On this Valentine’s Day I want to ask the question: what is true love?
1 Corinthians 13 is a great place to start. This might be many people’s favourite but it is much misunderstood:-
1) 1 Cor 13 is not about romantic love
I think I can say with confidence that the Apostle Paul did not dictate 1 Corinthians 13 in order that thousands of years later the vicar might have a text on which to preach at a wedding day.
2) 1 Cor 13 is not about Jesus
It is sometimes said that 1 Corinthians is a “portrait for which Jesus sat”.
Of course, of all people in the world, Jesus was know to fulfil the qualities of v4-7: He was patient, kind, not envious, humble, respectful, not self-oriented, angry, forgiving, truthful: He alone ALWAYS protects, trusts hope and perseveres.
But I think I can also say with some confidence that Paul did not primarily have Jesus in mind when he wrote 1 Cor 13.
3) 1 Cor 13 is about the Corinthians
This is a church which has caused the Apostle quite a bit of heartache. Vv 1-3 is addressed to competitive Christians who parade their knowledge, gifts and great acts of faith… which is having a hugely divisive effect on the congregation… Of course it is not so much that tongues, prophecy, interpretation, knowledge, faith, sacrifice, martyrdom are not gifts to be prized. Rather they had come to perceive these things as being the most excellent of gifts. And they had paraded them in a way that denigrated those with “lesser” gifts.
V4-7 is also about the Corinthians, for:
- They are quite clearly not patient, their love is short-lived, they are not kind … Paul believes that when such things are absent in a congregation, however great their other virtues, then things are sadly lacking.
- There should be no place for competitive, pride etc among God’s people.
- Paul seeks to show them the excellent way of LOVE: The Corinthian view of excellence is incomplete and passing
- Their gifts, their sacrifices, their wisdom will fade … love won’t
But what exactly does this mean? What does it mean to say that love will never fade and that love is the most excellent way?
Is love a force which cannot be conquered (as some of our pop songs seem to suggest)? If we are going to join Cheryl Cole and “Fight for this love” – what exactly is the love for which we fight and what does it look like?
Paul’s conclusion of this chapter is significant, I think.
Faith hope and love remain, love is the greatest.
Why? Because faith and hope die out in heaven? No. Rather, because in loving this way we most reflect God.
The key to interpreting this chapter, it seems to me is see why, in Paul’s mind, the greatest out of faith, hope and love is LOVE…
In other words, the secret of true love is: God!
In reaching this conclusion I have been very much helpful over the years by the 18th Century New England revival preacher Jonathan Edwards. For Jonathan Edwards, true religion, true worship and true love are very much focussed on God. Let me illustrate this is in the life and works of this great man.
Religious Affections – In this book Edwards described true love as affection. In modern parlance we tend to use “affection” to mean “Like, a bit” … but for the Puritans the “affections” were the root of our desires, wants and motivations.
‘The religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference: God, in His word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, “fervent in spirit,” and our hearts vigorously engaged in religion…’ (p.27).
Charity and its Fruits – Love as “Light and heat”
‘A truly practical or saving faith, is light and heat together, or rather light and love, while that which is only a speculative faith, is only light without heat; and, in that it wants spiritual heat or divine love, is in vain, and good for nothing. A speculative faith consists only in the assent of the understanding; but in a saving faith which is only of the former kind, is no better than the faith of devils for they have faith so far as it can exist without love, believing while they tremble’ (p.13).
By heat he means warmth. By light he means truth and intensity.
Relationship with Sarah
Jonathan Edward’s life long study in the love of God was grounded in his “uncommon union” to his wife Sarah. He wasn’t an easy man, something of a work-aholic, although he did find time to father 11 children…!
When the George Whitfield visited their Northampton home in 1740 he wrote:
“A sweeter couple I have not yet seen… she talked feelingly and solidly about the things of God, and seemed to be such a help meet for he Husband that she caused me to pray God, that he would be pleased to send me a Daughter of Abraham to be my wife”
Another visitor to their home commented that it opened up
“the world in which love lifts the whole animal endowment to an ethical level” (George Gordon)
Edwards was quite clear in his writings to say that True Virtue is not to be found in the love of love, or the sentimental sensations of love. But rather love for love to be true it flows to and from God.
Love is the root of a relationship with God
Love is the fruit of a relationship with God
All true love is grounded in God
All true love has God as its goal
Do you want to know true love?
Do you want to show true love?
