The apostle Paul explained, "And now abiteth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (I Corinthians 12:13)
This is an often cited biblical verse but most people quote it without giving much thought to what it really means and how it applies in our life.
The chapter this verse comes from is all about charity - what it is, what its relationship is to other virtues, and why it is important in the life of a Christian. If that is so, then why does Paul then link faith and hope with charity at the end of this chapter?
To fully appreciate this question and its answer we first have to understand the context in which Paul made his remark. Beginning in chapter 12, Paul starts talking about "spiritual gifts" and then explains that no man can say the Jesus is the Christ except by the Holy Ghost (verse 3) but there are many other gifts that also come through the Holy Ghost (verse 4). He then begins to list some of them (i.e., wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, and discerning) and explains that the purpose of these gifts is so that every person in the church can profit from them (verse 6).
He next explains why these gifts are necessary by giving an illustration, saying: "For the body does not consist of one member but it has many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye I am not of the body, is it therefore not of the body?... Even though they are all different parts of the body, do they not make up one body?" (verses 14-20)
He then likens this to the church where each person has a different gift but no one gift is greater than another because all of them are necessary in order for the body of Christ to function properly. He says that this is why God has put different offices in the church such as apostles, prophets, and teachers (verse 28) and explains that not everyone can be an apostle or a prophet or a miracle worker (verse 29) but that doesn't matter because every position and every gift is necessary in the church.
Yet, having said this, he states that we should earnestly seek to have the best gifts and then says he is going to show us which gifts are most excellent (verse 31). This is when he begins chapter 13 by saying, "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" or, in other words, without charity he is nothing (verse 2). He then spends the rest of the chapter showing how charity is greater than having faith to move mountains, or the gift of prophecy, or giving our body to be burned for Christ's sake.
He next talks about what charity is and what is not saying, "A charitable person is long suffering and kind, they are not envious nor filled with pride, they behave properly, are not selfish, easily provoked to anger and does not think evil thoughts. A charitable person takes delight in the truth and shuns doing iniquity" (verse 4-5).
He then explains that in this world we can't see all that God does so it's as though we are walking through life wearing dark glasses. Because of this condition we don't clearly see the whole picture. Instead, we only see part of it (verse 12). Even when we prophecy, we only prophecy just a part of what is going to happen (verse 9) rather than revealing everything that will come to pass.
It is at the end of this explanation that he then says, "And now abiteth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity"
Of all the gifts of the Spirit, Paul say that the three greatest, or the three which are more excellent than all the others are faith, hope, and charity but, among these three, the greatest is charity. To understand why let's take a look at each of them.
The first principle of the gospel is faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ because without faith in Jesus Christ there is no eternal salvation. Faith is believing in something so deeply that we are committed to acting on that belief no matter what happens. Faith is what sustains us when there is no evidence that what we believe is true. As Paul put it, faith is the evidence of the things we believe in but cannot see (Hebrews 11:1).
For example, most of us have never seen an atom but we nonetheless believe they exist because of our faith in what science tells us. In the same way, most of us have never seen God or heaven and none of us can fully comprehend the concept of eternity yet our faith is all the evidence we need for believing that we can live with God in heaven forever.
Faith in God gives meaning to not only our life but to all of life. Without faith that there is a God who is just, kind, virtuous, all-knowing, and all-powerful then life has no meaning. Without faith that God exists, that He created this world and us, then we can only believe that there is no point to our existence and that life is just a game of chance where whatever happens to us is neither fair nor just.
If there is no God then there is no right or wrong, in which case we cannot be responsible for our actions, therefore it doesn't matter what we do or say. If there is no God then there is no accountability for what we do because there is no eternal reward or punishment waiting for us when we die, in which case there is no incentive for living a morally virtuous life. Without a faith in God, life is just a matter of survival of the fittest where the point of living is to get all you can anyway you can, for as long as you can until you die.
On the other hand, faith in God gives purpose to living. It helps us understand who we are, why we go through the things that happen to us, and which destination we are heading towards. It provides a path for us to follow as we go through difficult times. When all seems dark and uncertain it is our guiding light, our beacon of safety that helps get us through the storms of life. As such, faith is of far greater value to us than the ability to prophecy, heal others, speak in tongues, acquire knowledge, or gain wisdom.
But faith isn't something we either have or don't have. Faith is a living thing that constantly needs nourishing if it is to remain alive, healthy, and strong. We can liken it to a newly planted fruit tree. When it first springs forth from the ground into the light it is subjected to all sorts of harsh elements such as heat, cold, rain, snow, wind, insects, and disease. Unless taken care of it will succumb to the forces that act upon it and eventually die. But if it is nourished and cared for it will grow big and strong and provide much fruit.
Faith is no different. There will always be seeds of doubt blowing around us that can destroy our faith and cause it to shrivel. Even if it doesn't cause our faith to die completely these destructive seeds can cause us to lose the fruits of faith so that when we need the strength to overcome the adversities in our life there is nothing for us to draw on to nourish our soul.
