Love is a catch word that has been robbed of worth in our society. Its beauty and truth has been watered down and distilled to the point that love is no more than a fleeting emotion. Perhaps one of the most popular Scripture texts used in weddings (well, I should say traditional style weddings where people still don’t see getting married in a church as a sin) is 1Cor 13. This popular passage is often coined the love chapter of the New Testament; at least by modern sentiment if not by actual words.
In 1Cor 13 the apostle Paul offers many adjectives to describe the concept of love. For instance, he says in vv. 4-8a the following truths:
- “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love never fails.”1
Step back from these verses for a moment and consider the following: Who is Paul describing? What is he describing? Are these characteristics of love the byproduct of human beings or God? What is the object that we should be focusing in on as we read them?
Well, you can ignore the context—a pretty popular practice nowadays—or, you can take the context into consideration. We know the author—the apostle Paul, also known as Saul of Tarsus (exact same dude). We can also see who the audience is if we flip all the way back to the beginning of the book.
Paul tells us that he is writing “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1Cor 1.2). He is writing to Christians in Corinth (that’s what the word saints means), people who have been set-apart (that’s what the word sanctified means) in Jesus Christ. Now Paul also includes all other Christians who claim the Lord Jesus Christ as their own.
With this information on hand, we ought to immediately understand that Paul is limiting his words in 1Cor to Christians; this includes what he is saying in the 13th chapter. Why is that important? Because, these characteristics of love described therein do not apply to all people everywhere. They are specifically pointed at Christians as words of encouragement and instruction.
One of the things that you will notice when you read this letter by Paul is that these Christians are very immature. They have divided into cliques (1Cor 1.11-13), they have bragged about their gifts (1Cor 4.7; 12.4-11), they have taken each other to court before nonbelievers (1Cor 6.1-8), they have cheered on a man who slept with his step-mother (1Cor 5.1-6), they have turned the Lord’s Supper into a feast for the rich who are found getting drunk and being gluttons (1Cor 11.17-34), they have cared little for their brethren (1Cor 10.24-33), and they have belittled the apostle who first brought them the gospel turning to others (1Cor 9); along with many other things that needed to be corrected in their outlook and conduct.
As I have said these Christians are immature and so Paul’s task in this letter is to teach them two primary things: 1) To learn not to go beyond what is written (1Cor 4.6), 2) To be imitators of him insofar as he imitates Christ (1Cor 4.16; 11.1). By submitting their lives to the Scriptures they will in turn be imitators of Christ as Paul is (cf. John 8.31-31; 17.17).
Knowing these things better prepares us for understanding what comes in 1Cor 13 in regards to the subject of love, and the characteristics we see described in the verses above. Notice that the things Paul speaks about regarding love are considered fruits of the Holy Spirit in another place: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal 5.22-23). And these are placed in contrast with that of the flesh (i.e. sinful nature): “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, fractions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…” (Gal 5.19-21a).
Therefore when Paul opens the 13th chapter of Corinthians up to his readers, he expounds a particular definition of love that surpasses all other things tied to earthly understanding:
- “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1Cor 13.1-3).
The love that Paul is describing is not seated in the hearts of people; he does not describe it as something natural, but supernatural. This type of love is the fruit of the Spirit. What type of love? Better yet, love for whom? Who is the focus of this letter that Paul is writing? It’s not the Corinthians, although they are the recipients; and, it is not the apostle, although it is by his pen that this letter is given. Who then? The Lord Jesus Christ, who is the head of His Church, who is headed by the Father and He has gifted His people by the Spirit (1Cor 11.3; 2.9-13; 12.4-7) the One God, that is our answer. The love that Paul is describing is not seated in the minds of human beings, for the object of people’s love is not God, but the object of a Christian’s love is Christ.
How then do we demonstrate this love for God? That is the question we ought to be asking ourselves if we proclaim to love Jesus Christ. How are we to know how to love? How do we know in what we should love? How do we know who to love? We are taught that through the Law of God comes the knowledge of sin (Rom 3.20), but we are also taught the inverse (opposite) of this.
Far too many speak of loving God with their whole heart, mind, soul and strength (cf. Deut 10.10), and of loving their neighbor as themselves, but cannot offer a prescription for what that love should look like.
- “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1John 5.1-3).
God’s Law may be used lawfully or unlawfully (cf. 1Tim 1.8-9). If we seek through it to obtain righteousness for ourselves by the things we do, then we err and deceive ourselves into thinking that we are saved when we are not (cf. Rom 3.28). However, if we through faith, trust in Christ and desire to walk in His steps, then we will be found keeping the very Law that He gave long ago.
We demonstrate our love for God by keeping His commandments (cf. Deut 7.9). The idea flaunted today in popular Christian thought that we are free from being obedient to the Law of God, saying that we are only required to live by the Spirit fails to see that the same Spirit (the Holy Spirit) that leads now has led in the past, and the direction He led back then is the same today (cf. Zech 7.12; Acts 7.51). God abhors a double-standard (cf. Prov 16.11; 20.10), so why would we assume that His mindset today is “different strokes for different folks”?
The answer is He doesn’t. The circumstances of God’s Laws have changed, but the underlying principle behind them has not. God’s Law is still in force for the believer, and as 1John 5:3 says they are not burdensome (harsh or awful).
NOTE TO READER: In the near future we shall look at some specific examples and their relationship today, as well as deal with a misunderstanding I often hear in regards to covenant and salvation, two terms most people conflate. Until then, have a great weekend.
1 Unless otherwise noted all Scripture shall be of the New American Standard Version: 1995 update (NASB95).