In the last post, we looked over 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 and Paul’s declaration that nothing has meaning apart from love. Now we are going to discuss a bit on what exactly the New Testament authors meant when they spoke of love and what exactly it would mean to do something with love.
We hear the word love tossed around in our conversations and songs and movies and greeting cards. The love as our culture defines it is often a very fuzzy concept, one likely to change and wiggle around in order that we stay comfortable. As such, it’s impossible to pin down what exactly people mean by love, and perhaps that’s the point. To the world, love is there to make you feel moral and important. But is that what the authors of the New Testament saw love as? A warm fuzzy feeling? A lack of guilt?
To find what love means, we need to first look at Jesus. Jesus is the perfect image of a God who is love. Numerous times in scripture we are told to strive to be as God is and to imitate Jesus.1 For Jesus, love was not about doing certain acts and avoiding others. Love came from a natural spring, the Father, who was the one actually producing the appropriate works through the Spirit. Love manifests in one’s own spirit when the person is completely aligned with the Holy Spirit. The easiest place to start when looking for Jesus’ description of love is probably the Sermon on the Mount. It is here that Jesus lays out his moral standard most plainly.
In Jesus’ commentary on the OT commandment thou shalt not kill, he does not narrow the word as many commentators attempt to do, but widens it. He does not stop at physical murdering, but digs deep into the heart of it and condemns anger towards others as well. He then slowly makes his way back to the surface meaning, condemning contempt and hatred along the way. That is why John could say in 1 John 3:15: “He who hates his brother is a murderer.”
He does the same thing with adultery and finds lust lying deep within its heart. We also see this principle described in several metaphors throughout Jesus’ ministry. He criticizes the religious leaders for washing the outside of the cup instead of the inside. It was the heart of the matter he was after, not the following of arbitrary rules. He said that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:19). When we see only the outermost part of sin, we miss the rest of the iceberg hidden beneath the surface.
So is the heart evil then? Not exactly. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). Whatever has been planted within our heart is what will sprout, whether it be good or bad. If one’s treasure is pleasure, status and other worldly things, then out of the heart will come worldly things. But if one’s heart dwells on the things of the Spirit, things like patience, gentleness, peace, joy and self-control, then such will be its fruit. This is why Paul said, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8). Besides the metaphor of dishes and treasure, our Lord also compared the effects of our deepest selves to plants. Just as trees naturally produce the fruit they are designed to, so too will we produce fruit based on who we are. Who we are is found in the deepest part of ourselves. What is the difference between a good person and a bad person? Jesus. No one but God is good and, left to ourselves, we could only produce the most damaging of thorns if anything at all. But just “as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5). Unless we graft ourselves into Christ, who is himself grafted into the Father, we will never bear good fruit. Some may bear fruit from the Spirit without fully realizing they have been grafted in and others may produce superficial fruit (though it’s actually poisoned to the core). Only when we turn from the world, from earthly pleasures, from anger and greed, lust and jealousy and turn towards the Spirit, to love and faith and patience and gentleness (i.e. the entire person of Jesus) will we be grafted into the vine and given life bearing fruit. Only in this way may our cup be cleaned from the inside and only when the cup is cleaned from the inside will it be clean at all. Blessed are the pure in heart.
This is precisely what Jesus’ followers taught as well. Paul says in Romans 6:16 that we are either slaves to sin or to righteousness. Peter made it clear that it was not the outside of a person which is important but the inside (1 Pet 3:4) and when he says in 2 Peter 1:4 that we are to be “partakers of the divine nature”, he is describing the phenomenon of abiding in Christ. James describes this process of sin aptly when he says “each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
This is not unique to the New Testament either. Proverbs 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Psalm 51:10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Ezekiel 26:36 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Jeremiah 24:7 I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.
