TEXT: 1 Corinthians 13
We are continuing our summer series entitled “Words Matter.” We are looking at a number of words that carry significant meaning throughout scripture. So far we have looked at ‘charis’ (grace) and ‘shalom’ (peace). Thank you to Jim Hinton for preaching last week on ‘shalom’ – I watched the live stream and he did such a great job with that!
Today we are going to look at ‘agape’ which is one of two Greek words for love used frequently in the New Testament. In contrast to ‘phileo’ or friendship (22x as verb), ‘agape’ is used in the New Testament to describe unconditional or godly love (115x as noun; 135x as verb). You may also have heard of ‘eros’ which is romantic love; there is also ‘storge’ which is affection. But neither of these two words appear in the New Testament. And to confuse matters more, these four words aren’t used in clear and separate ways, but do overlap sometimes. Nonetheless, we are going to focus on the kind of unconditional love that God has shown to us and commanded us to show to others.
You may have already realized that even when we zero in on ‘agape’ or unconditional/godly love, there are three ways you might see that expressed in scripture. One, and the foundational way, is God’s love for us. Two others stem from that: our love for God and our love for others. Clearly, with some 250 uses in the New Testament there are many passages we could look at, but we’ll focus on 1 Corinthians 13 for today’s sermon.
This particular chapter is focused on the third application of ‘agape’ love: our love for others. But it is to be rooted and modeled after God’s love for us. And as you get further and further into the chapter you realize just how beautiful and perfect this love is. We will certainly fall short, but it is no less the model and standard of what it means to love one another as God has first loved us. Let’s take a look…
Love Conditions Everything Else (vv.1-3)
One of the definitions I gave for ‘agape’ was “unconditional love.” That means that God loves us without respect to what we’ve done. God doesn’t love us more if we do good or less if we don’t. That’s hard to wrap our minds around because it’s so hard for us to love without some kind of condition, some kind of expectation of love in return or love as reward. Nonetheless, we glimpse it from time to time on the human level, perhaps with parents and children. Certainly obedience and disobedience can affect our feelings, but there is a core of “I will always love you, even when you seem unlovable.” Interestingly, that’s not where 1 Corinthians 13 starts.
It does indeed start with the things we say and do, particularly the kind that represent our noblest and best efforts at good, but then love is intertwined, not as what comes in response to those things, but as the fuel or glue that makes those things work at all. Another way to say that is that this kind of love CONDITIONS everything else.
So if I speak eloquently, with convincing arguments or beautiful poetry, but my words are not motivated by or filled with love, then not just my words, but I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Don’t rush past that! The best rationale in the world or the most beautiful language, even ‘angelic’ language is not just rendered neutral or ineffective if love is absent; rather it becomes something loud, annoying, and off-putting. Have you ever been in the right, but angry or belittling with your words? You probably experienced the ineffectiveness of words without love.
Then look in v.2 at the string of “godly gifts” – what if I can prophecy or have deep knowledge and understanding? What if I have amazing faith that can accomplish astounding things? Without love, I am nothing. Whoa! Don’t rush past that either. We are saved through faith! Abraham’s faith was commended and reckoned as righteousness. We look up to people of faith and it is our faith that leads us to trust God. But it must be conditioned by love!
In fact, that phrase makes me think of a simple illustration: air-conditioning. I remember some of the deep theological conversations I had in seminary about worship. Do we follow the “regulative principle of worship”? What is going on in communion… is it transubstantiation or consubstantiation or simply a memorial meal? And I remember one time talking about the location of worship and suggesting that if the air-conditioning breaks and the room heats up to 95 degrees, that getting any of the rest of that right won’t matter. People won’t be listening anyway. (Now this is not to say that we couldn’t learn to worship in the heat as many in other parts of the world do, but hopefully you get the gist of the illustration!) In this case love is much more essential than air-conditioning. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul is saying that the very important gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and even faith must be “love-conditioned” or rendered ineffective.
Verse three offers one more pair of examples: what if I do extraordinary acts of faithfulness? What if I give everything to the poor or even give up my life as a martyr? Without love, those actions fail to point to Christ. While the poor may experience brief earthly gain, they will not have seen a picture of ‘agape’ godly love, and my actions fall short; they profit me (and God) nothing.
That’s pretty comprehensive in three verses: our best words, our best thoughts, our best deeds are all rendered null (or worse!) without love. Love is the condition, the foundation, the basis, the activator and catalyst that makes what we say, think, and do effective.
