John Lennon and Paul McCartney once wrote, “All you need is love.” Our culture has a lot to say about love. We use the word rather loosely in ad campaigns and song lyrics, in reference to desserts as well as spouses, from I ♥ NY tee shirts to ♥☺ bumper stickers. The New Testament has a lot to say about love, too. In fact, agapē and its root word agapaō appear more than 150 times, mostly in the books by John and Paul (the apostles, not the Beatles).
So what is this love that Paul names first among the fruits of the Spirit? It is the distinguishing mark of a Christian. I’m not saying that lightly, either. Jesus uses this word when he defines the greatest commandments as loving God and loving our neighbors (Matt. 22.37-40), and he uses it again to explain that the world will know his followers by their love for one another (John 13.34-35). It is evidence of holiness. As we become increasingly characterized by love, we become more like Jesus, and only followers of Christ can know this love and act on it.
That’s a bold assertion, to say that unbelievers are incapable of experiencing and acting on love. Bold, yes, but biblical. Take a look at what Paul wrote leading up to the verses on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.19-22:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love…
Love is a fruit of the Spirit, not the flesh. This is a supernatural, self-sacrificial love, more than mere affection, and without the Spirit we are incapable of knowing and expressing love as the Bible defines it.
Love always has an object. The “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5 are all rooted in self-love, self-preservation, self-gratification, because left in our sinful nature, we are selfish, and even our “good” deeds are tainted. This is why Paul repeatedly reminded and encouraged his readers to love one another, because we are so prone to seek our own comforts and protection rather than loving God and our neighbors.
But consider a few of the numerous ways the Bible refers to love.
Love the Lord your God…
Love your neighbor as yourself.
For God so loved the world…
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Love…does not seek its own…
True love – biblical love – is rooted in God’s love, and its objects are God and others. Jesus asked the Father that his followers would “see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world…. that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17.24b, 26b). This is the love the Spirit pours out in us – the love God the Father has for God the Son and the Son for the Father. We are given access to this eternal, pure, steadfast love, the love God demonstrated to us through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection (Rom. 5.8). The ESV Study Bible notes that love comes first in the list of the fruits of the Spirit because “it most clearly reflects the character of God.” Only God the Holy Spirit can produce genuine, self-denying love because God is love and he loved us first (1 John 4.8, 19).
In God’s grace, I still battle my selfish nature, and I daily have to confess unloving attitudes, words, and actions. As the Spirit produces fruit in us, though, he strengthens us to deny these selfish tendencies and directs our wills to choose love. Love unites the church (Col. 3.14b). It supersedes all other spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 13.1-3, 13). It compels us to fulfill the Great Commission (2 Cor. 5.14). It banishes fear because we now find security in Christ (1 John 4.18). In this first fruit of the Spirit, we demonstrate a love that is categorically different from any other definition of love outside of Christ, and “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Heavenly Father, we praise you as the only true, pure, and eternal source of love. Thank you for sharing your love with us. Fill us with your Spirit that the world may see your love for us and through us. May we always keep you as our first love. Amen