Working it all out
“As for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:13
Paul’s brief letter is coming to an end. It has been a positive letter toward the Thessalonians, referring to them as brothers and sisters and showing gratitude to God for the work that he is clearly doing in the church there. He has reassured them that they will not miss the Lord’s coming and that while they wait, they ought to pray for one another to stand firm in the gospel. The Thessalonian Christians are not regarded as wicked or evil people but as people who honoured the Lord’s message when it came to them.
- 3:6-10 No idle matter
- 3:11-13 Stop it
- 3:14-15 Stretching the friendship
- 16-18 Grace and peace
3:6-13 No idle matter
“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…” (also in verse 12) Paul uses a strong phrase here to underscore what he is about to say. It seems over the top to invoke the highest authority to discuss idleness just as it seems over the top to conclude his letter with this subject. Perhaps in a letter that is aimed at reassuring believers of the second coming and of assurance in the faith that it is right to conclude with how to live our lives now. Paul doesn’t need to use this phrase if we believe that ‘all scripture is God breathed’ (2Tim3:16) but it works to draw attention to this as a matter of high concern. It lets us know that what he is addressing is a serious matter. We ought to listen carefully to what he says.
“…keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive…” Here is the command put plainly. Paul is writing to the church about members of the church. They may be true believers but, as it seems Paul believes, they might only be believers by association. Time will tell. Verses 11-13 instruct idle believers to stop being idle and verses 14-15 instruct believers to remove themselves from idle ‘believers’ who are not ready to obey. The logic of the passage is that those who are for the Lord will do good. A part of loving your neighbour is to live a productive life rather than idle. Conversely, an idle and disruptive life is not a sign of conversion.
“…according to the teaching you received from us.” This refers to the way of life that Paul and his company demonstrated and which he goes on now to outline.
“…we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.” Here is the Christian work ethic. When there is work to do, the Christian gets on with it. Remember that the creation account placed mankind in the world to work it. While looking after others is a Christian mandate, it also follows that Christians ought to be ready to work for themselves and others. To be in the position of idleness as a chosen state is to deny the created order and the nature of God.
“…as a model for you to imitate.” Even Paul, when given the choice, will choose to work. His strategy in mission was for his home church to provide resources or else he would earn his own wage while preaching the gospel. He avoided receiving financial help from the communities he was bringing the gospel to.
“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Take note of the qualifying word ‘unwilling.’ Paul is not lashing out at underprivileged people but at slackers. And so the proverb goes ‘The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.’ (Prov 16:26)
3:11-13 Stop it
“We hear that some of you are idle and disruptive…not busy; they are busybodies” Where or how Paul heard this is a mystery but we hear that this is his second reason for writing to the church (the first was concerning the 2nd coming). The ESV reads, “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” The NET reads, “For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others.” The NIV, the ESV and the NET all bring out the play on the word ‘work’. Disruptive, meddling busybodies. No wonder Paul is concerned. It is not just that they are not earning their own wage but they are wasting their time hindering others. Just as Paul asked for the gospel to spread rapidly and unhindered (3:1) he prays that the church community be unhindered by idle folk also. See 1 Timothy 5:13 “Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.”
“…settle down and earn the food they eat.” Just stop it. The rebuke is to stop being idle and put your life into good use. The objective is stated in verse 13: never tire of doing what is good. We may think that Paul is being an old fuddy-duddy but he is bringing out the elementary goal of life – to love the Lord and be as God created you to be.
14-15 Stretching the friendship
“Take special note of anyone who does not obey…” Paul is addressing all who do plan to listen to his instructions.
“Do not associate with them…that they may feel ashamed…yet not an enemy…but as a fellow believer.” A very revealing verse when it comes to church dynamics. In the purest form, the church is the gathering of all who honour the gospel of the Lord. Anyone who does not is not part of the true body of Christ. But the gatherings may include folk who wish to believe or think they believe or simply like the environment. That is, there are people who gather with the church of God who are not truly or spiritually part of the church of God because they have not truly received Christ as Lord and Saviour. The problem is that we cannot see plainly who that is.
So Paul says here that there is wisdom in treating all in the church as a believer but be sure to let them know that they need to change in accordance with the gospel. (See also Romans 16:17; 1 Thess 5:14; 1 Cor 5:11). Give them your arm of friendship (not an enemy) but steer them clearly back on track like a brother.
Paul is clearly not talking about ex-communication. The take home here is to voice disapproval for the sake of the church (do disarm meddlers) and for the sake of the idle to teach them the gospel way.
16-18 Grace and peace
Paul signs off with the tone that he opened the letter with. Peace is blessed on them from the true source of peace and grace is left with them – unmerited favour which speaks volumes of the Christian community. Paul also literally signs his name to assure them that this is an authentic letter. It’s unclear if Paul is referring only to verse 17 or the whole letter but either way, Paul wants them to recognise his letters compared to others (see 2:2).
Work together as gospel partners. Firstly, do all you can to earn a living since that is the order of life – if you don’t work you don’t eat and loving your neighbour includes working your share. Secondly, warn a so-called brother or sister who appears to be wasting their time and others. We may actually fail when we choose to carry others rather than rebuke or correct. Better to correct an idle person than to have them wear others down. The Christian community ought to be seen as living by grace and eager to do good.
- Given that the problem Paul describes is about disruptive busy bodies, what equivalent would we have in our church community today? NB: remember to love one another in this response especially those not in the room!
- “…that they may feel ashamed” says verse 14. How is this an act of love or doing good? What countercultural practice is 2 Thessalonians teaching us and how should we be wise in the area of rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness?
- Is 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 instructing us to be workaholics? Why or why not? Perhaps consider what Paul’s primary agenda was when he was so busy working (compare 3:1 with 3:8-9)
Prayer of the Week
Our Father in heaven, thank you for life and health and safety, for the pleasure to work and the leisure to rest. May we participate in this life as you have planned us to by keeping ourselves engaged in life for the good of others while we wait for Jesus Christ our Lord to return. Amen.