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Freeloaders and the Christian Work Ethic (2 Thessalonians 3:6-18)

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October 10, 2010

6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us. 7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 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. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 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.” 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. 12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat. 13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. 16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you all. 17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all (2 Thessalonians 3:6-18).1

Introduction

My friend, Fred Smith,2 used to say, “John Calvin would have been a good golfer – everything that feels right is wrong.” I’d like to take a similar approach by saying, “The apostle Paul would have made a great Puritan – he believed in a Christian work ethic.” I’m in the process of reading a fascinating book entitled, The Puritan Gift, by Kenneth Hopper and William Hopper.3 So far as I can tell, this book is not written from a Christian perspective, but it does show how the “Puritan work ethic” significantly contributed to the success of the American economy (until recently; it is now in the process of being replaced by an inferior business model). There is no better biblical underpinning for the Puritan work ethic than the teaching of Paul in his epistles, and especially in his Thessalonian epistles.

Not only is Paul’s teaching on work readily apparent in our text, it is also desperately needed. I heard Dr. Haddon Robinson say something like this just a few days ago: “Ninety-five percent of all Christians have never heard a sermon on work.” Think of it, a significant portion of our time each week is spent at work, and yet little has been taught on the subject, in spite of its prominence in the Bible. The time to address the Christian work ethic has come, so let us listen well to what the Apostle Paul has to say to the Thessalonians – and to us – about work.

Work is a Subject Frequently Addressed by Paul

Our focus is on Paul’s teaching on work in 2 Thessalonians 3, but we would do well to familiarize ourselves with other texts where we encounter Paul’s Christian work ethic. For the moment, I will merely list a number of texts which you should consult to familiarize yourself with Paul’s teaching about work:

    Acts 17:214; 18:1-35; 20:33-356

    Romans 16:3, 67

    1 Corinthians 4:11-12; 9:1-238; 16:15-169

    2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:7-9, 2710

    Galatians 6:6-10

    Ephesians 4:2811

    Colossians 3:2312

    1 Timothy 3:113; 5:9-1514, 17-1815

    2 Timothy 2:3-7, 1516; Titus 1:12-1417; 2:5, 8-1018

Paul’s Example in 1 and 2 Thessalonians

What makes Paul’s instruction regarding work so forceful is that he practiced what he preached. In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul ties the impact of the gospel that was preached in Thessalonica with the work ethic and lifestyle of those who proclaimed it (which, of course, included Paul):

1 For you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, about our coming to you – it has not proven to be purposeless. . . . 5 For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed – God is our witness – 6 nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others, 7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ;19 instead we became [gentle]20 among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, 8 with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, as to how holy and righteous and blameless our conduct was toward you who believe. 11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his own children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you live in a way worthy of God who calls you to his own kingdom and his glory (1 Thessalonians 2:1, 5-12, emphasis mine).

Paul’s words here carry even greater weight with readers today, for they are supplemented by Paul’s other references to the same practice elsewhere, especially as mentioned in Acts 20:33-35 and 1 Corinthians 9:1-23. Paul frequently set aside his right to be paid for his ministry, choosing instead to labor night and day to support himself and others.

Paul’s Previous Instruction about Work in 1 Thessalonians

Not only did Paul set an example for the Thessalonians to follow; he also gave some very specific instructions regarding work. He particularly focused his attention on those who were undisciplined and did not work:

      9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you. 12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, emphasis mine).

We need to recall that this instruction is given in the context of the believer’s sanctification, and also that these words are not suggestions but apostolic commands (4:1-3ff.). In this text, the believer’s motivation for working hard is brotherly love. (It is not loving to let your brother work hard to support you, when you are not working as you should.) And so Paul commands the Thessalonians to strive to lead a quiet life and to mind their own business (literally and metaphorically).

Why the emphasis on living quietly? Because most labor is not done as well when the worker is carrying on a conversation with others (something like the distraction caused when driving while e-mailing or sending text messages today). Indeed, it is hard to hold a job when you are spending too much time talking and too little time working. Excessive talking (or meddling) seems to have been the reason why some folks were not working. This “busyness in the affairs of others” was a “lion in the road”21 which may have been disguised as “ministry,” but in reality, it was just sanctified loafing.