Life is meant to be full of challenging situations for us to grow from but without faith these challenges can devastate us. Like the wind, some challenges are like softly blowing breezes while others can come at us with hurricane strength. Only those whose faith in God is firm and unshakable can survive the strong tests of life. Those who faith is weak will crumble under the strain.
Without a faith in God there can be no hope because hope comes from knowing that whatever happens God will be there to get us through. When there is no belief in God then there is no reason to hope that things will work out for our good. Because of this, hope is a force that can move people to accomplish great thing when everyone else has given up trying. Without hope even small difficulties can seem like insurmountable obstacles while hope makes even the largest problem seem solvable.
Hope is like a child's security blanket. It provides comfort when our spirits are down and everything around us seems to be going wrong. Hope is like a companion that gives us the courage to keep going when there seems to be no place to go. Hope is like medicine that gives us the strength we need to keep our head above water as the water seems to be rising higher and higher. Hope gives us the reason to keep holding on when we've reach the end of our rope and gives us the confidence to move forward when, at the end of our road, there seems to be nothing but wilderness ahead of us.
But there can be no hope unless we truly know God and we can't know God unless we become His friend. Friends help each other out and understand one another. When God is a stranger to us then we don't understand what we can expect from Him and what He expects from us. Those who know God know that He gives us what is best for us even though we might think it is. Those who don't know God will not see the good that can come from what may seem to be a bad situation. Those who know God know what His standards are and that God expects us to live by those standards. Those who don't know God live anyway they want and still expect God's blessing upon them.
There are those who think of God as the magic genie who grants all of our wishes, or the rich relative who is willing to give us all the money we want just for the asking. Those who view God in this way will soon be disappointed and their hope of having God save them from life's problems will turn out to be an illusion.
Hope has to be grounded in reality or otherwise it is a false hope. Those who don't understand how God works in people's lives cannot have real hope because they don't know what to hope for. For example, those who know God know that He does answer prayers but not always in the way we expect or at the time of our choosing. Those who don't know God tend to place their hope on God answering their prayers quickly and in the way they want. When that doesn't happen then their faith crumbles and their hope turns to despair.
Those who know God can recognize when their prayers have been answered because they understand how God brings about His purposes, while those who don't know God often overlook the seemingly inconsequential coincidences that ultimately give them what they've asked for. And, even though they've received the requested help, without recognizing it they go on thinking that God hasn't answered their prayers. When that happens they not only quickly lose their faith in God but they lose their hope as well.
Faith and hope are linked to one another because faith in God produces hope and hope requires a faith in God. Putting our trust in man or in material things is like building our life on sand. When the winds blow and the waves break, our foundation will shift and change, leaving us nothing solid on which to stand. But God is eternal and is the only sure rock on which to build our hope because only He is unchanging and dependable.
Yet, as important as faith and hope is, Paul says that charity is greater than both of them. To understand why we first need to understand what charity is.
Modern translations renders this word as "love" but that doesn't fully convey the intended meaning behind the Greek word "agape." As used originally it meant unconditional, self-sacrificing, voluntary, reciprocating, and committed love to another. It means to treat others with affection, compassion, thoughtfulness and concern for their wellbeing. It's an attitude of caring about and providing for the needs of others. This is why the King James translators used the word "charity" because it better conveys the idea of actively striving to help those who are in need of a helping hand. This kind of love is illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
This is also the kind of love that God has for us. In John 3:16 we read "For God so loved (agapao) the world that he gave His only begotten Son," that "God is love (agapao)" (1 John 4:8). and Paul said that "the love (agape) of God is shed abroad in our hearts" (Romans 5:5). Jesus instructed His followers to "Love (agapao) the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love (agapao) thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:37-39) and Paul wrote that "love (agape) is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10).
This concept of love is expressed in the statement Jesus made when He said, "By this shall al men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love (agape) one to another" (John 13:15). In other words, unless we show love (caring, compassion, and concern) to others in the same way that God loves us then we can't really call ourselves a Christian.
This is why Paul said that without charity he is nothing. As great as faith and hope may be, they are about taking care of our own, personal needs while charity is all about taking care of the needs of others. Those who have charity mourn with those who mourn, hurt when others hurt, and comfort those in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:9). Those with charity are patient, kind and long suffering, they are not easily provoked to anger nor do they think evil thoughts about others. They are not prideful, selfish, or envious of what others have. Instead, they treat others they way they would like to be treated.
Jesus said that when He comes again he will divide people into two groups - those who will inherit the kingdom of God from those who won't - and what will make the difference will be those who cared for the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave drink to the thirsty, gave rest to the weary, took in the stranger, and visited those in prison (Matthew 25:34-36). James said that pure religion involves visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27).
The reason why this is so important to do is because we are all dependant on one another, especially those who belong to the family of God. We don't live unto ourselves any more than God lives for His own sake. Paul illustrated this with comparing the believers of Christ to a body where each individual member works together with all the other members for the good of the entire body. When we have charity towards one another we are not just caring for others but are helping the body of Christ to grow and become strong.
However, without faith in God, being charitable doesn't provide eternal salvation and without that there can be no real hope. Therefore, while faith and hope are indeed great gifts from God, without charity for all, the body of Christ cannot function. That is why charity is the greatest gift of all.
Return to main menu