Before we begin a study of Paul’s famous passage on Love, we need to understand something about the background of Paul’s message. Paul was a Jew. Although he was a Roman citizen and fluent in Greek, Paul’s thought patterns were in Hebrew. He was educated in the Rabbinic tradition. He was a man of the Old Testament.
Paul was also a man who experienced a dramatic, life-altering confrontation with the risen Jesus. This event never leaves his thinking. It is his reason for being who he is and it motivates his singular purpose. Paul’s Old Testament heritage is always seen through the eyes of an experience of Christ.
More than any other apostle, Paul is at home in the Greek-speaking world. His Greek is eloquent, complicated and precise. He communicates his Hebrew tradition, filtered by an encounter with Jesus as Lord, in Greek words. And when the Greek language lacks a word that is exactly what he wants to say, he creates a Greek word does the job.
All of these factors are at play in the passage we are about to uncover. We will find a deep Hebrew heritage, seen from the perspective of the call of Christ, written in rare and sometimes unique Greek words.
In addition to Paul’s individual perspective, we must also account for the uniquely Christian use of the Greek word agape (love). The Greek world had four words for love: stergo, eros, phileo and agape. These are (generally) love within a family (parental love), love that desires an object judged worthy of possessing, brotherly love (love of friends) and self-sacrificial love. Only phileo and agape are used in the New Testament. Eros is strictly avoided, but not because it is often connected with sexual love. It is avoided because it is primarily a love that moves from the self toward something that the self desires to possess, whether it be another person or simply some object (like a great piece of art, for example) or even God. In the Greek world, eros is the ladder that Man climbs toward the most desirable object, God Himself. This is Man’s attempt to reach to God, an idea that is totally opposed to the New Testament view of the purpose of Love.
Agape is the primary word for Love in the New Testament. This is the word that Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul provides a picture of this Love in fourteen attributes. After two thousand years of Christian influence, we are apt to think that agape is the standard idea of Love. But that was not the case when Paul dictated these lines. Although the verb agapao is an old Greek word found as early as Homer, the noun agape was very rarely used in classical Greek thought and literature. In fact, the New Testament authors gave this existing Greek word its real definition by filling its meaning with the thoughts that they brought to it. Prior to the New Testament, the word simply had no precise definition.
This fact makes Paul’s statements even more startling. Paul is not borrowing from a long tradition (as is the case with eros). Paul is creating a new way of thinking in the Greek language. As he constructs the attributes of agape, he is painting a picture that has never been seen before in Greek. But he is not working without a canvas or paints. His canvas is the Old Testament. The context of his thinking is Jewish and rabbinic. Paul’s understanding of love is saturated with Hebraic ideas even though he chooses to express these thoughts in Greek. And his paint he uses is the life of Christ. From these elements, he begins to create something revolutionary, something that has changed the face of Love for all time.
As we look deeply into Paul artistry, we will see how the canvas and paint are used over and over again to bring life to this colorless Greek word. When Paul is done, we will be able to view a new picture of divine glory – a glory that is as old as God Himself.
13.4 He agape makrothumei,
Love is patient. The Greek verb is makrothumeo. It comes from two older Greek nouns, makros meaning “long” (i.e. temporal duration) and thumos meaning “passion”. We might think that it means, “Love has a passion that lasts”. That seems very nice, the sort of thing we like to hear at a wedding. But if we think that this phrase is only about marriage, we would be greatly mistaken. For most of us, patience is a virtue that few of us have difficulty understanding, at least in concept. Most often we know patience through our actions of impatience, saying to ourselves, “I should have acted differently.” We generally see patience as something that we do, by obligation or commitment. To be patient is to take active steps that overcome our natural response of self-protection, defense or revenge. Unfortunately, we will also be mistaken if we believe that the theological foundation of this word is about endurance.
The root Greek word (makrothumia) has a very unusual background. The secret to understanding it is remembering that even though the New Testament was written in Greek, its thought forms are often Hebrew. That is especially the case here. In fact, makrothumia is a very rare word in Classical Greek. In its non-Biblical usage, the word actually carries a negative context meaning “forced acceptance” or “resignation”. It has the sense that we are most familiar with in English – endurance. In Greek thinking, this endurance is simply the result of the difference between men and gods. Since gods are exempt from suffering, they have no need of patience. Men, whose lives are filled with forced acceptance of unfavorable circumstance, are required to endure. As mortals, we must be resigned to lives of trouble. There is no use fighting it. The only response is to persevere.
This is not what Paul has in mind. Paul is not interested in the Greek context of this word. He is interested in the fact that makrothumia is used as the Greek translation of a Hebrew concept – ‘erek ‘appayim. The picture behind ‘erek ‘appayim is the description of the nose during breathing. This Hebrew phrase paints an image of God taking in a long drawn breath through the nose before letting out His wrath. God breathes deeply, letting His anger pass. This crucial phrase in Hebrew makes its way into Greek in the LXX. Makrothumia expresses the phrase “slow to anger”. It is God’s gift of the postponement of judgment, always with a view toward repentance. In the New Testament, this notion of God’s gift of forbearance is expanded as an indication of His generosity of grace. The New Testament takes a word that is rather insignificant in the Greek context and converts it into a crucial concept for Christian understanding.
If we are going to understand how love is patient, we must first understand makrothumia within the context of ‘erek ‘appayim – slow to anger. God’s forbearance is found in the formula:
“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth;” (Exodus 34:6)
This formula connects God’s forbearance with the covenant (the word translated “lovingkindness” – in Hebrew hesed). This is God’s self-declaration of His character. Compassion and grace are seen in God’s personal act of “slow to anger”. As a result, God’s covenant endures. We see immediately that the foundation of makrothumia is gift. God’s chooses not to exercise the justice we deserve. He withholds His rightful wrath. Patience is God’s gift to all mankind.
But there is another concept buried in this word – a concept that reveals the other side of God’s forbearance. This is a gift that always demands a corresponding answer, an answer of repentance. God’s covenant with men is eternally linked to makrothumia. But makrothumia reveals another aspect of the covenant – God’s wrath. Notice that even the word makrothumia contains the word for wrath – thumos. Makrothumia is the postponement of wrath (judgment). It is not the elimination of wrath.
This idea is fixed in the Hebrew concept of God. God is the majestic El Shaddai – the all-powerful One for whom nothing is impossible. God is the Eternal One, the beginning and end. God is the Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of all. God is the Holy Judge of the Universe. None of these attributes is negated in God’s interaction with men. The character of God demands righteous judgment; a judgment that means no man can stand before Him and be saved. Makrothumia is the incredible announcement that God Himself has chosen not to exercise what justice demands. Makrothumia is the divine balance between wrath and grace.
Makrothumia is given before repentance occurs. It is given in expectation of repentance. God’s wrath is postponed because God is willing to wait, to delay judgment in hope of repentance. This is the foundation for the expression of love as patience between human beings. Our love is to model God’s love – the free gift of a love that postpones judgment prior to the act of repentance.
It is important to notice that ‘erek ‘appayim is the basis of the First Commandment – you shall have no other gods before me. It is God’s gracious postponement of wrath that is the basis of worship. We bow before Him because He withholds the wrath we deserved. Worship is an act of thanksgiving. This first attribute of Love is tied to the First Commandment. It describes positively what the Commandment describes negatively. God is the absolute priority of life because life results from God’s deep breath of patience.
Just as God’s expression of makrothumia is not swayed by emotion (it is a deliberate decision of the will in spite of the actions of the other party), so our love as patience is to be the exercise of the will, not subject to the lack of response of the other person. We chose to exercise makrothumia simply and only because God demonstrates the character of “slow to anger” in His generous gift to us. Therefore, patience becomes a necessary quality of service to God. Its exercise leaves all of the results in God’s hands, expressing the confidence that God will act as the divine judge. It does not demand repentance as a condition of performance but rather shows the gift of graceful forbearance as a worshipful response to the pardon given by God. It always allows a space for repentance, but it is not contingent upon repentance.
In its theological sense, makrothumia is both active and passive. It is active in the sense that I deliberately choose to wait no matter how long it takes. This is active spiritual obedience. I decide to behave like God. But “Love is patient” does not mean active endurance, as though I am called to exercise my mental and emotional muscles to attain that higher plane of ethical action. Biblical makrothumia is not the Greek idea of gritting my teeth and white-knuckling through life. Makrothumia is active in relation to God’s call, but it is passive in relation to the demands on others. If I am modeling God’s character, I wait. I accept what comes, I allow whatever befalls me. Of course, this can only be done because God is love and what befalls us is ultimately in His hands, under His control and within His power to affect. Love is patient is another glorious way of saying that I am not in control, that my world is not up to me.
If I believe that I must endure from my own resources, then I will take steps to meet the challenge, to prepare against the onslaught, like consulting with an attorney, creating emotional hideaways, protecting assets, running to outside support. In themselves, none of these actions would ever be considered wrong. But love will have none of it. Love is the expression of God’s character and that means living under His providential care of His children. The one who loves is a conscientious objector to the ways of the world. Love means waiting for God.
One of the most powerful implications of this description of love is its demonstration in God’s actions toward us. This word implies that love surrenders its own desires and concerns to the will of another. This is clearly seen in Jesus’ kenosis, but it is also embodied in God’s surrender to us. Imagine that the God of all creation actually allows us to exercise our will, to have our desires, even when they are not compatible with His or with what is best for us. God’s long suffering means that He Himself accepts what comes to Him because of our choices. He accepts our sinful behavior and withholds taking action to prevent it. He surrenders His desires to ours. And then, He surrenders who He is to become like us in order to rescue us from our lack of surrender, from our impatience, from our active resistance. Love suffers, accepts, surrenders long. Love always waits in hope of repentance.
In an important sense, then, this kind of patience is not a virtue. It is certainly virtuous, but it is not something that can be actively achieved. It is not developmental work, planned steps or rewarded discipline. An approach like that would nullify the passive dimension of love’s long suffering. For love to be patient is for love to simply reflect God’s character. God’s patience is the archetype. We reflect that archetype when we, by choice, decide that His will be done, that His hands are adequate, that His strength is enough. This is not patience as a measure of self-control. It is surrender to God’s control. Love is patient. The verb here expresses a state of being, not of doing. If we love, patience is the result; a result that comes about only because we model the long-suffering passion in the character of God Himself.
chresteuetai he agape. Love is kind. The Greek word is chresteuomai. This is the only place where it is found, and there is reason to believe that Paul may have coined the word himself. In ordinary usage it is related to the meanings of excellent, useful, propitious. When used of persons it has the meanings of worthy, upright, decent, gentle. Ordinary Greek usage would never associate this word with God. In Greek thinking, the idea that the gods could be charitable was incompatible with the picture of the gods as majestic and powerful. Once again we must find the Hebrew thought behind this Greek word.