God as the Ground of Love – Know true love
1 John 4:16: God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.
Put your absolute confidence, security and trust in no one other that God!
You won’t learn to love truly and fully without focussing your life on God
God as the Goal of Love – Show true love
All love should have as its highest goal, the love of God
Let me illustrate this from the well known, albeit controversial Ephesians 5:21ff passage –
The Daily Mail (see
outraged this week that the Curate of St Nicolas Church Sevenoaks suggested in a sermon that wives should submit to their husbands. Of course I don’t know the full details of the content of this sermon, but Paul does say in Ephesians 5 that husbands should love their wives with same sacrificial love which Christ loved the Church – in total self-giving. Wives should submit to their husbands, in sacrificial self giving.
Of course this is a tall order, not least in our egalitarian day and age. However, Paul expects both the husband and wife to see the Lord as the highest object of your affection, not your imperfect spouse. If you make God the highest object of your delight then loving and serving your less-than-perfect spouse will be possible.
The illustration which I find helpful is from golf. When lining up to putt the ball, one way of avoiding “choking on the ball”, (which is hitting the ball short of the hole) is to focus on a spot 3-4” beyond the hole and making that your target. When aiming for that, the ball will drop in the hole.
In a similar way, if we make God our greatest love then loving our less-than-perfect spouse becomes possible.
Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matt 22:37-39)
As popular culture rightly recognises: love is often lacking when it is most needed. Experiencing true love is our life quest, but is elusive to so many people…
However 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that true love will only be found when our lives are focused on the one true who is LOVE … for sure, it seems to me, this will do much to enliven Romantics on this Valentines Day, but more, it should and could transform our families, our churches, our friendships and, ultimately the world.
May God work this God-centred love deep in our hearts so He may be the deep source of our love and the object of our highest affections. (more on Jonathan Edward’s and Love in this Churchman journal article
Let’s make Valentine’s day a day which is all about God!
Make a house a home
Some thoughts on preaching which hits home
We are preparing to move house again soon (2 miles across the other side of Oxford). As we prepare for the process of transporting all our possessions from one house to another my thoughts turned to what makes a house a home? The bare structure and location of a property only becomes home when it feels lived in and starts to reflect the personality of its inhabitants.
The same could be said to be true of preaching. Many sermons which I listen to show evidence of structure, design and effort. But they often don’t feel lived in. They lack the warmth and personality which only comes when the preacher has inhabited the text for themselves and taken it home.
What are some of the errors which sermons make? You can probably think of more, but these few thoughts came to mind.
When you first move into your new house boxes get emptied and mounds of clothing, books etc. await proper ‘filing away’. Should someone come to visit the chances are their coat will need to be draped over a chair or put on the bed. Hopefully, in time, pegs will appear upon which you may hang your coat.
In a similar way, many sermons which I hear offer nowhere to ‘hang your hat’ so to speak. There is content, but it lacks pegs. Without this attention to structure, the hearer can struggle to navigate their way through the sermon. Without pegs it is unlikely that hearers will be able remember salient points of the sermon for the week ahead.
Rhetoric gets a bad name today. But the later Greek sophists (Isocrates. Cicero etc.) believed Rhetoric to be the ability to speak with such clarity that the audience would be persuaded. Philosophers think clearly. Rhetoricians think clearly out loud. Preachers should be doing the same. This will in part be reflected by careful attention to the structure and form of the sermon.
It takes time for a house to become a home. Over time the inhabitants will begin to stamp their own personality on their property – hanging curtains, arranging flowers, decorating to taste etc.
Many sermons I hear lack personality. Phillip Brooks’ now famous comment that preaching is “communication of truth through personality” is exactly right. Obviously we don’t want the sermon to be littered with personal anecdotes and stories. It is not supposed to be a talk about them. However, congregations listen when they can see that for the preacher the message has hit home personally.
They have been moved by the message they are preaching. They have made the connections as to how it applies to their own life.
Sermons which hit home are those which apply pertinently and pointedly to today’s world. They are illustrated in real life.
Too many sermons I hear leave me only in the world of the text. Now, of course, this is not the worst problem, there are equally many messages that never take me to the world of the text and only start in the world of today. I guess the former may be the weakness of evangelical expository preaching; the latter is the weakness of liberal preaching.
John Stott has regularly repeated the need to engage in “double listening” – Hearing the voice of the text; hearing the voice of the world.
When you move into a new house you are inclined to think: however did they live with that wallpaper? How come they didn’t modernise the bathroom suite etc. But of course, it is very difficult to see your environment and culture from the fresh perspective of an outsider.
