Agape: Know God's Love
1 Corinthians 13
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
In the English language, we use the word love in a variety of ways, at times employing it casually. We might say, “I love pizza,” declaring our enjoyment of a crispy crust and gooey cheese. If we are pet owners, we may comment, “I love my dog”—after all, we are told that a dog is man’s best friend! Perhaps we tell our friends, “I love my job,” indicating that we find our work fulfilling or appreciate the paycheck. On a more significant level, we tell our spouses, “I love you” in an attempt to communicate the depth of our feelings. Whatever the importance or particular circumstances involved, we use this one word to describe feelings of affection, appreciation, or warm personal attachment.
In the original Greek of the New Testament, the writers used several words to specify different levels or types of love. In the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, known by many as the “love chapter,” translators recognized that the Greek word agape used throughout the passage had a very deep and expressive meaning. Therefore, they did not translate agape as love, but chose the word charity instead. While charity has a somewhat different meaning in the English language today, 1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful passage when you understand the implications of the original word. Agape denotes the unconditional kind of love that God expressed toward us through Christ. It implies loving when there is nothing to evoke love, and nothing done to deserve it.
Other kinds of love are somewhat self-serving because a certain amount of gratification or reward results from the love we bestow. Pizza tastes good, our dog shows us affection, we receive a paycheck, or our spouses return our love. Charity—agape love—is not self-serving in the least. It seeks only the benefit of the one loved, even when there is no gratification in return. Charity is unconditional; it is unequivocal. It loves without regard to what it receives.
We see agape love personified on the Cross of Calvary. Why would Christ give His life for sinners who hated and rejected Him? Why would He turn to the thief next to Him and say, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”? He did so because He loves each individual unconditionally!
We see agape love personified on the Cross of Calvary. Why would Christ give His life for sinners who hated and rejected Him? Why would He turn to the thief next to Him and say, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”? He did so because He loves each individual unconditionally! Paul explained this in his epistle to the Romans, where we read, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We were opposed to God. Some of us did not even acknowledge Him, let alone love Him. Still, He loved us though we certainly did not deserve it.
The church of Corinth, the recipient of Paul’s admonition about charity, possessed many spiritual gifts. Paul alluded to this in chapter 12, where he described the different gifts that exist in the Body of Christ. God intends for the members of His Body to work in harmony, just as the parts of the physical body work together. In 1 Corinthians 12:12 we read, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” Charity is the glue that holds the Body of Christ together. Paul expressed this in Colossians 3:14, admonishing the believers at Colosse, “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”
The Corinthians esteemed their spiritual gifts highly and apparently were quite proud of them. However, self-sacrificing love—the quality translated in 1 Corinthians 13 as “charity”—was lacking. The Lord distributed gifts as He would to each one in the church at Corinth, but how could the different members operate in unity without charity?
In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul admonished these believers, “Covet earnestly the best gifts:...” but then added, “...and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” This “more excellent way” was to possess self-sacrificing love, or charity. Lacking it resulted in the divisions, contentions, jealousies, and competing self-centered factions that existed in this church. Paul wrote to correct those issues, recognizing that they were evidence of an underlying condition that needed to be rectified.
John the Beloved also expressed the supreme importance of love when he wrote in 1 John 4:20, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” The measure of our love for God correlates with the amount of love we have for the person we love least. We cannot love God more than that.
Paul begins chapter 13 by stating the fact that when charity is lacking, the words a person speaks become as meaningless as “sounding brass, or a tinkling [clanging] cymbal.” While they may draw attention, they are just empty noise. The sound is futile; it conveys nothing.
He goes on to say that although a person has the gift of prophecy, great knowledge, or faith that can move mountains, these amount to nothing if the underlying quality of love is absent. Even if a person gave away all his possessions or suffered martyrdom, such gestures would have no profit without love.
The Apostle continues by giving a description of fifteen traits that are symptoms or evidence of the existence of charity. Like the believers at Corinth, we can measure our experience by these traits.
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind.” Charity patiently bears with the misbehavior or injustice of others without animosity or a spirit of vengeance. If we possess charity, we are gracious toward those who are not behaving kindly toward us. It may also take into account that others may find us as difficult as we find them! Charity unfailingly demonstrates goodness and grace despite provocation.
“Charity envieth not.” It is not jealous or resentful when others are promoted or blessed; on the contrary, it rejoices in the successes of others and is always willing that others should be first.
“Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” Those who possess charity are not self-promoting and do not seek to draw attention to themselves. Charity does not have an inflated opinion of self-worth. We live in a society where self-esteem is elevated, but Paul said that charity is not “puffed up.” We do not look at others in a condescending manner. We simply are humbly determined to live for God.
Charity “doth not behave itself unseemly.” A walk of holiness is one of distinction—of being set apart for God. It will be marked by a holy and God-honoring lifestyle. Our behavior and values will not be guided by the behavior and values of the world. This will not win for us the applause of everyone in our classrooms or places of employment. In fact, our lives may condemn those who are living differently, even though there is no intention on our part to do so. A life of holiness certainly does not behave itself unseemly, but even more, it does not conduct itself in a manner where anyone could construe it to be on the fringes of unseemliness! Where there is charity, there will be circumspect behavior and good manners.
Charity “seeketh not her own.” We live in a narcissistic culture in which nearly everything is centered on self. However, charity “seeketh not her own.” It does not have to be in the limelight or receiving attention in order to be satisfied. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:4, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” We want to be more concerned about others than we are about ourselves. Remember, Jesus made Himself of no reputation, taking on the form a servant, “and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
Charity “is not easily provoked.” The kind of love Paul is describing demonstrates patience rather than irritability toward those we deem to be showing impatience or irritability toward us. Notice that I said, “those we deem . . .” Others may not even realize that they are conveying an impression of impatience or irritability. Charity overlooks less than perfect behavior and refuses to give in to annoyance.
Charity “thinketh no evil.” We assume that seemingly negative actions directed toward us are merely rooted in the frailties of human nature rather than any ill intent. We avoid ascribing a less-than-positive motive to anyone.
Charity “rejoiceth not in iniquity.” We refuse to participate in or be entertained by wickedness and evil, keeping in mind what is acceptable before God. If a form of entertainment glamorizes sin and elevates that which is unseemly, it is not something we will want to spend time on.
Charity “rejoiceth in the truth.” Charity is happy and satisfied to focus on virtue—on things of integrity, honor, and that are pleasing to God. Sin and holiness cannot co-exist. In Romans 14:23 we read, “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” If we cannot pray, “God, bless and be with me as I go here . . .” or “as I think this. . .” or “as I engage in this . . . ,” that is a good indicator to stay away from that thought or action.
Charity “beareth all things.” There is a sense here of keeping silence when we observe a condition in someone else that seems not to be appropriate. We assume the best motives possible. Perhaps the action was an oversight, or the words were not meant the way they sounded. Charity puts a good construction on the actions of others, though not to the extent of compromise—there may come a point in time when we must declare our position. We cannot look the other way if doing so will compromise our integrity, because then what do we have to offer the world? The Gospel separates us from ungodliness, but it believes the best in others as long as the behavior in question is not immoral or sinful.
Charity “believeth all things.” The verb translated “believeth” indicates having confidence in others. It does not imply naïve acceptance of anything and everything, but rather a mindset that is eager to assume the best about others.
Charity “hopeth all things.” Charity does not give up on others; it believes that there is always hope. It does not give up on oneself. We do not see missteps as a final failure, but look to the possibility of a turn-around. We have God on our side, so we hold fast to the thought that there is victory ahead. That is our hope.
Charity “endureth all things.” This is to have a quiet courage when under duress and experiencing trial. When challenges come, we are steadfast—not in our own strength but in the strength of our Lord.
“Charity never faileth.” Paul concluded his description by asserting, “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” While the Corinthians had gifts that they admired and perhaps gloated over, those gifts were temporary and partial. They were not to be their highest aim.
Paul summed up his description by stating, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Charity is enduring and permanent. It will get us to the goal where we want to be—Heaven—and will last throughout eternity.
As we consider the admonition in this chapter, each of us must answer two questions. First, have you experienced God’s love in the plan of redemption that Jesus offers—a redemption obtained for you through His suffering on the Cross? No matter how sinful you are or how much of a failure you feel you have been, that love reaches out to you. God does not take your past into account when He offers His unconditional love. He wants you, and each one of us, to come to Him in repentance and faith so that one day we can spend eternity with Him.
If you have experienced God’s love, the second question is, are you living a life of charity? Do you possess and demonstrate self-sacrificing love toward others? God bestows His love on us that we might in turn build up, strengthen, and encourage those around us. The gifts and privileges of this lifetime—the things which so absorbed the Corinthians—are temporary. Love is what unifies believers and makes our contributions of eternal value.