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Love or Charity?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on January 20, 2017 under Ask the Pastor |

A church member writes and asks this question about 1 Corinthians 13–the famous ‘love’ chapter of the Bible:

I am studying 1 Corinthians 13:4-11 and I see that the King James Version uses the word “charity”, but the New King James Version and many other translations uses the word “love”.  Is “love” the accurate word?   And verse 10 says, “But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.”  Is this referring to Jesus?

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Dear friend,

‘Charity’, as it’s being used in the King James Version, is an archaic word–one that no longer has the same meaning or that is used in the same way today as it was 400 years ago.  But yes; the word means “love”.  But it speaks of a specific understanding of love.

It’s the translation of the Greek word agape; which refers to love or benevolence or good-will.  I like to think of it as a good word to use to understand Paul’s meaning–rather than “love” in general–because it helps distinguishes “love” in the sense of self-sacrificial giving for the good of another from “love” as a mere emotion or a passion.  In a sense, you can get a good idea of what kind of “love” (or “charity”) Paul was talking about by the things that 1 Corinthians describes it as doing.  Far more than an emotion, it clearly speaks of a self-sacrificial action.

As far as what verse 10 refers to, I don’t necessarily believe it is speaking of Jesus Himself.  He, of course, is the perfect example of love; and I think that this verse does look ahead to His coming for its fulfillment.  But I think that “the perfect” (to teleios; the thing brought to completion, or fully realized, or fully accomplished) refers, in this context, to what happens at the time of His coming–when the goal of His work in us, through giving us spiritual gifts, is brought to completion.  Dr. Gordon Fee wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God’s saving work in Christ will have been reached; at that point those gifts now necessary for the building up of the church in the present age will disappear, because ‘the complete’ will have come” (p. 646).

I think “the perfect” which is to come is speaking, in a way, of what Paul wrote about in Philippians 1:6; “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ …”  “The perfect” is the state of completion of all that Jesus died to bring about in us, and of all that the spiritual gifts were temporarily given to bring about in us.  It seems to me that the New Living Translation has captured the true meaning of this verse very well: “Love will last forever, but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.  Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals little!  But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear.”

What a wonderful thing that–of all the things that will last–”love” or “charity” (agape) is the greatest.

Pastor Greg

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