Examining the LXX, we find that the concept of “kindness” appears in the Hebrew word hesed. If this word sounds familiar, we should not be surprised. The same formula that established the Hebrew thought behind makrothumia designates hesed as an essential attribute of God’s character. Let’s look that the passage again:
“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth;” (Exodus 34:6)
The identical concept is repeated in the central moral requirements of the covenant people:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . you shall not worship them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children . . but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6 and repeated in Duet. 5:10)
There is no doubt that the covenant is based on God’s own character. But this character is expressed in God’s action toward all mankind, not just His covenant people. Hesed is a declaration of who God is! Because it is essential to the character of God, hesed is an expression of the truth about love. It is coupled with words that mean “mercy” and “faithful”, both expressions of God’s unfailing love.
God demonstrates kindness as part of His character without partiality. God is kind even to the ungrateful. In the New Testament, variations of this same word are used in I Peter 2:3 to talk about tasting the kindness of God and in Matt. 11:30 where Jesus says that his yoke is “easy” – literally pleasant or kind. Paul may have coined the word in Greek, but he has in mind a Hebrew concept that permeated the consciousness of God’s chosen race.
When we think of kindness, we usually imagine the act of granting favors or gifts. “I am kind to my children” usually means that I do something for them or give something of value. We confuse the objective symbol of kindness with the character of being kind. And soon, kindness becomes the gift rather than the character of the giver. This is no more evident in human experience than the revision of the celebration of Christmas. Christmas has been transformed from a memorial to the character of a God who loves into a commercialized measure of the cost of your valuing me. We now celebrate the gift rather than the giver. It is not the recognition of genuine affection and care that passes between people, but rather the quantitative comparison of my worth, as both giver and receiver.
Once again, Paul’s linguistic economy reminds us that love is essentially a question of who we are, not what we do. We should notice that in Greek Paul places the word chresteuetai first. He is putting the emphasis on this attribute. The character of love is found in kindness, not in kind acts. Kind acts are the natural expression, the overflow, of a state of being that embraces kindness as God-granted. Anyone can appear kind by reproducing those activities that we judge as “acts of kindness”. But few of us are truly kind as an essential element of our character. This is why Jesus showed little tolerance for the overt demonstrations of “kind” acts, of charitable favors or self-glorifying condescension. Jesus was interested in character, not in action. His focus looked at motive, constitution and quality, never at the external (and often counterfeit) symbolic expression.
“Love is kind” is primarily a statement about God’s character, a character that is behind every act of good will, perseverance, gentleness and compassion. It is also a standard. But it cannot be achieved by simply performing acts that may be interpreted as kind. In fact, the character of kindness cannot be achieved at all. It must be inherited – the direct result of a first-hand encounter with God’s personal kindness in a soul changing transformation.
Think about it. No matter how many kind acts I perform, my actions do not guarantee that I am a kind person – that I have kindness rooted in my soul. As human beings, we are constantly at the mercy of false behavior. We only see the outer actions. We judge the character of a person on the basis of those actions. Knowing full well that the disguise of action can cover many hidden evils, are we really surprised when someone whom we thought to be upright, moral, kind or generous is discovered to be selfish, egotistical or worse? The cynicism reflected in jokes about politicians and lawyers only demonstrates that surface behavior cannot cover a man’s deception.
Jesus was a man who was interested in roots, not leaves. He showed us that God does not judge us on the basis of our outward actions. Perhaps we need to say that again. God does not judge us according to our outward actions. God is interested in character and character is what we are in the dark. God judges us on the basis of our character because character produces action – for good or evil. God knows that love in the roots will produce kindness in the leaves. Actions are only the by-product of intentions of the heart. So God looks at the source. There is no way to “fake it”.
“Love is kind” is not an expression of activity. It is a completely automatic result of reflecting God’s character in my life. If God is in my roots, I cannot help but be kind.
ou zeloi [Love] is not jealous. Literally this says “Not zeal [love]”. The first word to consider in this very short phrase is ou, the Greek word for “not”. This Greek word has a different sense than another Greek word that also means “not”. Ou means an absolute and independent negation while me means a dependent and conditional negation. Paul begins this statement about love by telling us that there are never any conditions or circumstances where love acts with zeloi. Now we need to see exactly what zeloi means.
The Greek background of the word zeloi refers to a passionate striving for a personal gain or cause. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in the Greek world, zeal was often considered the noble impulse toward the highest ethical development. But it can also become a word that describes contention, evil passions, jealousy and envy. This is the context that is usually applied to Paul’s statement here. Therefore, we often get a translation that says something like “Love is not jealous”.
But a translation like this presents a problem. The Hebrew word for zeal is the word qana, a word that comes directly from the second commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me . . for I am a jealous God”. Exodus 20:5). In this case, God describes Himself as jealous. How is it possible for Paul to say, “Love is not zeloi” if the greatest example of Love in the universe tells us that zeloi is an attribute of God?
The first thing we must recognize is that the Greek idea of zeal as anxious striving to ennoble personality is not present at all in the LXX. This means that if we are going to understand the use of zeloi as an equivalent to the Hebrew qana, we must look at a different context than the Greeks. The correct context is the description found in the Second Commandment. Jealousy is an expression of holiness. This idea is found in the analogy of marriage. God’s love for His people is analogous to the love of a husband for his wife. It is a “jealous” love. That means that his love guards the covenant bond as his own property. It is an impassioned protection of the sacred relationship. Just as adultery breaks the bond in human marriage (and has the same punishment as murder), so apostasy breaks the bond of God’s covenant. Breaking the bond reveals God’s wrath, a term that does not mean evil despotism but rather righteous inflamed anger toward the cause of the unlawful separation. It is God’s fervent desire to protect the bond (His jealousy) that stands behind wrath. Therefore, the description of God as a jealous God is really a confirmation that a holy God will not and cannot allow anything to break the righteous bond that He has established between Himself and His elect people. In this sense, God’s love produces His jealousy. Jealousy is the expression of unmitigated effort to protect. It is not a passing mood or feeling. God’s jealousy always leads to action.
We should notice that jealousy as an attribute of God is directly tied to the obligation to worship. God is to be the absolutely first priority of His people (the requirement of the First Commandment). This priority is under His constant guardianship. This is exactly the sense zeloi that Paul uses in 2 Cor. 11:2 when he says that he is watching over the congregation with jealous interest to ensure they do not depart from the gospel.
Now we are able to see the full implications of Paul’s announcement that “love is not zeloi”. Both Hebrew and Greek backgrounds flow from this word. From the Greek side, we see that love is never to be found in heated self-striving, even if that striving is for goals that appear to be personally ennobling. This is not the proper mode of a jealous love. Love is to model God’s zeal, a zeal that is focused on holiness. This love is committed to the active, ardent desire to restore good relations, primarily from God to men, but secondarily to model God’s passionate restoration in relations between human beings.
Love is not striving, but it is protection. It is not zeloi, but it is qana.
Personal self-striving is envy. Personal protection in active guardianship is proper jealousy. Love is not the first, but it is the second. It helps to understand what this means by focusing on the antonym of envy. In ordinary grammar, we might think that the opposite of envy is contentment. But in the Biblical context, the opposite of envy is mercy. Why mercy? Because envy is about covetousness and desire. And in God’s book the antonym of these sinful expressions is mercy. Mercy comes from a Greek word (eleos) that has its roots in an emotion aroused by the plight of someone else. It is an identification with those who are undeserving. Mercy stresses God’s faithfulness to His promise of identification with us, even when we act in ways that break the scared bond of our relationship with Him. There is no greater expression of God’s love for us than His mercy, a theme that dominates God’s actions toward human beings. Where human sinfulness is covetous and begrudges the good fortune of others, mercy identifies with another’s ill fortune, extending itself to act benevolently toward those who are suffering.
We have only to reflect on our own behavior to realize how far away we are from this form of love. How many times have we secretly desired what others have – money, power, good looks, etc.? How many times have we downplayed the good fortune of others, almost as if to say that somehow that good fortune should have come to us? Envy runs very deep in the human condition. That is why envy is so much a part of God’s message of forgiving freedom. God demonstrates mercy.
In the Bible, mercy has a very unusual context, derived from an Old Testament background. Literally, mercy covers us. The Biblical use of this Greek word alters its normal context. From the Greek context mercy is seen as an emotion aroused through identification. The Greeks feared such emotions because they overwhelmed reason and were not within the control of the will. In the Bible, mercy is the exercise of God’s will to forgive and to maintain the sacred relationship between Himself and Man regardless of sin. In this way, God’s mercy covers Man’s sin, hiding it from interfering with the outpouring of His love. In order for love not to be envious, it must show mercy, cover relationship damage, forgive and continue to uphold its promise.
Love is the opposite of the human characteristic of the desire to possess. To envy is to say, “What is yours should be mine”. But love says, “What is mine I give to you”. Only the character of God expressed in love can replace the natural human trait of desiring what belongs to another. Love casts out envy not because we as humans exercise the discipline of giving but because God’s mercy works though us to change our natural desire into a model of the divine.
Do we really demonstrate in our love relationships that we are free from zealous striving to take what the other possesses? How many of us treat our spouses with a love that does not demand from them? Do we not rather act from desire, disguising our motives with the words of love, but all the while pressing our wishes to possess, to control, to make the other person mine? God shows that love is not envious, but rather protective. It is a love that covers a multitude of sins because it is willing to guard the relationship from its own side in spite of the breaking activity of the other side. He shows that love gives away its rights. Paul captures the thought magnificently in those special verse of Philippians: “who, although he existed exactly like God, did not zealously strive to keep his status as God, but rather emptied himself of his right to God and took on the form of a humiliated slave, humbling himself to obedience, even to the obedience of death on a cross.”
Love is never self-seeking. But it is ever guarding and protecting. Love is willing to give up itself in order to protect its purpose.
ou perpereutai [Love] is not boastful. The word (from perperos) is related to arrogance in speech. It suggests bragging, exaggerating and asserting oneself. It is egotistical speech. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament and is quite possibly a word that Paul created. With that in mind, it is important to ask, “Why would Paul make up this word. What was so important about this idea that he had to create a word to fit it?” This is especially significant when there are other words in Greek that could have been used for “boastful” (kauchaomai, for example, is a word that Paul uses quite often).
Set in proximity to the word zeloi, we should notice that the basis of this characteristic is found in the same Old Testament formula that supplied the rich heritage of the previous words.
One of the central proclamations of the Decalogue is the proper respect for the sovereignty of God. The first three commandments concern the relationship of authority that God exercises over Man. God is the only God. No relationship to any other supreme authority is tolerated or endorsed. God’s exclusivity is backed by His jealous guardianship of this relationship. The third idea associated with God’s authority is found in the expression, “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain”. The Hebrew word here is shaw. It suggests vanity, worthlessness and falsehood. While it certainly covers the current understanding of profanity, it also suggests that taking God’s name in vain implies thinking lightly of His stature, that is, not showing the proper respect for God’s rightful authority. This extension is supported by the LXX translation of shaw with epi mataio (“thoughtlessly).
