Colossians 3:5 – “and especially greed (which is idolatry).”
This is an excerpt from the Revised English Version® Commentary.
In most English versions it is unclear if the word “idolatry” refers to the whole list of things in Colossians 3:5, or just the last item, “greed.” Thankfully however, the Greek text is clearer, and from it we can see that the word “idolatry” refers only to the last thing on the list, “greed.” We have tried to make that point clear in the REV.
Before we begin to discuss greed being idolatry, we should discuss if “greed” is the proper translation. Some versions have “covetousness” (ESV, KJV, RSV, YLT), while others have “greed” (HCSB, NASB, NET, NIV). In translating the Bible, our intent must be to try to duplicate the meaning of the original language (in this case, Greek), in the receptor language (in this case, English). While that sounds easy, it is actually often exceedingly difficult. This is due to many factors, one being that most Greek words (indeed, most words in every language) do not have a singular meaning, but rather a range of meanings, which is referred to as the “semantic range” of the word. This means that the task of the translator becomes one of finding which English word has a semantic range that most closely matches the semantic range of the Greek word, and that often becomes a judgment call rather than a clear choice.
In this case, the Greek word that is translated “greed” or “covetousness” is pleonexia (Strong’s #4124 πλεονεξία), and it refers to a person desiring to have more than he needs, or more than his share. The English word “greed” is a selfish and excessive desire to have more than one needs. In contrast, the English word “covetousness” has two primary definitions. The first is simply to have a strong desire for something, apart from any reference to need, or to the abundance one already has, as in “I greatly covet winning the blue ribbon.” This definition of covet can be good or evil, depending on the context in which it is used. The second definition of covet is always evil and refers to wanting something that belongs to someone else, as in, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exod. 20:17). Upon studying the English words “greed” and “covetousness,” it seems clear that the word “greed” is a better match to pleonexia than “covetousness.”
It is not the entire list of sins in Colossians 3:5 that is idolatry, but only the last item on the list; greed. R. C. H. Lenski and J. Lightfoot both point out in their commentaries that the Greek construction of the sentence makes that clear. Thus we should understand that the Word of God teaches that greed is idolatry. By selfishly desiring to take and/or acquire more than we need, we are elevating ourselves in an unhealthy way. Greed makes us the center of our attention: we spend our money, time, and energy on ourselves, when the Word of God says to seek God and His kingdom first (Matt. 6:33). There are different reasons for greed, but one of them is certainly not trusting God to take care of us. Furthermore, a hurtful aspect of greed is that the greedy person is not sensitive to the needs of those who are less fortunate, and who could use what he is needlessly accumulating.
God says greed is idolatry, which alerts us to another important aspect of greed: it is a heart issue, not a “things” issue. Having great wealth is not necessarily “greed,” and there are certainly wonderful people in the Bible who were wealthy, including Abraham and David. True greed is an issue of the heart that is evidenced in the flesh, so we cannot just look at how much a person owns and decide the person is greedy. Idolatry is always an issue of the heart, and sometimes the idol is clearly manifested in the senses world for all to see, while sometimes it is not.
Greedy people who end up with lots of material goods can seem to have confidence or peace from a fleshly perspective, but from God’s perspective, they are really hurting themselves. “I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner” (Ecc. 5:13). It is specifically because earthly wealth promises things like power and safety, but in the end does not deliver those things, that the Bible twice mentions “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matt. 13:22; Mark 4:19). Wealth is deceitful because it promises much but delivers little. The only true safety in life, and the only true fulfillment for the heart, come from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.