Characteristics of Christian Love — Part Three
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Characteristics of Christian Love — Part Three

1 Corinthians 13:4–7  (ID: 1722)

Much of what our culture considers “love” is far removed from the love that Paul described to the Corinthian church—love that believes all things, always hopes, always perseveres, and never fails. Throughout Scripture, though, God Himself consistently demonstrates such steadfast, encouraging love. Alistair Begg reminds us that only when the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, minds, and relationships are we enabled to love so purely.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 6

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

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let me just read from 1 Corinthians 13:4, if I may:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it[’s] not self-seeking, it[’s] not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

“Love never fails.”

One of the things that I think would become apparent to us in the course of studying these most strategic verses for a church is that what we enter into when we open these pages and immerse our minds in the truth of Scripture here is a whole realm about which secular man knows very little. It is increasingly apparent that so much of what is addressed as love, both in terms of poetry and certainly in the lyrics of songs, is far removed from love. Indeed, if it is anything to do with any of the Greek words for love, most of it has to do with eros; at best, phileo, from which we get Philadelphia, our City of Brotherly Love; maybe storge, which is the kind of love you would expect familially between good friends; but certainly not the agape love that we’ve been considering in these evenings. Indeed, the culture in which we’re living is a culture that is increasingly consumed by sex and by selfishness. It only knows about taking. It only knows about getting. It only knows about that self-absorbed satisfaction level which begins with “me and my needs.”

It is out of that kind of world that God has called a people for himself. And out of that world we come, redeemed in Christ, with all those residual factors in our background—things in our past that are a source of shame to us, issues from before that are frankly a disappointment. And it is vitally important that we continually are seeking the help of the Spirit of God to apply the Word of God to our lives, because, as Mike so helpfully mentioned in his prayer, the kind of love that we discover here is a very different love about which, by nature, we know practically nothing at all. And it is only as God is at work within our lives to transform and change us that we can ever begin to put our toe, as it were, in the water of this great, vast ocean of God’s goodness.

We have said on each occasion, in beginning, that where these characteristics between verses 4 and 7 are not displayed in a local company of God’s people, that local church will begin to drift and will ultimately, unless reclaimed, end in disintegration. So that it is no small matter for us to ask ourselves quite honestly, as we’ve sought to do on each occasion, whether there is any realistic sense in which we would be able to replace the word “love” either with our own names or with the name of our church. And the challenge of it becomes most telling when you begin to read the paragraph, “Parkside is patient. Parkside Church is kind. Parkside Church does not envy. Parkside Church does not boast. Parkside Church is not full of proud people. Parkside Church is not a rude place. Parkside Church is not self-seeking. Parkside Church does not flame into bursts of anger,” and so on. It’s tremendously powerful. And it’s even more staggering when we would be tempted at any level to replace the word “love” with our own names.

Again, let me quote to you Leon Morris, reminding us of this fact: the love which is to characterize and control the Christian community is

a love for the utterly unworthy, a love which proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished [on] others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather from the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved.[1]

I was reading just in the last few days an account of a missionary by the name of Ian Hay, who was with the Africa Inland Mission in Nigeria. And in the course of serving there, he described a scene in Nigeria whereby he had come, along the roadside, upon a leper whose body was badly ravaged and eaten into as a result of the disease. In the Nigerian environment of that time, it was customary for the people to light open fires in their small homes, in the center of them. And, said Ian Hay, “It was apparent to me that the man had obviously fallen into the fire. And being unable to have any sensation in his limbs he had been most horribly burned, as a result of which he had burst out in the most disgusting ulcers which were putrefying,” and he said that the man at the side of the road “smelled from a significant distance.”

Genuine love is always prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. That is an obvious and practical expression of genuine Christianity.

