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Download 1 Corinthians Part 24
1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
1 Corinthians chapter 13 might be the most famous chapter in the Bible. It is often read at weddings, even when the people getting married aren’t really Christians. And truthfully, most people who aren’t believers like this chapter, and they might even feel that they agree with it. Certainly Christians like this passage also. I have used this passage when preaching at weddings. I have heard other preachers read it, and replace the word “love” with the name “Jesus.” Certainly this does tell us about love in marriage. Obviously, it teaches us about God’s love.
However, in order to understand any bible passage thoroughly, we need to pay attention to the context. Because we’ve been going through 1 Corinthians, if you’ve been with us for a while, you know the context here. This was written to the Corinthians. They were dividing over various preachers. They were suing each other. They were accepting flagrant, open, unrepentant sin. They were making a mess of the Lord’s supper. Paul just spent some time trying to make sure that they would not be ignorant of spiritual things. He told them all about prophecies, miracles, healings, tongues, words of knowledge and discernment. He admonished them to see themselves and each other as indispensable members of the body of Christ. And then he says this: “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” And then he writes what many people call “The love chapter.”
What we need to understand therefore, is this: the love chapter was written first and foremost to Christians concerning how they should love each other in the church community. It’s good to apply this to marriage. It isn’t wrong to apply this to loving all people. It’s helpful to understand God’s love in the light of this chapter. But we must understand that the primary application is to understand this and put it into practice in our own church. This is about how we relate to fellow-believers in our church community. I will suggest some other ways that this is relevant, but to really get it, let’s not lose sight of the context.
The New Testament uses three different Greek words that are translated “love.” There is eros (from which we get the English “erotic”) which is romantic or even sexual love. There is also philia which is brotherly love (hence “Philadelphia” is the “city of brotherly love”). But the word which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (pronounced uh-gah-pay). It means unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial love. This is the word almost always used to describe God’s love for us. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is telling Christians to love each other in this way.
The apostle John writes to fellow Christians:
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)
John uses the word agape. In fact, throughout 1 John, he reiterates how important it is for Christians to agape (love) one another. He basically says Christianity consists in trusting and loving Jesus, and loving our fellow Christians.
This is not the only place in the New Testament that gives us that command. Jesus said:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Jesus’ word is also agape. Read it carefully. He is saying that it is of prime importance that we love one another. We often jump over this detail, but he makes a distinction between his disciples and the world. He doesn’t say that that others will recognize us as his disciples because we love them – but because we love each other. Of course we should show love to people outside the church. But too often we concentrate on that, and we lose sight of the fact that the command of Jesus to love those inside the church.
We may think this it could hurt our outreach if we are focused on loving each other. However, I suspect that when we are good at loving each other, the church will have a lot more appeal for people who aren’t part of it yet. Who wants to join a church where the members are always talking badly about each other? Who wants to join a church where everyone is cold to each other? And I think that until we do truly practice love for each other within the church, our ability to love those outside it is limited. Love starts at home.
The first point Paul makes is basically this: all the talent and effort in the world is pointless if we don’t engage in genuine love for each other. Paul has just finished talking about prophecy; words of knowledge and wisdom; tongues; and the spiritual gift of faith. He says all of these are worthless without love.
Notice that even things that look like love (giving away your goods and possessions, giving your body to the flames) can be done without actual love. This means that love is not just action. There is an inner commitment that distinguishes love from religious actions. I think if we look at this passage objectively, we can see that love is not just a feeling either. No feeling lasts forever – part of the nature of emotions is that they change. But Paul says agape love perseveres. He says love will still be present after the end of this world. What he is describing here simply just doesn’t fit a mere emotion. I like to define it this way: Love is a decision and commitment to value another person greatly. If it is a decision and a commitment, it doesn’t depend on how we feel. Neither does it depend on what the other person does.
Think of it — Jesus probably did not experience loving feelings while he was being crucified. People were spitting on him and mocking him, yet his death on the cross was the ultimate expression of how much he valued those very same people, as well as us. It didn’t matter what he was feeling. It didn’t matter what the people were doing to him. He was living out his commitment to value us.
Love is a decision and commitment to value another person greatly. This is not how our culture defines it. When I was a youth worker I once asked a group of teenage boys to define love. After a little thought, one of them said “Christie Brinkley.” Unfortunately, he was in tune with our culture. Our movies, our television, our music and to some extent even our books, all seem to offer the unified message that all there is to love is eros – romantic/sexual love. Once in awhile we may catch the hint that there is some other sort of love – philia – friendly, or brotherly love. There is another common expression of love in our culture which I call “selfish” love. In selfish love, I experience feelings of love because what you do for me makes me feel good. With this kind of love, you hang out with someone because generally, you feel good when you are with them. But basically, our culture thinks love is feeling. We have to identify this, and then reject it. Eros love is primarily a feeling. It has its place in marriage. But even marriage can’t be sustained only by sexual feelings. A lasting marriage needs the solid foundation of agape, which is not a feeling, but a commitment to value and honor another.
