Have you ever experienced a car that ran out of gas, or a phone that ran out of battery, or seen an athlete who was dehydrated. In all three cases the car, phone or athlete, had many of the traits that were needed to function but they lacked something essential to truly thrive. It is the same with a Christian life that has no love. We read about it in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the troubled church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
It is likely that there were some in this church in Corinth who counted themselves as spiritual because of their religious activity, their spiritual gifts or their service, but Paul is taking it beyond actions and pointing them to the condition of the heart.
Paul is giving extreme examples to make his point clear. Even if one can communicate with many people and even angels, if he doesn’t have love, his words are nothing but useless noise. Even if one has the gift of prophecy and can understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if he has faith to move mountains, but is not loving, all of these gifts are worth nothing. Even if he makes the ultimate sacrifice and gives away his money and even his life, but has not love, he gains nothing.
Doing religious deeds is not the true indicator that a person is walking with Christ. Having the best theology is not the true indicator that a person is walking with Christ. Having love indicates that one is walking with Christ. Some will find this surprising, but we must look to scripture to confirm this truth. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus says these words:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
These people had done many religious works, but the love of God was not in them. They were busy for Christ, but they did not know Christ. Jesus even referred to these religious people as workers of lawlessness. Perhaps they were trying to earn God’s favor by doing good works, but that is not possible. None of us are good enough. All of us have sinned. Because of this, our sin has separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2). Even if our good deeds outnumbered our bad deeds, our sin would still separate us from a holy God. It is only by grace that one can be saved through faith. This is not our own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). On the cross Jesus paid the death penalty for our sin. If we put our trust in Him and turn from our sin, His sacrifice pays for our sin, and we are reconciled to God. Good works without a love for God gains us nothing.
In Revelation 2:2-5, we find another helpful passage. Jesus is speaking to the church in Ephesus:
“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
In the first example, the people were not believers at all. The love of God was not in them. In this second example, the people of the church in Ephesus were Christians. They had been taught by Paul himself. They had endured, tested false prophets, bore the burden of ministry for the name of Christ and had not grown weary. They were a legitimate body of Christ, but Christ had one thing against them. They had lost their first love.
It is a similar idea that Paul is telling the Corinthians. They were doing good deeds, but without a love for God their deeds were worthless. The same applies to us. If we do not have love, even our best religious deeds are worth nothing.
If we are to understand and apply this teaching, we must ask, what is love? In our world today, we use the word “love” in many different ways. We love chocolate. We love a movie. We love football. We love summer. We love the Astros. Many times our world’s understanding of love is nothing more than a short-lived emotion that comes and goes like a breeze at the beach. Others use love in place of lust. It describes a romantic longing, but has nothing to do with sacrificially seeking the ultimate best for the other person. In English the word “love” is very general and vague in its meaning, but in Greek that is not so. The New Testament was written in Greek and is most helpful as we think about the meaning of love.
In Greek there are four different words for “love”: eros, storge, phileo, agape.
The eros type of love is the romantic type of love. Eros was also used when talking about passion or strong emotion. It comes from Eros, the Greek God of love. When we hear the word “love” today in the media or in society, this is usually the meaning to which they are referring. In English, it is linked to the word “erotic”. While “erotic” has a bad connotation in today’s English, this would include a romantic love that does not necessarily have to be sinful. For example, this idea of romantic love was illustrated many times in a holy manner between a husband and his wife in the book of Song of Solomon.
A second word for love that is found in the Greek is storge. A storge love characterizes the love within a family. It is the love a parent has for a child, or the love a brother has for a sister. It describes the love the family members have for one another.
A third Greek word for love is philia. Philia describes a brotherly love with warm affection. It is the word that described a man or woman’s closest and truest friends. It describes hearts and souls that have been bound together by life experience or as kindred spirits.
In the verses in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul didn’t use any of these words. Paul used the Greek word Agape. It is an interesting choice of words. Paul did not use eros, which is driven by passion and desire. He did not use storge, which is driven by family relation. He did not use philia, which is motivated by shared life experiences and kindred spirits. He chose Agape.
Among all of these examples of love, Agape is the least natural and least common. Agape is a love that grants unending goodwill, regardless of how we are treated or how difficult it is. Agape is an unconquerable desire for the ultimate good of another, even if they do not deserve it. Agape is not motivated by warm feelings or because another person has treated us with love. Agape is a selfless, tireless, God-given love that longs for the greatest good of another, even if there is no personal gain or emotional reward in it for us.
Whether it be for God, our best friend or our difficult neighbor. Whether it be our sweet mother or our tyrannical boss. Whether it be the bus driver, the person working at the grocery store, our child’s teacher, or a total stranger we pass on the street, agape is a heart of love that longs for the greatest good of others.
Agape longs for people to be delivered from darkness and brought into the light and is willing to be a tool in God’s hand to bring that about.
Agape is the word that Jesus used in Matthew 5:43-44, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (Agape) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
An Agape love forgives 70 times 7 times. Agape says, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Agape turns the other cheek. Agape goes the extra mile. Agape loves the unlovable, blesses those who persecute you, and never repays evil for evil.
