Art Linkletter had a television program years ago on which he interviewed children. Out of the children’s mouths came many strange and humorous words which Art captured in his book entitled, Kids Say the Darndest Things. I wish Art Linkletter could interview today’s younger generation and ask, “What is love?” No doubt the answers would be amusing and yet, tragic. Few, if any, would even come close to an accurate definition of love. Worse yet, most adults would not do much better.
“Love” is one of the most common, yet misused and misunderstood words in the English language. On the bookshelf, “love” is synonymous with “romance” and seldom used without a sexual connotation. On television, love is depicted by programs like “Love Boat.” Commercials tempt the audience to pay for a call to a “love connection,” where companions can be matched or where romantic secrets are told.
Even Christians have a very fuzzy grasp of the meaning of love. The lyrics of all too many contemporary Christian songs use the word love in a way that falls far short of that which the Bible defines and describes. “I love the way you love me” are the words of one song. The meaning seems to be, “I love the warm, fuzzy way you treat me and make me feel so good.” Toyota’s television commercial says the same thing: “I love whatcha do for me—Toyota.” No mention is made of God Himself, of who He is. There is no mention of the chastening of the Lord as a manifestation of His love for us (see Hebrews 12:3-13). There is no mention of our subordination or service, to God or to others.
Love is a subject of vital importance, not only because of our fuzzy ideas about what love really is, but because love is a matter of highest priority: “But now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
For a number of reasons, Paul regards love as greater even than faith and hope. To show the magnitude of the importance of our study, allow me to summarize these.
(1) Love is greater than faith and hope because love is eternal, while faith and hope are temporal (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). Because that which God has promised cannot presently be seen, faith and hope are necessary in this life. But when the perfect comes, when our Lord returns and we are living eternally in His presence, we will no longer need faith, for we shall see Him and experience all that He has promised. Our hope will be fulfilled. Our love for Him, however, will last for all eternity, inspiring our worship and service in His presence.
(2) Love is the appropriate response to God’s love and grace, in Christ (see Luke 7:42, 47).
(7) Love is a stabilizing factor in our lives (Ephesians 3:17).
(8) Love is the goal of Paul’s teaching as it should be the goal of all Christian teaching (1 Timothy 1:5).
(10) Love makes our service more profitable to others and to us (1 Corinthians 8:1; 13:1-13).
(11) Love is a key element in our defenses against Satan’s attacks and devices (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
The vital role love must play in our Christian experience, and the very fuzzy concept of love prevalent today, makes our study one of great urgency and importance. We will search to learn what love is and how love behaves as described by Paul in our text.
Paul focused our attention in chapters 1-11 on the “mercies of God” (see 12:1) which provide the basis and motivation for our Christian conduct. In chapters 12-15, Paul will describe the kind of behavior which the “grace” of God enables and expects. Verses 1 and 2 of chapter 12 are a general call to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices to God through a life of service. The exercise of our spiritual gifts is spoken of in verses 3-8 as one dimension of our sacrificial service. Now, in verses 9-21, Paul describes our sacrificial service as a walk in love. We are to demonstrate love toward the brethren (verses 9-13) and toward those outside the faith (verses 14-21). In this lesson, we will focus on verses 9-1352 and the necessity to walk in love in our relationships within the body of Christ. Paul will give us a working definition of what love is, and especially how love serves others, sacrificially, as unto the Lord.
In the internal structure of our text, I see verse 9 as the general, introductory statement and verses 10-13 as supporting descriptions of how love is manifested in various ways. Verse 10 describes Christian love as subordinating self-interest to give preference to the one loved. Verse 11 describes the energy and diligence which love stimulates, to carry through with those tasks which build up the other. Verse 12 points to the future hope which enables Christian love to endure present hardship and adversity. Verse 13 highlights two particular needs which love should be eager to meet: (1) the need for physical and financial help and (2) the need for hospitality.
A preliminary definition of love will be helpful to prepare the way for our study. The following is a composite definition based upon the teaching of the Scriptures as a whole.
Love is the heart-felt affection of the Christian in response to the love God has shown toward us, especially in the gift of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Love is an affection which prompts the Christian to action. Love is first and foremost directed toward God and then toward others in an order of priority: God, family (especially our mate), fellow-believers, our neighbor, and even our enemy. Love subordinates the interests of the lover to the one who is loved. Love inspires our deliberate, diligent, self-sacrificial service to others, which is intended for their good, at our expense.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.
