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What Is This Thing Called Love?

The Christian life often boils down to being patient and kind with people—even impossible people.

From the editor:

Over the next few months, PreachingToday.com is going to run an entire transcript series from Haddon Robinson on 1 Corinthians 13. The first sermon in Haddon's series—The Basic Need—has already been posted to the site. To read it, click here. Just below this note—before the actual sermon transcript—Haddon shares the story behind this wonderful series.

The story behind the series (from Haddon Robinson):

This sermon series came about because of tensions around the Gordon-Conwell seminary campus that were more than I had seen in the years I have been here. Jim White, the former president, resigned after a year, and to some degree unexpectedly, and I was asked to be the president. I did a number of things to try to draw the campus together and work on morale, but one of the major ingredients was I chose to speak a series of messages in chapel on 1 Corinthians 13, because it spoke of love and relationships, and it was positive in the sense that I wasn't going to major on what we didn't do or what we didn't like but on what we should do. There are times when we preach to a situation that is not a crisis as much as it is a presenting need, and that's what I was doing.

This series reflects the intersection of expository preaching with the role of being a leader. The sense of purpose that I had for these messages was strong. I chose the passage because I knew I needed to bring the campus together. As a leader I knew I was not going to be in my position for a long time, so I was thinking, If I'm here for two years, what do I want to accomplish? I saw myself as a middle-relief pitcher. I wanted to do what I could to prepare the campus for the person to follow me. When I'm preparing to preach in a situation where I'm not in a leadership role, in my study of the text I'm more likely to ask, "Why did Paul write this? What was his purpose, and what would my purpose be in this sermon in line with his purpose?" But in this series I started with my purpose and then went to the passage.

As a leader, sometimes you have to articulate for people what your church is about or where you're going, and sometimes you're wise not to have a biblical passage as the basis for your talk, but instead to say that you're not preaching a passage of Scripture. That's because you want to avoid using the Bible like the national anthem at a football game, where you salute it but then do something else. So you might say, "I want to talk to you today about our church, where it's at, where it needs to go." It's far more legitimate to do that than to pretend a biblical passage is directing your thought when it's not.

On the other hand, I did not feel that I should address the situation as it was on campus quite that directly. I use these words very carefully because they aren't always true for me: I felt God was leading me that this is what needed to be preached. Beyond the first message in the series, I did not make a point of saying that this text relates to the need we have on campus. I just preached the text. I didn't think it was profitable to stir up what didn't need to be stirred up.

One challenge for those who aim to preach expository, biblical sermons is how to preach small segments of a large passage. The tendency is to end up with a topical message that uses the text as a springboard. In this series, the first message covered a paragraph, but the rest dealt with small segments of the text, and I think I was successful in keeping it within 1 Corinthians 13 and within the Corinthian letter. First Corinthians 13 is the centerpiece for the Corinthian letter, in that many of the problems that Paul deals with would have been solved if the Corinthians had the attitude described in chapter 13. So I preached the passage but then preached to the wider context of the book.

When you preach at a seminary, you've got a pretty critical audience. It's a good audience, but you sense that there's quite a bit at stake; I wanted what I was doing in the pulpit to reflect what I was teaching in the classroom. I wasn't able to complete the series through the end of chapter 13, but it took me through two semesters.

And by the way, I don't think these are my best sermons; they were the right sermons for a situation. They were prepared on the run, in the sense that I wrote them on top of fulfilling my other administrative duties as president. For each message I wrote a very rough manuscript to help me think my way through the material clearly, but they were not polished manuscripts. That's one reason why it's worthwhile to put them on PreachingToday.com, because most pastors are not preaching for the ages; they're preaching week by week for their church.

The series seemed to make a difference in the spirit on campus. Several people commented that over the course of a chapel series, attendance tends to drop off, but that didn't happen with these messages, as the chapel remained full throughout.


In 1929, Cole Porter wrote a hit song for one of his musicals in which he asks, "What is this thing called love? Ask the Lord in heaven above, what is this thing called love?" The song had feet. For the next fifty years or so, singers in nightclubs—Nat King Cole and others—sang that song. I think the reason it lasted so long was that it was asking a question that any thoughtful person in our culture would ask. Really—what is this thing called love?

