Characteristics of Christian Love — Part One
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Characteristics of Christian Love — Part One

1 Corinthians 13:4–7  (ID: 1717)

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul unpacks the nature of love, listing the qualities and activities that should be top priorities in both the individual Christian’s life and the corporate life of the local church. In this sermon, Alistair Begg begins working through the facets of love mentioned in this famous passage. Without genuine Christian love, he warns us, churches may begin to drift. Habitual love, however, magnifies Christ and edifies His people.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 6

Concerning Spiritual Gifts 1 Corinthians 12:1–14:40 Series ID: 14606

Encore 2021

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25917

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let’s turn, then, to 1 Corinthians 13.

Father, take my words and speak through them. Take our minds and help us to think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Christ and for one another. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

We come back for a second time to this chapter, the great hymn of love—the chapter which, we said when we opened it up, is to be found just about every imaginable place and is largely regarded as a kind of cozy chapter. But in point of fact, when one actually begins to study it and looks into the mirror of the Word of God, it becomes a most challenging chapter.

We said in opening up the first three verses that what we were discovering here was that with an absence of love, any manifestation of spectacular giftedness is about as useful as a clanging cymbal and that all that we are minus love, despite our giftedness, is a noisy nuisance. We are less than nothing, and indeed, even if we were to go to the extent, as he says in verse 3, of self-surrender revealed in the giving of our lives, if that also were without love, then it would mean nothing at all. They’re quite staggering words by Paul.

He now goes on, from verse 4 and following, to unpack for us the nature of love. And he lists the qualities and the activities which are to be top priorities in our lives and therefore in our corporate life together within the family of faith within a local church. It’s no exaggeration to say that without these characteristics being in evidence amongst God’s people in a local community, the church will drift and may actually even disintegrate, no matter how large it is, no matter how apparently successful it’s been and how active it may be in terms of all kinds of spiritual giftedness.

If we think this evening of love as being a diamond, then we could think of the characteristics that are here listed as some fifteen facets of the diamond itself. And I want to say at the outset that it is highly unlikely that, in the space of time that we have available to us, that we will cover these fifteen facets tonight. If we do halfway, then I think I’ll be encouraged and you’ll be grateful.

It’s both useful and important for us to recognize that in Greek—despite in English some of these words are here as adjectives—in Greek, all of these facets are in verbal form. Why is that important? Well, it’s important because Paul’s emphasis here is not so much upon what love is as it is upon what love does—that love behaves itself in a certain way, and that the fact that these facets are written as doing words is a reminder to us that if we merely read the Word, hear the Word, and do not put it into practice, then it is of no avail to us, and we’re actually like the foolish man who built his house on the sand.[1] So it’s important to realize they are all in verbal form.

Secondly, it’s important to realize that each of them is written in the present continuous tense. Whether it is indicative or not, it is always present continuous—a reminder to us that these facets denote actions and/or attitudes which must become habitual in our lives. He’s not referring here to something that happens to us in a moment of time—that all of a sudden we get, if you like, the love gift, and it all drops down, and as a result of that, all these fifteen facets become operative in our lives. No, it’s much more difficult than that. Even enabled by the Spirit of God, these characteristics, Paul says to the church at Corinth, are going to be factored into our lives as we employ them on a daily basis, making them part of our habitual activity. They will be employed, they will be seen gradually and by constant repetition, in much the same way as one would build a muscle by exercising and would see it atrophy as a result of an absence of exercise.

Prior in his commentary points out that “it is not coincidental that these four verses perfectly describe the character of [the Lord] Jesus.”[2] The way you can determine this is to supplant the word “Jesus” for the word “love” and then read from verse 4. Makes perfect sense: “Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy. Jesus does not boast. Jesus is not proud.”

Now, it becomes precious difficult when you take out the word “love” and you put in your own name. I find it very hard to start, and I don’t even want to read out loud my own name in this. I’m not sure that anybody would want to stand up and volunteer to read through this multifaceted diamond list with your name at the head of it all—hence the immensity of the challenge, the applicable nature of the instruction.

