1 Thessalonians 3:6-12
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 and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 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. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
In our passage this morning, we see God telling us to “keep away” from those who are “walking in idleness.” This is one of only about three places in the New Testament where we read that we are to avoid, or to stay away from someone. So, we must conclude that God takes this issue of idleness, or we might say, laziness, very seriously. And it seems to have been a problem within the Thessalonian church. And if we are honest with ourselves, we might even see this problem within ourselves.
Before we get any further, let’s define what we are talking about here. So what was the issue? Although we are not given many details, it appears that there were certain able-bodied members of the church, he does refer to them as “any brother,” who were not willing to work. It is understood that they were able, but they were not willing. Instead of being busy at their own work, they would spend their time being busy at other people’s business. They were busybodies! And although Paul does address the sins of gossip and slander elsewhere, here the issue is that these individuals were unwilling to support themselves. They were more than happy to live off the labor of others. In today’s vernacular, we would call them “freeloaders.”
And this is not the first time Paul has had to address this situation of freeloaders in the church. As he says in our passage this morning, he had already addressed this issue when he was with them in person. Let us look at verse 10, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: ‘If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.’” And, in his first letter to this church, Paul addressed this issue twice before, urging them “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.”[i] He urged them to “admonish the idle.”[ii]
It would seem that this issue had persisted in the church, so much so, that Paul feels the need, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to tackle this issue head on. And he does so with the full authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is important for us to feel the full force of what Paul is doing here. This issue was so important, that although Paul had already begun to draw his letter to a close at the beginning of this chapter, he was compelled to address the issue of this sin that was still persisting in this young church.
In verses 7-10, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the example he and his coworkers had set for them while they were with them. They were not freeloaders! They paid for their food, they supported themselves. And it wasn’t easy, either. As he says, they worked night and day with toil and labor, all so that they would not be a burden to the Thessalonians and so that they could give them an example to imitate of how important it is to support oneself.
Paul does remind them in verse 9, that he and his coworkers did have the right to be supported by the Thessalonians. As we read in 1 Corinthians 9:14, “…the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Yet in this case, it was more important to provide this example of supporting oneself, than it was for Paul to make use of this right.
I think it is important to point out that Paul is talking about those who will not work. He is not talking about those who cannot work. I think this is an important difference, although it may, at times, be hard to know where to draw that line. I have learned that not all those who have a doctor’s note stating that they cannot work, are actually unable to work.
And that can make it very difficult to be able to properly speak on this subject. This is because there may be those who desperately need to hear what God is saying in this passage, but have convinced themselves that they are the exception. That, because of their special situation, it is ok for them to live off the labor of others.
I can remember when I was a missionary, I needed to raise support and would have many individuals, families, and churches contributing to my monthly support needs. I would often meet with people for meals at restaurants, and I can tell you, I got quite used to others always picking up the check after the meal. And you know what happened? Not only did I begin to enjoy it, I began to expect it. And the Lord began to convict me about that, so I started to change, and I started to pick up the checks after the meals. I know that it sounds like a small thing, but it really helped to change my attitude. It helped to break that feeling of being dependent on others, of expecting to be served.
If you are a child living at home, are you contributing to the running of that home? Do you share in the chores, and if you are working, in the expenses? Or have you come to expect that your room and board should be yours without paying for it? Have you become comfortable living off of the labors of your parents?
In a very real sense, this is the whole process of parenting – training our children to earn their own living. When our child is born, they are totally dependent upon us for everything. They can’t even eat without our help. And one can say that the whole goal of parenting is to raise our children so that they would be dependent on no one but God.
On the other side, there are those, who because of illness, or advanced age, are not able to do as much as they once did. They may already be feeling guilty that others have to take care of them. And this is where wisdom needs to come in. We may not be able to change what we are able or not able to do, because of illness or age. I think the important thing is our attitude. Perhaps there is a sense that we should always be uncomfortable with being waited on, but not to the point of pride where we refuse to let others help us when necessary.
Let us also consider our own attitudes toward helping out at church. Whether it be contributing to our weekly or monthly lunches, or helping out on our work days, or even helping to keep the church building clean – do we tend to sit back and let others do the work? Do we want to benefit from the labor of others? Or are we willing to pitch in and help out in any way that we can? I admit that I tend toward the former, to my shame, and I need to, by God’s grace, fight against that tendency myself.
This sense of working with our hands, of not eating anyone’s food without paying for it, of being busy at our work, is so foreign in today’s culture. We have lost the sense of the nobility of hard work, and often we see the greatest good is to have free leisure time.
As we are looking at ourselves, we may very well need to re-evaluate our whole attitudes toward retirement, toward welfare, and even toward disability. In what ways have we begun to fall into the trap of being willing to, or even looking forward to, being able to live at the expense of others?
What often makes things even harder is our culture which lifts up the idea of being able to live off the government. And to make matters worse, we have politicians actively promoting the idea of giving us free benefits paid for by others.
This attitude of wanting a free ride is not of God. We are not to condone it in ourselves, and we are not to condone it in others.
As Christians, we should be known for earning our own living, for paying our own way. With one notable exception – there is nothing we can contribute toward our salvation. There is nothing we can do to pay our own way to heaven. When it comes to salvation, we are completely dependent upon the grace of God. As Jonathan Edwards is attributed to have said, “The only thing you contribute to your salvation is the sin that made it necessary.” As the old hymn puts it, “Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin had made a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.”
May the Lord bless the reading and exposition of His word. Amen.
[i] 1 Thess. 4:11
[ii] 1 Thess. 5:14