9. Final Exhortations Regarding Idleness in the Church (2 Thes. 3:6-18)
If left untreated, disorder in the church, like physical ailments, will only increase causing greater and greater sickness and pain. Because of a wrong response to the imminent return of the Lord, the problem of idleness touched on briefly in 1 Thessalonians, seems to have only grown worse. There were those in the church at Thessalonica who had evidently stopped working and were running about in excited idleness from house to house in anticipation of the Lord’s return at any moment. This wrong response to prophetic truth not only led to idleness and the lack of ability to support oneself and family, but it had resulted in becoming busybodies. It appears they also expected the church to support them. It is entirely possible that it was this group that had been spreading some or perhaps all of the false teaching discussed in chapter 2 of this epistle. Further, they were probably guilty of spreading rumors or gossip about others in the church. As Wiersbe puts it, “They had time on their hands and gossip on their lips, but they defended themselves by arguing, ‘The Lord is coming soon!’”94
In the previous epistle, Paul had warned these busybodies to stop such idleness and get back to quietly working with their own hands (1 Thess. 4:11-12). He later urged the believers there to admonish the unruly or undisciplined (ataktos, “out of order, disorderly, undisciplined”). In view of this chapter, it is clear that either they had not heeded Paul’s admonishment or they had not listened to the admonishments from the church body.
This is a sad illustration of either wrong interpretation or wrong application of biblical truth. The New Testament does teach the imminent, any-moment possibility of the return of the Savior for His church; it is imminent, but no one know when He will return. It could be today, but it might not be, as has been the case for hundreds of years. The principle is that we are to live as though it will be today while working and continuing on in life as though it won’t be for years to come. We must hold both truths in proper balance. As seen previously, the coming of the Lord with all that it means to believers is to be a strong motivation to godliness and obedience to the directives of God’s Word through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Misinterpretations and misapplications of the truths of God’s Word can cause endless trouble. History records the foolishness of people who set dates, sold their possessions, and sat on mountains waiting for the Lord to return. Any teaching that encourages us to disobey another divine teaching is not Bible teaching.95
The Exhortations of the Apostolic Team
3:6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition you received from us.
The seriousness of this exhortation is seen in the use of the word “command,” in Paul’s appeal in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the nature of the command “to keep away.” “Command” is parangello, “give orders, command, instruct with authority.” It is was used for various directions given from persons in authority like human rulers, Jesus, and the apostles. Paul used this strong word in connection with the idle busybodies in the first epistle (4:11 and the noun form, parangellia, in 4:2) and in this epistle in 3:4, 6, 10, & 12. Parangello was a military word often used of a command by a superior officer. The lesson here is simple: the church is engaged in spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10ff) with each believer a soldier whom God has enlisted into His army. When we fail to follow the directives of the Savior, it leads to disorderly conduct which hurts our effectiveness (see 2 Tim. 2:3-4; 1 Tim. 1:18). Thus, the apostle used another military term to describe the problem at Thessalonica. Some of the saints were “undisciplined,” literally, “out of order” or “out of rank.” “Undisciplined” is ataktos, an adverb meaning “disorderly, out of rank” (see also 3:11 and the verb form, atakteo, in 3:7). This family of words was used of soldiers who were out of step or moving in disarray. For another passage that uses military metaphors, we might compare by way of contrast two words the apostle used in Colossians 2:5 when he wrote, “For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit, rejoicing to see the order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” (emphasis mine) Here the apostle was thankful for the orderly way the Colossians had closed ranks and presented a solid front of soldiers in standing for the cause of Christ. “Order” is taxis, “a fixed succession or order.” It was a military term used of a rank or orderly array. “Firmness” is stereoma, “a solid body,” and so “steadfastness, firmness.” But this too was a military word and continues the military metaphor and means, “a solid front,” a closed phalanx as it was used of Roman soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder with their spears pointing forward.
In this regard, Paul appealed to the Thessalonians in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Commander-in-Chief of the army of God. In essence, then, these commands came by the authority of Christ. Paul was passing on authoritative instructions as an apostle, one sent by the Lord Jesus to plant or establish churches and to lay the biblical foundation for the body of Christ (Eph. 2:20). To disobey Paul’s directives was to disobey the Lord.