And this is the most important aspect to know about love. It is not a feeling. It is not an action. It is a general disposition towards Christ. We are not to do loving things but to become loving people. If we want the outside of the cup to be clean, we must first wash the inside. In doing so, the outer will be cleaned as well. And we do this by abiding in Christ. He abides in the Father, cultivating all of his perfect love, and we abide in Christ, which allows his love to be cultivated in us as well. This is what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. In short, we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.
Now certainly there are certain emotions and actions which will naturally arise from a loving spirit. These are talked about extensively in the New Testament so let’s now discuss what love does and doesn’t look like when practiced.
Once again we turn to Jesus first. Jesus’ love was characterized by utter selflessness. We are to treat others as we would have them treat us, to love both our neighbors and our enemies. We are not to harm anyone, not even our enemies, but are to return evil for good. We are not to lust, be angry, keep people from the Kingdom, have anything above God, love the things of this world nor behave hypocritically. We are to be poor of spirit, meek, mournful, merciful, seekers of righteousness, peacemakers, pure in heart and ready to endure suffering for the sake of righteousness. We are told that there is no greater love than one who lays down their life for another. We see all of these lived out in his life. He knew no political, religious, gender or social boundaries. He preached his good news to everyone who would listen and chastised those who tried to keep others from hearing his healing words. He never retaliated when attacked, but instead returned injury with forgiveness. Everything he did was a following after his Father. He did nothing of his own will but emptied himself in complete humility (John 5:30, 8:28, 12:49; Phil 2:5-10). Even when he did not feel like doing what was loving, his commitment to his Father’s will and not his own led him to bear the most bountiful fruit that has ever been bourn.
His immediate followers said and did the same. In Romans, Paul encourages Christians to “let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9-21)2. Paul constantly told his audience to remain humble just as Jesus was humble 3. Throughout Paul’s ministry he made sure never to burden himself on others whenever it could be avoided. He always fought against evil and wrong, yet never harmed another.
When we look at Peter’s life, we see him go from arguing that he would become the greatest in the Kingdom of God to breaking his Jewish traditions in order to expand the Kingdom to even Gentiles. He says that we are to “abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” We are to keep our behavior “excellent” among non-Christians in order to bring them to glorify God (1 Pet 2:11-12). He told us all to “be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, ‘The one who desires life, to love and see good days, Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. He must turn away from evil and do good; He must seek peace and pursue it’” (1 Pet 3:8-11).
James says that “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19-21). John says simply that “the one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:10-11). In short, love looks like treating our neighbors as we would like to be treated.
Love is more than doing or feeling certain things. Love is the Spirit working through our lives. When we love our God above all else, then he will give us the ability to love our neighbors as we should. He will give us the ability to love others in direct proportion to the degree that we’ve given our selves to him. Normally we are slaves to sin; that is why we do what we do not want to do. When we give ourselves to Christ, we become slaves to righteousness. Love looks like a selflessness which has the wellbeing of others as a top priority. There is no selfishness in love, for love of self and love of God cannot mix.
I want to make sure before I close it is clear that, though we become slaves to righteousness and though we are compared to trees which naturally bear fruit, it does not mean that there is no work involved. We must constantly strive to put God first and to trust in Him and his Son. This is what Paul was talking about when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7) and told the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phi 2:12-13). Staying on the path is difficult. Keeping Christ in our deepest selves must be done in diligence. So we must ceaselessly strive to give him more and more of ourselves over to him. Not my will but yours.
So how exactly we can abide in Christ. How do we walk according to the Spirit and not flesh (Rom 8:5-11; Gal 5:16)? That is the subject of the next post.
- We are to imitate God/Christ: Matt. 5:48; 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:26, 5:1-2; Col. 3:13; 1 Peter 1:14-16; 1 John 2:6
- Lists of virtues and vices: Eph 4:1-3, 5:15-21; Phil 2:1-4; Col 5:6,8-9, 12-17; 1 Thess 5:13-15; Gal 5:19-23 and of course 1 Cor 13:4-7
- Be humble as Christ is humble: Rom 12:16, 2 Cor 12:10, Phil 2:3-5; 1 Thess 2:6-7
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