Joseph Fletcher, an advocate of situational ethics, once told the story of a farmer whose daughter was seduced by a traveling salesman. Incensed by the violation of his sister, the girl’s brother was ready to exterminate the salesman with his shotgun. Stepping in, the father admonished his son with the words: “Son, you are so full of what’s right that you’ve lost sight of what’s good.”
Situational ethics is a term which is hardly used any more. This is not because the theory is pass, but because it is so widespread, no one thinks of it as something distinct. Our whole society is situational in its ethics. Situational ethics does not define morality and immorality in terms of biblical revelation, but in terms of “love.” Moral judgment is determined by the existence or absence of love. A sexual union outside of marriage, but which is thought to be the expression of “love,” is considered moral. The question then becomes, “Is it loving?” rather than, “Is it right?” If it is “loving,” it is presumed to be right.
Not so with Paul’s understanding of love. Biblical love cannot be separated from biblical righteousness. Christian love is drawn toward “right” and repulsed by “wrong.” It is attracted to and adheres to that which is “good,” abhorring and withdrawing from “evil.” Christian love is most certainly not “blind.” Biblical love distinguishes between good and evil, and then acts accordingly, cleaving to the good and avoiding the evil.
Christian love is something like a battery. There must be two poles for current to flow. There is a positive terminal and a negative terminal. In biblical thinking, “love” cannot be separated from “hate.” Love is a choice, a decision. It is a decision to choose one thing and to reject another. Jacob could not “love” both Leah and Rachel; he had to “love” one and to “hate” the other.53 So too we cannot serve two masters, for we will inevitably “love” one and “hate” the other (see Matthew 6:24).
Our love as Christians is to be both a response to God’s love and a reflection of His love. Our Lord’s love was a far cry from the hypocritical “love” of the scribes and Pharisees of His day. They spoke of good, but in practice they did what was evil. While our Lord’s love prompted Him to receive sinners, and to suffer and to die for their salvation, it also manifested itself in Jesus’ strong reaction to evil (see Matthew 20:12-17; 23:1-39). Jesus wanted no association with evil, and thus He even forbade the evil spirits to proclaim that He was the promised Messiah (see Mark 3:11-12).
There are Christians today who urge us to emphasize God’s love. This we should do. But if we are to proclaim God’s love, we must distinguish between good and evil. The love of God is that love which clings to the good and abhors the evil. The love of God cannot and does not overlook sin nor the judgment which it deserves and requires. If we would speak more of God’s love, we must speak more of good and of evil. Rebuke and discipline are not a violation of love but a manifestation of it. Love acts in accordance with righteousness.54
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.
Paul’s words here speak of brotherly love, love expressed one to another, among Christians. Of all the “loves” mentioned in the New Testament, love for the brethren is one of the most prominent (see, for example, John 13:34-35; 15:12, 13, 17; Romans 13:8; 1 Peter 1:22; 2:17; 4:8; 1 John 2-4). This love marks us apart as disciples of our Lord (John 13:35; 15:12-13). This is the brotherly love in view in verse 10.
Love not only distinguishes between good and evil, it distinguishes between us and those we love. Christian love, according to Paul’s words, produces a strong devotion among those who believe in Jesus Christ. Brotherly love gives preference to our brothers in Christ, placing them above ourselves.
A disturbingly false view of love has become popular among Christians. This view holds that “self-love” is essential to, and the prerequisite of, love for others. This way of thinking insists that we cannot love God or others until we have first come to love ourself. Self-love therefore becomes primary, the source of all other “loves.” In Paul’s mind, this is pure hypocrisy.
Christian love, by its very nature, subordinates the interests of the lover to those of the one loved. In Paul’s own words, love is to “give preference to one another.”55 This preference to others has its boundaries. Preference, according to Paul, is to be given others in the realm of honor: “give preference to one another in honor.” “Self-esteem” is to be subordinated to “others-esteem.”
As suggested, there are limits to what Paul is saying. Giving honor to others means that we seek the best interests of others, in love. But this does not mean that our love always takes the form that others may wish or even accept. Sometimes a brother or sister in Christ will expect—even demand—what is “evil” or what is detrimental to their spiritual growth. Sometimes a brother may wish to be affirmed or encouraged when he needs to be rebuked, in love. Love does not always give the other what he or she wants, but rather what is best. Often there is a higher price to pay when our love takes an unwelcome form.
