Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

The Foundation of Christian Community: Biblical Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Teaching t21896


In 1Cor.11-14, Paul addresses three different aspects of Christian community. So far, he has addressed two important aspects of Christian community—meeting together (chapter 11) and spiritual gifts (chapter 12). Now in chapter 13, he reveals the foundation—biblical love. We’re going to explore three things about biblical love this morning: its supreme importance, its distinctive features, and how to develop it.

Its supreme importance

Paul bookends this chapter by emphasizing the supreme importance of having a life that is characterized by biblical love. He gives two reasons:

Read 13:1-3. Paul is saying that being able to love is supremely important because it is the definition of a successful spiritual life: “No matter how spiritually gifted I am, no matter how much spiritual knowledge I have, no matter how much I give up, if I my life is not characterized by love, it is hollow, a zero, totally unprofitable.”

We could add to this: “No matter how much education I get, no matter how much money I make, no matter how physically attractive I am, no matter how popular I am, no matter how much entertainment I enjoy, no matter how big my church/ministry is, etc., if I do not learn how to love, my life is an abject failure!”

Paul also insists that love is supremely important because it is the only aspect of our spiritual lives that will last forever—read 13:8-13. Spiritual gifts provide only partial foretastes of God’s eternal kingdom; they will cease when it comes. Even faith and hope—so crucially important in this life—will not be needed then because we will see God and therefore our ultimate hope will be realized. But love will endure forever because love is the essence of who God is, and of who God created us to be.

If the Bible said this only in 1Cor. 13, that would be enough. But it says this over and over again. If your #1 goal as a Christian is anything other than to become a mature, effective lover of others, you are way off-course! Do you really believe this?

If you do, then it becomes super-important to know what biblical love looks like. That’s why Paul describes some of its distinctive features in 13:4-7 (read)...

Its distinctive features

This is not a comprehensive description of biblical love. Rather, Paul here is focusing especially on aspects of biblical love that the Corinthians lacked. If we want to get a more comprehensive understanding of biblical love’s distinctive features, we need to look at many biblical passages, and we need to contrast what they say to two other forms of love that are common in our culture. They are the same two forms that were common in the first-century Greco-Roman culture.

They named these two forms of love eros and philia. By contrast, the New Testament authors never use eros and use philia only 25 times (32 including philadelphia). Instead, they use agape, a word very rarely used by Greco-Roman authors, 258 times (Paul uses it five times in 1Cor.13 alone). Scholars agree that the New Testament authors, by using agape this way, were intentionally saying: “Christian love is fundamentally different from and superior to these other loves.” Agape is the love of God that is uniquely revealed through Jesus Christ (1Jn.4:9).

Eros love is the passion to possess an object of value, worth, or beauty. It is rooted in our emotions, and it requires a desirable object. Does this sound familiar? It is not only romantic and sexual love; it is also love for especially intelligent or creative or charismatic people, love of “cool” things (ADVERTISING), even love of certain food (“I love Graeter’s ice cream!”) and drink/drugs. It is also at the root of mystical religions, which are quests for intense spiritual experiences. Eros love is very intense, but also very fickle and unstable. Its object is perpetually “on trial,” and eros easily wanders away if its object loses its attraction, or if a more attractive object appears on the scene. Corrupted eros becomes addictive lust. Marriage in America is in trouble in large part because it is excessively dependent upon eros.

The Bible doesn’t condemn eros; it describes it positively as a gift of God (e.g., Song of Solomon). But agape love is fundamentally different—it is a commitment without regard to the object’s worth. Unlike eros, it is rooted not in our emotions but in our volition—it is “the love that commits.” And unlike eros, it loves unworthy objects. This is how God loves us (read Rom.5:6,8,10), even though we were helpless sinners and enemies. In fact, while eros loves admires an object because of its value, agape redeems (creates value in) its object because of its love (EXAMPLE).

Philia love is the love we have for people like us—it is rooted in familiarity and natural affinity. “It is the love we have for... all that is an extension of (ourselves)—our family, our nation, our tribe, our race.” It is also friendship love—love for people who share the same interests. Philia therefore tends to be stable, but narrow in scope. Left to itself, it easily becomes exclusive, tribalistic, and prejudiced against “outsiders” (like Jewish religious culture in Jesus’ day).

The Bible speaks favorably of philia in a number places. But agape love is fundamentally different from philia in that it reaches out to and welcomes those who are very different from—even hostile to—the lover. Jesus was vilified by religious Jews and frustrated His own disciples because He reached out to women, ostracized Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Christians are therefore to reach out both to other Christians people who are different from them (Rom.15:7), and to non-Christians, including those who dislike them.

With this basic contrast, we can add some other key distinctive features of agape love.

It is sacrificial. Agape love by definition is self-giving, committed to meet the needs of the loved one at one’s own expense, even unto death (read Jn.3:16; 15:13).

Whereas eros derives joy from receiving, agape derives joy from being a giver (Acts20:34), and even from the act of giving.

Whereas philia invests only in those for whom it feels affection, agape chooses to invest until it feels affection. The following additional aspects of agape are really different aspects of sacrificial love.