In Corinth, as we have seen, there was jealousy, pride, selfishness. Surprise, surprise! Two thousand years later, in the church of Jesus Christ, in Parkside Church, we have to be honest and recognize there is jealousy, pride, dissatisfaction, and selfishness. So is it useful to study 1 Corinthians 13? Absolutely. Because some of us are jealous of the success of other people, some of us are dissatisfied at the gifts that God has given us, and many of us are more concerned about jamming people with their responsibilities than we are humbly accepting from God our opportunities.

Love has a long fuse. Love takes time before fuming and bursting into flames.

Now, in considering these characteristics, we need to keep in mind also that Paul is not writing as a technician. This is not a technical list, as it were. Nor is he writing as a theoretician. But he is writing, rather, as a practitioner. He realizes that what is necessary in Corinth is not simply instruction but transformation. It must be truth applied—not truth simply learned in the head but truth that is channeled through to the hands and the feet and so on.

Now, what we’ll do this evening, in want of any meaningful way of summarizing these facets, is just simply to work through them one at a time. And we’ll ask God’s help to put his hand upon areas of our lives and areas of our church’s life that are obviously in most need of attention. Okay? So, we’ve got a list of fifteen. We start now and we finish when we’re done. Okay.

Love Is Patient

Number one, “Love is patient.” Or if you’ve got the King James Version it reads, “Charity suffereth long.” If you wanna know why we use the NIV, there’s as good an illustration as any I can give you. Because if we started with “Charity suffereth long,” we gotta use five minutes explaining that “Charity suffereth long” means “Love is patient.” And whoever the lady is that keeps sending me books on the heretical new age versions of the Bible, including the NIV—which I don’t know if she knows that I’m actually using it—but she seems to think I’m excited about this book that she sends me and invites me to all these meetings to attend the meetings on all the new age versions of the Bible, including the NIV. It’s kind of ironic, and I want to be loving about it, but I’m not coming to any of the meetings. I don’t know who you are—you never give me a return address—but I ain’t coming, okay? I love you, and I’m not coming. So there you’ve got it.

“Love is patient.” “Love is patient.” “Charity suffereth long.” Now, the word actually refers to a holding in tension in our minds before we give rise to passion. It is a word which is expressive of control. What Paul is saying is this: that love has a long fuse. Love takes time before fuming and bursting into flames. And the emphasis, the usage of this word “patience” here, is a patience which primarily refers not to circumstances but to people. Some of us are quite patient with circumstances that go awry, but when it comes to people that let us down or annoy us, then we’re not just as loving and as patient as we might be. And this is the emphasis here. And, of course, we might find a little difficulty in understanding why, because after all, there were these people who were saying that their giftedness was so important. There were other people who were saying because they didn’t have these gifts, they were totally unimportant. One person wanted to get rid of one, and another thought they should go here or there. And Paul says, “Listen, let me tell you: love does not burst out like that. It has a slow fuse.”

Chrysostom, writing in the early centuries, said this word is “used of [a] man who is wronged and who has it easily in his power to avenge himself” but will never do it.[3] So it’s not weakness. It is, if you like, what we find in Jesus: meekness. It is not that the person is totally bereft of the passion with which to respond, but it is rather that that passion is held in check as a result of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Now, that wasn’t very attractive to the mind of the average Corinthian. The heroes of the day were the avengers. Little has changed, once again. Aristotle taught that “the great Greek virtue was [the] refusal to tolerate insult or injury and to strike back in retaliation [at] the slightest offense.”[4] If you wanted to show you were a good guy and a tough guy and a Greek guy, then that’s exactly what you did. Now Paul says, “No, no. Love does not do that. Love is actually patient.”

