During Christ’s public teaching ministry on earth, he taught his followers stirring new truths (23) about love. And during the final hours before his death, at the last Passover meal, Jesus (24) revealed some of his most profound teaching on love.
He knew that if the disciples were to survive without him and represent him properly to the world, they must learn how to love one another as he had loved them.
Following their Lord’s example, the apostles deemed it necessary to teach and exhort the first churches about love. They prayed earnestly for their converts to grow in love and diligently taught them to live a life of love that was patterned after Christ’s love (Eph. 5:2). Thus the New Testament letters are full of inspiring instructions on love and challenging exhortations to love.
Believers today still need to be taught how to love. Just as was true in New Testament times, we need regular teaching on the biblical principles of love. We need a passion for teaching and obeying the whole counsel of God on love. We need to be exhorted to practice love, not just (25) talk about it. We need to hear teaching on the major New Testament passages on love.
Fifteen Descriptions of Love
People frequently sing and speak about love without ever describing what they mean by love. One of the most popular songs of the 1960s was the Beatles’ All You Need is Love. The word love is repeated thirty‐nine times throughout the song and the phrase “all you need is love” twelve times. The song is catchy, and it does make a point: we all need love. The problem, however, is that it doesn’t tell us what love is or why we need it. But in the Bible, God does tell us the truth about love, and that is what people need to be taught.
In an age of biblical illiteracy, believers need to know the truth about love. Believers need to be taught the fifteen descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter of the New Testament. When I was preaching in another country recently, I gave several messages on 1 Corinthians 13:4‐7. When I finished speaking, an older man who had been a leading preacher in that country for many years came up to me and said he had never heard a series of sermons on the fifteen descriptions of love. Given the vital importance of love and the need to know what love is, he thought the lack of teaching on the subject was a terrible oversight on the part of preachers such as himself.
God, however, has not overlooked the importance of teaching on love. Although the Bible doesn’t give a formal dictionary definition of love, it describes in detail what love does and doesn’t do (1 Corinthians 13:4‐7). It also gives us the example of Christ’s total, self‐sacrificing love for others and his loving obedience to the Father as a description of love.
The love descriptions of 1 Corinthians 13 set before us an objective standard of love. The scriptural standard of love is a test of our notions of love and instructs us in how to conduct ourselves in a loving manner in marriage, church, and society. The fifteen principles of love can be summarized as follows:
Love is not:
- Easily Angered
- Dose not rejoice at wrongdoing, but
- Rejoices with the truth
- Bears all things
- Believes all things
- Hopes all things
- Endures all things
Understanding and putting into practice the principles of love is so important that whenever I perform a marriage I give the new couple an assignment on their wedding day! I ask them to take the first fifteen weeks of their marriage to study the fifteen descriptions of love. I ask them to dedicate one week to each description. Throughout that week, they are to study, memorize, meditate on, and discuss ways to practically implement each positive virtue of love and avoid the negative qualities (the vices of selfishness). This assignment, which expands their understanding of true biblical love, could benefit anyone—married or single.
Love in the Christian Life
Since we live in a society that worships at the altars of personal self‐fulfillment, radical individualism, personal rights and freedom, and privacy, it is crucial to teach that the supreme duty of the believer is to love God first and foremost. Believers need practical, biblical guidance on what love for God looks like and how we are to love. We need to know the inseparable (26) connection between loving God and obeying God as a response of love.
Believers need to be taught that the Christian life is to be characterized by Christ’s total, self‐ giving love: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us (Eph. 5:2).” Our daily walk in love is to be patterned after Christ’s costly, sacrificial love for others: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
John Eadie’s understanding of what it means to walk in love bears repeating:
“Walk in love.” Every step is to be one of love. The whole tenor and course of life are to be characterized by love—not only on the Sabbath, but on every day; not only in the sanctuary, but in the (27) house, the workshop….
And Benjamin B. Warfield captures succinctly the profound truth of the Christian life of love (28) when he writes, “Self‐sacrificing love is thus made the essence of the Christian life.”
The Christian life, then, should be characterized by obedience to God’s Word and costly, sacrificial service for the welfare of others. J. I. Packer provides a marvelous summation of love and the Christian life:
The measure and test of love to God is wholehearted and unqualified obedience…. the measure and test of love to our neighbors is laying down our lives for them…. This sacrificial love involves giving, spending, and impoverishing ourselves up to the (29) limit for their well‐being.
