The Meaning of Christian Love
A Study of 1 Corinthians 13
The word “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13 is really a translation of the word “love.” Charity in our day has come to mean benevolence toward the needy, but this was not the essential meaning of the word translated “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13. There are three words for love in the Greek language, the language of the New Testament. The word “eros” speaks of a sensual love—the love between sweethearts; it is used often in Greek literature, but never in the New Testament. The word “phileo” speaks of a natural affection for others; it is generally associated with a love for one’s friends; it speaks of the love of a mother for her child; it describes a strong bond of friendship. The word “agape” (used in 1 Corinthians 13) is not found in Greek secular literature, but it is the word used most often in the New Testament. Agape means the love that God sheds abroad in the hearts of His children by the Holy Ghost.
Agape love is the highest and holiest type of love that any person can ever know. When John says (in 1 John 4:7), “Everyone that loveth is born of God,” he uses this word “agape.” In other words anyone who loves with this higher and holier type of love is born of God. If you have this kind of love, you can be pretty sure of your salvation. When John says that everyone that loves, is born of God—he doesn’t mean that every young man who loves his sweetheart, and every mother who loves her children, and every patriot who loves his country—is born of God. These relationships would be described with the words “eros” and “phileo,” but John uses the word “agape.” Everyone who loves with agape love is born of God.
What is the nature of this higher and holier love that characterizes the Christian believer? Paul described it by using a whole chapter in the Bible, and we want to look at the chapter by separating it into its three obvious divisions—the supremacy of love, the character of love, and the durability of love.
- The Supremacy of Love (vs. 1-3)
In verses one to three, love is contrasted with a number of other qualities—with some of life’s most valued treasures—and love is seen to be greater than them all.
(a) Love is contrasted with eloquence — “though I speak with the tongues of men and angels.” Speaking eloquently is being able to play on the souls of men by using words. It’s a noble gift. All of us have heard eloquent speakers, but even if these men could speak like an angel from Heaven, without love it would amount to nothing but mere noise. And therefore Paul says agape love is much greater than eloquent speaking.
(b) Love is contrasted with prophecy — “and though I have the gift of prophecy.” To prophesy is not only to foretell the future, but also to forthtell the truth of God. But if we attempt this without love, it is vain. It’s possible for the preacher, for example, to preach to his people in such a way that he gives the impression that he would rejoice in their damnation, as much as in their salvation. And so you see, even prophesying (forthtelling God’s truth), if it is done without love, is meaningless.
(c) Love is contrasted with understanding mysteries — “though I understood all mysteries.” The Bible speaks of a number of mysteries—the mystery of iniquity, the mystery of godliness, and many others. But even if one claims to understand all these mysteries (and to be able to discern spiritual things, and understand God’s secrets), without agape love, he will have failed. Love is much greater than being able to understand mysteries.
(d) Love is contrasted with knowledge — “and though I have all knowledge.” Knowledge is a great thing. America is a nation of intelligence. We have more schools than ever before in history, but still we don’t know much. The three most-used words in the English language are still the words, “I don’t know.” But suppose you do know! Suppose you do understand many of the 2,796 languages that are spoken on earth today. Suppose you do understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. Suppose you are able to probe into the mysteries of the heavens—still love is far greater than all such knowledge.
(e) Love is contrasted with faith — “and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.” Even our faith can be a cutting, hurting thing. I read about a man who went to the doctor and learned that his heart was failing, and that he needed some rest immediately. And so he called his employer (who was a Christian man), and told him his dilemma, and informed him that he wouldn’t be able to be at work for a while. You know what his boss said? He said (in a sort of sarcastic way), “Oh I’ve got my troubles too, but I have an inner strength that the Lord gives which enables me to carry on.” You see, he had faith all right—but it was without love. He implied by his statement that the other man lacked faith, and as a result, the employer’s faith really became a hurting thing. Love is much greater than great faith.
(f) Love is contrasted with charity — “and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor.” Charity is benevolence and goodwill to the poor and suffering. But a man can be charitable and still not have love. Giving is sometimes done merely to satisfy one’s pride. The hypocrites of Jesus’ day gave alms to gain the praise of their fellowmen. It’s possible to give merely out of a cold, grim sense of duty—and thus even charity is not the greatest thing in the world.
(g) Love is contrasted with sacrifice and devotion — “though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” Many of our forefathers sacrificed greatly, and were so devoted to their faith, that they were devoured of beasts merely to satisfy the world’s blood-thirsty desire for amusement. Others were tied to the stake for their faith. Some were covered with oil and dabbed with pitch and burned alive. These were great sacrifices, but agape love is still greater.
All these things may seem great to us—the voice of eloquence, the ability to peer into the mysteries of the universe, the exercise of faith so great as to move mountains, the conviction that carries one so far as to be martyred—but these things are nothing when contrasted with real Christian love. Many of these activities are good and worthwhile, but without love, they are useless. They are only so much noise and activity and excitement.
