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Lesson 12: Working at Love and Loving at Work (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)

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October 16, 2016

A student once walked into Dr. Howard Hendricks’ office at Dallas Seminary and announced, “Prof, I’m dropping out of school.” “Why is that?” asked Dr. Hendricks. “Because I’m convinced that the Lord is going to return shortly and I want to get involved in a ministry before He comes.” Dr. Hendricks replied, “If there is something that you would be doing differently if you knew that Jesus Christ would return tomorrow, then you’d better be doing it!”

Dr. Hendricks wasn’t suggesting that the student drop out of school and go out preaching on the streets. If he believed that, he wouldn’t have been committed to training men for the ministry at Dallas Seminary. He was saying that we should live every day with an expectancy of the Lord’s near return and yet also live in a normal manner. As Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow, I’d plant a tree today.”

Throughout church history, there have been both individuals and groups that have gotten so caught up with prophecy about the Lord’s coming that they have acted strangely. Some have sold everything, quit their jobs, and waited on a hilltop for the Lord’s return at a predicted date. Harold Camping thought that Jesus would return in 1988. Others were sure it would be in 2000.

Apparently some of the Thessalonians had gotten a bit carried away and decided that in light of the Lord’s near return, they should quit their jobs and spend their time proclaiming the end of the world. In the meantime, if they had need of the world’s goods, well, other Christians were commanded to help them! So they were not working and were sponging off the church. This problem was probably only in its earliest stages when Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, so he just mentions it in passing. But by the time he wrote 2 Thessalonians, the problem had grown, so he deals with it there more extensively (2 Thess. 3:6-15).

In our text, Paul gives some practical instructions about how to live until the Lord returns. He says that …

We should work at loving one another more and be showing God’s love by our behavior at work.

1. We should work at loving one another more.

1 Thess. 4:9-10: “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more ….”

Paul began this letter commending the Thessalonians for their “labor of love” (1 Thess. 1:3). But he didn’t want them to rest on their laurels and become complacent about this most important quality. Note three things about loving one another:

A. Love for one another should be the distinguishing mark of the church.

In contrast to lust (4:3-8), Paul now turns to Christian love. Probably their culture, like ours, often confused the two. Sexual lust is never loving. It’s always selfish and harms all tainted by it. But Christians are not to be characterized by the passion of lust, but rather by fervent, pure love for one another. Paul uses the Greek word “philadelphia” (v. 9) which was used in secular writings for affection between natural brothers and sisters in a family. But in the New Testament, it is used of love between the members of the family of God, the church. Paul wasn’t correcting the Thessalonians for a lack of love, but rather encouraging them to keep working at it. Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 129) observes,

Something which should give modern Christians much food for thought is the way in which the early church was characterized by love. “Behold how these Christians love one another” is hardly the comment which springs spontaneously to the lips of the detached observer nowadays. But if our manner of life was based on the New Testament picture something like it would be inevitable.

Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another even as He had loved them. Then He added (John 13:35), “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” He also said that love for others is the second greatest commandment, after love for God (Matt. 22:39). Paul said that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). John said (1 John 3:10, 14), “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother…. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.” So love isn’t optional. Genuine love for one another should be the mark of the church.

B. God is the One who teaches us about loving one another.

Paul says (v. 9), “you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another.” He has just mentioned that God gives His Holy Spirit to you. In Romans 5:5, he states that “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” So when he says that the Thessalonians are taught by God to love one another, he’s probably referring to this work of the Holy Spirit, whom we receive when we trust in Christ. As 1 John 4:7-8 states, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

More than anywhere else, we see God’s amazing love demonstrated at the cross (John 3:16): “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Paul writes (Eph. 5:1-2), “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

Based on these and other verses, I developed this definition: Love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself by seeking the highest good of the one loved. God so loved that He gave. Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us. God’s love involves self-sacrifice. Selfishness is the main hindrance to love. Husbands are exhorted to love their wives even as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us (Eph. 5:25). It’s easy to grandstand and say, “I’d lay down my life for my wife if someone was attacking her.” But what about sacrificing your time and inconveniencing yourself to serve your wife each day? What about thinking of her needs and her perspective above your own? That’s where biblical love has to show itself. It isn’t just talk; it requires observable action.

Also, love is caring. This is the emotional element of love. It’s not just cold, perfunctory service. The actions of love are done out of a heart that genuinely cares about the other person’s well-being. Love is a caring commitment. With regard to marriage, it’s a lifelong covenant before God to your mate. Although you should feel love towards others, even when the feelings aren’t there you should act in love because you’re committed to them.

And, love seeks the highest good of the one loved, namely, that he or she would come to know Jesus and be conformed to His image. The goal of love, both in the family and in the church, should be to encourage and help the other person to know Christ and to grow in Christ. Our model for love is our Lord and Savior, who gave Himself for us on the cross while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). He teaches us to love by His own example.

