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The Greek word ‘agape’ is translated both as ‘charity’ and ‘love’ in many places in the New Testament in the KJV. What is the difference?
Some form of the word charity is found in the Bible 29 times. All of these references are in the New Testament. In fact, the word does not occur in any form in the Bible until the book of Romans. It is definitely a New Testament word. Charity is found 9 times in 1 Corinthians 13, which makes it the Charity Chapter in the Bible...
Today, people often think of charity as nothing more than a giving of money for some good cause. However, the Bible strongly contrasts the charity it proposes to the misunderstood charity of giving funds. 1 Corinthians 13:3 states, “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.” According to this verse, it is possible to give all your goods to feed the poor and yet not have charity. Therefore, the giving of funds is not biblical charity…
Charity specifically refers to the love that we have toward other men. Paul stresses that we are to walk “charitably” toward our weaker brothers.1 He praised the Thessalonians because “the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth.”2 In 1 Peter 4:8–9, Peter told the believers, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging.”
John encouraged the saints, “Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; which have borne witness of thy charity before the church.”3 In all of these passages, charity describes the love of the saints for others. Most of the time, it refers to other believers: toward each other, among yourselves, to the brethren. In one case,4 it includes strangers. But in them all, God is referring to the special love that believers should have for others.
There are plenty of passages that speak of the importance of love in general, but the Bible speaks of charity to point us to a specific kind of love. Charity is the love toward others that suffers long with them and is kind,5 that does not behave unseemly, seek to get its own way, or is easily provoked6; that rejoices not in the iniquity of others7; that bears, believes, hopes, and endures.8 It is the grace that proves the believer to be mature in his faith and practice. May the Lord give us all more charity.—David Reagan9
The highest form of love
Charity, in Christian thought, the highest form of love, signifying the reciprocal love between God and man that is made manifest in unselfish love of one’s fellow men. St. Paul’s classical description of charity is found in the New Testament.10 In Christian theology and ethics, charity (a translation of the Greek word agapē, also meaning “love”) is most eloquently shown in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ. St. Augustine summarized much of Christian thought about charity when he wrote: “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by it we love him.”…
Although the controversies of the Reformation dealt more with the definition of faith than with either hope or charity, the Reformers identified the uniqueness of God’s agāpe for man as unmerited love; therefore, they required that charity, as man’s love for man, be based not upon the desirability of its object but upon the transformation of its subject through the power of divine agāpe.—Encyclopedia Britannica11
There are a few words that are translated into English as love, but which have different meanings in the original Greek of the New Testament. One of these Greek words is eros, which expresses the “being in love” feeling as well as sexual love, and is not used in the New Testament. Another word translated as love is phileo, which is used for fondness, a close bond of deep friendship, love for fellow human beings, compassion, and brotherly love. A third word is storge, which relates to the love and affection people have for members of their family, especially parents for their children.
The fourth and the most commonly used word for love in the New Testament is agape. As used in Scripture, it means the love of God. For example, in 1 John 4:8 when it says God is love, agape is the original Greek word. Everything God does is motivated by and flows from His love. Agape also refers to the love we have for God,12 and the Christlike love we are to show others.
When we read about love (agape) in the Gospels and Epistles, we see love which chooses to put the needs of others before self, which accepts being inconvenienced, which voluntarily suffers for the benefit of someone else while not expecting to receive anything in return. It is a love that shows goodwill, faithfulness, commitment, and strong character. It is the love that Jesus displayed and that motivated Him to lay down His life so that we could live with Him forever. Agape love is the sacrificial love that Jesus manifested and that we are called to imitate.
In the King James Version, the term agape is often translated as “charity,” which helps us understand that this love is a giving, unselfish love. It does to others those things that you would want done for you. The call to imitate Jesus’ love is a call to love not only those we are close to and comfortable with, or those whom we think deserve our love. It means loving those we don’t feel are deserving; who think, believe, and act in ways we don’t agree with. After all, Jesus told us to love our enemies and those who wrong or mistreat us.
The apostle Paul put skin on love (agape) when he defined what love is and does and how it is manifested in 1 Corinthians 13.—Peter Amsterdam
Esteeming others better than self
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”13
This is a perfect definition of charity found in the Bible. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean money has to be given (although that’s certainly included). The fact is, it’s far greater than just handing out money or tithing—it goes deep into our hearts. If we are a charitable person, we will start caring for other people more than we care for ourselves. We will start wanting to listen to other people’s troubles more than we like to speak about our own. In other words, to be charitable according to the Bible is to be a sacrificial giver of every part of our life, from our money to our time.
To see what charity looks like in the Bible, look no further than Jesus Christ. It is through his life that you see the epitome of charity. He did not worry about his own life, career, or popularity. What he did care about, however, was people. In John 15:13, Jesus even claimed: “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” That is the greatest charity known to man, and Jesus performed it by dying on the cross for all of us. Love is what prompted his charity. Without love, charity is nothing more than a good deed done for some type of selfish reason (1 Corinthians 13 showcases that beautifully). So, if you really want to know what the biblical definition of charity is, look to Jesus!—Michael Krauszer14
Published on Anchor July 2020. Read by Gabriel Garcia Valdivieso.
Music by Michael Dooley.
1 Romans 14:13–15.
2 2 Thessalonians 1:3.
3 3 John 1:5–6.
4 3 John 1:5–6.
5 1 Corinthians 13:4.
6 1 Corinthians 13:5.
7 1 Corinthians 13:6.
8 1 Corinthians 13:7.
10 1 Corinthians 13.
12 Mark 12:30.
13 Philippians 2:3–4 NKJV.
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