The Greatest Thing

“Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
—I Corinthians 13:13

IN THE HISTORY OF the world, many millions of people have died of starvation. Having exhausted every particle of food available to them, having sacrificed every material possession to obtain enough food to sustain even a semblance of life in their bodies, and having no resource left they have lost the struggle to survive and have died. A Chinese proverb says, “If you have two pennies, buy bread with one and a flower with the other.” The significance is that though bread is necessary to the body’s welfare, the spirit of man is revived by beauty. Both are important.


Our Lord Jesus used another illustration found in Luke, chapter 21, in which he tells of a poor widow whose last physical resource was two “mites,” (vs. 2) the smallest coin of that realm. It would be like two pennies with us. She put them into the Temple poor box, and Jesus, noticing it, drew a comparison with the magnificent gifts of the wealthy, saying that the poor widow had cast in more than they, for she had given “all the living that she had.” (vs. 4) She had not bought bread and beauty; she had done a more excellent thing; for, giving all, she was utterly dependent upon God for even her next meal.

God has set the example of complete giving for “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) that men might have life. With him this was the supreme gift. Jesus Christ also sets the example of complete giving, for he gave himself to purchase the human race and show them a way to life.


Giving is constantly urged upon Christian brethren throughout the Gospels and the Epistles, and such giving is by no means confined to material things, though such is also enjoined. Giving of this nature has been designated ‘charity,’ and this word has been used as the English equivalent of a word in the original Greek text which contained no concept of our modern word charity. But then again, even the English word charity has very largely changed its meaning from what was implied by it in the seventeenth century, for it is the English of that century which is used in the King James Version of the Bible.

Certainly the Apostle Paul did not confuse the meaning when he desired his Christian brethren to excel in things well pleasing to their Lord and Master. Helping the poor was urged by the apostle, but he left no doubt as to how it was to be done, and what the scope of such help should be. Jesus had no idea that virtually the sum total of Christian effort could be comprehended in our present understanding of charitable works; for his instructions concerning ‘almsgiving’ are clear and to the point, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward.” (Matt. 6:1) And in his condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he makes a telling point of their outward holiness and inward impurity, and advises them to be compassionate toward the poor. He also tells them that although they make long prayers in the streets, in private they “devour widows’ houses.”—Matt. 23:14

Several times Paul mentions that the churches throughout Asia Minor were engaged in taking up a collection of money to help the brethren in Jerusalem defray the increasing costs of caring for the widows and fatherless, and that he had offered to carry the sum so raised back with him when he returned to Palestine. These gifts he referred to as “alms.” (Acts 24:17) On arrival at Jerusalem he was in the Temple making an offering in regard to a vow when Jewish enemies stirred up the people and Paul was arrested. It was this arrest and his demand for a fair trial by Caesar which resulted in his being taken to Rome, where he died a martyr.


Charity, with Paul, was properly love, and every use of the English word charity in the New Testament is a translation of a Greek word agape, which means a widely embracing love which benefits all. It is this type of love which is referred to in John 3:16, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

It was this understanding of the proper meaning of ‘charity’ that provoked Paul into writing his marvelous exposition of comparative virtues recorded in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, commencing, “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.”

In modern speech translations of the New Testament, the correct word ‘love’ is used throughout the passage, and the words take on new beauty and greater significance when this correct interpretation is used. The argument and comparisons contained in it have a deeper, more compelling message, where love becomes the essence in place of the modern idea of charity.

How insignificant become our individual attainments as Christians, when we read, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”—I Cor. 13:4-7, Revised Standard Version

Paul closes his admonition with the well-known phrase, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (vs. 13, RSV) Those who originally subdivided the Bible into chapters, and verses, closed the thirteenth chapter on those words, whereas the proper close of Paul’s argument would seem to include the verse with which the fourteenth chapter opens, “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” the good news of the hope of the world in Christ.—I Cor. 14:1, RSV


Paul’s philosophy of Christian duty took no notice of what some mean when they speak of “going to church” or “going to the meeting.” Paul’s idea of a Christian was concerned not with getting, but with giving. To him one went to church, or to a meeting, not merely to sit and listen to a sermon, be it ever so eloquent, but to do something with oneself which would benefit other people. “He who prophesies [preaches] speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” and “edifies the church.” (vs. 3,4, RSV ) Thus was the preacher’s responsibility properly fulfilled. But Paul continues, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (vs. 26, RSV ) All should go to the meeting to give a blessing as well as to receive one.

What is this love of which Paul makes such a point—of which he says, ‘Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts’? We have mentioned the word in the original Greek manuscripts from which the New Testament was translated as agape, and this word describes a particular kind of love, the broad, all-inclusive social love which can enfold all mankind; a love induced by the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle and not of emotion.

It was this agape which turned Paul from a persecuting Pharisee into a Christian missionary; that sent him across seas and deserts into hostile lands preaching a message of salvation for all who would accept it through faith in Christ. He was not desirous of spending his time merely enjoying the hospitality of friendly church groups, or going through life calmly discussing difficult points of Scripture, or of being flattered and catered to by groups who admired his eloquence or curried his favor. Nor did he spend his time and energy preaching soothing messages on subjects which could arouse no controversy. Rather he encouraged his hearers to investigate every word he had to say, and to prove his exposition of truth by careful searching of the Scriptures.