Consider the epitome of this in Jesus himself—1 Peter chapter 2: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”[5] Now think about it with the two thieves on the cross. Although we always think that there was a good guy and a bad guy, the fact is they were both bad guys at the start. They were both involved in mocking Jesus at the beginning. They were both joining in with the chorus of the crowd, and you remember that Jesus had pointed out that he could have called twelve legions of angels and just fired the place in his protection. He chose not to do that. And to an individual who, hanging, facing his death, may well have been worthy of the most scant response, Jesus says to the fellow, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”[6] Love is patient.

The love of the Father, described in 2 Peter—it’s still Peter writing, writing now of the Father’s love for people—2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.” So what’s the explanation? The explanation is, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” The patience of the Father, the patience of the Son, is representative of the patience which should be manifest in our lives.

History records that one of the great atheists was a man by the name of Robert Ingersoll. You may have read of him. In the nineteenth century he was very popular on the speaking circuit, and he had this amazing speech that he used to churn out where he would deny and dispute the existence of God. And one of his favorite parts in his talk was to say, defiantly, to pause in the middle of his speech and to say, “I’ll give God five minutes to strike me dead for the things I’ve said.” He then would go on talking, would set his watch, would look at his watch, wait till five minutes had elapsed, and then he would use the fact that since he had not been struck dead in the last five minutes, he would use it in his warped kind of thinking to prove, therefore, that God did not exist. One perceptive individual asked, “Did Mr. Ingersoll think that he could exhaust the patience of the eternal God in five minutes?”[7]

Lincoln, a great hero of American politics for so many, had a man who did not appreciate him very much as he was in his early days. The man’s name was Stanton. Stanton is recorded as having called Lincoln “a low cunning clown.” He nicknamed Lincoln “the original gorilla.” A gentleman in prominence at that time was going to Africa to try and capture a gorilla, and Stanton made contact with him to suggest that there was no need to go to Africa because he “could find one … in Springfield, Illinois.”

When Lincoln appointed his cabinet, he appointed Stanton as his war minister. Someone said to him, “Mr. Lincoln, how could you possibly appoint Stanton as your war minister? He calls you ‘the original gorilla,’ he says that you are a ‘low cunning clown.’” Lincoln said, “He is the best man for the job. I will treat him with every courtesy.”

When the bullet took Lincoln’s life and his body was taken into the stateroom, history records that Stanton was found looking down on Lincoln’s silent face and saying through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” The patience of Lincoln’s love conquered the hardness of Stanton’s heart.[8]

Love, then, is patient.

Love Is Kind

Secondly, “Love is kind.” You sense the strength of this. This is not weakness. Our friends at school may think it’s weakness if you don’t deck the guy or don’t appear to be able to show how tough you are, but in actual fact, that is easy to do. What is hard to do is this: It is hard to be patient. It is tough to be kind. “Love is kind.” Love reacts with goodness towards those who ill-treat it. This is, if you like, the counterpart of patience. The Word of God says, “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness that is there to lead you towards repentance?”[9]

Now, it’s easy to state this: “Love is kind.” It’s easy to understand this. But it’s hard to do! You know, if you think about all of the descriptions that might mark our lives for longevity, I put it to you that you would never wear this one out. You know, if your name is used and someone says, “Mr. X is smart,” “Miss X is cute,” whatever it might be—so many of those characteristics fade with the passing of time, or they become less attractive. But kindness grows with age. There’s always a spot for kindness. There’s always a place for a kind kid in a school cafeteria, who, when all the others are jerking around with a person, bemoaning them and criticizing them for the way they look or for the way they dress, there will always be a place for kindness.

That kind of kindness is easily expressed, it’s easily understood, and it’s difficult in its application. Because if you think about it, even within our families—within our nuclear families—one of the greatest challenges we have is to be kind to one another, to teach brothers and sisters to be kind to each other. Parents grow weary of saying to their children, “If you don’t have something kind to say, just don’t say anything. If you can’t be kind, then just go somewhere else.” Because they recognize as parents the absolute necessity of kindness. But then the children watch the parents, and so often a husband’s approach to his wife is anything but kind! And so the children learn from the absence of kindness in the eyes of the father, or in the words of the father, not to treat one another with kindness. You see, it’s not kindness that asserts its rights, that despises the gifts that it’s been given, that envies others and treats people with insensitivity.

