by Spiros Zodhiates
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Editor's note: In this series, Dr. Zodhiates elaborates on the Apostle Paul's magnificent description of the supreme Christian evidence: love.
"Love never faileth …" (1 Cor. 13:8).
After describing the outward manifestation of the divine love (agápe) within us, Paul proceeds to tell us something of the inherent quality of love: "It never fails." We shall find it enlightening to examine the verb he uses here. In the Greek (Nestle's text) it is píptei, the primary meaning of which is "to fall, to collapse, to be destroyed, to be ruined, to come to an end, to fail."
In some manuscripts the word is ekpíptei, the preposition ek (from) being prefixed to the verb. The New Testament uses this verb of flowers that wither in the course of nature, as in James 1:11 and 1 Peter 1:24. Paul expresses the quality of love as never withering and falling down. The verb does not refer to love's relationship with others and its accomplishments in others, as do the transitive verbs. which may take an object. It is an intransitive verb, whether we take it as píptei or ekpíptei.
Also (as in Acts 27:17, 26, 29, 32) the verb ekpípto is used of a ship that loses control of its course as it goes upon the sea. This is indeed a beautiful picture of what happens to love as it is buffeted by the storms of life. No matter how furious the sea, it never loses its course.
"Love," although an abstract noun, must be interpreted concretely as God loving, or men loving (as well as having love). Otherwise it has no concrete meaning. And so God will always love; and men by the grace of God will always love God and one another-imperfectly in time, but perfectly in eternity. Hence, love never collapses or falls down.
As God never changes, so His love implanted in the believer's heart never changes either. It will always suffer long; it will always be kind; it will never envy, vaunt itself, or be puffed up; it will never behave itself unseemly, never seek its own, never be easily provoked. Love will never think evil, never rejoice in iniquity. It will always rejoice in the truth, always bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. In all these manifestations, there is not a single instance in which God's love will fail or fall short.
Though love in its nature and manifestations never fails, it is true that it sometimes suffers disappointment in the realization of its desired goal. In spite of this it never ceases to work toward that goal. The expression "Love never faileth" must be primarily related to what precedes it instead of being taken as an independent and absolute declaration. You may be a mother or father who loves your child with a sincere Christian love. Your goal for that child is that he or she shall grow up to love and serve the Lord. Time goes by and you fail to see the realization of your heart's desire. Yet by faith you continue to maintain that desire in your heart. It is your unchanging goal.
Did not our Lord love the Jews of Jerusalem? He loved that city so much that He died in it and for it. Yet in a sense we have to say that His love did not accomplish the salvation of those who prevented "their children" from coming to Him. That is why Christ wept so bitterly over the city: "If thou hadst known, even thou at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eye" (Luke 19:42).
If we are to penetrate the meaning of this expression, "Love never faileth," we must look at the One who was the only personification of this perfect love, the Lord Jesus Christ. Of Him it was said, "Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end" (John 13:1). "Unto the end" is eís télos in Greek. Télos means "limit," but it also means "doom, death as the end of life, achievement, attainment, and the prize in a race." Humanly speaking, He might have had reason to cut His love short, but "He loved them to the uttermost." He loved to the uttermost limits of love itself. He loved them to the doom and death of the cross, but this was not the only limit. The other glorious aspect of the limit was the fact that He achieved and attained our salvation as His grand prize. This was the glorious limit and goal of His love.
This kind of love baffles description. Even Paul finds it difficult to describe. All he can say about it is that it "passeth knowledge" (Eph. 3:19). But it becomes visible when we see the Lord Jesus agonizing in the garden, gazing upon Peter, praying for the forgiveness of His murderers, hanging on the cross, bearing on His heart the sin of the world, and coming back from the grave to those same timid, stricken disciples. Such love can never ultimately be in vain. At Calvary we see, as John saw, love to the uttermost.
Sin could conquer God's love only if it were able to change His attitude of self-sacrifice toward the sinner. But God's love in this sense is also unconquerable. It may not change every sinner; but no man, no matter how evil, will ever be able to make God's love collapse.
As Christians indwelt by His love, we must react in the same manner. We may not be able to make everyone love us, no matter how kind we are but we must never hate anyone for this. If we hate, our human love has been conquered; but if we love in spite of another's attitude, it is because God's love in us has not failed. This is what enabled Paul to cry out, "Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:37-39).
© From To Love Is to Live, an exegetical commentary on 1 Corinthians 13, 1967, revised 1998. Available from AMG Publishers