In Galatians 5:19-21, the sin of envy is mentioned along with 16 others by the apostle Paul as one which, if practiced, will keep one from entering the kingdom of God. There may be some that just don't place a great deal of emphasis on this particular sin. Yet it is listed in verse 21 just before murderers. Of all the sins that could have delivered our Lord and Savior to be delivered to the cross, it was the sin of envy that is mentioned in Matthew 27:18. There has been much writing and lessons presented on the sin of adultery which is mentioned in the same text (Galatians 5:19), but very little has been written on the subject of envy. It would do us all so much good to find out more about this word "envy" to know how serious a sin it really is.
Envy is the Greek "phthonos." "It is the feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing of the advantage or prosperity of others; this evil sense always attaches to this word (Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, New Testament, p. 204). It is further defined as: "having hatred or ill will; to look askance at, in upon; a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another's advantages, possessions, etc.; resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires; desire for some advantage, quality, etc. that another has" (Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition).
Every time the Greek word "phthonos" is used, it is always used in an evil sense with the possible exception of James 4:5. Some interpret the verse to mean "God's intense love for man causes him to be 'envious' for man's friendship" (Baker's Dictionary of Christians Ethics, p. 213). But this interpretation is doubtful. It most likely means the human spirit, rather than the Holy Spirit. There are nine New Testament verses which uses the word envy "phthonos." The following New Testament verses (NKJV) contain this word:
Matthew 27:18, "For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy."
Mark 15:10, "For he knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy."
Romans 1:29, "being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers,"
Galatians 5:21, "envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."
Philippians 1:15, "Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will."
1 Timothy 6:4, "he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions."
Titus 3:3, "For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another."
James 4:5, "Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously (envy - KJV)"?
1 Peter 2:1, "Therefore, laying aside all malice, all guile, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking."
There are an additional six verses of scripture in the King James Version (Acts 13:45; Rom 13:13; 1 Cor 3:3; 2 Cor 12:20; James 3:14,16) which uses the word "envy" besides those listed above. However the Greek word for the word envy in these passages is "Zelos." The Greek word "Zelos" means "zeal or jealousy," and is translated "envy" in the King James Version. It is to be distinguished from "phthonos," and, apart from the meanings "zeal" and "indignation," is always translated "jealousy" in the Revised Version. The distinction lies in this, that "envy" desires to deprive another of what he has, "jealousy" desires to have the same or the same sort of thing for itself" (Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, p. 204).
"Envy" and "jealousy" are to be distinguished because they are not used interchangeably. They come from two different Greek words. Jealousy, in its proper use, can produce an admirable devotion to what is pure and holy. "Phthonos" is always an ugly word that denotes "envy," "ill-will," or "malice." Envy is what leads an individual to attack another simply because they have prospered in some way.
There are several Bible examples of envy but perhaps the two most noted examples involve Jesus and David. The Jews were the ones who delivered Jesus to be crucified because of envy. The text says, "For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy" (Matthew 27:18). As mentioned earlier, of all the sins that could have been committed to deliver Christ to the cross, it was the sin of envy that caused it to happen. "Phthonos" sent our Lord and Savior to the cross. Those Jews were filled with a desire to deprive Jesus of what he had. They were ready and willing to attack him simply because of whom he claimed to be. Thankfully, he endured such a cruel act and went to the cross on our behalf so that we can have our sins forgiven.
But now let us learn how envy "phthonos" plays out in the life of an individual. The childhood story of David and Goliath has captivated thousands of youngsters and adults alike through the years. It also captivated the heart of king Saul, who then took young David into his abode and treated him very well. It was here that David met Jonathan, Saul's son, and a great friendship was formed. But it was a friendship that would not last, not because of David or Jonathan, but because of Saul. David became quite a warrior and the people began to recognize his accomplishments. In 1 Samuel 18:7 we read these words, "...Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands." Then the text says, "...Saul was very angry, and the saying displeased him; and he said, 'They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed only thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?' So Saul eyed David from that day forward" (1 Samuel 18:8-9). What a contrast of life. On one hand we find a wonderful, caring relationship between David and Jonathan, and on the other, a man who wanted nothing more than to see David die!
So what happens? Saul is burning within himself. It is tearing him up that David, and not he, is getting all the notoriety. Saul is the king! Saul wants the fame and honor of all the people. But he is not getting it. This inward hate will now possess him and he will take every opportunity to remove David permanently so that he will once again be the one at the center of attention! Envy takes root right in the heart of man. Once rooted, it will now breed more and more sins! Saul now alienates himself from God as he becomes selfish, self-willed and full of his own pride. "He who is apt to feel indignation, feels pain at those who are undeservedly successful; but the envious man, going beyond him, feels pain at every one's success" (Aristotle).
