What is Love? (1st Corinthians 13)

1st Corinthians chapter 13. Yes, I know, some of you are now expecting a bride and a groom to walk in front of your eyes. Why else would I want to write about these verses, right? In Israeli weddings, these verses are never being read. Every time I am in a wedding in the United States, however, these verses are being read proudly.

Paul, however, was not talking about wedding ceremonies, but about a serious problem we all face today – lack of love. Do we really love one another? If so, according to what definition?
Think about it, do we even understand what love is?
As humans, we are social and relational beings who were created to live in relationships with one another and be depended on one another, that is why God gave us skills and gifts – so we can rely on one another. But in order to use these gifts correctly for the benefit of others, we are called to love one another.
But, how do we know what love is?

What love is not

Hollywood movies and TV commercials paint a picture of immature teenagers filled with butterflies-like emotions in their stomachs. But we’ve all been there and know that it doesn’t last for very long, and we will all agree that love is much more than just emotions.
The problem is, where can we find the best definition of love? And, what that love looks like? Today I promise to leave with the answers.

Let me first give you some background. Paul originally wrote these verses addressing a specific problem in the Corinth church, which is – the appropriate use of spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church was divided over a variety of issues. One such issue, addressed in chapters 12-14, was the use of spiritual gifts. Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that the purpose of all publicly used gifts is to build up the body of Christ.

The Corinthians were overflowing with spiritual gifts and other skills, but they used them to serve themselves in a selfish way, as if in a contest one against each other who can perform best. That, instead of using the gifts to build one another. It’s like a little child receiving a new gift, not wanting to ever share it with anyone else, and boasting that he got the best gift of them all!

In the beginning of the Chapter, verses 1-3, Paul emphasizes that even if we received the greatest gifts in the world, it’s worth nothing if we don’t share them or use them for the sake of others. Or in other words, if we use them without love. At the end of the chapter Paul points out that the gifts are temporary; love, however, is eternal, verses 11-13.  Between these two points, he describes the characteristics of love, which, in the context of the entire book, directly address what the Corinthian people were lacking. Let’s read verses 4-7 and see that exact list of love is and isn’t:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hope, always perseveres.

Paul says that love is not jealous, arrogant or boastful, but from reading the entire letter, we know the Corinthian Christians certainly were jealous (3:3) and arrogant (4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1) and boastful (1:29; 3:21; 4:7; 5:6). Everything Paul says love is, he has already told the Corinthians they are not. Paul’s description of love is simultaneously a rebuke. It’s like me telling my son “you know son, if you really love your friend, you would want to share your new toy with him.”
As humans, we are social beings. Therefore, every one of us has the need to be loved, appreciated and be in a relationship with others. Humans are incapable of living on their own, with no relationships. That is why people who are in complete solitude tend to go insane and develop mental illnesses. We were created to live in harmony, in a society, and to be depended on one another, which is why each one of us receives a different gift. The question is, how do we use them.

What’s our motive? Is it a selfish one – to boast over them, or is it out of love – for the sake of others?

Think of someone you know who’s very successful and wealthy, yet he keeps it all to himself, spending it all on his luxurious lifestyle just to show off, while never really sharing anything with others. On the other hand, I can think of a good friend, and I am sure you can too, who’s got very little, yet she always shares everything she’s got with others, and always making herself and her gifts available for others. Who’s more successful in God’s eyes? And what’s the point in having so much, but never sharing?

In Western culture, we’ve grown accustomed to expecting quick and immediate satisfaction. We base our understanding of what love is on pop culture such as television and media, which project a very self-centered concept of love, based on emotions that are there to please us. A fake love which barely lasts for the better part of an hour. But what happens when we grow old, wrinkled and sick? Can such a love last? Of course not.

True love is made up of decisions and actions, sacrificing from ourselves for the good of others. The problem is that the more we give and invest in others, the greater our chances of getting hurt by them since both of us in the relationship are far from perfect. That is why any person you ask will testify to having been hurt by someone they have trusted. As a result, many of us build walls around our hearts in order to protect ourselves from any outsiders who may end up hurting us again. But that same wall, which keeps people out, is also the wall imprisoning us within. And as a result, feelings of loneliness and bitterness enter our hearts and take over. You see, there is no such thing as love or a relationship without pain.

When human beings grow up without love, they are broken, they cannot function right, they can even die. Recent studies have shown that the brains of babies who grew up without anyone loving on them, touching them, and hugging them, made their brains grow in a defective way. None of us is perfect, none of us grow with perfect parents and in perfect surroundings. Therefore, none of us know how to love perfectly.
So, we learn how to love by first being loved ourselves. The more we understand the love of God and experience His love, the more we are able to better love others ourselves. Before we can give love, we need to first receive love.

That is a problem that the Corinth church faced, and it’s a problem we all as humans are facing, as none of us is perfect. All that to say, that we must seek for a definition, an example and a role model for what perfect love is, outside of our everyday human experiences and relationships. Can you imagine who am I thinking of? Who was Paul thinking of?

The Corinthians were very talented and very skilled on so many levels. They were also very proud of it. It’s like your New Yorkers or our Tel Avivians. The Corinthians also had great spiritual gifts from God.
Meaning, we can be great preachers, famous evangelists, run successful ministries – but without love as our motive.
Think about what that looks like – you can be a talented and gifted pastor, but at the same time be cranky, rude and impatient. Or, you can be a talented and gifted evangelist, but at the same time hurt people’s feelings and get into fights all the time.
In the eyes of Paul, that was the situation with the Corinthians. They were envious, boastful over others, proud people trusting just themselves, they dishonored one another and didn’t care much for the weak and needy, they were self-seeking, caring mostly for themselves, they were angry all the time showing little grace, they were not easy to forgive but kept a list of each other’s wrongdoings, and they found delight when something evil happened to other members.