Kindness grows with age. There’s always a spot for kindness.

There was a man in an old people’s home in the Corstorphine Road in Edinburgh. He lived almost to be a hundred. His name was Mr. Blair. And in sharing in the conducting of his funeral services, I went to the home, not only on that occasion but on previous occasions when I’d gone to visit him, and he was out walking. The one thing that was said about Mr. Blair by everyone I met was, “Mr. Blair is a kind man.” A kindness is always long remembered.

I find this very challenging. I wonder if you do. I see myself in the mirror of the Word of God. I realize the need for Spirit-enabled obedience. Phillips paraphrases this little phrase, “Love looks for a way to be constructive.”[10] Love is patient with the shortcomings of others. Love is constructive in its kindness.

Love Does Not Envy

Thirdly—and now begins a list, a run of negatives; saying something positive by the use of a negative. Number three: “It does not envy.” “It does not envy.”

The real test here is to check our reaction at the news of another’s success. How did I feel when the promotions came out and my name was not on the list, but my best friend’s was? How did I feel when the papers were given back, and I got a B, but my buddy got an A? How did I feel when some measure of success accrued to someone near me, but not to myself?

You see, this is the great test of it. Jealousy is a destructive emotion. And jealousy was a large part of the church in Corinth. People were silly. They still could not grasp what Paul was saying: that the parts of the body that are unseen are the most important. The parts that are most prominent and that have so much focus are not actually the keys to the issue. But despite the fact that we can understand that in physical terms, as soon as we begin to apply it in spiritual terms, we tend to think that we’re not really speaking it right. And so, consequently, it’s so possible for us to become jealous and envious of one another.

Now, this’ll always be a problem, because there will always be people who have more than we have, and there will always be people who do better than we do. So if we don’t learn somehow to win the battle with envy, we’re in deep trouble for always. There will always be someone taller, thinner—or if you want to be fatter or broader, whatever it might be—there’s always someone there. So if we can’t conquer envy, we’re in deep trouble. The word that is used here, zeloi, is actually used in both a positive and a negative way in Scripture. It is the word which would be translated “fervent” or “zealous,” “marked by zeal.” And here, used in a negative way, the inference is obvious.

There are essentially two kinds of envy. Let me tell you what they are. There’s the simple envy which covets what other people have: “Oh, I wish I had her hair. Oh, I wish I had that thing. Oh, I wish I had this,” or whatever it was, “and I’m ticked off because I don’t.” That’s straightforward envy. The second kind of envy is worse. It’s not as immediately apparent, but it’s more devastating in its impact. This kind of envy grudges the very fact that others have stuff—doesn’t want the stuff they have, but just hates the fact they have it: “I don’t want your stuff; I just don’t want you having it. I don’t care if I get it; I just don’t want you to get it. I don’t care if I don’t have your gift, but I don’t like you having that gift, and I hope you lose it, or I hope something happens to you. I hope you fall down a hole. Because I am deeply envious of you.” And as one Scottish commentator says, “Meanness of soul can sink no further than that.”[11]

You got the classic illustration of it in the Old Testament. Remember where the lady’s baby dies and she steals a baby? And they come to the king, and he says, “Well, I’ve got an easy solution. You say it’s yours, and you say it’s yours. Why don’t you just chop the baby in two?” The one lady says, “Go ahead, chop it in two.”[12] Why? ’Cause it wasn’t hers, and she didn’t care if she didn’t get it, just as long as she didn’t get it. There is no greater depth of meanness in the human spirit than that. And when that begins to infect a church, it is one of the most virulent diseases that can ever get in, destroy the place.

