I Corinthians 13:4: “Charity envieth not.” That is the text of the message today.
In I Corinthians 13, we are dealing with the section that treats the practice of love. In the first verses the apostle speaks of the preeminence of love—that without love we are nothing and achieve nothing. And in the last verses of the chapter he will come to the permanence of love—that when we get to heaven many things will be gone (prophecies, tongues, knowledge), they will vanish away. But love will abide.
In the middle verses (3-7), the apostle gives us fifteen characteristics of the behavior of love, that is, what love looks like in a world under God, in our horizontal, human relationships. We have looked at the first two: love is patient, love is kind.
Now we come to the third. With the third of the characteristics here, the apostle begins to describe love in the negative—what it is not. The first two were positive: love is patient, love is kind. Now it does not envy. It is important, as we think about these descriptions of the behavior of love, to understand their context. And understanding their context, we see that what the apostle is issuing here in this beautiful poem and description of love is really a rebuke of the church at Corinth, a rebuke that comes to us as well. We can expect by this word today to be shown something of our hearts. There is more envy in each of us than we are willing to acknowledge.
The Greek word for “envy” refers to a burning or a heat. It is the word from which we get the word in the English, “zeal.” This word is used in the New Testament both positively and negatively, depending on the context. It can be a good thing in some contexts and a bad thing in other contexts. When it is a good thing, it is to burn with zeal for something that is right. To burn with a jealousy and a strong desire for something. In the last verse of the previous chapter, this word is used in the positive. I Corinthians 12:31: “But covet earnestly the best gifts.” It is the same word. And it means, be zealous for the best gifts, have a strong desire for them, burn for them. We understand this when we think of the jealousy of love. A husband is appropriately jealous for the love of his wife when she is unfaithful to him. Or you see this in a child’s desire for a parent’s affection when the parent is showing affection to a strange child. The child wants to climb on the lap of that parent. So this can be a positive heat, a burning zeal born out of love.
But envy, and the idea of envy as it is described in the text here, is obviously negative. It is something bad. This is an envy or zeal that is born not out of love but out of hatred. Envy is this: It is the passion that begrudges another’s advantage.
It is a passion, that is, it is an intense burning. And it is an intense burning that goes beyond the burning of desire, because envy has to do not just with wanting something that you do not have, but it has to do also with the person who has that. So, I say, it is born out of hatred. Envy not only wants what someone else has, but it wishes or desires some harm toward that person because he has that thing.
Envy is of course over more than material possessions. Envy despises and is displeased with the success of another, or the ability of another, or the popularity of another, as well as the wealth or possessions that another might have. That is envy.
How does it manifest itself? What do we see? Well, this can be said, and I will say this as a general rule: wherever human depravity is present, and another person is doing well, you will find envy. The Scriptures are replete with examples of such envy. Cain envied his brother Abel and murdered him. Sarah envied Hagar because God had given to her a child. Rachel envied Leah for the same reason. Aaron and Miriam envied Moses because God spoke to Israel through Moses. Saul envied David because David received the accolades of the women when he returned from war: “Saul has slain his thousands; David his ten thousands.” The princes of Babylon envied Daniel and his position. Haman envied Mordecai because Mordecai would not bow down to him. The chief priests envied Jesus. In his mission travels, whenever Paul would come to a synagogue, we read that the Jews envied him for his teaching and his influence.
Envy manifests itself. Certainly it is something that can be observed around us in the world. In Ecclesiastes 4, Solomon says that what motivates all work and all success is envy (v. 4). He says that work and success come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. Romans 1:29 tells us that the natural man, wicked men, are full of envy. So beauty and popularity and wealth and success are envied. It is a curious thing, if you think about it. A person might be quite content with his life the way that he is living it and then somebody else moves in next door or somebody else comes into his life and this person has just a little more, or is just a little more popular, or this woman dresses just a little better, or is just slightly better looking. And suddenly this person who was, from all appearances, quite content, now is filled with envy and begins to despise the other and to covet what he possesses. And this person who, perhaps, we would think was happy and joyful in life, suddenly is bitter and miserable. All because of envy.
It is observable, is it not, in the world in which we live. But, sadly, Christians are also tempted to this sin. The Bible warns against envying the wicked. In Proverbs 23:17: “Let not thine heart envy sinners.” The Bible warns us not to envy the wicked—your boss, the neighbor, the popular, the celebrities. Do not envy them.
