First Corinthians 13:4-7 is probably the world’s most cross-stitched passage of Scripture. The poetic beauty of its truth is celebrated and admired. It’s also the Scripture that is most used on greeting cards that are given to newlyweds. However, there is nothing in the context that hints that marital love is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote his words. Certainly they apply to marriage, but they also apply to any horizontal, human relationship. Most clearly, what the apostle had in mind was the relationship of believers to one another, or brothers and sisters in the family of God.

The Priority of Love

Chapter 13 is, of course, nestled between chapters 12 and 14. Chapter 12 gives instruction concerning the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit in dispensing gifts for the edification of the entire body. Some believers viewed themselves as less-gifted because they did not possess the spectacular gifts. Others, those who did possess the miraculous gifts of that age, were tempted to think they did not need the lesser members of the church. Both groups lacked biblical love.

Chapter 14, of course, follows chapter 13, the “love chapter.” Chapter 14 is corrective in nature. It is a rebuke of the misuse of the miraculous gifts given to the church for its infantile stage. Tongues, in particular, were used not for edification, but for self-glory. These believers had the same problem—a love problem. Therefore, they were to “pursue love” (1 Cor 14:1).

Therefore, as we read what we know of as chapter 13 (chapter divisions did not originally exist), we understand the apostle’s desire to show these believers “a more excellent way,” the way of love (1 Cor 12:31). Love is the supreme Christian virtue.

  • Let all that you do be done in love (1 Cor 16:14).
  • And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity (Col 3:14).
  • But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Tim 1:5).
  • Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

To model love is to model God for God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Love is not a feeling or an emotion, but an action. It is a choice to place someone else in a position of being higher, more important than yourself. Gordon Fee writes, “Love is not an idea for Paul, not even a ‘motivating factor’ for behavior. It is behavior. To love is to act; anything short of action is not love at all.”

The most accurate definition of love is found in the Bible itself. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). The ultimate demonstration of love ever displayed is the cross of Christ. God so loved us while we were yet in our sin that He acted on our behalf. He sent His Son to be the supreme sacrifice for our sins. Therefore, we who call ourselves Christians are now called to model this love, to act on behalf of others.

The apostle begins his argument by demonstrating that love is superior to spiritual giftedness and self-sacrifice. Paul is not setting spiritual gifts and sacrifice against love, but is clearly emphasizing that love is the atmosphere in which spiritual gifts are to operate.  Love is the pool in which service for God must swim. Love, not self-glory and self-edification, must be the motive.

The Portrait of Love

The apostle describes this kind of biblical love in 13 ways. I will state the definition and then offer my own personal application.

Love is long-tempered. “Patient” is from a compound word (long + temper), meaning to bear up under offense. Therefore,

  • I must be of long spirit, patient when wronged.
  • I must choose forgiveness in place of resentment.
  • I must entrust my personal injustices to God without retaliation.
  • I must show forbearance toward the faults of others without being irritated.

Love is goodness in action (kind). The kindness of love is our holy desire for the happiness of others, which compels us to perform acts of goodness for them. This is not some kind of bizarre quest for another person’s happiness that you fear doing or saying anything that may make him unhappy. This is a genuine desire for God’s best for them. Therefore,

  • I must be sensitive to the needs of others and be eager to be generous in meeting them.
  • I must learn to speak gentle words that edify in place of harsh words that destroy.
  • I must do good to others without expecting a favor in return.

Love is content (not envious). Love is content. Love does not envy the position or possessions of others. You know you are guilty of envy when you get a sour feeling when other people are blessed. Therefore,

  • I must lay aside envy, selfish ambition, and worldly thinking, which cause conflict and destroy peace.
  • I must nurture a thankful heart, choosing to rejoice in what God has given me instead of what I believe He has withheld from me.
  • I must rejoice when others are blessed.

Love is humble. Love does draw attention to itself, but to the one who is loved. Humility and love grow together in the same garden. Therefore,

  • I must war against the many faces of pride: an independent, competitive, unsubmissive, stubborn, or critical spirit.
  • I must not boast about myself, but only of God.
  • I must esteem others as better than myself.
  • I must rejoice when God exalts others without feeling that I have been slighted.

