There were three words for love in the Greek language of New Testament times. One of the words spoke of sensual love (the love between sweethearts). Another spoke of affection for others (a natural affection for one’s friends). But the word used in 1 Corinthians 13 was not found in Greek secular literature. The word for “love” used here (agape) means the love that God sheds abroad in the hearts of His children by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The word is translated “charity” in the KJV.
Agape love is the highest and holiest type of love that any person can ever know, and the Bible describes this higher kind of love by using an entire chapter. We want to note the supremacy, the character, and the durability of love, as we analyze the passage in 1 Corinthians 13.
1. The Supremacy of Love (verses 1-3)
Love is contrasted with some of life’s most valued treasures, and in every case, love is seen to be greater than those qualities.
(a) Love is contrasted with eloquence — “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” Speaking eloquently is being able to play on the souls of people by using words. It is a noble gift. All of us have heard eloquent speakers, but even if these persons could speak like an angel from heaven, without love it would amount to nothing but mere noise. Therefore Paul says that agape love is much greater than eloquent speaking.
(b) Love is contrasted with prophecy — “and though I have the gift of prophecy.” To prophesy is not only to foretell the future, but also to forthtell the truth of God. But if we attempt this without love, it is vain. It is possible for the preacher, for example, to preach to his people in such a way that he gives the impression that he would rejoice in their damnation as much as their salvation. And so even prophesying, if it is done without love, is meaningless.
(c) Love is contrasted with understanding mysteries — “though I understood all mysteries.” The Bible speaks of a number of mysteries—the mystery of iniquity, the mystery of godliness, and many others. But even if one claims to understand all these mysteries (and to be able to discern spiritual things, and understand God’s secrets), without agape love, he will have failed. Love is much greater than being able to understand mysteries.
(d) Love is contrasted with knowledge — “and though I have all knowledge.” Knowledge is a great thing. We have more schools than ever before in history, but yet we don’t know much. The three most-used words in the English language are still the words, “I don’t know.” But suppose you did know. Suppose you could read many of the approximately 3,000 languages that are spoken today—or suppose you could understand Einstein’s theory of relativity—still, love is far greater than such knowledge.
(e) Love is contrasted with faith — “and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.” Even our faith can be a cutting and hurting thing. To imply in a kind of sarcastic way that we have an inner strength that helps us along—and that most other Christians do not have such help—may indicate that we have faith, but that it is held without love.
(f) Love is contrasted with charity — “and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor.” Charity is goodwill and benevolence to the poor and suffering. However, a person can be charitable and still not have love. Giving is sometimes done merely out of a cold, grim sense of duty—and thus even charity is not the greatest thing in the world.
(g) Love is contrasted with sacrifice — “though I give my body to be burned.” Many of our forefathers sacrificed greatly, and were so devoted to their faith, that they were devoured by beasts merely to satisfy the world’s bloodthirsty desire for amusement. Others were tied to the stake. Some were covered with oil and dabbed with pitch and burned alive. These were great sacrifices, but agape love is still greater.
The voice of eloquence, the ability to peer into the mysteries of the universe, the exercise of faith so great as to move mountains—all these things may seem great to us—but they are nothing when contrasted with real Christian love. Unless exercised in love, they are only so much noise and activity and excitement.
2. The Character of Love (verses 4-7)
What then is real love? Love is a compound thing. It is composed of many parts, and in verses 4-7 of 1 Corinthians 13, its fifteen characteristics are analyzed.
(a) Love “suffereth long.” Love refuses to become impatient, even when it is wronged and unjustly treated. Patience and longsuffering are not hard when everything goes our way, but one who is controlled by love is patient even when others mistreat him, and misunderstand his actions. Those who treat us with contempt must be treated patiently and fairly in return. Suffering long involves turning the other cheek and going the second mile even toward those who do things to aggravate us.
(b) Love “is kind.” Love is generous and sympathetic, considerate and thoughtful of others. Origen (one of the preachers in the early church) translated this portion of verse 4, “Love is sweet to all.” Kindness is simply to do and to say the nicest things in the nicest way. Jesus spent a great deal of His time simply making people happy, and doing kind things—even for those who were His enemies.
(c) Love “envieth not.” Love is never jealous. It does not harbor a feeling of ill-will toward others because their successes and abilities are greater than its own. Whenever you attempt a certain work, you will find others doing the same kind of work, and probably they can do it better than you can—but don’t envy them. Do the best you can with the abilities God has given you, and your diligence will be rewarded in the end.