He’d been reading in his devotions about the fact that Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him,[2] and he’d been reading also what Paul had to say concerning the love of Christ compelling us.[3] Ian Hay was brought up in a Christian home, born to missionary parents, professed faith as a small boy, was baptized in his youth, and had followed Christ nearly all of his days. But he said on that afternoon, at the roadside there in Nigeria, for the first time in his life it struck him, the love of Jesus Christ. Because he asked himself this question: “If I ever could, would I be prepared to take the filth, the stench, the pain, and the burden of this poor beggar, absorb it in my body, give him my bicycle, and allow him to cycle down the road, whole and healthy and free?” Said Hay, “I couldn’t imagine in the best of circumstances, even if I were able to achieve it, that I would ever attempt it.” And then he said, “As I rode on on my bicycle, I realized for the first time in my life the nature of the love of God which loves while seeing nothing lovable in its object.” And he said from that point he began to wrestle far more than he had ever done before with the implications of what it meant to profess that the love of Christ was a compelling influence in his life.

I have found this—I continue to find this—one of the most searching chapters that I have ever turned up in all of Holy Scripture.

Now, we left it last time with the phrase, verse 7, love “always protects.” We left it, you will remember, with the story of the young woman who wrapped herself around the clapper of the bell to prevent it ringing so as to save the note sounding that would mean the imminent death of her fiancé.

Love Always Trusts

Therefore, having left it at “always protects,” we pick it up at “always trusts.” What is the characteristic of this love expressed in the life of an individual, manifested in the company of God’s people? It is a trusting love. If you’re using a different version, it may read in your Bible, “Love believes all things.” Moffatt helpfully paraphrases it, love is “always eager to believe the best.”

Now, that does not for a moment mean that love is easily deceived by wrongdoing. But what it does mean is this: that genuine love is always prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. And that is an obvious and a practical expression of genuine Christianity, because it means, for some of us particularly, that we have to ruthlessly and definitely say no to that which rises most easily in our lives—namely, cynicism and suspicion. For if love always believes the best, and my natural reaction is one of cynicism and suspicion, then I need the Spirit of God to transform my mind and to change my heart in the way in which I respond to people and to issues that I face. It means that if this love becomes evident in my life, in the life of our church, in your life, then what will happen is that I will cease to believe that the motives of my brothers or my sisters are as warped as my motives often are.

What else does it mean when Paul says that we should prefer one another above ourselves?[4] It has to mean something. And it doesn’t mean some kind of false modesty. It doesn’t mean that if somebody is very good at running, but we are far faster than them, that we say, “You’re a faster runner than me.” Or if someone can play the piano, but we’re more efficient, that we tell them, “Oh, you’re a much better piano player than me.” Why do we do that? “Oh,” says somebody, “because love is supposed to prefer others: ‘Consider others better than yourselves.’” I don’t think that’s what it means at all. I think this is what it means: when we see into our hearts, and we see our motives, and we know the motives of our hearts are not what they might be, and then we see somebody else doing something, love, when it pervades and invades and transforms, looks at that individual and does not assume that they are motivated from the same warped standard that often is true in our lives—the reason being that love always believes the best.

You see, turn with me for a moment to the book of Job, would you? Because there’s a wonderful illustration of this in terms of Job’s friends. Here you’ve got a man who’s in a dreadful predicament. By any standards, he’s in deep trouble. You find Job just before Psalms. I mention that ’cause I couldn’t find it myself there for a moment. I was beyond Proverbs, and it wasn’t showing up. You know the story of Job, don’t you? How there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and he was “blameless and upright,” and “he feared God,” and he “shunned evil,” and “he had seven sons and three daughters.”[5] You can read this wonderful little biographical prologue there at the beginning of the book. And how he was placed under the most severe form of testing as that which was precious to him in his life was increasingly taken away from him, till both in terms of family and resources and personal health and even his own looks were so devastated in him that when his three friends come upon him at the end of chapter 2—in 2:12—we read, “When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. [And] no one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”

Let me just say in passing, for those of you who are glad to make hospital visits and sometimes sit with the bereaved: learn a lesson from this. We all need to. They don’t need our talk. They don’t need our theological answers. They don’t need a bunch of answers to questions they’re not asking. They’re happy for your company, they’re glad if you hold their hand, and it’s probably better to sit quietly in the process. And when we open our mouths, let’s beware of opening our mouths as did his friends.

