When we think of “love,” we tend to think primarily of romantic love. For example, if I were to do an image search for “love,” I’d get a lot of pictures of couples, pictures of couples holding hands, engagement pictures, wedding pictures etc., maybe even some babies thrown in the mix. However, when the scriptures as a whole talk about love, the image is not primarily of romantic love. If we do a search for “love” in the scriptures we find passages that talk about God’s enduring love for his people, or about how God’s people are called to love those in need, or how Christians are to love even their enemies. Of course, you’ll also find passages that talk about how husbands and wives are to love each other, but that’s only one piece of a much broader and diverse picture of love in the scriptures. So when the scriptures talk about love, it’s about way more than romantic love.
It’s also important to note that love begins with God. And that means a lot of things. First off, God’s love is the pattern for our love. So if we want to know what real love looks like, we don’t look to what TV or movies show us, but we look to see how God has loved us. We look to how Jesus loved people in his own life and ministry. Secondly, love begins with God in that God loves us first. We do not need to prove ourselves to be good and loving people before God will love us. As it says in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Or from 1 John, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). God loves us first, and then after we’ve received this love, we find that the love of God starts to mess with us. It changes who we are and how we act such that we actually begin to be transformed into loving people.
Now one of the most famous passages about love in the scriptures is 1 Corinthians 13. And although this passage is commonly read at weddings, it’s not actually about marriage or couples at all. In 1 Corinthians Paul deals with marriage and such back chapter 7, but by the time he gets to chapter 13, he’s not talking about that anymore. In chapter 13, as you may or may not know, he’s trying to get the Corinthians to stop fighting over how they worship, especially with regard to “speaking in tongues.” Paul discusses love at length because he’s trying to get the Corinthians to realize how they are to love each other instead of fighting with one another.
Love is Essential
Verses one through three teach us that love is essential. This means that anything and everything we do needs to be done in love, that is, it needs to be done with an awareness and a concern for people other than oneself.
Here’s what Paul says:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1–3)
Back in chapter 12 we learned that in Corinth some people thought that their ability to speak all kinds of languages in worship that nobody present could understand made them better or more spiritual Christians. Instead, Paul points out that such people are only doing this to make themselves look good. Since nobody present could understand the languages they were speaking, they weren’t benefiting anyone. They were doing this for merely self-serving reasons. So now in chapter 13 Paul asserts that these actions, among others, even miraculous faith or giving to the poor are worthless when done without love. Love is essential.
Now we don’t deal with the same problems that the Christians in Corinth were dealing with, but we can have our own that are like it. For example, how many times have you met Christians who may be extremely knowledgeable but use their knowledge to tear down others instead of building them up? Or Christians involved in church programs or mission efforts who seem to be more interested in how these activities make them look than in actually loving other people through these actions? How many times have you been that sort of Christian? I know I have.
Paul’s point is not that any of these things are bad. Far from it. It’s good to be knowledgeable. It’s good to be involved in church programs and mission efforts. But when done without love, all of these good things can do more harm than good. Doing these things in love is not an optional add-on. Rather love is essential if any of these sorts of activities are gonna benefit anyone.
And as much as we see through these examples or others that we often fail to do things in love, we also see that God does everything he does in love. This is why John in his letter says that God is love (1Jn 4:8). And in the Old Testament, the line that’s quoted or referenced the most by other Old Testament books is this from Exodus, “The Lord is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). We find this sort of talk all across the scriptures because love is essential to God’s very nature, to the point where we can say that he is love. And so then absolutely everything he does, he does out of his love. And while that may be hard to believe or understand at times, we know it to be true, because God the Son, Jesus, did not consider his own benefit when it was time for him to suffer and die on our behalf. He willingly suffered and died for us because of his love. Love is essential.
Love is an Action
The second thing Paul teaches us is that love is an action. You see, we tend to think of love as primarily a feeling. It’s something that happens to us. We talk about people falling in love the way they might fall into a hole in the ground. It just happens. Instead, Paul teaches us that love is primarily an action. Love is about doing things. In other words, to love someone is not primarily about feeling warm feelings about them, though that’s important too, but love is primarily about acts of love.
Let’s look at how Paul puts it. Notice how he begins by describing what love is, then describes what it is not, then goes back to describing what it is:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
Paul is not describing a feeling here. He doesn’t say that love is like a warm cozy blanket on a chilly day. Rather he points us to actions. And we’re not talking about pretty romantic gestures, like a proposal. The sorts of actions that fit Paul’s description here involve putting others before yourself. They may often involve getting your hands dirty, so to speak. Love looks like a parent changing a diaper for the third time that hour, it may look like stopping to have a conversation with that person you know is struggling, it’ll look different depending on your station and callings in life, but it always involves putting others’ interests above your own.
And let’s not forget that since these verses are describing perfect love, they’re also describing God’s love for us. The perfect love of God looks like him being patient and faithful to his people even though time and time again they go running after other gods. It looks like Jesus, the Son of God becoming a human to suffer all that we suffer, to be beaten and killed for us. Since love is an action, when we say that God loves us, that doesn’t mean God is merely sitting up in heaven feeling warm fuzzies about us. It means that God acts selflessly for our good. His love means that he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and even bloody for us. Love is an action.
Love is Eternal
Finally, love is eternal. As Paul says it, “Love never fails.” In this section of the text (vv. 8–13) Paul talks about how prophecy and tongues and knowledge will all pass away, the very things that the Corinthian Christians were obsessing over. Instead Paul points them to the things that will last: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (v13). We tend to talk a lot about all three of these. These are the sorts of words you might decorate your wall with, written in a flowing, cursive script. But Paul recognizes that of these three, the greatest is love. Well, what’s wrong with faith and hope, we ask. Part of the reason may be that both faith and hope are temporary. Think about it: when God fulfills all of his promises, when we’re given new resurrection bodies, when we’re living in the new creation we won’t need faith or hope. You don’t need faith or trust in things right in front of you. And nobody hopes for something they already have. But we’ll still have love. And I think this is why Paul says that love is the greatest, because love is eternal.
And not only does love last forever, but love has no beginning. Before there were stars and planets, before there were atoms and quarks, before there was time, before there even was a before, there was the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally living in a community of self-giving love before the world began. And if that doesn’t melt your brain, then also think about the fact that love also has no end. When all is said and done, all those who have been redeemed by Jesus will love and be loved together as God’s people in a perfect community of love with the Trinity forever and ever. Love is eternal.
Now as we’ve meditated on what perfect love is, we recognize that we’ve failed to live in harmony with this love. But we also receive the love of God which keeps no record of wrongs, the love that forgives our lovelessness through the dying love of Jesus. We see that all creation is being remade through the love of God, and so in the meantime we strive to love others with the same love that we’ve first received, that love that’s also remaking us along with the rest of creation.