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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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AMBITION.—The word ‘ambition’ is not found in the Authorized Version or Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885, but the propensity signified is, of course, represented in the New Testament. Its derivation is Latin [ambi, ‘about,’ and ire, itum, ‘to go’], meaning a going about in all directions, especially with a view to collecting votes. It thus means to have such a desire as to make one go out of one’s way to satisfy it, and, in a secondary sense, denotes the object which arouses such desire and effort. As a psychological fact, Ambition may be defined as a natural spring of action which makes for the increment of life. Ethically speaking, it takes its colour from the object towards which it is directed. In ordinary use it implies blame; but in true Christianity, where the utmost is given for the highest, it is otherwise.

In the Epistles the verbs διώκω, σπουδάζω, ζητέω are used figuratively for this propensity (Philippians 3:12, 2 Peter 3:14, Romans 10:3); but perhaps a nearer synonym is ζηλόω with its corresponding substantive ζῆλος (as in 1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Corinthians 14:12; 1 Corinthians 14:39, cf. Weymouth’s NT in Modern Speech), though ζῆλος in a good sense is generally translated ‘zeal,’ and in a bad sense ‘jealousy,’ both words being of rather broader significance than ‘ambition.’

It is in accordance with the literary characteristics of the Gospel narratives that such an abstract idea as ambition can be found only under some picturesque phrase, e.g. ‘lamp of the body’ (Matthew 6:22-23), ‘food’ (John 4:34). ‘To cut off the right hand’ or ‘to pluck out the right eye’ is the expression used by our Lord for destroying one’s dearest ambition, whether it is controlling one’s energies or directing one’s imagination (Mark 9:43 f., cf., as Trench points out, the use of ὀφθαλμὸς πονηρός [Matthew 6:23, Mark 7:22] for ‘envy’).

But although there is no explicit reference to Ambition in the NT, it is so characteristic a fact of human nature that a large part of the teaching of Christ might be exhibited in relation to it. And because it is capable of being bent towards lofty as well as sinister, or at least selfish ends, Christian ethics seems from one point of view to be the exaltation of Ambition, from another its deposition.

1. For Ambition.—Christ’s method was to use the fact of Ambition and purify it by exercising it on the highest objective. The call to the first disciples was an appeal to their ambition for a higher life: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19). He gave primacy to an ambition for the ends of the Kingdom over all worldly ambitions in the words: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). He compared the earnestness of true followers with the ambition of a pearl-merchant (Matthew 13:45), and encouraged the religious ambition of the young ruler by trying to turn it into a new and deeper channel (Matthew 19:21): ‘If thon wouldest be perfect, sell … give … and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’ It was part of His teaching to set before His disciples a prize to aim at (Luke 22:29-30, Matthew 5:13-14, John 12:26); and He expected them to go out of their way in devotion, and to all lengths in fidelity (Luke 9:62; Luke 14:26 f., Luke 19:15-19, Matthew 25:14-23), in order to win the truest praise and most lasting success. ‘The Christian moral reformation may indeed be summed up in this—humanity changed from a restraint to a motive’ (Ecce Homo).

2. Against Ambition.—But it may with equal truth be said that the aim of the life and teaching of Christ was to depose Ambition from its ruling place. He was always rebuking (1) inordinate desires for any kind of selfish satisfaction, whether they were associated with greed (John 6:27 ‘food that perisheth’; Luke 6:24, and esp. Luke 12:15-21) or with pride (Matthew 6:1-4 ‘glory of men,’ Matthew 20:25-28 ‘lord it,’ Matthew 23:5-12 ‘seen of men and called Rabbi’); or (2) even a high-placed desire if it was held thoughtlessly and without counting the cost (Luke 14:28-33 the builder and the king who failed in their ambition; Mark 10:35-40 the sons of Zebedee who ‘knew not what they asked’). Moreover, Christ cut away the very tap-root of Ambition by turning self out of its place at the seat of the motives of life, in favour of a living trust in the Father and an undivided allegiance to Himself. The virtues which are most prominent in the Christian ideal leave no room at all for Ambition in the generally accepted use of the word. For Christianity demands humility (Matthew 5:3 etc., Luke 14:7-11 etc., John 13:12-15), generosity (Mark 12:43-44, Luke 6:30-31; Luke 12:33 etc.), and self-renouncement (Matthew 10:38-39, Mark 10:29-30, John 12:24-26).

On the whole, the influence of Christ’s teaching and inspiration on Ambition has been not to extirpate it, but to control and chasten it by the discovery and establishment of other standpoints, such as the outlook of other-worldliness, the sense of brotherhood, and personal allegiance to Himself.

Literature.—Lightfoot (J. B.), Cambridge Sermons, 217; Moore (A. L.), Advent to Advent, 239; Shedd (W. G. T.), Sermons to the Spiritual Man, 371; Mozley (W. B.), University Sermons, 262.

A. Norman Rowland.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ambition'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​a/ambition.html. 1906-1918.
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