1 Corinthians 13:13

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Alice in Wonderland is confused when Humpty Dumpty uses a word to make it mean many things. Alice remarked: "That's a great deal to make one word mean." Love in the English language is one of those overloaded words. It carries on its back the freight of a multitude of meanings. It is so ambiguous that it can mean anything from altruism to eroticism. Below I hope to show the distinctive nature of biblical love.

I. Definition of Love

In a biblical sense, the term love has a precise and profound meaning. Three words are used in the New Testament to convey the meaning of love: storge, philia, and agape. Eros — which had come to have sexual connotations in Jesus' day — is not used by New Testament writers. Generally philia has to do with affection between friends; storge relates to love in family relations; but agape has a unique meaning.

Jesus took this ancient, colorless term to the laundry, cleaned it up and filled it with new content. While Jesus nowhere defined love, it appears Godward to mean trust, worship, and obedience to God. On the human side it means to will the well-being of all of God's creatures and his creation. Agape is not merely liking someone. It is not a sentimental love; it is a matter of the will and therefore can be commanded.

Love is the central ethical motif in both Old and New Testaments. Love is the "higher way" or more excellent way (I Cor. 12:31). The Christian life is summed up in Paul's statement: "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). It is greater than faith and hope (I Cor. 13:13). In the consummation of The Kingdom of God love abides, for God is love.

Jesus, then, gave love a new and distinctive meaning. It means to will the well-being of the other. This involves, among other things, the other's health, and happiness; a recognition of the dignity and worth of the other; the granting of the basic rights of the other. Without this sort of content and conduct love is an abstraction. This is why love always needs defining from the Christian perspective. A. C. Craig puts it: "The word 'love' always needs a dictionary and for the Christian the dictionary is Christ. He took this chameleon of a word and gave it a fast colour, so that every since it has been lustred by his life and teaching, and dyed in the crimson of Calvary, and shot through with the sunlight of Easter morning." (The Sacramental Table, p. 50.)

II. Dimensions of Love

Agapeic love has dimensions that encompass all of the Christian's life and values. It is existential and concrete. One has only as much agape as one practices in relation to others. Paul tells us to "Practice the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).

Agapeic love is all-inclusive. Jesus declared: "Love your enemies" and be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:44, 48). To understand this injunction to perfection, one must view it in the context of the text. God sends the rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust without discrimination. Hence, he is all-inclusive in his love. So to be perfect as God is perfect one must be all-inclusive in his or her love.

The love of God in the individual's heart must radiate as widely as God's love. It suffers with friends and enemies. Abraham Lincoln once said at the close of the Civil War: "I have never suffered by the South, I have suffered with the South. Their pain has been my pain. Their loss has been my loss."

Justice and agape are inseparable. Justice is the instrument of love. It gives direction and concreteness to love. Love makes justice just. Love without justice is mere sentimentality and irrelevant to life.

Love in the biblical sense requires involvement in meeting human need. This sort of involvement is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Loving ministry to human need is the criterion of the final judgment (Matt. 25:31ff).

John, the apostle, makes it clear that genuine love gets involved with neighbor needs. He says: "If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (I John 3:17).

Agapeic love is insightful. It figures the angles, makes assessments, and evaluations. Paul prays that the Philippian Christians' love "may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ" (Phil: 1:9-10).

In our time of confused values, love with knowledge is essential to identify the highest and best values. In one of his addresses to Oxford University students (1941), Archbishop William Temple said: "The world as we live in it, is like a shop window in which some mischievous person has got in overnight and shifted all the price labels around, so that the cheap things have the high-price labels around them and the really precious things are low priced." Today our sense of values are more topsy-turvy than ever.

This anecdote describes our lost sense of values. We tend to give priority to the cheap, the tinsel, the tawdry, and the success and status syndromes.

Love is not only the greatest thing in the world, it is also the most powerful transforming force. At a hospital for the multi-handicapped children, I noted a little girl in a wheelchair. She had a cast on her left arm. I touched her and she smiled. The chaplain explained that a few weeks ago the little girl would have bitten me. She had been starved for love. She had broken her arm in a stormy fit of anger. What made the difference? She had been provided with a black surrogate mother who genuinely loved her.

III. The Depth of Love

The ground of our loving is the God of love. Love is the ontological nature of God; his being is love (I John 4:8). Love is the guiding value of the Christian life. (I John 4:11). Love's depth is in the heart of God.

Love is the principle of judgment as well as judging. Every practice or policy that is alien to love is wrong. It is so because it violates God's nature and purpose. Love is no excuse or cover for our sins. It does not sanction injustice, prejudice, and selfishness. Its basic characteristics are those of Jesus himself. Paul's great poem to love reflects the character of Jesus himself: patience, kindness, not jealous or boastful, not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in right (I Cor. 13:4-7).

Love in the biblical sense is radically Christocentric. The command to love God, neighbor, and self (Mark 12:28-34) is Jewish ethics. A Jewish scribe had asked Jesus which was the great commandment. Jesus gave him the Jewish answer. Love of God, neighbor and self had been formulated long before Jesus' day in The Twelve Teachings of the Patriarchs. Jesus gave his disciples a "new commandment." It reads: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you that you also love one another"(John 13:34). Here the measure or ground of one's love is not that of self, but Christ himself. To love others as you love yourself is a prudential and calculating ethic. To love as Christ loves is sacrificial and selfless.

"God is love" (1 John 4:8) and the Bible is a book of love. It is amazing how often the concept of love appears in Holy Scripture. At five hundred I stopped counting. They reference love to God, love to neighbor, love of enemies, love of God and God's love for the world. In contrast, the Koran, the Holy book of Islam, has little place for love. My translation has five references of love to Allah and only four references of love to others, that is, other Muslims.

Faith, hope and love are the guiding principles of The Christian's being and behavior. Love is the greatest and will survive faith and hope. Why? Because love will "never end," "pass away," "fail," or "disappear." Faith and hope will be fulfilled in the "new heaven and new earth." Love alone will remain for God is love and all will live at the level of love.


Henlee Barnette is Emeritus Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Retired Clinical Professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

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