“To keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition you received from us” spells out the specific command. “To keep away” is the middle voice of the verb stello. It originally meant “to set, place, arrange, fit out as an army for an expedition”; hence “to prepare, equip.” Then it came to mean “to bring together” or “to gather up” as when one furls the sails of a ship (so used in Homer). Hence, “to shrink back, to restrain, check,” and in the middle voice, “to restrain or withdraw oneself, hold aloof, avoid.”
“From any brother” or literally, “from every brother” stresses the principle and need of impartiality. The tendency in exercising church discipline is to show partiality to some because of their standing in the community or in the church, or because of financial status, or simply because they are very likable people, but such cannot purify and toughen up God’s army for spiritual warfare. As we are warned in 1 Corinthians 5, a little leaven eventually leavens the whole lump.
“Who live an undisciplined life and not according …” pinpoints the specific problem. “Who live” is literally, “walking in a disorderly way.” “Walking” (present continuous tense of peripateo, “to walk about”) is a common idiom for one’s way of life or conduct in general. “Undisciplined” is the adverb ataktos, mentioned previously, a vivid word that describes the nature of their behavior. “… The word means to play truant. It occurs, for instance, in the papyri, in an apprentice’s contract in which the father agrees that his son must make good any days on which he absents himself from duty or plays truant. The Thessalonians in their excited idleness were truants from duty and from work.”96 Such truant behavior was foolish because of the natural consequences and because no one knows when the Lord will return. But it was more than just foolish, it was rebellion because it was contrary to the tradition of truth handed down to the Thessalonians previously (1 Thess. 4:11, 12; 5:14) and to the teaching of the Word in general. In essence, this constituted walking in disobedience to the Word of God. This was rebellion and no excuse could justify such behavior. So strong measures were needed.
What does the Bible teach about manual (or mental) labor? For one thing, labor was a part of man’s life before sin entered the scene. God gave Adam the job of dressing and guarding the Garden (Gen. 2:15). Although sin turned labor into almost hopeless toil (Gen. 3:17-19), it must never be thought that the necessity for work is a result of sin. Man needs work for the fulfillment of his own person. God created him to work.
Have you noticed that God called people who were busy at work? Moses was caring for sheep (Ex. 3). Joshua was Moses’ servant before he became Moses’ successor (Ex. 33:11). Gideon was threshing wheat when God called him (Jud. 6:11ff), and David was caring for his father’s sheep (1 Sam. 16:11ff). Our Lord called four fishermen to serve as His disciples, and He Himself had worked as a carpenter. Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3) and used his trade to support his own ministry.
The Jews honored honest labor and required all their rabbis to have a trade. But the Greeks despised manual labor and left it to their slaves. This Greek influence, plus their wrong ideas about the doctrine of the Lord’s return, led these believers into an unchristian way of life.97
Later, the apostle will show that the issue here was ultimately one of unwillingness. The circumstances of life (sickness, loss of a job, economic conditions) sometimes keep people from working, so the question was not one of inability but unwillingness (see vs. 10, “if anyone is not willing to work, …”).
The Example of the Apostolic Team
3:7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 3:8 and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you. 3:9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 3:10 For even when we were with you we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.”
The apostle was always deeply concerned about his own example of Christ-likeness for he knew that a student will become like his teacher (Luke 6:40). His great concern for this is evident in his statement in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 when he said, “… for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved (literally, “came to be”) to be among you for your sake.”
In these verses, then, Paul was able to turn to his own example and that of his team. “Imitate” is the Greek mimeomai from which we get our word “mimic.” As mentioned previously (see exposition on 1 Thes. 1:6-7), this word has no negative connotation as the word imitate sometimes does in our language. As a quick review: The idea of this word is that of modeling, becoming like, or following after another. It stresses the nature of a particular kind of behavior modeled by another that we are to follow. In the New Testament, it has a spiritual, ethical or moral emphasis and is generally linked with an obligation to a certain kind of conduct or character as a product of faith in the directives of the Bible and the example of the apostles or other leaders who were also following the Lord Jesus as our ultimate example. It is linked to certain ones who are living examples for the life of faith and the character of Christ.