The first guy to speak is Eliphaz. He begins in chapter 4. And we can’t go through it all, but I want you to notice that in verse 7 he begins to zero in on Job. And this is essentially what he says to him, “Consider now,” he says, “Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.” See what he’s saying? “Now Job, I sat with you in silence for seven days. You’ve asked me a few questions; let me give you an answer. As far as I can see, your problem, Job, is you’re really messed up. You’re evil. Because upright people don’t get destroyed. Innocent people don’t perish, and judging by the state of you and all that you’ve been through in the last wee while, you must be some unbelievable kind of sinner.”

What was the problem? They were his friends, but they didn’t love him. They didn’t love him. Because love always trusts. It always trusts and believes that the best is the case until it is proven wrong. And if they had really loved Job, they would have been coming at it from a different angle. And Eliphaz is no different from the others who follow.

This is a great challenge to many of us—especially those of us who have perfectionist tendencies, those of us who demand that everything is right, always right, all the time. And if it isn’t right all the time and not best all the time, somebody’s got a problem inside of them; they just don’t want to do it right, or whatever it is. In point of fact, they may be doing their very best. But because we don’t believe the best, we bring them down.

What this speaks to, then, is a community of mutual trust. A community of mutual trust.

William Barclay, who was professor at Glasgow University in New Testament for a number of years, tells in one of his writings the story of a man named Arnold who became the headmaster of Rugby School, a very prosperous and prestigious preparatory school outside of London. The school had been driven by a kind of iron rod, a tyrannical rule, for most of its history. And when this man Arnold became the headmaster of the school, he called all of the boys together, and he told them, “Boys, as of today, since I became your headmaster, there’s going to be a lot more liberty and a lot less flogging”—because they used to beat them mercilessly if they stepped out of line at all. And he said to them, he said, “Boys, I want you to know that you are free, but you are responsible.” And then he gave them this little speech: “I intend to leave you much to yourselves, and put you on your honour, because I believe that if you are guarded and watched and spied upon, you will grow up knowing only the fruits of servile fear; and when your liberty is finally given you, as it must be some day, you will not know how to use it.”

The boys were absolutely bewildered by this. They couldn’t believe it. They found it difficult to believe. And when they had been guilty of some misdemeanor and they came before him, they brought their same lame excuses from before—the kinds of things they used to say to justify themselves and as a result of which they usually got a beating. But when they came in to the headmaster and gave their lame excuses, the headmaster would reply by saying, “If you say so, it must be true—I believe your word.” As a result of which, it is recorded that after a short period of time the boys began to say to one another, “It is a shame to tell Arnold a lie—he always believes you.”[6]

Now, let me say a couple of things. First of all, he really wasn’t too smart; in the unregenerate world, that is a difficult road to go. Okay? So we’re not going to hold him up as a pattern of excellence. But certainly, within the world of professing faith, it is the right road to go. It is actually the only road to go. It is the loving way to go.

And some of us as parents find this a great challenge—how to implement this kind of trusting love with our children. Because we want the best for them, we want to hedge them, we want to protect them, we want to believe them—and it’s tough. But love always believes the best.

Such a spirit of love and mutual accountability and trust is something that we would do well to pray that God would develop here at Parkside Church. “You are free, but you are responsible.”

Love Always Hopes

Also, will you notice that love “always hopes”? Elpizei. Love is always looking forward. This is not some vague notion of optimism, but rather it is a realistic appraisal of things which refuses to take failure as final. This is the kind of love which is expressed in a friend who, when you blow it, doesn’t make you feel as though you’ve blown it for good. It’s the kind of love which, in a parent, recognizes failure in their children but sees failure not as final. It is a love which hangs on. It is a love which hopes. It is a love which anticipates. It is a love which never gives up.

It’s the kind of encouragement that God consistently gives to his people throughout all the pages of Holy Scripture, despite all the rebellious wanderings of his folks as they have charted their course and turned their back on God. God speaks to them through his servant in 2 Chronicles 7, and he says to them, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then [I will] hear from heaven … forgive their sin and … heal their land.”[7] You see, the love of God has the forward look. It does not simply look at where we’ve been, but it looks at where, by his grace, we’re going. That’s wonderful! Because for some of us, where we’ve been is not good. But God looks down upon us, manifests his love to us.

