The Most Excellent Way of Love

Paul’s Advice on Love

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7­8, Scriptures from NIV).

By Tom Gilbert

The Most Excellent Way of Love

Christian people, in general, know that 1 Corinthians 13 is the “love chapter” of the Bible, just as they know that John 3:16 tells us that God’s love for humanity was so great that He gave His only Son to die to redeem us all.

The relationship between these two passages is important. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, describes the many facets of love by the behaviors or actions it engenders. John describes the greatest demonstration of love that we know — God sacrificing the life of His only Son, and Jesus willingly laying down his life as a sacrifice to redeem all people.

In a sense, God=s action was inevitable because John tells us that “love comes from God” and “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). The very essence of God prompted him to rescue mankind from sin and death. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

What we have described through the testimony of the scriptures is “divine love” — the love of God, the love that comes from God, the love that is the essence of His nature and character. That is what the Apostle Paul attempts to describe and help us understand in 1 Corinthians 13. After discussing the gifts of the holy Spirit in chapter 12, he concludes and leads into chapter 13 by stating, “But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).


In the original language of the New Testament, all of the words for “love” in the scriptures thus far quoted are the Greek word agape (or the verb form, agapao). Also, every time we find the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, it is the Greek word agape. What is agape love?

While agape is divine love, God’s love, it is also the common word for love in the New Testament. It is found 257 times. The next most common words translated “love” are phileo (tender affection) found 54 times and philadelphia (love for our brethren) seen 7 times.

A frequently used definition of agape is that it is unconditional love — a love that is not motivated by any self-interest. There are no “ifs” and “thens” associated with this kind of love, such as, “If you will do this for me, then I will love you.” Agape is a love that does not place requirements on the one who is loved in order to be a recipient of such love. It is a love which expects nothing in return. It is a love even for those we might regard as enemies. Jesus addressed these points when he said: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. … But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:32, 35).

Another definition of agape is a love based on commonalities. For instance, we might think or say, “You are a fellow human being (like me), therefore I love you.” Or, “You are a creation of God, therefore I love you because I love and cherish all things my Creator has made.” Or, “You are a fellow-traveler on the Narrow Way that leads to life; therefore, I cherish you and will do whatever I can to encourage and assist you.” This conception of agape suggests that there is a certain duty of love and caring that we owe to each other because of the common characteristics among us. Thus, some Bible study sources explain agape as a love based on principle. Here are definitions from three sources.

● “Agape is spontaneous love, irrespective of ‘rights.’” It is love based “on principle” (The Companion Bible, E.W. Bullinger, editor).

Agape is “generally assumed to mean moral goodwill that proceeds from esteem, principle, or duty, rather than attraction or charm … to love the undeserving, despite disappointment and rejection … Though agape has more to do with moral principle than with inclination or liking, it never means the cold religious kindness shown from duty alone, as scriptural examples … prove” (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell, editor).

● Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words contains a wonderfully thorough discussion of agape love: “Agape and agapao are used in the NT (a) to describe the attitude of God toward His Son, (John 17:26); the human race, generally (John 3:16, Romans 5:8), and to such as believe on the Lord Jesus Christ particularly (John 14:21); (b) to convey His will to His children concerning their attitude one toward another (John 13:34), and toward all men (1 Thessalonians 3:12, 1 Corinthians 16:14, 2 Peter 1:7); (c) to express the essential nature of God (1 John 4:8).

“Love can be known only from the actions it prompts. God’s love is seen in the gift of His Son (1 John 4:9, 10). But obviously this is not the love of complacency, or affection, that is, it was not drawn out by any excellency in its objects (Romans 5:8). It was an exercise of the divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause save that which lies in the nature of God Himself (cf. Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

“Love had its perfect expression among men in … Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14, Ephesians 2:4, 3:19, 5:2), Christian love is the fruit of his Spirit in the Christian (Galatians 5:22).

“Christian love … exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered. Love seeks the welfare of all (Romans 15:2), and works no ill to any (Romans 13:8-10); love seeks opportunity to do good to ‘all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith’ (Galatians 6:10). See further 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:12-14” (emphasis added).

1 Corinthians 13 is the Apostle Paul’s wonderfully thorough description of agape love — how it is manifested through actions, endurance, tolerance, and restraint.

He says, first, that love is patient. We are all uniquely different and even those close to us, such as our family, spouse, coworkers, and brethren, say things or behave in ways that can surprise or irritate us. Love should direct us to be patient and accepting of these differences.

When these differences or irritations stress our patience and we feel we must say something, love should restrain us from speaking sharply. Thus, love is kind in its expression.

Love is not jealous. It does not envy what others have or enjoy. Agape love at its core is about seeking and doing what is good for and will bless others, even at personal expense or loss. In providing the Ransom, both God and Jesus demonstrated this. Jealousy and envy are the opposite of agape. We should be alert to notice any tendency to be envious of the relationships, possessions, or opportunities of others.

Love does not brag and is not arrogant. Love should prevent us from flaunting the special deeds we have done or successes we have. Sometimes this is very hard to do when you have done something special for another person or you have a personal success, and the other person seems not to notice or appreciate it.

Love is not ill‑mannered. It is not rude. Love directs us to act and speak appropriately and discreetly in all situations, regardless of the actions or words of others.

Love is not selfish. It is so easy in our stressful lives to think first of “what I need.” But if love is controlling our heart, it will direct us to look out for the interests of others first.

Love is not easily angered. Love will not assume that the occasional unpleasant mood or comment of another is a personal attack or criticism. With love fully in control, such occasions will not turn into arguments or sharp exchanges.

Love does not keep a record of wrongs others do. It will not “keep score.” Love will forgive a wrong suffered and reject the temptation to bring it up at a later time.

Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. Love prevents us from gloating over the wrongs, failings, or misfortunes of others. Love reminds us, “I also have faults,” notices the good in others, and rejoices in it.

Love endures all things. It will endure through the misunderstandings and hurts that occur in any and every relationship. It will cover over these things in the hope that a resolution to problems can be found, at least eventually. The important thing is to never let your heart become hardened toward another.

Love always trusts. It takes the statements and actions of others at face value. It does not read hidden motives into what others say or do.

Love’s hope never fades. It always hopes for the very best. Love’s hope for positive outcomes or the resolution of problems continues on even when evidence for it is scarce.

Love always perseveres. Love can outlast every possible difficulty. Paul’s final statement about love is that it never fails. Just like God’s word never fails to accomplish what He desires (Isaiah 55:11), agape, which comes from God, never fails.

God’s love outlasts the waywardness of humanity. His love will succeed in rescuing mankind from the brink of utter failure. “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. … We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16, 19).

Paul concludes his description of agape by explaining that other elements of God’s dealings with peoples, such as prophecies and spiritual gifts, will pass away because they served His purposes in past times and dispensations.

Three important elements continue on — faith, hope, and love. Agape is the greatest of these. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

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