In a world where love means different things to different people, how can you know when it’s real? What does real love look like? How will we know when we’ve found it?
Some think of “being in love” as an indescribable feeling that we fall in and out of. But the Bible, in its timeless wisdom, gives us a more meaningful and enduring picture. Author Bill Crowder examines 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 to reveal the heart of Christ as the most definitive description of real love. Read on!
When Jackie DeShannon sang, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” a generation sang with her. According to the song, the world doesn’t need any more mountains to climb or rivers to cross. What we need is love, “not just for some, but for everyone.”
The theme of this hit song of the ’60s strikes a chord that resonates in all of us. We buy roses and candy to express our love to our spouse. We raise relief money for communities devastated by natural disasters. We applaud the actions of people like 75-year-old Russell Plaisance, who tried to help a troubled family whose plight had been described in his local paper. Russell brought money, food, and toys to a local motel where the family was staying. Unfortunately, Russell’s kindness was “repaid” a few days later when the father of the family pulled a knife on him and made off with his wallet and car.
Russell’s experience helps explain why the world is in such need of love. If love offered was always returned, there would be enough to go around. But love is not always returned. And sometimes when love is returned, we redefine it to fit our interests. Love means different things to different people.
Even in common conversation, we use the word love to refer to a variety of things. For example, I might say that:
“I love to play golf.”
“I love my computer.”
“I love my wife and children.”
“I love the Liverpool Reds.”
When a word can mean so many different things, it may come to mean nothing at all!
The wisdom of the Bible is clear, however, in its definition of love. Writing to people afflicted by anger and conflict, the apostle Paul said:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1 COR. 13:1–3).
These timeless words were written to people who knew the importance of personal commitment and sacrifice. The Corinthian readers of Paul’s letter understood the value of faith, knowledge, spiritual gifts, strong leaders, and inspiring messages.
But in the process of trying to look after their own interests, the Christ-followers in Corinth lost sight of the goal of their faith and knowledge. They forgot that it is possible to study the Scriptures and yet miss the heart and mind of God. In their desire for fulfillment, they had forgotten what they needed most.
It might seem paradoxical that one of the most beautiful descriptions of love the world has ever known is associated with a city like Corinth. Decadent and heartless, its inhabitants were known for their self-centered relationships. Lives were routinely used and destroyed. On closer look, however, the setting is highly appropriate. If ever a people needed the principles of real love to change their lives, it was the church in Corinth.
Even by today’s standards, the Corinthian Christians had much to overcome. The city’s primary religion was the worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love whose temple employed 1,000 prostitute priestesses.
Wealth posed another challenge. The city’s prime location on the Isthmus of Corinth connecting northern and southern Greece provided a commercial prosperity that fed its moral decline. This lethal combination of materialism mixed with a sexually oriented religion produced a culture based on personal pleasure.
As often happens, the church in Corinth began to reflect the condition of its environment. Paul dealt with a variety of problems in this first letter to this promising yet troubled church:
- division in the family of God (chs.1–3)
- pride and spiritual arrogance (ch.4)
- sexual promiscuity (ch.5)
- lawsuits between believers (ch.6)
- troubled marriages (ch.7)
- abuse of spiritual liberty (chs.8–10)
- abuse of the Lord’s Table (ch.11)
- misuse of spiritual gifts (chs.12,14)
- neglect of doctrinal basics (ch.15)
Paul’s readers needed to understand that there was more to following Christ than the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and power.
All of their eloquent arguments, right doctrine, expressions of faith, and sacrificial giving would actually drive others away if they didn’t rediscover the real meaning of love.
With a series of contrasts in 13:1–3, Paul showed what really happens when our actions, even good actions, are not done with love.
The insight the Corinthians needed is vital for all of us. It’s possible that we too have amassed mountains of information from God and about God without understanding His heart. It’s possible that despite the Spirit living in us, we don’t truly care for the people in our lives. It’s possible that we see how and when others are wrong without seeing that when we ourselves are wrong.
