Casual readers come to 1 Corinthians 13 and hear comforting words concerning “love.” Hallmark cards import these words for every happy occasion: mother’s day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. They are some of the most beautiful words in human language.
The problem is, these words are as challenging as they are charming. Unlike Hallmark, Paul crafted them to rebuke, not to encourage, high-minded Christians. He shines the spotlight of pure love on us to expose those selfish characteristics we all harbor.
I was in a Paris art district recently. Dozens of the world’s great artists lined the streets with their masterpieces. I don’t know enough about art to appreciate it the way I should. Therefore, I was attracted to an artist in the corner. He didn’t paint priceless pieces at all. He drew caricatures of people, amplifying their imperfections. Paul is doing something similar. He’s painting a picture of perfect love, which showcases our (sometimes ugly) imperfections.
Love is a difficult word to define. Perhaps that is why the Greek language uses several different terms to describe it. “Eros” describes the erotic type of love between a husband and a wife. “Phileo” describes a brotherly type of love.
“Storge” describes a deep familial love that a parent has for child. “Agape” describes the deepest love of all: self-sacrificial love. New Testament writers clearly sought to distinguish agape-love as supreme. It is the least-used word for love in secular Greek literature, but the most-used word for love in the NT.
No commentaries I checked attempted to define “agape-love.” So I’ll take a crack at it.
Agape love is not merely “doing good” or “being kind.” Rather, agape love is a sacrifice of yourself for the sake of another — without expecting anything in return — with the single aim of bringing that person “to” Christ or building up that person “in” Christ.
1 Corinthians 13:7 says something thought-provoking: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This doesn’t mean love is gullible, for we know love rejoices with the truth (13:6). Perfect love, though, presumes a person innocent (or truthful) until proven otherwise. Perfect love gives the benefit of the doubt. Shouldn’t we?
I felt the blunt force of this passage most powerfully when I turned love’s spotlight on myself. It made me blush:
Chip is patient and kind. Chip does not envy or boast. Chip is not arrogant or rude. Chip does not insist on his own way. He is not irritable or resentful.
He does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Chip bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Perhaps you see why I’m blushing. Those who know me recognize this isn’t an accurate description of me at all. But that’s ok. While it doesn’t describe me accurately, it does describe my Lord, Jesus Christ, accurately.
The beauty of perfect love is that Jesus fulfills it, and He is conforming me into His image little-by-little each day. I have a part to play, too, though. It’s part of my sanctification process. “What is your part?” someone asks. Paul answered that for me, “Pursue love” (14:1). Listen to the charming words of love, but don’t forget to take up love’s challenge.
Let’s pursue love, one and all.
Chipley Thornton is pastor of First Baptist Church-Springville.