If we recall that there is both a proper and an improper use of zeloi, we will find that the same idea is true of perpereutai. There is a tradition in the Old Testament where the idea of “boasting” is quite properly applied to God. The Hebrew word is halal and it is used extensively in the Psalms to describe exultation and praise of God. Here halal is actually an obligation placed on the believer to affirm God’s full authority and supremacy. Praise of God in this sense is proper “boasting” in the Lord. There is no element of self-aggrandizement or egotism. In fact, proper boasting is exactly the opposite since proper boasting is the acknowledgement that God is the unique and sole object worthy of worship.
Any speech or act that lessens the authority and supremacy of God violates the commandment to not take God’s name in vain. This is much more than showing respect. God wants us to live on the basis of His rightful authority. This is a commandant that is for our own good because it reminds us of our necessary and essential dependency on the Creator of Life. It positions us so that we are in the right relationship with God. Improper boasting is sin because egotism replaces God with our own image. Perpereutai is the equivalent of blasphemy.
God’s character is grounded in truth. God cannot abide the inflation of the truth any more than He can partake in the omission of truth through lies. Blasphemy is the attempt to replace the truth of God with a false assertion about myself. No wonder Paul tells us that Love is never boastful. Love reflects God’s essential character. To act with egotistical boastfulness is to deny who God is. Love never boasts because Love honors God.
The practice of love replaces the typically human trait of seeking self-aggrandizement by allowing God’s character of truthfulness to flow through us.
Once again we see that Paul is making a point about a state of being in opposition to the result of acting. This quality of love is not accomplished by some mental discipline but rather by recognizing that no human being, most of all me, replaces God’s sovereignty. If I love God, I will never blaspheme because I will never treat God as less than God. My boasting will be always of His majesty and grace, never of my selfish ego. If I boast of myself, I blaspheme against God. This is a matter of my heart, not of disciplined control of my words. I must recognize God as my God, the Ruler of my life, if I am going to have a heart purified of selfish desire to proclaim my rights and power. Without a heart change, perpereutai will show itself in my life no matter how carefully I control my words. Perpereutai is a state of mind that Love cannot allow.
We must take care not to be confused with this language. Because human sinfulness seeks justification, rationale and excuse, we are likely to interpret the negative proposition about love as a command. In other words, instead of reading “Love boasts not”, we read “If I am a loving person, I will not boast”. From this understanding, it is a short step to the conclusion “I don’t really boast, therefore I am a loving person.” We want to convert a quality into an activity in order that we may measure (and find acceptable) our own status.
But the force of this phrase has little to do with the activity of bragging or (perhaps more palatably) thinking well of myself. This phrase is a statement about the final truth of love’s character. It is a universal view of the standard, emanating from a holy God. And in the end, all of our justifications, all of our rationalizations, all of our excuses, are just that: boasting. Why? Because the truth is that we are in the business of self-supporting justification. We may not proclaim our worth before the world in the self-righteous style of the media’s characterization of moral failure. We may consider ourselves humble, and be viewed that way by others. But God’s love says something different. Held up to that mirror, our personalities are thoroughly riddled with attempts to earn credit we most assuredly do not deserve. Our moral acts, our good deeds, our charitable thoughts – all of these are stockpiled in the internal bank account that we use to convince ourselves that we are really just fine. This is the ultimate arrogance. It denies God’s holy judgment of our true condition. It plays havoc with our spiritual renewal. It is blasphemy. It is not love.
The truth is the recognition of our utter failure to be what God intended us to be. The truth is our final, complete and ultimate moral bankruptcy. The truth is that the only thing we have that is really ours is our sin. Everything else is a gift – and even this we have spoiled.
Love is not boastful because love recognizes the true human condition, guilty and repentant. Love can embrace another’s wrong because it was first my own wrong. A fellowship of the forgiven is the only honest characterization of human relationships. And forgiveness means that we depend entirely on God’s gift of grace. Grace makes boasting impossible. Paul has given us a commandment of the Decalogue rewritten in the framework of the Savior – “a new commandment I give unto you, that you love”.
ou phusioutai [Love] is not arrogant. The Greek is phusioutai from phusa – a bellows. Literally, love does not puff itself up, from the Greek words meaning to blow like a bellows. The root of this word means “to inflate or to swell” and is often associated with natural growth, like germinating or sprouting.
Once again we have a word that is fairly rare. It is used several times in this letter to the Corinthians, only once in Colossians and never again in the New Testament. In every instance, it conveys the sense of human pride. But Paul chooses a word that is not commonly used for pride. The usual word would have been hubris. We are forced to ask why he would use such a rare form to express such an important idea.
Love is the opposite of selfish pride. In the New Testament Paul links phusioutai to insolence, arrogance and boastfulness. All of these terms describe aspects of pride. Ultimately, pride is the sin of usurping divine authority. Here is another term that elaborates the meaning of blasphemy. To be arrogant, to be filled with pride violates the commandment of awe and reverence. Love will have none of it.
Working backwards, we find that the LXX uses hubris to translate ga’a (pride). If Paul has the Hebrew idea of pride in mind, he would remind us that the Hebrew word ga’a has the same double aspect as qana (zealous) and shaw (boastful). There is a positive aspect of pride. Ga’a is used in various forms to describe God’s majesty and excellence. When it is positive, it is typically translated into Greek as doxa – glory. But there is also a negative aspect of the word, and this is the predominant one. Ga’a is used fifty-three times to describe arrogance, cynical insensitivity and presumption. Here the usual translation into Greek is hubris.
Victor Hamilton notes that the positive aspect of ga’a is to “become a part of the life style of the believer. Sin enters the picture when there is a shift of ultimate confidence from God as object and source to oneself as object and source”.
But why use this odd word phusioutai rather than hubris? Certainly hubris would have been immediately recognizable to the Greek speaking Corinthian church. And this immediate recognition may be exactly why Paul chose a different word. There is something about hubris that Paul did not want to imply. Paul chose phusioutai because he needed to avoid these implications.
Hubris has an incredibly wide range of meanings in the Greek world. In antiquity, it is generally associated with the idea of overestimation and exaggeration. In this sense, it is always seen in opposition to proper order (dike) and the gods usually punish it because it is presumptuous. But as Greek thought moved toward rational rather than mystical explanations of the world, hubris shifted in meaning. It was no longer a religious concept. By the time Plato used the word, it became an essential force of nature and human existence. Plato saw hubris is the necessary foil of eros. In Platonic thought, eros is the love that seeks what is most desired as a natural expression of what Man determines is best. It is self-love in its positive sense, a love that pushes Man toward the divine. It is Man’s love that sees God as the ultimate object of desire. Of course, in its less Platonic forms, eros describes love that desires to possess, whether the object desired is God, another person or any other activity or thing. The New Testament absolutely avoids any expression of eros as an acceptable form of love.
Hubris is the counterpart of eros. That means that Plato saw hubris as the ground out of which eros developed. Hubris is not sin. It is simply the fate of Man, cast into a world rife with human vulnerability. Without hubris, Man would not be able to recognize the call of eros and would not be able to aspire to lift himself above the world of selfish desire. In this regard, hubris is not disobedience at all. It is simply the natural, unenlightened state of Man. It does not require repentance. It requires re-education.
Paul is writing to a church that is predominately Greek in thought and culture. If he were to use hubris as a negative description of Love (i.e. Love is not hubris), he might communicate an idea that would link Love to eros, something that he is at pains to prevent. In fact, Paul does use a form of the word hubris in 1 Timothy 1:13. In that verse Paul says that before his confrontation with Christ, he himself was “a blasphemer, a persecutor and hubristen (usually translated as “an insolent man”). Every use of the forms of hubris in the New Testament (and there are very few) carries the sense of “harm, sufferings and men who take pleasure in harming others”.
None of this background is to be associated with Paul’s treatise on Love. In particular, Paul wishes to communicate the idea that Love is the new way of expressing the essential character of God revealed in past ages in the Decalogue. So, he must create a word that will express the idea of selfish egotism but will avoid connections to the Greek thought that such egotism is a necessary element of life. Paul is anxious to show that anything that does not express the image of divine love is disobedient and punishable. This is not a matter of “natural inclination” or fate. This is a matter of sin. So Paul creates a word that expresses the essence of arrogance – swelling up with improper ego inflation – blasphemy in inner attitude.
Arrogance is most insidious when it is disguised. Most of us shun the overt display of arrogance. We have enough social decorum to avoid those improper persons who act superior, privately convincing ourselves that we are not like them, that they are really no better (and probably a little worse) than us. It is easy to avoid visible arrogance. But this characteristic of love is not about the visible. It is about the hidden – the internal. Love is not arrogant because love recognizes God’s legitimate and authentic supremacy. Any time that my self asserts its superiority in God’s creation, my character is damaged by a lack of love.
The subtlety of this is amazing. It is the attitude of “I am not like you.” I am not homeless, disabled, retarded. I am not emotionally crippled, or circumstantially poor, or old, or homely. I am not an outsider, a career failure, a family disaster, divorced, despairing, despicable, an ex-con, a liar, a cheat, a racist. I am not poor, uneducated, illiterate, unlettered, stupid, hostile, dirty, unsophisticated. The mark of arrogance is the exclusiveness – defining myself in opposition to some other. The mark of love is inclusiveness. Love recognizes that I am not only capable of being each and every one of those whom I have put outside me; love goes beyond mere intellectual acknowledgment. Love says that I am, essentially, exactly what every other human being is. On the universal scales, there is no difference at all. None. My soul is just as putrescent, just as sinful, just as corrupt as every other soul. In the realm of identity and difference, there is only identity. God alone is different. The subtlety of my arrogance is to not see my identity with all that is human. And when I do not see my identity, I cannot recognize the difference. Love reminds me that the chasm between my Creator and myself is infinite, but the chasm between me and every other human being is insignificant.
Now we see why arrogance is so deceitful. Paul knows that arrogance supports pride. And pride refuses submission to God. In doing so, it believes that it is equal to God. This is the ultimate form of blasphemy. It is shown by a disdain for God’s other children and for God’s rightful rule. The tragedy of the proud is that believing they have no need of God, they spurn forgiveness. Love, in opposition to pride, submits itself to God’s call, recognizes its dependence on God’s grace and exemplifies humility. Love is not arrogant — it demonstrates the proper relationship between grace and submission. Love’s humility emulates God’s care. The paradigm case of this aspect of love is Jesus’ kenosis — his deliberate choice to relinquish His divine attributes in order to submit to the will of the Father as the sacrificial substitute for the unworthy (Phil. 2:7-8).
