The Apostle Paul, having established his great concern regarding the Galatian Christians turning to the rites of the Law, then desired to encourage them to avoid sin and accomplish righteousness. He did so by condemning the “works of the flesh” and affirming the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17-24). The manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit are enumerated in Galatians 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.
Paul did not just begin with love: in the construction of the sentence in Greek, one could say that the fruit of the Spirit is love, and the rest of the attributes serve as commentary. In English “love” is a general and elastic term, describing everything from erotic desire to deep affection. The Greek word translated here as “love” is the Greek word agape, a love and affection manifest in sacrificial service, seeking the best interest and welfare of the beloved without regard to one’s own interests.
The New Testament testifies abundantly regarding agape love. It is the love God has for the world in John 3:16; it is the love demonstrated by Jesus in His death, and thus the model for the love we ought to share among one another (1 John 3:16, 4:7-21). Love represents the ultimate demonstration of virtue: without it there cannot be any true faith, holiness, or righteousness. Love must energize and enervate all thought, feeling, and action if it would glorify God, for God is love, and His love is fully manifest in Jesus (1 John 4:7-21). No wonder, then, that Jesus gave His great, solemn command to His disciples: to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34). Nothing else is as essential: Christians can only be truly known as Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another (John 13:35). Few passages, however, more thoroughly define agape love than 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth.
Paul centers everything about the Christian life in love. Whatever is not done in love is worthless. Love is manifest according to defined characteristics, and we see those characteristics most perfectly embodied in Jesus. If we replaced “love” with “Jesus” in 1 Corinthians 13:4, the passage still “works.” But will the passage “work” if we substitute “love” with “us”? Do we suffer long? Are we kind? Do we not envy, and do we not vaunt ourselves? Are we puffed up, or do we behave unseemly? Do we seek our own? Are we easily provoked? Do we take evil into account? Do we rejoice in the truth and not unrighteousness? Do we bear, believe, hope, and endure all things? We can certainly see where we fall short. Hopefully, as we grow in faith, we better and more consistently exemplify love according to these characteristics.
In society love is reckoned as a feeling; yet the love God has called us to display in Jesus is truly a decision. The decision to love is not based on worthiness or merit but anchored in God’s love for us in Jesus. For good reason Paul prayed for God to strengthen Christians in the Spirit to better perceive the dimensions of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:14-19): we will never plumb the depths of that love fully, but the more we recognize its great expanse, the more it overwhelms us, and the more empowered we are to display love in every circumstance. In truth the kind of love we ought to display can only be empowered in Jesus. We might have some kind of benevolent affection for others sustained by a sense of camaraderie or passion, but such humanitarian based love will always have its limitations. It is only when we anchor and root ourselves in the love of God that we can love others as God has loved us: to love the undeserving, the alienated, the sinful, the hostile (Romans 5:6-11). To love one’s enemies and to bless those who persecute you will always prove countercultural; it can only make sense and work in Jesus who lived and died to reconcile sinful and hostile humanity to God (cf. Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 6:30-36). Love demands action: we cannot truly say we love God or our fellow man if our deeds do not display that love. We are to be those who love in deed and truth, not merely in word and pretense (1 John 3:16-18).
Jesus rightly distilled all the Law and the prophets into two commands: to love God with all one’s being, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:35-40). We are called to draw near to God in Christ to share in relational unity with God as He shares within Himself (John 17:20-23, Hebrews 10:22): love defines this relational bond. As we are transformed by drawing near to God, we are able to grow in relational unity with our fellow man in Christ (1 John 1:7): thus we are empowered to love one another as Jesus has loved us (1 John 3:16-18, 4:7-21). Every relationship we have ought to be informed by the love of God in Christ: we approach God in love; we encourage one another as God’s people in love; husbands must love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33); parents and children ought to relate to one another in love; we should express this love to our friends and associates; we should love even those who stand against us and would harm us, for God loved us when we were working against His purposes.
Love is a gift: we only can love because we have been loved, and God empowers us to love others as He has loved us. Love makes life worth living, but proves very costly. We do well to surrender ourselves to the love of God in Christ and love as God has loved us!
Ethan R. Longhenry