When I was a seminary student I worked at a factory, along with a number of other seminarians, producing after-market air conditioners for automobiles, trucks, and even tractors. We had a “break” period of 15 minutes, which some stretched to a considerably longer time. “Witnessing” (loosely called) and discussing some of the fine points of theology seemed to justify an exception to the rule, so that the conversations of seminarians could be extended considerably. What could possibly be more important than talking about the Bible?

We turn next to 1 Thessalonians 5:

      12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor22 among you and preside23 over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work.24 Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14, emphasis mine).

As Paul begins to conclude 1 Thessalonians, he urges these saints to recognize church leaders (elders, and perhaps deacons as well). Notice the first thing Paul says which characterizes those who should be formally recognized as leaders – these men are those who “labor hard among them” and who “rule over” them. He then urges the church to “esteem them most highly in love because of their work(verse 13). Thus, one of the things that should characterize leaders in any church is the fact that they work hard at caring for the flock.

Workers and Shirkers in 2 Thessalonians 3

Allow me to make some observations from our text regarding the problem Paul is seeking to correct in our text.

1. This is the third problem which Paul has addressed in 2 Thessalonians. In chapter 1, Paul addressed the problem of persecution. He declared that persecution not only proved the saints worthy of the Lord’s coming deliverance and blessings, but it also revealed that the unbelievers who persecuted them were worthy of God’s coming wrath. In chapter 2, Paul corrected the error that the Day of the Lord had already come by pointing out that those things which must precede the Lord’s Second Coming had not yet occurred. And now in chapter 3, Paul deals with the problem of those who failed to work and thus became dependent on the labors of others.

6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us. . . . 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.” 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 (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 10-11).

2. Those who failed to work were living off of others and were thus unnecessarily depleting the resources of others. Slothful saints were a burden on their brothers and sisters.

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 (2 Thessalonians 3:8).

3. While these undisciplined “moochers” were not working for an income, they were busy doing the wrong things. I like the way the ESV highlights Paul’s wordplay on the Greek term for “work”:

For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies (2 Thessalonians 3:11, ESV; emphasis mine).

This is a very critical observation. The “freeloaders” that Paul is dealing with are not people who refuse work in any and every form. They are people who avoid one kind of work by becoming too busily engaged in other “work.” And to make this even more sinister, they would be inclined to call this other “work” ministry. Paul is clear that these freeloaders are engaged in work, but their “work” is not really productive; it is a pretext for gossiping and causing trouble.

I remember teaching on the sluggard in a series I did in the Book of Proverbs.25 It was then that I realized that sluggards were not people who avoided work altogether; sluggards were the folks who worked very hard at avoiding the “work” which they found too difficult or taxing. I hate to say it, but I believe there are some who go into “full-time Christian ministry” because they are sluggards. Christian ministry as shirkers go about it is “easy,” while working for a living through secular employment is just too hard.

This is a day when young people feel entitled to a job that pays very well and provides all kinds of benefits. But more than this, they feel entitled to have a job that is “fulfilling” and “fun.” In reality, they want employment that avoids the curse which God pronounced on Adam and all men due to sin:

17 But to Adam he said, “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat the grain of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19, emphasis mine).

No wonder there were those in Thessalonica (not to mention everywhere else in the world) who sought some way of escaping the curse of hard labor. But man’s calling and task was to work hard, and thereby to provide for himself and his family. In reality, the Thessalonian shirkers were sluggards.

The problem of misusing one’s “free time” in unproductive ways is clearly indicated in Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding younger widows:

11 But do not accept younger widows on the list, because their passions may lead them away from Christ and they will desire to marry, 12 and so incur judgment for breaking their former pledge. 13 And besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not. 14 So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us. 15 For some have already wandered away to follow Satan (1 Timothy 5:11-15, emphasis mine).

4. When freeloaders fail to work, they often distract others from doing their work as well as they should.

For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others (2 Thessalonians 3:11, NET Bible; emphasis mine).

For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work of others (2 Thessalonians 3:11, CSB; emphasis mine).

