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In the early seventeenth century, Archbishop Ussher of Ireland desired to visit the home of a Presbyterian minister to see whether what he had heard about the man’s personal godliness was true. Ussher arrived at the pastor’s home disguised as a poor beggar. He was welcomed inside, where the wife was catechizing the household. She asked the unexpected visitor how many commandments there were. When he answered, “Eleven,” she thought him a very ignorant man and asked him nothing more, but she fed him and sent him to bed.
The minister discovered Ussher’s ruse later that night and asked him to preach the next morning. So Ussher, now cleaned up and dressed so that the wife did not recognize him, entered the pulpit. He preached on what he said might be considered “the eleventh commandment,” namely, John 13:34: “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another” (KJV here and throughout). The minister’s wife was astonished that the beggar had turned into a preacher, and that she had misjudged him so terribly and not shown him more love.
What is love? How do you know if you are keeping Christ’s commandment to love your Christian brothers and sisters? How does a loving person treat others? Popular media often present love as feelings of attraction and pleasure, but such feelings rise and fall like mercury in a thermometer. We need love that is less like a thermometer and more like a thermostat — controlling our reactions rather than being controlled by them.
Others speak of love as non-judgmental, unconditional acceptance, derived from the psychological concept of unconditional positive regard. But this overly-simplistic approach is confusing and leaves us powerless in the face of malice and evil. How do you unconditionally and non-judgmentally accept a terrorist or a serial killer?
Many Christians today believe that the key Greek words for love in the New Testament, agapē and the related verb agapaō, denote not a feeling but an act of the will to do good to others at our own expense. But this idea cannot be based on the different words for love in the Greek, since the agapē word-group can mean all sorts of things in different contexts. Furthermore, an emotionless concept of love leaves us uncertain what to do with our feelings. It also fails to grapple with the deep, often hidden motivations that drive our choices.
So where can we find a true description of love? The Apostle Paul has given us an excellent description of it in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7. Paul extols love (KJV: “charity,” from the Latin caritas) as “a more excellent way” (12:31) — superior to the spiritual gifts (chap.12) and absolutely necessary for a life of any value when weighed in the scales of God (13:1–3). Verses 4–7 display the beauty of love’s attributes and activities. They are not so much a definition of love’s essence as a description of love’s fruits; they show us how love motivates certain actions or behaviors and militates against others.
The description begins with patience and ends with endurance (vv. 4, 7). Love shows its true colors in how it responds to trials, suffering, and evil. The greatest display of love is Christ’s crucifixion. Paul wrote in Romans 5:8: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The Paul who said that he knew nothing but “Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) clearly thought much about Christ’s love. John highlights the love that lay at the root of Christ’s willingness to die for us when he says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Love shows its excellence in various ways. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Love is an active principle” (Works 8:301). Positively, love exercises patience and shows kindness (1 Cor. 13:4). Love just keeps doing good. To serve the needs of others and glorify God, a loving person will persevere even in the face of unpleasantness or difficulties. Love wills to pay back pain with kindness, returning good for evil. Christian love reflects the image of God, the One who is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Ex. 34:6).
Negatively, love does not envy (1 Cor. 13:4). Love restrains selfish jealousy because it has learned to say no to self and delights to see others prosper. It does not boast and is not puffed up (v. 4). These qualities show that love is a humble virtue. Love inspires a preoccupation with God and other people, and it undercuts a preoccupation with ourselves. Jonathan Edwards wrote that “everyone who loves God loves him as God. . . . If we love God as infinitely superior to us, then love is exercised in us as infinite inferiors and therefore is an humble love” (Works 8:245).
Love does not behave indecently (1 Cor. 13:5). The Greek verb translated “to behave indecently” means to act in defiance of standards, resulting in disgrace. Love inspires a person to do what is honorable before God and men (Rom. 12:17b; 2 Cor. 8:21). This statement disqualifies any antinomian view of love; love extends to God’s law (Ps. 119:97) and strives to fulfill it (Rom. 13:8–10).
Love does not seek personal advancement (1 Cor. 13:5), but it impels us to seek God’s glory and our neighbor’s good. Love turns us into servants (Phil. 2). It is not irritable and does not reckon the wrong (v. 5). To be irritable is to be easily provoked to anger (Acts 17:16), but love controls anger. To forgive is not to keep accounts of wrongs — love delights not to count people’s sins against them (Rom. 4; 2 Cor. 5:19).
Love does not rejoice in injustice, but it rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). Love is jubilant whenever it encounters righteousness and faithfulness. Yet love grieves over news that someone has fallen into sin and paid a heavy price for it; thus, love does not regard such news as a tasty morsel for gossip. Such love does good, even to enemies.
Verse 6 rebukes the idol of relativistic tolerance that often passes for love in our culture; sincere love includes hatred for evil (Rom. 12:9). The greatest display of God’s love was also the greatest demonstration of His righteousness, as His Son satisfied God’s justice by bearing the penalty for our sins (3:25–26). So 1 Corinthians 13:6 corrects the popular Christian notion that love has nothing to do with feelings. Love has strong feelings against sin and for righteousness.
In the last four actions or habits attributed to love (v. 7), the repeated “all” should not be read as an absolute or unqualified universal. These verses must be read in the context of the New Testament. When Paul uses the word all, he means, respectively, that love bears all burdens that we must bear as crosses, believes all things that we ought to believe as Christians, hopes for all things that we are to look for according to God’s promise, and endures all the trials we must undergo for Christ’s sake. Thus, love inspires these four actions in a consistent fashion.
Love possesses the strength to persevere in the midst of difficulty; in every circumstance, love goes on believing and hoping. The triad of faith, hope, and love appears many times in Scripture. As Christians love God, their hearts rejoice in His faithful love for them, which confirms their faith and keeps their hopes alive. Edwards said that love is “the life and soul of a practical faith,” that which gives faith its vitality and productivity (Works 8:139, 330–31). Love is “the most essential ingredient in faith and hope” (8:327).
Here we find Paul’s description of love’s persistent activity in a sinful and suffering world. Love is a verb. Yet love must be more than outward actions; its essence resides in the heart’s motives. What drives it? It cannot be selfish ambition, for love is not arrogant and does not seek its own things. Neither can love be powered by an immediate pleasure in the one beloved; otherwise, love would not be patient and kind with fallen people.
What, then, drives love? The text gives us two clues. Its joy is in truth, that is, the righteousness and faithfulness of God. Thus, love rejoices in God’s love as revealed in Christ. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Its perseverance is intertwined with faith and hope, that is, in looking to Christ and trusting in God’s Word. Edwards said that love arises from a “sight or sense of God’s excellency” (Works 8:333). Therefore, we conclude that love is God-originated, God-focused, and God-driven. “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). We are never deeper in communion with God than when we walk in authentic love. How beautiful, then, are the attributes and activities of love.