In the famous passage in I Corinthians 13:1-7 Paul the Apostle extolls the virtues of Christian love:
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. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
- I Corinthians 13:1-7
Once he finishes talking about love, Paul goes on to review the great Christian virtues of faith and hope, but he says in the end that love is the greatest of these.
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- I Corinthians 13:8-13
My question in this Mini Book is, "Why?" Why is love the greatest of the three?
Of course, in order to answer these questions, we first need to look at faith and hope so we can compare these to love, and hopefully see how and why love is greater than these two.
The Meaning of Faith
In the New Testament the word faith referred to two things. Determining the meaning depended on how the word was used and the context in which it was used.
1. The Faith
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
- Jude 1:3
In this passage the word faith referred to knowledge, a body of information concerning the Christian religion. In Ephesians 4:5, Paul says that there is only "...one Lord, one faith, one baptism." He also means that there is only one body of teaching about Christ that is authoritative.
So faith can mean doctrine or teaching. We "keep the faith," meaning we hold on to or preserve the Apostolic teaching of the Bible.
2. A Faith
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
- Hebrews 11:1-3
The other meaning of the word refers to a feeling, a decision we have made concerning a matter. In Hebrews 11:1-3, the writer describes faith as the decision to believe as true and legitimate not only what he has seen God do but also what God has written in His word.
Faith is the decision to believe as true that the world was created by God exactly as Genesis records it, even if we were not there.
- We haven't seen it.
- We haven't experienced it.
- We accept as true (faith) because God has said this is the way it was.
The writer then goes on to describe the lives, sacrifices, and great deeds of men and women who decided to accept as true God's promise of a Savior, and then lived and died confident that the promise was sure - even if they didn't see it in their lifetimes.
Faith is a decision to take God at His word without any other proof necessary.
The Meaning of Hope
In the same passage where the writer of Hebrews describes the essence of faith, he also makes reference to the idea of hope. He says that faith is the assurance of the things we hope for.
Now "hope" in the Bible is not the kind of wishful thinking we refer to as "hope" in our modern society. For example:
- I hope I pass my exam.
- I hope I win the next Powerball Jackpot.
The term "hope" in the Bible referred to a sure thing that you fully expect to receive but haven't gotten yet. For example:
- You've written and passed all the exams and hope to get your diploma.
- The graduation ceremony is in a month, you don't have your diploma in your hand, but you fully expect to receive it.
There is no doubt in your mind. This is the biblical meaning of hope.
In the Bible, when someone had "hope" it meant that they had full assurance that what they were promised in the future they would receive when the time came.
It was Paul's absolute certainty that he would be resurrected from the dead that made him cry out to the Jewish leaders, during his questioning by them, that he was on trial for the "hope and resurrection of the dead." He wasn't just wishing or guessing, he was sure of it and anticipated it with great pleasure and zeal. Hope is what made him brave and faithful in the face of suffering and death.
Hope is the sinner's reply to those who question his faith in Jesus Christ and continual service to the Lord and His church.
Someone will ask, "On what do you base your confidence that you are forgiven, acceptable, free from sin?"
And the sinner will answer, "My confidence is based on God's goodness and mercy. I see His kindness and mercy towards other sinners recorded in the Bible and I believe that He did this for them. I, therefore, am confident (hope) that He will extend this mercy to me. My hope is not based on how good I am. My hope is based on how good He is."
Someone says, "How and why are you sure you will be raised from the dead? You've never seen this done."
I respond that my hope for resurrection is based on the power of God that I have seen, not the power I haven't seen. I have seen the awesome world that He has created and I have hope. I have seen the life that He has created from nothing and I have hope. I have seen (through the eyes of the Apostles) the resurrection of Jesus and I have hope.
My hope for my own resurrection is based on the power God has already demonstrated to me.
He has shown me that He can do it, He has promised me that He will do it, I believe His promise and His power, and this gives me hope that one day I will be raised to a new and perfect life with Him forever.
Hope is always based on God, not self or the world.
Anyone whose hope is based on God and His Son Jesus Christ has the blessed assurance that what God promised, He will deliver.
The Meaning of Love
The word love has many meanings in English:
- Affection for a friend.
