Surely the apostle Paul’s description, or definition, of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is the most well-known of all.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Cor. 13:4-7
This Scripture can be found hanging in the homes of Christians around the world. It’s so well-known, and it is so well-loved as poetry, that you can even find it displayed in the homes of non-believers. However, though it may be possible for a non-believer to appreciate its simplicity and beauty, it is impossible for him or her to live it out. Frankly, it’s extremely difficult for even a Christian to consistently display this kind of love. But the Holy Spirit makes it possible. And out of this wellspring and Christlikeness, all other godly virtues flow. Love holds all the other character qualities together (Col. 3:14).
Love Is the Supreme Christian Virtue
“The greatest of these is love,” Paul says. No wonder, then, that it’s mentioned first on the list of the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love.” Fruit is singular. It’s not the fruits of the Spirit, but the fruit. The fruit is a unit, and that unity may be called Christlike character. But it’s not the Spirit-inspired writing of Paul that will instruct us, but that of the apostle John, otherwise known as the beloved disciple or the apostle of love. John is called the apostle of love because of the prominence of the theme in his first letter, known as First John.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.1 John 4:7-12
But what is love? How should we define biblical love? Here is a definition: Love is the consistent demonstration of putting others before yourself. It is the outworking of the life of God within you.
In this passage, there are three truths that God wants you to understand and respond to, in order to grow in Christlike love.
Love is evident in those who are born of the Spirit, and in fellowship with God (vv. 7-8). John’s point is that true saving faith will change a person from the inside out—at the level of the heart’s affections. Love is from God: God is the source. You and I cannot love, as God loves, without the Holy Spirit’s power working within us. Therefore, we need God to teach us how to love one another, like He did for the church at Thessalonica: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia” (1 Thess. 4:9-10). Love is the litmus test of truth faith: “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” This is clear. We can assume, then, that the opposite is also true. But we don’t have to assume. Verse 8 clearly says this, as does 1 John 4:13-17
Love is expressed first and foremost by God himself, and his actions toward sinners (vv. 9-10). John is clear. This is the way God made His love known: He sent His only begotten Son. More specifically, God sent His Son to die in the place of His enemies, so that we could be reconciled to God. The word propitiation is from the Greek word used to speak of the mercy seat; that place where the wrath of God was propitiated, satisfied by means of an acceptable sacrifice. In the Old Testament tabernacle, the mercy seat was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:20). It was called the mercy seat because it was here that the High Priest satisfied God’s demand for a sacrifice for sin by the sprinkling of blood on the Day of Atonement and thus, the people of God received His mercy. To show His acceptance, God rested upon the mercy seat in the form of a cloud. When we come to the New Testament, then, the mercy seat is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:25). In looking toward the cross, God “passed over the sins previously committed,” knowing that His wrath against sin would be ultimately satisfied and His righteousness displayed by the perfect sacrifice of His perfect Son.
Love is expected among believers, and makes the invisible God visible (vv. 11-12). Verse 12 reminds us of the Gospel that this same John wrote (John 1:14-18). In coming into the world, and living a sinless life of love, Jesus made the invisible God, visible. When we love one another we do the same. But what does that look like? Read 1 John 3:11-18. The test of your love is not your words; it is your life. It is not how much you say you love other believers, it’s how much you actually do—in your actions.
The Debt that We Still Owe
In Christ, we are set free from sin’s debt. Yet the Bible says there is a debt that we still owe: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). We need to recognize that Paul is drawing attention to the supremacy and permanence of love, “for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
In other words, the one debt we will never be free from is the debt of love. Jesus said that the two supreme commandments–to love God and others–wrap up all God-pleasing decisions (Matt 22:40). In other words, if we always love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and if we always love our neighbor as ourselves, we would never sin. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:10).
Biblical love, therefore, is the consideration of others as more important than ourselves. This is the fruit of the Spirit, which is cultivated by the humility of mind we are called to imitate in Jesus: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Phil 2:3). It means that love is permanently supreme because selflessness brings glory to our Savior who humbled Himself to the point of death (Phil 2:8). The debt to love others sacrificially is the debt we will never fully repay.