A recent worldwide study of attitudes to work shows that UK citizens are least likely to say that work is important in their life, and among the least likely to say that work should always come first, even if it means less leisure time. Compared with other nations, the UK is also relatively less likely to agree that work is a duty towards society. While the Bible condemns grasping ambition and earthly-mindedness, it also commends diligence, productivity, and generosity. This is an application of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” In his commentary on Ephesians, James Fergusson looks at how Paul explores the transformation that takes place in every area of life when someone comes to know Christ savingly, including a radically changed attitude to work. In the following updated extract, Fergusson identifies the eighth commandment as informing Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:28, “Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.”
Knowing Christ transforms everything
The knowledge which the Ephesians had of Christ was inconsistent with a licentious life. “Ye have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20) It is not every sort of learning Christ, or knowledge that may be had of Christ, which excludes profaneness.
We rightly and savingly learn truth, when the knowledge of truth attained by our learning is such as Christ’s knowledge was, i.e., not merely theoretical and speculative, but practical and operative.
Three things are required from, and effectually produced in, the person who learns and knows Christ in this effectual way.
The first is a daily striving to “put off” (or “mortify”) “the old man” (v.22). This doesn’t mean the substance of our soul and body, or even the natural and essential faculties of the soul, but the natural and inbred corruption which has infected and polluted all these, and which we give way to in its “deceitful lusts.” The right order to go about the duties of sanctification is to begin with mortification in the first place, and then proceed to the duties of a new life, for the plants of righteousness do not thrive in an unhumbled, proud, impenitent heart.
The second thing is a serious endeavour to have your mind and understanding more and more renewed, or made new, by getting a new quality of divine and supernatural light implanted in it (v.23). It is not sufficient that we cease to do evil, and labour to mortify our inbred corruption, but we must also learn to do well, and endeavour to have the whole man adorned with the various graces of God’s Spirit, making conscience of all the positive duties of a holy life.
The third thing is the daily task of putting on the new man (v.24), that is, being more and more endued and adorned with new and spiritual qualities, by which not only is our mind renewed, but also our will, affections and actions.
Christians observe each of the ten commandments
The apostle then presses on them the exercise of some particular virtues. These belong to all Christians of whatsoever rank or station equally, and they are all enjoined in the second table of the law. He exhorts them, first, to lay aside and mortify the sin of lying (v.25), forbidden in the ninth commandment (where someone speaks what they know or conceive to be untruth, with an intention and purpose to deceive), and to “speak the truth, every man with his neighbour,” that is, to speak as they think, and to think of what they speak as it really is, so that our speech would conform both to the thing itself, and to our conceptions of the thing.
He exhorts them, next, to restrain and moderate their anger (v.26–27), for anger is forbidden in the sixth commandment. Anger is a natural affection, planted in our first parents at the first creation, and it was indeed also found in Christ Himself, who was without sin. So anger is not in itself a sin, nor always sinful. Instead, it is in its own nature indifferent, and becomes either good or evil according to the grounds, causes, objects and ends of it.
Christians keep the eighth commandment
In verse 28, the apostle exhorts either those who, when they were unconverted, acted contrary to the eighth commandment, stealing their neighbour’s goods, or those who were yet, after professing faith in Jesus Christ, guilty of that sin in some degrees and respects. He exhorts them to “steal no more.”
Christ redeems us from stealing and deceitfulness
The sin of stealing includes all the fraudulent and deceitful ways in which we may wrong our neighbour, without his knowledge, in his goods or outward estate, whether by taking what belongs to him (John 20:19) or withholding from him what is his (James 5:4), or indeed by partaking with those who do so (Psalm 50:18).
The apostle exhorts them also to the opposite duty, as a remedy of this evil. They should instead labour diligently – even to weariness (as the word means) – in any good and honest calling, supposing it is only in some labouring work or manual trade.
This remedy is all the more recommended because of the advantage which follows from it, i.e., that by doing so, and through God’s blessing on their diligence, they will not only acquire to themselves sufficient worldly goods that they will be kept from any necessity of stealing, but they will also be able to use some of what they have to meet the needs of others.