Love Does Not Boast

All right. Fourthly, love “does not boast”—or in the King James Version, “vaunteth not itself.” “Vaunt not thyself, young man!” Okay? I’m not making fun of the King James Version. I’ll get a letter about that. I’m not. I did all my memorization in the King James Version. But that’s what it says: it “vaunteth not itself.” “I don’t want you vaunting yourself.” Which means, “Quit boasting!”

The loving person who is successful doesn’t seek a platform upon which to parade their accomplishments. That’s what he’s saying. The person who is filled with the love of the Lord Jesus, no matter how successful they are, how bright they are, how gifted they are, does not always have to be in the front of the operation, parading accomplishments.

Now, this was really apropos Corinth, because they had a real problem with this. People in Corinth were spiritual show-offs. They were boasting about their gifts; they were boasting about their accomplishments. Paul has to write to them in later chapters to remind them of a principle that he had made clear in 4:7: “For who makes you different from anyone else?” he asked. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” How easy it is for some of us to enjoy the focus of attention; how difficult to be out of the focus. To find ourselves happy only when we are the ones who are in the spotlight. To be interested in the conversation as long as we are the center of the conversation, and to be totally disinterested when it moves away from this topic of great interest—namely, us.

What Paul says is that love is not constantly anxious to impress. And yet within our hearts we sense the need to flaunt our reputation, to stir up our background, to display our abilities and our successes. And then suddenly we read the words concerning the Lord Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
 did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
 taking the very nature of a servant,
 being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
 he humbled himself
 and became obedient to death—
 even death on a cross![13]

Love does not boast.

Love Is Not Proud

Fifthly, love “is not proud.” This is another angle on the same issue. The King James Version: “is not puffed up.” Phillips: it does not “cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.” The Greek word is phusioutai. Kind of a good word. It sounds almost Japanese the way I said it, but don’t worry about that. It means “to puff oneself up like a pair of bellows.”

You see how challenging this is in an age where you walk in the average bookstore and it’s all about, “Be the person you’re supposed to be. Seize the moment. Be your own guy. Tell ’em what you are. Strut your stuff. Show everybody how cool you are; if you don’t, no one else will. Therefore, get in your boss’s face and just vaunt yourself!” That’s exactly what it’s about. And they hear that you want to say that Christianity is supposed to make a difference? Says, “No, the person who is really finding the love of the Lord Jesus is not going to puff himself up like a pair of bellows.”

Parents, you buy that stuff with your kids, you’ll reap the whirlwind, and so will I. Now, don’t buy this garbage that the key to the future of your child is to puff them up like a pair of bellows, to send them out as arrogant little characters, so full of their own importance and their own abilities, to tell them how wonderful they are, and how great they are, and how terrific they are, and how they’re going to be this and they’re going to be that and they’re going to be the next thing. Make sure they wash behind their ears, make sure they say their prayers, make sure they say please and thank you, and be thankful for every minor achievement they ever make, but don’t go around telling them they’re the best thing since sliced bread. You’ll regret it. We all will. There’s nobody worse in your office than a fathead. How did he get a fat head? He pumped himself up.

Arrogance has a big head. Love has a big heart. Love is concerned to give itself, not assert itself.

William Carey, the father of modern missions, goes to India. He came from a cobbler’s background. He came from a shoe shop! In the circumstances of India at that time, Carey was caused to move around in environments that he would never, ever have been in had he been still back in England. God used Carey. God moved Carey. God gave Carey abilities beyond any training that he’d ever had. Carey translated Scripture into some thirty-four Indian dialects in the period of time that he was in India. He was uniquely gifted. He was powerfully used. But he was greatly despised because he didn’t come out of the right store. He didn’t come from the right kind of pedigree and background. And on one occasion, at a function which he was attending, a snob at a dinner party, with the idea of humiliating Carey, said in a tone of voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “So I hear, Mr. Carey, you are a shoemaker.” “Oh, no,” said William Carey, “I am a shoe mender, not a shoemaker.” The guy thought he would do him down. Carey put himself lower.

