The Importance of Work and the Sin of Idleness (2 Thessalonians)

There are a number of sayings that people think are in the Bible, but they’re really not.  Sometimes those sayings may express the thought of scripture, but the actual quote isn’t there.  For example, the Bible never says, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”.   The book of Proverbs talks a lot about the discipline of children, but that actual quote isn’t in the Bible.

            Other examples include, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” or “God helps those who help themselves.”  Neither of those sayings are in the Bible.  And then there’s, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, which also isn’t found in the Bible.  But it could have been based on our text this morning in 2 Thessalonians 3, where Paul warns us about the sin of “walking in idleness”.

We live in a culture that has a distorted view of work.  On the one hand, you have some people who are workaholics — they just never seem to take a break.  People working 60, 70, 80 hours a week out of a driving compulsion to “get ahead.”   Getting to work early, coming home late.  Bringing work home.  I heard about one father who brought work home with him every night and his first-grade son asked him why he did that.  He said, “Because I can’t get all my work done while I’m at work.  His son said, “Maybe they should put you in a slower class.”

And then on the other hand, you have some folks who are just plain lazy, who refuse to work at all.  Their motto is, “Hard work may not kill me but why take a chance?” 

Then, between those two extremes, there is a large number of people who work but who don’t have a very good work ethic.  And if you don’t have a good work ethic, you do just enough work to avoid getting fired but you don’t do quality work.

So, let me start off this morning by asking the question — how do you feel about work?  Some of you may think of work as a sort of a drudgery that you have to do.  It’s something that’s necessary and you do it, but you certainly don’t enjoy it.  You do it because it’s got to be done. 

Or maybe you may think about work in relation to money.  Work is simply a way to pay off your debts, to fund your way of living, to purchase your pleasures, so it’s a necessary evil.  It’s a way to maintain your lifestyle. 

Or maybe you think about work as a way to provide meaning to your life, a way to fulfill your ambitions, to use your abilities to accomplish something meaningful.  Maybe you even think about work as a way to be of service to other people.

There are a lot of different ways we can look at work.  But I think if we were to make a list, it would be a while before anyone would say, “I look at my work as a way to serve God.”  That doesn’t seem to be a very popular perspective on work, even among Christians, and yet it should be.  Because work is one of the most honorable and noble things that a Christian can do.

It’s also something that we are commanded to do.  We’ve often heard the 4th of the Ten Commandments quoted, but you may have overlooked an important part of that commandment.  God said to the Jews in Exodus 20, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God.” (Exodus 20:9-10a). 

When that verse is read, we tend to emphasize the part about the Sabbath, the day of rest.  Rarely do you hear anybody talk about the six days of work.  We’re familiar with a five-day work week in America and some people have a four-day work week.  But God told the Jews they were to have a six-day work week.  But what I want you to see here is that God not only commanded the Jews to rest; he also commanded them to work.

In fact, from the very beginning, God established that man should work.  We sometimes think that work was a curse given after Adm and Eve sinned, but if you go back to Genesis 2, it says, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15). That’s work!  In the Garden of Eden!  Now, after the fall, that work got more difficult — weeds and thorns entered the picture — but from the very beginning, God intended for man to work.  Work was part of a perfect world.

And the Bible has a lot to say about lazy people, people who refuse to work.  Especially in the book of Proverbs. “The lazy man will not plow because of winter; He will beg during harvest and have nothing.” (20:4).  “The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.”(21:25).  

In view of what the Old Testament had to say about work, it might surprise you to learn that the Jews tended to look down upon work as a purely secular thing.  They saw it as a menial sort of second-class effort, whereas religious duties were first-class, divine, noble things. The Talmud, for example, has an interesting prayer in it. 

The Talmud is the written collection of Jewish tradition.  And it has this prayer that was prayed by the scribes.  A scribe was a person who devoted his entire life to studying the Scriptures. That’s all he did with his life and he was supported by the Jewish community to do nothing but study the Law of Moses.

Listen to what the scribes would pray, “I thank Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast given me my lot with those who sit in the house of learning and not with those who sit at the street corners.  For I am early to work and they are early to work.  I am early to work on the words of the Law, and they are early to work on things of no importance.  I weary myself and they weary themselves.  I weary myself and profit thereby, and they weary themselves to no profit.  I run and they run.  I run toward the life of the age to come and they run toward the pit.”

What a terrible view of work!  And what pride there is in assuming that just because you have the opportunity to spend most your time studying God’s Word, you are somehow better than everyone else.  That couldn’t be further from the truth, and yet that notion not only pervaded Judaism, it also found its way into Christianity.