Failure is never final where love exists.

How else did Jesus have such a wonderful meeting with Peter on the shoreline there after he made him his breakfast? Talk about a breakfast meeting that we might have attended! That was one not to miss. You can read it before you go to sleep, at the end of John chapter 21. You remember the last time their eyes had met, it had been at the moment of Peter’s denial. And it says in one of the Gospel records that in that moment Peter looked across and saw Jesus, and their eyes met, and he had denied him even as Jesus predicted he would. And it says that he went out and he wept bitterly.[8] It was after that—indeed, at the very beginning of the scene that ends with the breakfast meeting—that he had said to his friends, “Hey, I’m going fishing.”

And within that context, Jesus comes to him, walking along the shoreline, and he asks him the question, “Hey Peter, do you love me?” And Peter replies, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus asks him actually, “Do you agape me?” And Peter replies, “Lord, you know that I phileo you. I love you with a brotherly love.” And Jesus asked him a second time, “Peter, do you agape me?” And Peter replied, “Hey Lord, you know that I phileo you.” And a third time Jesus asked him, “Do you really even phileo me? Do you love me with a brotherly love?” And Peter was grieved that the Lord asked him a third time, and he affirmed again, “You know how much I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “You go and feed my sheep.”[9]

What was he saying? Failure is never final where love exists. It’s the story of the prodigal son. What got the father up every morning looking down the street? Why was he even looking down the street? Why would he be seeing his son when he was yet a long way off, except that he anticipated that he would come back? You see, love believes the best. Love always hopes. He must have said to his wife, as it were, in the story, every morning, “Perhaps today our boy will come back.” And she must have said to him, “Oh, you’re not going to stand out on the porch again, are you? Do you know that you’ve stood on that porch now for 769 mornings?” And the father’s response would have been, “And I will be there for another 769 until I see his countenance on the horizon.” Why? ’Cause love always hopes.

You see, this is one of the great distinguishing marks of the believer in our day. Because Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:12 that outside of Christ, men and women are without God and without hope. They have no hope. They are hopeless. But when God invades our life, one of the things that he creates within us is a godly anticipation which, fueled by love, has this as its hallmark.

Can I ask you tonight, as I ask myself, are there any of my brothers and my sisters in my physical family or in my spiritual family who have begun to wander? Have I given up on one of them? Have I given up on an unbelieving spouse, a rebellious, backslidden son? And if I gave up on them, when did I determine it was legitimate to do so, and why?

When James writes at the end of his letter, he says, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”[10] Has there ever been anyone of whom you or I have said, “It’s over. There’s no chance. There’s no possibility of restoration. There’s no possibility of reconciliation.” That may be nothing other than an absence of love in our lives.

Love Always Perseveres

Now, the hope matches what is essentially the last one. Because love not only trusts and hopes, but it “always perseveres.” Listen to how Phillips paraphrases these three that we’ve just been mentioning. Tremendous work in that little paraphrase by Phillips; everyone should have one. “Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope.” That’s good! “No limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope.”

The word here is hupomenei, which means fortitude; it doesn’t mean acquiescence. It’s the picture of a soldier who, when the battle is at its toughest, he launches into it with renewed energy. It is not the picture of a marathon runner who knows that he has long since passed his potential time for victory, and all that he is now doing is sucking air in the hope that he can finally get across the finishing line. In the one, it is fortitude and vision; in the other, it is grim perseverance and acquiescence to the circumstances. Not in this kind of love. This kind of love “always perseveres.”

I can’t remember who sang the song. It was somebody like Dusty Springfield; that certainly dates me. But it went like this: “I can’t stop loving you, I’ve made up my mind.”[11] I don’t know if you remember that song. “I can’t stop loving you, I’ve made up my mind.” In other words, “There has been a determination, and as a result of my determination, volitionally, in my will, I’m gonna love you.” It’s not to do with the ebb and flow of feelings; it has to do with a consecrated commitment, and in the Christian context, fueled by the power of the Spirit, the love of the Lord Jesus. That is how a husband loves his wife. That is how a wife loves her husband.

