Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)

Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)

Mark says that because of envy, the chief priests sought to kill Jesus.
Mark says that because of envy, the chief priests sought to kill Jesus.

Did you know that, biblically speaking, there is a difference between envy and jealousy? In fact, envy was considered one of the great evils of the ancient world, while jealousy, in the proper context, was considered a natural and proper response. Many people use these words interchangeably today. So what is the difference and what does this have to do with the Cross as our title suggests? First, we will look at the biblical meanings of the words jealousy and envy, and then, in honor of Passion Week, we will notice the connection between envy and the Cross.

The Greek word for jealousy in the NT is “zelos” from which we also get our word “zealous.” One can be jealous of something or jealous for something. In other words, context determines whether the jealousy spoken of is a positive or negative quality. Jealousy for something speaks of the positive quality of protecting and nurturing what naturally belongs to us. If a husband or wife doesn’t care about their spouse having other lovers, we would (rightly) consider this bizarre. After all, when two people have committed themselves in marriage to belong only to each other, then a husband or wife has the right to be jealous for that special relationship they share. Similarly, we are jealous for our children. If we wanted a baby-sitter for the evening, we would not consider just asking any stranger off of the street to watch them. Our jealousy for our children demands that we find someone we can trust. When the Scriptures speak of God being a jealous God (e.g., Exod. 20:5), it is this positive kind of jealousy that is in mind. The relationship between God and His people is often described as a marriage relationship in both the Old and New Testaments, and God has gone to extreme measures (i.e., the sacrifice of His Only Son), to make that special relationship possible. Therefore, God is jealous for us, a perfectly natural expression of His deep love and concern for us.

The Negative and Dangerous Emotion of Envy

On the other hand, the word “zelos” can also be used in the negative sense of “to be jealous of,” or in other words, “to envy.” As mentioned above, context is the determining factor. So what exactly is envy? A popular definition of envy is, “my pain at your gain.” Envy involves a grudging feeling toward another person that desires to take what is theirs, or, at the very least, to see them stripped of what they have and to perversely enjoy their being deprived of it (“If I can’t have it, no one should” kind of attitude). Besides the word “zelos” sometimes carrying this meaning in the NT, another Greek word “phthonos,” (translated “envy”) always carries a negative connotation.[1]

Not only is envy a negative emotion, more importantly, it leads to destructive behavior. In particular, there are at least six harmful ways that envy came to expression in the ancient world: 1) ostracism; 2) gossip and slander; 3) feuding; 4) litigation; 5) the evil eye (placing a curse on someone); and 6) homicide.[2] The danger with envy is that it is not simply an internal emotion; it has a way of finding expression in harmful behavior, and this is why it is considered such a great evil. Thus, envy always seems to find a place among those NT passages that list a catalogue of the worst sins (e.g., Rom. 1:29; Gal. 5:21).

Sketched against this background, Mark’s statement, concerning the trial of Jesus before Pilate, takes on even more sinister overtones as he writes, “For he [Pilate] knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10). This declaration, easily overlooked by moderns, is a resounding condemnation of the Jewish leaders’ intentions and motives. It was not a concern for holiness or righteousness that motivated these men, according to Mark, but one of the baser qualities of human nature: envy.

This story can challenge us to check our motives. These religious leaders could put on a false facade of spirituality. They could pretend to act for God and for the good of the community, but in reality their actions were motivated by the flesh. God sees through our actions to the heart of the matter. As Hannah sang long ago: “For the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed” (1 Sam. 2:3b).



[1] One possible exception to this is James 4:5 which is a notoriously difficult passage to translate. But see, for example, the NET, which is probably the correct way to translate this passage.

[2] This information is taken from Anselm C. Hagedorn and Jerome H. Neyrey, “It was out of envy they handed Jesus over’ (Mark 15:10): The anatomy of envy and the Gospel of Mark,” JSNT, 69, 1968 (p. 32).

2 thoughts on “Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.