C. Love is an action that always requires improvement.

Paul has repeatedly commended their love, but they still needed to excel even more (cf. 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:6, 12; 4:1). Since Christ’s perfect example is our standard (John 13:34), we always have room to grow. We can always love our spouse more, our children more, our family members more, our fellow Christians more, and our neighbors more. This is not automatic; it doesn’t come naturally to any of us. It requires deliberate thought and effort. If you’re not deliberately thinking about and working at loving others more, chances are you’re not improving at this commitment.

One practical way to work on this is to write 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 on an index card and read it over every morning until it governs all of your interactions with people that day. Begin applying it to your immediate family, but extend it to all you have contact with. Ask yourself hard questions about each quality:

“Love is patient.” Would my family or co-workers describe me as a patient person? Do I have a “short fuse”?

“Love is kind.” Am I kind and gracious toward others, especially when they fall short of my expectations?

“Love is not jealous.” Am I competing with others by trying to get the attention, relationships, or possessions which they have?

“Love does not brag and is not arrogant.” Am I self-focused, always trying to impress others with my achievements, my opinions, or my knowledge?

“Love does not act unbecomingly.” Am I rude? Do I often interrupt others? Am I considerate of their feelings and points-of-view?

“Love does not seek its own.” Am I selfish? Do I think about others’ needs ahead of my own?

“Love is not provoked.” Am I easily offended? Do I get angry when people don’t do what I want them to do?

“Love does not take into account a wrong suffered.” Do I keep score? Do I remind others of past sins or failures? Do I hold grudges? Am I quick to forgive?

“Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth.” Am I glad when others fail or sin, because it makes me look good and I can use it as ammunition against them? Am I truly happy when I hear of others’ victories in the Lord?

“Love bears all things.” Do I bear with people in their immaturity or shortcomings or do I always correct them?

“Love believes all things.” Am I suspicious of others? Do I trust them unless there is good reason not to do so?

“Love hopes all things.” Do I “write people off”? Do I believe that God can work to change the other person?

“Love never fails.” Do I give up on others who have wronged or hurt me? Am I committed to help that person become all that God wants him or her to be?

Even if others who know you would say that you’re doing fairly well at loving others, there’s always room to grow because our standard is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.

But Paul was concerned not only for love in our homes and in the church, but also that God’s love would be seen in the workplace. The connection between verses 9-10 & 11-12 is not immediately obvious. But Paul seems to be showing how we should demonstrate God’s love (vv. 9-10) in the workplace (vv. 11-12).

2. We should be showing God’s love by our behavior at work.

1 Thess. 4:11-12: “and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” Note four things:

A. Showing God’s love at work requires goal-oriented behavior, not mindless drifting with the culture.

What is your goal at work? You say, “To provide for my family’s needs.” That’s a worthy goal, since Paul says that if you don’t provide for your family, have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8)! That’s a serious warning! But if your only goal is to provide for your family, how do you differ from the world? That’s why almost everyone works. They’re trying to provide enough for their family’s needs and wants.

Paul says, “make it your ambition.” That phrase implies a goal and some effort toward that goal. The goal isn’t to climb the ladder to success or make a pile of money or beat your competitors. The goal is to be a godly witness to those without Christ. In LifeWork ([YWAM Publishing], p. xxi), Darrow Miller writes,

As the so-called developed world enters the twenty-first century, too often we Westerners find that the secular worldview has reduced work to a career and life to an endless consuming of things. As a result we live without hope and purpose, and both our work and life itself carry little if any meaning…. When we see our worth as determined by the marketplace and the amount of money we make, we often sacrifice what matters most—family, friends, marriages, Christian fellowship—in pursuit of success, prestige, fame, power, and other goals prized by the world.

So the point of “make it your ambition” is that you need to think biblically about your goals at work. Your aim should not be to become rich or successful. Rather, it should be to display the love of our Savior to those who wrongly think that making a lot of money or becoming successful at work will bring lasting happiness.

B.The means for showing God’s love at work is to lead a quiet life and to attend to your own business.

What does Paul mean by “lead a quiet life”? He uses a similar phrase in 1 Timothy 2:2, where he says that we should pray “for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Peter mentions a similar quality when he enjoins wives with unbelieving husbands to win them without a word, specifically “with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:1-6). In both contexts, the goal is godly witness, not through preaching, but through behavior that demonstrates contentment and peace in Christ. Because we are content with food and covering and don’t seek to get rich (1 Tim. 6:9-9), we can exude the quiet contentment that stands in contrast to the self-seeking, money-oriented values of the world.