As preachers we need to retain the fresh “eyes” of an outsider, someone who has not spent the whole week labouring over the text, and who can see the difficult punchy questions which might need addressing.
At home in the sermon
By this expression I don’t at all mean that preaching should be psychologically therapeutic, only comforting and devotional. What I think I mean is that I expect preaching to give me pegs (to help me recall and apply the bible to my life in the week ahead); personality (so I feel that the preacher has met with God in his preparation); punch (I see the issue with a freshness and pertinence for the week ahead).
I was preaching on Matthew 5:27-30 today and used an extended illustration of the health of the lawn being analogous to the health of the human heart.
I know it is hard to imagine this at the moment but try to think back to the hot summer months in sultry heat (!), enjoying the lushness of the garden, with a gentle hum of electric fly mowers in the background.
It can be quite irritating to have the peace and quiet of summer shattered by lawn mowers, but I suspect that many people mow their lawn frequently as a fairly fool proof way of making the garden look nice and well tended.
At the heart of the growing season, if you leave your lawn for little more than a week tell-tale signs of its true nature will be revealed. This is certainly true in my case. If I fail to mow regularly, the apparently lush, well tended lawn shows its true nature – dandelions begin to sprout yellow and eventually shower umbrella seed replicating themselves all over the lawn. Big green dock leaves shade the delicate grass. Untendered weeds spoil what initially appeared to be a lush lawn.
You see the problem with only cutting the grass is that it deals superficially with the weeds. It doesn’t deal with root causes. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount tells me that I must not live the Christian life at the level of superficial appearances. I can fool other people most of the time; I can fool myself some of the time; but I can never fool God
There are two more fundamental care issues related to my lawn which need attending to if I am going to have a healthy lawn – they involve feeding the soil and weeding out the roots of the intruder!
Feeding your spiritual lawn means tending your heart. Psalm 119:9-11 this:
How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (NIV)
Tending to the state of the heart needs to happen in order for the Christian to be healthy and pure and not controlled by lust.
Weeding your spiritual lawn requires pulling out sin at its source
Behind adultery lies lust (And behind murder lies anger). In order to deal with lust radical action is required – metaphorically gouging out eyes and chopping of wayward hands. Controlling what we watch and controlling what we do with our hands is necessary for a godly Christian life. If I make myself blind, deaf, mute and paraplegic, yet retain my soul then I am of greater value than if I have a beautiful body and prefect facilities yet corrupt my soul…
As ever, Jesus’ words challenge and provoke. But a godly life is a healthy life and, moreover is the only way to avoid hell!
See www.simonvibert.com for full sermon.
Secondly, later in the morning, I joined the St Ebbes joint congregations meeting in Oxford Town Hall. Combining together the seven congregations gave a congregation of 700-800 people. It was good to be among a large gathering of young adults who are enthusiastic for the Lord and Mission, many of whom will soon be in parishes around the country. It is also good to remember that the Gospel still is attractive and student churches which clearly proclaim the good news about Jesus buck the national trends and grow. Vaughan Roberts did a great job reminding people that the Lord’s Prayer invites us to pray. We need to know to whom we are speaking before we can have a meaningful conversation, and that God, is, unlike any in the world religions, one who we can call Father.
Finally, this evening, I went to hear another student preach in Merton College Chapel in Oxford. This was a very formal sung Evening Prayer. The choir was amazing. The acoustics in the Chapel are very good, and the Chapel is often used by the BBC to record. There were about 25 in the choir and maybe 40 in the congregation. It was enjoyable and the music was very high quality. Personally I enjoyed both the volume and informality of the drums, guitars and singers in the morning as well as the marvellous formal music tradition found in the Chapel tonight.
What are my conclusions about the experience of three very different corporate worship services today? They are very tentative. I actually enjoyed all three services and I think that there is a place for the diversity of church which I have been in today. However I also think I feel that the age profile and numerical attendance at the St Ebbes service does speak volumes as to what young adults need to hear today. However, I feel challenged that the growing churches seem to be located in University Towns or suburbia in the South East of England with largely ‘yuppie’ congregations.
I think that the vision of the Church of England is sound. But we do need faithfully to reach the diverse communities and localities in which it is located … which requires us to be outsider-friendly and mission minded up and down the land. There is a nation which needs to be won for the Gospel of Christ, and that should shape everything we do in the church and in the communities in which they are located.
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