What is true Christian love? In his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul used a unique word to describe love: agape. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, because this is not a romantic or temporary love. As Leon Morris explained, it is “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love.” This, because of our union with God in Christ, is how believers should love one another.
To drive this point home Paul uses hyperbole in the opening three verses. A quick glance at 1 Cor. 13:1-3 reveals a life of supreme gifting and sacrifice… that amounts to nothing. Why?
Take the first example. In verse 1 he mentions the gift of tongues. This gift is discussed in great detail in the following chapter, because it was clearly a gift that the Corinthians valued. Paul takes that appreciation for the gift of tongues and turns it on its head: even if he had the most exalted form of tongues (the tongues of angels), without love it would simply be noise. What would the point of such a gift be without love?
His second example, prophesy, follows the same pattern. This, too, is discussed in chapter 14 and again it is clear that this gift was valued by the apostle Paul and the Corinthians. But even if they had such “prophetic powers” to understand all God’s mysteries and comprehend all knowledge, it would be meaningless without love. It would probably boost our egos and build our reputations, but it would not bless God’s church.
Paul also mentions faith that can move mountains (v. 2) and selfless sacrifice (v. 3). Somehow these get lost in the excitement surrounding the aforementioned gifts, but they are just as good and commendable. Yet, if they aren’t infused with and motivated by love, it profits nothing.
What is Paul saying? Whatever else we may believe about ourselves and our efforts, if they are not motivated and permeated by love, they mean nothing. And by nothing, we mean nothing. They will serve no spiritual good, will not benefit anyone, will not glorify God, and will not edify the body of Christ. Love has to be the priority.
Because of Christ,
First Corinthians 13 is one of the most striking passages in the New Testament. Adolf Harnack called it “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote”. If you’ve taken any time to study the chapter, you’d probably agree.
The main theme of the passage is love, but not the love between a husband and wife, or between a parent and child. The main focus of the passage is on the commitment to love within the local church. The context makes this clear. In the preceding chapter Paul addresses the varied gifts within the body of Christ, the church: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4). These gifts, if they function well, serve to build the body. However, when these gifts are used for self, rather than service, they harm the body. That is what happened in Corinth.
While some looked down on the gifts and service of others, they exalted their own. This focus on self, rather than service, weakened the body and prevented the church from doing what God had called it to do. How do we ensure that the variety within the body builds rather than breaks? There is a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), and that way is love.
What is love? We know the Greek word that Paul used very well: agape. The word is used a total of 116 times in the New Testament. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, and how God’s children should relate to each other. This love is not romantic or temporary. It is seen most clearly in the cross of Christ, which God set forth as the supreme manifestation of his love for his children. It is, in the words of Leon Morris, “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought whether they are worthy or not.”
That is agape love. In experiencing this love we are transformed. That transformation becomes clear in how we begin to love what God loves: his children. This is the challenge: have you experienced God’s love revealed on the cross of Christ? If so, do you love what He loves?
Because of Christ,