- The Character of Love (vs. 4-7)
If love is so wonderful, and so much greater than all these other activities, then what is it all about? What is it like? Love is a compound thing. It’s composed of many parts, and in vs. 4-7 of this chapter, its characteristics are analyzed. There are fifteen characteristics.
(a) Love “suffereth long.” Love refuses to become impatient, even when it is wronged and unjustly treated. Patience and longsuffering isn’t hard when everything goes our way—but one who is controlled by love is patient even when others mistreat him, and misunderstand his actions. No one treated Abraham Lincoln with more contempt than a man named Ed Stanton. Stanton ridiculed Lincoln publicly, and named him “the original gorilla” because of his homely facial features. He said scientists are silly, wandering around Africa hunting for gorillas, when they could have found one so easily in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln said nothing. He patiently bore it all. And later (when Lincoln was elected president of the U.S.), he appointed Stanton as the Secretary of War, because he admired his abilities, and knew Stanton was the best man for the job. He treated Stanton with every courtesy he possibly could. The years wore on. The night came when Lincoln was assassinated, and in the room where the President’s body was taken that evening—stood Ed Stanton. As Ed Stanton looked down on the silent face of Abe Lincoln (shortly after his death), he said through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men this world has ever seen.” Love, you see, had conquered in the end.
(b) Love “is kind.” Love is generous and sympathetic, and considerate and thoughtful of others. Origen (one of the preachers in the early church) translated this portion of verse 4, “Love is sweet to all.” One can be longsuffering (patient in the midst of misunderstanding) and still be obstinate and stubborn. But to be kind to the one who has treated us unjustly—this is real love. Kindness is simply to do and to say the nicest things in the nicest way. Jesus spent a great deal of His time, simply making people happy, and doing kind things—even for those who were His enemies.
(c) Love “envieth not.” Love is never jealous. It doesn’t harbor a feeling of ill-will toward others because their successes and abilities are greater than its own. Whenever you attempt a certain work, you will find others doing the same kind of work—and probably they can do it better than you can—but don’t envy them. Electric light bulbs don’t seem to envy one another: The 100-watt bulb shines much brighter than the 25-watt bulb, but the 25-watt bulb keeps on shining anyhow. That’s how we ought to be. Love is not envious and jealous of others.
(d) Love “vaunteth not itself.” That is, love never seeks to win the praise and the applause of others. Can you imagine Jesus going to a newspaper office (if there was such a thing in His day), and saying, “I healed a man down here yesterday; I want you to see that it’s published on the front page of the Jerusalem Gazette.” Love is never boastful. It never seeks to win the praise of others. It never makes a parade. It never tries to show-off. True love is more impressed with its own unworthiness, than with its own merit.
(e) Love is “not puffed up.” The Phillips translation says, “Love does not cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.” One who is controlled by love does not swell with pride. William Carey was one of the greatest missionaries of all time. He was a noted linguist. He translated parts of the Bible into thirty-four Indian dialects. He began life as a cobbler (one who repairs shoes), and when he came to India as a missionary he was regarded with scorn and contempt. A noted person said to Carey one time in the midst of a crowd of people (in order to embarrass him because of his humble beginning), “I suppose Mr. Carey you once worked as a shoemaker.” “No,” Carey answered, “only a cobbler.” He didn’t even claim to make shoes, but only to mend them. No one likes the “important” person. Love is not puffed up.
(f) Love “doth not behave itself unseemly.” One who possesses real Christian love is well-behaved, lovely in character. One of the biggest sources of infidelity in the world today is the unbecoming conduct on the part of many who are professed Christians. Mahatma Ghandi once said, “I could believe the Christian teachings, if it hadn’t been for the lives of the Christian people.” A real, genuine, quiet, consistent Christian life is the best advertisement for the Christian faith there is. God told David (after his sin with Bathsheba), “Howbeit because of this deed, thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.” God forbid that our conduct is such that it will cause others to blaspheme.
(g) Love “seeketh not her own.” Love does not insist on having its own way. We commonly speak of this as stubbornness or self-will. We want what we want, when we want it, and we don’t want anyone interfering with us! Love is just the opposite. Abraham said to Lot, “You pick the land that you want, and then I’ll take what’s left.” Love does not insist on its own rights. We must think less about our rights, and more about our duties.
(h) Love “is not easily provoked.” Love is not irritable. It doesn’t flare up at the slightest provocation. Some people get provoked at the smallest things—when the car won’t start, or the fire won’t burn, or the calf won’t drink, or what have you. Love is just the opposite. It is not easily provoked. I know psychology says it’s healthy to “blow your stack,” and get it out of your system, and thus avoid harmful neuroses—but Christian love is a more excellent way. Love will keep anger and irritable feelings in check and crucified from the very beginning.