Pride is such a terrible sin. It is so easily hidden in the affirmations of our acceptability. It doesn’t care if we associate ourselves with the neo-Nazis or the Christian Coalition. It only cares that we find some reason for separation. It masks the essential truth that human beings, all human beings, are fallen creatures and that every one of us is quite capable of mayhem, murder, deceit, cruelty and indifference. It forgets that in the creation account of the Bible, only human beings are created as one genus without species.
Not until we see that the only way love can truly express itself is in complete identification with the unlovable will we know that nature of love. No wonder Jesus encountered such bitterness from the moral majority. He demonstrated that God loves the untouchables. He reminded us of our similarity with all of God’s creatures. And he paid the price. We humans would rather execute our reminders than admit we are like those “others”.
Love is not arrogant. Love says you and I are the same, right to the core. Love replaces animosity with identity. Love sees that God’s rule is the only rule and that my role is the role of His servant.
Now we come to a break in the direction of Paul’s explanation of Love. The first commandments of the Decalogue focus attention on the first priority of life – acknowledging and honoring God. After that foundation has been established, the Decalogue turns toward the implications for right actions among people. So, the second group of the Commandments speaks about ethical choices in the social context. Paul follows that same pattern. His first group of attributes focuses attention on God’s character in the individual’s life. These are the attributes that stand behind grace and mercy, judgment and justice. God extends Himself in waiting, shows Himself in graceful favor, guards His own, shows Himself in humble submission and demonstrates His character in self-denial. Now Paul shifts his attention to the way that these attributes, first revealed in God, express themselves in human social behavior. Just as the Decalogue moves from “not take the name of the Lord in vain” to “honor the Sabbath”, Paul moves from inner qualities of Love to outer expressions. The first of this group is “behaving unseemly”.
With this shift, Paul alters his linguistic context. In the first group of attributes, he is anxious to communicate the character of a Hebrew God into a Greek thinking culture. To do this, he must choose words that express Hebrew ideas in spite of the fact that these words are Greek. So, we see him do two things: make up words or find words that are quite rare and supply his own context and meanings. This deliberate process allows Paul to communicate Hebrew thought forms in Greek without accidentally shifting the meaning from Hebrew to Greek. We saw this in his deliberate avoidance of hubris.
But with the shift from a focus on God’s attributes that reflect aspects of inner personal response to attributes that are expressed in outer action, Paul is no longer required to use words he can manipulate. Now he is expressing what Love must mean in the Greek culture of the Corinthian church, so it is appropriate for Paul to use words that are at home in Greek, familiar to his audience and easily translated into living expressions. This means that the Greek of the next group of attributes will be Greek that is common to his readers. We will find that these additional attributes take us deep inside the Greek thought patterns.
ouk aschemonei [Love] does not behave unseemly. In Greek, ouk aschemonei. This word is used only twice in the NT, here and in I Cor. 7:36. In the seventh chapter, the word is associated with sexual propriety and this seems to be the correct context. Love does not behave indecently.
For the first time, we see love in outer conduct. To this point, we have had linguistic descriptions of the character of love that we often mistake as behaviors. On closer inspection, we have found that these descriptions are about states of being rather than results of actions. Now Paul shifts gears. We are presented with an aspect of love that is behavioral. There is a very good reason for this. It has to do entirely with the shift in God’s love from inner responses to outer requirements.
But Paul is not entirely abandoning his Hebrew thought patterns. This word is found in the LXX in Deut. 25:3. There it translates the Hebrew word qalon. It means “shame and disgrace”. It is the opposite of “glory and honor”. This is an interesting contrast. Love expresses itself in glory and honor of God and of others. Love does not act in ways that bring shame and disgrace. It is a thematic expression of the Old Testament that God will change Man’s self glory and honor into its true state – shame and disgrace. Once again, we are within the context of the Decalogue.
Now Paul draws us into the Greek context. Ouk is the strong negative, meaning “never”. There are never any circumstances where Love is aschemonei. This Greek word comes from another Greek word that means to be deformed or uncomely. It is a combination of the negative prefix (a) and the Greek word schema, which means form. Thus, not of the right form. A schema is a pattern. Love reflects the divine pattern for sexual relationships. Love does not act in ways that portray deformed or broken patterns.
What is the divine pattern for sexual relationships that love portrays? It is amazing to me that the Bible uses powerful sexual imagery to represent God’s love for human beings and yet we so often avoid talking about these images because we have somehow correlated sexual behavior with sin. There is probably good reason for this correlation. So often sex involves exactly what love is not – namely the desire to possess the other, to own the other and to use the other for one’s own purposes. But sex can also be the most complete expression of self-giving, to offer to another our deepest intimacy. In Spanish there is a word that captures this expression, entregar se. In the first person it means to give myself away, but it connotes turning inward to the heart and then offering the heart as a freely given gift. This is the basis of true sexual bonding. And this is why God uses sexual imagery to exhibit what His love is like. For sex to be love, it must be the deliberate choice to open myself at my most intimate level to another, to allow someone else to become part of who I am, as a free gift of devotion. What makes sex so wonderful is that it is the human act that brings us closest to heaven and, precisely because it is so close to the divine, it is also the most vulnerable to being deformed.
We only have to reflect on the commercialization of sex to understand how easily this most vulnerable act can be moved from the clouds of the divine to the caves of the demonic. It is simply impossible for love to exist in the realm of demands. Love is a free gift. That fact sets the stage for understanding the difference between love and possession. As soon as a demand is made for the expression of love toward another, the gift is converted into obligation – and love flees. We can maintain relationships of love only when we are not obligated or constrained or cajoled into doing so.
God’s demonstration is the standard. Perhaps we would do well to remember that Jesus demonstrated his love as a free gift by maintaining his openness to the Father even when the entire world stood against him. If we cast Jesus’ actions against the background of love as a gift, we can see that love does not always mean acceptance. It does not always entail encouragement. It does not always produce respect or acknowledgement. But love has a focus all its own. It is focused on the purity of its origin as gift, and on the standard of the gift of a holy God. Love goes its own way, regardless of the circumstances because it is motivated by a higher standard. Love does not behave unseemly because it can’t. Love maintains its bond to the sacred and jealously guards the purity of its origin.
And that last statement should remind us that we are still within the context of the Commandments. Jealousy, purity and holiness are inseparably linked to Love. Even in sexual conduct, Love guards jealously the purity of the bond because Love understands it is a sacred and holy thing.
Ou zetei ta heautes [Love] does not seek its own desires. This phrase is made up of two important Greek words. The first is zeteo, to seek. The second is the reflexive “of himself.” These is a passionate, active, intense words about what I want! It is more than passing interest. It is active involvement that will never rest until it accomplishes its desire. Jesus used this same verb when he told us to “seek first” the kingdom of God and His righteousness. This is an all-consuming quest that allows no competitors. It is action that never ever quits.
There is a two-fold sense of this word in the religious context. It means both divine seeking and divine claiming. What God pursues He also claims as His own. But in this passage, we are told that love does not seek things of itself. The implication is that love seeks the well-being of others – love chooses to place the interests of another ahead of itself. How is it possible for God to be the One Who puts His interests aside and allows the interests of others to come before His own? Isn’t God’s desire what is best for us? The answer to these questions lies in the soil out of which love grows, the richness of self-sacrifice.
God does desire what is best for us. God does pursue His own people, claiming them through His electing love. But this is accomplished, not by divine edict, not by omnipotent force, but by giving up what is His most precious relationship – His Son. The offer of love is the offer of self-denial, of one who suffers loss for the sake of another.
In other words, love does not take care of itself. It is not self-serving. On the contrary, love exposes itself to maximum risk by giving up what would otherwise serve its own purposes for the sake of another, regardless of the outcome. Love does not open itself to risk after calculating the probabilities of return. Love does not seek a return. It seeks (God seeks) to reconcile through sacrifice. The ground of the Incarnation is simply this: that God loved. And Christ responded to that love by offering Himself. As Paul says, Christ did not count equality with the Father something to be held on to, but rather Christ willingly, joyfully, relinquished His very being to become a sacrificial slave in our place.
Have we really stopped to consider this? God the Father did not tell the Son to give up divinity, lay aside his glory, and become a slave for the sake of unrepentant human being – human being who had spurned God’s attempts at love and who would ultimately reject God’s love sacrifice in a cruel and humiliating death. The Father did not request. He did not command. Because the Son volunteered to take on this task. And he volunteered because he loved the Father, so that the interests of the Father came before his own. The plans of the Father for redemption came before his self-preservation. Jesus’ sacrificial death for us is simply the result of putting the Father’s desires before his own. This is the model of Love that Paul wants us to understand.
Love is about giving up who we are for someone else. It about surrendering to God, not out of obligation but out of joy for the love that we have already received. So John says, we love because He first loved us. This self-sacrifice does not come through human discipline, human altruism or human martyrdom. This love exists only because it is divinely produced in the believer caught in the grip of a bond stronger than death. If our attempts at love still rely on a calculation of the return, if we seek to protect ourselves in case of disaster, if we are restrained in our sacrifice because we worry about what will happen to us, then we have not understood the depth of real love. Love does not seek its own desires.
John echoes the same idea in his first letter when he says, “the one who does not love does not know God for God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is a harsh verse. It may not seem harsh because we are likely to modify its meaning to accommodate our own view of sacrificial love. We want to feel better about our efforts to meet its demands, so we lessen the impact of the verse by acting as though it says, “people who are not kind and generous and don’t care about others – they don’t really know God”. But this is not what the verse says. John is very deliberate here. He uses two different words that mean “not”. The first is me. The second is ou (ouk before a vowel). He uses two different words because he wants us to see something very important. We need to pay close attention.
Me means a conditional “not”. It is the “not” that is governed by circumstance. For example, “I may not go to lunch today” is governed by factors that might change. This “not” is used in the first part of the verse - “the one who does not as a result of conditions and circumstance, love (that is, give self-sacrificially to another)”. The idea is that this person weighs the consequences to determine whether or not circumstances are in his favor or acceptable before he decides to act on behalf of another. John says, “This is not love”.
Then John uses the other word for “not” – ou. This “not” is absolute. It has no qualifications. It means “never the case”. John says that someone who is swayed by conditions in giving love never (under any circumstances of conditions) knew God at all. This is about as strong a statement as you will find. It is simply not possible to say that you know God if your demonstration of love is subject to weighing the conditions. God’s love demonstrates itself by giving no matter what the circumstances and conditions. Period!
Do you feel the incredible tension here? How easy it is for us to want to water this down. We want to say, “Oh, John couldn’t have meant that! Why, I always try to do the best thing. There will always be people that I really don’t like, that just the way life is. But I take care of my own. And I give to charity too. Loving everybody by giving from myself? No one does that!”
