“Biblical Love—the Overture”


          This week, we are scheduled to move into chapter 13 of First Corinthians otherwise known as “the love chapter.”  These 13 verses are perhaps, aside from John 3:16 the best known and most treasured verses in the entire Bible.  They are a fixture at most wedding services—even many that have no specific Christian orientation whatsoever.  Aside from communicating some of the deepest and most important truths of the Bible, this chapter is written with such great eloquence it is easy to look upon it more as a work of art to be appreciated for its literary beauty than for its heart-searching, sin-exposing truth.  Paul certainly didn’t write it to be admired as a work of art or foolishly romanticized so as to reduce it to a kind of religious love sonnet. 

This is not an ode to love or a hymn celebrating the virtues of Christian love.  It is written to an arrogant church who, in all of their self-centeredness and self-focus and self-absorption—in all of their self-proclaimed spiritual superiority—had managed to almost completely ignore the central ethical teaching of the Bible.  In our expositional study of First Corinthians, we will seek by God’s grace to teach chapter 13 in its context and draw valid implications from the meaning Paul had for his original audience.  However, we must also understand that this chapter and its contents greatly transcend its original setting and treats one of the most superficially understood and least practiced Christian virtues in modern day evangelicalism.  Sadly, the evangelical church has shied away from giving love its proper place of importance because it is so often taught from a syrupy, sentimental and man-centered perspective or perhaps because it is simply too radical—too demanding when it is rightly understood.  When it is understood biblically, agape love is among the most radical, flesh-crucifying truths in the Bible.

Because this chapter transcends the immediate Corinthian context and because it covers such a broad and deep topic, this morning we will by God’s grace seek to provide a larger biblical context for the topic of Christian love.  Unless we first understand the larger biblical context of the teaching of love, we will not have the best lens through which to look at Paul’s treatment here in chapter 13 of First Corinthians.  This morning, I want to take a few steps back and look at the broader biblical issues so that we can, by God’s grace begin to get our arms around the radical nature of biblical love Paul speaks of in this chapter. 

The great danger involved in treating any of the truly foundational and therefore familiar Christian themes is to assume that because it is so familiar we all know and generally practice genuine agape.  Familiarity can easily cause the radical nature of the basic teachings of the Bible to loose their biting edge.  Love can easily become just another word to us and this gradual desensitizing in part happens because we have been influenced by the prevailing culture’s understanding of love that is not only intensely superficial but more than that--deeply twisted.  My prayer as we begin this study on love is that we would by God’s grace do two things.  First, that we would see the radical, counter cultural, flesh-crucifying nature of love and the radical demands it places on those who seek to live by it.  Second, I pray that the Holy Spirit would move among us in such a way that we would more and more show this love for one another.  This morning we hope to look first at the radical primacy of love in the Bible to begin to answer the question, “In what ways is this theme central to Biblical teaching?”  We will look not only at the love we are to have for each other but also God’s love because there is as we will see, an unbreakable connection between the two—you cannot separate them.

Second, we want to see what the Bible teaches about the radical essence of agape love as that is taught in the Bible.  In other words, “what does Paul mean as he repeatedly uses this word “agape” for love?”  To answer those questions and give us a context for this truth we will examine several verses of the Bible, the New Testament in particular.  As we look at the larger Biblical context for this, our hope is to be able to more accurately see how Paul’s words to these Corinthians apply to us.  As we first examine the radical primacy of God’s love we note that agape love is at the true heart of the Christian ethic and living the Christian life.  When I say “agape” I am simply referring to the kind of love Paul deals with in chapter 13, which we will more closely examine in a few minutes.

