Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…
No word has suffered worse in our day than “love.” Love, yes love, you know. Love is the greatest virtue. It is the most powerful element in the world. Love wins. Love trumps hate. As the Beatles told us, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done… Nothing you can make that can’t be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved… All you need is love. Love. Love is all you need.”
This single word, “love,” is responsible for great inspiration, great disruption, and great pain and sorrow. It is idolized. But it is never defined. What do we mean by it?
Most modern people use “love” to mean something like “unconditional acceptance.” Some even extend it to permission and what they call validation. We must allow others to be and do whatever they wish. If not, we do not love them. We hate them.
This evil creates another evil. Since we can see how the word “love” has been abused and put to such bad use, we can overreact. We can accept the redefinition and simply reject the term. We can embrace the dark side. But, more often, we don’t do this. What we do is to redefine the term in our way. But if do not have a sure guide, then we will simply create a new problem, and our children will have to respond to that. So we must know what “love” means. We need to define it. But do we know the Biblical definition?
Our Scripture passage this morning is the famous “love chapter.” Here Paul extols love with the highest praise. He says that it is more important than any other spiritual gifts of theological virtues. It is the greatest gift.
So we cannot reject love. We must strive to possess it. And that means that we need to know what we’re talking about. If love is the greatest gift of all, then we’d better know what it is. Paul doesn’t give us a straight definition, though. No, instead he describes love. He shows us what love does. And so we must use Paul’s illustration, along with other passages of the Bible, to put together a coherent definition. That is what we will try to do this morning.
Using the text from 1 Cor. 13, as well as other key passages of Scripture, we will see that love is the union of righteousness and mercy. It is the coming together of truth and grace, in the same place, and it is typified by sacrifice, chiefly the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Love is the greatest gift of all
We find ourselves talking about love because of what Paul was saying just before in chapter 12. Indeed, the famous “love chapter” really isn’t its own chapter at all. It is a direct continuation of the last chapter, and it would probably be better had the break been placed elsewhere. Listen to it read this way:
Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Cor. 12:30-13:3)
Paul is saying that all other spiritual gifts are inferior to love. Indeed, they must be regulated and even relativized by love. Any gift, no matter how impressive and pious-looking, that lacks love is worthless.
Note well, it is possible to have a sort of faith—the kind that can work miracles, even—and lack love. It is possible to do great acts of charity, to give all your money to the poor, and lack love. It is possible to sacrifice your own life and lack love. And if you do any of these things without love, you will profit nothing.
So, indeed, love is essential for the Christian. It is our practical goal in life with one another. We must have it. We must seek after it. So what is it?
At this point, some of us with analytical personalities would really appreciate a definition. Love is the best gift. But we need to define it. But Paul does not do that here. He describes it. His description is very helpful and very important, and we will get to it in just a moment, but since we do live in an age of confusion, especially about this word, I think we should take a look at a few other places where love is used in the Bible. I would like for us to see enough of its connotation and meaning, and I don’t want to be imbalanced.
So, listen to a few other places where love is spoken of in the Bible.
Deuteronomy speaks of love in several places. Deut. 6:5 says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” The very next verse then says, “these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.” In the next chapter we also read, “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deut. 7:9). Then in chapter 10 we see “love” again:
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good? (Deut. 10:12-13)
The idea that love means keeping the commandments of God is not only an Old Testament concept. After all, it was Jesus who said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
But if we defined “love” simply as keeping commandments, we would surely be wrong. You see, the Bible also presents love as sacrificing for others, even when they have wronged you. One great picture of this is the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The text doesn’t say “love,” but it does say that “when he [the Prodigal Son] was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). This was after the father had been dishonored by the son. He did not make the son “pay him back,” but instead received him with grace, because he loved him.
We know that this is also love because Jesus taught us, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is why John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son.” And when God gave His Son, He gave His Son to die, to die for evil sinful people. He did this because He loved us. Likewise, Ephesians 5:2 says, “Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.”
Finally, we can’t forget 1 John 4:10-11:
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
If God so loved us… If He loved us like that—to make propitiation for our sins—then we ought to also love one another. And we ought to love like that.
Therefore love has to be both, a righteous keeping of the law and a sacrificial mercy shown to others, ought of kind affection and a desire for their good. Those two concepts and emphases must be united. They must come together.
So let us define love in this way. True love is a righteous and compassionate affection for another, seeking their wellbeing, both spiritually and physically. Christians must imitate God’s love when they love one another, imitating the sacrificial love of Christ.
Finally, then, we get to Paul’s famous description of love. He tells us what love is like, and this is quite practical. You see, if you say that we have love, and we have gone to such lengths to define it, but we still end up with something that looks very different from the picture Paul gives us, then we are wrong. Our understanding of love has to be consistent with what Paul says. Our love has to be what Paul’s love is. So let’s take a look.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
Here we see fifteen descriptions of love, half of them in the negative. We will look at each of these briefly.