Loving one another means serving others ahead of oneself. But there are times when serving others means choosing not to serve, for the sake of stewardship and the sake of the gospel. Recognizing that I am but one member in the body of Christ and that God has gifted each member means I need not and cannot meet every need that I see. For me to meet a particular need may actually prevent someone else from doing so. Even when one member may do a better job, the gifts of others must be discovered and developed. This can only take place through experience in ministry.
Ministering to one individual could also hinder ministry to a larger number of people. Spending inordinate time with one individual may prevent one from devoting himself to a broader ministry.56 A true servant’s spirit always is willing to help anyone at any time in the most menial task. Nevertheless, we must also maintain a strong sense of our own gifts and calling, exercising wisdom in our stewardship of that which God has given us to do.
And so we see that love engenders the spirit of subordination, promoting servanthood and service one to another.
Not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.
Love energizes service to others. Love not only gives one a willing spirit to serve, but a fervent spirit to diligently pursue the task of serving one another.
Ministry is not easy. One need only look at the saints of old to discover that progress may seem painfully slow and that God’s purposes are not achieved instantly. Very often there is opposition to our ministry. On a few occasions this may be through direct satanic or demonic activity. Often it occurs by means of human agents. Many times our human opponents are unbelievers, but at times even our brethren oppose or resist our service. Sacrificial service must not only be motivated by love but also maintained by love.
Because our service is sacrificial, there may be little immediate hint of personal gain or benefit to us. Love not only inspires us to serve, it encourages and strengthens us to persevere in our service. The confidence that we are ultimately serving the Lord enhances the fervency of our spirit. It is He who brings about the results, and it is He who rewards faithful service.
There is too much talk in Christian circles, I fear, about “fulfillment in service.” In truth, there is probably more frustration in service than fulfillment. The great need is for faithfulness in our service (see 1 Corinthians 4:1-5). Love reminds us that we are serving the Lord, just as we were challenged to do in Romans 12:1. Love provides the staying power to stick with our task. Our commitment to benefit others, strengthened and sustained by love, does not wane when the going gets tough.
We may reverse this principle to learn something about ourselves. If love provides the energy to serve, then we must love that which energizes us. The church at Laodicea was apathetic and complacent. The saints there were far from fervent in their love or their service. Repentance and zeal was needed (see Revelation 3:14-22, especially v. 19). Materialism was the energizing force in the lives of the Laodiceans, loving money and things more than God. What animates your discussion and brings you to life and action? That is probably what you love.
Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer.
The staying power of love is closely related to its constant companions, faith and hope. Here Paul emphasizes love’s endurance in the midst of adversity. The Christian life is not a warm fuzzy; it is a war. Love must be able to handle the hard times which are sure to come. Because we love God, the world will hate us. We will find that living in a fallen world brings about suffering and groaning. Paul has spoken of this in chapters 5 and 8. Interestingly, love is prominent in these two chapters as well. The love prominent in chapters 5 and 8 is the love of God for us. Now, in our text, Paul turns to our love and its endurance in times of tribulation and testing.
Perseverance in tribulation is accomplished by rejoicing in hope. Paul speaks of the role of hope in a general way but also in the form of a personal testimony:
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulation, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
What contrast there is between Christian love and the “love” of this world. The heathen mind reasons, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32; see also Luke 12:19 and 1 Corinthians 10:7). Believing there is no future, the unbeliever must strive to wring out of the present all of the pleasure he can. The Christian is just the opposite:
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Hebrews 11:24-26).
The suffering saint may be tempted to think God is far from him in his times of adversity. This is not the case. God is never more near us than in our trials. It is in our sufferings that we find a deeper fellowship with Christ than we would have otherwise known:
Let your way of life be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,” so that we confidently say, “The LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT SHALL MAN DO TO ME?” (Hebrews 13:5-6).
Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin (1 Peter 4:1).
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10).
Contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
When times get tough, people begin to tighten up and to take fewer risks. Jesus warned His disciples that the love of the saints would wane in the days of tribulation:
And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name. And at that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, it is he who shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matthew 24:4-14).
