What Is Love? Part 1: A Still More Excellent Way

A Still More Excellent Way

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3

I think it would be fascinating to interview random people asking the question “What is love?” Most likely the responses would be vastly varied and perhaps difficult for some to come up with on the spot. I wonder how many professing Christians would give a biblical definition and if they did, how many would truly understand what they just said. “What is love” is an age-old question with a timeless answer.

The Bible thoroughly defines love, explaining everything from its origins, to what it looks like, to how can we receive it and give it. Paul says it is the greatest virtue because it is eternal1. It could be said that the whole Bible is a big love story. Our culture so desperately needs a biblical understanding of love and those of us who are in Christ need to be able to give it to them. To that end, this study series will examine one of the most common passages in the Bible about love: 1 Corinthians 13. 

Where Does Love Come From?

God Is Love

The first question to ask in seeking a biblical understanding of love ought to be “Where did love come from?” Surely it is transcendent (going beyond time and space). We find in the Bible that love comes from God because God is love2. Love isn’t something He created; it is something that He is in His very nature. This can only be so because He is triune: one God but three distinct persons in loving relationship with one another. When God was creating man, He said “Let us create man in our image, after our likeness.”3 He was creating people to reflect His love by living in perfect relationship with Him and one another. Sadly, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, these loving relationships were immediately broken. Because of sin, mankind is separated from God and incapable of loving rightly.

God Loves Us

The good news is that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”4 The world that was so undeserving of His love. The people who were His enemies, who loved Him not. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can know God’s love. Not only can we see it displayed in the most powerful way imaginable, but we can know it. When we repent and believe and become part of God’s family, we know His love.

God Gives Us the Ability to Love

Our response to knowing and experiencing God’s love for us in Christ is to love Him back. When we love Him, we desire to glorify Him which results in obedience to His commands and love for others. We have His Spirit within us so we are able to love selflessly and sacrificially as He has loved us. We are part of His family wherein all other believers are our brothers and sisters, so we must build one another up in love. This is a key way in which we set ourselves apart from the rest of the world.5 We also have the privilege and responsibility to draw unbelievers into this loving relationship with their Creator, so by loving others sacrificially, we are pointing them to Christ.

What is Love?

Love Is an Action…

The Bible is clear that love is not a feeling, but a decision in action. It necessitates serving others like Jesus who came to serve.6 Not only did our King humble himself in service to his subjects, but he died for them. There is no greater love than this!7 John says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”8 He goes on to argue that if we fail to serve those in need, God’s love is not actually in us.9 We must “not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”10 We must be willing to lay aside our own needs and desires for those of others, however radical it seems, remembering that Jesus gave his very life for us.

…That Comes From the Heart

Acts of service in and of themselves do not prove our love, however. They must be motivated by genuine love for God and others. This brings us to our text for this series. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul is addressing the topic of spiritual gifts and how the Corinthian church was wrongly approaching and applying them. They were struggling both with boasting about their own gifts and envying others for theirs. This was completely antithetical to the purpose of spiritual gifts, which is to build up the body of Christ in unity for the glory of God. So, right in the middle of his case, Paul inserts chapter 13 to show them “a still more excellent way,” the way of love.

Paul certainly doesn’t mince words as he begins his treatise. Look at what he says in verses 1-3:

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.”

Without a heart of love behind them, our acts have no lasting value. We are just adding to the noise, pointing those around us to ourselves rather than to God. We gain nothing and those around us only gain that which is fleeting, if anything. And God is not glorified or pleased. Paul wraps up the chapter by explaining how all of these things (spiritual gifts and virtues) will pass away, but love remains forever. Earlier in his letter, Paul says that, in the end, our works will pass through fire, so to speak. We will receive reward or suffer loss based on how they withstand this test.11 What we do for our own glory or out of obligation, however good it looks on the surface, will be burned up in the end. Only what we do in love and for God’s glory will last. So this “more excellent way” is really the only true way.

Am I Walking in Love?

How often do we think our actions are being done out of love for God and others, but upon examination, realize they are actually motivated by love for self? Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 13 to paint a picture of what genuine love looks like. We will be breaking this down and looking at its elements through the rest of this series. This will help us examine our hearts and test our works to see whether or not they are motivated by genuine love. But today, let’s consider God’s amazing love for us that has drawn us into His family and saved us from sin and death. Let’s take a moment to marvel at the fact that when we come to know this love, we are enabled to share this love. And let’s ask Him to guide us in the “still more excellent way” as we seek to love like Christ.

  1. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
  2. See 1 John 4:7-8.
  3. Gen. 1:26
  4. John 3:16
  5. John 13:35
  6. Matt. 20:26-28
  7. John 15:13
  8. 1 John 3:16
  9. see 1 John. 3:17
  10. 1 John 3:18
  11. 1 Cor. 3:10-15

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