Almost all common Greek or Hebrew words will be translated into more than one English word at different places in the Bible. There is no such thing as word for word translation from one language to another. That is, the words of one language do not perfectly correspond to the words of another language. As these words are used in different contexts and with different shades of meaning, a decision has to be made on which English word is the best to use in each case.
Charity is an interesting case in the King James Bible because the 1 Corinthians 13 passage (which uses charity 9 times) had been translated using the word love in Tyndale's New Testament of 1526 - 85 years before the King James translation. Certainly, it was not the case that the King James translators did not know that love might have fit. Rather, they purposely chose charity as the word to use there. Evidently, they saw an importance in distinguishing some of the uses of agape in a specific way. We will look at scripture to see if we can discover what specific nuances of the word are being brought out when charity is used. The use of love is the more general use and will not be discussed here in detail.
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. Many people have called it the Love Chapter (in correction of the King James Bible); but this distinction clearly goes to 1 John 4 where love in mentioned 27 times (unless you included the 3 times "beloved" is used). Also, the fact that 1 Corinthians 13 uses charity 9 times connects it with the nine-fold fruit of the spirit. Nine often denotes a spiritual fruitfulness.
In order to define charity scripturally, we will go to the scripture. That is, we will observe how the word is used in scripture and let that be our final authority for the meaning of the word. Notice the following points about charity as it is used in scripture:
- Charity is the epitome of perfection in the Christian life. It is the "greatest" of the three abiding virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13). It is the "bond of perfectness" (Colossians 3:14) and the "end of the commandment" (1 Timothy 1:5). Of the seven things Peter exhorts the saints to add to their faith, it is the seventh (2 Peter 1:5-7). Obviously, the Christian life reaches its pinnacle in the practice of charity. We certainly should know what it is.
But to know what charity is, we must know what it is not. 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.
- Biblical charity can also be distinguished from other forms of love. Though most dictionaries say that charity includes the idea of the love of God for man, there is no indication that it is used in that way in the King James Bible. In fact, it is not specifically used of the love of man for God either. Although there are some passages where the word could be used in application of some of these forms of love, those passages where the word is specifically defined never refer to God's love toward man or man's love toward God.
- Charity specifically refers to the love that we have toward other men. Paul stresses that we are to walk "charitably" toward our weaker brothers (Romans 14:13-15). He praised the Thessalonians because "the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth" (2 Thessalonians 1:3). 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 John 1:5-6). 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 (3 John 1:5-6), 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 (1 Corinthians 13:4), that does not behave unseemly, seek to get its own way, or is easily provoked (1 Corinthians 13:5); that rejoices not in the iniquity of others (1 Corinthians 13:6); that bears, believes, hopes, and endures (1 Corinthians 13:7). It is the grace that proves the believer to be mature in his faith and practice. May the Lord give us all more charity.