In his latest book, Wheaton College President Phil Ryken explains and beautifully illustrates one of the world’s best-loved Bible passages, 1 Corinthians 13 — the love chapter.
In Ryken’s view, a theologian’s highest duty is to write about the love of God. It is also, he says, “a theologian’s highest humiliation. If there’s an area of my life where I know I fall short,” the author tells his readers, “it is having true love for God and my neighbor.” Nevertheless, he says — explaining the motivation for his latest book — “my sometimes loveless heart is compelled to testify to the truth of God’s love in Jesus Christ.”
ByFaith editor Richard Doster asked Ryken about the book, and why we need 200 pages to discuss a passage many Christians know by heart.
The book is about 1 Corinthians 13, one of the best-known passages in the Bible. Why do we need a new book about it now?
It’s true, 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the very best-known passages in the whole Bible, but love is never out of style. It is always good for us to be challenged to strive for the high standard of the perfect love of God, and 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the clearest places to see that high standard in the Bible.
I wrote the book, like a lot of the books that I write, out of a sense of personal and communal need. I started working on 1 Corinthians 13 when I was in pastoral ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and it seemed to me that one good area for our congregation to grow was in Christian love — and I see the need for that in my own life as well.
People sometimes assume that I write on topics I know a lot about, but I’m just as likely to write on topics where I know that I need to grow, and this is definitely one of those topics. I suppose most Christians in most places at most times see the need to grow deeper in the love of Jesus, so maybe a book like this is always timely.
You tell readers that 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t about romantic love, but agape — the “selfless love of brothers and sisters in Christ.” How should that affect our reading of the passage as individual church members? How should it affect us as a denomination, in presbytery meetings, and at General Assembly?
The first place most people are likely to encounter 1 Corinthians 13 is at a wedding. The “love chapter,” as I like to call it, is perhaps the most frequently read Bible passage for wedding ceremonies. This is true not just for people who have a relationship with Christ, but for anyone who has a church wedding. Hearing this passage read so frequently at weddings may leave us with the wrong impression — it may cause us to miss the real context of these verses.
Although we can apply 1 Corinthians 13 to marriage relationships, this passage really isn’t about romantic love at all. It’s about agape, the uniquely selfless and Christ-centered love that we read about in the New Testament.
Maybe the best way to see the context for 1 Corinthians 13 is to read the rest of 1 Corinthians. When we do, we discover that the apostle Paul was writing to a deeply divided congregation that was fractured by disputes over matters of theology and practice. This was the congregation where some people claimed to follow this apostle, and some people claimed to follow the other apostle, and some people claimed to be even more spiritual: They followed only Christ.
Additionally, there were all kinds of conflicts about sexual morality, about worship practices, about men and women in the life of the church — it was into this context that Paul wanted to speak a message of love. So when we read this passage, we should not think first of marriage relationships, but rather of the difficult people that we find hard to love in our own local church fellowship.
The challenge of this passage is to love people with whom I disagree in the body of Christ. I may find it hard to love because we are on different sides of issues that I feel strongly about and that, for me, are matters of theological conviction; yet there is still a call to love and to love in the complete, comprehensive way that love is portrayed in 1 Corinthians 13. Living out this kind of love can be just as hard on the blogosphere as it can be in the pew. And I may find it most challenging of all to love fellow pastors and elders in my presbytery, or in my denomination. We love to sing Psalm 133 at the end of our General Assembly meetings each year; maybe we should begin with a public recitation of 1 Corinthians 13 so that we hear Christ’s call to love one another.
You illustrate how “love is patient” with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In that story, Jesus’ delay caused a lot of grief for Lazarus’ friends and for Mary and Martha. Yet you say that no one suffered more than Jesus. How so? And how does Jesus’ suffering relate to patience?
One of the things I tried to do in Loving the Way Jesus Loves is to illustrate each aspect of love from the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. I enjoyed the process of choosing which episode from Christ’s life to use for everything that Paul says love is or is not.
