1 Corinthians 13:4-8a - “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. Love never fails.”
Look up the word “love” in any secular dictionary and you’ll most likely find the definitions focus on words like attraction, affection, or feeling. These words are ambiguous and indefinable. At best, this kind of love may last for a few years. Attraction is frequently based on superficial traits; affection quickly fades when it’s not reciprocated, and feelings are the most uncertain and changeable human trait of all!
In contrast, the biblical definition is much deeper. Comparing the two is startling, like hanging a paint-by-number by a three-year-old next to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Scripture speaks much about love; the word is used 484 times in the NASB. In the Bible, love is practical and tangible. It’s made up of actions and words inspired by the will rather than some vague feeling that comes and goes on a whim.
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What Is Biblical Love?
In the New Testament, the most common word translated “love” is agape. It means affection and goodwill, but also has the motivation of benevolence. In other words, love does what is best for the one loved. It activates the will to respond in ways that benefit the object of our love. God is the original (and only) source of this kind of love.
1 John 4:7-11 – “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Perfect love, illustrated by God’s sacrificial gift in Jesus for those who were unlovable, and lived out by the Holy Spirit in us, is to be the defining characteristic of a redeemed individual. The one who does not love does not know God. Jesus said that all men would know we are His disciples if we have love for one another (John 13:35). Real love – biblical love – is our spiritual birthmark, a sign that we have been born again.
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Why Does Paul Give This Teaching on Love?
Perhaps the most familiar and practical definition of love is found in 1 Corinthians 13. The context of Paul’s famous and oft-quoted teaching on love is spiritual gifts. In the previous chapter, he instructs the believers that the Holy Spirit gives diverse gifts according to His will, and that each part of the body has equal value to the whole. God expects us to use our gifts to serve and build each other up, until we all are mature in Christ. This happens as we serve one another in love.
Ephesians 3:15-16 – “But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
After describing the various spiritual gifts, Paul tells us that all of these are only temporary, useful only in this life as we strive to become mature, Christ-like believers. He calls out the superficial desires we might have about things we think are important in the kingdom of God – things that make us good Christians but in reality, tend to inflate our egos and give us a false sense of misplaced value. These things include prophecy (the gift of divine inspiration and declaring of the purposes of God), knowing mysteries (things hidden to the ungodly but revealed to the righteous), general knowledge of the Christian faith, even personal sacrifice – the willingness to give up our possessions and our very lives. All of these are good, but without love, they are meaningless. And all of these will pass away. Love is the only thing that will last into eternity.
The Key to Biblical Love – Sanctification
So, what does biblical love look like? How do we love in tangible, practical ways that please God and reveals our spiritual identity as Christ-followers? In 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, Paul lists sixteen distinctions, eight positive (things we should be or do) and eight negative (things we should not be or do).
At its core, love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). As we walk in the Spirit, having “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24-25), we learn to put aside the deeds of the flesh (anger, pride, self-centeredness, and ungodliness) and put on the new self which is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of Jesus (Colossians 3). The new life is marked by humility, godliness, faithfulness, and putting the interests of others ahead of our own interests.
That’s the key to practical biblical love – sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s list is simply a practical description of the contrast between the old life (unsanctified, carnal, or unsaved) and the new life (sanctified, transformed) we have in Christ.
Let’s take a brief look at each of Paul’s descriptions.
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8 Do’s and 8 Don’ts of Biblical Love
1. Love Is Not Jealous, nor Is It Provoked
These two actions are a by-product of anger. To be jealous is to envy or to burn with zeal, to be heated, to boil. To be provoked is to be aroused to anger or scorn, as though spurred, or stimulated. It’s an angry response when irritated.
2. Love Does Not Brag, nor Is It Arrogant
These two actions are manifestations of pride. The King James Version offers a colorful translation of brag: love vaunteth not itself. The word indicates self-display, extolling oneself excessively; the root word is perperos, a braggart. To be arrogant is to be puffed up, to inflate, from phusa, meaning “bellows.” Pride puffs us up and is the opposite of love.
