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In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists behaviors which keep humans from inheriting the Kingdom of God.

Galatians 5:19-21 | NIV

[19] The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; [20] idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, **selfish ambition**, dissensions, factions [21] and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that **those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.**

Presuming "selfish ambition" in Galatians 5:20 Does not include : telling people to become like yourself (Galatians 4:12) - like Paul does,

What does "selfish ambition" mean in Galatians 5:20?

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What does "selfish ambition" mean in Galatians 5:20?

It means an ambition not from God. Peter did that in Matthew 16:

21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Out of his concern for Jesus, Peter said what he said here. Jesus labeled that as from Satan. Satan put this selfish thought of Peter in Peter's head.

Jesus continues:

24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

We are to deny our selfish ambitions which are inspired by Satan.

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The key is to look at the context. Here is a brief outline of Paul's argument:

Galatians 5:16–24 (LEB)

16 But I say, live by the Spirit, and you will never carry out the desire of the flesh.

17 For the flesh desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another, so that whatever you want, you may not do these things.

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are sexual immorality[...] selfish ambition [...]

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, [..]

24 Now those ⌊who belong to Christ⌋ have crucified the flesh together with its feelings and its desires.

Notice that Paul contrasts the works of the flesh (which are evident) with the fruit of the spirit (that is inward and invisible) - the observable, emotional, works of the flesh with the invisible, spiritual works of the Spirit.

Those who are carnal, who only see the flesh, will only see the works of the flesh, both in themselves and in everyone else (they will project their own carnal nature onto those who they judge according to the flesh - Romans 2.1). Those who are spiritual will bear the fruit of the spirit.

We are both flesh and spirit, with the spirit at war with the flesh, so that we cannot accomplish what we want - e.g. the spirit frustrates the ambitions of flesh, causing our plans to fail, even as the flesh poisons our good works, so that when we try to do good, it is tainted with self-glorification (Romans 7.21). As an example of this selfish ambition, consider the selfish prayer in Luke 18:

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. Luke 18.11 KJV

Which is identical to the selfish prayer in the Talmud, y. Ber. 4:2, I.1.B:

[B] And when he exits [the study hall] what does he say? “I give thanks to thee, Lord my God, God of my fathers, that you cast my lot with those who sit in the study hall and the synagogues, and you did not cast my lot with those who sit in the theaters and circuses. For I toil and they toil. I arise early and they arise early. I toil so that I shall inherit [a share of] paradise [in the world to come] and they toil [and shall end up] in a pit of destruction.

The moment the prayer shifts from focusing on God to focusing on the self or assessing the self, it became tainted with selfish ambition.

But the spiritual person - that is, the person who pays all attention to God and not to himself or others - when he does do good, is not even aware of what he is doing - his works follow him [Rev 14.13], behind him, out of his own sight and out of his awareness (Matt 6.3, Matt 25.37-39).

Therefore Paul urges his followers to crucify the flesh, with its feelings and desires, as nothing good can come of dwelling on yourself or others, or anything else that happens on the earth. Instead we are to keep our mind on "things above" (Col 3.2), listening and waiting on God with faith and patience.

There is only one area where Paul tells us to focus on ourselves, and that is to examine ourselves to know that God is in us (2 Cor 13.5). Once that examination is complete and the issue is settled, then there should be no further self-examination or self-judgment (1 Cor 4.3). This is why, in the famous "Fool's speech" (2 Cor 11.22-12.10) where Paul was assessing himself for the purpose of teaching a lesson, he pointed out that he was acting like a fool repeatedly by even assessing himself at all. Moreover he was clear that he resolved to judge no one after the flesh (after what can be seen) in 2 Cor 5.16.

Similarly, we cannot focus on others either, because in order to determine whether someone else has selfish ambition or whether they are bearing the fruit of the spirit, one must have knowledge of their heart. That is, Paul's verse is not supposed to be a weapon to judge other people (which would miss the whole point) allowing the Galatians to have one more accusation to levy against each other, but is rather a warning to the Galatians to keep their own minds focused on God only. Do not judge other people based on what you can see with your eyes, and do not judge yourself at all. Keep your mind fixed solely on God.

Therefore "selfish ambition" - like all the other works of the flesh - is the result of keeping your heart focused on something on the earth, something that can be observed, rather than on heavenly things.

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The term "selfish ambition" had been used six times in the New Testament. Four times by Paul (2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20; Phi 1:17 & 2:3) and two times by James (James 3:14 & 3:16).

Paul had his meaning of selfish ambition conceivable in his epistle to the Philippians, where he wrote;

1:15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.

1:16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.

1:17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.

2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,

2:4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Let's try to understand what is the difference between "selfish" and "selfish ambition".

Based on Paul's description, "selfish" would only mean someone just look for their own interests (Phi 2:4), but "selfish ambition" would mean someone look for their own interests in a way to hurt others. (Phi 1:17). So Paul used the term "selfish ambition" to describe a kind of acts of the flesh (Gal 5:20) that is an act of selfish contains malicious intention.

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