Whenever preachers get up to speak about the topic of love, they very often go to passages like 1 Corinthians 13, and they are very apt to do so — for there, under the Spirit’s design and influence, the apostle Paul gives, perhaps, the most complete view of love we’ve ever been given. All the facets of love are covered and we’re left to forever plumb the deep meanings of this beautiful chapter.

The preeminent theme of 1 Corinthians 13 is undoubtedly that love is and should be the prime directive of all true believers. The opening verses of the chapter make this abundantly clear, reiterating that without love we are and have nothing. “And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:3) I’m all for apologetics and the evidences in history and science and elsewhere that give weight to the validity of Scripture. But all our defenses of Christianity pale in comparison to the mercy, compassion, and care that’s shown to those who don’t deserve it — the sort of love that can only be extended by those who’ve been first loved freely and infinitely. The greatest witness of the Christian faith is the Christian’s love.

Yes, indeed, love is our greatest testimony. Compassion, care, kindness, tenderness — these are our most compelling demonstrations to the world that the One who is love, loves them. As Preston Sprinkle writes, “All of our analytical apologetics and robust defenses of the faith will be vindicated by our love.” Christian love is greater than all Christian gifts. (1 Cor. 12:31-13:3) In fact, Christ’s summation of the entire Old Testament sacrificial system is one word: “love.” It is the first and second greatest commandment. (Matt. 22:37-40; 1 Cor. 13:13) And so it is that there is no greater way to show our love for God than in loving our neighbor. The truest mark of a Christian is the uncanny neighbor love inspired by the gospel of love. Indeed, love is the seminal trait of those who believe in the good news of Christ crucified for them.

“What the sun would be without light, such is a Christian without love.” (Romaine, 207)

Without love, we are nothing. I’d venture to say that believers without love for others and hearts full of grace have forgotten what it means to be “believers” in the first place. They’ve forgotten the picture of love.

You see, the truly remarkable fact about 1 Corinthians 13 is that more than just being a description of what love looks like, it’s more of a divine portrait of who Love is. In thirteen verses, the apostle paints in vivid color a fresco of the person of love. Every time you see the word “love” or “charity” in these verses, you ought to replace it with “Jesus.” And thus you will find that what appears to be another list of nearly impossible traits to emulate is, instead, a beautiful portrait of the God who is love. “God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.” (1 John 4:16)

Rather than seeing this chapter as another Christian to-do list, it should first and foremost spawn reflection and remembrance of God’s love for us, as most clearly displayed in His Son on the cross. (John 15:12-13) The supreme act of kindness shown by Jesus at Calvary outweighs all the blessings of life combined. (Ps. 63:3) And, too, reflection on this portrait of love is the best way to worship God Himself. Remembering the Father’s kindness and compassion for you will fuel your love for others. God’s love breeds neighbor love. It’s the foundation upon which all our loves rest. And, therefore, all our deeds and acts of kindness should be driven by what we read in 1 Corinthians 13, not because it contains the secret formula for love perfected, but because it is the description of Him who is Perfect Love.

Paul concludes by declaring, “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love — but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13) This famous climax to the “love chapter” is full of promises that seem exorbitant, but are, in fact, only hints and shadows of the reality of God’s love. The love of God is very often opposite of what we’d naturally expect. It’s subtle. It whispers. It woos. And yet it’s so strong that nothing and no one can ever sever its hold of us. The love of God is infinitely more rich and deep and wide than we make it out to be.(Eph. 3:17-19) It goes far beyond our lowest depths of rebellion. It spreads father than our wandering takes us. It works in ways we can never understand nor were made to. It takes us in just as we are, and showers us to the core in heart-warming grace.

Romaine, William. Twelve Discourses Upon the Law and the Gospel. London: Book Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge, 1835. Google Books.