Here in verse 14 of James, chapter 3, James says, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition . . . “. Pay close attention to the first four words: “But if you have”. James isn’t saying that it’s a possibility. He’s implying that it is a reality. James has observed this attitude among believers and he is telling them not to glory in it.
Notice three more words in this verse that need to be kept in mind. Those three words are: “in your heart”. That’s where it begins, isn’t it? And that’s where it needs to be dealt with.
James is accusing them of “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition”. The word “jealousy” is not necessarily a bad word. We get our English word “zeal” from the Greek word “zelon” that’s used in this verse. That same word was used of the Lord Jesus Christ in John 2 when He cleansed the Temple of the corruption that was going on inside. It’s a question of motives. Jesus’ motive was to glorify the Father. The jealousy that James is referring to is a “bitter jealousy”. The word “bitter” is the Greek word “pikron” which means “sharp”, “piercing”. The sound of the Greek word, “pikron” brings to my mind the image of an ice pick. The jealous person is pictured as jabbing his rival with it and enjoying the pain and agony that he is inflicting.
Such a jealous person is excessively concerned about himself and resents the good fortune of others. We all have problems with envy at times, don’t we? Even if it’s not obvious on the outside, it’s happening on the inside. We may even envy the success of others when we are successful ourselves.
There’s a legend about a successful Burmese potter who had become envious of the prosperity of a washerman (a laundryman or cleaner). Determined to put this man out of business, the potter convinced the king to issue an order requiring the man to wash one of the king’s black elephants and make it white.
The washerman replied that according to the rules of his vocation he would need a vessel large enough to hold the elephant, whereupon the king commanded the potter to provide one. So the potter constructed a giant bowl and had it carefully delivered to the washerman. But when the elephant stepped into it, it crumbled to pieces beneath the weight of the enormous beast.
More vessels were made, but each was crushed in the same way. Eventually it was the potter who was put out of business by the very scheme he had devised to ruin the man he envied.
This is a very abbreviated version of the story. There are many versions of the full story. My favorite is the one written by Pam Hopper and illustrated by Allan Eitzen. Type “The Potter and the Washerman” into your web browser and you will see it. It is a very amusing story with a good moral lesson to it. You can even find it acted out on YouTube. Enjoy!
So “bitter jealousy” is an excessive concern for oneself, and a resentment for the good fortune of another. Bible expositor and theologian, William Barclay, had this to say about “bitter jealousy” or envy: “As long as we think of our own prestige, our own importance, our own reputation, and our own rights, we will always be envious.”
James also accused his readers of “selfish ambition”. The Greek word is actually a political term. It can also be translated “party spirit”, “rivalry”, or “faction”. It was used to refer to rival schools of thought in the political arena who were heaping abuse on each other. You’ve probably heard the term “mud slinging” used to refer to these kinds of tactics. We are getting very close to an election year here in America, and potential candidates are already canvassing for votes. Have you received any such mail lately? You will very soon!
James’ admonition to those with jealousy and selfish ambition is to “stop being arrogant and so lie against the truth”. Verse 14 is a sequence of events. Warren Wiersbe, in his commentary of James, calls it a “chain of events”. He says: “First there is selfish ambition, which leads to a party spirit and rivalry. In order to ‘win the election’ we must resort to boasting, and boasting usually involves lies.”
If you should find yourself at the first “link” of envy, or you’re already adding links to it, stop now, confess your sin to God and ask for His wisdom and strength before you get wrapped up in those chains and drag others down along with you!
CONSTRUCTION SITE: COMPLETED
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