It is virtually impossible to exaggerate the importance of love. Nothing is more basic to true spirituality than this singular virtue. Nothing is more central to Christian living than this sole reality. At the very heart of authentic discipleship is love. Simply put, without love, we are nothing.
When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:36), He answered, it is wholehearted love for God. Christ then added that the second commandment is like it, that we must love others. In this, Jesus asserted that our love for one another is the identifying badge of discipleship (John 13:35). The apostle Paul further maintained that such love is the fulfillment of the whole Law (Galatians 5:14). That is to say, love meets every requirement of the divine standard. It is a debt that can never be repaid and must be continually given (Romans 13:8). In Christian living, love is not a secondary matter, but is primary. Love is never incidental, but fundamental.
But tragically, this was the very point at which the church in Corinth fell short. By all outward appearances, they had everything going for them—strong teaching, lofty knowledge, extreme giftedness, dynamic worship. Nevertheless, there was one area in which this early church was glaringly deficient, namely, love. They literally had everything except this one thing. But, in reality, they had nothing.
This underlying problem in the Corinthian church was primarily due to their swelling pride. They were self-centered, self-focused, and self-absorbed. As such, they were giving undue prominence to certain spiritual gifts while, at the same time, devaluing other graces, particularly love. In particular, the Corinthians elevated the public speaking gifts of preaching and teaching. They promoted prophecy and speaking in tongues. They prized knowledge and learning. They treasured the flashier, showier gifts that pandered to their emotions and catered to their flesh.
There was certainly nothing inherently wrong with these spiritual gifts. After all, these were grace gifts given by God Himself. But these gifts were no longer served as a means of grace to a higher end. Instead, they had become an end in themselves. Addressing this self-consumed arrogance, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13, a profound segment of Scripture that emphatically underscores the priority of love. In the apostle’s view, love is so basic, so fundamental to the Christian faith that, if there is no love, one has absolutely nothing.
As Paul addressed the subject of love, he intentionally used the Greek word agape—the sacrificial self-giving that seeks the highest good in another. By this, the apostle was stressing that all genuine love requires costly sacrifice. The Bible says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16, emphasis mine). Because God loved, He gave what was most costly. In short, where there is no sacrifice, there is no love. True love costs!
This is in contrast to other Greek words for love. One word, eros, refers to a romantic or sexual attraction. Still another word, phileo, describes a brotherly love, similar to a bond between friends. But this word, agape, is on a higher plane. This love is a God-like love—supernatural, Spirit-produced. Such authentic love is not a mere shallow, sentimental feeling. To the contrary, this kind of love runs much deeper, being deeply rooted and firmly grounded in the will.
Further, this selfless love is the volitional choice that puts the welfare of others before one’s own personal interests. This kind of love is more concerned about giving than receiving. In other words, it is not merely directed toward those who are easy to love. For example, Jesus said that even unbelievers love those who love them. But agape love extends to those who are a challenge to love, even to one’s enemies.
With this is mind, Paul composed the first three verses of this “Hymn of Love” in the first person. In so doing, he assumes a lowly posture in order to communicate his essential point to these proud believers. Paul makes himself the focal point in order to best reveal their need for love. By this, Paul demonstrates love as he prioritizes it.
First, the apostle Paul plainly states that speech without love is nothing. These Corinthian believers treasured the eloquence of public speakers. Located only forty-five miles from Athens, this iconic city was the center of Greek philosophical thought and exerted a cultural influence that caused the Corinthians to prize the rhetorical skills of their compelling orators. They elevated the public speakers of the Greek world, placing them on high pedestals. These golden-tongued persuaders were the proverbial rock stars of their day. The Corinthians swarmed around these charismatic personalities. They clamored after these compelling voices. They swooned at the sound of their soaring rhetoric.
What is more, the Corinthian church highly esteemed the spiritual gift of tongues. They sought the highly-charged, emotional atmosphere that came with these ecstatic utterances. They were turned on by the high-voltage surges of tongue speaking. But all this came at a great price. With this deep infatuation, they depreciated the importance of what they deemed to be every day, garden variety, plain vanilla love.
To this, Paul emphatically counters, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Here, the apostle speaks with exaggerated statements of hyperbole. Using himself as the example, Paul reasons that regardless of how well he could speak—even if he spoke in heavenly or angelic languages—but did not have love, he would be nothing but a cacophony of noise. He could preach the greatest sermons, teach the profoundest lessons, offer the wisest counsel, or give the strongest witness, but without love, his words are nothing more than empty and hollow. All sound, no substance. All rhetoric, no reality. Nothing but hot air.
Second, Paul asserts that knowledge without love is nothing. “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). The apostle again utilizes hyperbolic language in order to grab the attention of their arrogant minds. Paul argues, suppose I have the spiritual gift of prophecy, suppose I know every mystery of God’s eternal purpose, suppose I know the future, even suppose that I know everything there is to know. But if I do not have love, Paul admits, I am absolutely worthless. That is to say, he is a spiritual zero—a highly-gifted, much-applauded zilch.
Third, faith without love is nothing. Paul continues, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Such mountain-moving faith indicates one’s great trust in God, the ability to believe Him even in the face of enormous difficulty (Matthew 17:20). This faith is an unwavering, unshakable confidence in God. But even if Paul had such indomitable trust, yet without love, he would still be “nothing.” In other words, he would be spiritually useless. His trusting God would be pointless.
Fourth, sacrifice without love is nothing. Paul adds, “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor….but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). The apostle now extends his reasoning yet further. For the sake of argument, if he gave away all his earthly belongings to provide food for the needy, but did not have love, what does that make him? With self-condemnation, he declares that he remains nothing.
Case in point, consider the Pharisees. They appeared in houses of worship and stood on street corners. They blew their trumpets and gave their alms to the poor. But what did it profit them? Jesus said that they already have all their reward in full, simply, to be honored by men. Theirs was a buy high, sell low religion, and their net spirituality was zero.
Finally, martyrdom without love is nothing. Paul now pushes his point to the very limit. He imagines, “If I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). The apostle reasons, if he made the ultimate sacrifice, surrendering his body to be burned, presumably in the name of Christ, but without love, he is nothing. On a scale of one to ten, Paul would be a zero. His sacrifice would be much pain, but no gain. With keen discernment, the apostle does the math and quickly calculates the bottom line. Anything times zero is zero.
The Corinthians desperately needed to hear this truth. Without love, nothing else matters. Not speech, nor knowledge, not any religious activity. Not even martyrdom. Apart from love, nothing matters in authentic Christianity.
This is the significance of love to which Paul speaks. Without love, all somebodies are nobodies. Anyone all wrapped up in themselves makes for a small package. Subtract love from any spiritual pursuit, and it adds up to nothing. Multiply anything without love, and it equates to nothing. Bottomline, giftedness without godliness amounts to nothing.
The question then begs to be asked, Where is such supernatural love found? There is only one source. This kind of agape love is the fruit of the Spirit. Genuine love is produced in those who abide in Christ. This God-given love belongs to those who walk in the Spirit. This is where we will find love for our lives. So, let us continually look to Jesus Christ, the Supreme Model of selfless, sacrificial love. And, let us rest in His infinite love toward us. The more we love Him, the more we will have love for others.
This article was originally published in © Tabletalk magazine.