A person who is “not doing their job” (or not doing any job) is probably hindering one or more people who are seeking to do their job well.

5. The freeloaders Paul speaks of here are Christians:

But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6, emphasis mine).

Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:15, emphasis mine).

6. Failing to work for an income not only ignores the example set by Paul (and others); it also disobeys Paul’s very clear instructions:

6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us. 7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 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. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate (2 Thessalonians 3:6-9, emphasis mine).

7. Paul’s words in our text are his “final warning” to the Thessalonian sluggards:

12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat. 13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:12-15, emphasis mine).

Paul began to deal with the Thessalonian freeloaders early in his first epistle. What we are reading in 2 Thessalonians 3 are Paul’s final words on the matter. Paul and his associates have set the example for the Thessalonians in the matter of working hard and not being a burden on others.26 He has instructed the Thessalonians to express their love for one another by pursuing sanctification in the matter of work.27 He has encouraged recognizing leaders who are hard workers.28 Now, in 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul commands freeloaders to go to work, and he instructs the rest that if they do not heed this final warning, these folks are to be disciplined:

12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat. 13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:12-15).

The time has come for someone to act on what Paul has been teaching. If the freeloaders do not heed his instructions and go to work, then the church is to obey Paul by admonishing them and then withdrawing fellowship from them. Both the Thessalonian freeloaders and the church are now on notice. Something needs to change in the church at Thessalonica!

If the freeloaders are willfully disobedient to Paul’s instructions, then they are to be publicly identified as those who have disregarded Paul’s instructions and his words of admonition (warning). If the admonition of the church goes unheeded, then the members of the church must withdraw fellowship from those who persist in their sin of slothful living. Nevertheless, they are still to be regarded as a brother, and not as an enemy.

Paul’s Last Words to the Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians 3:16-18

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you all. 17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all (2 Thessalonians 3:16-18, emphasis mine).

Let’s remember that Paul strongly desired to return to Thessalonica, but his efforts were repeatedly hindered by Satan.29 Because Paul was not able to return, he wrote these two epistles and also sent Timothy to Thessalonica in his place. What I want you to see from Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonians is that he does not emphasize his return to Thessalonica as much as he does our Lord’s return – His Second Coming to earth. Paul wants these Thessalonians to be more focused and eager regarding the Lord’s return than on his return.

Paul’s words are designed to encourage a strong dependency on God, rather than on himself. The things that were most important for Paul to say to these saints will remain recorded in his epistles. But these epistles, like Paul’s ministry in person, were intended to draw Christians nearer to the Lord Jesus, rather than to make them more dependent upon Paul. And so Paul concludes this epistle by confidently praying that the Lord himself give these saints peace in every conceivable (and inconceivable) way, and at all times. In other words, there is no time and no way in which the Lord will not personally give these believers peace. Do they live in turbulent and troubled times? The Lord will give them peace. Are more difficult times ahead? The Lord will continue to give them peace. Thus, the Thessalonians should continue to look to the Lord personally for peace, rather than to Paul.

Then in verse 18 Paul closes with this benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is all about grace. It is by grace that we are saved. It is by grace that we endure. It is by grace that we will enter into the blessings of enjoying God for all eternity. And so it is that the first thing Paul says to these saints (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2), and also the last (1 Thessalonians 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18), is to remind them of God’s grace.

We should also note Paul’s words in verse 17, especially in the light of Paul’s warning that some will come to the Thessalonians claiming to speak for Paul or with his authority (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). How will the saints know whether they are reading one of Paul’s genuine epistles or not? He tells us here:

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter (2 Thessalonians 3:17, emphasis mine).

How will the saints know if an epistle that comes to them is from Paul? Look for his signature, written with his own hand. That is Paul’s seal of authenticity. That is how he signed this epistle, and it is also how he signs every one of his epistles.

Conclusion

1. Please distinguish between Paul’s instructions regarding “work” in our text (as it relates to sanctification) from his teaching elsewhere on “works” (as it relates to salvation). Paul is emphatic about the fact that people are saved apart from their works, and solely on the basis of the finished work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary.

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:19-23).

