How does the world typically think of love?
In response, we point to love as a verb not a noun. We talk about commitment, choice, action.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul gives us a better way to look at love.
This passage is often associated with weddings and the love needed for a couple in marriage. But Paul wrote the chapter for quite a different purpose – for a local church and the love needed to keep the diversity and vulnerability he had just called that church to in the previous chapter.
In verses 1-3, he begins this look at love with a stern warning. Someone can appear very successful in ministry and not have love as the motivation for that ministry. The result of such a combination is scary – we become annoying to others in the body, we are nothing and gain nothing in the eyes of God.
Paul meant to rock the Corinthians as they heard these words. God means it to rock us still today.
In verses 4-7, Paul then gives us this famous description of love. As Tim Keller says, Paul wanted the Corinthians to think of two people as they went through this list.
First, he wanted to them to think of themselves.
In the previous 12 chapters Paul had outlined the poor behavior and attitudes he heard of in the Corinthians. Most of the positive qualities listed in v 4-7 were exactly what the Corinthians were not and most of the negative statements defined exactly what they were. He wanted them to see they were a people who often didn’t not possess love.
He didn’t want them to only see they weren’t behaving lovingly but that they didn’t possess love. If you look in verses 1-7, love is a noun. The noun, love, is coupled with the verbs have not or is. Love is not just a choice, it is not just a behavior. Love is something we have or don’t have because it is or isn’t.
So why this distinction? He wanted them to ask – “How do I get this love?” – and in doing so think about the second person.
Second, he wanted them to think of Christ.
Paul not only used a noun for love, he used a feminine personal noun. He personifies love. “Love is…Love does not…,” and gives attributes that we would say about a person – kind, not jealous, easily angered, etc.
When Paul begins with the idea – love is patient – he shows us something of where he wanted their minds to go.
The word for patient is “suffers long.” Who suffered long for these Corinthians? Who did he just remind them in chapter 11 took bread and wine on the night he was betrayed and said “This is my body broken for you.”?
He wanted them to think of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit wants us to think of him today – as the one who embodies love – who doesn’t boast as he is beaten, who isn’t self-seeking as he hangs on the cross, who keeps no record of wrongs as he cries, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing,” who always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres.
Paul wanted them to think of Jesus in his love in order to face their lack of love. Why? So they could experience his love in their brokenness.
Paul understood you can’t give away what you don’t have. You can’t just behave lovingly. You can’t just take up this list in verses 4-7 as a list of to do’s to become a person of love. That makes you at best a person who behaves lovingly and at worst a proud moral lover.
But this approach cannot make you a person who possesses love! Only the power of the gospel in a person can have such an effect. To make this list in 4-7 merely a list of do’s and don’ts diminishes the need for and power of the gospel to make us people of love.
Paul understood that. He knew our self-centered tendencies. So he personifies love so that we would resist this tendency when we look at our lives in the face of this list. Instead, he calls the Corinthians and us to look at this list and confess how little we love, to bring that to Jesus, and watch him work. Watch him embraces us there, forgives us, and deposit his love in us.
The Gospel is an Exchange
My brokenness for his love. This is the exchange of the gospel. Not just when we first confess our lack and embrace his love at conversion, but this exchange as an ongoing process in our lives. This exchange changes us, transforms us, into people who possess love. Not in a way that makes us say, “Look at what loving people we are!” but in a way that says, “Look at what a loving Person He is!”
The week I studied this passage, I was sitting in Texas thinking, “I wish this guy would hurry up” (as he described an incredible move of God in San Jose California) and later thinking “I could do a better job than him” as a speaker challenged a group I was in. The words – “Love is patient…Love is not proud” – came to mind.
No one knew my impatience or pride – no one except me and the Holy Spirit. Now the choice – confess or deny. It all depended on whether I really wanted to be a person of love.
Would you pray with us at Cede Sprorts? We hear the warning that we could be very successful in the eyes of the world and yet be bankrupt before God. It all hinges on love. Pray for the courage to confess our lack of love – deeply, regularly, vulnerably – and to embrace the one who says, “As the Father has loved me, I love you.”
Authored by Bob Schindler