If you have grown up in the church, surely you have heard this verse many times, and you may even have it memorized. It is certainly one of the most famous Bible verses today. In fact, it could be said that the whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous chapters, perhaps because being loved is one of the most important human needs.
Let’s look into just why the Bible does not really say that the greatest of these is “love”. In fact, it doesn’t even say “love never fails”. You might think it does when you read the modern translations, but bear with me and I will explain to you why it does not really say that, and why this has caused many of the problems in Christian society today.
How the Bible reads in our modern translations, it goes like this. In this case, I have chosen the ESV, but it uses the word “love” in the NIV and other translations as well:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
As you read above, it clearly says “love”, multiple times. However, the Bible doesn’t really say “love”. “But wait!” you might think, “it definitely says that!”
Not really. Let me explain why it does not. To understand first why it does not say that, we need to understand a couple of things. First, we need to understand today’s cultural context of “love”. Second, we need to understand that the words used that are translated as “love” in the original Greek and Hebrew languages that the Bible was written in, were actually several words with multiple very different meanings.
The meaning of “love” in western culture
First, let’s address what we think and understand when we, at least, Americans or western society, read the word “love”. In our culture, “love” has a connotation that means a sort of “emotional feeling”, something like a “feeling of goodness toward another”. It is an “emotional” meaning, and essentially it just means that you feel goodness in your heart toward someone else. However, in our culture somehow it has become that this “emotional feeling” is not paired with a physical action. For example, in our culture someone can say they “love” everyone. Which essentially is nonsense.
They can say they “love” their parents. This may not be evident in anything they do, but surely they “love” their parents because they have a “sincere feeling” of “goodness”, “toward” their parents. It makes no difference to them that they never call or say thanks, and never spend time with their parents. It makes no difference they never even so much as send a card on their parents’ birthdays or show them any gratitude whatsoever for having raised them and sacrificing so much (in some cases). It makes no difference, because in the person’s mind, they “feel like” they “love” their parents. They sincerely “feel” it. Emotionally.
Therefore, in our culture, physical actions are not really a part of the meaning of “love”. When people say “I love you”, they really just mean “I have this emotional positive feeling of you when I think of you”. However, when times get rough, they are nowhere to be found. But surely, they “love” them, because in our culture, the context of the word “love” is an emotional feeling, a selfish emotional feeling, that has nothing really to do with the other person. In other words, no one benefits from this “love” but the person themselves, because it makes them feel good that they “love” another person.
One of the greatest issues with this translation into the word “love” is that the English language does not have multiple words for different forms of love. Conversely, the Greek and Hebrew languages have multiple words for the word now simply translated as “love”, and these multiple words were different words than that which was used in the divinely inspired writing of the original Bible.
The original Greek words used which now is only translated as “love”
You may be aware of this already, but I will reiterate it for those who do not know. There are four words in Greek that mean “love”.
The first form of love is is φιλέω, pronounced “phileō”. Phileo love is a companionable love which speaks of affection, fondness, or liking. When a person loves with phileo love, they feel “fond of”, or “like” the other person. Emotionally. However, lost in translation, phileo also used to mean “I show signs of affection”, or “I treat kindly”. Kenneth Wuest says, “It is a love that is called out of one’s heart as a response to the pleasure one takes in a person or object.”
The next word for “love” in Greek is ἀγάπην, which is pronounced “agapē”. Agape love desires only good for the one loved. It is a consuming passion for the well-being of others. Agape love is the form of love that God has for us. Agape love delights in giving. Agape love keeps on loving even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and unworthy. It is unconditional love. Perhaps only God can have true and absolute agape love in all things, but we are supposed to aspire to love others in this same way.
The third form of love is called Eros (erōs). You might recognize the word because the pagan Greeks assigned this name to the false god of love in Greek pagan mythology. Eros love is a love that is known to many people, because it is a physical love. It is a sexual love. Eros is where our word “erotic” is derived from. In a marriage, Eros love is experienced. Eros is a love that is an emotional involvement based on physical body chemistry.
The foundation of Eros love is some characteristic in the other person which pleases you. If the characteristic would cease to exist, the reason for the love would be gone, the result being, “I don’t love you anymore.” What they really mean is that they do not feel sexual attraction anymore. It’s a good thing that this isn’t the only kind of love, because when people get old and sexually dormant, love would cease to exist. Yet marriages can continue until death even in the absence of eros love.
The fourth form of love is στοργή (storgē) love. Storge love is the natural love between for example a mother and a child. It is instinctual, biological. Often it is involuntary. Storge love is also called “empathy”. There are people today who have never experienced forms of this love, especially orphans who have no children of their own. Storge is a natural affection or natural obligation for another, and may even be applied toward a pet in some cases. For example, a dog owner may feel a natural obligation to feed their dog. This is storge love.