Agape is deeply moral and realistic about the reality of sin. It abhors sin as the cancer of the soul, and it delights in righteousness (1Cor.13:6; Rom.12:9)—so it is committed to responding redemptively toward sinful people in two ways:

Agape forgives. It chooses to lay down the right to take retribution and instead absorb the debt caused by sin (1Cor.13:5b; Lk.23:34). By contrast, neither eros nor philia are very realistic about or forgiving of sin. Eros tends to be indifferent to sin in the loved one (“Love is blind”), and philia tends to excuse it in the name of loyalty. But when the sin is bad enough, both will reject the sinner.

Agape also disciplines. It is willing to correct and confront and enact painful consequences (and even risk rejection)—not to get even or to control, but to influence the loved one away from what is destructive and toward what is true and right (Mk.10:21).

It is holistic. It recognizes that the loved one has a variety of needs (e.g., material; functional; emotional; spiritual)—and it is willing to give to meet whatever need the loved one has.

Jesus’ miracles manifested His holistic love. He changed water into wine to meet the couples’ social needs. He healed many people’s sicknesses and fed the 5000 and stilled the storm to meet people’s physical needs. He grasped the hand of the leper as He healed him to meet his emotional needs. And all of His miracles were “signs”—symbolic actions that demonstrated His ability to meet people’s spiritual need to be reconciled to God.

Agape doesn’t say: “I’ll meet the needs that I like to meet, that I feel competent to meet, etc.” It says: “I will do my best to meet every kind of need my loved ones have. No need is too menial for me to meet, nor too difficult for me to try to meet.” But agape also prioritizes needs according to God’s wisdom (Jn.6).

It operates on the basis of freedom. It gives voluntarily (not out of compulsion), and it gives without strings. It offers, but does not impose or manipulate (as eros and philia often do).

Jesus laid His life down for us freely and voluntarily, not because He had to (Jn.10:17,18). He offers us forgiveness as a free gift, not as a wage that we earn (Eph.2:8,9). And He gives us the freedom to reject His offer (Rev.3:20), even though He weeps when people do this (Lk.19:41-44).

Agape is like a magnificent diamond, each facet beautiful and profound in its own right, yet also inter-related in ways that contribute to the greater beauty and profundity of the whole.

Can you imagine what this world would be like if everyone loved this way? Can you imagine what your life would be like if you could love people this way? Let’s hear how...

How to develop it

1Cor. 13 does not answer this question. 1Jn.4 teaches how we can be perfected in (brought to full or mature expression of) love, and John reveals three keys:

The first key is: Admit that there is no human source of agape love. You cannot originate it to give to others. No other person can originate it to give to you. This is the great sin/idolatry of our culture which destroys relationships. The God of the Bible is its only Source, and God has made his love accessible only through His Son Jesus Christ (1Jn.4:7,10). Unless you are willing to accept this, you have no chance!

The second key is: Choose to receive God’s love from His Son Jesus Christ. John says we must do this in two steps:

First, we have to get connected to God’s love by confessing that Jesus is the Son of God (1Jn.4:15). This means to agree with God from your heart that Jesus is the only way to God, and to bow to Him as your personal Savior. The moment that you do this, you become united forever with God and His love permanently indwells your heart through His Spirit. Have you made this decision?

Second, we have to continue to understand and rely on this love that God has for us (1Jn.4:16,17a). This is a daily decision to learn more about God’s love through the Bible, and to depend on His love to meet every major need in your life. Like a grape vine branch, we are to abide in Jesus’ love in this way (Jn.15). We (rightfully) spend a lot of our teachings on how to do this.

The third key is: Practice giving this love to others. You cannot hoard God’s love for yourself, or it will rot. You have to keep receiving it from God, and you have to keep giving it to others—like a branch keeps drawing sap from the vine and giving it away to form the fruit. As you keep doing this, the fruit (your ability to love others) gradually grows.

To whom? To everyone, but especially to “one another”—to your brothers and sisters in Christ (1Jn.4:11,12). Agape love-giving develops primarily in the context of Christian community—Christians building Christ-centered friendships in which each person is focused on love-giving.

This is why the church not like a MALL, but like a GYM.

This is why you need to get involved in a home group. This is the context in which you can develop in your ability to give God’s love by building CCF’s. This is what we will explore the NEXT 2 WEEKS. This is also the context in which you can learn from more mature love-givers. This is the context in which you can become a better lover in marriage, as a parent, at work, etc.

1Tim.1:5; the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5); the fulfillment of God’s Law (Rom.8,13); Gal.5:6; the 2 Great Commandments (Matt.22); Jesus’ New Commandment (Jn. 13); etc.

“In these verses, Paul gently rebuked the sins of the Corinthians. They did not have patience with each other in the assembly (14:29–32); they envied the spiritual gifts others possessed (14:1); they were proud and critical (12:21–26); they did not have modesty or grace in their behavior (12:2–16); they sought to uphold their own rights (chaps. 8–10) even if it hurt others; they were easily provoked, and even sued one another (6:1–8); and they rejoiced at sin when they should have judged it (5:1–13).” Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe's Expository Outlines on the New Testament (458–459). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

Earl F. Palmer, Love Has Its Reasons (Waco: Word Books, 1977), p.37.