With Valentine's Day soon upon us, I thought I would share the following article about love from Reverend Kyle Norman on Crosswalk.com...
Familiarity can rob us of delight. Becoming overly comfortable with an object, location, or saying potentially causes us to ignore its uniqueness or relevance. It is like a song on the radio; what once was catchy and meaningful is rendered dull and meaningless when listened to too often. The same thing can happen with the truths of scripture. The popularity of certain verses can, if left unchecked, cause us to miss the full impact of God’s Word on our lives.
This is no truer than in the case of 1st Corinthians 13. Here, Paul’s words about the nature of love have long been heralded as one of the most profound articulations on love ever written. Furthermore, and it has become the go-to passage for wedding ceremonies and marriage vows. It is on posters, t-shirts, and countless memes. When Christians think of romance, it is a good bet that somewhere along the way, these words will be referred to.
There is only one problem with this: Paul is not writing about romance! This passage does not describe the relationship between husbands and wives, boyfriends, or girlfriends. Paul is not attempting to describe the institution of marriage. His statements about love simply do not refer to sentimental expressions of fondness, or squishy feelings of puppy-like attraction. To hear this verse in this way is to mishear Paul’s call for our Christian lives. Frankly, what Paul says is a lot more profound, and a whole lot more radical.
To understand exactly what Paul is getting at, and how important this word is for our lives today, we need to understand three things about the love described in 1 Corinthians 13.
1. Love Is about Living the Spirit-Filled Life
1 Corinthians 13 follows directly on the heels of chapter 12. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is important to remember. The two chapters must be read together. This is how Paul expected his letter to be read. In chapter 12, after a lengthy discussion on spiritual gifts, Paul advises the Corinthians to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” 'How does one do so?', one might ask. Luckily, Paul answers that question in the next statement: “I will show you the most excellent way” (12:31). This “most excellent way” (of living the Spirit-filled life) is the way of love.
Love is how Christians live out their relationship with Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Love expresses how the Christian life has been transformed. Spiritual gifts, such as tongues, prophesy, or words of knowledge, are not exercised to the bolstering of the spiritual ego. They are to be manifestations of love. If our workings of spiritual gifts do not lead others, or ourselves, into a deeper experience of Christian love, then we have missed the way of Jesus.
The same is true for Christian ministry. In chapter 12 Paul puts forward his image of the Christian community as a body. Just as a body is made up of many parts, so too the Christian community involves a multitude of people, all working together for a common purpose. Each component of the community is honored and uplifted. This is true whether one is a teacher, a preacher, or a worker of miracles. Again, the question comes: How do we know that one is engaging in ministry in the way of Christ? The answer is love.
For Paul, the logic is clear. Paul highlights various examples of spiritual gifting and then roots them in the context of the Christian community. He then discusses how each ministry works together for the good of the whole. Finally, everything holds together through the empowering work of love. Love transforms us. Love flows through us. Love is fundamental to living a Spirit-filled life. If we don't have love, can we really say we have the Spirit?
2. Love Is Rooted in Jesus
Recognizing this priority of love in our spiritual lives does not yet answer the question of how we define 'love.' The contemporary usage of this word can be far-reaching. After all, we use the same word to describe our devotion for the Lord and our fondness for bacon-jam! Surely the two are not equal.
The word Paul uses throughout 1 Corinthians 13 is the Greek word agape. While our contemporary usage of 'love' can be quite broad, agape was narrowly defined. It was not used for love of spouse or partner, nor did it express the camaraderie of friendship. These expressions of affection were taken up by different words: Eros, for romantic or intimate love; and Phileo, for familial love. Agape is a unique type of love. The word describes the selfless, sacrificial manner of love, seen primarily in God’s love toward humanity. It is best to understand agape as the love that finds its source in the presence of God. In fact, John the Apostle literally writes, “God is Agape” (1 John 4:8). Ultimately, this divine, sacrificial love of God is seen in the incarnation. Jesus declares this very reality when he says, “For God so agape-ed the world that he gave his one and only son” (John 3:16). Jesus is the incarnation of agape.
Love is not a principle. Love is not a philosophy. Love, in this context, is certainly not an emotion. In the Christian understanding, Love is a person – and that person is Jesus. When God incarnated himself in human flesh, Love walked upon the earth. It was Love that was born in a manger; Love was crucified on the cross. The use of the word agape, therefore, expresses the reality of God’s presence amid human life.
Agape, describes God’s unyielding, unstoppable, self-sacrificing love toward the world, seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, we cannot understand the call to love without rooting ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Without Jesus in our lives, the call to love expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 is nonsensical. When Paul writes about love he is speaking about a way of life that is empowered by the Spirit and connected to Jesus.
3. Love Embraces Community
We can now begin tackling what exactly Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is writing about the way Christians live in the world. He is not speaking about the romance of two lovebirds but of the witness of the Christian community. Love speaks to how Christians express Christ’s love to the world. Christians ought to agape others, as Christ has agape-ed us (John 13:34).
While this may appear simple enough, these words are packed with meaning. To be patient and kind, for example, is to act in the same manner as Christ. Our patience toward one another is ultimately rooted in Christ’s eternal patience toward us. The kindness we receive in Jesus must be mirrored in the kindness we share with others. To do otherwise is to undercut the flow of the Spirit within us.
When Christians are rude or aggressive, they are negating the very life to which Christ calls them. Furthermore, the call to love others demands that we recognize that we are not the only ones that Christ loves. We simply cannot be dismissive of someone to whom Christ’s love is directed. After all, if Christ is patient, kind, and forgiving toward others (as he is towards us), what right do we have to be anything different?
This is the fundamental principle that undergirds this entire passage. Christians are to express toward others the very love that Christ expresses to us. We cannot accept Christ’s offer of agape love and refuse to express that outwards. To do so would be the highest form of insult – to Christ and to our neighbor. As God expressed God’s love toward us so too must we express the love outwards to one another.
A Radical Word
Because we know this passage so well, we tend to forget how profound this is. Paul’s words here are as life-changing today as they were in the first-century world. In an age known for its 'cancel-culture,' the call to be patient and kind is radically transformative. Christ calls us to express love to those outside our circles of friendship and communion. Make no mistake, Christ’s love is to be expressed to the very people we would otherwise choose to ignore. If we find ourselves hating another group of people, for any reason, we can be sure that it is to them that Christ’s love is to be expressed. Echoing Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, Christians are called to express agape love to the very people we may be tempted to disregard, even reject. It is to those who differ from us, who may even be opposed to us, we are called to be patient rather than dismissive. Instead of being rude, opinionated, or aggressive, Christ calls us to kindness. Pride, boastfulness, arrogance, or vanity destroys the work of Christ’s love in our lives. There is no place for these things in the loving heart of the Christian.
Of course, we all have people we dislike. We all have people we would rather not associate ourselves with. This occurs as much for those within the church as those outside the church. Whether our separations are based on political, social, or theological divides, we all have people that we see as “the other.” This is a part of the fallen nature of humanity. Christ, however, empowers us to move beyond this. Christ calls us to love those whom he loves, to serve those whom he serves, and to be as radical in our expressions of this love as he was. If Christians would but fully embrace the spirit-filled, Jesus focused way of agape love, we could, quite literally, change the world.