“The greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13, ESV)
Reformation Heritage Books recently published The Works of William Perkins, an extraordinarily influential theologian of the 16th century. The publication covers ten volumes, amounting to 6,608 pages. As daunting as that it is, it pales in comparison to what could be and has been written about the subject of love. All the books and treatises and written references to love could occupy a sprawling wing of their own in the library, and that not counting the music library.
That is just to say that we cannot here do justice to the Bible’s teaching on love. That shouldn’t surprise us. Love is featured in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he says that God predestined us in love (1:4-5), points us to the great love with which God loved us (2:4), beckons us to explore the incalculable depths of God’s love (3:17-19), calls us to bear with one another in love (4:2) and speak the truth in love (4:15), emulate the love of Christ in the conduct of our lives (5:2), and closes by appealing to us as lovers of Christ (6:23-24). Each of these areas could occupy volumes that examine the meaning and outworking of such love.
To grasp something of the wonder of love in the life of the Christian as a fruit of the Spirit, we are going to touch on one passage. It’s a familiar one. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4–8).
We might find a nicely calligraphied edition of this love passage in a Christian bookstore. In fact, it’s something we might purchase to give as a present to newlyweds. It’s a passage that fits well with the tone of a wedding, and is something often read as part of the marriage ceremony. Our present will fit perfectly to adorn the walls of their new home.
The biblical context, however, suggests another location for its display – divorce court. Paul brings the manual of love to bear at a time of acrimony rather than matrimony.
The church at Corinth was a mess. It was filled with division and conflict. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 the apostle addresses the subject of spiritual gifts. Paul uses the metaphor of the body to impress the importance of everyone to the whole, and everyone’s spiritual gifts to the welfare and functioning of the body. Evidently, people were using their gifts for their own aggrandizement rather than for the good of the body.
At the center as the beating heart of chapters 12-14 is the teaching on love. Paul’s solution to the church’s unity is love. That love is not something sentimental; it is substantive. It is not cosmetic; it is core to relating to others and to the church’s growth and mission.
The love Paul describes is decidedly blue collar. It requires work, roll-up-the-sleeves, get-the-hands-dirty work. There is nothing sappy about it. It requires patience, kindness, humility and tenacity. It is not self-serving but other-oriented. It is a love exhibited in Jesus Christ, who loved us (not because we earned or deserved or attracted that love) and gave Himself for us.
Paul speaks elsewhere of the overarching, dominating, transforming power of the love with which we love because Christ first loved us. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12–14).
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Such love is not trite. It is a birthmark of the believer and a trademark of the Christian in relating to God and neighbor. Only by the Spirit can we exhibit it in our lives.
- How does biblical love differ from a secular conception of love?
- In what way does 1 Corinthians 13 better fitted divorce court than the wedding ceremony?
Father, by the Holy Spirit fill me with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of Your name.
For study of the fruit of the Spirit through abiding in Christ see A Vine-Ripened Life (Stanley D. Gale, Reformation Heritage Books)
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.