Humanly speaking, Agape is illogical. It does not even make sense. Why would a love like this even exist? But it is the deepest definition of love that God gives us in scripture. It is the selfless willingness to sacrifice for the ultimate good of another.
John 15:13 describes it with these words: “Greater love (Agape) has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
One of the clearest pictures of Agape is found in 1 John 4:7-11:
“Beloved, let us love (Agape) one another, for love (Agape) is from God, and whoever loves (Agapes) has been born of God and knows God. 8Anyone who does not love (Agape) does not know God, because God is love (Agape). 9 In this the love (Agape) of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love (Agape), not that we have loved (Agaped) God but that he loved (Agaped) us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved (Agaped) us, we also ought to love (Agape) one another.”
That was similar to Paul’s message to the Corinthians. It was not a call to just tolerate each other or to love one another when they deserve it. It was a self-denying, sacrificial, willful choice to love one another even when it felt impossible. As they were reminded of the gospel and how God had loved (Agaped) them, they were empowered to love (Agape) others.
When we begin to look at many of the key verses in scripture that talk of love, we begin to see how widespread this idea of Agape is. Matthew 22:37-40 says,
“You shall love (Agape) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love (Agape) your neighbor as yourself. 40On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
All of scripture is based on God’s agape love, and it is through a vertical agape relationship with God that we can agape others around us. There is no other way to have a God-like love except for it coming from God.
So, here is the question. Do we love others with an Agape love? It is often hard to discern, so Paul wrote these next few verses to help the Corinthians know what an agape love will look like. The first paragraph in 1 Corinthians, which we have already read, talked about spiritual gifts. Paul now describes love by talking about spiritual fruit:
4 Love (Agape) is patient and kind; love (Agape) 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; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love (Agape) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love (Agape) never ends.
Some in the church in Corinth might have claimed to have love because they were busy doing religious deeds, but once they were faced with this description it helped them begin to evaluate the condition of their hearts. Many of them had drifted from the agape love that God had intended for them.
This description is convicting and inspiring at the same time. Even if it is not the present description of our lives, it is the hope that we have in Christ. God has given us so much more than rules or rituals. As believers, He has put an agape love in our hearts and the Spirit of Christ in us so that we can carry out His command.
1 John 4:15-19 describes it in this way,
"Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us."
In the original language, this word “confess” was a legal term. It meant to “say the same,” to agree with or to consent. It was used when a man agreed with the statement of another, such as conceding or confessing guilt before a judge or admitting to a guilty plea found by a jury. It came to be used in scripture in a similar manner. To confess sin was to “say the same” about our sin as God does. It was to agree with God about our sin and our guilt. It was also used to confess Jesus as the Son of God. It is agreeing with God that Jesus is truly the Son of God.
When one confesses Jesus as Savior and Lord, God comes to live in her and she in God. God is love. When He comes to live in us, He brings His love with Him. That is how love is perfected in us. It is a work of God. To know God is to know His love. One who says that he or she knows God, but has no love, is a liar. An increasing measure of love is proof that we belong to God. A conviction of our lack of love is a proof that we belong to God. As our love matures and is perfected it also serves as our confidence that we belong to God and that we will be granted grace when we stand before God in judgment.
God’s love now abides in us. We no longer have to be afraid of judgment. Yes, we are guilty, but because we have confessed and turned from our sin and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Now, when God looks at us, He sees the righteousness of Christ. We are now covered by the love of God. Verse 18-19 than tells us this:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love."
God is love. We have been granted the love of God when He came to dwell within us. Now that love is to be perfected in us. It is to be matured in us. It is to be understood and experienced in a greater way. We are to fear or be in awe of God and His holiness and His authority over us, but as children of God we should not fear his wrath or judgment. Even the discipline, that He may need to bring against us at times, is an expression of love.
We could think of it as a child who has a good parent. A parent who selflessly loves and serves his or her children. A parent who has earned the trust of their children, so much so that the children have confidence that even when they get in trouble, that the parent’s reaction will be a just and loving response, regardless of how stern it may need to be.
On the contrary, we find parents who relate selfishly with their children. They punish them with impatience, neglect, humiliation, disgust, anger, intimidation, wrath and judgment. The children never know how the parents are going to respond and they have little confidence that the parent’s response will be motivated by love. The result is that the children live in fear. That is not a picture of the heavenly Father who we serve.
“Perfect love casts out fear.” This will be the truth in our lives as we come to understand the the completeness of God’s grace that covers the full extent of our sin.
In Luke 7:36-47 we find this story:
“36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Like the Pharisee, as long as we see our sin as being small then God’s grace seems small and in turn our love for God will be small. When we humble ourselves and realize and admit how large our sin is, only then will we realize how great God’s grace is and grow in our love for God.
Let us return to the question again. What is the greatest commandment? And Jesus replied,
“You shall love (Agape) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love (Agape) your neighbor as yourself. 40On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40