Love: New Testament Style

​Our first step into love in Christian history occurs before we leave the Bible itself.  It happens in the New Testament.  In this post I will illustrate love from three vantage points found in the New Testament.

First, the priority of love.  Jesus established it in John 15:9-17, calling love “my commandment” and enjoining it as the ultimate task of the apostles.  Paul carried the principle into the Greco-Roman world, making love “the greatest of these” in his message (1 Corinthians 13).  In doing this, Jesus’ was fulfilling the Law (Matthew 5:17) and Paul was establishing it as the cornerstone of missiology.

We have already noted the priority of love in our look at the Trinity.  Here is the opportunity to see that the first Christians “got the memo” and wove the thread of love into the tapestry of the Church as its golden thread.  For them, love was the core of their theology—the sign that they were living for God alone. The priority of love moves right into the next point. 

Secondly, the practice of love. The commitment of early Christianity to love was seen on the first day of the Church.  Immediately after Pentecost, the first Christians had the daunting task of organizing the believers whose numbers had swelled in one day from 120 in the Upper Room to at least 3,000. The administrative challenge alone was breath taking, but in Acts 2:42-47 we see that the effort was as much about substance and spirit as it was about structure, if not more.  It’s a biblical confirmation of the principle that form follows function.

And clearly, as these verses in Acts show, the church’s function was to manifest the two great commandments.  Their design gave expression to worship and service, and in so doing it was a fellowship of love.  The truth of this was not in their naming themselves a loving church, but in the surrounding society’s declaration as captured in Tertullian’s ‘Apology’ (chapter 39), It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. “See how they love one another, they say.”  As we say it today: the proof was in the pudding, or as Jesus put it, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16)

The first two points of this post lead into the third one: the preservation of love.  The Church did not exist long before it faced the temptation to make its theology of love a principle without practice.  In his old age, and likely as the last living member of the Twelve, John made it is mission to call out the counterfeiting of love by making it a dangling doctrine divorced from behavior. 

He wrote succinctly, yet powerfully, about the problem in 1 John 4: 7-21.  Cutting through all the rhetoric, John simply said, “Those who don’t love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).  [1]  Professed love without expressed love makes our witness a lie, John said, in the same way James had said earlier to the Church, “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result from faithful activity” (James 2:17)—activity clearly that of love.

The trajectory of Christian history is set before we leave the New Testament.  It continues from then until now: love abides.


[1] Some have alleged that the phrase “brothers and sisters” limits the expression of love to fellow Christians, but there is nothing in this passage to support that.  In fact, the context (e.g. 1 John 3: 18-24 and in 5:4) shows the victory of love is a world victory, not just one inside the Church.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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