To say that love is the primary or principal element of Christian ethics is to most people, churched or unchurched, fairly common knowledge.  The reason for making this point is simply to show us how difficult it would be to overstate the importance of love to the Biblical teaching on living the Christian life. Yet, how many of us, as we pray for ourselves and our maturity in Christ are passionate about pursuing love?  How many of us regularly pray that our hearts would be filled with more and more love?  The aim here is to show just how central love is to the believer so that it will not only BE on our radar screens but will in fact be at or near the top of them.  If we are inundated with truths speaking to the radical primacy of love in the Bible, perhaps we will by God’s grace give it the place it belongs in our own lives.

We see the radical primacy of love as the Christian ethic in dozens of places.  Let’s first go to Matthew 22.  One of the teachers of the law asks Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  Jesus, without hesitation says in verse 37, “…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  38This is the great and first commandment.  39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is a testimony to the utter consistency of the Old Testament laws that all of them can be summarized in two statements.  We know the classic summary of Old Testament covenantal law is in the Ten Commandments.  On one tablet God wrote those laws governing our relationship with Him while on the other he wrote five laws controlling how we relate to each other.

Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 says the summary of both the vertical and horizontal requirements of the law is… love.  Love God with every fiber of your being and love your neighbor with the same intentionality you love and care for yourself.  We’ll see later more about the radical nature of that love but for now, note that Jesus looks across the hundreds of ethical teachings from the law and the prophets and says all of this ethic is reducible to love—love God, love your neighbor.  Love is not simply the central ethic taught in the Bible—without love there is NO Biblical ethic!  Jesus names two summary commandments and the verb in both of them is “love.”  Paul says the same thing in Romans 13:10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

 Jesus frequently equates obedience to the law with love.  In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Six verses later he says in 21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…” Just two verses later he repeats it [v.23], “Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word,…” In John’s second epistle he, having learned from His Master he says in verse six, “And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.”   Obedience and love are equated.  All sorts of people walk around with testimonies about their love for God—they sing songs of love for God but Jesus says love for God is not fundamentally seen in what you say or even how you pray but in how you obey.

Given that, it is only consistent that love would be as Francis Schaeffer said, the “mark of the Christian.”  Jesus says that much in John 13:35.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  In First Corinthians 16:14 when Paul is summarizing the teaching of the letter he says, “Let all that you do be done in love.”  One clear implication to that statement is that if the Corinthians had been doing everything in love—the largely corrective tone of this letter would have been dramatically different.  What a great way to pray in the morning--“Lord, let everything I do today be done in love.”  What a revealing way to evaluate a difficult encounter with someone—NOT—"did I say all the right words?" but rather, “was everything I said and did in that encounter rooted in love for that person?”

Sometimes love is so basic, we miss it.  We have a prideful tendency to make everything complicated and nuanced.  And sometimes knowing precisely HOW to love someone CAN BE very nuanced depending on countless variables.  But we would do very well as believers in reflecting on our encounters with people to ask questions like, “Does that person know that I love them?  Did my words and actions communicate that I love them?”  Or, “how can I more clearly communicate my love for that person?”  Now, we must understand that some people have a very superficial understanding of love and will never receive any kind of correction or discipline as love even if it is thoroughly based in love.  That’s another message.

Love is the hallmark of Christian maturity.  The best way you can determine your level of maturity is not in your spiritual gifts or your knowledge of the Bible but in how much of your life and relationships to God and others is permeated with love.  Paul in First Timothy 1:5 says, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”  The NASB says “The GOAL of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”  Paul measured his effectiveness as a teacher NOT by how many people admired him or even liked him but rather—when he left a city like Ephesus—did the church love God and each other more deeply?  On a human level, THAT was the goal of his teaching.  For the teachers out there, is that your goal—to evoke by God’s grace within your students love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith?  A truth-driven, power-packed prayer for a teacher would be, “Oh Lord, grant that as I teach Biblical truth you would work within my students, producing in them love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”  Paul says in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”  Love is the conduit through which faith flows.  Again, we see the comprehensive primacy of love in the Bible and we haven’t even touched the Old Testament.