In the book of 2 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul dealt with a wrong attitude toward work in the church in Thessalonica.  I don’t know if it was because there was some Jewish influence in those young Christians.  Maybe some of them had been converted out of Judaism and they were saying, “Look, in Judaism, the highest level of spiritual life was to be a scribe and spend all your time studying the Law and so I would imagine that’s the highest kind of Christianity, so I’m just going to spend all my time reading God’s Word and praying and I’m not gonna do any work.”

Or, maybe it was the Greek influence.  All of the menial labor in the Roman Empire was done by slaves.  That mentality may have found its way into the church.  There may have been some Christians who didn’t work before they became Christians.  They had servants do all their work for them.  All they did was stand on the street corner and argue with everybody else about the meaning of life.  So, when they came to a time in their lives when they really needed to get a job, they thought it was beneath them to work.  That was something for slaves to do, not people like them.

And then you had another problem in the Thessalonian church.  Apparently, somebody came to the church and told them that Jesus was coming very soon.  And perhaps some of them were saying, “Look, if Jesus is coming back soon, then we don’t need to spend all our time working.  It doesn’t make any sense to spend the next few months planting our crops if Jesus is going to return before we get to harvest them.  That would be a total waste of time.  So, instead, we’ll just sit around and wait for Jesus.”

And, I don’t know, there may well have been some folks in Thessalonica who simply said, “I don’t want to work.”  Just plain ole lazy.  And they knew that the scriptures taught that people who had stuff were supposed to share it with people who didn’t have stuff, so they classified themselves as poor people and said, “All of the rest of you need to take care of me because that’s what Jesus told you to do.”

Whatever the specific reason was, there were some Christians in Thessalonica who simply weren’t working, who were sitting around doing nothing, and expecting everybody else to take care of them.  This morning, we’re going to take a look at what Paul had to say about the importance of work and the sin of idleness.  But first, let’s take a look at this overview of 2 Thessalonians.

Watch VIDEO (2 Thessalonians)

Beginning in 2 Thessalonians 3, verse 6, Paul said, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 

“It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.  For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).

Paul said there were some Christians in Thessalonica who were causing problems and what it boiled down to was this — they weren’t working, and they were spending their time being busybodies. And then, to make matters worse, they were expecting everybody else in the church to take care of them.  And this had apparently been a problem for quite a while.

If you go back to 1 Thessalonians, Paul says in chapter 4, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.”  Why?  “So that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

Paul said, “We’ve already talked to you about this, back when we established this congregation.”  But they apparently didn’t listen to what Paul told them, so Paul has to say it again in the I Thessalonian letter.  And now we come to the second Thessalonian letter and Paul has to repeat it a third time because apparently, there are some in that church who were still not working.  That kind of stubbornness, that kind of refusal to do what they ought to be doing needs to be dealt with.  And so, Paul writes this letter and he says to these Christians, “Here’s what you need to do about these freeloaders.”

It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not talking here about people who want to work but can’t find work, people who want to work but don’t have the physical ability to work, people aren’t able to work because of sickness or old age.  In those situations, their needs must be met, and we have a responsibility to help them.  But Paul’s not talking about those sorts of people here.  He’s talking here about able-bodied people with opportunity to work who simply refuse to work.

And so, Paul addresses head-on this problem of Christians who refuse to work.  Someone may say, “Well that seems like a trivial thing to be a Bible issue.”  But it’s not trivial at all if you understand that work is God’s design by which you glorify him, by which you fulfill your own life, by which you benefit those around you by providing those things that are necessary, and by which you contribute to the building up of society.  That’s not trivial at all.

And so, Paul gives several instructions:

1.         Exhort One Another to Work

            “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The Contemporary English Version is very blunt in the way it translates this passage — “Some of you just loaf around and won’t do any work.”  Instead of doing their fair share to support themselves and to help others, these people were lazy and then they expected everyone else to invite them over for dinner and give them a place to sleep — night after night!

And this apparently wasn’t just a problem in Thessalonica.  This concept of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family is a basic concept that’s found throughout the Bible.  And the problem of idleness is a problem that Paul felt the need to mention time and again.

For example, Paul said to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8).  I don’t know of anywhere else, except in the case of the immoral man in Corinth who was having sex with his father’s wife, where Paul refers to a sin as being worse than that of unbelievers.  But even most people who’ve never even heard of Jesus Christ work to provide for their families.

To the church of Ephesus, Paul wrote, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)

The Bible is consistent in this message. We’re supposed to work so that, first of all, we can take care of our own needs and the needs of our family, but secondly, so that we take help care of others who aren’t able to work.  

But it’s not just that these Christians in Thessalonica weren’t working.  Paul says, “some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.”  You see, one of the problems that comes about as a result of not being busy at work is that you have too much time on your hands.  And when you have too much time on your hands, it’s easy to spend that time doing something that has absolutely no value.

