Why Focus on the Marriage Chapter at Christmas?

Sinclair Ferguson | November 13th 2018

If you randomly ask people what passages in the Bible they know, my guess is that 1 Corinthians 13 will easily come in the top ten, probably the top five and maybe even the top 3.  They might not be able to quote chapter and verse, of course. But probably they could identify it as “the wedding chapter . . . the passage about love.” After all, as the old Sammy Cahn song that was made famous by Frank Sinatra goes, “Love and marriage … go together like a horse and carriage,” don’t they?

But if 1 Corinthians 13 is an appropriate passage for a wedding, why would an author use it as the basis of an Advent devotional book? Advent is about Christmas, isn’t it? It should focus on angels, shepherds, and wise men, and on Mary and Joseph—shouldn’t it?  

But, alas, “love and marriage” don’t always “go together like a horse and carriage.” Does anyone still sing “I tell you brother, you can’t have one without the other”? Aren’t many marriages love-less? And don’t most people think that they can fully love each other quite apart from getting married?  

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love Came Down at Christmas

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Advent devotional on 1 Corinthians 13, reflecting on the source of authentic, divine, transforming love.

Love incarnate

And that helps to explain why it is necessary to read 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of Christmas before it makes sense in the context of a wedding.  Because it isn’t just telling us what we ought to do—namely love unconditionally; woven into it is a portrait of the only person who has ever loved truly and fully, namely Jesus Christ. And the fact that "love and marriage” often do not “go together like a horse and carriage” because of our lack of love for our marriage partner or our lack of love for God’s law helps explain why it is so important that we understand the message that is enshrined in 1 Corinthians 13. For none of us loves the way God commands us to. And so it was to deal with that failure on our part that God, in his perfect love, sent Jesus into the world at the first Christmas.

At his birth he was to be named “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Fittingly at his birth he was lifted into a wooden trough for a cradle, a kind of visual prophecy that some thirty-three years later he would be lifted onto a wooden cross. There, he “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That is why Christians sing:

What wondrous love is this, o my soul O my soul!

What wondrous love is this, o my soul!

What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss

To bear the dreadful curse, for my soul, for my soul.

It was in anticipation of this that, as Christina Rossetti’s hymn tells us, “Love came down at Christmas.” 1 Corinthians 13 explains what that love is like. It reads like a description of Jesus:

Love is patient and kind

Love does not envy or boast

Love is not arrogant or rude

Love does not insist on its own way

Love is not irritable or resentful

Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth 

 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things

Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

That’s the love of God that came down at Christmas. And this gives us a measure of love.

We measure love by the greatness of the identity of the one who loves

Christmas is about God’s love. Its best explanation is found in the best known words in John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).  

Isn’t it interesting that, increasingly, people do not like to hear talk about Jesus Christ? They are embarrassed by the mention of his name, and sometimes downright angry and hostile. Indeed, mentioning him in some work contexts may endanger your employment. Why? What harm has he done? Why all this antagonism and anger? The answer is simple: people feel condemned by him! Underneath all such claims as “the God I believe in is a God of love,” the truth is they don’t believe in a God of love at all. Otherwise they would not respond to him as they do, nor would they live their lives in a spirit somewhere between indifference and antipathy to him.

But here is the good news of the gospel. And we can only know it in Jesus: the great God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Sustainer of the cosmos—he loves us!

We measure love by the difference and distance between the lover and the beloved

We love those stories that tell of the prince, or the rich or famous man, who marries the ordinary girl simply because he loves her (or vice versa). We “love” to hear of what someone is willing to do for love—how much they is willing to give up or how far they are prepared to go for their beloved.  One of my sons crossed half the earth, so determined was he to win the hand of the girl he loved—I am still trying to take it in that he was so committed!

But this is as nothing compared to the distance Jesus travelled because of his love for us—from the glory of heaven to the manger and then on to the shame of the cross, from the world of eternal light to the hill of deep darkness at Golgotha, from the environment of eternal life to the experience of a hideous death, from the throne to the cross—all because he loved us.  

And who were we? “While we were still weak … Christ died for the ungodly … while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…” (Romans 5: 6, 8, 10). No wonder Paul could speak with such a sense of wonder about “The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Charles Wesley sought to capture this in his hymn “And can it be that I should gain”:

Amazing love, how can it be,

That thou my God should’st die for me?

And Isaac Watts was surely right:

When I behold the wondrous cross,

On which the Prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Can we make it the Christmas chapter?

Think about it this way: it is only because 1 Corinthians 13 points us to Jesus Christ that it makes any sense to read it at a wedding. Otherwise, it would be a counsel of despair. It would simply become a constant reminder of our failure. But now, instead, those who have tasted the love of Jesus Christ also know that the resources of his love are available so that they can love in return. For “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  

The God of love, who gave his Son in love, has also given us the Spirit of love, so that we in turn may love.

1 Corinthians 13 needs to be the Christmas chapter before it can be the Wedding chapter! And when it is, there will be joy in our marriage as well as joy in our celebration of Christmas.

Love Came Down at Christmas contains 24 daily readings from 1 Corinthians 13. Sinclair B Ferguson brings the rich theology of the incarnation to life with his trademark warmth and clarity. However you're feeling, your heart will be refreshed as you wonder again at the truth that love came down at Christmas. Buy it now

Sinclair Ferguson

Dr Sinclair B Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary since 2017, commuting from Scotland where he is an assistant minister at St. Peter's Free Church of Scotland, Dundee.

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