8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 5 he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

There is no work that you or I can do that will make us righteous in God’s sight. That is why the Son of God came to earth, lived a perfect life, and then died in the sinner’s place, suffering the penalty he deserves. He takes our sin upon Himself and bestows His righteousness on every one who believes in Him. Once one comes to faith, they understand that the way in which they do their work should radically change. Saints should do their work as to the Lord, and for His glory. They should work hard in order to be able to help others. They should work so that they will not be a burden to others. This is one aspect of the believer’s sanctification.

2. Weren’t Jesus and His apostles supported by others? Why, then, does Paul say what he does here? It is true that Jesus was supported by others:

1 Some time afterward he went on through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna the wife of Cuza (Herod’s household manager), Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their own resources (Luke 8:1-3).

It is also true that apostles and others who preached the gospel had the right to be supported in their ministry:

1 After Jesus called the twelve together, he gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey - no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, and do not take an extra tunic. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave the area. 5 Wherever they do not receive you, as you leave that town, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 Then they departed and went throughout the villages, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere (Luke 9:1-6).

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him two by two into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest. 3 Go! I am sending you out like lambs surrounded by wolves. 4 Do not carry a money bag, a traveler’s bag, or sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house!’ 6 And if a peace-loving person is there, your peace will remain on him, but if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay in that same house, eating and drinking what they give you, for the worker deserves his pay. Do not move around from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in that town and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come upon you!’” (Luke 10:1-12, emphasis mine)

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you, for you are the confirming sign of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to financial support? 5 Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I lack the right not to work? 7 Who ever serves in the army at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not consume its milk? 8 Am I saying these things only on the basis of common sense, or does the law not say this as well? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, ”Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” God is not concerned here about oxen, is he? 10 Or is he not surely speaking for our benefit? It was written for us, because the one plowing and threshing ought to work in hope of enjoying the harvest. 11 If we sowed spiritual blessings among you, is it too much to reap material things from you? 12 If others receive this right from you, are we not more deserving?

But we have not made use of this right. Instead we endure everything so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple eat food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar receive a part of the offerings? (1 Corinthians 9:1-13)

Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it (Galatians 6:6).

17 Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. 18 For the scripture says,”Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The worker deserves his pay” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).

What we need to see in these verses is that those who work hard at proclaiming the gospel have the right to be supported by those whom they serve. These folks are far from freeloaders! In Luke 10:7, Jesus tells those He sends out that “the worker is worthy of his pay.” How is this so? Those who have worked hard at preaching the gospel are worthy of financial support from those who have come to faith through their ministry (see 1 Corinthians 9:11 above). But remember that those whom Jesus sent out were also healing the sick, casting out demons, and even raising the dead.30 How could anyone feel that they were “ripped off” by our Lord’s servants when they had benefited by partaking of some of the fruits of their ministry? Those who are supported in their ministry are those who should be “worth their salt,” or as Jesus put it, worthy of their hire.

Paul in no way condemns those who are legitimately being supported in their ministry. He is emphatic that this is the right of those who diligently labor in the Lord’s service.31 It was a right Paul could have exercised. Paul sometimes allowed other churches to support him as he ministered to those in a particular city.32 One of the reasons Paul declined his right to be supported was that he did not wish to be a burden to others.33 Another reason was that he was seeking to set an example for others to follow (of sacrificially caring for others). I think Paul’s primary motivation for surrendering the right to be financially supported was his desire to adorn and advance the gospel:

19 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. 21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. 22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. 23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

Paul sought to adorn and advance the gospel by setting aside his right to financial support. Religious hucksters were common then, as now, and they never turned down money; indeed, they did what they did out of greed and hope for material gain.34 By working hard and supporting himself (and others) as Paul did, he set himself apart from self-serving religious hucksters, thereby adorning the gospel.35 Paul’s method of supporting himself was an illustration of the gospel. Our Lord provided salvation for lost sinners by paying the price for man’s sin, and offering that salvation to men without charge. If Paul’s message was all about grace, so was his method of ministering to men by bringing them the gospel. Paul’s method complimented the message.

