Love: What It Is & Isn’t (Part 1)

When Christians are asked to identify "the love chapter" in the Bible, many immediately think of I Corinthians 13. Let's spend some time considering this important chapter, focusing specifically on what Paul wrote about love.

The overall theme Paul is writing on in this section of I Corinthians pertains to spiritual gifts (i.e., specifically chapters 12-14). The beginning of chapter 12 lists many first-century spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit distributed to Christians as He willed. The latter portion of that chapter speaks of the need for unity, even with some having various miraculous gifts, in the one body composed of many members (i.e., the church).

Then, in 12:31, Paul wrote - "But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way." Paul would go on to speak of the greatest gift; that is, love. Love is the "more excellent way" that Paul refers to in chapter 13.

Let us read Paul's inspired words and comment as we go:

I Corinthians 13:1 - "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal." The Corinthian church valued the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues (i.e., other languages they had not studied) more highly than other gifts. This gift was very helpful in communicating the gospel of Christ to those who spoke a different language (e.g., Acts 2:1-13). Paul likely mentions tongues first because of the exaggerated importance many placed on this gift. They would reason that if the languages of men are great, then to speak the language of angels would be even greater.

The root word here for love is agape, not phileo, in the Greek. Phileo is brotherly love; feelings of natural affection. Agape is not a love that is tied to one's feelings or emotions. Agape has been described by some as a love centered in the mind. Agape really has nothing to do with attraction or even liking a particular individual; it has to do with choosing to treat them in the manner that is best for their soul & well-being.

If a Christian lacks agape love, even the use of a miraculous gift from God (like speaking in tongues) would be vain. If we fail to seek what is in the best interests of others, we don't have true love and are like peddlers who strike two pieces of brass together to attract attention to themselves and their wares. In the first century, it did not matter what miraculous gift or talent God had blessed a Christian with. Such was worthless if the gift or talent was not employed in the best interests of others! By the way, such is still true today in principle, although the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are no longer available for our use.

The same basic truth is conveyed with a different example in I Corinthians 13:2 - "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." If one had the gift of prophecy, he could speak God's word as the Holy Spirit moved him to do so. To understand all mysteries, would be to comprehend or know that which God's Spirit revealed (cf. Eph. 3:3). To have all knowledge or all faith would be a reference to yet other miraculous gifts of the Spirit (cf. I Cor. 12:8,9; Matt. 17:20). But, even with any or all of these gifts, one is an absolute zero if he lacks agape love!

We will continue this study in our next lesson.