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Love: A More Excellent Way

By CLA Graduate, Joshua Arnold

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19 ESV)

 

During his Upper Room Discourse, hours before his betrayal and arrest, the Lord Jesus gave his disciples a very important charge: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). The Greek language, which was used to compose the New Testament, has four words which all translate to our English word for love. In this context, Jesus is speaking of agape love. While the word agape can be used to indicate brotherly affection, it is also used to describe God’s love for humanity (see John 3:16 and 1 John 4:9). This is the very same sort of love that Christians ought to show to one another. It is a defining characteristic of the believer: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). In other words, agape love is so fundamentally unique that when it is at work in the life of a believer, it will instantly set them apart as a follower of Christ. What, then, is this sort of love, and how might we live it out?


The Patience of Love

           The Apostle Paul provides a detailed description of agape love in 1 Corinthians 13, which he describes as “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Firstly, he notes that love is “patient” (v. 4), or long-suffering. That is, loving Christians can persevere through all manner of hardships and offenses, including persecution. In Paul’s own words, they can endure “all things” (v. 7), because they have assurance that such difficulties can be used to make them more like Christ (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7). Additionally, they can rest in the knowledge that such trying circumstances are only temporary. Christians must not retaliate or seek revenge when they are mistreated, but instead ought to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:36-42). Nor should they become “resentful” (v. 5) or bitter toward those who persecute them; on the contrary, they are called to bear “all things” (v. 7). Christians are expected to always be ready and willing to forgive, for God has already forgiven them of a much larger debt (Ephesians 4:32). In fact, it is this same knowledge which enables them to show grace to their brothers and sisters when they struggle with temptation (Ephesians 4:2). Finally, Christians must be “slow to anger,” understanding that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20), but instead provides countless opportunities for sin.


The Kindness of Love

           Agape love is also “kind” (v. 4) to everyone, including enemies (Proverbs 25:21-22, Matthew 5:46-47, Luke 10:25-37). Such kindness is rooted in the understanding of two important biblical concepts. First, God himself shows no partiality (Romans 2:11), but instead “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Second, all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and therefore ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Because of this, loving Christians should always be considerate of others and willing to help those in need, while expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35).


The Uniting Power of Love

           Additionally, love “does not envy” (v. 4), meaning it does not selfishly pursue that which is not its own. Nor does it “insist on its own way” (v. 5), as that would only result in quarrels and fights within the body of Christ (James 4:1). Instead, loving Christians count others as more significant than themselves, and look not only to their interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). Agape love, then, is a source of unity and peace, especially within the Church.

           Such unity within the body of Christ is important for two reasons. First, unity adds validity to the Gospel message. In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus indicated that through the congruity of believers, others would come to realize that He was sent by the Father (John 17:20-21). Paul echoes a similar message in Philippians 2:14-15: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” In a culture that is full of strife and division, harmony within the family of God stands out and increases the appeal of the Gospel.

           Second, unity among Christians enables them to fulfill their mandate, which is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). As Jesus famously declared, “‘if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’” (Mark 3:25). This same principle applies to the church: When we fight amongst ourselves, we become distracted from the work that God has called us to do, and the church is rendered useless. The body of Christ cannot accomplish its goals if its members do not cooperate. Moreover, hostility among Christians repels non-believers from the faith, which makes our role in fulfilling the Great Commission more difficult.


The Humility of Love

           Furthermore, love is “not arrogant” (v. 4). That is, loving Christians do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think (Romans 12:3). They do not suppose themselves to be morally superior to others but are willing to admit their faults and shortcomings (Matthew 7:1-4). Therefore, while Christians ought not to condone sinful behaviors that are displeasing to God, they should be quick to show grace to their brothers and sisters when they stumble because God first showed grace to them.

           Christians must also acknowledge that apart from God they can do nothing of eternal significance (John 15:5). In fact, their very salvation requires a humble heart (which is brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit) because they have to first confess their need to be delivered from their wickedness. No amount of good deeds can bring anyone into right standing with God; such works are regarded as “polluted garments” in his sight (Isaiah 64:6). Only by grace through faith can a person be saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). But what of the good works Christians carry out after their conversion? These too are meaningless without God, for he ultimately brings about the results that follow. God is the workman; the Christian is merely his instrument (Isaiah 10:15).

           Consequently, Christians must not exalt themselves, nor should they practice their righteousness before others “in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Instead, they ought to strive to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:39). To this end, they are not to be rude (v. 5) or ill-mannered; on the contrary, they are to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which they have been called (Ephesians 4:1). Such a lifestyle is led by the Spirit of God, and results in fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This manner of living will not escape the notice of others, which in turn creates opportunities to direct their attention to God.

           Because there is no room for pride in the heart of loving Christians, all manner of boastful speech is to likewise be excluded from their behavior (v. 4), because, as Jesus himself indicated, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). The only One whom Christians should exalt with their lips is God. He alone is worthy of our praise because he is holy, righteous, and good (Leviticus 11:44, Psalm 145:9), and he created the world and all that is in it (Genesis 1:1, Revelation 4:11). Before him we are merely dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27, Psalm 103:14).


The Morality of Love

           Love also “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). Those who acknowledge Jesus as their Lord make every effort to do as he says and encourage others to do the same, for it is their delight to please their Maker. They cannot affirm sinful actions and behaviors, for that would mean that they were inciting rebellion against a holy and righteous God, before whom we must all give an account (Romans 14:12). Therefore, Christians must always be willing to take a stand for what is right, no matter what sort of consequences or persecution they might face, for if they remain silent it is considered sinful in the eyes of God (James 4:17). Nevertheless, they must do so with gentleness and respect, for the goal of a Christian is not to repel others away from the truth but to draw them closer to it, so that they might come to better appreciate its beauty.

 

The Endlessness of Love

           Finally, “love never ends” (v. 8). That is, love cannot be lost or taken away, for it was never earned to begin with. Agape love is to be offered unconditionally, or else it would not truly be love. Such love God continually shows us, because God himself is love (1 John 4:8), and in Christ, there is nothing that can separate us from him (Romans 8:38-39). Those who have been saved can rest assured that God will never leave them or forsake them (Hebrews 13:5) because his steadfast love “never ceases” (Lamentations 3:22). Truly, no other love compares to that which God so freely and graciously offers to us.


The Greatest Act of Love

Jesus perfectly demonstrated agape love his entire life, and even more so through his sacrificial death. As he hung on the cross, Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself and bore the righteous wrath of God to the fullest extent, so that all who would come to believe in his name might be forgiven of their sins and adopted into the family of God. Indeed, no greater act of love has ever been known in the history of the world. As a result, we, as imitators of Christ, are compelled to show agape love to each other (1 John 4:11). In fact, the scriptures plainly state that Christians who do not love one another are liars, “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Let us therefore strive to live out the same love God first showed us (1 John 4:19), and thereby bring glory and honor to our Father who is in Heaven.

 

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