On the subject of his attitude to the churches he served, he writes to the Corinthians, “I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, … and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter.” Paul was ready to spend time with a congregation when journeying became impossible by land and sea, but, he continues, “I do not want to see you now just in passing; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”—I Cor. 16:5-9, RSV


Paul loved people in the same manner as ‘God so loved the world.’ God gave his only begotten Son that the world might have a chance for life. Paul gave himself so that the Gentiles as far away as he could reach them might know of the hope of life. Paul withheld nothing in the service of his Lord and Master. In his second letter to the church at Corinth he lists a few of his experiences in Christ’s service.

“[I have been] often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, … there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.”—II Cor. 11:23-28, RSV

Paul had exchanged honor among men, financial security, and his whole former concept of faith and worship, for such a life and that to which it led. Was it worth it? Paul believed so.—II Cor. 4:17


Was this agape, this broad all-embracing love, so different from the suspicious, insular, formalized religion of the Jews, of quick and easy growth in the early church? It would seem not, for Luke tells us of the occasion (Luke 22:24) when the disciples did not seem to have absorbed the spirit of love from their Master, “And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.”

The first effects of the dim vision of the powers of the new kingdom aroused not so much a desire in their hearts to bless others as to provide them with means to punish. Luke in 9:52-56 reports, “They went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.” But the people there would not receive him because he was evidently going to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they said, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them? … But he turned, and rebuked them, … And they went to another village.”

Echoes of the same lack of understanding ring in the utterances of certain sects even today. These boldly proclaim that they have power to condemn to eternal death individuals and communities which refuse to accept their presentation and concept of God’s plan and purpose.


The Apostle Peter, great leader of the disciples, could not at first conceive of love so all-embracing for all mankind. His view seemed to be that Israel was exclusively God’s chosen people, the only recipients of his love and blessing, when God was ready to take the Truth to the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. He presented a vision to Peter. Peter was told to eat flesh which his Jewish views counted as unclean; he argued, calling God’s attention to his ceremonial righteousness.

Peter was rebuked by the voice from heaven, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” (Acts 10:15) Peter then went to Cornelius, and telling the experience later, he said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. … And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. … And they … were astonished, … because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit.”—Acts 10:34-45

It nearly required a miracle to beget in Peter the true agape—the love that ruled out personal opinion and national prejudice, and opened his heart to welcome those of whom the prophets had spoken—those who, coming to Jesus Christ through faith in him became heirs of the promise made to Abraham, namely, that all the families of the earth should be blessed.


It is a matter of grace, of special favor, that anyone today is received into the family of God. No one can claim a right to eternal life. All lost life through Adam’s sin, and it is only because of the mercy and compassion of God who gave, and Jesus who suffered and died, that the sin of Adam has been wiped clean by the substitution of the life of the man Jesus, in the hands of Divine justice.

From justice, fallen humanity can demand nothing; from love—God’s love for his human creation—man may humbly accept those favors which are offered him, but only on God’s terms. Obedience of the creature to the Creator is always a requisite, and one which will never cease, for the creature’s life will always depend on God.

The church, the bride of Christ, is richly blessed. The special favor of God toward them, because of conditions under which the members of Christ endeavor to serve him while here on earth, is expressed in his offer of immortality—life inherent, the Divine nature—as a reward to them that diligently seek it.

One of the requirements laid on all who so seek is that they shall have God’s viewpoint of the world of mankind in general. They also must so love the world as gladly to lay down their lives, after the pattern set for them by Jesus, and carried out so wholeheartedly by Paul, without counting any sacrifice demanded of them as too great a price to pay to make their calling and election sure.


With all their strength, however it may be expressed—in personal service, in the use of their financial power, in their daily contact with the world, in their personal acts and speech, in their everlasting watchfulness for opportunities to say even the least word about the great plan of God for man’s emancipation from sin and death—every consecrated believer must give all in the service of his Lord and Head.

The development of love, agape, is essential to spiritual well-being. When we see that responsibility, and do it, and not before, we are beginning to run the race for the “prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14) This love is essential to the attainment of the goal. The goal, the end of the race, is the acquisition of that power to bless all mankind. This is the hope of the church during its earthly progress. Through Christ and the church love will find its fulfillment, its great manifestation, in the tremendous restitution, restoration work, which is the crowning glory of Christ’s ransom sacrifice. “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?”—I Cor. 6:2

Paul placed emphasis on the fact that there continue in the heart of the church, faith, hope, and love—the greatest of these being love. But he was wise to enjoin upon us, who claim the name of Christ as our own, that while desiring spiritual gifts, we should earnestly desire that gift of prophecy in its broadest meaning, that of teaching, of preaching, of practicing the Spirit of Christ, so that all with whom we come in contact may know of the “[only] name under heaven given among men” whereby men may receive salvation—the name of Jesus.—Acts 4:12

We offered ourselves in consecration to God. We dedicated our lives to his service. We counted the cost of the sacrifice. We believed the promises of God to reward us with eternal life if we continued through every minute of our earthly life to “so run, that ye may obtain.” (I Cor. 9:24) We accepted the responsibility of demonstrating in every waking moment that we were developing in ourselves the “mind of Christ,” (I Cor. 2:16) which was to “do the will of him that sent me,” as Jesus stated. (John 4:34) Let us, then, realize to the full the implication of the need to acquire, as our motive in all we do, say, and think, this agape, this all-embracing love, which the wise apostle tells us is the greatest thing!

Dawn Bible Students Association
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