Next, let’s turn to the radical essence of Biblical love.  This begins to get at the question of just what is agape love as it is taught in the Bible.  First Corinthians 13 gives us a very good idea as to what kind of fruit love produces.  It is patient and kind and humble and so forth.  Here we want to go to the very essence—the inner most core of agape. There are, as many know several different words used in the Old and New Testament for love.  The two main words for love in the New Testament are “agape” and “phileo.”  We need to be careful of making too much of that distinction because “phileo” is sometimes used just like “agape” but there is often a distinction between the two.  “Phileo” is generally used to describe intimate, but not sexual affection—it is literally “brotherly love.” “Agape” is the most common Greek word for love in the New Testament and is best understood simply as God-like love.  This is the kind of love God has.  We mustn’t miss the white-hot intensity of this love God calls us to have, so we’ll examine some texts explaining what God-like love is like.  Our goal here is to keep us from dismissing this kind of love by simply reducing it to a concise theological category like “God-like love.”

In John 15:9 Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”  This is a remarkable statement because in it Jesus says he loves his followers in the same manner that the Father loves Him.  That is—the quality of love present among the Members of the Trinity is the same kind of love Jesus has for his followers.  This is nothing less than inter-Trinitarian love.  There is something wrong with us if we do not marvel at the fact that Jesus would love a finite, created, rebel sinner with the same kind of love He has for His Father, the eternal and infinite holy Creator.  Yet, that is the clear teaching of Scripture.  We must go further because Jesus says in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” 

We mustn’t miss the profound connection between these two verses.  Jesus says that He loves his disciples with the same kind of perfect, inter-Trinitarian love the Father has for Him and he also says that this same inter-Trinitarian love with which He loves us—we must have for one another.  Do you see this?  When we say that agape love is God-like love we are not merely saying that agape love is the kind of love God has for US.  Agape love is the kind of love God has for…GOD!  And if you think this is just too remarkable to be true, hear Jesus’ prayer in John 17:26.  He says about his disciples, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."  Jesus says the love of the Father to the Son would be in us—filling our hearts so that we can give it to each other.  All that to say-- when we speak of agape as God-like love, we are speaking of the highest expression of divine love imaginable—that which is found between the Members of the Trinity.

          The essential quality of that God-like love is seen in many places.  We see it in texts like Romans 5:8.  Paul says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” God displays his love most fully through the giving of His Son.  God-like love is a sacrificial love.  Godlike love is a self-surrendering love irrespective of the personal cost of that surrender.  Ephesians 5:2 makes the point again, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” God’s love and His self-surrender are inextricably linked.  John 3:16 is a classic example here. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  God-like loves compels you to give sacrificially of yourself. 

The depth of the radical, sacrificial nature of this love is expressed in 1 John 4:10.  The apostle says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins”  Notice a few things here in John’s definition of agape.  First, he wants to clarify that this kind of love is NOT seen in any native “love” humans might have for God—its well beyond that natural, fallen sentiment.  Second, notice John not only highlights the cross to illustrate God’s love but one particular aspect of Christ’s atoning work on the cross—propitiation.  A propitiatory sacrifice is given to satisfy anger or wrath and Romans 3:25 teaches that Jesus was the Savior, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” The fullest expression of agape love, as we have seen in these other texts, is the Father’s surrender of His Son at Calvary but here (as John unveils) the deepest of the deep-the most highly concentrated expression of God’s love in the atonement is this--that in the cross the Father did not simply surrender His Son in some sort of general sense…, but this was a surrender to his own holy wrath. 

