What’s the most important thing you can do as a Christian? What is it that sets followers of Jesus apart from the rest of the world? Is it baptism? professing Christ as their savior? doing “the work of God”? keeping the Sabbath? While these are all important, they are not what Christ described as the greatest commandments.
Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)
In Mark’s account, Christ says, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). Both these commandments begin with the instruction, “You shall love.” In Greek, the word is agapao (G25), and it “indicates a direction of the will and finding one’s joy in something” (all dictionary quotes from Zodhiates). I also find it interesting that, even though the lawyer only asked about the most important commandment, Jesus told him about the second as well. It was important to Christ that His hearers knew they had to love each other as well as God.
How Important is Love?
We’ve already seen Jesus describe “You shall love the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbor” as the two most important commandments. On His last Passover, He added another layer.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
We are to love other people the way we love ourselves, and we are also to love our brethren the way Jesus loves us. Love among the believers is how Christ said “all men” would recognize His true church. It’s the key to how we should treat one another, as we talked about last week. We need to actively care for one another, to sacrificially love others as Christ did when He laid down His life for His friends (John 15:12-14). This sort of love isn’t just a feeling — it involves a choice to find our joy in our fellow believers and in our relationship with God. It is absolutely necessary for our personal growth and for peace in the church.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor. 13:1)
Paul had just been talking about spiritual gifts and unity in the church body. Now, he says that those gifts are useless without love.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2)
All these things that we find so impressive — inspired speaking, understanding the mysteries of God, knowing everything about the Bible, mountain-moving faith — they are all nothing without love. I know of a man who is convinced he’s close to having full knowledge of God, and he’s so caught up in this that he’s almost impossible to talk with. He’d probably scoff at the idea that love is more important than his pet Bible theories. Yet it was the person who knew that to love God “with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” to whom Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:32-34).
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Cor. 13:3)
Now Paul tells us that we can go through all the motions that look like sacrificial love, and still not have genuine love. Unless our actions are motivated by true agape, they don’t do us any good. Our good actions will benefit others, but if our hearts are not right we will not reap the benefits of practicing the kind of love that Jesus Christ models.
What is Love?
The Greek word for “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (G26), a derivative of agapao. Zodhiates says this “word [is] not found in class Gr. but only in revealed religion.” He goes on to say that agape means benevolent love, which is “not shown by doing what the person loved desires but what the one who loves deems as needed by the one loved.” Think of God sending Jesus as the sacrifice for sins to a people who thought they didn’t want Him, or of Casting Crowns’ song Love You With The Truth. But this definition still isn’t a full picture of agape. For that, we need to read on in 1 Corinthians 13.
Love suffers long (1 Cor. 13:4)
“Suffers long” is from the Greek word makrothumeo (G3134). It means to be long-suffering and have endurance rather than giving up and losing faith or becoming angry. Specifically, “makrothumeo involves exercising understanding and patience toward persons” (there’s another word for patience with things and circumstances). It is used to describe God’s attitude toward us (2 Pet. 3:9), and is an attitude we should have toward every person (1 Thes. 5:14).
and is kind (1 Cor. 13:4)
This verse is the only time the word chresteuomai (G5541) apears in scripture. It is, however, related to the word chrestos (G5543), which means “profitable, fit, good for any use.” Kindness is a willingness to be useful, a readiness to assist others. God is kind toward all (Luke 6:35; Eph. 2:7), and as with other attributes of God it is something we must also learn (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:12).
love does not envy (1 Cor. 13:4)
The words translated “envy” is closely related to zeal, and can actually be used in a good or bad sense. Paul uses it both ways in Galatians 4:17-18, where zeloo (G2206) is translated “zealous.” In 1 Corinthians 13, it means having a wrong kind of zeal that manifests itself in jealousy and envy (Acts 17:5-9).
love does not parade itself, is not puffed up (1 Cor. 13:4)
These two attributes of love are similar. One involves not bragging about the things you have. The other involves avoiding pride and self-conceit. Proverbs 6:16-17 tells us that pride is an abomination to God. Humility is what He looks for in people who have His love inside them (1 Pet. 5:5-7).