- Love suffers long—This could also be translated “love is patient.” But the old expression “long suffering” is appropriate because the Greek term here implies patience in the bearing of insults and injuries. It means perseverance in the face of opposition.
- Love is kind—This is a simple description, but it’s important that we don’t skip over it. You sometimes hear people speak of “tough love.” What they mean by that is holding someone accountable. But whatever sort of “tough love” we show, we must always be kind. Love does not get angry and make threats. Love is kind.
- Love does not envy—While love can be “jealous” for the affection it is owed, it should not envy the things that others are owed. It shouldn’t always compare itself against other people and try to “beat” them.
- Love does not parade itself—This is an interesting description. The Greek is just one word. It’s like our word “insolent.” It means to brag and extol your talents and virtues. It means arrogance. Love is not a braggart.
- Love is not puffed up—This might sound like a repetition of parading yourself, and it’s certainly related. But the point here is pride. Thinking highly of yourself. The former description had to do with your external demeanor and behavior. This one has to do with the way you think of yourself.
- Love does not behave rudely—This too is a single word in the Greek. It’s literally “Love is not unseemly.” The word is the negative of the Greek word, schema, which means “proper shape.” So for something to be improper means that it is a violation of propriety. It is inappropriate. This then doesn’t simply have to do with failing to say “please” or “thank you.” It has to do with violating the appropriate order, custom, or protocol of a group or place. It is connected to concepts like shame and dishonor, and the same word was used earlier in 1 Cor. 7 when Paul was warning against sexual immorality. Love, then, should not be subversive or deviant. This rules out the use of “love” as a justification for sexual immorality. Those things can not be supported by appeals to “love” because they actually contradict love.
- Love does not seek its own—Love is focused on the good of the other person. This means love is not selfish, and you don’t love others because they do things for you or make you feel a certain way. When both parties are loving each other, they will do good things for each other and they will make each other feel nice, but that isn’t the grounding of the love. Love seeks the good of the other person.
- Love is not provoked—Now how is this possible? How can you control whether or not you are provoked? But that’s what it says. Love is in control of itself, calm, and confident. It is not reactionary. Another Biblical word that comes to mind is meek. Love is not short-tempered and quick to fight.
- Love thinks no evil—This is a somewhat strange expression, at least to our ears. It literally says “love does not reckon or impute evil. It means that love does not assume evil things of others. It is not resentful or quick to ascribe malice. This has also been translated “love keeps no record of wrongs,” which does fit with the logic of imputation. Most simply, this means that love forgives.
- Love does not rejoice in iniquity—Love does not take pleasure in sin. It also means that it does not take pleasure in injustice. It can be translated “does not rejoice in unrighteousness” or “does not rejoice in injustice.” Both are correct.
- Love rejoices in truth—Paul then gives us the opposite. Love loves the truth. It’s important to remember that the three transcendentals—the true, the good, and the beautiful—are really one. This is because they are reflections of the one God. So we must love the good and the true. We must find righteousness beautiful.
- Love bears all things—The literal word here means “to cover” or “seal up,” but it has been used in the sense of “endure” or “forebear.” It’s close to longsuffering, which we have already mentioned, but it adds the element of taking some sort of action to make the patience possible. You can endure because you are covering the other person in love. This does not mean that love rejects discipline and correction, but it does mean that discipline and correction are never “personal” things, done out of a sense of being angry or offended.
- Love believes all things—This too is closely connected to some of the earlier statements. It means that love thinks the best. It is optimistic. Christians can be realists, but they can never be cynics. And they can be at peace with seeming a bit gullible or naïve. That’s ok. John Calvin actually explained this verse this way, “a Christian man will reckon it better to be imposed upon by his own kindness and easy temper, than to wrong his brother by an unfriendly suspicion.”
- Love hopes all things—Love is optimistic, and love continues to believe. Love does not get distraught, which why it never fails.
- And so finally, love endures all things—This is a sort of summary of the whole list. Love perseveres unto the end. It keeps on. It finishes the race. And it can only do this because it is founded on God. It knows that God loves us and gives us His grace. So we can love others all of the time, for all of our lives .
And so we have a picture of love. This is the greatest gift. This is what we must pursue. And we must pursue a love that looks like this. From here, Paul goes on to explain that love is the only spiritual gift that will last forever. It is the mature and perfect gift, that which we should all aspire to. We are not perfect, we have not arrived, until we have true love. And all Christians must shape their lives and minds to be able to love in this way.
We’ll have to wait until next week to say more about the relationship of love to the miraculous gifts like tongues and prophesy. But for today, let us focus on this great picture of love. This is how God feels and behaves towards us. And this is how we must feel and behave towards Him and towards one another. Beloved, let us love.
Let us pray.