In our culture love stands for everything from Hollywood to heaven: Love in the raw, rated X; "I just love strawberries, but they give me a rash;" "I love New York, but I wouldn't want to live there;" "Oh come on, baby, if you love me you'll go to bed with me;" "My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine." In cultures like ours, "What is this thing called love?" is a good question.

If you read the New Testament with any degree of care, you find that again and again we are called to be people of love. In fact, Jesus said that the badge of our discipleship is whether we love one another. Paul told the Roman church that we must not owe a thing except the debt of love. He told the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit, the evidence of Gods working in your life, is first of all love. Then, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul says that whatever gifts you have, you exercise them. But if you do so without love, those gifts accomplish nothing. They make you nothing. No matter how impressive your sacrifices are of money or self, if they are done without love, you gain nothing at the judgment seat of Christ. So again, the question is an important one: What is this thing called love?

Phileo and eros love

I think the people in the first century may have been as confused about love as we are. The Greeks had a large number of words for love. The most common word was the word phileo. This word described the garden-variety love—the love you have for friends, for people in your family, for your country. You see this word tied to other Greek words, like delphus (where we get "Philadelphia," the "city of brotherly love") or anthropas (where we get "philanthropy," the love for human beings).

There was another word for love that was very common in the ancient world—eros. When translated into English, it almost always speaks of sexual passion, erotic love. However, it was used in a much wider sense by the Greeks. It basically spoke to the kind of love that is won from us in a moving moment. It's the feeling you have when you stand at the Niagara Falls, and you see millions of gallons of water pouring down and feel the spray of the water on your face. It's what you feel if you're a Red Sox fan, and in the bottom of the ninth, on the last out, the Sox are behind by three runs with the bases loaded, and Big Papi [David Ortiz, Red Sox designated hitter] hits a homerun into the right field stands. You leap into the air. What a rush! It's the feelings that you have when you listen to Beethoven's Fifth, and it almost moves you to tears. Eros.

Our society puts a great deal of emphasis on this kind of love—just like the Greeks—but the word is never used in the New Testament. This is probably because of its association with pagan worship. The Greeks also used the word eros to describe the kind of response someone had when they worshiped the pagan gods. It was a moment of ecstasy that the priests tried to produce.

Agape love

When you come to 1 Corinthians 13, and you ask, "What is this thing called love?" Paul—along with other writers in Scripture—uses the word agape. What is strange about this word is that it's seldom used outside the Bible. Classical scholars say it is only used four times outside the sacred writings of the Scriptures, and each time it's a rather anemic word that is translated "good will." Yet biblical writers take agape and baptize it into the Christian faith. It is the major word that is used to describe God's love for us, our love for him, and our love for each other.

What characterizes this kind of love is that it's not primarily a love of the emotions. Agape love is a mindset, an orientation of the will. Agape love determines that it will seek the highest good for other people. This is why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, can say, "Love your enemies" or "Pray for those who persecute you" or "Do good to those who despitefully use you." Immanuel Kant read those words of Jesus and dismissed them, saying it's impossible—that you can't just command love. He was right. If you're talking about a "feeling" kind of love, you can't start that up like you would a fire, or stop it like blowing out a match. But agape love isn't primarily about feelings. It is a mindset. Even if I'm dealing with an enemy, I can determine that I will do no harm to that person—that I will not respond to cursing with cursing, to bitterness with bitterness. Agape love seeks the highest good of other people.

As long as we hold agape love at this level of understanding—an abstract, theological, ethical level that speaks of seeking the highest good of other people—everybody passes. Everyone is as loving as the next guy and perhaps a little bit more. But in verses 4-7 in our text, Paul defines this love beyond a dictionary definition. He shows us what love is by showing us what love does. He defines love by describing "loving." Sometimes you need that. If you had no idea what music was, and I said to you, "Music is the science of the art of tones," you would still wonder what it is. It would be better to have you listen to an Irish tenor singing Danny Boy. If I said that diamonds are native carbon in isometric crystal, that would get a passing grade on a geology exam. But if you've never seen a diamond, that definition won't do you a bit of good. Just one diamond flashing offers a better definition! In order to help us understand love, Paul defines it by describing it. He shows us what agape love is by showing how agape love acts.