This is the kind of Christian life God intends us to live. It is imitating our heavenly Father and thus imitating his Son’s love:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 5:1‐2)
Love in the Christian Home
With Christian families divorcing and breaking apart in record numbers, we need to teach the centrality of costly, sacrificial love in Christian marriage and the home. The Scripture directs husbands to love their “wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25; Col. 3:19) and instructs older women to “train the young women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4). We must clearly teach that the standard of love God sets for Christian husbands is nothing less than Christ’s total, self‐giving love. Thus the Christian home should be characterized by Christ’s unselfish, giving love – a love that is initiated by the husband.
Two missionaries traveled to a church on an isolated Pacific island to teach and encourage the believers. When the missionaries arrived, the local church elders requested that the missionaries teach on women’s submission and proper clothing. Knowing the people well, the missionaries said instead, “We are going to teach the men how to love their wives as Christ sacrificially loved the Church and gave himself up for her.”
Although the elders initially didn’t see the need for such teaching, they trusted the missionaries’ judgment and soon understood the wisdom in first teaching the men how to love their wives as Christ sacrificially loved the Church and gave himself up for her. Male selfishness (whether expressed by domination or passivity in the marriage) is often the chief problem in marriages. So in God’s plan, when Christ’s self‐giving, self‐sacrificing love is evident in the husband’s relationship with his wife, it sets in order the entire atmosphere of the Christian home.
Marriage provides opportunities for daily practice in the cultivation of Christlike love (Eph. 5:25‐ 33). It exposes our deplorable self‐centeredness and desperate need for growth in Christlike love. The home is the best testing ground for the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4‐7. It is a tragic situation when some believers show abundant love to people at church or in the neighborhood, but fail to express the same love to their spouse or children. This should not be. Love begins at home. Therefore, I encourage you to do what some husbands and wives have done (and done successfully, I might add): pray specifically for more Christlike love for your spouse and children.
Love in the Local Church Family
The local church is a divinely created family in which we learn to love as Christ loved. The local church is to be a close‐knit family of brothers and sisters who are totally committed to displaying God’s love by loving and caring for one another. The standard of love set for the local church is best explained John: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
Believers cannot encourage one another to love if they don’t meet together regularly as a church family. This is why the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to think creatively of ways (30) to “stir up one another to love,” and warns them about neglecting “to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25). Our growth in love is not just an individual exercise. Love requires both a subject and an object, thus love is a corporate learning experience. We grow in love by engagement with other people, not in isolation from them.
Christians cannot develop love by sitting at home alone on the couch watching TV preachers or by attending a weekly, one‐hour church service. It is only through participation in “the household of God,” the local church (1 Tim. 3:15), with all of its weaknesses and faults, that love is taught, modeled, by learned, tested, practiced, and matured. By dealing with difficult people, facing painful conflicts, forgiving hurts and injustices, reconciling estranged relationships, and helping needy members, our love is tested and matures.
One simply cannot grow in love without the stresses and strains of life together in the household of God, the local church. The local church truly is “a spiritual workshop for the development of agape love” and “one of the very best laboratories in which individual believers (31) may discover their real spiritual emptiness and begin to grow in agape love.”
Love and the Local Church Body
Believers also need to be taught that responsibility for the church’s growth in love (or its loss of love) is not just the responsibility of the church leaders; it is the responsibility of every member of the church family. When the writer of Hebrews says, “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), he addresses the whole believing community. In fact, all the biblical commands to love one another are directed to the entire congregation, not just a few key leaders. From the perspective of the New Testament writers, every member of the believing community is responsible for encouraging, praying for, exhorting, serving, (32) admonishing, teaching, building up, caring for, and loving one another. Indeed, Scripture teaches us that all believers are priests, saints, and servants of God.
To make this daunting task possible, God has given each individual believer a spiritual gift to use (33) in building up the body of Christ.
However, as the Scripture makes abundantly clear, all gifts and services in the body must be (34) exercised “in love” in order for the church to grow in a healthy manner (Eph. 4:16).
Put into practice the principle of love that says, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). Don’t neglect your responsibility to love and stir up others to love.
