Scripture teaches us that envy is an insidious sin. It is a destructive and soul-rotting force, and has the ability to go anywhere. It is found with the lowly and among the mighty. Envy lurks in slums and struts in kings’ palaces. We need to be far more wary of this sin than we usually are. It is very hard for us to identify when it is working within our own hearts—but when it manifests itself in others, we are on it.
“But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:12–18).
Summary of the Text
Paul has noted earlier that he was imprisoned (v. 7), and he rejoiced in the fact that the Philippians were partakers together with him in his suffering. But he then goes on to note another advantage that had fallen out from his imprisonment. Because he was locked up, the gospel was advanced (v. 12). In other words, they locked up the preacher, and that is what set the sermon loose. The fact that he was chained was known throughout the whole praetorium, as well as elsewhere (v. 13). The praetorium comes from the word praetor, which means magistrate or leader. You could have a praetorium in places other than Rome (e.g. Pilate had one—Mark 15:16), but this usage, together with the reference to the Christians who were part of Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22), indicates that Paul was at this time imprisoned in Rome. Because Paul’s imprisonment had made something of a splash, this was an encouragement to others to take up the task of preaching without fear (v. 14). Paul did acknowledge that some were doing this out of envy and strife, wanting to make things a bit hotter for Paul (v. 15)—but others were doing this same thing from good motives. The envious ones were not sincere, but were trying to make things worse for Paul (v. 16). The word for contention here should be understood as selfish ambition. They were throwing elbows. Paul’s arrest had opened up a lane for them, you see. And if he stayed in prison, that lane would stay open. The true brothers were trying to do the same thing Paul was seeking to do, which was to promote the gospel (v. 17). Remember that the men guilty of this were probably not low-level flunkies—in the flesh it was reasonable for them to think they could replace Paul. But so long as the message was not tampered with, Paul didn’t mind. As long as Christ was preached, he was not only content with this, but also in a state of joy over it (v. 18). As he does later in the book, he gives that word rejoice a double emphasis (Phil. 4:4).
A Recap on Envy
Envy is more than mere jealousy or covetousness. It wants more than simply to have what the other has—it wants the other person to lose it. Envy is therefore spiritual bone rot (Prov. 14:30). There can be a real temptation to envy sinners their “carefree” ways, but don’t do it (Prov. 23:17). Envy is a powerful sin, and who can stand before it (Prov.27:4)? The patriarchs betrayed Joseph out of envy (Acts 7:9). The opposition to the apostles in Acts was envy-driven (Acts 13:45; Acts 17:5). Malice and envy are a true spiritual cancer.
Envy was also the driving force behind the worst crime ever committed. The religious leaders of God’s covenant people were wracked with envy, which is what drove them to reject their Messiah and to crucify him. Pilate knew how court politics worked, and he could smell their envy (Matt. 27: 18; Mark 15:10).
It is at least possible that Judas was driven by envy as well, and in my view, likely. We are not told this explicitly, so hold it loosely. But the incident where Jesus was anointed with spikenard at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany is what apparently moved Judas to the point of his treachery (Mark 14:10). And Judas was the son of a certain Simon (John 6:71; John 13:26), so he may have been from Bethany, and would have known Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus who also lived there (John 11:1). The word for murmured refers to a deep emotion, not just a mild complaint (Mark 14:5), and Judas was the spokesman for the angry disciples (John 12:4). I think Judas thought he was the smartest one in the room and was going to force the Lord’s hand. He had seen Jesus walk on water. He had seen Lazarus raised. He had seen the multitudes fed. He knew that if he arranged a checkmate for the Lord, the Lord would be forced to use His power to (finally) do the right thing and establish His kingdom. When that plan backfired on him spectacularly, he committed suicide over it (Matt. 27:5). The fact that Jesus truly loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus obviously didn’t help (John 11:5). And then there was the fact that Judas had asked Mary out once, back when they were in high school, and she had turned him down flat. Okay, that last one’s not in the text.
How God Crucified Envy
God used the crucifixion of Christ as His instrument for breaking their central tool. When we preach the cross, we don’t just draw the symbol of a cross. So as we utilize the symbol, placing it on steeples and such, we are pointing to something else. And what we are pointing to is the story. When we preach the gospel, we are telling the story of what happened when the Lord was crucified. We don’t just give the condensed ‘theological’ meaning of it, although that is crucial. We tell the story. And that means that, until the end of the world, the central story of all history will be told, and in that story, the central villain is envy. The great antagonist is envy. And this is why, consequently, the death of Christ was the death of envy.
The world runs on envy. The world provokes people to action through envy. The world renames their corrosive envy by other more noble names—like social justice. The world’s economic theories are powered by envy. But the message of the cross, rightly proclaimed, cuts through all of that.
“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”
Galatians 6:14 (KJV)
The only thing we are to glory in, the cross, is that which absolutely mortifies all carnal glorying, which is grounded in envy and selfish ambition.
And so when striving, envious preachers preach, they are cutting their own throats, just as the devil did when he stirred up the mobs to call for the Lord’s blood (1 Cor. 2:8).
So Rejoice When They Try This Kind of Thing
So back to Paul. He is in chains in Rome, and there are professing Christians, preachers, who are trying to augment his trials for the sake of their own ambition. The incongruity does not make Paul cynical. He laughs, he rejoices, and he will continue to rejoice.
The God who in His sovereignty brought so many threads together in the crucifixion of His Son, upending the devil’s kingdom by it, is certainly able to upend all the envious and teeny efforts to supplant God’s appointed representatives. Does this kind of thing happen to us? Of course it does. Preachers and evangelists can be very good at passive aggressive missional work. Should we worry about it? Not a bit of it. The elect are all already secured. Christ already died for them, and nothing can be done to unwind that. God knows what He is doing, and He very clear in what He tells us to do.