In a world that exalts windbags and fatheads, it’s hard not to join the race. Arrogance has a big head. Love has a big heart. Love is concerned to give itself, not assert itself.

Our time is gone. I only did five; that’s not very good. I’m gonna do two more real fast. They’ll be done within three minutes.

Love Is Not Rude

Love “is not rude.” Love “is not rude.” It doesn’t behave itself indecently or in a shameful manner. In other words, love has good manners. William Barclay says, “There is a graciousness in Christian love which never forgets that courtesy and tact and politeness are lovely things.”[14]

I asked a little boy this morning—in the course of conversation, I said, “And are you excited to see your grandfather?” And he said, “Yes, sir, I am.” He comes from the right side of this line you have here. What’s this called, this Dixon line or something? Whatever it is, he’s on the right side of it as far as I’m concerned. It would be worth all moving south just to raise our children, and then all move back again. There is something about the Yankee that the Southerner has a right to comment on.

Love doesn’t think that is silly. Love does not behave indecently. Love is gracious, courteous, tactful, and full of good manners. It was said by Bishop Lightfoot of one of his students, “Let him go where he will, his face will be a sermon in itself.”[15] And there is a way of looking that displays that kind of courtesy, and there is a way of looking that manifests disdain. And in the church of Jesus Christ, we need to make sure that our attitude and behavior is marked not by rudeness but by kindness.

Love Is Not Self-Seeking

Finally, love “is not self-seeking.” It does not pursue selfish advantage—we’re halfway through verse 5.

I came across this little quote on a tombstone: “Here lies a miser who lived for himself and cared for nothing but gathering wealth. Now where he is and how he fares, nobody knows, and nobody cares.” See, the man or the woman who lives for their own selfish advantage will die eventually in obscurity. They will be forgotten in a moment.

In contrast, let me give you one from St Paul’s Cathedral in London—a tombstone again. It is inscribed, “Sacred to the Memory of General Charles George Gordon, who at all times and everywhere gave his strength to the weak, his substance to the poor, his sympathy to the suffering, and his heart to God.”

True love, then, is always unselfish. How easy to say. How hard to practice.

Let us pray together.

And now,

May the love of Jesus fill [us]
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing:
This is victory.[16]

Pour out upon us, Lord, as individuals and as a church family, we pray, a genuine desire to channel our energies, enabled by the Spirit, to live in love, to walk in love—not some kind of mushy sentimentality, but a strong, virile, God-ordained, agape love.

Be with us in the journey to our homes, and abide with us there. And grant that in the days in which we are separated from one another, that our thoughts and our words concerning one another may be in accord with our study this evening.

And may the love of the Lord Jesus Christ draw us to himself. May the joy of the Lord Jesus Christ give us strength as we seek to serve him. And may the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ guard and keep our hearts and minds today, and until Jesus comes or calls us to himself, and then forevermore. Amen.

[1] See Matthew 7:26.

[2] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 230.

[3] William Barclay, Growing in Christian Faith: A Book of Daily Readings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 49. The words quoted are Barclay’s summary of Chrysostom’s view, not Chrysostom’s own.

[4] John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 338.

[5] 1 Peter 2:23 (NIV 1984).

[6] Luke 23:43 (NIV 1984).

[7] MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 338. Paraphrased.

[8] MacArthur, 339. Paraphrased.

[9] Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:4 (paraphrased from Phillips).

[11] William Barclay, Growing in Christian Faith, 50.

[12] See 1 Kings 3:16–28.

[13] Philippians 2:6–8 (NIV 1984).

[14] William Barclay, Growing in Christian Faith, 51.

[15] Quoted in Barclay, 51.

[16] Kate B. Wilkinson, “May the Mind of Christ, My Savior” (1925).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.