I won’t spend a lot of time on every aspect of love that Paul lists here, but I want to pick out just a few of the qualities that he names, not necessarily in any particular order:
Love is patient. One thing I’ve noticed about my fellow-Christians is that they aren’t as great as me. I want them to get with the program. I want them to grow and mature. I want them to quit fooling around with their lives and really live entirely for Jesus. I want them to quit swearing, quit getting drunk, quit falling into temptations. I want them read their bibles every day, to be consistent in coming to small groups, to be consistent coming to Sunday worship. But the truth is, God has been so patient with me in all these areas. We can be patient with each other when people don’t seem to change as fast as we want.
Some years ago I counseled with a couple who wanted to get married. There were some obstacles. The timing wasn’t quite right. The woman called me during this time, very anxious. She seemed almost desperate to get married right away. I said, “What are you worried about? If your love won’t last for two years while you wait for these things to get worked out, then you’d be better off not getting married in the first place. But if what you have is real love, you’ll still have it in two years.”
I want to be straightforward with some of the young people who read these sermon notes also. If you are in a relationship and you feel like you can’t wait until you are married until you have sex, then understand, that feeling is not love. Love is patient. If your boyfriend or girlfriend can’t wait, then understand – he or she is not motivated by love. Love is patient!
Paul also says love is not envious. That one nailed me just this week. As a man I sometimes fall into the trap of feeling like I’m validated (or not) by how successful I am. A pastor I know in our area is younger than me. He started a church about the same time as New Joy was started. I just heard again this week about how well his church is doing. I know he’s doing pretty well financially too. But agape love is not envious of the good fortune or success of others. I should be happy that God is using him. Just as I was writing this, I paused to ask the Lord for forgiveness, and to give me agape love for my fellow pastor, and brother in the Lord.
That brings me another point. As a standard of behavior, we cannot possibly hope to obtain agape love through our own human effort. We need the Holy Spirit to give us his love to love others with. He will, if we ask him, and receive it willingly.
Another thing Paul says about love is that it “keeps no record of wrongs.” In other words, love results in true forgiveness. There is no resentment or ongoing bitterness in it. This is very important when it comes to relationships in churches. Because of Jesus, God holds no record of your wrongs. How then can you, who have been so completely forgiven, refuse to let go of the wrongs that have been done to you? If you get close to people – and in church, we are supposed to get close to each other – we will get hurt from time to time. We must learn to forgive, and let those hurts go.
Paul writes in verse 7 that loves endures all things. Looking at the Greek, it might be put like this: “love always perseveres.” We don’t give up on each other. We don’t say “that’s it, I’ve had it with you, we’re done.” No, agape love perseveres through all things. This is related to what Paul says when he writes: “love never fails.” Another way to put it might be this: “love never falls from grace; it never loses its position or compromises its virtue.”
Erotic love, friendly love and selfish love are all real, and they contain parts of what love in general can be (although the Bible makes it clear that the expression of erotic love is to come within marriage only). It is tough going when you love someone who never makes you feel good. It is normal to value people with whom you have positive experiences. It is only natural to seek as a mate someone who is physically attractive to you. But these kinds of love so venerated by our culture, cannot ultimately last without agape, and they can become quite self-oriented. People have divorced their spouses to seek erotic love elsewhere when the glow faded for a time. When the sexual urge is satisfied, or at the very least in those times when the partner somehow becomes less attractive, erotic love is out the window. Others have divorced, or cut off friendships simply because “he didn’t make me feel good any more, and I need to do what is best for me” or because “the spark was gone.” This sort of love only lasts as long as you are able to perform for each other. As soon as you stop doing things that make me feel good, I will no longer feel love for you, and vice versa. In the final analysis, without the rock solid basis of a decision and commitment to value someone, (that is, agape love) all other forms of love are conditional.
Agape love can be hard work – anything that is not self-oriented can be hard work. To value someone when you do not feel particularly fond of them is not the easiest thing in the world. To serve someone when you feel almost as tired as they do, is not always immediately rewarding. But the minute we go back to relying solely on how it feels is the minute we abandon true Biblical love.
True love is not a noun, but a verb. Love is an action word. It is not really about all those nice feelings. When you truly love, you will get those neat feelings from time to time, but the substance of love is not in those feelings. The true stuff of love is in the commitment to value others.
This is the way God loves us. This is how we can be loved, even when we know that we are not loveable. God has made an ultimate commitment to us, to value us above all else. He was willing to die for the sake of that commitment. His love does not depend on us doing things to please Him or make Him feel good. His love does not depend on the attractiveness of our personality, or on any physical beauty. His love depends solely on His own will, and His will eternally is to value us and treat us as of great worth. As the writer of Hebrews says:
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:17-18)
God loves us with an unchanging commitment. The only way we can ever learn to love others in that way is to receive God’s love, and let Him love others through us, and allow Him to make good on our desire to make a commitment to value others.