In his wonderful book, Christian Love, Scottish theologian and pastor Hugh Binning wrote: “In [love] a Christian should be like his Father, and there is nothing in which he resembles him more than in this, to walk in love towards all men.” For the Christian, love is not one grace among many, but it is the unity of all graces and the crown of our profession. I’ve had to think often of that as I have recently finished preaching a series through the well-known “love chapter” that is 1 Corinthians 13. I’m not entirely sure how those messages were received by the congregation, but for my part I was often led to repent for my lovelessness, to swell in gratitude for the Father’s love in Jesus shed abroad by the Holy Spirit, and to long for heaven which is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “a world of love.”
It would be impossible to rehearse all the ways I profited from my preparation and preaching of Christian love. But I want to offer a few reflections that have especially stuck with me.
First, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is to be earnestly desired. Within the context that’s Paul’s point. As much as the Corinthians were to “earnestly desire the higher gifts,” the grace of love is still the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Why? Because as Paul shows in the first three verses, you can be, do, accomplish, possess, and sacrifice anything, but if you lack love you are nothing. Those words need to be deeply rooted in our hearts. You can have all your theological i’s dotted and t’s crossed, you can be gifted in the highest degree, you can expend yourself in the service of the church, you can defend the gospel, and you might have a vital part in the body, but if you lack love all of that amounts to nothing. But if you love greatly you will not be found lacking anything.
Second, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is opposed to the love of this world. We hear a lot about “love” in our culture and society. But part of the deceit of our fallenness is that the best graces are are the most counterfeited and the best counterfeit is extremely hard to distinguish from the real thing. This is true of what is often called love, and as Christians we need to be carefully discerning. The love that this world promotes is self-defining, natural, sentimental, and tolerant. But a careful study of 1 Corinthians 13 reveals a very different idea of love. The love of a Christian is a love that is defined by God in the Bible. It is a love that requires the Spirit of love even as the gifts require the Spirit of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8). It is a love that is not reducible to an emotion or feeling but is a conscious promotion of our neighbor’s well being in truth and righteousness.
Third, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is a love that, in the first place, is a love for one another in the church. Often this chapter is read at weddings and a lot of husbands and wives spend their married lives trying to love each other in this way. I don’t disagree with that and this love must make itself known in that relationship. But Paul’s primary concern is the interpersonal relationships of the church. Corinth was filled with trouble. And as Paul gives such an incredible description of love–a love that is not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude, that doesn’t insist on its own way or rejoice with wrongdoing–he’s actually looking into the Corinthian file and he’s saying: “Whatever love is, it’s not you” (see 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, 4:6, 7:36, 11:2-16, 20-22, etc). Certainly they felt the sting! This is how Paul wants us as brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ to relate to one another. That, of course, echos Jesus’ command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Fourth, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is a love that I owe to others. Elsewhere, Paul tells the church in Rome: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other” (Romans 13:8). His point is that as Christians we must make good on our debts and pay off what we owe to others. But here is a perpetual debt that we are obligated to continue paying off because, in fact, the principle is never fully paid. So when I read of those characteristics of love in Corinthians I am reminded that these are debts I owe to others. I am indebted to show them these things. Isn’t that an interesting way to put it? I owe others a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things and I have no right, as a Christian, to default on that payment.
Fifth, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is a love of heart and mind. The patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, and charity that Paul speaks of are cultivated first and foremost inwardly. That is to say, this love governs my thoughts, assumptions, attitude, perspective, temperament, and opinions. That doesn’t mean that these attributes don’t manifest themselves in outward words or actions, they do and they must! By them the world will know that we are his disciples (John 13:35). But Paul isn’t aiming at behavioral modification–he’s aiming at spiritual transformation. The transformation the gospel brings is an inward renewal of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) and only as we live out that renewal are we living in the fullness of what Paul aims at with this thing we call Christian love.
Finally, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is a love that should cultivate the hope of heaven. The final characteristic of love is that it “never ends” (verse 8). Those desirable gifts of the Spirit like prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will come to an end. Even the best of all graces like faith and hope will come to an end when faith yields to sight and hope to possession. But love will continue. And in that day when the church of Jesus is gathered together our fellowship with one another will be a fellowship of love. Gone will be all obstacles, hurdles, difficulties, and hindrances and we will love each other–I you and you me–with a perfect love. And it will never end.