In I Corinthians 13:13 Paul summarizes the essence of the Christian life: the pursuit of faith, hope and love.
But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
In the previous chapters I have reviewed with you the first two concepts of faith and hope. Faith, I said, was a mix of three elements:
- Knowledge that comes from the words of Christ found in the Bible.
- A decision to accept as true and obey those words.
- The ongoing experience of joy, perseverance and confidence based on our knowledge, belief and obedience of Christ's words.
Hope, we discovered, was an experience produced by faith. It was the absolute certainty that we will receive what God has promised us because:
- God guarantees it.
- He has already given it to us in Christ.
In this final section I want to review some of the reasons why Paul says that love is greater than faith or hope.
In the English language the word love is an all purpose kind of word that describes the various levels of fondness that we have for different things. For example, "I love my dog" or, "I love the sport of football" or, "I love my mother." You will note that the same word, love, is used to describe how one feels about very different things.
The New Testament was written in the Greek language and the Greeks, unlike the English, had a variety of words to express the different feelings of love. For example:
This was the most common word for love or affection and the various words that come from this word show this (e.g. philos - love for a friend; philema - a kiss; philosophia - a love of knowledge; philadelphia - a love of brother; philoxenia - a love of strangers or hospitality). It was a word that denoted the attraction of people to one another in a non-sexual way. This word also served to express a fondness for things and a concern for hospitality but was not a word used in a religious context.
The word stergo was used to describe the affection between parents and children. At times it served to describe the love that the nation had for its ruler, and on occasion was put into use as a way to describe the affection that a dog had for its master. It was, however, rarely used in the New Testament.
The word eros denoted the craving and sensual longing between the sexes. It was the word the Greeks used when describing the state of ecstasy that leaves behind all will, reason and discretion. The Greek god of love bore the same name. Much of the sexuality in pagan religion was based on the idea that one could commune with the gods when reaching a state of sexual ecstasy. This is what the pagan orgy and practice of sex with temple prostitutes was all about. The word eros also referred to the pleasure one experienced from the arts, sports, etc.
In ancient Greek literature this word was used infrequently (only one reference is found outside the Bible). It meant to welcome or to be generous with. It was used to describe the attitude that parents would have with an only child. Like many other ideas, the Bible writers took this rather bland and obscure word and injected it with very special meaning to describe God's attitude towards us, and then in time, our attitude toward God and other people.
In the New Testament, therefore, when we see the word "love" it is almost always the English translation of the Greek word agape that the writers chose to describe Christian love because it was different than phileo, stergo or eros.
Why is it better than faith or hope?
In the passage we have been examining, Paul urged the church to pursue faith, hope and love, but then says that love is the greatest. Why would love be the greatest? After all, without faith we could not be saved and without hope we would be miserable. Why then would Paul say that love is the greatest? Here are three reasons why the Apostle would claim this:
1. Love is a Godly Quality
Love is something that existed before faith or hope. It is part of God's nature.
The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
- I John 4:8
God does not need faith because His word is truth (John 17:17). Man needs faith but God does not because He already knows everything. Man lives on hope because hope supports his yearning to be out of his sinful body and with God (Romans 8:24-25). But God is not hopeful, He is the one who possesses everything, who gives everything, who guarantees everything. He does not need hope to sustain Himself. Faith and hope are things that God has provided for man, to save and sustain him. Love, however, is a characteristic that belongs to God and was present long before there was any need for faith or hope. It is greater because, like God, it is eternal in nature.
2. Love is Powerful
What moved God to create the world? What moved God to save the world? What moved Jesus to die for his friends?
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
- John 15:13
It is this agape type of love that is different from friendship, family or sexual love. Love has power because power is needed to treat others in a way that blesses only them and not self. Power is required to bestow favor on one who is unworthy of it or to love those who do not love you or are not appealing to you. Only something powerful can move a person to sacrifice self for someone else and care for those who can give nothing in return.
Love is greater than faith or hope because love has the power to create, regenerate and sustain not only the one who expresses it but the one who receives it as well. Yes, we are saved by faith and sustained by hope, but that salvation would not have been possible if "[God] had not loved us first." (I John 4:19).
3. Love Produces Light
In John 13:35 Jesus said,
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love (agape) for one another.
The love we have, first and foremost for one another as Christians, will be the initial light that will display Christ to the world. People are not won over by our great faith or confidence. They are drawn by the love that they see Christians sharing in the church and then as they experience it themselves. People who see us helping each other, supporting each other and sacrificing for one another are drawn to the love that they see in us.
Love is the greatest because it is the thing in this world that most resembles, represents and reflects the true God and His very real presence in the world. When Jesus talks about light and salt (Matthew 5:14), He is not referring to faith or hope, He is describing the effects of love.
The power of the gospel is not simply religious information about Christianity, it is the love story about Jesus dying for sinners like you and me. The power of our Christian life is not about how much we believe or how convincing we can be in a religious argument. It is the witness of our loving attitude toward one another in Christ, and our love for those who have not yet known Christ. The power of the gospel brings people to Christ, but it is the light of our love that makes them love the Lord and each other as well.
So we get to the question:
What is Love?
In the world, love is about feelings: feeling close and secure to parents and family; feeling intimacy and trust with friends; feeling concern and appreciation for things of beauty, strangers, the nation, a cause or a feeling of sexual passion. The Bible does not condemn these feelings, they are a natural part of the human experience. But when the Bible talks about love it talks about something that goes beyond feelings. That is why it uses a special word to describe love.
In the Bible, love is:
- A characteristic of God: A generosity, a graciousness, a kindness not based on feelings but on principle. A holy and perfect God is kind, generous and welcoming.
- A creative power: Love based on feeling takes, needs and searches for satisfaction. Biblical love empowers others to life, to love and to joy.
- A bright light: Human love eventually fades because of death or loss of interest. Biblical love becomes brighter and brighter because the source that powers it in our hearts is God Himself.
To make sure that we would not misunderstand this greatest of all things, God demonstrated this love in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, as a human, experienced all of the feelings of human love, but because He was God He also demonstrated agape/love for all to see. We witnessed this love in His godly character, in His holiness, purity and knowledge, His creative power in miracles, and the bright light of His mercy, kindness and sacrifice on the cross.
If God is love and Jesus is God, then Jesus is love. When I see Jesus I not only see the Father, but I see what love is as well.
In this brief study I have tried to share with you the great triad of the Bible: faith, hope and love. Love is the greatest of these because it is first and it will be last. Long after faith and hope are no longer necessary, love will still be part of our heavenly experience. As a matter of fact, it will be the sum total of our heavenly life, loving God as He loves us forever.