How sad it is that we have accommodated to a culture that acts only on self-interest. We have to become un-educated. Throughout the Bible, love is demonstrated in sacrifice and undeserved suffering. But putting that into daily practice means becoming a real slave of Jesus, and for many people, that is just too much to ask. They would rather think that knowing about God is good enough. Someday reality will prevail. Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you” (the root Greek words are the same).
Paul continues his quest to show us that God has been demonstrating sacrificial love since the beginning to creation. And Jesus is the ultimate example of divine agape. Any love that gives weight to self rather than to sacrifice is not agape – and it is not of God.
Ou paroxunetai. [Love] is not provoked. This is a difficult word. It is used only twice in the New Testament, here and in Acts 17:16. In this passage, it is a present tense, passive, third person verb. It is variously translated as “not provoked”, “not touchy, fretful or resentful”, “not quick to take offense”, “not embittered”, “not irritable”. The word itself comes from two Greek words coupled together: para meaning “at the point of”, implying a movement toward a certain point, and ortruno which means, “to spur, stir up, incite, urge”. The antonym, apotrepo, helps us to see the concept. It means “to deflect, turn away, avoid”. Paroxynetai shows up in English as the root behind paroxysm, meaning “a fit of (disease, rage, laughter, etc.)”. The English word carries with it the idea of an uncontrollable frenzy. It literally means, “to bring to a sharp point”.
With such a wide range of translations, the nuances of this concept spread in many directions. Each of these directions might cause us to view Paul’s description here a little differently. How, then, are we to really understand what he is trying to communicate? We must turn to Paul’s motivation and heritage to find the answer.
The first thing to notice is that this word is in the passive form. The passive sense carries the idea of an activity that befalls the subject, a motion that comes upon someone. As with makrothymia, love does not express a motion in which love actively pursues the concept of paroxynetai but rather love responds to something that happens to it. Love is the passive agent here, not bringing about an action but reacting to something. We saw in the idea of “long suffering” that love accepts what comes to it as the purpose of the hand of God. Here we find an extension of this same concept. Love deflects the action of another in the social world of men, an action that would otherwise produce a tension, a sharpened barb, an irritation, a stirring toward anger. Love turns away animosity, not by actively resisting but by passively accepting without retort. But it is more than endurance, as we shall see.
Perhaps we can understand this subtlety if we draw ourselves a picture of Love’s response in conflict. Imagine a courtroom. A man stands accused. The prosecutor rails against the defendant, painting him as seditious, a liar, a shame, a malicious and evil man bent on destroying societal mores. The argument is heated, vindictive and spiteful. It is intended to bring the jury to a point of climatic aggravation when they will call for punishment of the accused. The scene is electric, vibrating with hatred focused on a single end – revenge.
But the accused says nothing, offers no defense, no rebuttal. The accused does not try to justify, explain or proclaim innocence. He absorbs what is thrown upon him, gathering the insults and indignities into himself without a single attempt to rebuke his accusers. Then he speaks, and in his speech he turns aside the revenge of the crowd, he deflects all of the motion toward hatred – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus demonstrated the meaning of love not being provoked. In his self-sacrifice, he showed all of us God’s own ou paroxynetai. One of the hardest things for us to do when we stand accused, rightly so in our case, is to say, “Forgive me. I have sinned.” It is often even more difficult to respond to such a request and forgive. Peter asked Jesus for a qualification on this subject (“how many times must a man forgive”) and found the reply quite unexpected. But imagine a Love that forgives when there is no request, when there is no repentance, when the offending party still abuses. Yet this is exactly the passive display of love. It is so much easier, so much more natural, to defend, to attack, to grasp for justification or excuse. To do so always increases the fervor of the conflict, pushing it closer to irresolvable hatred. The other way is God’s way – to confess and ask for mercy for us and to grant forgiveness and mercy to others. It is not so much that love does not seek to provoke, that it does not go out of its way to create conflict. It is rather that love does not respond in kind to provocation. Love is about mercy and grace, not about justification and defense. Love does not respond with resentment, irritability, bitterness or anger. It matters not that love stands in the pathway of accusation, rancor, spite or ill will. Love accepts and embraces evil and returns only good. Love prays for its enemies. Love turns the other cheek. Love absorbs the slings and arrows of others and forgives. Even when forgiving seems like the last thing to do, love does not become provoked.
The life of Jesus made such an impact on the apostles that we find this deflecting call in every book of the New Testament. John and Paul constantly affirm the necessity of bearing burdens without complaint. Peter says that it is a divine call for the Christian to suffer as the Lord suffered, without reply, justification or threat. James calls for Christians to put love to work by acting for the good of those who seek to harm. The thought permeates every declaration of the gospel’s power. But this is not new. It is a reflection of the greatest expression of God’s character – the expression of mercy.
Mercy is God’s purposeful act of turning the other cheek. Mercy is God’s decision to withhold His judgment. Mercy is God’s love not being provoked. Found nearly 400 times in the LXX, mercy (eleos) is the translation of the Hebrew hesed. We have returned to the formula of Exodus 34:6. God is lovingkindness.
Agape is not provoked. This is an essential characteristic of God’s very nature. If we are to reflect agape in our lives, it must become an essential characteristic of the way we live. Remember that Paul uses the strong negative ou. There are no exceptions to this rule. Unless our actions demonstrate mercy, we have no part in God’s love.
Ou logizetai to kakon [Love] does not take into account a wrong suffered. The literal translation is “does not count (to itself) evil”. Here we have two important words. The first is logizetai, from the verb that means ‘to reason, account, reckon, impute’. In the passive, this indicates an action that is turned upon someone, namely, ‘to count something to somebody, to put to someone’s account’. In our vernacular, it has the sense of keeping score of someone’s deeds. This is the same expression that is used as a description of God’s act of imputing righteousness to sinners in the act of forgiveness. Since we know that this list of predicates of love are the essential characteristics of God Himself, we may gain some appreciation of the power of this term by noting that it is God who first decides not to keep score of wrongs against Him and His holy law.
Paul just connected agape to mercy (“love is not provoked”). Now he connects agape to the other central characteristic of the covenant God – grace. Mercy is the act of removing or overlooking a deserved punishment. Mercy is the thought of not following through when someone’s actions would provoke justice. Mercy declares amnesty.
But mercy implies a prior action, the action of forgiveness. That is grace. Grace is God’s decision to provide undeserved help. It is the immeasurable gift of redemption for those who deserved destruction. Mercy is amnesty. Grace is pardon.
There is no indication here that any action on the part of God (or of the one displaying God’s love) is motivated by a change in heart, behavior or response of the one forgiven. The verb is passive. It is an act turned in upon the subject and has absolutely nothing to do with the status of the one forgiven. Love demonstrates itself by forgiving the unforgiven prior to any acknowledgment of sin by the other person and without any expectation of repentance by the one who is forgiving. John captured the entire action of this movement of love when he said, “We love because He first loved us”. In other words, our demonstration of love is on the same plane when we exercise the choice not to count other’s wrongs simply and only because this is the way that God has chosen to treat us.
Kittel makes it clear that the use of this expression in Pauline literature is pregnant with meaning from the LXX background in contrast with the normal Greek understanding. The distinction is this: in normal Greek usage, logizetai would have been understood as a principle of enlightened reason worked out in the concrete form of a life action. But Paul brings to this term the religious sense of judgment and emotional valuation from the Hebrew translation of the LXX. To this he adds the definitive place of the death and resurrection of Christ, not as a principle of reasonable action but as an absolute judgment of historical fact, a judgment of such profound implications that every other action in life is to be measured by its conformity to this fact.
Because the Greek world viewed the context of logizetai within the realm of pure reason, no Greek would have ever considered appropriate the primary importance Paul places on its pragmatic application here in this passage. But the Hebrew background finds a natural place for the unfolding of this concept within the context of an event of monumental significance. Paul takes a Greek word that is properly at home in the realm of highest reason and transports it into a declaration about the foundation of all subsequent events, making it not a lofty ideal held up as a banner for men to seek to emulate but rather a call to action based on the proclamation of God’s judgment on every act as a result of God’s own decision not to hold our evil acts against us.
Love does not keep score, says God. And who are we to say otherwise. How many times have we said to someone we claimed to love, “You did this” or “You were wrong” or “You made me do this”? How many times have we kept track of the personal affronts, the indiscretions, the unsympathetic acts? A record of wrongs. Yet God says that love does not count a wrong suffered. Love is first forgiving before the wrong occurs. And if God forgives us, how can we allow our love to be tainted by pluses and minuses? Emotional bank accounts are not found in the institution of love.
The second word is kakon (evil). There is a significant difference between the way this word is used in the New Testament and its usual Greek usage. For the Greeks, kakos expressed a lack of something. It was not a positive concept. It showed incapacity or weakness. Thus, kakos is used to mean unserviceable, incapable, unhappy, bad, morally corrupt, wicked and weak. Socrates and Plato best develop the presupposition behind the Greek usage. For the Greeks, kakos is the result of ignorance. The lack it expresses and the evil that results from it is because of an ignorance of virtue and an ignorance of divine providence. Therefore, for the Greeks, overcoming the evil of kakos is exclusively the role of knowledge. It is knowledge of virtue that leads men to be good. It is knowledge of deity that leads men to see their proper place in the universe. And it is knowledge of love (eros) that leads men to identify the divine reflection within them calling them away from the susceptibility of the material world to perfect contemplation of the divine. For the Greeks, the soul is still divine even though it has been buried in the kakos of this world. The soul always retains its impulse toward divinity and requires only to be freed from its misconceptions and ignorance in order to become its true self. Thus, kakos is not a mark of true being but rather the hallmark of being in ignorance of itself.
This conception of evil is completely undone in the New Testament understanding of kakos. From its use in the LXX, the New Testament carries an understanding of evil associated with the words for sin and unrighteousness. Instead of a lack of enlightenment, kakos is seen as the opposite of agathos (holy). In this respect, evil is a foil that demonstrates God’s power and glory. Evil is no privation of good. It is no lack of true understanding. Rather, evil is first the result of God’s punishment for sin, and secondly, the condition from which God redeems His people. God uses evil to bring His people to acknowledge their true condition before Him.
For the New Testament, kakos is not the result of an ignorance of the divine reflection within Man but rather the continual product and eventual culmination of all of Man’s efforts without God. It is the ruin that comes upon Man both temporally and eternally as a result of sin because sin is the action of Man separated from God by his own volition. Evil befalls Man because Man refuses to give God glory, because Man opposes God. Kakos is not a lack of understanding. It is the deliberate choosing to be godless, to replace the rightful glory of the Creator with the usurping infamy of the created. It is the conscious and intentional denial of true fellowship with God.
