Originally posted September 3, 2008 on Facebook
There is a verse in the Bible that virtually everyone knows – if not verbatim, at least they would recognize it when they heard it. Next to John 3:16, it is perhaps the best known verse in the Bible. It reads as follows:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails. [1 Corinthians 13:4-8]
It is read at weddings every day in this country. It was read at my wedding almost nine years ago despite the fact that, at the time, I had no relationship with my Lord and Savior. Perhaps there is too much familiarity with the verse. So much so that sometimes we don’t take the time to step back and think about the truth and importance of that verse. That’s what I hope to do in this posting and future postings. I want to take some time to look at each characteristic of love reflected in this verse and understand the importance and application of each.
So, what exactly prompted this article on love? In many ways, I started this study as part of my own spiritual walk, but as I studied the concept of love, it was apparent that there were wider implications. The fact is that we live in a culture infatuated with the concept of love. We seek it. We read about it. We watch it on the big screen. We read magazines to tell us how to make that special someone love us. We buy things to try to make people love us, and when that doesn’t fulfill us, we buy things to numb the pain. Our world is starved for love. The theme of love is pervasive in music, poetry, books, movies, television, and magazines. In researching the world’s view of love, I came across the following quote which really sums it up: “Love is a popular subject today. Never before in history have we heard so much about it yet seen so little of it in action.” (Strauss, Richard L. Marriage Is for Love. Bible.Org. Biblical Studies Foundation. 7/11/2006)
Unfortunately, the idea of love that the world views as paramount is exactly the opposite of true love as described in the Bible. The world’s love is selfish. It is a love which says, “I love you because of how you make me feel, because of what you can do for me, because of how other people look at me when I am with you.” In the world, being loved is more important than loving. The world’s view of love is materialistic. We were designed to love people and use things, but we live in a world where we love things and use people. The world confuses love with infatuation. In the world, love is something fleeting. It can be “fallen into” and just as easily “fallen out of.” In the view of the world, we have no control whatsoever over when we love, whom we love, or how we love. In this world, love is just a feeling that comes and goes. It does not require effort or wisdom. We are essentially victims of love. “Love is blind” says the world. On the contrary, “…love cannot be blind. Infatuation may be blind; physical desire may be blind, but love is the only real vision there is.” (Thoughts Concerning Marriage Matters. Marriage Missions. Steve & Cindy Wright. 7/14/2006)
It really comes as no surprise that as a culture we long for love. After all, that’s the way God made us. After all, we are made in the image of God and “God is Love” [1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16]. We were made by God to love and to be loved. Unfortunately, the love that the world seeks after and offers is a cheap imitation of God’s love. This cheap imitation of love which our culture has bought into lock, stock and barrel is a love that never allows a person to find real happiness or fulfillment.
Let’s step back for just a second and see how the culture’s view of love has cheapened even the word itself. One of the fundamental problems with the world’s definition of love is that the word itself has come to mean so many different things to different people. This proliferation in meanings has rendered the word “love” essentially meaningless. It can mean a feeling that won’t last (“I loooove you”), a euphemism for sex (“make love”), a preference (“I love ice cream!”), and so much more. In the same breath I can tell my wife I love her and explain how much I love lasagna. If you want to have some fun one day, go around your town and ask 25 random people to define the word love. Sit back and watch them struggle. The term has become so nebulous in our society that it is virtually indefinable. How many kids have asked their parents what love is only to receive the tragic and totally useless answer, “you’ll know it when you find it?” The problem is that when a word is as vague as the word “love” has become in our culture today, and when it has such a multitude of different uses and meanings, it just becomes a meaningless and useless word. What a tragedy that this concept that is the essence of God has become a meaningless term in the world today!
We were designed by God to live in loving relationship with each other and with God, and Satan has used our built in desire for that love to pervert the meaning of the word and convince the world that love is something completely opposite of that which God designed it to be. As we embark on this study of what real biblical love is, it is critical that we remember that God’s definition of love is exactly the opposite of the world’s definition. It is my sincere hope that, by studying the characteristics of love from 1 Corinthians, that we will be freer to love others, and to love God, the way he intended us to, and by that to find the joy and contentment that the world’s view of love is completely devoid of.
