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CHARITY: THE GREATEST OF THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES
by Bro. Edwin L. Childers
Agape: Greek for "divine love." Rendered in the King James Version Bible as "charity."
Charity suffers long, and is kind; charity envies not; vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, nor behaves itself unseemly, seeks not after itself, is not easily provoked, thinks not on that which is evil; rejoices not over unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth; bears all, believes all, hopes all, endures all. Charity never fails.
I Corinthians 13:4-8, translated from the Greek by the author
Verses four through eight in chapter 13 of the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians deal with some of the practical aspects of the spirit of charity as it should manifest itself in a Christian community. The fellowship at Corinth was suffering from both division and a lack of discipline in the church (Farmer 145). The Corinthians had been brought together in new and strange ways. They represented differences in personality, in status, and in opinion. They were far from perfect, but possessed the ability to make the fellowship work. Paul expresses the nature of charity in a series of active verbs, pleading with the Corinthians to give Christian charity a chance to prove what it could do for them. He lists the characteristics of charity in the form of two affirmative statements, followed by eight negatives, and finally ending in five positive statements stressing the absolute qualities of agape (divine love, or charity).
Throughout this passage, "Paul writes not about brotherly or human love (philea), but divine love (agape); that is, a love which only the Spirit can impart to the human heart" (Rendell 59). In the beginning of verse four, Paul begins his description of how charity works: "Charity suffers long, and is kind. . . ." The Greek verb makrothumei translates as "long-suffering" (suffers long) or "is patient." To suffer long creates a passive image of self-control, of not retaliating when hurt, of not nursing a grudge, of not becoming bitter. Paul balances this passive image with an active characteristic of charity, chresteuotai, or "is kind." Charity is also active in well-doing. It is interesting to note that, in English translations where adjectives are used, this verse, as well as the rest of passage, sounds like a description of what charity is. In the Greek, where verbs are used, it is a description of what charity does: charity suffers long; charity acts with kindness. These verbs express a state; they express action--a state and action that Paul would like the Christians in Corinth to emulate.
It is as though Paul would substitute "Christ" for "charity" in this passage, and in so doing the picture of the ideal Christian is painted: "'Christ is patient and kind;' and those who bear his name and are members of his fellowship. . .should manifest the same characteristics in their dealings with one another and with their fellow men" (Interpreter's 175).
The next five negative statements point to the dangers a Christian encounters within him or herself, dangers which Christian charity can surmount. The first danger is zeloi, "envy," which some Corinthians surely experienced: "There was a party spirit in Corinth. There were those set on pushing forward their own particular set of ideals. Wherever gifts are exercised the danger exists that I will want to hold the stage with my prophecy, my knowledge, my discernment of spirits" (Bittlinger 83).
This tendency to seek the spotlight was bound to cause jealousy among those members of the fellowship not possessed with such evident gifts: "Some of the members of the community were inordinately proud of their spiritual gifts and boasted about it" (Interpreter's 174).
Paul admonishes the fellowship--Christian charity does not permit jealousy, nor would a Christian acting out of love intentionally make another feel inferior. The second danger is that of perpereuetai, "vaunting" or "boasting": "The person who boasts may be speaking the truth, but his manner of speech is not in keeping with the truth" (Bittlinger 83). Christ spoke the truth in the Sermon on the Mount when he gave pride a leading place in the list of vices that must be displaced by the spirit of charity when he says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). The "poor in spirit" are not materially impoverished; they merely lack pride that prevents many from realizing that there are lessons yet to be learned: "The humble-minded are the teachable and receptive people in whom all conceit and pride have been slain" (Interpreter's 175). Envy is an inward state of the soul; boastfulness is one of the outward expressions of this unChristian spirit. Paul is trying to teach the boasting members of the Corinthian fellowship that charity is always modest, as Christ was modest. True charity is happy to serve even without reward. Paul would have the Corinthians think about the One who, on the night he was betrayed, wrapped himself in a towel and washed the feet of his disciples (176).
The third danger is phusiotai, "puffed up" or "arrogant." Some of the Corinthians were arrogant, full of themselves. They were too conscious of their status as citizens, or of their wealth, and preferred to eat, even in the church meeting or at the Lord's table, either by themselves or in the company of their social equals (177).
The Corinthians "behaved unseemly," aschemonai in the Greek. The word suggests a lack of delicacy and tact, a disregard of polite modes of action (Blaiklock 23).