does not behave rudely (1 Cor. 13:5)
To “behave rudely” is the Greek word aschemoneo (G807). It means to “behave in an ugly, indecent, unseemly, or unbecoming manner” that brings disgrace and reproach. Zodhiates says its use in 1 Corinthians 13 “succinctly means that love in its speech and action seeks to contain no evil, but seeks to change the evildoer.”
does not seek its own (1 Cor. 13:5)
Love isn’t concerned with accumulating wealth or glory for the self. Rather, those who love “esteem others better than himself” and look out “not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
is not provoked (1 Cor. 13:5)
The basic meaning of the word parozuno (G3947) is to sharpen, but in the New Testament it is used “metaphorically, to sharpen the mind, tempter or courage of someone, to incite, to impel … to provoke or rouse to anger.” This reminds me of a verse in Ecclesiastes: “Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools” (Ecc. 7:9).
thinks no evil (1 Cor. 13:5)
Here again, looking at the Greek adds layers of meaning. The word “think” is logizomai (G3049), and it means “to put together with one’s mind, to count, to occupy oneself with reckonings or calculations.” This is telling us that love does not devote mental energy to wicked, evil, or corrupt schemes. Our minds must be occupied with good (Phil. 4:8).
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6)
Iniquity, translated from adikia (G93), is “not conformable with justice” and exists in opposition to truth. Truth, aletheia (G225), is “unveiled reality,” often referring to divine truth in the New Testament. It exposes iniquity, which is what Christ is alluding to in John 15:22 when He says His words have left people with “no excuse for their sin.”
I also find it interesting that the word for rejoicing in iniquity is a general word for being glad (chario, G5463), but the word for rejoicing in the truth is sugchario G4796), which involves rejoicing together with others. The rejoicing that love does it not isolated — it is shared joy.
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:7)
“Bears” means “to cover over in silence.” Specifically, in 1 Corinthians 13, stego (G4722) means that “love hides the faults of others and covers them up.” The word “Believe” is from pisteuo (G4100), and it means to have faith or trust in something. In particular, “to be firmly persuaded as to something,” especially of belief in God. The Greek word elpizo (G1679) means to hope or “expect with desire.” It can also refer to putting hope or trust in God.
When we talked about the phrase “love suffers long,” I said that word referred to people and another word was for patience with circumstances. Hupomeno (G5278), translated “endures,” is that word. It means “to persevere, endure, sustain, bear-up under, suffer as a load of miseries, adversaries, persecutions, or provocations with faith.”
Things That Last
It is worth keeping in mind that, since “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), this definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is also a description of God. As we grow to have these characteristics of love, we are also becoming more like Him.
as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Pet. 1:3-4)
God has given us all the tools we need to partake in His “divine nature.” His process of building a family involves making us like Him and like His Son by changing our minds and actions now, and our bodies in the future.
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
There are many things that we can’t take into the next life, including our physical possessions and physical bodies. There are also attitudes and beliefs that God won’t allow in because they are incompatible with His nature. But there are other things — things we can “lay up” as “treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20) — which we can take with us. That is why those who have hope of becoming like Jesus purify themselves “as He is pure,” because only the parts of ourselves that look like Him will endure.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. … And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:8-10, 13)
Even some of the good things we have now — like knowledge, certain gifts, and prophecy — eventually won’t be relevant in their current form because they will be superseded “when that which is perfect has come.” Our understanding of these things now is limited and child-like, and will be replaced by something deeper (1 Cor. 13:11-12).
This is not the case with love. Love transfers to the next world. It is not put away and it never fails. That is because God is sharing His very nature with us, right now. It is a gift so great that it doesn’t need to be replaced with something better. Indeed, it cannot be.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. … If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. …
And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. (1 John 4:7, 12, 16-17)
God has shared His love with us, and intends to perfect that aspect of Himself in us right now. He wants us to be “as He is” even while we are in the world. We started out talking about how important it is that we love all our brethren, and we see it again here in 1 John. Loving one another proves that we are born of God, and it is a prerequisite for God dwelling in us. In fact, John tells us that if we don’t learn to love our brethren, we cannot claim to love God (1 John 4:20-21). It is vital to understand this, dear readers, because if we don’t have God’s love in us we are missing the greatest attribute designed to carry over into God’s kingdom. If we don’t have love, will there even be any point in God having us there?