Jesus Christ does not reject the vilest sinner, not even thieves, or worse, for anything they have been. Yet they must amend their life subsequently. Nevertheless, some, after they have made a profession as Christians, continue to live in the practice of base and shameful sins, which hardly can be called the marks of God’s children. It is clear that some of the Ephesians were guilty of this sin before an offer of mercy was made to them in the gospel, and indeed that some were yet living in it.
In God’s good and wise way of ordering things, he has established property rights and differences in the ownership of goods and possessions. He has not left all things to be communal, as if everyone has an equal right to everything. Otherwise there could not be such a sin as stealing, nor would it be necessary to forbid theft. This ordering is intended to avoid confusion, strife, contention, and other problems. It also serves as an opportunity for some to show charity, and others to show patience.
Christ wants His people to labour in an honest way
Lack of a job, or idleness in it, brings about poverty and want, with the result that people are liable to temptations to steal, and to take other sinful courses of action, to keep themselves from dire straits. It is therefore the Lord’s will that everyone sets themselves to labour diligently in some lawful calling and employment. This is a remedy, not only against the evil of stealing, but several others also, which flow from idleness, and too much ease (2 Thess. 3:12; Psalm 73:5).
It is not absolutely necessary, nor yet convenient, or possible, for every individual to find work in some manual calling, or trade, and to “labour with his hands.” Not everyone is able to go about such a calling, and there are other lawful callings which require labour with the mind, comparable to those which require labour with the hands (1 Tim. 5:17). Yet there is no calling so lowly (providing it is honest), to which a person should not betake himself (whatever he be for birth, and nobility of descent) and spend his strength in it, even to weariness, rather than to steal, or use any sinful tactic to save himself from straits. “Let him steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands.”
Even those things that were imposed on fallen mankind for a curse and punishment of sin, have their nature changed to believers, and are turned into a blessing and an effectual remedy against sin. In Genesis 3:19 it is imposed on Adam as a part of the curse, that he was “in the sweat of his face to eat his bread.” But here working is enjoined and commended by the apostle to believers, as an effectual remedy against the evil of stealing.
No necessity or want whatsoever can warrant someone to employ himself in any calling which is not lawful and honest, or which tends only to gratify the lusts of pride, vanity, prodigality and uncleanness. Our calling ought to be such as we may serve God in it with a good conscience (Colossians 3:23), and promote the good of either the church, family, or society (Galatians 5:13). To prevent stealing, the apostle restricts them in their choice only to good and lawful callings, “… working … the thing which is good.”
Christ blesses diligence enough for us to share our success with others
The Lord’s ordinary way is to bless conscientious diligence in a lawful calling with such a measure of success as the person may have whereby to sustain himself and to be helpful unto others. Exceptions are when the Lord see it otherwise fitting, to test and exercise that person’s faith, patience and other graces (2 Corinthians 8:2). The goal of labouring in a lawful calling proposed here (“that he may have to give to him that needeth”) is for the most part attained, otherwise it would have been no encouragement.
It is the duty of all whom God has blessed with any measure of worldly substance, to bestow some part of it for the help of others. So in the exercise of our callings, if we would expect the Lord’s blessing on it, we ought to intend not only the enriching of ourselves and ours, but also the means to do good to others.
Everyone is under obligation to give their might for the help of the indigent – not only the rich, but even the poor labourer, who can hardly get his livelihood from the work of his hands. We ought to give alms out of what is our own lawfully purchased, and not out of the gain of oppression, or hire of an harlot (Deuteronomy 23:18).
The Lord sees it fitting always to keep some among his people, poor and indigent, even objects of charity. This contributes to the exercise of their faith and patience, and to testing the charity and compassion of others (Deuteronomy 15:11). So the only ones who are to be relieved by our charity are needy, and indigent, and cannot relieve themselves, but not those who, being able to work in a lawful calling, simply choose instead a life of ease and idleness, and live on the charity of others. We are to give “to him that needeth.”
This extract from James Fergusson’s commentary on Ephesians dovetails with what he also discusses in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“… that if any would not work, neither should he eat …”).
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