False teachers will appear, Jesus warned, leading many astray (verses 5, 11). Wars, earthquakes, and famines will increase, creating racial and national tensions and multiplying physical needs (verse 7). This will be only the beginning of trouble (verse 8). Christians will be the special focus of hate and opposition (verse 9). Many saints will fall away, denying their faith (verse 10). Lawlessness will also increase. Anarchy will prevail. In such times, the love of most will grow cold and sometimes turn to hate (verses 10, 12).
In hard times, love toward the brethren will be needed more than ever. By this love, others will know we are Christians. At the same time, showing love will be more risky and dangerous than ever. Such times seem to be coming upon the church in America today, as they have come upon the church elsewhere. As such times come upon us, the need for love of the brethren increases.
Paul calls for two particular expressions of love for the brethren in verse 13. Both expressions invade the privacy of the Christian, a privacy highly valued in a self-centered, self-indulgent society.57 These two expressions of brotherly love involve first the wallet and second the home. Paul exhorts Christians to “contribute to the needs of the saints” and to aggressively practice hospitality.58 Let us consider both of these expressions of brotherly love.
Times of political tension and religious persecution take a heavy toll on Christians:
But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have a better possession and an abiding one (Hebrews 10:32-34, see also Matthew 24:4-14 above).
The consequences for faithfulness to Christ may include the loss of employment, the loss of property, and often the loss of friends and family who may abandon, deny, or even betray us. Persecuted saints often need financial and material assistance. To generously share with others in these times is to give up one’s assets and resources at a time when they may appear to be most needed. Identifying with fellow-believers who are being persecuted may also bring about persecution for us. Sharing with those in need at such times may seem to be too big a risk. For those who have families to support, the risk factor is much greater.59 Taking such risks requires faith, hope, and love. Paul teaches that genuine brotherly love requires just such sacrifices and risk-taking.
Hospitality is the other area of ministry Paul mentions. In those days, there was no Motel Six where Christians could stay when away from home. They were dependent upon the hospitality of those who shared a like precious faith who would open their homes to those believers they knew, as well as those they did not know.
The cost for such ministry can be high, especially in times of tribulation. First, because opening our homes is an invasion of our privacy which we hold as a very high priority. When violence increases and the dangers are great, we want burglar bars, dead bolts, Doberman pinschers, alarm systems, and no strangers. But such times of violence and danger make the needs of the traveler even more intense. Little wonder that both Abraham and Lot were so eager to invite the “angels unaware” into the hospitality and safety of their homes (see Genesis 18 and 19).
I believe Christians have, in many instances, rightly perceived the threat to their families coming from our heathen culture. We are not far behind Sodom and Gomorrah, if indeed we are behind at all! But there is a danger that our homes can become fortresses from which we bar not only our enemies but strangers who profess to know Christ. Practicing hospitality is vital to practicing our love for the brethren. When danger increases, along with the risk factor, love for the brethren becomes an even greater matter of urgency. When the risks increase, our love becomes an even greater matter of faith and hope.
Even when there is no great threat, as there was in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, there are still reasons why Christians hole up in their homes, refusing to show hospitality by inviting others into their homes. It is an invasion of our privacy as suggested. But it also exposes us as we really are, especially any hypocrisy we sustain by keeping others at arms length. It is an invasion into the intimacy of the home, an intimacy which we should share but would rather not. It allows us to look closer at the needs of the stranger, so that we may discover other needs and thus other obligations to which we must respond. Paul’s exhortation is clear. Hospitality is our obligation. It is one of the manifestations of the Christian’s “love for the brethren.”
One word of clarification should be made here. We are told to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We ought not to be naive or foolish as to where we stay nor to whom we invite into our homes. The hospitality which Paul calls for here is hospitality to the brethren. We are not encouraged to invite anyone and everyone into our homes. We should not hesitate to inquire as to the testimony of those whom we bring into our homes, especially if they are invited for more than just a meal. And even those who are saints should be shown hospitality in such a way as to minimize needless, foolish risks.60
The song with the words, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” is true. The world does need love. It needs the love of God. That love has been poured out in the person of Jesus Christ. Before you can ever be an instrument of God’s love, you must first be a recipient of that love.