3. One’s work (and how he goes about it) is closely related to the gospel. I have just said that Paul’s practice of working hard and supporting himself in his ministry was motivated by his desire to adorn and advance the gospel. I believe that this should be the motivation of every Christian, and thus Paul’s words in our text have a very direct relation to us and to our work. One of the reasons why Paul urges some of the Thessalonians to “stop shirking and start working” is because the way they do (or don’t do) their work is a reflection on the gospel. Note Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:

9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you. 12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, emphasis mine).

One’s work does reflect on the gospel, and thus Paul urges the Thessalonians to be hard workers, supporting themselves so that it will be a good testimony to “outsiders.” We all know that hard work was part of the curse:

17 But to Adam he said,
“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food

until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19, emphasis mine).

I believe that just as death for all men was part of the curse, the death of the Lord Jesus on man’s behalf became the cure for the curse. I believe the same is true for work. While hard work is clearly part of the curse in Genesis 3, so it is also part of the cure. Adam and the rest of mankind have earned their bread by the sweat of their brows; Jesus achieved salvation for those who believe by sweating drops of blood from His brow.36 No one has ever worked harder than our Lord did on the cross of Calvary.

Working hard and doing a good job should characterize every Christian, and it should likewise put us in good standing with men. Think, for example, of this proverb:

Do you see a person skilled in his work?
He will take his position before kings;
he will not take his position before obscure people (Proverbs 22:29).

I am reminded of the faithful labor of Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah, which put them in favor with men of great standing – with kings. They were noted not only as good workers, but also as those on whom God’s hand of blessing could be seen:

37 This advice made sense to Pharaoh and all his officials. 38 So Pharaoh asked his officials, “Can we find a man like Joseph, one in whom the Spirit of God is present?” (Genesis 41:37-38)

It is my conviction that one of the most effective ways to spread the gospel is through Christian businessmen. This concept is becoming more and more popular today as “business as mission.” Christian businessmen who are skilled and successful are often welcomed in countries where missionaries are prohibited. Not only are they welcomed, they have the opportunity to interact with people in a capacity for which they are highly respected, and thus their testimony carries weight as well. (This in no way is meant to deny or ignore the role of the Word of God and the Spirit of God in evangelism.)

There is another reason why “business as mission” is growing in popularity today. Sending missionaries (even where they are permitted) is extremely expensive, and current economic conditions are not favorable for sending out many more missionaries. Those who engage in “business as mission” pay their own way, and often they provide jobs and income for many others. Let me remind you that Paul was a “tentmaker” who often provided for himself and for others through his hard work. Why are we not as eager to follow Paul’s example and exhortation regarding work as we are to embrace his teaching on other matters like soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) or eschatology (the doctrine of future things)?

4. Our text adds significantly to our understanding of church discipline. I must confess that I have always considered the guiding texts for church discipline to be Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, and Galatians 6:1. Somehow, 2 Thessalonians 3 never seemed to come to mind, and yet it also clearly speaks about church discipline. It seems to me that Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 deal with blatant sin and rebellion, so that the willful sinner is dealt with in the most severe fashion. According to Matthew 18:17, the rebellious sinner is to be treated as a “Gentile and a tax-gatherer.” That sounds pretty dramatic. In 1 Corinthians 5, the willful sinner is handed over to Satan, with the possible outcome of the destruction of the flesh (death?).37

Discipline is not to be exercised on unbelievers.38 In both passages (Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5), it is assumed that the sinner in need of discipline is a believer. The goal of church discipline is the repentance and restoration of the sinner, as well as the preservation of the purity of the church. Loss of one’s salvation is never considered a possible outcome, only the loss of one’s life. But when we come to our text in 2 Thessalonians 3, we find what appears to be a less severe application of church discipline. The church is instructed to admonish the undisciplined, and then withdraw fellowship, but Paul makes a point of saying that the freeloading saint is still to be regarded as a brother in the faith. I’m not certain that I know exactly what that means, but I do believe that it means one does not go as far in withdrawing as we find in Matthew 18 or 1 Corinthians 5.