This the apostle states is a moral and logical obligation. He said, “you must imitate us.” “Must” is the impersonal verb dei, “one must, ought, it is necessary.” It may refer to the compulsion of duty, of law, of custom, or of an inner necessity that grows out of the situation. Here it is the moral necessity that arises out of the fact these men were their spiritual mentors who followed the Lord Jesus and who had provided them with a godly example.
Thus, Paul added, “because we did not behave without discipline among you, …” As always, though they had the right to receive support from the Thessalonians, they set aside that right in order to provide a fitting example of Christ-like behavior (see vs. 9). This not only provided an example to new Christians, but was a way of answering the false accusations of their accusers (see exposition of 1 Thes. 2). “Without discipline” is atakteo, “to be out of order, out of line.” It’s the verb form of the word used and discussed above in verse 6.
Paul himself was not idle. His readers could verify this claim (“you yourselves know,” v. 7; cf. 1 Thess 2:1; 3:3; 4:2; 5:2). In imitating Paul, they would be imitating the Lord himself (1 Thess 1:6) because Paul’s life was so carefully patterned after his Lord’s. He did not loaf at Thessalonica (v. 7b), nor depend on others to supply him with free food (v. 8a). He supported himself in spite of much fatigue (“laboring,” v. 8) and many obstacles (“toiling,” v. 8; cf. 1 Thess 2:9) in order to relieve the new Christians in Thessalonica of the burden of maintaining him.
Paul did not have to exert himself so tirelessly. As an apostle, he had “the right to such help” (v. 9; cf. 1 Cor 9:4 ff.; 1 Thess 2:7) from his converts. He decided, however, to forego this privilege and leave an example for them to imitate.98
With verse 10, the apostle reinforced their example by reminding them of their previous instruction as it pertained to working and supporting oneself and family. As mentioned previously, the instruction here is aimed at those who are “unwilling to work.” Also, this instruction was not just a matter of some cultural tendency they may have noted in the Thessalonians, but of a fundamental biblical principle. God is Himself a worker. After all, He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. As such, He designed a working vocation as a necessary part of life even before the fall and He expects each of us to be involved in some form of vocation that we might support ourselves, find a sense of significance and destiny in our labor, and be a productive member of society. Thus, denying support to those who are unwilling to work is not cruel, but becomes a basic form of discipline to force idlers into reality and into the responsibility of becoming productive people. This kind of discipline is tough love and provides a protection to both the individual and to the society.
Further Exhortations of the Apostolic Team
3:11 For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. 3:12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat. 3:13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 3:14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this epistle, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, to put him to shame. 3:15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
In verse 11, the apostle first mentions the reports they had received regarding those who were leading an undisciplined (idle) life. Two things characterized their behavior: doing no work at all and as a further result, meddling in the affairs of others; they became busybodies rather than busy self-supporting workers engaged in a productive occupation. By working they would become a blessing to themselves and to others, but their idleness had led to the opposite. The Greek word for “meddling” is periergazomai, from peri, “around,” and ergazomai, “to work, labor.” It literally means “to work around or in a circle.” It thus came to mean “to do something useless, to be busy, but accomplishing nothing.” You have heard people say or perhaps said this yourself, “I feel like I have been going in circles.” What we mean is obvious. We mean that, though busy, we feel like we have been getting nowhere fast. Though not mentioned here, 1 Timothy 5:13 describes the results of such behavior, “And besides that, going around from house to house (perierchomai, “to go around or about”) they learn to be lazy; and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies (periergos, “a meddler, busybody,” the noun form of periergazomai), talking about things they should not.
Almost every culture has its saying about idleness. The Romans said, “By doing nothing, men learn to do evil.” Isaac Watts wrote: “For Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do.” The Jewish rabbis taught, “He who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to be a thief.”99
My mother and grandmother use to say to me, “Idleness, Hampton, is the devil’s workshop.” And of course, they were right. Now, based on the reports mentioned in verse 11, the rule of verse 10 is reinforced in verses 12-15 with three more instructions.
