In a culture where leisure time and relaxation are so very highly prized, it can be difficult for us to realise that idleness is a sin. And if our church culture perhaps prioritises spirituality over practicalities, we may hesitate to recognise the importance of sheer hard work. The apostle Paul navigates both these issues with his words to the Thessalonians, disapproving of idleness and highlighting the necessity and value of work. It may not sound very spiritual but preachers today should still include these notes in their preaching, for God’s honour and the church’s reputation and indeed the wellbeing of any who are lazy.
Idleness is a sin
Paul reminds the believers at Thessaloniki, “We commanded you that if any man would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In saying so he condemns both the sin of idleness and their neglect of censuring that sin, because this was not only contrary to his example but also to his doctrine. He had commanded, and by apostolic authority enacted for a standing law, that anyone (who otherwise had strength and opportunity) refused to work, he should not eat. To “work” is to employ either one’s body or mind, or both, in some honest labour, for promoting one way or other the good of mankind. “He should not eat” means that he should not be borne with or maintained among Christians, but constrained to betake himself to some honest employment.
The Lord’s ministers should press on people, not only religious duties but also painstakingness and diligence in some particular calling. Likewise it is the duty of the Lord’s people, and of every one in their station, to give obedience to such lawful commands of Christ’s ministers.
Additionally, everyone should be concerned that the church’s charitable funds should be distributed wisely. This is especially the case for those who are entrusted with these monies, so that, to the best of their knowledge, they do not use it to furnish fuel to the lusts of any, or feed them in sinful idleness, or any other way misapply it to those who are not due objects of it. Paul’s command is given to all, and chiefly to the officers of the church, that they do not employ either their own charity or the church’s, to maintain idle vagabonds and wilful loiterers.
However, there are always some who do not work, not because they don’t want to, but either because they are not able to work, or although they are able and gladly would, yet they cannot get employment. It is the Lord’s allowance that such people, as far as possible, should be maintained on the charity of others, especially if they have nothing of their own by which to maintain themselves.
Idleness means the wrong sort of busyness
The “disorderly” ones in Thessaloniki, of whom the apostle had heard, have two features which seem to contradict each other, and yet are highly consistent, and in fact usually co-occur. They “do nothing at all,” he says in verse 11, i.e., in the things which they ought to do, and to which they have a calling, and yet they are “busybodies,” only too diligent about things which do not belong to them.
It is actually part of a minister’s responsibility, prudently to seek to know what fruits the gospel he preaches is bringing forth among the people of his charge. He should know what sins are most prevalent with them, and what virtues are exercised by them, in order to be the more enabled for speaking pertinently to them.
There have always been some in the church who take on a name for profession (and so possibly come to have some respect among the godly), yet, under a pretext of giving themselves to more than ordinary devotion, they abandon all care about a particular calling, and live hand-idle, to the hurt of those on whom they lived, and to the reproach of the gospel.
The mind cannot be wholly idle, but must be employed in something or other – if not in doing what is good and profitable, then of necessity in what is evil, useless or hurtful. Usually no one is more busy in other people’s matters than those who neglect their own.
Idleness is something we must give up
So, speaking to those who were guilty of walking disorderly, Paul both peremptorily commands them, and most affectionately exhorts them (verse 12).
In the name and authority of Christ the Lord, he commands them (1) to work, and so to quit idleness; (2) to work with quietness, that is, containing themselves within the boundaries of their calling, without creating trouble, either to themselves or others. From this would follow (3) that they should eat their own bread, gotten by their own labours, and not given them in alms, or in return for nothing.
Yet so great a tyrant is custom in any sin, and especially a custom of lazy ease and idleness, that once someone is habituated to it at all, they are only with very great difficulty driven from it. It takes both a command and an exhortation from Paul.
Some sins grow so common that either through the moral guilt in them or the civil inconveniences which follow them (or both), they portend no less than apparent ruin to the whole church. Then especially the Lord’s ministers should direct the utmost energy of their endeavours to suppress these sins, and to reclaim the Lord’s people from committing them. In Thessaloniki this sin of idleness threatened to dissipate the church, both morally, considering the great guilt that was in it, and civilly, considering how poor this church in all probability was. That is why the apostle is so fervent and serious about suppressing it and stirring up the whole church to take notice of it.
Yet God is so merciful that He does not wholly cease to have anything to do with sinners, as if they were desperate cases, after one or more rejections. He gives them many renewed opportunities, because some He intends to gain (John 4:7, 10, 13, 16, 21, 26) and some to make more inexcusable (Matthew 11:21–22). Although those idle people had received several admonitions with no effect, yet Paul, in Christ’s name and authority and by warrant from Him, again commands and exhorts them that they must work with quietness.
Correspondingly this should be a minister’s way of dealing with even most obstinate sinners, in order to win them back. The minister must make known that he does not think of them as wholly void of all sense of God and goodness, and must at least gently hint that he still has better thoughts of them. By doing so he will, if it is at all possible, enliven any dying principle of conscience, any sense of heaven or hell, any sense of right or wrong, and any awe of God which may yet be lurking in them. The reason why Paul exhorts them “by our Lord Jesus Christ” is to show that he did not think they had cast off all respect to Him.
Being busy means less trouble
The more someone is occupied with their own employments, the less leisure they will have to meddle with the affairs of others. Consequently, they will create less trouble either to themselves or to those who live alongside them. “Working your own work” is conjoined with “quietness” and quiet abstinence from meddling with or troubling others.
We also deduce that the Lord has established property rights from the way that Paul speaks of “their own bread,” that is, what they have a proper right to. (See also Ephesians 4:28) Beside the other ways of attaining right and property – that is, by inheritance (Gen. 15:4), gift (1 Sam. 9:9), contract or bargain (Ruth 4:9), this is one. Whatever someone purchases by their lawful industry and effort is properly their own, and may be employed by that person for their own good and necessary use with God’s allowance.
The Lord ordinarily blesses people’s conscientious diligence in their lawful callings with a sufficient measure of success that they may have something with which to sustain themselves, and be kept from being burdensome to others.
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