So, our text forces me to recognize that church discipline cannot be applied in a “one size fits all” fashion. Our text causes me to think of church discipline more as a continuum, but when you think of it this way, it really does make sense. Church discipline begins with sound teaching and a godly example of living according to the truth, as Paul taught and practiced his faith. From there, it moves on to admonition or warning, pointing out the dangers which lie ahead. The Book of Proverbs is an example of this kind of instruction and admonition. Then, when people cross the line drawn by the Word of God, you personally and confidentially rebuke them, pointing out the sin and showing God’s way of escape. If this warning goes unheeded, you draw in two or three witnesses so that the rebuke and the sinner’s response can be verified. Only if this fails do you take it to the church, so that the entire congregation can participate in the corrective process. If this rebuke is rejected, then the church withdraws fellowship, but the form of this withdrawal may have various degrees of intensity. Only the most flagrant sin and rebellion (against the authority of the church in its correction) would result in turning the sinner over to Satan, and/or treating the sinner as a tax gatherer. In the case of the freeloader, a somewhat less dramatic course of correction would take place, but something drastic enough to get their attention.

The Implications of our Text for a New Testament Church

This is not the time or the place to attempt to describe in detail the characteristics of a New Testament church, but I will include some links to messages which I have preached on the church:

What I wish to do here is to focus on the nature of a New Testament church and to show how our text particularly applies to such a church. In a New Testament church, ministry is the work of the entire body of believers, and not just the work of a few professionals:

11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God - a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis mine).

The “work of ministry” is just that – work, and hard work at that! The work of ministry is also the work of the entire body of Christ. That is why our Lord gave each member of the body of Christ specific spiritual gifts and particular places of ministry.

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, emphasis mine).

When a believer in Christ fails to carry out the work that God has given them, they become an unnecessary burden to the church. Others must take up the slack that the slacker has created. And because that particular believer has been uniquely gifted and equipped for his or her ministry, it will never be done as well as it could have been done by the one whose ministry it was. That is why Paul speaks of our gifts as a stewardship:

10 Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Our text should teach us that prophecy is practical. Neither Paul nor any other biblical author speaks of prophecy in a purely academic or intellectual way. God does not reveal what He does about the future to satisfy our curiosity; He reveals prophecy in order to motivate us to godly living:

11 Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, 12 while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze! 13 But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides. 14 Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence (2 Peter 3:11-14).

We see this truth dramatically illustrated in the Book of Daniel. In this wonderful prophecy, we learn much about what the future holds, but interwoven into these prophecies is the example of the godly living of Daniel and his three friends. Prophecy is a motivation for piety. That is what Peter has just said, and with this, Paul would heartily agree.

Finally, a word of encouragement to the overworked: Don’t grow weary and give up. In the midst of Paul’s admonition and instruction for the freeloaders, and his instructions to the church, Paul includes a word of encouragement to those who are paying the price because of those who refuse to shoulder their share of the work which God has given them. When someone fails to do what God has given them to do, someone else often carries the extra load. Paul does not conclude this epistle without an encouraging word to the overworked: Don’t grow weary, and don’t give up. I believe these saints will be rewarded for their sacrificial service, which is above and beyond the call of their duty.

A Question to Ponder

And so I must ask you, my Christian friend, “Are you a worker or a shirker?” Are you carrying your share of the load, or are you leaving that to others? If you are not carrying out your part of the task, this text should be very convicting. God takes note of our deeds, and He rewards us accordingly. There is the financial load, which all too many fail to shoulder. Nearly every church has those who carry more than their load, and many others who carry little or none of that load. The same could be said for caring for others, for teaching Sunday School, or working in the nursery. I would encourage you to be a worker, and not a shirker. What are the tasks God has given you to do in His church, and what are you doing to fulfill them?

Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 16 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 10, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:

www.netbible.org.

2

http://www.breakfastwithfred.com/

3 New York: I. B. Tauris, 2009 (available at amazon.com).

4 Granted, this text isn’t about Paul; it is about those “sidewalk philosophers” in Athens that Paul encountered. It seems that they had nothing better to do (like work) than to sit around talking about new and novel things.