Envy is a sin that grows in the background of another's preeminence. The seed of envy is the fruit of another person's accomplishments. It is the dread that the accomplishments of others will reach above our own. This is exactly what Saul saw in his new rival David. It says in 1 Samuel 18:30, "....And so it was, whenever they went out, that David behaved more wisely than all the servants of Saul, so that his name became highly esteemed." David was a man that acted with prudence and with caution and as a result he prospered. "Base envy withers at another's joy, And hates the excellence it cannot reach" (Thomson). When David prospered, it angered Saul that much more.
There are many features that mark the sin of envy. When one is full of envy, he becomes unreasonable. Saul could have still been a good king, a respected king, but he chose to "come apart" and became unreasonable in his actions. Ingratitude is also a fruit of envy. David did a great thing for Israel by choosing to fight the giant Goliath when no one else would even dare too. Through the help of God, David conquered this giant of a man, and then later fought battles that he was sent on by Saul. In addition, he soothed the distressing spirit of Saul with the music of his harp (1 Samuel 18:10). So where's the gratitude? When one is entrenched in envy, there is no gratitude. "Envy is the worst of all passions, and feedeth upon the spirits, and they again upon the body; and so much the more because it is perpetual, and, as it is said, keepeth no holidays" (Bacon, 'Essays'). Once envy entered the heart of Saul, he was on a downward course in his relationship with God and man. It destroyed him and prematurely ended a beautiful relationship between David and Jonathan.
One may become resentful because another's work appears more successful. An elder may be envious because another elder has more ability. Envy can be found everywhere today and that includes in the church. But wherever it appears, it is still envy, it is still sin. What is our reaction to those around us who have a high position in the ranks of society? How many times have we uttered, "I wish I had his job and pay?" Have we ever thought of doing those corrupt things that another does if we could get the fame and fortune that he receives? I have read that one of the main reasons young people want to sell drugs is that they see the guy toward the top riding around in the limousine with fine clothes and all sorts of material possessions. They want to be a big man like he is. But little do most young people realize that the "road to the top" is often paved with sin and trouble beyond measure. We as parents may have a problem with not being able to mature out of feeling that "I want to be like that rich guy."
Materialism breeds greed and envy. It may start so innocently. Dad may come home one afternoon and say "I just saw the new car that Joe bought. I just have to have a car like that no matter what." And then for the next several weeks dad is preoccupied with how to get that car while everything else around him (his job, family, church, friends), is neglected. School age children may come home dejected because they don't have something that a fellow classmate has. Envy dwells within the heart. It is a cancer that in a short time will eat away the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). "Do not let your heart envy sinners, But be zealous for the fear of the LORD all the day" (Proverbs 23:17). We must give caution to this terrible sin of envy. It led Jesus to be crucified because of its passion; a force that comes from within and directs our thinking and actions. It affects the entire man, for whatever is of the heart comes forth in life.
Dwight L. Moody once told the fable of an eagle who was envious of another that could fly better than he could. One day the bird saw a sportsman with a bow and arrow and said to him, "I wish you would bring down that eagle up there." The man said he would if he had some feathers for his arrow. So the jealous eagle pulled one out of his wing. The arrow was shot, but it didn't quite reach the rival bird because he was flying too high. The first eagle pulled out another feather, then another--until he had lost so many that he himself couldn't fly. The archer took advantage of the situation, turned around, and killed the helpless bird. Moody made this application: if you are envious of others, the one you will hurt most by your actions will be you. This was true of the Jews who delivered up the Christ to be crucified and it was true of Saul who was bent on living his life to kill David. This is also true of anyone today who becomes envious of others. We must cultivate the kind of mind that the apostle Paul mentions in Romans 12:16-18: "Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."
We should not envy. Envy is hurtful. When envy takes over, it is the person filled with this sin that ultimately pays the price. One cannot be content, and full of peace and joy in his life when his mind is occupied with envy. The Christian needs to know that life does not consist in the material things but rather the spiritual. If we will put the following passages to use in our life, then we will not have to be concerned with envy making its home in our heart. "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:2) "'And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:30-31).
In order to cure or prevent the evil passion of envy, one needs to seek a renewed heart and dwell often on God's divine love. We must learn to be content with what we have been blessed with by God. The apostle Paul wrote, "Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Timothy 6:6-8). We need to entertain lowly thoughts of ourselves while at the same time learning to admire the excellence in others, and regarding it as if it were our own.
Solomon hit the nail on the head when he wrote by inspiration, "A sound heart is life to the body, But envy is rottenness to the bones" (Proverbs 14:30).