But, sad to say, believers are not only tempted to be envious of the wicked, but their envy often enters into relationships between believers. And that is what the apostle is especially addressing here in I Corinthians 13. In the story of Joseph, we see envy showing up in a believing home. One brother has a nicer coat than the other brothers as a token of his father’s love and favor. And it turns into envy and murderous hatred.
There is a warning there, is there not, to parents. You can encourage envy and hatred in your home by favoritism. Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son is received with forgiveness and restoration, the older brother is filled with an envy and he withdraws himself from his family and his younger brother because of that envy. It can enter into Christian relationships and even into a Christian home.
Envy also comes between believers in the church. And that is certainly what we see in I Corinthians and the church at Corinth. This is one of the main things that the apostle is addressing in this book—they are of a party-spirit. One says I am of Paul, another, I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas; and then those people who claim to be super-spiritual say, “We don’t need men preachers. I am of Christ.” The apostle is addressing that party-spirit, that envy. And that envy showed itself especially in Corinth. We have seen this in chapter 12 in the coveting of gifts, the prominent gifts, the language gifts, the miraculous gifts. These apostolic gifts become a reason for division in the church. You see this division in the church among the disciples as well. When Jesus is coming to the end of His ministry and speaks of His kingdom, His disciples want the prominent place at His right hand in His kingdom. And Jesus has to rebuke them.
And, of course, it comes into the church today and comes between believers today as well, and sometimes in the church in the most trivial things. The apostle in I Timothy 6:4 warns Timothy against the foolish disputing and strife over words. Trivial things. It can come into something as simple as a potluck, when your dish was more popular than mine, and there is an envy that rises up in the hearts. Or, your children dress better than mine, or their temperaments are different than my children’s temperament. There is an envy that can arise between believers over such trivial things. It manifests itself not only in the world, but between believers and in believers against the world of unbelief.
We want to go beyond the description of envy, though, and see that envy is ugly. Proverbs 27:4 puts it this way: “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous, but who is able to stand before envy?” There is a power in envy. We speak sometimes of the color of envy. We speak of someone being green with envy. Now, you do not find that idea in the Scriptures, but what it means is this, that envy is sick, that envy is ugly; and, definitely, that is biblical. We can see this in two directions as we think of what envy produces. As it manifests itself we see that it is ugly. But also, as we consider envy and what it shows about the interior of the heart of man again, we see that it never stands alone. Envy always leads to something else. In Acts 17:5, when the apostle came to Thessalonica, the religious leaders of the city were stirred up against him with envy. And we read there that envy led to an uproar in the city. Now, think about that. Think of a riot in the city. Where did it start? It started with envy. We have to be watchful. Envy can produce such things.
Ultimately, envy will produce murder—getting rid of the one that annoys you. All these examples that I referenced earlier demonstrate exactly that. Cain murdered his brother. Joseph’s brothers had a murderous hatred for him. Saul sought the life of David. Haman wanted to kill Mordecai. The princes of Babylon tried to find a way to get rid of Daniel. The chief priests and the scribes crucified Jesus Christ. The Jews wanted to kill Paul on his mission journeys. Envy leads to murder. It may not show itself as the act of murder in the church, but it is there. Another form of murder, and Paul is very sensitive to this.
Envy and strife. Paul puts those together very often in his writings—Galatians 5:20, II Corinthians 12:20, Romans 13:13, I Timothy 6:4, I Corinthians 3:3—envy and strife. Strife is conflict that really shows itself in bitter fighting. That is strife. One person envies another. Hatred comes between them. It turns into a conflict. The two argue openly, or their argument becomes open. And people begin to line up behind them and soon you have complete division. Over what? Envy. And it could have begun with something very trivial.
Envy is ugly. Envy turns ugly. It produces what is ugly. That is because envy has a contaminating power. Envy, which is often directed at others is really a poison that one is drinking oneself. Proverbs 14:30 talks about envy as rottenness in the bones. It is like a cancer that consumes you, a bitterness that overtakes your soul. It is ugly.