Verse five begins with this fourth danger, directly tied into the third, and if only the Corinthians would learn to be charitable toward one another, they would be rid of their arrogance and its accompanying rudeness. They would learn to put others before themselves:
As a summary of these four dangers, Paul writes that charity "seeks not after itself." Selfishness is the opposite of charitable love. The opposite of selfishness is not despising oneself, but love. One must love oneself before one can love one's neighbor. (Blaiklock 85).
The Corinthians needed to learn to put the needs of others before their individual wants: "Paul was anxious that in Corinth the fellowship should be real and helpful, that the communion of the members with God through Christ might give to them fullness of life and a foretaste of heaven. Where love is, heaven is; for where love is, God is! God is love." (Interpreter's 178).
Paul now turns to the effects that displays of ill-manners and arrogance might have on members of the fellowship: "charity is not easily provoked." Paul's point was not "do not become irritable," but "do not act against someone out of irritation" (Bittlinger 84).
By not being provoked, the Christians at Corinth might suppress the evil that others might bring out in them. Charity does not keep track of the evil other Christians do, either: "charity thinks not on that which is evil." Not a thought is spared to a fellow Christians "bad side." Charity starts fresh with every new encounter, and this sort of attitude is bound to allow neighbors to breathe a little easier when seeing this kind of trust: "Love has no use for a list of another's misdeeds" (86).
Neither is charity happy when someone does wrong. Charity "rejoices not over unrighteousness" (verse 6). Not content with abstaining from unrighteousness, charity makes evil an object of live concern: "How can love listen with pleasure to the story of another's oral failure? Love would rather weep than rejoice" (Interpreter's 181).
As a summary of verses five and six, Paul makes a positive statement: charity "rejoices in the truth." Whoever is not provoked by others, doesn't think on the evil in them, and does not rejoice in the unrighteousness of others, will find their perception of the truth enhanced. When the truth shines, love rejoices. Only when one rejoices in the truth can one recognize unrighteousness--only then can one pull the beam from one's own eye and the mote from another's (Blaiklock 28).
Paul begins to bring the passage to a close in verse seven: charity "bears all, believes all, hopes all, endures all." There are burdens that God places on Christians that are not easy to bear, but charity bears all things. The Greek word stegei means literally "protecting" and "enduring," even "sacrificing" (Bittlinger 88).
Charitable love sacrifices the right to rebel against God; it instead bears the burdens laid upon it. Charity "believes all." God is sometimes hidden, and it seems as though God is not there for us, but charity continues to believe nonetheless: "Even the person who exercises spiritual gifts is subject to doubt. Not all people on whom he lays hands and prays [for] recover. Not all the prophecies are fulfilled. Not all prayers are answered in the way he thought" (Blaiklock 30).
Charity believes despite all of this; it penetrates through to the other side despite intervening doubt. Charity "hopes all." Charitable love can go on hoping for the best even if there seems to be nothing on which to found that hope. Paul hoped the church in Corinth could recover the unity they had in the beginning. Hope is not a weak matter of considering something possible, but a strong knowledge that God works for the good of those who love Him. (Bittlinger 89).
Paul summarizes the three previous "all" statements with "charity 'endures' all.'" Christ demands that his followers stand fast, enduring without giving way in the faith: "Where there is no obvious ground for faith it continues to hope; where there is no apparent ground for hope it continues to endure." (Interpreter's 185).
Verse eight concludes this exegesis with a definite, determined message: "Charity never fails." Paul's suggestion is clear: charity, if it is the real thing, never lets those who practice it down. Real charity is eternal, and it is final because it is the very essence of God. The charity of God, as revealed in Christ, is as vast and enduring as eternity. It never ends (Interpreter's 185).
In this last verse, Paul sums up his message to the fractious fellowship at Corinth. He has shown them the greatest of all gifts--charity, a gift belonging to everyone. Paul contrasts charity with other gifts the Corinthians held in high regard: prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc. Paul has emphasized charity as the supreme gift. In this last verse, Paul carries his idea a step further. He wants to make it clear in the minds of all who hear his letter that charity has no equal among the spiritual gifts. Here he adds the finishing touch to his theme: charity never fails (186).
The practice of charity goes far beyond the modern connotation of the word. Each day we are faced with limitless opportunities to exercise the gift of love God has so freely given to us. We need only choose to do so.
Bittlinger, Arnold. "Gifts and Graces". Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967. Blaiklock, E.M. "The Way of Excellence." Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1968.
Farmer, Ron. "Introduction to the New Testament." Columbia, MO: Kinko's Professor Publishing, 1991.
"The Interpreter's Bible." Ed. Norman B. Harmon. Vol. X. NY: Abingdon P, 1953.
Rendell, Kingsley G. "Expository Outlines from 1 and 2 Corinthians." London: Pickering, 1969.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014