Love for All People
Many Christians mistakenly consider themselves to be loving people simply because they love their Christian friends and relatives. They love those who agree with them and remain in their circle of fellowship, but if someone disagrees with them or leaves their church, they stop loving and start attacking. Jonathan Edwards describes such Christians in this way:
They are full of dear affections to some, and full of bitterness toward others. They are knit to their own party, them that approve of them, love them and admire them; but are fierce against those that oppose and dislike them. (36)
This kind of love is not Christian love. Jesus taught that loving those who love us is nothing out of the ordinary. It is natural to love those who are friendly and agreeable with us, but Jesus says, If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. (Luke 6:32)
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt. 5:46‐47)
Christ demands from his followers a supernatural, divine love that forgives, reconciles, and forebears—with the unlovely, with those who persecute us, hate us, with those outside our circle of church friends, with those who disagree with us, and with all people of the world. This is the love our heavenly Father displays, the love Jesus summons us to imitate.
Plan to Teach God’s Principles of Love
Education is essential to nurturing love and changing people’s attitudes and behavior. If you want your local church to be a loving, caring, Christlike church, then you must plan to teach the full spectrum of God’s principles of love. If you want to cast a vision for your church to be a Christlike, loving community, speak of love often. Give warnings about the dangers of love that grows cold. Teach the truth of God’s Word and give people principles of love to follow.
Someone or some group in the church needs to take the responsibility to plan for teaching biblical principles of love, or it will not happen. To make teaching on love a reality, one church devoted four summer months to teaching on love. They called the program “Summer of Love” and taught the major New Testament passages on love. They dedicated a full month to teaching 1 Corinthians 13:4‐7. As individuals responded to the teaching of God’s Word, the atmosphere of the church began to change. What a thrill it is to witness a revival of love within a church! May we be faithful to the example of Christ and the apostles and continue to teach the “more excellent way” of love (1 Cor. 12:31).
23 Matt. 5:43—48; 6:24; 10:37‐38; 22:34‐40; Mark 12:28‐34; Luke 6:27‐36; 10:25‐42; John 13‐17.
24 Love (both the noun apage and verb agapao ) appears thirty‐three times in Christ’s farewell discourse (John 13‐17). In contrast, the words occur twelve times in John 1‐12.
25 Matt. 5:43‐48; 22:34‐40; John 13:34‐35; 1 Cor. 12:31‐13:13; Rom. 8:35‐39; 12:9‐21; 13:8‐10;
14:15; Eph. 3:18‐19; 5:1‐2, 25; 1 John 3:16‐18; 4:7‐5:3; Rev. 2:4.
26 Ex. 20:6; Deut. 10:12‐13; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:16, 19‐20; John 14:15, 21, 31; 15:10; 1 John 2:5;
5:3; 2 John 6.
27 John Eadie, Divine Love: A Series of Doctrinal, Practical and Experimental Discourses (1856; Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2005), 273.
28 Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” in The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 64.
29 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1993), 181‐182.
30 Commenting on Hebrews 10:24, Donald Guthrie writes, “It seems to suggest that loving one another will not just happen. It needs to be worked at, even provoked, in the same way as good works” (The Letter to the Hebrews, TNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 215).
31 Paul E. Billheimer, Love Covers (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1981), 34.
32 1 Cor. 12:25; Rom. 15:14; Gal. 5:13; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:24‐ 25; James
5:16; 1 Peter 4:10; 1 John 4:7.
33 Rom. 12:6‐8; 1 Cor. 12:1‐31; 14:1‐40; Eph. 4:7‐16; 1 Peter 4:10‐11.
34 Commenting on Ephesians 4:16, Peter T. O’Brien says, “Clearly the whole body is involved in this process of building [the church], not simply those who are leaders or who have special ministries…. The ‘spiritually gifted community is not only distinguished by its full possession of gifts through which divine energy flows, but it is also marked by its divine nature’. Love thus becomes the criterion for an assessment of the church’s true growth. Even the fullest demonstration of gifts has no spiritual value if love is lacking (cf. 1 Cor. 13)” (The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 316).
35 Robert L. Peterson and Alexander Strauch, Agape Leadership: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the life of R.C. Chapman, (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1991), 21.
36 Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections,” ed. John E. Smith, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed., Perry Miller (New Haven: Yale, 1959), 146.