What is LOVE? (1st Cor 13)

What is love anyway? TV adverts and Hollywood movies paint a fabricated picture of sexy young men and women all euphoric with butterflies in the stomach. But what happens when we get old? When we get wrinkly and ill? Will such a love last? Obviously not.

We all know those exciting feelings, but it’s not the same as love. Feelings don’t last forever, but love is much more than a feeling. Love is a decision. Love is a sacrifice. Love is an action and a motivation.

Love is essential to life

When a person grows up without love they suffer developmental problems and may even die. Recent research shows that the brains of neglected babies who haven’t been loved or hugged developed abnormally. None of us are perfect, and none of us had perfect parents or the perfect environment. So none of us experienced perfect love. Therefore, none of us knows how to love perfectly so we need to find out what real love is in something beyond our daily experience.

We are social animals, and we all need to have a sense of belonging and to be in relationships with others. Humans cannot live completely alone and that’s why those in total isolation tend to go crazy and develop mental problems. We’re created to live in harmony and synergy with society. That is to say, dependent on each other. That’s the reason God didn’t create us to be self-sufficient but each one has talents and abilities, different qualities and diverse skills in order to complement one another.

How we can love others

Though not self-sufficient, we are unique. The problem is that often we use our gifts and talents selfishly to promote ourselves. as if life is a competition that no one wants to admit exists. Who’s got the best bank balance? The biggest house? The newest car? That’s the winner! We are allowed to enjoy our gifts, our talents and skills but only in a secondary way. The New Testament tells us that first of all they are supposed to help us to love others. We are to build, bless and serve others using those gifts and talents.

1 Corinthians 13 is perhaps the most well-known chapter in the New Testament. In the previous chapter, chapter 12, Paul talks about spiritual gifts, about their purpose and importance. But chapter 12 ends with the statement that there’s something even more important:

“And I will show you a still more excellent way…”

Chapter 13 is dedicated to this excellent way: LOVE. The problem was that the church in Corinth had people with many spiritual gifts, but they were using them for their own glory rather than for others. Even as they aspired to have the gifts in practice, one half didn’t talk to the other! Instead there was gossip, judgement, pride and self-absorption. Basically, the opposite of loving each other. Not at all the way God’s children are supposed to behave. You may have impressive gifts and talents and be leading a large crowd, but at the same time lacking in love, angry, argumentative, and a gossip, impatient, arrogant and racist. That was also the Corinthians’ problem. People were blessed with gifts and talents but didn’t really love one another. So they used these blessings selfishly and egotistically.

Let’s look at the first 8 verses of chapter 13, the “love” chapter:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

Paul’s definition of love here is based on the only One capable of perfect love: On Jesus, the Messiah. The better we come to understand the expression of God’s love through Messiah the better we can love others. Before we can give love to others, we first need to experience that love.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Paul uses theoretical and hyperbolic language saying if he could speak not only using human words, but also in a heavenly language but has no love, his impressive ability is like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. In other words, impressive sounds but without any purpose or real benefit. At the time Paul was writing, gongs were used in idol worship. In ceremonies, priests would hit a “gong” making a very impressive noise as if they were opening a way to the gods. But in reality, it did nothing other than make a noise. The “gods” were not really there.

In the previous chapter, Paul reminds the Corinthian believers: “When you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols.” In Roman theatres they used to use gongs to make a particularly dramatic noise representing the wrath of the gods. But again, after the noise – nothing.

Paul’s point here is that even if you’re a superstar who can speak 100 languages but you don’t have love, you’re not contributing anything to anyone. Your abilities are worthless – just noise that doesn’t accomplish anything.

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

Let’s say somehow you became the cleverest person on the planet knowing all there is to know and winning every Nobel prize there is… It’s worth nothing in God’s eyes if you don’t have love. Without love, you would use your knowledge to promote yourself. But with love, you would use that knowledge to serve others. The knowledge itself doesn’t change but the motivation does. The Corinthians thought that the more faith someone had the greater they were in God’s kingdom. But there are those whose “faith” is actually coming from pride, or even foolishness. Those willing to jump from a roof if their religious leader told them to. Or those who martyr themselves like suicide bombers who act in blind “faith”. So Paul challenges the Corinthians that faith without love is useless. There must be synergy between faith and love.