The love of God is not the kind of love men naturally desire. That is because God’s love is a righteous and holy love. God’s love, by definition, adheres to what is good and abhors what is evil. Many people want the kind of God who loves men in their sin, who accepts them “just as they are.” God cannot and does not do so, because His love is a righteous love. But in His love, God has provided a way for us to become holy and righteous, so that His love can be shed abroad in our hearts and lives. The provision is the person of Jesus Christ. He died in the sinner’s place, bearing the penalty for our sins. He offers to us that righteousness which we can never achieve in and of ourselves. If you would receive the love of God, receive His righteousness, in Christ.
What the church needs today is “love, sweet love.” There is more talk about love than there is the practice of love. And much of that which passes for love is hypocritical. In the name of love, sin is tolerated in the church, rather than rebuked and removed (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Sometimes sin is practiced in the name of love. This is especially evident in the rampant immorality which is taking place in the church and among Christians.
The love which God calls for is a holy love, a love which hates sin and loves righteousness. The love God calls for is a sacrificial love. It requires us to subordinate our desires and interests, so that we may serve others selflessly. The love which God calls for is one which looks for long-term rewards rather than short-term pleasure. It endures hardship, suffering, and pain, for the benefit of others and for the service of the King and His pleasure. It is a love which takes risks and which shines forth when others are shrinking back. It is a love which responds to and reflects the love of God for us.
In the context of our lesson, it is a love which gives priority and preference to fellow-Christians—it is a brotherly love. One of my concerns is that we do not see the church (the body of Christ) or our brethren broadly enough. We desperately need more evidences and expressions of love within our own local church. We need to do better at sharing with those in need and showing hospitality. But the body of Christ is bigger than this. The body of Christ is national and international. When have we shared with a needy group of believers of another race or in another place far, far away? The churches in the Book of Acts did this (see Acts 11:27-30; 2 Corinthians 8-9). The church is not only to show hospitality to those whom we know, but to strangers, whom we do not know, believers who have traveled from far away places (see Hebrews 13:1-2).
There is a love for the brethren in our church, but it needs to grow. It needs to grow in quantity and in fervency. It also needs to grow outward, to extend to the broader body of Christ. We are instructed not only to demonstrate this love personally but to challenge and stimulate others to “love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-25). May God grant us the grace to do so for His glory.
52 Some translations indicate that the editors of the text understand verses 9-13 as a distinct paragraph; others do not. There are good reasons for dividing verses 9-21 into two paragraphs as I have chosen to do. First, there is a fairly clear distinction in these two paragraphs as to who is being loved. Those whom we are to love in verses 9-13 are quite clearly fellow-Christians. Those in verses 14-21 are at least predominantly unbelievers. (This is not to say that some Christians do not persecute and wrongly treat other Christians.)
Second, the grammar of these verses suggests a significant shift at verse 14. Verse 9 begins with a statement which omits the verb but which nevertheless has imperatival force. All the remaining verbs in verses 9-13 are participles, not imperatives. Verses 10-13, then, provide further explanation and illustration of the implied command of verse 9. An imperative occurs in verse 14, strongly suggesting that Paul indicates a change of focus. And so it is that I have divided the text into these two parts, with verses 9-13 focusing on love as practiced toward fellow-Christians and verses 14-21 focusing on love as demonstrated toward those unbelievers who persecute us.
53 Polygamy is illogical and inconsistent with biblical love. In love, a man chooses to cherish one woman, “above all others.” One can marry more than one woman, but one cannot love them equally. Love is a choice to set someone above and apart from someone else.
55 This subordination of one’s personal interests to the interests of a brother in Christ is, like submission, to be mutual (see Ephesians 5:21). Each and every Christian is to regard the interests of his fellow-believers as having priority over his own self-interests.
56 There is the danger, of course, of using this as an excuse. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite would have excused themselves from this menial ministry to the needy victim of crime on the basis of the need for them to minister to the many. Truth can always be abused and even used as an excuse for evil.
59 Perhaps this is one reason Paul urged the Corinthian saints to think twice about marriage in times of distress (see 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25-35).
60 I have worked with a number of prisoners and prison ministry programs. Naivet in such ministry may not only put the one ministering at risk, but it may also foolishly be a source of temptation to the one whom we are trying to serve. While risks are a part of ministry, they should be minimized as much as possible, without paralyzing ministry.