- The bond within a family.
- Sexual desire.
- A benevolent attitude toward those who are in need.
In the Bible, the word translated into English as love did not mean any of these things. The biblical ideas of love referred to:
- A desire for the best for another, even if it cost us something. A shorter way of saying this would be to say that biblical love is "Sacrificial Love".
- Obtaining the best for another, even an enemy, at our cost.
A good Old Testament example of this kind of love was Jonathan, Saul's son, who was next in line for the throne. Jonathan gave up his position as prince and heir out of his love for David, who he recognized was God's choice to succeed Saul.
Of course, the ultimate example of sacrificial love is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Jesus leaves His heavenly position to come to earth to die a despicable death so His enemies could be saved and have eternal life.
Parenting is one way to learn about and experience biblical love. For example, we all have a prodigal, we can all serve others in need, we can be people who give of ourselves or protect others with our lives.
Willingly copying Jesus' attitude in order to cultivate this kind of love in our character is the main goal of every Christian. At the end of the passage, Paul says to remain in faith and hope and this kind of love - and then says that this love is the greatest.
Faith and hope are pretty important, pretty great he says, but love is greater still. Why?
Why Love is the Greatest
There are several reasons why love is the greatest.
1. Love is Eternal
Faith and hope are necessary to bring us to salvation and maintain our spiritual lives while we are here on earth.
- Obedient faith puts us into Christ (Galatians 3:26).
- Constant hope maintains our faith (Galatians 5:5).
Once we reach heaven, however, faith and hope will no longer be necessary because we will see God face to face (Revelation 22:4). No need to believe this as true, we will actually be in His presence.
We will also experience the glorified body, the body without sin or death; we will no longer hope for it, we will have it! In heaven, only love will remain. Only the context and experience of love will be real. In heaven:
- We will love God perfectly because we will know Him and do His will perfectly.
- We will love ourselves perfectly because we will be sinless; there will be no shame, regret, nothing to dislike about ourselves.
- We will love others perfectly because Satan will no longer divide us, we will all be together in Christ, perfectly suited and united in perfect peace and love.
So, love is the greatest because there will be nothing left to respond to in faith, nothing left to hope for; only love will remain to experience and rejoice in forever.
2. God is Love
John didn't say, God is faith or God is hope - he said, "God is love" (I John 4:8).
The essence of God's character is love. Love is what motivates His actions and defines His being. Love is the greatest virtue because to love is to know God ultimately and do His ultimate will.
- Faith believes what God says.
- Hope expects what God promises.
- But love does what God does.
Faith and hope are the best characteristics of the human heart, but when a person loves they have become "spiritual" people and the true children of God (I John 4:16). All religious people believe and hope, only godly people love as God loves.
Love is the greatest because it is the defining characteristic of a Spirit-filled person. The true faith and a genuine hope are expressed in Christian love; without love, faith and hope are worthless.
3. Love is Power
It isn't our faith that has the power to save us, it's God's love that saves us - faith is our proper response to that love. It isn't our faith or hope that draws people to Christ, it is the love of Christ we show them that brings them to faith and hope and eventually their own love of Christ and others.
There would be no faith and no hope if it weren't for love. Love was first and love will be last. And with that idea in mind I ask everyone this question, "Has the power of God's love reached you yet?"
- Have you eaten and slept in a comfortable place? This is His love working.
- Have you had others love and care for you? This is His love working.
- Do you have strength and possessions and freedom? This is His love working.
- Have you heard that His Son died to pay the price for your sins? This is His love working.
- Do you know that He offers you forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life? This is His love working.
His love is working so that your faith and hope can start working. Your faith in God and your hope in God are working if:
- You believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and you acknowledge this.
- You repent of your sins and are baptized for the forgiveness of these sins.
Don't say that your faith and your hope are working if you have not done these things or if you are not living in God's love.
For faith, hope, and love to come together to produce eternal life God's love must be there. Your faith and hope must be there. We know God's love is there, we see the proof of it everywhere, every day.
What is needed is your faith and your hope.
If you've not given proof of that yet, or have stopped giving proof of it, don't waste another day. Express your faith and hope in Him now so you may experience His love forever.