First, in verse 12 and with the words, “in or by the authority of the Lord Jesus,” Paul specifically addressed the idle meddlers who are commanded (parangello) and urged (parakaleo, either “to comfort, encourage,” or as here, “to exhort, appeal to, urge”) “to work quietly and to provide for their own food to eat.” This instruction gives us further insight into the behavior of these idlers. First, their false views about the return of Christ had evidently led them into a kind of feverish excitement which they were seeking to spread from person to person as they went about from household to household. Second, they eventually ran out of money and food and began to expect others to support them. Thus, Paul commands and urges them to settle down and then to go back to work.
But what if these idlers again refuse to follow these instructions (see 1 Thes. 4:11-12; 5:14)? With this possibility in view, the apostle gives instructions to the rest of the Thessalonian Christians to show them how they should deal with idlers who might not obey these instructions (3:13-15).
(1) They are urged to not grow weary in doing what is right. “Grow weary” is the verb enkakeo, “to become tired, weary,” and then “to loose heart, despair.” One is often the result of the other. In struggling with a matter one often becomes weary which may then lead to loosing heart. This suggests that some might lose heart in struggling with their idle brothers. Doing what is right would include remaining examples themselves by working, by reprimanding the disorderly idlers of verse 10, and by refusing to support those who refused to work. To continue to support those who refuse to work is wrong for all concerned.
(2) The apostle speaks to the matter of church discipline (verse 14). This is a subject that is too often avoided today, but not without serious consequences to the body of Christ. It is applied here to those who refused to obey their instruction, which clearly illustrated a rebellious spirit and a wrong relationship to the Savior Himself. Thus, specific and tough measures were needed. First, they were to take special note of such people. “Take note” is the Greek semeioo, “to mark, note.” It’s in the plural and in the middle voice which suggests “note for oneself,” with the implication that all the members of the congregation were to take responsibility for following these instructions. Church discipline will have little effect if not followed by the whole body. Second, they were not to associate closely with an idler, one who refused to work. The verb here is sun-ana-mignumi, a triple compound word meaning “to mix up together,” and then “to associate closely with.”
There is a difference between acquaintanceship, friendship, and fellowship; for fellowship means “to have in common.” For obedient saints to treat disobedient Christians with the same friendship they show to other dedicated saints is to give approval to their sins.100
In essence, these idlers were to be ostracized from intimate fellowship with the believers of the assembly as a means of shaming them into repentance and change. This should not be confused with formal excommunication as in Matthew 18. Rather it appears to be more a matter of group disapproval and social ostracism. In our country today, Christians will often just change churches to avoid such discipline, but this was a serious thing for believers at that time in a heathen society and the same would apply to many countries today where believers are faced with serious persecution for their faith.101
(3) They are not to be regarded as enemies, but to be admonished as brothers. That this was not total excommunication is suggested by the third instruction given in verse 15, “Yet do not regard (hegeomai, “to think of, consider, regard”) him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” “Not as an enemy” means “not as one who is opposed to Christ.” “But as a brother” could be taken to mean “as though he were a brother,” but the idea is “because he is a brother, i.e., a fellow member of the body of Christ.” This draws our attention to a couple of important principles in church discipline. First is the fact that the goal of church discipline is never punishment, but tough actions of love done with a view to reformation and restoration to fellowship with Christ and the body of Christ. Second is the issue of extremes. Rather than being balanced as with the Lord Jesus who was full of “grace and truth,” people tend to go to extremes—they are either too lenient or too harsh. Thus, Paul stresses they were not to be treated as enemies, but admonished as brethren, as fellow believers.