“To attend to your own business” means that we should not be busybodies or gossips, meddling in matters that are none of our business (2 Thess. 3:11-12). He does not mean that we should not care about others’ problems, but rather that we should be known as those who can be trusted with confidential information without blabbing it all over the workplace. Both phrases imply that a Christian’s witness at work should primarily be through godly behavior, not through preaching.

C. The motivation for showing God’s love at work is to see the God-given dignity of work that is done for His glory.

The Greek culture in Paul’s day looked down on manual labor, which they viewed as fit only for slaves. But the Bible consistently upholds the dignity of all work. God gave Adam and Eve manual labor in the garden before the fall. Godly men in the Old Testament worked as farmers or shepherds. Paul made tents. He told slaves that they could do their menial work as unto the Lord (Col. 3:22-24). And, our Savior was a carpenter. When Paul says to work with your hands, he’s not prohibiting an office or professional job, but he is elevating manual labor as a dignified endeavor.

Some Christians erroneously view work as a curse. But God didn’t curse Adam’s work after the fall, but rather the ground that he tilled (Miller, p. 107). Work is now more difficult, but it does not lack dignity if we do it as unto the Lord. While some jobs may not be as satisfying as other jobs, we need to see work itself as being our calling from God. If you view work as a curse, you’ll try to avoid work and you won’t do your best on the job. You’ll only do the minimum required. But that hinders witness. Paul’s concern is that every Christian, including slaves, would (Col. 3:23) “do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” Why?

D. The aim for showing God’s love at work is to be a witness to outsiders and to provide for our own needs.

“To walk properly toward outsiders” means that our witness to unbelievers by our behavior on the job should always be uppermost in our minds. You should not spend company time in verbal witness, which would not please your employer. Except for a brief word here and there that doesn’t interfere with work, reserve that for after hours. Your employer didn’t hire you to evangelize your fellow employees on the job! Your witness on the job should primarily be by your contentment and peace in Christ and your personal integrity. Other workers should see that you aren’t greedily trying to take advantage of others. They should see your moral purity, concern for others, honesty, and work ethic.

“To not be in any need” means that we should be responsible managers of our income: paying our bills, living within our means, being generous and ready to share, and not mooching off the government or anyone else because we’re lazy or trying to take advantage of the system. Christians should not be a burden to others, but rather be able to help provide for those with true needs (the disabled, etc.; Eph. 4:28). Your fellow workers should be able to see that you live simply and generously as a Christian. You’re not acting in love when you expect financial favors from other believers simply because they’re your brothers in Christ.


Thus Paul is saying that we are to work diligently at loving one another and we are to act in ways that show God’s love at work. The Russian author, Leo Tolstoy (Twenty-Three Tales [Oxford University Press], “Where Love is, God is,” pp. 131-146) tells a story about a lonely, old Russian cobbler who was reading in Luke 7 about the Pharisee who did not welcome Jesus to his home. He thought, “If He came to me, would I welcome Him?” Pondering this, he fell asleep. Suddenly, the old man heard a voice calling his name: “Martin, Martin, look out in the street tomorrow for I shall come.”

The next day, he kept watch out of his window as he worked. He saw an old man that he knew, invited him in by his fire, and gave him some tea. He told the man about Christ’s mercy as he had been reading in the gospels. The old man listened with tears running down his cheeks and left thanking him for his hospitality.

A while later, Martin saw outside a woman dressed in shabby summer clothes, trying to keep her crying baby warm. He invited her in to sit by his fire. She was destitute and had pawned her shawl the day before to get something to eat. He fed her, gave her an old coat to wrap around her baby, and gave her the money to get her shawl out of pawn. Later he helped reconcile a poor woman and a boy who stole an apple from her. So the day passed, but there had been no appearance of Christ.

It was evening now. Martin lit his lamp, and opened his Bible. He had intended to read where he had left off the night before, but the Bible fell open to another place. Before he read, he heard a voice call out, “Martin, it is I.” He looked up and saw the old man he had helped, and then he vanished. This was repeated with the woman and her baby, and with the woman and boy he had served that day. Then he read, “I was an hungered, and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in.” At the bottom of the page, he read, “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matt. 25). Tolstoy concludes, “And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Savior had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.”

That poor cobbler was demonstrating God’s love in his workplace. Paul wants us to be working at love for others and to be showing God’s love at work.

Application Questions

  1. Some would say that if love requires effort and is not spontaneous, it is not genuine. Why is this false?
  2. What’s the difference between loving a fellow Christian and liking him (or her)? Are we obligated to like others?
  3. Is it wrong for a Christian to have “getting rich” as part of a career goal? Consider 1 Tim. 6:6-11 in your answer.
  4. Are “full-time ministry” jobs a notch above “secular” jobs in God’s kingdom? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Love

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