agape love, is in focus.

The Hermeneutics of the New Covenant in Christ

This interpretation of love in Matthew makes particular sense because Matthew views the new covenant in Christ in terms of five commandments. The first commandment is to honor the law and the prophets (Matt 5:18-20). The second has to do with stepping out in faith (Matt 14:2829). The third instructs the disciples not to obsess about spiritual experiences (Matt 17:9). The fourth instructs then disciples not to pic nits with the law (Matt 19:16-21). The five commandment is the double love commandment already mentioned (Matt 22:36-40). 

If this set of commandments seems obscure, what we see is Matthew struggling to interpret the new covenant in Christ in an Old Testament framework of specific rules. By contrast, the Apostle John sees the new covenant in terms of the person of Jesus, which is hermetically harder and leads to competing visions of the person of Christ. Whose Jesus are you going to accept? 

Matthew’s double love commandment gives us a better idea of how to interpret the person of Christ because it “hangs” on our understanding of the Old Testament. It also pre-empts attempts to adopt a licentious interpretation of God’s love inconsistent with Old Testament teaching.


BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago Press. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on the Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und für frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English Editions by W.F.Arndt, F.W.Gingrich, and F.W.Danker. This edition is an electronic version of the print edition published by the University of Chicago Press.

HOLL – A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, edited by W.L. Holladay. Copyright © 1997 by Brill Academic Publishers.

The Ethical Image of God

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