Such insight is not to condemn us. First Corinthians 13 is not meant to knock us down. It is intended to shine a light when we lose our way. It helps us realize that we can’t let failures in our relationships and attitudes ruin us. We can’t let arguments over our own interests reflect poorly on the credibility of our Lord.
People won’t care much about what we know until they see how much we care.
Others are not likely to find our beliefs credible unless they see that we are as concerned about them as we are about ourselves.
Without the love of Christ compelling us, evangelism becomes judgmental. Doctrinal purity becomes pharisaical. Personal commitment becomes self-righteous. Worship grows routine and mindless.
God does not merely call us to higher ground. He offers to change us from the inside out. He does not simply present a higher standard of living. He wants to lift us above our own natural way and do something in us that we could never do for ourselves.
With a bold new look and sound, the Beatles stirred a whole generation to sing “all you need is love.” In a much publicized studio reunion, the Beatles again sang of love. But the lyrics of John Lennon’s song “Real Love” expressed a note of sadness. While describing real love as his goal in life, the song ends with the mournful thought that he was destined “only to be alone.”
Lennon’s lyrics describe the experience not only of his generation but of ours as well. We look for love, think we have found it, but grow disillusioned when the feelings evaporate.
What is love and why does it seem so elusive? If we had lived in the days of the apostle Paul, the Greek language would have helped us clarify the kind of “love” we were looking for.
The Greek word eros was a term used to describe romantic love. Storge described a strong love that protects and makes secure. Phileo represented the brotherly love of family or friendship.
And then there was agape (most often used to speak of God’s love) that described love in its most profound and pure form.
Since Paul chose the word agape for his description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, it appears he wanted us to see that it is the highest kind of divine love that gives lasting meaning to all other expressions of love. Using agape to describe this love from our Creator’s point of view, the apostle wrote:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 COR. 13:4–7).
When we consider the different elements of this lofty love, it becomes clear why agape love is real love—the love we all want and need.
Love “Suffers Long.”
It is patient. The Greek word meant “long-tempered.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words says makrothumia describes “that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation that does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish.” Another commentator defined it as “slow to become resentful.”
Real love does not retaliate or seek to get even. It does not embrace bitterness but patiently endures. It recognizes and deals with the heartaches it faces without becoming vengeful in response.
This quality of love enables a person to do what others say they could never do.
Lionel Richie and Diana Ross sang wistfully of what every young couple uniting in marriage hopes for: “Endless Love.”
That just isn’t possible apart from the love Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13. All these thoughts were reinforced in verse 8 when he drew his argument to a close: “Love never fails.” Because it finds its source and life in God, real love can endure anything.
Paul made it clear that other things are temporary, incomplete, and unreliable. But not love. By the strength and grace of God, it can survive anything. Real love can survive betrayal and distrust. It can survive disappointment and moral failure. It can rise above the insults and envy of people who consider us their enemy. It can survive criminal trial and imprisonment.
Even when the nature of our relationships change due to unfortunate human choices, the love of God can cause us to pray and, where possible, to act in behalf of another person.
It is the love that reflects the heart of Christ and reveals the wonderful change that only He can make in a life—real love.
If the question of your heart is, “Where can I find this real love?” let me share with you some good news. You already are loved. In the most familiar verse in the Bible we are told: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (john 3:16).
To those who believe, Jesus described the scope of God’s love. To His disciples Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (matt. 6:31-33).
It is only when we believe we are loved in this way that we have the security we need to take the risk of loving others.
Have you taken the first step of finding love in the Person and actions of Christ? Have you trusted Him? Have you believed the Bible when it says Christ died for your sins?
That is the starting point.
Acknowledge your sin and your need of Christ, who came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (luke 19:10). It is in Christ that we find the love of God, and it is in Him that we see what it means to live in the kind of love Paul described.
He is the One who calls us not merely to a higher standard but to let Him live His life through us.
Share this understanding of real love with your family, friends, church, coworkers, neighbours and more!
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