But it is ugly not just in what it produces and in what we see as a result of envy, but envy is particularly ugly because it provides a window into the soul of man and into the depraved heart of man. In Titus 3, where the apostle speaks of conversion and deliverance from sin, he says this: “We ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another.” This is part of conversion. It is deliverance from this bitter cancer of envy.
So, we have a window into the soul of the natural man and see the ugliness of the depravity of man’s heart. Envy is an expression of pride, of selfishness. It is the idolatry of the depraved human heart that sets affection on self rather than God. So it is a heart-issue.
Now, if we think about that, is this not where the Word of God is living and powerful and a discerner of the thoughts and the intents of the heart? Do we not see this bitter envy in ourselves, and as we see it, standing before the law of God (love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself), are we not exposed to our misery so that we must confess: “Yes, I am prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor.” Then, what that shows us is our need of a Savior and our need of the grace of God and of forgiveness, our need of the renewal, the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. We are self-worshipers. We despise others as we seek our own advantage.
That really brings us to the cure for envy. What is the cure? It is the grace of God and Jesus Christ in the gospel. Forgiveness and cleansing. It is only as we are born again, as the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit—only then do we begin to put God first in our thoughts and in our living. And only then do we begin to love others for the sake of Christ and to realize that this world is not all about me and my advancement. It is only as those who have received and experienced the love of Jesus Christ, the love of a Savior who looked not only on His own things but on the things of others, who, in the mind of Christ, gave up all His own rights and privileges as He came to the cross. Only as we know that love do we begin to put away this hatred and this desire for harm and this self-love.
As we stand before the Word of God, we need not only to see that there is forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ and renewal by the grace of God so that we are turned away from the self-love and this hatred of the neighbor, but we need also to understand the need for repentance of this sin. This sin is one of the sins that has been labeled a respectable sin, one you can get away with without too much notice. Who is going to address this? I am untouchable in this area of my life. Do not slander me or tell me that I am envious. And yet, as we stand honestly before the Word of God, this is uncovered, this is exposed in our heart, is it not? We are envious, we despise others for their advantage. If we would just think for a little bit of someone about whom we spoke an unkind word or that we were tempted to slander, or someone whom we despise in some way in our hearts, and examine it, we will find that, in our hearts, there is an envy toward that person. We do not want him to have an advantage over us. It is not always about things. We may just observe the apparent ease or the obvious joy that another has in life. Then, what do we do? We miss the things that God has given to us and we despise the other for what he has. Think again of the older brother in the parable of Jesus. He despised his brother. He withdrew, he had bitterness. And he wanted to turn it into a fight.
This is what is exposed in us in this message. Is there envy in the church? Is there envy in your family? Is there envy in your heart against another? We need repentance. And we have to remember this too, that repentance is (and this is the very biblical idea of repentance) change. It is putting off the old man, putting on the new man. So when we repent of envy, and we put it away, we must put on something else. What? Gratitude, praise, and love. Envy despises another for what he has been given by God, and envy ends up despising God because He has not given that to me.
Gratitude. Gratitude is being grateful for what God has given to me and rejoicing with those who rejoice. Praise. We ought to praise God for His sovereign goodness in what He gives and how He distributes to others. We ought to praise God for His goodness to others. Praise Him. So, to repent of envy, rejoice with those who rejoice and praise God as He gives. And, third, love. Gratitude, praise, and love—this is the change. And here it is very clear, is it not? In the text itself, love and envy are mutually exclusive. Where love for another is, envy for that one cannot be. That is because in the very basic love, love seeks the welfare, the good, of the other. And that is the opposite frame of mind to envy. Envy wants to seek and see the ruin of the other. But love seeks the good and the welfare of the other. So love.
Charity envieth not. When we experience God’s love, we will not be bothered by the prosperity of others. With the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, our minds will be on better things, higher things, things not seen, rather than the trivialities of this present evil age.
Charity envieth not. Amen.
Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. We pray that as we consider ourselves before it, we may be those who live in a true repentance, putting off this work of the flesh and being clothed in the love of Jesus Christ also as we express and manifest that in our lives with one another. In this way, keep us from strife, keep us from evil thoughts, harming others, or seeking their disadvantage, and help us to be those who, in true love, seek the good of one another in the church of Christ and also in our love for those whom the Scriptures call our enemies. We pray these things in Jesus’ name, and for His sake, Amen.