If you look at the list in 1 Corinthians 13, you discover it has fifteen phrases. The first two serve as an umbrella for everything that follows. The love of which Paul writes is patient and kind. Then Paul lists eight negative things that love doesn't do. If you do any of these things, you are not loving. Love does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud. It is not rude. It is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil. Then Paul turns the corner and gives us five positives. The love of which he speaks "rejoices with the truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

Agape love is patient

Look at the first two traits of agape love. First of all, "love is patient." If you were writing this list, would you start with patience? Most of us are impatient with patience! But this kind of patient love is possible because it comes from God. It's God's love in us.

As we know, God is patient with us so he can lead us to repentance. Imagine confessing your sins, and God says, "Wait, wait, wait. Which sins do you have in mind?" When you begin to spell them out, God says, "Wait, wait, wait. You were here three days ago confessing that. In fact, you were here three times last week. Look: I'm going to take my lead from California law—three strikes and you're out!" But God doesn't do that. He does not deal with us according to our sins or reward us according to our iniquities. He's patient with us. He works with us. Because that's the nature of the God who gives us agape love. God does for us what we do for others.

You can also be patient if you take seriously the Christian doctrine about men and women—that is, that we are depraved. We're all sinners. We all mess up. In fact, when we think we've got sin licked, it comes back again. We struggle with it, and other people struggle with it. So, we need to be patient with folks. We are patient with folks because the work God does in them doesn't happen overnight. That's why it's perfectly appropriate, when you get around exasperating people, to say, "God, I need your patience!"

Agape love is kind

The love of which Paul speaks is not only patient with people, but kind. Patience and kindness go together like a couple in a good marriage. Patience can be passive. I can be patient with injustice if it's not happening to me or because I'm too weak to respond. But to be patient with somebody and then to respond by being kind to them? That's a triumph of love! And people need that. All of us are on an uphill climb, carrying heavy burdens. All of us need kindness.

I've seen kindness happen on this campus. I remember waking up one morning, and all the cars on campus were snowed in. I didn't have a shovel, and I didn't know how I was going to get out. Before I left the apartment, I noticed that the wife of one of our Korean students was out there with a shovel, digging out the cars. Soon two or three of the men came out to help her. What a lovely kindness.

I saw kindness when I was at a Promise Keepers rally in Washington. A million men had gathered to sing praises to God. But what struck me was that when these men arrived at the rally, there were a number of women's groups protesting outside. They were upset about these "male chauvinists" getting together. They yelled and held signs. As the day went on, it got hot and humid. I watched as several different times I saw men get up, go to their cooler, pull out a frosty, cool bottle of water, and take it over to the protesting women. I saw a guy go to one woman carrying a big poster. He actually took her poster and held it up while she had a drink. That's the love of Christ! Forget all the singing! That was beautiful!

The next day there was an article in the Washington paper—a sidebar that explained what happened when the park department came on Monday morning to clean up after the rally. We all know the mess one man makes. How about a million of them? But when workers arrived, the place was completely clean. They had bagged all their garbage. One of the men from the park department said, "I'm impressed. They didn't just walk away from their dirt." That's kindness. I think that was the love of God's Spirit working through those men.

I've seen kindness when folks on this campus have taken some time to help new students get settled into their apartments—when others have taken international students down to the bank or the local store, helping them through the intricacies of this culture we've got. What a lovely thing!


I know you might be sitting there, thinking, You're right, Robinson. They ought to be patient with me. They should be kind to me. We appreciate it when agape love is shown to us. But God's Spirit is working in us so that we can show this love to others. The Christian life often boils down to just that: being patient and kind with people—even impossible people. What a different campus we could be if we would do just that.

To see an outline of Robinson's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


What is this thing called love?

Phileo and eros love

I. Agape love

II. Agape love is patient

III. Agape love is kind


God's Spirit is working in us so that we can show this love to others—even impossible people.