(d) Love “vaunteth not itself.” That is, love never seeks to win the applause of others. Love is never boastful. It never seeks to win the praise of others. It never makes a parade. It never tries to show off. True love is more impressed with its own unworthiness than it is with its own merit.
(e) Love is “not puffed up.” In other words, love does not hold inflated ideas of its own importance. One who is controlled by love does not swell with pride. William Carey was a noted linguist and translated parts of the Bible into 34 dialects of India. He began life as a cobbler (one who repairs shoes), and when he came to India as a missionary he was regarded with scorn and contempt. A noted person said to Carey one time in the midst of a crowd of people (in order to embarrass him because of his humble beginning), “I suppose, Mr. Carey, you once worked as a shoemaker.” “No,” Carey answered, “only a cobbler.” He didn’t even claim to make shoes, but only to mend them. No one likes the “important” persons. Love is not puffed up.
(f) Love “doth not behave itself unseemly.” One who possesses real Christian love is well-behaved and lovely in character. One of the biggest sources of infidelity in the world today is the unbecoming conduct on the part of many who are professed Christians. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I could believe the Christian teachings if it hadn’t been for the lives of the Christian people.” A real, genuine, quiet, consistent Christian life is the best advertisement for the faith there is.
(g) Love “seeketh not her own.” Love does not insist on having its own way. We commonly speak of this as stubbornness or self-will. We want what we want when we want it, and we don’t want anyone interfering with us! Love is just the opposite. Abraham (in Genesis 13) said to Lot, “You pick the land that you want, and then I’ll take what is left.” Love does not insist on its own rights. We must think less about our rights and more about our duties.
(h) Love “is not easily provoked.” Love is not irritable. It does not flare up at the slightest provocation. Some get provoked when the car won’t start or the fire won’t burn or the calf won’t drink. Love is just the opposite; it is not easily provoked. Love will keep anger and irritable feelings in check and crucified.
(i) Love “thinketh no evil.” That is, love does not keep an account of evil. It does not keep a ledger in which to enter the wrongs of others. Love holds no grudges; it has no memory for injuries; it harbors no resentment. Too often we brood over the insults we have received from others and nurse our wrath just enough to keep it warm. Love forgets the past.
(j) Love “rejoiceth not in iniquity.” Love does not take pleasure when another Christian fails. It doesn’t feel satisfied and delighted when it hears of the blunders of some other person. Love does not rejoice when someone else makes a mistake so that the bad report can be passed along to others. Instead, love weeps over sin and is brokenhearted over failure. Love does not condone sin but it protects and forgives the sinner. Love is never glad when others go wrong.
(k) Love “rejoiceth in the truth.” The Christian is not glad in the presence of evil, but is happy in the presence of truth. He rejoices in the virtues of others and not in their vices. He is joyful when the truth prevails. He longs to hear the Scriptures expounded and he delights to see lives lived in accord with the teachings of the Bible.
(l) Love “beareth all things.” Love bears insults and trials and hardships, and does not murmur and complain. Love keeps silent even in the midst of hardship.
(m) Love “believeth all things.” Love is completely trusting. Love takes God at His word. It believes absolutely in His promises. Also, love seeks to believe the best about other people. Love is not blind to the sins of others, but it does not quickly accept every rumor that comes along. Love avoids undue suspicion.
(n) Love “hopeth all things.” Love keeps on hoping even after others have stopped hoping. Love seeks to look at the bright side of every situation. It never ceases to hope.
(o) Love “endureth all things.” Love remains strong even in the midst of suffering and persecution. It meets trials with songs of praise instead of words of murmuring. Love knows that God will never cause his child a needless tear.
These have been the essential virtues of agape love. These are the characteristics of which true love is composed.
3. The Durability of Love (verses 8-13)
Other qualities are only for a time, but love is for eternity. Love is unfailing and unending. Prophecies shall be done away. They will be fulfilled at the coming of our Lord. Tongues shall cease. In the eternal world, where our knowledge will be complete, there will be no need for languages of various kinds. Knowledge shall vanish away. Knowledge as we now possess it will be of no value in the full light of God’s eternal presence. When these other things pass away, love will still stand. Love is eternal.
The first verse of 1 Corinthians 14 says, “Follow after charity (love).” The phrase “follow after” is the translation of a word that requires strenuous effort and dedication. It takes effort and hard work to pursue love, but that is our Christian duty. Real love is not merely a friendly spirit of brotherhood. Agape love is a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and action that will help others. Christian love is concern for, and benevolence toward, others.