We see the patience of Jesus Christ in many ways in the gospels, but to me, one of the more striking is the whole incident with Mary and Martha during the illness and following the death of their brother Lazarus. The leisurely pace that Jesus follows in making His way to Bethany is a dramatic example of God-centered patience, and I think it’s important to understand that this brought suffering to Jesus as well as Mary, Martha, and their friends. This is the time when Jesus wept, and more than that, when He raged in grief and anguish at the tomb of Lazarus. I see this as an example not merely of the grief of Jesus for Lazarus, but also of His absolute opposition to death and the grief it has brought to the human race.
Jesus suffered all of that, but He did so in the service of a larger goal: demonstrating the glory of God. And if Jesus had been hasty to intervene, running ahead of His Father’s plan, He would not have had an opportunity to display His Father’s glory in bringing Lazarus back to life.
The whole incident and all the lessons that we learn from it would not have been possible without the patient love of Jesus Christ. This was a love that persevered through suffering, a love that had to wait for God’s time to do something. This kind of love is always worth waiting for.
1 Corinthians 13:4-5 says that love doesn’t envy or boast. Yet some in the Corinthian church bragged about their superior wisdom or that they were more spiritual than others. Others had an inflated sense of their self-importance. Yet the root problem, you say, was their lack of love. Would you explain?
1 Corinthians 13 is a portrait of love, but it’s also an argument. The particular aspects of love that Paul highlights surely reflect his pastoral concerns for the Corinthian church. For example, presumably the reason he emphasizes the fact that love does not envy or boast indicates that these were major spiritual problems in the Corinthian church. That becomes clear when we read the letter as a whole: Like a lot of Christians, the Corinthians were tempted to boast about their spiritual accomplishments or ecclesiastical connections.
One striking aspect of the passage as a whole is that the apostle puts all of these sinful temptations in the category of lovelessness. Boasting is certainly a sin of pride, but it is also a failure to show love for others. When I boast about who I am or what I have done, that’s a way of putting other people down, which, if I truly loved them, I would never do. So, envying and boasting are really ways of hating. When we put things that way, it may help us to avoid minimizing our sins, as we so often do.
When you talk about love “bearing all things,” you say that it requires active courage, that it’s the power to live vigorously in the face of evil. What does that look like? How do God’s people live vigorously in the face of evil?
By the time Paul gets to the end of his encomium — his praise for love — we get a clear sense of love’s strength. Love is a powerful force for good in the world, something that enables us to counteract evil. When the Scripture says that love bears all things, it testifies to love’s perseverance — its ability to keep on loving in the face of tremendous hardship.
There are a thousand ways for God’s people to live out this kind of love. Love bears all things. A mother or father displays a bearing-all-things type of love when he or she continues to make sacrifices for a prodigal son or daughter. A pastor shows this kind of love when he continues to serve a member of his church who keeps pushing him away. And, of course, many believers around the world demonstrate this kind of love when they continue to love those who persecute them. Whatever our situation in life, there is a way for us to keep on showing the love of Jesus, even when that love is spurned.
1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us that “love is not resentful.” You illustrate this by showing how Jesus loved Peter after Peter denied Him. Why is this such a good example of the relationship between love and forgiveness?
When we think of Peter’s denial of Jesus, we often concentrate on Peter and how shameful it was for him to deny his Lord and how bitterly he grieved afterward. I’m not sure we always stop to consider what this denial meant for Jesus. For Him, it was a painfully deep betrayal. A disciple He loved — and a disciple He had explicitly warned about the temptation he would soon face to renounce their relationship — went ahead and denied Jesus not once, but three times. He didn’t do it casually, either, but emphatically. This must have pained Jesus deeply, for one of His closest friends to betray Him at His darkest hour.
Perhaps the pain of that betrayal was evident on Jesus’ face when He looked at Peter after the cock crowed. For Jesus to continue to love Peter after that would necessarily require a full forgiveness. And, of course, this is exactly what Jesus offered to Peter, first by dying for his sins on the cross and then by welcoming him back into fellowship and into ministry.
This is a particularly good example of the relationship between love and forgiveness because the forgiveness was so costly and the love so generously gracious. It’s an example that gives hope to anyone in ministry to believe that there is an opportunity for service even after grievous sin.
Phil Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is president of Wheaton College and former pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA). He has written or edited more than 30 books, including Written in Stone, Exodus, and King Solomon: The Temptations of Money, Sex, and Power. www.crossway.org.