When most people read our modern translations which just say “love never fails”, they likely are thinking of the type of love which is phileo love. In fact, even further, people in our culture only think of even part of phileo love – the emotional part which you “feel”, and does not include any physical actions.
Why the Bible does not really say “love” in our cultural context
However, now I will get into why the Bible does not say this. The Bible does not really say that “phileo love never fails”; but rather what the Bible really says is “agape love never fails“. Look for yourself in the Greek version of 1 Corinthians 13. This interlinear Bible is effectively our modern concordance. You can compare the original Greek and Hebrew languages to see which words were really used. I love that website (in a phileo type of love!), and use it often to read the original Bible.
In any case, you will find very clearly that throughout the chapter, Paul used the word “agape”. This means that when people read the word “love” today in our society and believe it to mean that “emotional feeling” they get when they think about someone they like – this is absolutely not what the Bible says.
The King James version alone translates an effective translation that more accurately portrays the true meaning of this chapter. Instead of using the word “love”, which would be wrong in our cultural context, the KJV version uses the word “charity” throughout the chapter. Now read again this same chapter from above, except in the King James Version. While reading, think of the word “agape love” and think about what “charity” really means – physical actions toward another, and absolutely not some meaningless “emotional feeling” toward another like in our modern context.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Charity. Not love.
Notice how the word “love” was not even written once in the entire chapter. When Paul was writing 1 Corinthians 13 through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he did not write “love” as our modern culture interprets it. In fact, what he really meant was something much closer to “charity”, although even this cannot fully grasp agape love, since we have no word in English that means “agape” as in the original Greek.
This is because God does not want us to merely have some emotional feeling toward another without actions. Why? Because that is not really love. It is not love as God intended it when he spoke through Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. God did not say “love” as in our modern context. Instead, the closest true word we have is “charity”, which directly implies a physical action of giving or helping or doing. Not just feeling. It seems that the King James version was the only true and accurate translation of this chapter for modern English speakers.
Keep this in mind the next time you think or say or hear “I love you” or something like that. Do you really? If so, let’s see it in your actions. Words are meaningless without actions. Like Paul said in verse 1, “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.” We can say “I love you” all we want, but if we do not have “charity”, an unconditional love that is absolutely and always paired with some good physical action, not just a thought, then we are wasting our breath because the words are meaningless.
No one has been able to get a roof over their head or been able to feed themselves or their children through the words “I love you” devoid of any charity. No one’s day has been made better besides perhaps a slight emotional uptick by a stranger saying “I love you” yet doing nothing for them besides the words. Truly, even a smile is an action (although not enough). Would you call smiling charity? Perhaps if you are in a smiling ministry where you smiled at strangers to brighten their day. However, smiling and well-meaning toward someone while doing nothing isn’t going to help people, and is it not going to show any true love to them.
To “love” others with true agape love – you must take action
It is no wonder that people today are desperate for love and starved for love. It is because people today are not being shown any love. Words are meaningless without action. But even words are absent from most people who “love everyone”. Why? Because no one is following what the real Bible originally said in 1 Corinthians 13.
People think by sending out some “feeling of love” into the universe, they are somehow magically doing their part in “loving everyone”. Yet, they turn a blind eye when they see a homeless person, they ignore their friend who texts them looking for an emotional connection, they refuse to invite anyone over but their closest friends, they do nothing for their family members even when they have the means and their family is in desperate need, and so on and so forth. Why? Because plainly and simply, they love no one but themselves. That “emotional feeling” is doing nothing for anyone but themselves.
Therefore, by feeling phileo love toward others and the world but refusing to take any actions, people are being utterly self-seeking and refusing to love. That feeling is not love. It is not the agape love that God commands us to have in 1 Corinthians 13. So when will people start truly loving people? Love is only love, it is only the agape love that God spoke in the Bible, when it is paired with physical actions. If you don’t actually do anything but only feel, you are not loving. So show charity, not necessarily philanthropy, but charity as in agape love.
So get off your couch and stop being so stingy and selfish! You might be surprised that you experience more joy by reaching out to others than by keeping everything including your time, money, and energy all to yourself. There are so many people out there needing your agape love (not your “heartfelt emotional feelings”, people don’t care about that because it doesn’t help anyone but yourself), and yet here you are keeping it all to yourself. Why? It doesn’t do you any good to keep it all to yourself. After all, as Jesus said, “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
So go, and do. Stop “feeling” and do. Stop relying on your own emotional feelings, and take action. Love others through action, because this is the only true love. Even to those who have hurt you, harmed you, make you “feel bad”, and even your enemies. Matthew 5:44 says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”. Again’ agape love is used! Jesus wanted us to physically do good things for our enemies, not just have a positive emotional feeling for them.
So go out and show the true love of Jesus which is real physical actions of goodness, kindness, and generosity toward others. Get off your couch and turn off your TV and computer, and go out and show true agape love with your actions. Surely, God will reward you many times over for your faithfulness.