“Admonish” is noutheteo, “to admonish, warn, instruct.” The fundamental idea is to put sense or biblical wisdom into the mind so that it changes behavior. It includes an admonishment to change through instruction regarding the principles, consequences of sin, and godly aims, etc. “To sum up, the recalcitrant idler was not to be treated as an enemy cut off from all contacts, but was allowed to continue in a brotherly status. So lines of communication were kept open for continued warnings about his behavior.”102
The Necessary Enablement of the Lord
3:16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you all. 3:17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter. 3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
The Prayer for Peace and the Lord’s Presence (3:16)
With these words the apostle not only brings the epistle to a close, but these words also remind us that spiritual change in the lives of men, or ministry to people of any kind that effectively brings peace at all times (continually) and in every way (in all circumstances) is not something we can do or experience alone. It requires the supernatural and gracious hand of the Lord Himself. “Himself” is emphatic and stresses this very point. Here the Lord—a reference to the Lord Jesus (cf. vs. 18)—is called the Lord of peace. They, as all believers, had come to have peace with God through faith in the Lord Jesus (Rom. 5:1). Further, faith in Christ also means the capacity for peace with one another (Phil. 4:9; Col. 3:15), and in one’s own heart through the gospel message that brings people into a vital relationship with the Savior, the Prince of Peace, the Peacemaker (see Phil. 1:7; Eph. 2:14-17). Here the Lord Jesus is called “the Lord of peace” because He is the author and source of peace. If they or we are to know real peace, we must walk in intimate fellowship with the Savior and be in obedience to His commands (see John 14:27). Interestingly, in Paul’s concluding remarks in the first epistle he used the phrase, “the God of Peace” (1 Thes. 5:23) and now he concludes with “the Lord of Peace,” which certainly demonstrates his estimation of Christ as being Himself God.
The closing emphasis or focus here on “peace” and “at all times and in every way” also reminds us that life is loaded with trouble and circumstances that can unsettle us, as it had occurred in the church at Thessalonica. But whether it is trouble brought about from false doctrine or from undisciplined believers, it is the Lord Himself who gives us peace and such will only occur when we allow Him to have the place of Lord and reign in our lives.
In the statement “the Lord be with you all,” Paul was praying that they might experience the power and blessing of the Lord on their lives for spiritual growth and well being. There is a sense in which the Lord is always with us. He has in fact promised that He is always with us and will never leave nor forsake us (cf. Heb. 13:5; Matt. 28:20), but we may ignore His presence and fail to experience it. So the apostle prays that this might not be the case.
The Personalized Benediction (3:17-18)
With verse 17, the apostle picked up the pen of his amanuensis (the one writing the letter as Paul dictated it to him) and closed with this personal greeting and sign of authority and authenticity.
3:17, 18 Paul was dictating to an amanuensis up to 3:17 (cf. Rom 16:22; 1 Cor 16:21; Col 4:18). At this point he took the pen into his own hand to add a closing greeting. Though he undoubtedly did this quite frequently, he has called attention to it only here, in 1 Corinthians 16:21, and in Colossians 4:18. The greeting in his own hand, “which is the distinguishing mark” in all his letters (v. 17), includes also the benediction of v. 18. Apparently Paul followed this practice consistently, expecting churches where he had served to recall his distinctive handwriting. It was particularly needed in this Epistle as a deterrent against any future attempt to forge a letter in his name (cf. 2:2). The practice was customary in ancient times (Frame, p. 312). When Paul says “in all my letters” (v. 17), he does not mean just the letters previous to this, for he was also to follow this procedure later. Neither is the expression to be limited only to books found in the NT, because he is known to have written other Epistles besides these (cf. 1 Cor 5:9). The handwriting furnished a key by which his Thessalonian readers could recognize a spurious Epistle bearing his name.103
With verse 18, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all,” we are reminded of (1) the necessity of the grace of the Lord Jesus for the Christian life, and (2) with the word “all,” God’s desire that all Christians experience this in life. He had commended some and censured others, but his final benediction was upon all. There is here a final appeal for unity, obedience, and blessing including, of course, the idlers.
Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians have stressed the return of the Savior and shown us how this should and should not impact our daily lives. The fact that the Savior is coming again and could come today should promote godly living and give great peace, comfort, joy, and encouragement to endure the trials of life. Such stability is one of the key purposes of prophecy. By contrast, it should never lead to the kind of idleness or to a kind of idle feverishness as had occurred with some at Thessalonica. When this occurs, it hurts the cause of Christ by causing ridicule from the world and unrest within the body of Christ.
When believers act like the idlers at Thessalonica, they become disobedient soldiers who are out of rank and a poor testimony for the Savior. It shows they are indifferent, if not walking in direct rebellion against the specific instructions of the Word and the commands of their Savior. As disorderly Christians, they are a cause of disorder in the church, but church problems are always individual problems and can only be solved when Christians start listening to the instructions of Scripture.
The Lord is coming again and He is coming for His church, the bride of Christ. May we live properly in the light of His any moment return, which means obediently to Scripture. Come quickly Lord Jesus.