3. Love Does Not Seek Its Own, nor Does It Take into Account a Wrong Suffered
These two actions are a result of being self-centered. We pursue our own wants to the exclusion or detriment of others. When we are self-centered, we keep a record of wrongs done to us; life is about us and we view life through the lens of “how does this affect me?” The word means “to reckon,” and is an accounting term. We keep a running tab of the things done against us and only value relationships that serve our interests.
4. Love Does Not Act Unbecomingly, nor Does It Rejoice in Unrighteousness
These two actions are the outcome of our willing participation in ungodliness. In today’s culture, there are few boundaries that classify behavior as “unseemly” or “indecent.” In a progressively wicked world, few consider that their personal choices have an effect on others. When we truly love someone, we make choices that draw them toward a closer relationship to God, not push them farther into immorality, perversity, or depravity.
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5. Love Is Patient; Love Bears All Things
These are the actions of a person who is focused on others – the opposite of self-centered. Another word for patience is longsuffering. It means to persevere bravely in misfortunes and troubles, and to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others. It indicates a slowness and self-restraint in the face of provocation, the opposite of anger.
The word translated “bears” all things is stego, meaning to protect or keep by covering; to conceal the errors and faults of others. This is a beautiful picture of the kind of love it takes to sustain a life-long marriage, where each spouse lives out Peter’s admonition to “above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). This does not mean we assist others in hiding intentional sin, but that we show mercy when others fail, keeping confidences and giving grace so that God has time to work in a person’s heart. We put their interests above ours (Philippians 2:3-4).
6. Love Rejoices with the Truth; Love Is Kind
Truth and kindness are the outworking of godliness. John wrote to his Christian brother, Gaius, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in truth” (3 John 4). The word translated “rejoices with” is sygchairo and means to take part in another’s joy. Kind actions are those which are useful, or fit, benevolent, and virtuous, as opposed to harsh, sharp, or bitter. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God’s immutable attributes of grace and mercy became visible in the kindness of a Savior, as Paul reminded us: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). As the Holy Spirit forms the character of God in us, love becomes practical. We are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), which is the ultimate act of kindness and the only path to true joy.
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7. Love Believes All Things; Love Hopes All Things
In contrast to pride that leads to boasting and arrogance, belief and hope are nurtured in humility. To believe is to trust, to think, to be true. True belief means that we are fully persuaded and have placed our full confidence in the object of our belief.
Hope also speaks of trust, an expectant anticipation, or to wait with confidence and joy that what one hopes in or for what will come to be. No one hopes or believes in Jesus without a sense of humility. We love God because in our humility, we believe Him to be who He says He is, and we place our hope in the finished work of Jesus.
Practically, we must humble ourselves to love others; we must believe in them, that God is working out their salvation and sanctification even when they are unlovable. We must love them with a hope that sees beyond today’s hurts or misunderstandings, trusting God to work all things for good.
8. Love Endures All Things; Love Never Fails
Enduring, unfailing love speaks of faithfulness, another fruit of the Spirit. Faith that leads to salvation is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9), and it is His faithfulness in us and to us that produces love for others that will not flee or fade away. To endure is to remain or tarry; it is to bear up bravely and calmly in the face of difficulty. This is possible because love never fails. It never falls powerless or becomes inefficient. It will not perish, not because of our human efforts, but “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Without the Holy Spirit’s work in us, we will never overcome the anger, pride, self-centeredness, and ungodliness that keeps us from loving others. The good news is that as Spirit-filled Christ-followers, He is bearing fruit in us.
Do you want to love others biblically? If you’re waiting for your feelings to lead you, you’re in for a disappointment. First, surrender to the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit. Yield your will to God and allow Him to love through you.
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Author Sheila Alewine is a pastor’s wife, mother, and grandmother of five. She and her husband lead Around The Corner Ministries, which serves to equip Christ-followers to share the gospel where they live, work and play. She has written several devotionals including Just Pray: God’s Not Done With You Yet, Grace & Glory: 50 Days in the Purpose & Plan of God, and her newest one, Open The Gift, as well as Going Around The Corner, a Bible study for small groups who desire to reach their communities for Christ. Their ministry also offers disciple-making resources like One-To-One Disciple-Making in partnership with Multiplication Ministries. Sheila has a passion for God’s Word and shares what God is teaching her on her blog, The Way of The Word. Connect with her on her blog, Facebook, and Instagram.