Central to the teachings of Jesus is the command to love. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus asking him which was the most important of God’s commandments. Jesus summarises the Old Testament law by replying that God wants us to love him with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). John develops this idea in his gospel when he tells the story of Jesus giving his disciples a new command: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). To make sure his followers get the point, John has Jesus repeating this same command twice more in 15:12 and 15:17.
Every book of the New Testament except one talks about what it means to love each other in the way Jesus taught at some point. The only book that doesn’t explicitly talk about Jesus’ command to love is the Acts of the Apostles. However, Acts has plenty of examples of how the early Christians loved each other in community and brought the message of Jesus’ love to the world. It is possible to read the entire Bible as an epic story of God’s love for people and the love it inspires for others.
While we might talk and read about God’s love for us in Jesus, we can still struggle with how that love looks practically in our lives. There are a lot of different ideas of how to follow Jesus’ teachings on love, and there are many ways we can show his love in our relationships. One of the most helpful passages in Scripture I have found that describes the love Jesus taught is 1 Corinthians 13.
One way this passage can help us love in the way Jesus taught is to read verses 4-8a with our own names substituted for the word ‘love’. Whenever I do that, it doesn’t take long at all before I start feeling very uncomfortable – usually around the word ‘patient.’ Replacing the word ‘love’ with our names shows us that we fall a long way short of loving people in the way Jesus wants us to. While this can make us uncomfortable, it’s not a bad thing because it shows us that if we are to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, we need help to do it.
That’s where I read this passage again, but this time inserting ‘God’ for the word ‘love.’ We can do that because the Apostle John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16). God is the source, the embodiment, the fullness of all love. By saying that ‘God is love’ john tells us that God is synonymous with love. When we read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a from this perspective, it tells us a lot about the nature of God:
God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. God does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails. (NIV)
Even when we fail to love others in the way God wants us to, the promise of this text is that God never fails to love us. God is patient with us even when we lose our patience with others. God is kind to us even when we are unkind to each other. God is not envious, boastful or proud, but instead embraces humility to serve us. God does not dishonour us, but gives us the honour of calling us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God is not self-seeking, but seeks what is good for us even though it kills him on a cross. God is not angry with us and keeps no record of our wrongs, but removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. God rejoices in the truth of his grace and peace. God is always protecting us, always trusting us with his goodness and gifts, always hoping for the best for us, always persevering and hanging in there for us. Ultimately, God will never fail us because the story of the Bible shows time and time again that God never fails his people.
God loves us this way because of what Jesus has done for us. God loves us in the way 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a describes because he entered into our broken human existence, taking our humanity on himself in the person of Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we fail to live, loving people in the perfect way God wants us to. Jesus took our flaws, failures and everything we don’t do in 1 Corinthians 13 to the cross, putting our wrongs to death once and for all. Then Jesus rose to new life so we can live new lives united with him through the Holy Spirit. God loves us perfectly even when we fail to love the way he wants us to because his Son Jesus lives in us.
Paul writes that when he was a child, he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. As he matured, though, he put away childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). This is the spiritual growth that God wants for all of us. The path to spiritual maturity comes through recognising that we fail to love the way God wants us to and finding God’s love for us in Jesus. As we repent of our failure to love by turning towards God who is the source of perfect love in Jesus, and trust in his love for us, the Holy Spirit works in us to mature us as Jesus’ followers. I know from personal experience that when we recognise our failures in loving God and people, and when we turn to God in faith, trusting in his love for us in Jesus, it can change us into people who have a greater capacity to love others on the way 1 Corinthians 13 describes, even people who are hard to love. When we are able to love each other as the Spirit enable us, then people will see that we are followers of Jesus (John 13:35) and God’s love enters the lives of others through us.
Just about everything I do as a pastor is to help people grow in their faith in God’s love for them in Jesus so they can become more loving people towards others. 1 Corinthians 13 has become crucial to my understanding of what the love Jesus taught looks like. In the end, when everything else we think is so important is gone, then these three will remain: faith, hope and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love, because that’s where we find the life-changing goodness of God.