What does this say about the character of Love? How can the idea of evil help us to see what true Love is. Paul says that Love does not reckon to itself as a judgment the demonstration of Man in opposition to God. It is not quite enough to say that Love does not keep score. Logitezai tells us that there are no accounts being kept. But it is more than just pretending to not make entries in the account book. It is throwing away the account book of deliberate, intentional wrongs. Into the garbage. It just does not exist.
We might want to pat ourselves on the back by saying that we don’t keep track of those minor mistakes, those small accidents that happen between any two people in relationship. We are spiritually enlightened, so we show empathy for those unenlightened souls who sometimes act inappropriately. They don’t know better. We can help them become more virtuous if we overlook those errors, scratch them off the scorecard and let them play again with a new sheet. If we think this way, we are essentially Greek – full of self-pride and entirely wrong. This is not love. This is intellectual (and foolish) arrogance. This is the idea that bad behavior is a matter of lack of understanding.
God says something very different. He says Love overcomes evil, not through enlightened reason or illuminated intellect, but because Yeshua’s death and resurrection declared the final verdict on all acts of sedition against God and godliness. Love overcomes Man’s deliberate self-will, his intentional self-aggrandizement and his wanton disregard for holiness by stepping into the place of liability itself. Love takes the burden of sin upon itself, not dismissing it but bearing it. Love does not erase the other’s scorecard. Love replaces the other’s scorecard by accepting the deserved punishment for the deliberate act against it as though the scorecard belongs to Love itself. To not reckon a wrong to itself is not to push it aside but rather to bear the full weight of this sin and accept the consequences for this sin in place of the one who caused the sin. Love takes a two-step motion: first, it does not hold the evil act against another (it does not even count it), and secondly, it bears the weight of the evil act as though the Lover were to blame.
Do you love? If you do, you will not simply forgive. You will not simply provide a new, blank card for someone to start over. If you love God’s way, you will take the other person’s punishment as if it were yours. You will give them your blameless card and carry their card of mistakes – just as He did for you.
Ou chairei epi te adikia [Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness. There are two very important words in this phrase – rejoice and righteousness. From the previous discussion of kakos we see that Paul’s use of the term for evil connects it not with ignorance but with volition. Evil is the result of a failure of will, not a failure of intellect. Kakos is connected with adikia (unrighteousness) not nous (mind).
But before Paul pens another facet of the relationship between love and will, he first uses the word ‘rejoice’. Ancient Greeks used this word as a morning greeting, meaning “Be merry” or “Be joyful”. In Plato and Aristotle, it is nearly synonymous with pleasure. Once again, the LXX influence sets the stage for its religious use in the New Testament. In the LXX, joy is not just a relation of self-expression. It is connected with the sense of community that embraces the whole man, ultimately expressing itself in the sharing of Man and God. In this regard, salvation is a hallmark of charis because it celebrates the life of God shared with human beings. Joy carries with it an eschatological element. It recognizes that the joy of this world, although a precursor to perfect joy, will not find its true expression until we are reunited with God in the future. In the New Testament, there is an apparently paradoxical relation between joy and suffering. The resolution of this paradox is to be found in the eschatological elements of joy, for suffering is the means by which God chooses to make His promises manifest. Thus, unjust suffering for and on behalf of faith brings about a hope of glory that is certain to be realized because God is faithful.
In Pauline writing, charis is never used as a simple greeting. Instead, Paul’s characteristic openings, “Grace and peace” (‘grace’ is a translation of the same Greek word) deliberately recall the concrete fellowship actualized by the act of God in Jesus Christ. Joy is the spontaneous expression of a life transformed by God’s intervention into history through Jesus. The eschatological element remains in Paul’s anticipation of the culmination of the divine intervention each time Paul uses the term. The paradox of joy is that it remains joyful in the face of a world of evil. Joy always believes that God’s faithfulness will prevail. This thought is repeated in the writings of John where John shows that death is not the final act in this world. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ glory is found in connection with his death because in the death and resurrection of Jesus, death is transformed into the basis of life for all. It is joy!
Love rejoices, without a doubt. But it rejoices not in unrighteousness but in the fact that God overcomes all evil, all unrighteousness, all separation. The second word in this phrase is adikia. This is made of two Greek words, a, a prefix meaning “not” and dikia, the Greek word for righteousness. Dikia comes from the root word dike. It has an umbrella of meanings – justice, just, justification, righteous, regulation, righteous judgment. As we can see, the context of this word is about Law.
The idea of law as the basis for relationship within the community was so strong in the Old Testament that it also influenced the way the Hebrews thought about relationship with God. Law was the basis of spirituality. The most common Hebrew word for “law” is torah. We must be careful here. The Hebrew sense of Law is not like our modern understanding. In the Hebrew culture, Law is not a principle of right action that stands about the social community as an ethical standard. Law is the direct expression of divine instruction. It can be written or oral but the presupposed basis is oral. As such, it covers all kinds of relationships in the human world, from trade to tribal fidelity, from sexual expression to sacrifice ritual. The uniquely Hebrew concept of Law is found in the Decalogue, the expression of the character of God for a community bound by covenant. In this sense, God rules the worshipping community not by some set of divine principles but by the expression of His essential character worked out in terms of the proper relationship to Him and the proper relationship to other people. God is not simply an enforcer of the Law. God is the Law.
This aspect of Law is not found in the Greeks. In the Greek world, nomos (law) is associated with observing legal norms, fulfilling contracts and obligations. It has the sense of “right, correct, exact, legal”. It is about virtue – action on the basis of an internal code of ethics based on what is right.
When the Old Testament themes and the Greek world concepts come together in the New Testament, the word is still underwritten by the Hebrew idea of Law, but now it is personified in the character of Christ’s self-sacrifice. Christians are called to fulfill the law of Christ – to love one another – with that same self-sacrifice. Love is not adherence to an abstract principle of law. It is the embodiment of the character of the Christ. What, then, is righteousness? It is acting in accordance with the redemptive power of faith under the rule of God. Love rejoices every time we exemplify this character. Therefore, Love does not take joy in any act that is not based on the character of the redeemed. Love will not countenance the triumph of evil, the exuberance of worldly power, the commendation of dominion, because the joy of Love is found in sacrifice. This leads us directly to the next phrase, the culmination of Love as a personal state of being, not as a principle of action.
sunchairei de tei aletheiai “But rejoices with the truth”. Here the word ‘rejoices’ is preceded by an add-on preposition that means ‘together’. So, in English we translate this as ‘rejoices with’. But there is a lot of theology in prepositions and this particular one is no exception. First, we should note that this is a collective rejoicing – we share together in the truth. Truth is not the possession of an individual in isolation. It is a relationship of community, and in this case, the community is made up of God and Man. Love binds us to God in a relationship that is characterized by Truth. Because it is true that God loves us, we can rejoice with Him. God rejoices in His love for us. He invites us to do the same. When Paul says that love rejoices together with the truth he is not espousing some grandiose platitude. His remark is anchored in a very concrete translation of this high theology – that God has demonstrated His love to us here on Earth. It is for this reason that we are invited to rejoice, because the truth is that God has given us grace.
Remember that the root word of rejoice is grace (charis). In Greek, rejoicing is founded in grace. The reason to rejoice is that grace has come. And here we see that grace is intimately linked to truth. God’s act of grace is the true reason to rejoice.
This little preposition (sun) is to be contrasted with another Greek preposition that has the same English translation. Sun differs from meta (which is also translated as ‘with’) by implying a much closer connection. It is not simply that one thing is along side another (‘with’). It is that these two things are intimately among each other. This is seen in the way sun is used in other contexts. It implies companionship where there is a connection so deep that someone actually suffers with another. While Paul uses meta in his closing salutations to describe the grace, peace and love that accompany believers in life, he never uses sun in this regard. Sun is reserved for words that describe the intimate connection with Jesus, such as to be crucified with Him, to die together with Him, to rise up together, and to live with Him. It is the intimacy of the relationship that is emphasized by the preposition sun.
Applying this to the description of love, we see that Paul says that love and truth are intimately bound to each other – and that this binding is the reason for great joy. Love celebrates this intimate connection. On the human plane, the fact that love and truth are connected is obvious, although not always practiced. Anyone who has ever been in love with another person knows that love involves intimacy – not always physical intimacy, although that is also part of the celebration of God’s wonderful crafting of love and truth – but always intimacy – shared trust, commitment, respect and more – placing the well being of another before ourselves. Love between us depends on truthfulness. One cannot love or be loved if the relationship is based in lies. In fact, the connection between love and truth is so critical to the fabric of human relationships that lying is more damaging to love than physical actions of hurt and unfaithfulness. Relationships may survive individual acts of selfishness, but they cannot survive deception. Paul was absolutely right when he described this connection with sun. We all know that our love relationships depend on truth, even though most of us have many times violated this dependency.
But Paul goes beyond the commonsense application of this intimate connection. Here he says that God’s love, found in grace toward us, is intimately connected with truth. God does not lie. And God loves us. Therefore, God’s love is the final Truth of existence. Another author says the same thing with the sentence “God is love.”
Paul’s version of this fact draws the connection between love and truth so tightly that one without the other is unthinkable. In essence, Paul says, the bottom line of existence is a loving God. What great news this is! What a reason for celebration! The structure of existence is not haphazard, not of evil intent, not without justice or forgiveness. The final word on Being is Love! Rejoice!
This part of verse 6 contains another word, alethia, the Greek word for truth. Books could be written on this word alone. It is one of the few critical words of Greek philosophy, a word so powerful that its influence is with us today, twenty-five centuries after it came into use as a philosophical concept. We will not be able to do more than scratch the surface with this word, but the surface scratch alone will be enough to reveal some very important ideas. The first of these ideas is that ‘truth’ in the Greek and New Testament contexts is not the same as ‘correct’. Today we think of ‘truth’ as the opposite of ‘lie’. Therefore, we consider facts as true. Facts are correct statements about reality. Lies are incorrect statements. The reduction of the concept of ‘truth’ to correct facts has a long history, mostly influenced by mathematics. True statements are now the commonplace vernacular of science, ultimately a language of mathematics. But this reduction is not what the Greek New Testament has in mind when it talks about ‘truth’. In the New Testament, alethia is not about correct statements, facts, numbers, or scientific evidence. It is about relationships. The bottom line concerning ‘truth’ is about a personal relationship with God, not about accuracy in statements. This is why Jesus says, “I am the truth.” He is not saying that he is an accurate fact, a true statement or a mathematical certainty. He is saying something about existing, about Being – that the final, ultimate foundation of existence is who He is, that the Truth about Life is God dwelling among us.
