When Envy Turns Deadly

Holy Week is a wonderful time for meditation and reflection. In addition to prayerfully considering the actions of Jesus in his triumphal entry and his temple cleansing and cursing, it’s worth reflecting on the actions of some of the other key players in the climax of God’s redemptive drama. When we consider the motives and deeds of the Jewish leaders, not only do we see the unfathomable wisdom of God in accomplishing his purposes through lawless men, but we also gain a clearer view of the evil lurking in our own hearts.

Jesus came as life for the world, bringing light to all men. He came as the bearer of God’s blessing, full of grace and truth. And yet, when he came to his own, “his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Why? What could possibly possess the pastors and shepherds of that day to reject and crucify their Messiah and King?

Out of Envy They Delivered Him Up

For Pontius Pilate, the answer was obvious. Envy. Malicious, bloodthirsty envy. When Pilate offers to release Jesus to the crowds, as was his custom at Passover, he did so because he desired to pour salt into the cankerous hearts of the Jewish leaders. “He perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up” (Mark 15:10). Careful attention to the words and deeds of these leaders reveals much about the malignant workings of this ancient sin.

First, envy is closely linked to the lust for praise and the acclaim of the crowds. While Christ’s ministry had long been a threat to the Jewish leaders, the raising of Lazarus marked a new stage in their hostility. By calling the dead man from the grave in a very public way, Christ glorified himself in the sight of many people (John 11:6), so that many believed in him (John 11:45). The divine sign was so manifest, and its effectiveness so pronounced, that when Jesus arrives on his humble donkey, people flock to him, with many testifying to his power and grace (John 12:12–18). The Pharisees see God’s blessing in and through Jesus, and all they can see is the crowds departing from them. “Look, the whole world has gone after him” (John 12:19).

Second, envy hides behind a façade of care and compassion for others. When the Sanhedrin gather to discuss what is to be done about Jesus and his miraculous signs, they rationalize the need for action by concern for the people. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48). Caiaphas seizes upon this reasoning, and ironically prophesies that it is better for one man to die for the people, rather than the whole nation perish (John 11:49–50). Envy cannot bear to show its face, so it hides behind false pretenses. “It’s for the good of the people,” rationalizes the high priest.

Third, despite these self-deluded justifications, envy is never truly hidden. The true motives of the Jewish leaders are evident and manifest. Pilate had no trouble perceiving the seething envy and carping jealousy beneath the chief priests’ accusations. When we are eaten up with envy, its presence will be obvious, despite our best efforts to conceal our wicked pettiness.

Finally, the lust for praise and the bitterness of envy demand action. When the Pharisees and chief priests gather together, the main question is, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs” (John 11:47). The sidelong glances and cancerous comparisons mean that “something must be done.” John the Baptist may be content to decrease when the Bridegroom arrives and “all are going to him” (John 3:26). Not so the Jewish leaders. John may humbly embrace the reality that everything is given from heaven (John 3:27), but the Pharisees will fight tooth and nail to retain their position and influence. They will not go quietly into the good night. This is their time, their hour, and if a wonder-working prophet from Nazareth gets in their way, then he must be fully and finally attended to. Crowds must be stirred up, lying witnesses must be called, show trials must commence. Envy will not rest until its rival is beaten, bloodied, and strung up on a Roman cross.

The Death of Envy

This then is what the Gospels show us about the motives of Christ’s enemies in his final days. A lust for acclaim and an entitlement to the praise of the masses, seething envy masquerading behind a mask of politically calculated compassion, though not so masked that shrewd men do not perceive it — all of these issue forth in slander, lies, and murder.

But in seeing what Pilate saw — that it was out of envy that Christ was delivered up — let us not fail to see even deeper and grander motives at work. The envy of the chief priests was not the ultimate reason that Christ was delivered up. The early church confessed before God and men that Christ was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). God’s hand and God’s plan stood behind the arrogant raging of the Gentiles and the jealous plotting of the Jews (Acts 4:27–28). The lawless envy of the chief priests was God’s appointed means for accomplishing his gracious purposes for the world.

Christ died at the hands of envious men that he might deliver men from the same envy that nailed him to the cross. The jealous and malicious, the resentful and bitter, the covetous and the entitled — all of us have hope this Holy Week, because the One delivered up by our envy was raised up by the good pleasure of his Father.