Question: "What does the Bible mean when it refers to emulations?"
Answer: To emulate is to imitate. Emulations, as used in some older translations of the Bible, is an obsolete word meaning “jealous competition” or “ambition driven by envy.” Sinful emulation is a greed-driven desire to “imitate” someone’s success or share their wealth; it is a “keeping up with the Joneses,” immersed in covetousness.
In the KJV Bible, a form of the word emulations is used in two places: one positive and one negative. Galatians 5:19–21 lists the works of the flesh. Verse 20 mentions the sins of idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, and emulations, among others. In other versions of the Bible, such as the NIV and ESV, the word jealousy replaces the KJV’s emulations.
Emulation is not the brief rise of jealous feelings we all have from time to time. The sins listed in Galatians 5:19–20 are those that define a person. Verse 21 goes on to say that “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Sinful emulations are jealous thoughts and actions that cause a person to live in a state of hatred and envy.
In another passage, a form of the word emulations is used by Paul to refer to a beneficial “jealousy” that would cause his Jewish brothers to seek God. Romans 11:14 says, “If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them” (KJV). Paul is speaking of the fact that he had been sent by God as a missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 28:28; Romans 11:13). Because of the Jews’ sense of ethnic superiority and divine privilege, they were horrified at the idea that their Messiah had also come to save Gentiles. Paul’s hope was that, as his Jewish brothers watched Gentiles entering into a covenant relationship with God, they would be provoked to jealousy and realize their error in not accepting Jesus as their Messiah. In that case, emulations would have a positive outcome.
When we emulate someone, we imitate him or her because we admire some character quality or behavior. Paul repeatedly instructed new believers to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17). Our goal as Christians is to emulate Jesus as He emulated the Father (John 5:19; 14:12). Sinful emulations, in the KJV’s usage of the word, are related to covetousness, strife, and strong, negative emotions (see Proverbs 27:4). Hearts full of emulations prompted Joseph’s brothers to treat him ill (Genesis 37:4). Emulations led to Gehazi’s downfall (2 Kings 5:15–27). The lies told by Ananias and Sapphira were likely due to that couple’s sinful desire to attain the place of honor that Barnabas had earned in the church (Acts 4:36 — 5:10). In emulating Barnabas’ generosity, however, Ananias and Sapphira failed to emulate his honesty.
When we desire to emulate the wicked or harbor jealousy toward others, we cannot live in love and humility as God commands (Ephesians 5:2; Psalm 73:2–3). Sinful emulations will not accomplish God’s purpose in our lives, and we are to avoid allowing an attitude of envy or jealousy to live in our hearts.