These characteristics are the opposite of love, and since God is love, then the Corinthians lived their lives in opposition to God’s character.
Paul wasn’t only describing what love is not, he was also describing what love is. But one must first wonder: ‘Where is Paul drawing his ideas of what love is from anyways?’

What love is

If “God is love”, and Jesus is the highest and best example of living such perfect love, then Paul must have considered the life of Jesus when he explained what love is.
Jesus was very patient.
Jesus was kind.
Jesus forgave.
Jesus took pleasure in the flourishing of truth.
Jesus stood for the weak.
Jesus never gave up.
Jesus cared more for others than for himself.
Jesus never wanted wealth he doesn’t own.
Jesus did not walk proudly, even though he’s the son of God.
Jesus didn’t force himself on others.
Jesus never put himself first.
Jesus did not get angry easily.
Jesus did not remind others of their wrongdoings all the time.
Jesus wasn’t celebrating when others suffered.
Jesus was able to put up with everything.
Jesus always trusted God.
Jesus looked for the best.
Jesus never looked back.
If we want to know what love is, and how to love, then we should carefully examine the life and character of Jesus.

Our motive of love

But it’s not only HOW should we behave, it’s also WHY.
We behave out of love, or, we behave out of fear and pride.

In our society today, what really counts is if you are smart, wise, creative, knowledgeable and able to produce on time. Your character? That’s only secondary – as long as you get the job done. Right?

That was the problem with the Corinthians – they were producing so much, but half of the church was not talking to the other half. Instead, they were gossiping, judging, being critical, boasting and self-absorbed, basically hating one another. Sounds like some of the advertising companies I used to work for, not like what a Church supposed to look like.

Today as well, society teaches us to do good things out of what? Out of FEAR and PRIDE.
Fear – because the police will catch you, or because God will punish you.
Pride – because people will like you if you do good to them, besides, you are better than the all liars and thieves…

Both motives are wrong, as they are not love.
You see, you can have a morally committed life – as a fruit of a supernaturally transformed heart.
You can have a morally committed life – without a supernaturally transformed heart, based on legalism, fear, and pride – just like the Pharisees.
I can give everything I own to charity but do it just to boast to others and get “likes” on Facebook. I can be performing perfect morality, yet my heart is filled with envy, anger, and pride.

Our human nature is such that we associate between “good deeds” and “good people”. Meaning that if someone is doing something good, like keeping a business and a family together, and regularly tithing to a church; we automatically think of him as being good. But as we just saw, many of the Corinthians’ lives were just like that, performing on the outside, but pretty rotten on the inside. As a matter of fact, in verse 1 Paul says that without love, all of our deeds are like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. In the Greek theater, that was the noise that the gods would make. And in the Greek temples, that was the way the priests would worship their gods, just like we see nowadays in the far east. Both sounds might sound exciting and impressive, but actually, it’s an empty noise; it’s only external and superficial, it’s fake – there’s nothing behind it.

We need to ask ourselves – are there areas in our lives that are like the Corinthians’? I can certainly see myself in them in many ways. Paul is challenging us – it’s not enough to behave morally, our motive should be love, and for that, we need to have a transformed heart.

Now, let’s go over these verses once more, but this time, imagine they apply to a relationship you have – Imagine that your friend would always respond to you in a patient and kind way, he would never give up on you. He would care for you more than he cares for himself. He would never rise above you making you feel small and dumb. He would not force his opinion on you. He would not get angry with you easily and will not remind you of all your past mistakes. That this person would not be boastful, arrogant or prideful. He would not be rude to you. He would not humiliate. He will never lie to you, but also show you grace when he tells you the truth. He would trust you and hope for the best for you. He would put up with your nonsense and stay with you through your worst of times, or even when you are sick or dying.
Who wouldn’t want a friend that like that? But what about ourselves – are we able to be that friend to others?
The good news is that we do have a friend like that – Jesus.
The challenging news is now that we know what love it and have an example to follow – we are accepted to be that friends to everyone around us as well.

To summarize, we as Christians have experienced a love that is focused on the welfare of others, rather than insisting on its own, when our Messiah humiliated Himself and gave up His own life on the cross for us – human sinners. Only someone who knows God and whose heart is overflowing with God’s love will be able to imitate that love as well.

While human relationships frequently end because the butterflies are gone, or an accident occurred, or simply because we’re just not as “hot” as we were 20 years ago, true love is not based on what happens in our lives, on our physical appearance, on how much money we have in the bank, on our race, our gender. True love is there to serve everyone, all the time.

Life experience teaches us that those who truly love are capable of sacrificing and giving up what they hold dearest, for the sake of someone else. Like the love of a mother willing to give up her own life in order to save the lives of her children. Or of a man who is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of saving his loved one. History is filled with such moving stories. The greatest of all is the story of God, who revealed Himself to us in the image of the Messiah. He lived with us and expressed His love for us by taking upon Himself the punishment we deserve for our lack of love. He gave His life for our sake. That is a perfect love – such that it should make us grateful to God, and humble toward our fellow human beings. After all, if a perfect God demonstrated his love to us, while we were not deserving, how much more are we expected to show that love to other people, even if they don’t love us back.

To conclude, today we have learned that as Christians, we can be gifted and successful, yet loveless. We can even behave well, but still not out of love. We have learned that God gave us one perfect example of what love is for us to follow – through the life of Christ. And, that any gift or skill we might receive, is first and foremost so we can serve and bless others – and that is our take-home challenge.

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