5 Paul joined up with Aquila and Priscilla, who supported themselves by making tents in Corinth.

6 This is a particularly important text, for it is here that Paul shared his work ethic with the Ephesian elders.

7 Mary is singled out for her “hard work” on behalf of the church.

8 This is no doubt Paul’s most definitive statement regarding his work ethic. Here he makes it clear that being financially remunerated for his ministry is his right, but it is a right that he sets aside for the advancement of the gospel.

9 Paul is here commending Stephanas as a leader the saints at Corinth should formally recognize. His hard work is one of the characteristics of this man which sets him apart from (and above) others.

10 In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is contrasting his position and authority as an apostle with the claims of those who are false apostles (verse 13). He does so by stressing his suffering and his hard labor, both of which the false apostles avoid.

11 Working hard in order to give to those in need is a monumental change in attitude and lifestyle for one who has lived as a thief, but it is what sanctification requires.

12 Even secular work is transformed by the Christian work ethic. Since God is the One whom we serve, we must wholeheartedly do our work in order to please Him.

13 Here, as elsewhere, eldering is portrayed as hard work, rather than a position of status.

14 One might easily pass this passage by, since it pertains to women – widows (old and young) actually. Nevertheless, it is the hard work of serving others that (in part) qualifies the older widow to be added to the support list. And Paul’s concern is that if younger women were supported by the church, they would have idle time, which could very easily be misused in an unprofitable manner, for the young widow and the church.

15 Paul acknowledges here that some elders (particularly those who concentrate on preaching and teaching) may devote more time and energy to their ministry than others, for which they may require remuneration.

16 Paul seems to indicate here that the ideal is for one like Timothy (teaching and preaching) to be engaged full-time in that ministry, and thus he will need to be supported by those who profit from his ministry. I understand this to be saying nearly the same thing that Paul has already written in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.

17 Unfortunately, there are those “would-be teachers” who need to be silenced. Among other things, they are lazy and useless.

18 Whether it be men or women, young or old, the Christian who is idle brings reproach on the gospel, while those who are diligent in their work honor Christ and His gospel.

19 I assume here that Paul means that while he could have insisted on being supported financially as an apostle, he did not do so.

20 I’ve altered the wording of the NET Bible here, although I am aware that some Greek texts support this rendering. The reason that I reject “little children” is that it fails to communicate Paul’s point, which is illustrated by both a mother’s (gentle) care and a father’s faithful instruction. To become like “little children” would be to become dependent upon the Thessalonians; but to gently “mother” and “father” this flock is to give of oneself to meet the needs of those who are dependent. Paul is not dependent on the Thessalonians; they are dependent on him and his associates.

21 See Proverbs 22:13; 26:13. Only a fool would go out into the street knowing that a lion was waiting there for his next meal. And thus, the sluggard invents some compelling reason why he must do (or not do) a particular thing, like “go to work.” As a former school teacher, I have heard my share of “lion in the road” excuses.

22 While a number of translations choose to render the Greek term kopiaolabor,” I believe that this does not adequately convey the idea of physical fatigue or weariness as the result of laboring hard. Thus, the NASB renders “diligently labor;” the NIV “work hard;” and the NJB “work so hard.”

23 The Greek term means to “rule over” or “lead.” It can also mean to “busy oneself with,” a rather fascinating option when considered in the light of our text in 2 Thessalonians 3.

24 This is a different Greek word for work, ergon.

25

http://bible.org/seriespage/sluggard

26 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12.

27 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12.

28 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13.

29 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18. Obviously, God was allowing Satan to hinder Paul’s efforts because it was not His time for Paul to return to Thessalonica. As usual, God uses Satan’s resistance to achieve His purposes.

30 See Matthew 10:8. I am also reminded of Elisha’s ministry in 2 Kings 4:8-37.

31 See 1 Corinthians 9:1-13; Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; 2 Timothy 4:2-6; 2 Thessalonians 3:9.

32 See 2 Corinthians 11:8-9; Philippians 4:14-16.

33 See Acts 20:33-36.

34 See 1 Timothy 6:3-5.

35 On this matter of adorning the gospel, see Titus 2:5, 10.

36 Luke 22:44.

37 1 Corinthians 5:5.

38 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.