Our studies in Philemon this month have emphasized love as the foundation of Christian ethics. Paul commends Philemon’s love as it was demonstrated in his assistance to the saints in Colossae (vv. 5, 7). The apostle appeals for reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon out of love for them both (vv. 8–10). Knowing Philemon’s love and overall Christian character, Paul also expresses confidence that Philemon will go beyond basic forgiveness and free Onesimus (v. 21).
Jesus Himself says that love for God and neighbor are the most important commandments — on them the Law and the Prophets depend (Matt. 22:40). Consequently, Paul’s stress on love’s centrality in his letter to Philemon is not strange. So that we might understand more fully the true meaning of love, we will now take a break from the Prison Epistles for a few days and work through Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Love.
Any study of the biblical view of love must consider Paul’s extensive exposition of the virtue in 1 Corinthians 13. This passage is a favorite text for many people and one of the most frequently read passages at weddings. Our familiarity with its contents, however, can blind us to how short we fall of this standard for love if we are not careful. The kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is based on the love of our Creator Himself, which is never anything other than perfect. God’s love is always kind, patient, truthful, and so forth, manifesting every quality Paul ascribes to love in his epistle to the Corinthians. Moreover, the love of God demonstrates these characteristics flawlessly, while our attempts to love in this manner never measure up.
Why is our love imperfect? One reason is that we do not make love the priority it should be. Though it is the chief of all Christian virtues, we often ignore love and use our gifts destructively in the body of Christ, just like the Corinthians did (chaps. 12–14). Jealousy consumes us, and we continually put ourselves ahead of others.
First Corinthians 13:1–3 tells us that though we might be extraordinarily gifted and have great theological understanding, we gain nothing if we have not love. Using the gifts of God without showing love to others only proves that we have forgotten the great Gift-giver, who is pure love (1 John 4:8). In so doing, all we have done is replace the living God with a dead idol.