And so, these folks were wandering around, getting into everybody else’s business.  We think of a busybody as a meddling or prying person, and that’s part of it.  But the Greek word here actually has a broader meaning.  Thayer defines being a busybody as, “to bustle about uselessly, to busy oneself about trifling, needless, useless matters.”  Which basically boils down to “wasting your time doing nothing of value.”

If you’re not busy at work, working to make a living, working for the Lord, working to take care of your family, then, chances are, you’re wasting your time doing something that has no value.  And if we aren’t doing anything of value, then we can’t bring glory to God.

So, Paul says stop running around meddling in everybody else’s business, spending your time on useless stuff, and go to work.  Get your life in order.  Be productive so that you can earn the bread you eat and you won’t be a burden to the community and you won’t be a burden to the church.

But what if this person doesn’t respond to your exhortation?  What if he continues to refuse to get a job?

2.         Don’t Support Someone Who Refuses to Work

“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).  Paul says, “If he refuses to work, don’t give him food or money. Let him go hungry.”

You may say, “But if he goes hungry, he could die.”  I realize that.  You know who else realizes that?  This fellow who refuses to work.  And he knows if no one will give him anything, then in order to survive, he’s going to have to get a job.  But as long as we continue to provide a way for people to eat without having to work, then many of them will choose to take that route.

Now I don’t want to be indifferent to people who are genuinely in need, and there are a lot of folks like that, but there are also an awful lot of people who just expect a handout from the church.  They don’t want to lift a finger to do any kind of work, but they expect the church to help them any time they call for it.

Again, Paul isn’t talking about people who can’t earn a living because of sickness, mental instability, age, or infirmity. He isn’t talking about widows who have no support, or orphans whose parents have died.

There are some people who truly can’t find work or who aren’t able to work, and as Christians, we should do everything we can in generosity and love to help them out, but we do not have a responsibility to feed the lazy.  We’ve got to be discriminating in meeting needs.  Paul said if you’re able to work but you don’t work and you won’t work, then we have no responsibility to meet your needs. 

Now, this person may need some temporary assistance to get on his feet.  He may need some coaching on how to get a job.  But he should make it his full-time job to look for a job until he gets a job.  But if he’s being irresponsible, don’t enable him to continue in his ways by giving him food or money.  And don’t let him lay a guilt trip on you by saying, “If you were a Christian, you’d love me and help me out!”  Rather, Paul tells us, if he refuses to get a job, he needs to suffer the consequences.

3.         Separate Yourself from Someone Who Refuses to Work

Verse 6, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness…” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)

And again, in verse 14.  “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” 

Now, there are some people who think that Paul is saying here that the church needs to withdraw their fellowship from the brother who won’t work, they need to excommunicate him.  But I don’t think that’s what he’s describing here.

He says to “keep away from that brother”.  The New American Standard translates this phrase as “keep aloof”.  You could translate it as “keep your distance”. 

When this brother comes by the house to waste your time gabbing, you need to politely turn him away, “I’m busy working right now. I don’t have time to talk.”  When a lazy Christian shows up at dinner time, he is politely but firmly told, “Sorry, we’d love to have you in, but we’re busy eating dinner right now.”

The purpose here is not to punish him, but to make this lazy person aware of what he’s doing, and ashamed of what he’s doing.  We don’t treat lazy believers like this because we’re being mean or because we don’t care about them.  Quite the opposite.  We do it because we love them and we want to help get them back on the right track.

4.         Don’t Stop Doing Good

There’s a good possibility that the Christians in Thessalonica would get so tired of these deadbeats, they would get so fed up with giving out money to these lazy people that they would become tired of the whole process and then when somebody came to them with a real need, they would be indifferent to it.   So, Paul had to tell them, “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

The implication is they were weary of taking care of these people who should have been taking care of themselves and so Paul says don’t let your weariness with them carry over into weariness in doing what you really should be doing.

Because there are people in our church and there are people in our community who have genuine needs.  And I appreciate the fact that this congregation tries to meet those needs. It’s the right thing to do.  But lazy people can discourage Christians from being generous and outgoing to the truly needy. 

And it’s also easy to grow weary of the difficult task of exhorting an irresponsible brother. They can often be manipulative and deceptive.  They try to play off your emotions.  They pit one person against another in an attempt to get what they want.  If they worked as hard at getting and keeping a job as they do at trying to pry money out of soft-hearted people, they wouldn’t need the money! 

But we must not grow weary of doing good.  Don’t get tired of doing what needs to be done for people who have genuine needs.


            May God help us all to see the value of work.  And to see our work as an honorable thing.  As a way not only to provide for ourselves and our family, but to help others who are in need.  And in the process, bring honor and glory to our God.


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