(i) Love “thinketh no evil.” The Greek more literally says, “love does not take an account of evil.” It doesn’t keep a ledger in which to enter the wrongs of others. Love holds no grudges; it has no memory for injuries; it harbors no resentment. Too often we brood over the insults we have received from others, and nurse our wrath just enough to keep it warm. Love forgets the past. One writer tells how in the little country of Polynesia, where the natives spend much of their time fighting and quarreling, it is customary for each man to keep some reminders of his hatred. Articles are suspended from the roofs of their huts to keep alive the memories of wrongs that had been done to them in the past. Christian love has learned the amazing art of forgetting.
(j) Love “rejoiceth not in iniquity.” Love does not take pleasure when another Christian fails. It doesn’t feel satisfied and delighted when it hears of the blunders of some other person. Love doesn’t rejoice when someone else makes a mistake, so that the bad report can be passed along to others. Instead, love weeps over sin and is brokenhearted over failure. There’s a kind of malicious pleasure that comes to most of us when we hear something derogatory about another. It’s one of the queer traits of unregenerated human nature that causes us to rather hear of the misfortunes of others than to hear of their good fortunes. Christian love simply does not find pleasure in ill-reports about others. It does not condone sin, but it protects and forgives the penitent sinner. Love rejoices not in iniquity. It is never glad when others go wrong.
(k) Love “rejoiceth in the truth.” The Christian is not glad in the presence of evil, but happy in the presence of truth. He rejoices in the virtues of others, not in their vices. He is joyful when the truth prevails. He longs to hear the Scriptures expounded, and he delights to see lives that are lived in accord with the teachings of the Bible.
(l) Love “beareth all things.” Love bears insults and trials and hardships and does not murmur and complain. It knows how to keep silent even in the midst of hardship. Love can bear any insult, any injury, and any disappointment.
(m) Love “believeth all things.” Love is completely trusting. In relation to God, this means that love takes Him at His word; it believes absolutely in His promises; it can take any promise that begins with “whosoever” and says “that means me.” In relation to others, this means that love believes the best about other people. Not that we are blind to the sins of others, but love does not quickly accept every rumor that comes along. It avoids undue suspicion. It is quick to believe the good about others.
(n) Love “hopeth all things.” Love looks for the very best in all things. It keeps on hoping even after others have stopped hoping. Love looks at the bright side of every situation. It never ceases to hope.
(o) Love “endureth all things.” Love remains strong even in the midst of suffering and persecution. It meets trials not with murmuring, but with songs of praise. It knows that God is love and that His hand will never cause His child a needless tear.
These have been the essential virtues of agape love. These are the characteristics of which it is composed.
- The Durability of Love (vs. 8-13)
Other qualities are only for time, but love is for eternity. Love is unfailing and unending. It stands when everything else falls. Prophecies shall be done away. They will be fulfilled at the coming of our Lord. Tongues shall cease. In the eternal world, where our knowledge will be complete, there will be no need for languages of various kinds. Knowledge shall vanish away. Knowledge as we now possess it, will be of no value in the full light of God’s eternal presence. Our knowledge in the eternal world will be so clear and so distinct, that knowledge as we now know it will seem dim and obscure. When all these things (in which men glory and pride themselves) have passed away, love will stand. Love is eternal. Now abides faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. Faith will vanish into sight, hope will be emptied into delight, but as the poet says, “in heaven, love will shine still more bright.” Therefore the first verse of 1 Corinthians 14 says, “Follow after love.” And the word “follow after” in the Greek is a strenuous word that shows a need for effort and dedication and persistent watching. It is the same word that Paul uses in Philippians 2, when he says, “I press toward the mark.” It is not an easy task to “follow after” love. It takes effort and hard work! May God give us a real devotion and passion to pursue love.
This is the only chapter in all of Paul’s writings that does not mention the name of Jesus Christ. And yet in a very real sense, He can be found in every verse. Try substituting your name for the word “charity,” and you won’t get very far, but try substituting His name, and you’ll have a beautiful conclusion to this chapter on love. This description of love (1 Corinthians 13) is a photograph of the inner character of Jesus Christ, and He longs to have many reprints.
In summary, we see that Scriptural love is not merely a warm friendly spirit of brotherhood. It is not merely a tolerance for differences of opinions. Originally, the word translated “love” had a broader meaning. It signified concern for the well-being of others, and action toward that end. Essentially, Christian love is concern for, and benevolence toward, others.
The heavenly Father loves you. Jesus Christ laid down His life for you because He loves you. The Holy Spirit calls you. The Church prays for you. Jesus knocks at the door of your heart—not as a salesman trying to sell you something; not as a politician seeking your vote; not as a beggar begging something to eat—but He comes offering you peace and happiness and eternal life. Won’t you yield your life to Him today?
BIBLE HELPS | Robert Lehigh, Editor | PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America