1 Corinthians 13:4-7
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
We sure do love that passage, don’t we? It’s all about love, and we love to hear about love. At the shop where I work, there are picture frames with these verses on them, and I have seen dozens of wedding-related items with this Scripture. (For the record, my bride and I skipped these verses and went to 1 John 4:7-11, another passage about love.) And when we are unsure of some aspect of our relationships with other people, we come back to these verses as a measuring rod of our own love for others–and sometimes, of their love for us. But, as pastors ought always to be reminding us, context is king, and so we really should take a look at these verses in their own place.
In chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he writes about spiritual gifts and their diversity and unity in the body of believers. Then, at the beginning of chapter 13, Paul reminds us that without love, all those spiritual gifts amount to nothing. (1. Corinthians 13:1-3) What is this love of which he speaks? We often assume that it is simply love in our hearts, love used as a primary motivator for our ministry, love as a state of being. And since, on some level, we know that love must have an object, we further assume that we are to love one another to make our spiritual gifts truly fruitful. It is very true that Christ commanded us to love one another as He loved us. (John 15:12) But is that the love of which Paul speaks? Let’s look at the end of chapter 13.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10,13
8 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.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
People are fickle creatures, our affections wandering this way and that, our flesh far too weak to remain perfectly loving at all times. We can try, and we will fail, and we will seek forgiveness and get it. But Paul tells us that “Love never fails,” that in the end it will be the one thing that remains. When we see our Savior face-to-face, faith and hope will no longer be needed–“for why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24)–and only love will remain. Hence, love reigns supreme. But whose love is it for whom? Well, if our faith in Jesus and our hope for eternal life in Him will become unnecessary when we face our Savior, then it follows that it is our love for God in Christ which should never fail.
There is a popular exercise that some people do where they read today’s verses by substituting their own or someone else’s name for the word “love”: “Glenn suffers long and is kind; Glenn does not envy…” The idea is that it’s supposed to teach us about how to love each other. But as I have mentioned above, the context of the passage seems to indicate that it’s not about our love for each other but our love for God. So here’s a different challenge. Let’s substitute a different phrase in there:
“My love for God suffers long and
My love for God is kind;
My love for God does not envy;
My love for God does not parade itself,
My love for God is not puffed up;
My love for God does not behave rudely,
My love for God does not seek its own,
My love for God is not provoked,
My love for God thinks no evil;
My love for God does not rejoice in iniquity;
My love for God rejoices in the truth;
My love for God bears all things,
My love for God believes all things,
My love for God hopes all things,
My love for God endures all things.
My love for God never fails.
And now abide faith in Christ, hope of salvation, love for God, these three; but the greatest of these is my love for God.”
It sure makes a big difference, doesn’t it? You see, the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. (Matthew 22:37, Deuteronomy 6:5) Paul is simply telling us to use our love for God as fuel for the fires of our faith and hope. Faith wavers (O we of little faith!) and hope is a longing for something we cannot see, but love remains and can build us up. Our love for God can teach us how to behave toward each other, because when we love God as He loves us, then His Spirit is poured out on us and we love others in return. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Beloved friends, love perfects us, makes us more like our Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:48, 1 John 4:17-18) But whatever love we have must start with love for God, for without that, all the giving and ministry and prophecy is worth nothing. There are many people who love humanity and give of themselves freely, but they do not love God. But no matter how selfless we may be, no matter how kind and humble, no matter how patient and faithful and hopeful, if we do not love God, it is all for nought. Let us love God as He loved us, and then our love for our fellow man will follow naturally and inevitably from God’s love for us.
1 John 5:1-2
1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments.
Loving Father, I am overwhelmed by Your love for us. A love so great that You would send Your own Son to pay the price for our sins: that is indeed the greatest love a man can know. I love You, Lord God. Teach me to live out my love for You more every day, to love You as You love me, and to love others as well. Create in me a pure heart focused on Your love, Your will, and Your way. May my love for You never fail. Amen.