Love is well-mannered. Love has manners; it is not rude. Therefore,

  • I must replace the rudeness of foolish behavior with prudence.
  • I must be courteous to listen when others are speaking and not interrupt.
  • I must respect other people’s time by not being habitually late.
  • I must answer when I have been spoken to.
  • I must resist the temptation to return insult for insult and instead speak gracious words.
  • I must war against self-centered living by practicing hospitality.

Love is selfless. Biblical love esteems others as more important than self. Therefore,

  • I must intentionally look for “dirty jobs” and do them without being asked.
  • I must learn to give up my personal preferences and live for others.
  • I must trust God enough to give generously even if logic says, “you’re crazy.”
  • I must be willing to serve without glory and without being in charge.

Love is not easily irritated (not provoked). Love is self-controlled. It is not easily angered or irritated by people. Therefore,

  • I must war against unrighteous anger.
  • I must not nurse my anger until it becomes resentment and bitterness.
  • I must choose to resolve my anger and seek forgiveness from those I have hurt.

Love forgives (does not keep a record of wrongs). To keep a record of wrongs is to withhold forgiveness from others, to refuse to release them from debt, and thus forfeit our own forgiveness (Matt 6:15). Therefore,

  • I must never keep a mental or paper list of wrongs committed against me, but instead release those debts.
  • I must not hold sin against people so as to make them pay for it, but recognize that payment has already been made by Jesus for my sin and theirs.
  • I must not stimulate my memory in order to nurse resentment, but rather willfully choose to not remember sin.

To forgive, biblically, is to choose not to remember. We ought to practice biblical memory loss by choosing to not hold another person’s sin against them.

Love bows to the boundaries of truth. Love rejoices with the truth, not with sin. Love bows to the boundaries of truth.  It is not glad when sin is exalted or when evil things happen to others. Therefore,

  • I must not delight in sin.
  • I must not be secretly glad when evil things happen to others, even if they are my enemies.
  • I must not be apathetic toward false doctrine that leads people to eternal destruction.
  • I must be glad when the true Gospel is preached even if I may not approve of the methods or motives.
  • I must love my fellow believers enough to confront them and readily forgive them if and when they repent.

Love covers the sins of others (bears all things). Love covers a multitude of sins. This does not mean that we sweep serious sin under the rug and neglect the practice of church discipline, which the Corinthians were guilty of (see 1 Cor 5), but that we do not confront one another about every small irritation. Therefore,

  • I must apply God’s covering for my sin by personally repenting and believing in Christ.
  • I must provide a protective covering of love by remaining silent about the faults of others and restoring those trapped in sin.

Love trusts (believes all things). Love chooses to attribute the best of motives to others. It believes the best, not the worst, in people. Love discerns. Therefore,

  • I must not believe everything, but be faithful to discern the teachings of men.
  • I must think the best of men and be slow to judge or accuse.
  • I must not be suspicious of people’s motives.

Love expects the best (hopes all things). Love is hopeful for the best. It is not negative and pessimistic. Therefore,

  • I must refuse to give up hope for the salvation of others by ceasing to pray for them.
  • I must confidently expect God’s grace to triumph over people’s failures.

Love is courageously steadfast (endures all things). Love does not give up. Therefore,

  • I must endure unjust persecution by overcoming evil with good.
  • I must endure the suffering of ministry for the sake of ministry.

Love is the only acceptable attitude, motive, and atmosphere for biblical ministry.  Everything we do for God and others, if done without love, amounts to nothing. Selfish motives empty spiritual bank accounts, but all service that flows from a heart filled with love for God and others reaps fruit for eternity.

Where does this kind of love come from?

This love is supernatural. It is not possible to love like this on our own--from our own nature. It comes from the work of God in genuine salvation. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8).

It also comes from the Holy Spirit’s continued work of sanctification in our lives. As we walk in obedience to the Spirit and the Word of God and “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:14), the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of love in our relationships with one another (Gal 5:22). Let us pray the Lord will do whatever it takes to change our hearts so that we will truly love fellow believers as we are called to by God.

Related Resources

Blog Post: 37 Ways to Love One Another

Audio: What's Love Got to Do with It?