God’s penalty for sin is his holy wrath poured out on sinners.  When Christ took our place on the cross as our substitute, he made himself subject to the holy wrath of God we deserved but which God instead furiously poured out on his beloved Son.  In Romans 3:25 Paul says one reason for this is so that God’s righteous, sin-punishing justice might be manifest.  John in 1 John 4:10 says He ALSO did this to demonstrate the depths of his love for his children.  He was willing to crush His Son in the fury of His own holy wrath and he did it because He loves!  This is the ultimate expression of His love—the Son-crushing, wrath-pouring propitiation God put forward in the Person of His Son.  How tragically ironic it is that many who are trying to remove this doctrine of propitiation from evangelical theology do so because they believe it reflects poorly on God’s love!  To remove the doctrine of propitiation from the pages of Scripture is to strike at THE inner-most chamber of God’s heart of love—it is to rip the guts out of God’s love.

All that to say that the call of God on us to love one another means that we are to exhibit degrees of THIS ultimately radical form of sacrificial love to one another.  We MUST hear that and by God’s grace see that this profound self-surrendering love is not something we should ever simply assume we are living out because we are nice people.  As we saw from 1 John 4:10 this is NOT a love we can produce in ourselves.  A person who, out of the strength of their will tries to love people this way will enjoy the same success as a man trying to give birth.  Agape is not produced by trying harder any more than salvation is—this is a gift of God—from within the inner circle of the Trinity.  We work in cooperation with this gift but we must be clear, when a person displays this kind of love, they are living out something that is patently miraculous.  We see this in several places as well. 

In Galatians 5:22 Paul reminds us, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,”  Love, along with the other fruit of the Spirit comes from the Holy Spirit—it is His fruit produced in us, not something we can work up by the strength of our will.  In Romans 15:30 Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf,”   This love is of or from the Spirit of God—it is not native to us.   We see this again in First John chapter four.  The apostle says beginning in verse seven, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  After the call for us to love each other John makes several statements about love.  First, love is from God—again, it is native to Him, not us. 

We see that the reason it is native to Him is because God IS love—that is—it is God’s essential nature to love.  Human beings breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide because it is part of our nature to do so.  God loves in this self-surrendering way because it is his essential nature to do so.  But he also says, “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Being born of God means to be miraculously regenerated by the Holy Spirit and indwelt by the life giving Holy Spirit.  Those who have the Spirit through the new birth can and will love this way because God—whose essential nature it is to love--is living within them and has placed within them HIS new nature.  To love Biblically is to surrender ourselves to others in ways that express God’s supernatural love most vividly seen in the pouring out of His wrath on Jesus at Calvary.

That I pray will serve as a broad introduction to First Corinthians chapter 13.  But for today, what is God saying to you by way of application?  Here are some things to think about in light of these earth-shakingly important truths.  How central is love in your life and theology? It won’t do to evade the issue of the centrality of God’s love by appealing to God’s glory--“I hunger for His glory.  Good.  How better to discover and display His glory than to seek to reflect agape, which John says is God’s essential nature?  It is certainly true in the church today far too many people today have a man-centered theology that focuses on God’s love in a distorted way, obscuring His glory by making God’s love that which makes much of me.  But the temptation for those who rightly place God’s glory in the preeminent position is, in their passion for God’s glory, they can miss the fact that the most vivid way for them to glorify God is to reflect God’s essential nature—his self-surrendering love in all our relationships.  If God is love then to be God-centered is in some way to be love-centered assuming love is understood Biblically.  How central is love in your petitions and pleadings before God, and in your confession of sin to God? “God, forgive me for my failure to love her as you do.”

Do you evaluate or measure your level of spiritual maturity as a believer by the degree to which you show to others, especially in the church, this God-like, self-surrendering kind of love?  There is no better measure, period.  Many measure their maturity by their obedience and that is certainly appropriate but it is easy for our flesh to divorce obedience from love and when we do that we become Pharisees.  I would suggest it is often better to evaluate your maturity in Christ by what is behind God-honoring obedience.  That is—this self-surrendering, God-like love.  Is THIS what you have for God and for others?  The answer to that question will give you perhaps the best picture of where you are with Jesus.  May God give us the grace in the weeks to come to see God’s love and be changed for His glory so that we may individually and as a church would more and more display it.


Page last modified on 10/09/2005

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