I recently heard of an individual who had gone for counsel to five different people because his marriage was messed up. He’d gone to these different Christian people asking them for help, and one had analyzed him and talked about his past and what had happened with his own mother and father, and someone else had tried to suggest that if he took a temperamental analysis test, that this would be helpful, and so on. One individual, in the course of the conversation, asked the person, “Would you say to me again your marriage vows?” The person was going through it, came to the phrase “for better, for worse.” The fellow said, “Stop! Say that again.” Said, “For better, for worse.” The chap asked him, “What is it right now?” The guy said, “Worse.” The guy said, “Right! Now, in your vow, what did you say you would do when it got worse?” The guy said, “I said I would love my wife.” Guy said, “End of counseling session.” I had a telephone call from this man, who told me that out of the period of time that he was wandering around, the only thing that brought realism to him was the one guy who said that to him, and that sent him home and away from a potentially adulterous relationship. It was an expression of love.

Jesus, his love for his disciples. John 13:1, it says of Jesus, “He who had loved those who were his own in the world, he then loved them to the end.”[12] Jesus says of those who are his own, “I can’t stop loving you, I’ve made up my mind.”

Love Never Fails

That brings us to the final little phrase at the beginning of verse 8: “Love never fails.” “Love never fails.” We can either regard this, incidentally, as the sixteenth facet—although we said there were fifteen—or, to mix metaphors, we can see this final little phrase at the beginning of verse 8 as the capstone on the whole building of love. Phillips again: love, he says, “is, in fact, the one thing that … stands when all else has fallen.”

You see, Parkside Church can become known for a lot of things. And it is known for a lot of things. And it will increasingly be known for different things. But it would be wonderful for our church family to be known as a family that seriously, humbly, realistically was asking the Spirit of God to write the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians into our hearts and minds and relationships.

We are nothing but clanging cymbals and noisy gongs without the love of the Lord Jesus shed abroad in our lives and in our relationships.

When you get to the eighth verse and through the end of the chapter, Paul emphasizes three further things about love. He emphasizes its absolute permanency, its absolute completeness, and its absolute supremacy. And there you have the three points for next Sunday evening’s message.

Let us bow together in prayer.

Let’s take a minute in our own personal response to God’s Word. Some of us are young people living at home, and we say that we love our parents, and yet love expresses itself in honor and in obedience, and we need to ask forgiveness for our lack of obedience and lack of honor and ask God to fill us with this most practical expression of love. Some of us have a besetting problem with suspicion and cynicism, always believing the worst rather than believing the best. We need to ask God for forgiveness and that he would manifest this element of love within our lives. Some of us have convinced ourselves that it’s okay to give up on others who have offended or wronged us or wandered from the faith, and the Spirit of God rebukes us tonight and calls us back to perseverance and to hope and to trust.

Father, we want to tell you that as individuals and as a church, we know that irrespective of the gifts that are manifested in us and through us, we are nothing but clanging cymbals and noisy gongs without the love of the Lord Jesus shed abroad in our lives and in our relationships.[13] We know that this is volitional, not ultimately emotional. We know that this kind of transaction, however committed we are in a moment, takes a lifetime to express. But we want to tell you tonight that we’re serious about this. We don’t want this place to be cold and brittle, refrigerated and heartless, nor do we want it to be wooly and vague, naive and confused. We do want it to be that perfect balance between truth that loves and love that is truthful.

You have made us one in the bonds of love. You’ve joined our spirits. May it be that in the joining of our lives to one another, the world may look on and discover that we are really your disciples. To the glory of your great name we ask it. Amen.

[1] Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (1958; repr., London: Tyndale, 1960), 181.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[3] See 2 Corinthians 5:14.

[4] See Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3.

[5] Job 1:1–2 (NIV 1984).

[6] William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letters to the Corinthians, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 145–46.

[7] 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV 1984).

[8] See Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:62.

[9] See John 21:15–17.

[10] James 5:19–20 (NIV 1984).

[11] Don Gibson, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1957).

[12] John 13:1 (paraphrased).

[13] See 1 Corinthians 13:1.

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.