That’s humbling, convicting, and challenging; it is also inspiring.
What is Love Like? (vv.4-7)
From there the next several verses answer the question, “What is love like?” Note that all of these descriptions fulfill the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love is patient: impatience is self-focused; patience is other-focused, waiting on the needs or limitations of others.
Love is kind and is not jealous: cruelty and jealousy harm others; kindness and generosity (is that the opposite of jealousy?) are other-focused.
Love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not seek its own: selfish pride is self-focused and puts others down; humility lifts up and honors others.
Love does not act unbecomingly, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered: I realize I’m taking them slightly out of order, but they group better this way. These three things are all self-focused as “I’ll react and do what I’m going to do.” These actions are meeting situations and people with offense and anger rather than seeking reconciliation. Love seeks restoration, healing, and offers forgiveness and grace.
Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth: Let it not be said that love does away with truth or righteousness. It’s not the mush alternative to obedience and doing what’s right. Rather, love encourages, cheers, invites, and celebrates truth and righteousness. It is not judgy or shaming, but lifts up the goodness of truth and righteousness. It’s the difference between the sulky older brother of the prodigal who won’t celebrate his brother’s return and the joy of the father who runs to welcome the prodigal home.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things: As I said, the further we go, this gets a little expansive for human beings and seems to be more directly describing God’s character and love. But it is still our guide and aspiration. I may not be able to “bear all things” but love can motivate me to try! My belief may falter, but God’s love for me anchors that belief against the waves of doubt. Likewise, love strengthens our hope and our endurance because ultimately we are not trusting in our own strength but in the strong love of God.
Love is Rooted in God (vv.8-13)
Verse 8 begins with “Love never fails.” To me this marks the shift to talking about God’s perfection and character because we certainly faith, but God does not. And the words that follow contrast some of the impermanent things of this world and humanity that will give way to the perfection and permanence of being in God’s presence in eternity.
And so, prophecy and tongues will eventually cease. The accumulation of knowledge will one day be irrelevant. Here and now we know only a part of who God is and what we will experience in the presence of God in eternity. It is like growing up from childhood to adulthood or the difference between the image in a dim mirror and looking directly into someone’s face. We are reminded that for now we “know in part, but… will know fully just as [we] also have been fully known.” (v.12) This is the link between God’s love for us and our love for others. ‘Agape’ love starts with God and ends with God. We are to imitate and emulate God’s love, even imperfectly, not only because God has first loved us (1 John 4:19) but also because God will love us to the end (and beyond) when we will know fully (v.12).
And so continuing in verse 13 we read: “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the greatest because it comes from and ends in God, it is the embodiment of “love your neighbor,” and because it conditions everything else.
How Shall I Love?
Besides being beautiful poetry and great for weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 offers a great study in how to love our neighbors and one another. I commend it for study and reflection on a regular basis to help answer the question: “How shall I love?”
Has someone in your extended family been making you angry or disappointing you? CHOOSE to ask “How shall I love them?” and read slowly through 1 Corinthians 13 with that situation in mind. What would it look like to be patient and kind? To respond in humility and not take into account a wrong suffered? And so on.
Do you find yourself in sharp disagreement with someone over what’s in the news? You may have the best counter-argument in the world and be “in the right” but what good is that if you can’t love the other person? Choose to ask “How shall I love them?” and read slowly through this chapter to consider what it would mean to respond in humility, with kindness, to rejoice in the things the other person may get right.
Do you find yourself estranged from a friend or neighbor or loved one over something they said or did? CHOOSE to ask “How shall I love?” and read and pray slowly through the chapter to help redirect your own words and behavior.
I could go on, right? There is no shortage of people that frustrate us, disappoint us, argue with us, or act unrighteously. How shall we love? Agape-love is choosing to love in all circumstances, as God has chosen to pursue and redeem us in love. This is the meaning of loving God and loving neighbor.
Postscript (Romans 8:35,38-39)
As a kind of postscript to this chapter on how we are to love and with a pointer to God as the source of that love that endures all things, I want to read to you again the verses you heard in the call to worship. This is Romans 8:35,38-39…
35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution,
or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
38 I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing,
will be able to separate us from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Some Music Used
- O Love that Will Not Let Me Go
- O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus
- Let Us Be Known
- The Gift of Love (O WALY WALY)
- OFFERTORY: Not for Tongues of Heaven’s Angels (quartet)
- Lord, Whose Love through Humble Service