The use of alethia in the New Testament is greatly influenced by Hebrew concepts. In the LXX, the word alethia appears 126 times. It means a reality that is solid, binding, that can be counted on. With reference to a person, it implies integrity in thought, word and deed. The fact that God is a God of Truth denotes that God’s character is such that He is completely reliable in all His actions – that His promises are forever, that He never turns from the path of holiness, that He is utterly trustworthy. God guarantees moral and ethical standards. Therefore, God is worthy of trust. This background becomes part of the New Testament usage, particularly as Jesus uses the word in relation to his character and actions.
One of the reasons why bearing false witness is so hateful to God is that it is an affront to the essence of true relationship – and it is an affront to God Himself. Lying is only possible in a world that presupposes truth. Therefore, lying takes advantage of the real ground of existence by allowing the victim to place reliability and trust in a deception. This is the essence of idolatry and the essential nature of evil. It is a deliberate attempt to use the universal norm of trust to mislead. God hates a liar.
Once more we are in the context of the Decalogue but now we realize that God does not instruct His people to not lie because it is essential for social interaction (as it certainly is). He gives the commandment “Do not bear false witness” because to do so is to step on the path of idolatry, replacing the truth of God’s world under His rule with the deception under the rule of the Father of lies.
The non-biblical usage of alethia is also very instructive. In Platonic Greek philosophy, the word means “nonconcealment”. It comes from two other Greek words: a meaning ‘not’ and leto meaning ‘hidden’. To know the truth is to know things as they really are, not as they are hidden in false appearance. This is a powerful theme in Plato and other Greek philosophers. Truth involves seeing things as they really are, without subterfuge, distortion or distraction.
This word is intimately linked to logos (which is translated in the opening of John’s gospel as ‘Word’). In Greek thought, logos is not a word on a page. It is rather an active, almost divine, animate principle whose job it is to reveal. Logos brings forth alethia. What logos reveals is the final reality of Being, as it is. When Man comprehends truth, it is because he has been the recipient of an action of logos who has revealed to him the actual ground of Being. For the Greeks, the ultimate quest of knowledge was alethia, to see with eyes that were no longer clouded. Even the earliest Greeks philosophers carried this theme in their quest to leave behind the world of appearance and comprehend the world of true reality. When John used the Greek word logos as the marker for Jesus in the opening verses of his gospel, he brought the full force of the Greek quest into contact with the incarnation. He said to all of us, “Look here. If you want to know the true reality, if you want to comprehend the real foundation of all that is, then you must look to this event and this man, Jesus. He will show you what life means, and what holds existence together. He will answer your deepest questions for he is the incarnation of the truth about what is.”
Martin Heidegger said that the most fundamental question of philosophy is this, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” This question is very much a Greek question. It reaches back to the beginnings of Western thought. It has been answered not by great thinkers from the Greek world, but by a single man born in obscurity in a Middle Eastern culture. And the answer is this: For God so loved the world. This answer is not about astronomy, biology or physics. It is about something much more fundamental. It is about a God who took action in Love. The result of that action is everything that is, created because God loves. Life is not reducible to facts. It is an expression of personal character. It is about relationships. And the fundamental relationship of all Life is the relationship with the Creator. This is truth worth celebrating. If we really understand Love, we will know that the final reality of all Life is based on His love. It is way we exist and why we can exist joyfully. If you want abundant life, live the truth of Love. The truth is that Love is the most fundamental aspect of existence. And that is worth celebrating!
13.7 panta stegei “bears all things”. What does it mean to say “Love bears all things”? We often invoke this tiny phrase made up of only two Greek words when we want to remind ourselves (or someone else) to put up with circumstances. We almost use this phrase as an excuse or rationalization. Unfortunately, once again the English translation pushes us in a wrong direction. Transliterated, this tiny phrase might better be expressed as “covers over everything”. We can deal with the word for ‘everything’ quickly. It is panta from which we derive a number of English words like pandemonium (full of demons), panorama (full view), panoply (full armor) and pantograph (complete drawing instrument). The umbrella of meanings here is something we find familiar.
This is not the case with stegei from the verb stego. Only Paul uses this verb in the New Testament. In other verses, it means ‘to endure’. But that is probably not the meaning here. The Corinthian passage is about God’s love. God’s love does not put up with things, enduring them as though they are unfair burdens that must be shouldered. We are misdirected to think that somehow God puts up with our unloving acts and abuse. The entire thrust of this passage is that God’s character is one of action in advance of our sin, that God does not simply ignore or put up with our affront to His holiness, but that He has already taken the steps needed to deal with this. Here the sense of “cover” is not to hide away something that would otherwise be disturbing. It is rather that God’s preemptory action has already accounted for our unholiness, that He has already thrown the blanket of His love over us and washed us whiter than snow.
God does not ignore sin. God does not withstand, endure, weather, brave, hold out against or allow sin. God acts! He acts in holiness, utterly opposed to sin in all of its forms. Given God’s holiness alone, none of us can stand. Isaiah was right. Jeremiah was right. We are all undone. But, says Paul, God has covered us with love. We are not lost. We are blanketed with the divine intervention found in the sacrifice of Christ. His blood, the blood of a sacrifice of love, covers us.
Here we find an Old Testament image in the mercy seat and the Day of Atonement. The priest offers a special sacrifice on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He sprinkled the mercy seat with the blood of the sacrifice as a “covering” for sin. This same idea is used in the New Testament for “propitiation” – the act by which Jesus covers the sin of the world.
Love does not bear anything. In fact, it does just the opposite – it stands up and acts, pushing aside the evil that it faces and wrapping arms of protection around us. There is a fine line here between the idea of putting up with everything and covering everything. God’s love has no limits. It is capable of covering all our sins. But it never once puts up with any sin. It reaches to the utter depths of my depravity and shouts a resounding “No! I will not let you go.” It is not the passive, disconsolate resignation to withstand unloving acts of another. It is power, reaching out to the unloved and embracing them no matter what the circumstances or history. Love wraps sin in its blanket, brings the sinner to its heart and whispers forgiveness. Love covers everything in an act of incredible mercy. “Love bears all things” is a statement of God’s redemptive act in the death of Jesus. This is its home. We may emulate the act by extending the same covering to others and, at the same time, acting powerfully against sin, but we are only mirrors of the true sense of this word. God did it first. Mercy is who He is.
13:7 panta pisteuei “believes all things”. Once again the phrase begins with panta. We saw above that panta comes down to us in English as ‘full’. As a word picture, we can think of things like a container filled to the brim or an account ledger where nothing is left out. The circle of panta includes it all, no oversights, no mistakes, no omissions.
Here panta is attached to the word for believe (pistos). While this connection may not appear very deep, nothing could be further from the truth, as we shall soon see. Paul’s literary skills shine most brilliantly in his theological economy, and this is no exception. Translated literally, the phrase could mean “believes fully (completely)”. This is one of the great principles of epistemology. If any system of belief is to be found adequate, then one characteristic it must have is comprehensiveness. Think about rational belief for just a moment. For a belief to be more than a personal opinion, for it to be a justifiable true belief (to borrow from Plato), it must be shown to be coherent, consistent and comprehensive. Coherent means that the claim is not logically contradictory; that it does not involve a rational self-contradiction or some other violation of logic. Fair enough. No one wants to stand fast on illogical beliefs.
The second test is consistence, that is, that the claim made is not in contradiction with other verifiable claims, that this claim does not contradict other claims known to be true. This characteristic of truth is not quite so obvious at coherence (if indeed coherence is really all that obvious). There is a lot of debate about what is really true and what claims violate what is known to be true. For example, at one time many very notable scientists believed that it was an absolute fact of nature that the atom could not be split. Today we would find such a claim incredulous. Some Christians have made careers out of the concept of coherence. Arguments abound about the resurrection of Jesus based on the coherence tenant. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then how does one explain the death of the apostles, the rise of the church, the failure to produce the body, the eyewitness accounts, etc? One claim is being justified by appeal to other claims that seem to be unshakably true. At less lofty levels, most parents have uncovered the real story behind who took the cookies or who started the fight by employing the cannon of coherence. It is a natural part of the way human beings think.
Finally there is comprehensiveness. More difficult to resolve than coherence, it is nevertheless an essential characteristic of truth. For what good is a system of belief if it leaves out things. There are plenty of examples of difficulties arising from beliefs that are not comprehensive. Some people do not believe in the existence of evil. They have a difficult time accounting for events like the Nazi concentration camps, the destruction of Hiroshima and the slaughter in Rwanda. Some believe in the Hollywood version of romance and marriage. Some believe in the divine spark of goodness in every person. Some believe in astrology. There are many personal and public beliefs that push against the cannon of comprehensiveness. The biggest problem is leaving something out – or deliberately deciding that whatever is left out is not really real. Think about the role of dreams in the psychological frameworks of Skinner versus Freud. You get the idea.
So, what does Paul have to say about love’s comprehensiveness in his tiny, but powerful, phrase? He says, “Love’s belief is fully complete”. Wait, you say, “I thought that the phrase was translated “Love believes everything”? In most translations, that is true. But does that mean that love just takes in all the claims that we might make, that is accepts every fact or supposed fact. Of course not! This is a statement about the character of divine love, the foundation of existence, the basis of all Truth (with a capital T). So it simply cannot be washed over as if Paul were saying that love is so magnanimous, so capable of turning a blind eye, that it just embraces everything that we might believe – a sort of divine whitewash job. The translation, though accurate, misses the point. Paul is saying that God’s love believes all that is needed to be fully what it was intended to be – that God left out nothing when He based the foundation of existence on Love.
And that means that God’s plan of Love leaves nothing out. Not a single thing is missing in His plan to restore each of us to our intended relationship with Him. Everything that is needed, Love provides. So, Love believes all things because Love is the essential expression of the Truth about reality as it really is – and that Truth is that God’s action took care of everything necessary on our behalf before we did anything at all. Love believes.
panta elpizei “hopes all things”. The word is elpizo. This phrase might be translated “is filled with hope”. For the Greeks, hope is that function of human existence that projects us beyond current reality toward something better, even beyond inevitable death toward the true and the beautiful (although the notion of a personal afterlife is not what the Greeks had in mind). But hope can be deceptive. Human beings are notorious for hoping for the better when the reality is that “better” never comes. We have all experienced the disappointment of placing confidence in someone or something that turns out badly. While the Greek background of this word is useful as a reference to common experience, it cannot be what Paul has in mind. After all, how could love, which is grounded in truth, place its confidence in something as untrustworthy as future expectations?
The answer comes from the Hebrew side of the word. Used in the LXX, this word is constantly connected with the trustworthiness of God Himself. It is not that love is filled with hope about the future alone. It is that love can be filled with hope because it recognizes, and is subservient to, the Creator of the future – the Almighty God. Love is not blind. This is not the Metro-Goldwyn-Meir version of blissful ignorance. True love is grounded securely on the author of Being. Love hopes because love knows God is just, pure and righteous. This sort of hope has nothing to do with present security. As Job clearly demonstrates, all of our confidence, plans and projections can be turned to dust. What hope implies is that there is an eschatological vindication of justice – a promise that absolutely will come to pass, guaranteed by the Creator Himself.