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

“Give away what I have” in Greek relates specifically to food that is divided into tiny portions and given to as many people as possible. ‘Good deeds’ like this are done selfishly, just to impress others. Much like giving a penny to lots of homeless people just to put a selfie on Instagram of you giving money to the poor. I can give away all I have but with a selfish motive just to feed my ego.

And this even applies when we’re talking about the ultimate good deed: self-sacrifice. In the 1st century, Nero forced believers to renounce their faith, to deny the God of Israel and His Messiah, or face being burned alive or crucified. To be ready to die for your faith, being willing to be burned at the stake is a very noble thing. But even such noble deeds such as self-sacrifice can come from a motivation of pride rather than love. For example, in the same era, Greeks who believed in dualism considered physical suffering to be a way to transcendence: the more you suffered, the more your soul is refined. And death? It brings the ultimate freedom for the soul. So they weren’t afraid to die the opposite but for selfish and egotistical reasons.

According to Paul, your noblest deeds if not done out of love will only be glorifying yourself and will therefore be ineffective.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.”

“Love is patient”: In Hebrew the word is linked to suffering, being willing to suffer. Love is able to suffer for others and patience is revealed best in the suffering of the Messiah for our sin. Likewise, we should be ready to suffer for others, even if we don’t get a monument in our name for it.

“Love is kind.”

Think of someone you know who is very rich, but they keep all their money to themselves, blowing it all ostentatiously just to show off. On the other hand, I can think of a friend, as I’m sure you can too, who just has a little, but shares it all with others, and whenever there’s a need, she always gives her time to help others. Kindness and generosity are best revealed in Jesus, who though innocent, was ready to die in our place and to give his life to give us the most amazing gift of all – eternal life. And so, we too need to be generous with our resources, with our time, our energy and relationships with others.

“Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.”

Envy brings division. Boastfulness demands attention at the expense of others. Arrogance or pride thinks it’s better and more important than others. If you read the letter to the Corinthians, you’ll see many hadn’t stopped envying or boasting about their achievements or trying to outdo each other as if they were in a competition. All of this is the opposite of love. When Paul teaches the Corinthians about what love is NOT, he’s actually saying in the same breath what they are lacking. This is a rebuke to the Corinthians, and if we’re honest, to all of us. Humility represents Kingdom values. Envy, boasting and arrogance always go against humility. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)

“It is not rude. Doesn’t insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful.”

Rude behavior makes others uncomfortable, even humiliating them. But love does the opposite. Love seeks to honor others, and is concerned with their well-being. To insist on your own way is to be first in line for food, piling as much on your plate as you can, not caring if there’s enough for others. Or taking a seat on the bus when there’s a disabled or elderly person who needs it.

When Jesus gave his life for us he wasn’t thinking of himself but of the good of others. In the same way, we should make the good of others our top priority. Imagine for a moment how the world would be, if we all thought of each other before thinking about ourselves. “Not irritable” means that it’s really hard to make them angry. Some get mad over one wrong word but love doesn’t anger easily. Jesus, who experienced so much injustice and was attacked from every angle was not easily angered, but knew how to deal with each situation in the best, most considered way possible. Truth is, he didn’t get mad with sinners but with corrupt, religious hypocrites who brought dishonor to God’s name.

To be resentful is to hold grudges against others. There are those who hold every mistake against you, all the blunders of your past. But love doesn’t do that. Love forgives and lets go. God doesn’t bring up our sins, but through Messiah, he forgives completely. “In Messiah, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor 5:19).

“Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”

Love isn’t happy when someone fails or when bad things happen even to their enemies. “Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls, or be glad when he stumbles.” (Prov 24:17)  Love is glad when truth comes out. When someone receives the truth and believes it and holds on to it. By the way, real love is not like New Age niceness where anything goes, even capitulating to stuff that’s not true. Real love speaks the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. Like the prophets in the Bible, far from being a damp dishcloth, Jesus also stood his ground against the leaders and the corrupt religious hypocrites and didn’t pull his punches. In the same way, we need not to rejoice when bad things happen even to people who hate us, but to rejoice in the truth and in those who bring out the truth. So we need to know how to stand for truth and not buckle when faced with falsehood out of some soft, fake version of “love”.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

“Love bears all things” means that love can cope with challenges and stay strong in any situation, just as the Messiah agreed to take the death penalty on himself, even though it should have fallen on us. “Love believes, hopes and endures all” means that in every situation love keeps believing. Real love doesn’t lose faith but is able to suffer even the worst situations, and keep hope alive. It doesn’t look back like Lot’s wife but keeps looking forward full of hope and faith. When Jesus was faced with the cross and the situation seemed utterly lost, the love of God never lost faith or hope but beat death with the resurrection of the Messiah from the dead. In the same way, we need to stand strong in every storm that comes in life even when facing death. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matt 10:28)

“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.”

Love never ends means it won’t wither, expire, or give up. We live in a world where every product has an expiry date but not love. Love never expires. It stays valid for eternity. The death of the righteous One 2000 years ago is still providing atonement for multitudes. Your expressions of love to others have a disproportionate “butterfly effect”. Eitan, for example, wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for people who helped his grandmother to escape from the Nazi concentration camps.

Paul states that in contrast to the eternal nature of love, prophecy, tongues and knowledge have a temporary role that will come to an end. When the sun shines, there’s no need for electric lights.

Best friend ever

Let’s look at the verses again in summary, but this time, imagine if they were true in your relationships. Imagine that your friend, partner or family member always responds to you in this loving way: With patience, kindness, never giving up, caring for you more than themselves, never acting superior to you or making you feel small or stupid. Not forcing their opinions on you, not irritable or bringing up the mistakes of the past. Not proud, arrogant or conceited… Never rude to you or humiliating you. They’re not happy when you’re suffering, or annoyed by your idiosyncrasies, but are always caring for you, putting you first. They would never lie to you, and are full of grace when speaking the truth. They’d trust you, hope for the best for you; they’d stick with you in hard times, and when you were ill, look after you.

We all have a friend like this: Jesus.

The question is, will we try to follow his example and become loving friends like this for others? And by the way, this chapter on love is not only relevant in relation to others but also in the way we treat ourselves. We also need to know how to forgive ourselves, to be patient with ourselves, to believe in ourselves, let go of past mistakes and move on. Love is not just the right behaviour but also the reasons behind it. That is to say, our motivation. Our behaviour is motivated by either love, fear, or pride. Fear – that we’ll be caught out and thinking God will punish us just like a kid who behaves well purely out of fear of his parents punishing him. Pride – hoping others will praise us like someone giving pennies to a beggar just to boast on social media about it so everyone will know how nice he is. These wrong motivations are not love.

We can be super gifted and talented but lacking love. We can even be moral and holy but with the wrong motivations. We can live a moral life either as a result of a supernatural transformation of a heart changed by grace, or as a result of legalism that comes from pride and religious fear like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees saw moralism as a matter of external perfection, but their hearts were rotten inside, full of envy, anger, robbery and pride. They might have behaved in a religious way and had a high position in society, but it doesn’t mean there’s love.

To finish, we learned that while falling in love might be about feelings, real love is a decision to sacrifice for others: a decision that expresses itself in action. And although relationships often end because the “butterflies” have gone from the stomach or an accident happens or we’re just not as good-looking as we once were, true love is not based on circumstances, on external appearances, on our bank accounts, our ethnicity, or our gender. Real love is always ready to serve anyone.

The most far-reaching expression of love is sacrifice for others.

Sacrifice of resources, time, energy, and ultimately, our lives. Much as a mother is ready to sacrifice her life to save her children or a man for his beloved. History is full of impressive stories like this but without a doubt, the most wonderful story is the story of God who revealed himself to us in the Messiah. He lived with us, gave everything for us and died for us. And now, we need to love others in this way. We can sacrifice our time, resources, abilities, our gifts and our energy for the benefit of others.

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

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