Among the Pauline corpus, I Thessalonians stands as unique due to its overwhelmingly encouraging tone. For basically the first three chapters, Paul has no direct instructions or corrections to give the Thessalonian believers. This stands in contrast with letters like Galatians or Philippians where Paul gets to direct instructions, warnings, or other teachings more quickly. In fact, the first direct instructions in this book do not appear until chapter four. Considering the amount of writing Paul devotes to prayerful thanks and requests on behalf of the Thessalonians, as well as his largely positive report of their ministry, this book should lead the reader to see this historic local church as healthy. Yet the fact that Paul does address issues within such a church should call the reader to pay attention all the more. If a church viewed so highly by the Apostle has problems, it ought to make every other church take notice and see what problems could affect even what may have been the most positively viewed of churches by Paul. What were these problems, and how did Paul deal with them?
The first issue the reader should pick up on is that something was lacking in the faith of this church (3:10). From the direct context, it is difficult to discern what the specific missing part of their faith was, but it is clear Paul was praying to be able to rectify it. Although the immediate context makes it clear the faith was strong even in the face of persecution (3:2-4, 6-8), apparently there was something Paul wanted to supply to their faith. While it would be valuable to delve to some depth as to what this specific issue was, for now it will suffice to say that it must have at the very basic level had something to do with them being encouraged in their faith as well as their hope in Christ.
The next clear issue Paul confronts has to do with temptation related to sexual immorality and lust. History shows that Thessalonica was chock full of opportunities for pursuing lasciviousness. Whether it was general prostitution, cultic activities, or some combination of both, there was a chance to pursue such lusts nearly everywhere around the Thessalonian church. Paul deals with this issue simply by reminding the Thessalonians of their need to flee from such pursuits and instead seek to be self-controlled. Paul reminds them that self-control plays a vital part in their sanctification, that is, becoming like Christ and better representing Him to culture which surrounded them. Paul also brings to their recollection the fact that God will discipline those, that is believers, who practice such actions.
There may have been a tendency among church members in Thessalonica to get overly entangled in others’ affairs to the point that they were neglecting their own daily duties such as working with their hands. Paul’s instructions in 4:11-12 certainly imply this. Paul also seems to come back to this issue in 5:12-14. In dealing with this problem, Paul simply encourages them to make it their goal to lead a quiet life and to work faithfully so as not to be dependent on anyone else for material and physical needs. This is important as it leads to the church having a good reputation which will bring glory to Christ and potentially help outsiders to see the Gospel.
Sandwiched in between Paul’s two discourses on working hard is an account of Christ’s return and the believers’ hope. Paul’s detailed account here implies that there was probably some confusion on the part of the Thessalonian church regarding these realities. There may have been some discouragement and some ill-founded conclusions resulting from this confusion. Paul’s solution is to remind the Thessalonians of the clear aspects of Christ’s return, most fundamentally of which was that it had not yet occurred. He goes into the nitty-gritty issues related to the believers hope leaving the Thessalonians (as well as readers today) with no doubt about what awaits believers at the second coming of Christ. Paul also instructs them about the clear implications of how believers’ ought to live based on this hope. Paul commands them to encourage one another, both with the details of Christ’s return as well as to how they ought to live based on this hope.
There was also an unfortunate anti-charismatic streak within the church. This is addressed by the clear command in 5:19-20. Paul tells them not to quench the Spirit’s fire, which is a metaphorical way of describing the Spirit’s work among believers. He also tells them not to despise prophecies. Yet at the same time, this is not to result in an uninformed, mindless approach to the work of the Spirit. Verse twenty-one makes it clear that the church is to test all things according to the standard of the clear revelation of God, the Scriptures. Even with all of this instruction however, the Thessalonians still seemed to need further instruction.
“Laziness” is not an adjective which should describe any follower of Christ. Excessive rest, cessation from activity, and other such practices are not to be found in the believer’s life. Such actions are sinful, in fact. Rather, believers ought to be among the hardest working and most strictly disciplined of individuals. Paul goes so far as to command believers to disassociate themselves with those are idle. The Apostle also views the idle as ones who do not follow his teaching (II Thess. 3:6).
Paul’s teaching on work is laid out plainly in II Thessalonians chapter three. This is not the only place where Paul talks about the contrasts of working hard and idleness, but it is perhaps the most succinct yet thorough treatment of the subjects to be found in Scripture. Here Paul instructs believers as to the attitude they should have towards work and idleness as well as what it means to work hard. He also gives instructions as to how to deal with others who are being idle.
Paul’s first instructions in this passage are on dealing with those who have been characteristically lazy and as the NASB refers to them, “unruly.” Other believers are not to associate with such individuals. Yet this probably does not mean complete ostracizing as Paul later states to warn such people as fellow believers (3:15). Such treatment may seem harsh to the modern-day reader, yet this stringency reveals the seriousness of how problematic idleness can be in the life of the believer as well as the church as a whole.
Not only does Paul give instructions on labor through his words. His own life served as an example to the Thessalonian church as to what it meant to work hard. His example still stands for readers today. To get a full appreciation for this fact, one ought to survey all of Paul’s epistles as well as the book of Acts to see just how disciplined Paul was willing to be for the sake of the Gospel. Yet even in this passage, Paul gives a quick statement that is to the point about his example—he worked night and day so as not to be a burden on anyone else. The implication here is being a financial burden as he reminds the Thessalonians that he and his associates did not eat anyone’s food without paying for it.
Working is necessary to be able to eat. If a man is not willing to work, then he is not to eat. The sense here is that such men are commanded not to eat. Thus if someone wants to simply sustain himself or herself, that person must also be about the business of working. People ought to earn the food they eat and not force others to unnecessarily upkeep their well-being. While there are sometimes exceptional cases where some may be inured, sick, or otherwise poor in spite of working hard where benevolence is called for, the norm is for every believer to contribute his or her grunt of the share of working hard.
Another aspect of idleness may surprise some. Apparently, idleness is not merely the cessation of activity, but also the act of participating in wasteful activities. In verse eleven of chapter three, Paul addresses those to whom he terms “busybodies.” The Greek word here is a participial form of “περιεργαζομαι,” which connotes the idea of busying oneself with needless matters. Not only is it problematic for the believer to be lazy, but it is also important for him or her to not waste their time by meddling needlessly in the affairs of others. While there is certainly a place for being mutually involved in one-another’s lives as believers, it can cross lines when it is taking away too much from working hard. Instead of spending so much time socializing in a shallow manner, believers ought to settle down, working heard to earn the food they eat.
What is Paul’s desire in all this? Verse thirteen states it well, namely that believers never tire of doing what is right. Doing what is right is hard work in and of itself; yet at the same time working hard in such a way so as to not needlessly depend on others is an integral part in doing what is right. Working hard is surely a way in which the church can bring glory to God and help others to see the Gospel more clearly. Remembering this call to never tire in doing right should be motivation to work hard. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:16 NIV) Amen.
Some Thoughts on the Thessalonian Church and Paul's Theology of Work
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