“Hopes all things”. Still, this is curious. Even if hope is about the certainty of God’s future plans, it cannot provide security for any of our plans, projects or possessions. Then how can we understand the “all things” in this phrase? It is one thing to say, “Love means that someday justice will be served”, knowing that in the intervening time (thousands of years?) there may be no indication that this is true. It is another to find comfort and meaning for personal existence in such a “far-reaching” goal of love. And if love means only that “someday” things will be right, then how can Paul make the claim that love hopes “all things”?
The answer is to be found in the large context of panta (all things). Remembering that panta is better translated as “full”, we should look at this phrase as “love’s hope is full”. Now we see that this is a statement not about the “things” of our lives – the plans, projects, possessions, particulars – but rather a powerful announcement of God’s character expressed in Love. What Love demonstrates is the full trust and confidence that God’s purposes will be done. This is first and foremost a statement about Love’s unconquerable commitment to trust another – ultimately to trust God. It is independent of circumstances. In fact, Love shows itself as fully hopeful only when circumstances look the worst. Hope is not about “what is seen”, as Paul reminds us, but about “what is unseen”. That is the case here. Love cannot shine forth as fully hopeful when what is seen meets our expectations. Even at the human level, there is little hope needed when the bank account is full, the marriage is great, the children are well, the job is prosperous. Hope necessarily implies a context of its Greek opposite - apelpizo – despair! What does it mean to “hope” when all is good, true and beautiful? No, hope comes when my reality is out of balance – when what I know to be true of the goodness of the Creator and His creation is not reflected in my current circumstances. Love shines only in darkness. So, out of despair, out of disconsolation, out of distress, then love hopes.
Your job is lost. Love hopes – not about a new job, for that is also part of the “seen”, but about the present unseen reality of the caring of the Father. Your children die – love hopes the full promise of God’s salvation and heavenly blessing – God’s promise of tender care reaches beyond the grave. Your marriage is failing. Love hopes for complete forgiveness and restoration passing from the Great High Priest to each of us. Hope is not about recovering what is lost, marred, broken or desecrated. Love’s hope sees the God who gives, not the gift given. The full circle again. From simple expectations and wishes, to re-evaluation of who He is, to an understanding that Love is His character, not just His actions.
If we love, then we hope. And we hope “fully”, knowing that God is behind it all. Our hope is not missing some integral part, subject to a new twist of fate that will bring down the fragile balance of our dreams. Our hope is not contaminated by some deceptive illusion, cleverly hidden in the depths of our aspirations, waiting to bring us despondency. No, the full hope of love is anchored on the only One who can guarantee hopefulness, who has demonstrated this love in the past and will do so again, with power and glory. Hope is confident expectation in El Shaddai – the God for whom nothing is too difficult. And while we wait for the eschatological completion of this confident expectation, we are called to live completely trusting the character of El Shaddai – no matter what.
panta hupomenei “endures all things”. Fortunately, the challenge of the previous phrase – to trust in God’s character no matter what – is coupled with another theological capsule that offers some comfort to the daunting task of love’s full hope. Love, says Paul, endures all things. This Greek word, hypomenei, is actually a form of another word, meno, which means ‘to stay in a place’. Here the addition of the prefix hypo personalizes and emphasizes the action so that the Greek conjunction of these two words takes on the meanings of ‘to stay behind, to stay alive, to expect, to stand firm, to endure, to bear, to suffer’. This is a broad umbrella, oriented always toward patient waiting. Several important connections occur here.
First, we should notice that Paul completes a theological circle with this finishing phrase. He began his treatise on love with the expression “Love is patient”. Now he concludes with the notion that love is willing to wait. But there is more than just standing by idling in anticipation of God’s fulfillment of promises. Here, love’s patience is connected with the previous two phrases – hoping and believing. Love is not passive in waiting. Love stands firm (take a look at 1 Peter 5:12). It bears. It suffers. It never, never, never gives up. The sense is courageous endurance, active patience, bearing the wound, accepting the strokes of a world out of sorts with its Creator, knowing (believing and hoping) the righteousness of God. English might better render the phrase as “love steadfastly bears”. This is more awkward to our ears, but perhaps more accurate.
Secondly, once again our word is influenced by the use in the LXX. This particular characteristic of love is one of the significant marks of true righteousness. The righteous are sustained because they are assured of God’s justice. They endure in tense expectation of the eschatological focus of faith. There are innumerable corollaries of this position throughout the Old Testament. “Vengeance is mine” is but one example of the admonition that Jehovah is the final arbitrator for those whose love of God allows them to remain steadfast. Once again, the focus is not on circumstances but on character – and supremely on the character of God. It is the mark of God’s people that they stand fast on His word.
Finally, in contrast to the Greek idea that passive suffering is evil, hypomenei shows here that love is called to suffer. We often gloss over this aspect of our truncated ideas of love. But Paul will not let us escape with such shallow understanding. If we recall that this entire theological presentation reflects God’s character (for as John reminds us, “God is love”), then there is one sense in which God Himself is called, by His character of love, to suffer. Love suffers. Peter makes this abundantly clear in 1 Peter 2:21. The believer is called to suffer even as the Master suffered, the just for the unjust.
Have you ever considered God’s suffering? What usually comes to mind in this context is Christ on the Cross, the physical agony of dying under Roman torture. But if all of your conception of God’s suffering is comprehended in “the passion of Christ”, then your conception is woefully crippled. We have been allowed to view but a glimpse of the suffering of love in the descriptions of Jesus’ night in the Garden. We read to quickly over the verse that comments that his suffering was so great that angels were sent to keep him alive. Because our focus is constantly distracted by the physical, we aim at the wrong place even here. The crucifixion was the result of prior hypomeno, an agony, a suffering, a patient enduring and acceptance that occurred right up to the time of those words “Nevertheless, thy will be done.” Unlike most of us, there was no focus or fear of the physical punishment and death that awaited him. His agony came in facing separation from the Father. He fell, as the scapegoat for all our failures of love, from grace – a fall that none of us can ever experience because none of us have ever shared that glory to begin with. Jesus’ incarnation began with Bethlehem, but it was not complete until Golgotha. On the cross, he became entirely like us – sinful distortions of real love. In the supreme example of real Love, Jesus endured becoming just like us – the deformed, distorted, misrepresentations of God’s intended creations. From the glory of perfection to the hell of depravity, Love endured.
But there was another actor on the stage that day. And he suffered too. Jehovah broke the holy bond of absolute love between a Father well pleased and a Son who endured when the sin of the world fell upon this man. The God of pure righteousness, the God of absolute holiness, let communion rupture. His Son became sin. We become so absorbed in the events of the Passion Week that we forget the passion of the Father. The grief, the suffering, the endurance Jehovah must bear – first to see His Son subjected to the abyss of sin and secondly, to know that failure was possible, and with it the collapse of Love as the foundation of creation. God is love means that God Himself waited in tense expectation for the outcome of that moment – the moment when the Son chose obedience.
If we make the mistake of thinking that all of Love’s endurance is wrapped up in the Passion, we need to be reminded that love expressed toward the creation has been in agony since the Fall. Centuries of endurance, centuries of wounds, centuries of suffering over the deliberate and wanton destruction of love’s intentions. No wonder Paul completes this definition with hypomenei. Can any one of us begin to fathom the scope of this word applied to the author of Love itself?
God shows us the character of Love in endurance. From the garden forever forward, God endures. Love endures all things.
He agape oudepote piptei
How does one conclude such penetrating insights into the very nature of the divine? Paul finds only a single word to draw all this together. That word is piptei from the verb pipto. It means ‘to fall”. What Paul says is this: Love never falls. In the context we often translate this by the familiar phrase, “Love never fails”. But, again, there is a bit more here than is rendered in English. The New Testament uses this word in two senses, literal and figurative. The literal sense is obvious. Walls fall down, rain falls from the sky, crumbs fall from the table. The figurative sense is more complex. Sometimes the notion of ‘fall’ is attached to sin. While it is not used in connection with specific sins, the idea conveyed is that we may fall by abandoning God’s grace in guilt. There is an implication of apostasy here.
Paul finds the figurative use of pipto appropriate because he knows that it embraces the notion of a relationship that is broken. Now he asserts the final claim of Love – that Love will never fall. Nothing will ever break the relationship anchored in Love, especially because the true character of Love is found in the character of the divine Lover. Later, in his letter to the Romans, Paul amplifies just how solid this connection is in that famous passage, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Love is not going to pass away. It is not going to fall behind, fall apart, fall by the wayside, fall astray. Love is here to stay – forever.
Suddenly we are confronted by the poor representations of the true character of love that we express, no matter how noble or steadfast our efforts. We fall. We break communion, not only with God but also with our own. If Paul were to have said only this about love, that love never falls, it would have been enough to convict every one of us of our inadequacy living up to this standard. Only God has this everlasting characteristic of love flowing from His being. But while the cutting edge of this word exposes our failure, our falling, Paul is quick to point to the other word here – ‘never’. This negative contains the great positive. We may fall, but God never falls. And so we are blessed, knowing that ultimately Love does not depend on our performance, on our inner character. Love is not anchored to us. It is anchored to God. That means that, in spite of our falling, we can always count on Him. Rejoice! God is there. Love prevails.
There is no more fitting summary. All of what Paul has taught us about the character of love, and consequently about the nature of God, would be worthless if love were a temporary condition, destined to be replaced by some other attribute. Paul makes doubly sure that there is no misunderstanding here. All of the rest of creation may come and go, everything else may fall, but
LOVE NEVER FAILS.
September 1998, October 2002
Skip Moen (with apologies to Kittel)
 We see this formula throughout the Old Testament. Consider Joel 2:13, Nahum 1:2 ff, Numbers 14:18, Psalms 86:15 and Jonah 4:2. In application to human relations consider Proverbs 19:11.
 Kauchaomai is used in the sense of self-glorifying boasting (as in Romans 2:17). Paul uses this word repeatedly throughout his letters, even in 1 Corinthians. It is used in the LXX to describe the basic attitude of fools and the ungodly. But this word also displays a bipolar meaning. There is a sense of the word that describes proper “boasting” in the Lord and in the work of the gospel. Paul uses this word to describe his own apostolic work because it is validated by God (2 Cor. 7:4).
 Victor P. Hamilton, “ga’a” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p. 143
 No better treatment of this topic can be found than Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (1932).
 The Greek word doulos actually was used of persons who had no status as people at all, who were considered noting more than property.
 Kittel, TDNT, Vol. 4, pp. 284-292.