Connections 02.03.2019: The Greatest of These is Charity

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Modern English versions of the Bible use “love” to translate the key word agape in 1 Corinthians 13. That is indeed what it means.

The correct translation isn’t without problems, though. The main difficulty is that we use the word “love” in various ways. I might say, “I love the Atlanta Braves,” “I love Parks and Recreation,” or “I love barbecued chicken,” but I don’t. I mean, I do, but only in a very specific, virtually meaningless, and definitely non-biblical way. What I really mean is, “I like them a lot, but I wouldn’t lay down my life for them.” So I don’t really love them in the way that Paul talks about love.

Or we might use the word to refer to romantic love. That people hear it that way is why we hear 1 Corinthians 13 read at lots of weddings. On one hand, Paul isn’t talking about romantic or marital (which can mean the same thing!) love. On the other hand, if marriage partners practice what Paul preaches about love, they’ll have a stronger marriage than if they don’t.

Someone who reads the King James Version (KJV) might look at a more recent translation of the Bible to clarify the meaning of a word or a verse. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, someone reading a modern translation would benefit from looking at the KJV, which translates agape as “charity.”

I remember a preacher or teacher of my early years saying that “love” is a better translation than “charity” because when we hear “charity,” we think of giving something away. Love, this person went on to say, is more than that. It is, but we lose something vital if we don’t stress the “giving away” nature of the love that Paul talks about.

The love that Paul celebrates in 1 Corinthians 13 is God’s love that Jesus Christ reveals to us. It is a love that gives itself away. In Jesus’ case, it led him to give his life away.

But giving doesn’t equal love, because we can give in ways that aren’t expressions of love. So Paul says, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (v. 3 NRSV). Giving that is motivated by a desire to be praised doesn’t come from love.

Nevertheless, the love that Paul talks about does involve giving ourselves away. As we grow in this love, we will grow in being focused on others and in sharing with others. And we will do so with less and less thought of ourselves.

It’s the time of year when we think about the charitable contributions we made last year so we can deduct them on our income tax returns. As we do so, let’s ponder how much King James Version biblical charity was involved in our giving of them. Did love motivate them? Or did we give them just so we can deduct them? (I’m not saying you shouldn’t take the allowable deduction. But I am saying that we give in love when we give without considering any personal benefit we might receive.)

And let’s commit to growing toward Christlike love that gives self away with no thought for whether or how such giving will benefit us.


1. How does 1 Corinthians 12 lead into 1 Corinthians 13? How does chapter 12 establish the context in which we should read chapter 13?
2. Why is the kind of love Paul talks about essential in a Christian’s life? Why can we not do without it? What will our religious practices be like if we lack love?
3. Why will faith and hope, but not love, end?
4. What does mature love, as opposed to childish love, love like?
5. How will the church’s life and witness be affected by making constant progress in love?

Reference Shelf

Paul described love not as a gift but as a “way.” The way of love leads away from competition and self-assertion. The way of love departs from the jealousy, boasting, arrogance, and inconsiderateness that characterized their interaction with each other. The way of love transcends the pursuit of individual fulfillment and leads to true community. The way of love endures.

In describing love, Paul showed a preference for verbs rather than adjectives, though translations somewhat obscure this. By using verbs, Paul made the point that love is not simply a feeling; it is a lifestyle. Love involves action. For Paul, the action required by love is defined by the cross of Christ. Through the foolishness of the cross, God has acted on behalf of the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised— all the “nothings” and “nobodies” of the world—in order to transform them into children of the kingdom (1:27-28). To follow the way of love, the Corinthians would have to change not only the way they viewed the “lessers” in the church but also the way they acted toward them. Whatever gifts they had received from the Spirit were to be employed in the building up of the whole body of Christ, with special attention to “inferior” parts.

For the modern church, following the way of love also means using its gifts for the edification of the whole body and giving special attention to the “least of those among us.” Sadly, for many modern churches, the “least” are not among us at all. They are outside the body, or at least outside the ranks of the local group of fellow believers though they may, in fact, not be outside the full body of Christ in the world. Using the gifts of the church in the way of love today may mean spending less time and energy on “building up” the power and status of the local community of believers and expending more on the up-building of those less powerful and less esteemed outside the ranks of the church.

For Leif and Anita Kratz, following the
way of love has meant caring for children
discarded by the world. They do this, of
all places, in Ancient Corinth. To aid the
children displaced by the Balkan wars
of the 1990s, they helped establish an
international organization known as
“Children’s Ark.” Their efforts resulted in
the construction of an orphanage for
homeless children in the small village of
Ancient Corinth. They are currently involved in a new effort to aid one of the most despised and displaced groups in Europe and much of the world today, the Roma people. Against governmental discouragement and without local support, they began to build a center for the education and care of Roma children. Once again, they have chosen to base this venture in Ancient Corinth. About ten years ago, I asked the director of the orphanage, Phillip Larsen, why the Kratzes had chosen Ancient Corinth as the location for their orphanage. After all, the modern village is a small place without many of the resources that one needs for such a venture. He told me it was simple. They were driven by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 to locate their operations in the place where Paul had first sent his message about the way of love.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009) 386-88.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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