We already discussed the idea that God is love. God doesn’t simply value love or show the characteristics of love, he is love. It is at his very core. It drives everything he does. It’s in God’s DNA. It should come as no surprise then that the idea of love is a pervasive theme of the Bible. It has been written that if the theme of Bible is man’s redemption, then the central word of the Bible is love. (Turner, Allan. The Law of Agape. AllanTurner.com. Allan Turner. January 15, 1999. 7/12/2006).
When asked about the greatest commandment, our Lord Jesus replied:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:38-40)
In these 48 words, Jesus answered the age old question, “what does God want from me?” with an astoundingly simple answer. God desires that we love, first him, then other. There is a hymn called Love is the Theme written by Albert C Fischer. I had never heard it before I started this study, but it captures the truth of the paramount importance of love as follows:
Of the themes that men have known,
One supremely stands alone;
Through the ages it has shown,
’Tis His wonderful, wonderful love.
Love is the theme, love is supreme;
Sweeter it grows, glory bestows;
Bright as the sun ever it glows!
Love is the theme, eternal theme!
From God’s love in the Garden of Eden – to Christ’s love on the cross – to God’s love in the Book of Revelation, love pervades the entire Bible. Love truly is the thread which binds together the Greatest Story Ever Told. God is love, and we are commanded by God to love him and to love others.
In Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian church, he writes,
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17b-19)
In this world, in our fallen state, we can never, and will never, fully understand the love of God. How could we? How could we begin to understand the kind of love that allowed, and maybe even compelled, our God to create us with the complete foreknowledge that he would have to give up his heavenly throne, come to earth and die on the cross to save us from our sins?
We can be comforted by the following though:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39]
So, what’s the point? Why should we strive to understand the biblical definition of love when the Bible itself tells us that it surpasses all knowledge? Because, we must be rooted in love in order to understand love. In order for our love to survive and to thrive, it must be nurtured. In order to nurture love we must understand it. In order to understand love, we must study what God reveals to us about it. In other words, in order to live love, we must practice love, and in order to practice love, we must study love. I like the quote from “God’s Little Instruction Book on Love:”
“Love thrives in the face of all life’s hazards, save one – neglect. (From the booklet, “God’s Little Instruction Book on Love”)
Paul sums up the importance of love in the three verses that precede the verses we will be looking at:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Paul’s message is simple, no matter what we do or achieve in this life, it is nothing without love. It is with this understanding in mind that we must view passages like 1 Corinthians 13. It is with the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ that we must strive to live out God’s image of love.
That, said, before we embark on a more detailed study of the aspects of love, some understanding of the context of 1 Corinthians is helpful. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church around 55 A.D. to address many of the problems that had arisen in the church there. Indeed, many of the problems within the church resulted from conformity to the non-Christian church in Corinth. The city of Corinth at the time Paul wrote this letter was a thriving city that was commercially and politically one of the chief cities of Greece. It was a major center of trade and a cross roads for travelers by both land and sea.
The culture of Corinth was very typically Greek – interested in philosophy and placing a high value on wisdom. Corinth was the home of at least 12 temples including a famous temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Aphrodite worshippers engaged in the practice of religious prostitution. The NIV Study Bible says, “Like any large commercial city, Corinth was a center for open and unbridled immorality.” The Greek verb “to Corinthianize” came to mean “to practice sexual immorality.” Rampant materialism and sexually oriented religion based on the Goddess Aphrodite had produced a climate based primarily on personal pleasure. The following is a list of some of the problems which Paul addressed to the Christians in the Corinthian church in this same letter:
- Division in the family of God (1-3)
- Pride and spiritual arrogance (4)
- Sexual promiscuity (5)
- Lawsuits between believers (6)
- Troubled marriages (7)
- Abuse of spiritual liberty (8-10)
- Abuse of the lord’s table (11)
- Misuse of spiritual gifts (12,14)
- Neglect of doctrinal basics (15)
If I hadn’t prefaced this introduction with the indication that I was describing the city of Corinth, you might have read the previous description and thought I was talking about our society today. Many of the problems experienced by the Corinthians are common in our culture and the church today.
After addressing many of the problems in Corinth, Paul tells the Corinthians in Chapter 13 that love is the solution. “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” [1 Corinthians 13:13] It means a whole lot more than some trite inclusion in a wedding ceremony. If love could solve the problems in Corinth 2000 years ago, it can changes lives anywhere at any time!