The Apostle Paul had affirmed for the Galatian Christians the power of the Gospel of Jesus to save without recourse to observing the Law of Moses. Yet Paul’s concerns were never only about what they believed; their belief should inform their thoughts, feelings, and actions, as illustrated in Paul’s contrast between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:17-25. Paul considers the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul had begun with challenges prevalent particularly in the Greco-Roman world, especially relating to sexuality: sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, and sorcery. Paul continued with the kinds of sinful attitudes and behaviors which cause great distress in relationships: enmities and strife. He continued, according to the same line of thought, with jealousy.
In English, jealousy is defined as:
1. That passion of peculiar uneasiness which arises from the fear that a rival may rob us of the affection of one whom we love, or the suspicion that he has already done it; or it is the uneasiness which arises from the fear that another does or will enjoy some advantage which we desire for ourselves…jealousy is awakened by whatever may exalt others, or give them pleasures and advantages which we desire for ourselves. Jealousy is nearly allied to envy, for jealousy, before a good is lost by ourselves, is converted into envy, after it is obtained by others. Jealousy is the apprehension of superiority.
2. Suspicious fear or apprehension.
3. Suspicious caution or vigilance, an earnest concern or solicitude for the welfare or honor of others.
4. Indignation (Webster’s Dictionary).
As indicated in the definition, “jealousy” and “envy” are closely related, and in common use often confused. Jealousy involves the suspicion or fear that another would take away something which we currently possess; envy, which Paul would mention soon afterward in Galatians 5:21, involves the desire to have what another has. To this end, we are jealous if we are the ones who have; we are envious if we want what another has. The jealous person is convinced of the envy of others.
The word translated in Galatians 5:20 as “jealousy” (some other versions “emulations”) is the Greek word zelos:
1) excitement of mind, ardour, fervour of spirit
1a) zeal, ardour in embracing, pursuing, defending anything
1a1) zeal in behalf of, for a person or thing
1a2) the fierceness of indignation, punitive zeal
1b) an envious and contentious rivalry, jealousy (Thayer’s Lexicon).
As we can see from Thayer, zelos means “zeal.” Paul commended the Corinthian Christians and Epaphras for their zelos in 2 Corinthians 7:11, 9:2, and Colossians 4:13. Yet Paul also warned the Roman and Corinthian Christians as he did the Galatians against zelos in Romans 13:13 and 1 Corinthians 3:3; James the Lord’s brother considered zelos the fruit of demonic wisdom in James 3:14, 16.
How can the Apostle Paul both commend and condemn zelos? We could get flustered by the challenge, or we can consider it an invitation for deeper meditation. From Thayer’s definition we can tell how zelos is a passion: a great desire for something. The fact the passion can be both commended and condemned most likely speaks more to how we direct the passion than the passion itself.
The zelos which Paul commends, most often translated as “zeal,” desires what is good regarding the object of passion. As Christians, our greatest passion ought to be for God and the advancement of His purposes in Christ, as proved true of Jesus in John 2:17. We have reason to believe it was the extinguishing of this passion for God which endangered the standing of the church in Ephesus before Jesus in Revelation 2:1-8. Christians also ought to have passion to assist one another in love, either laboring together in advancing the purposes of God in Christ like Epaphras in Colossians 4:13, or in care and benevolence for one another in 2 Corinthians 7:11, 9:2. We could view this passion as a “holy jealousy,” a passion for the beloved in God and doing what God would have done, not unlike God’s own jealousy as an expression of His covenant loyalty (Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 4:24).
The zelos which Paul condemns, most often translated as “jealousy,” is a disordered distortion and perversion of “zealous” passion. Jealousy seems to exist when passion meets fear, insecurity, or covetousness. The Sanhedrin heard of all the powerful acts of God accomplished by the Apostles; they proved jealous in their fear of losing standing and renown among the people, and had the Apostles arrested (Acts 5:16-17ff). James rightly identified this disordered passion in the demonic “wisdom of the world”: if it is worth having, so the story goes, others will thus want it, and you have to be afraid of the envy of others to your own harm (James 3:14-18). It is a story as old as Abraham, who thus feared for his life among the nations regarding his wife Sarah (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18).
In Acts 13:45, the Jewish people saw all the Gentiles who came to gladly hear the Gospel of Jesus, became jealous, and opposed Paul’s message. Their passion for God and hostility toward those who were different from them led to such a tragic result (cf. Romans 10:2). Paul testified to having experienced the same passion: he persecuted the people of God on account of his zeal for the traditions of his ancestors (Philippians 3:6).
We can gain much from this contrast, for all of us have a desire or passion as it relates to ourselves and others. When we maintain a healthy disposition about ourselves, what we have, and others, this passion manifests itself as love and zeal for God, for His purposes, and for the good of those we love and all of those around us. Yet when our disposition turns unhealthy on account of fear, insecurity, chauvinism, hostility, or indignation, this passion devolves into jealousy. While jealous we cast aspersions on the character and purposes of others; jealousy proves toxic in relationships because it erodes trust. Jealousy also tends to feature a desire for control, either of objects or persons, and leads us to want to hold on ever more strongly to whatever object in our lives we presume others desire. In the process, we either make an idol of that object, or bleed it of the life, love, and joy it would bring to us. We cannot love those of whom we prove jealous, for we are concerned that whatever good they enjoy will come at our expense, and they might well take away the object of our jealousy. Even our passion for God can be thus corrupted into jealousy, as took place with Israel according to the flesh. We can easily become convinced of our election and the assured condemnation of the other, and zealously persecute and alienate in the name of Jesus, while acting entirely contrary to His purposes (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9).
All relationships require some passion for the good of the beloved. Any relationship can be fouled whenever fear or insecurity turns zeal into jealousy. May we trust in God in Christ and strive to maintain a healthy zeal and passion for God’s purposes in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry