Exhortations Regarding Idleness in the Church, Part 1

Grace For The Journey


07Feb  We will look at 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10 in today’s blog.  As we come to the conclusion of our journey through this letter, Paul is led to address a dangerous problem that had developed in the thinking of these believers.

If left untreated, disorder in the church, like physical ailments, will only increase causing greater and greater sickness and pain. Because of a wrong response to the imminent return of the Lord, the problem of idleness touched on briefly in 1 Thessalonians, seems to have only grown worse.  There were those in the church at Thessalonica who had evidently stopped working and were running around in excited idleness from house to house in anticipation of the Lord’s return at any moment.

This wrong response to prophetic truth not only led to idleness and the lack of ability to support oneself and family, but it had resulted in becoming busybodies.  It appears they also expected the church to support them.  It is entirely possible that it was this group that had been spreading some or perhaps all of the false teaching discussed in chapter 2 of this epistle.  Furthermore, they were probably guilty of spreading rumors or gossip about others in the church.  Warren Wiersbe puts it this way, “They had time on their hands and gossip on their lips, but they defended themselves by arguing, ‘The Lord is coming soon!’”

In his previous epistle, Paul had warned these busybodies to stop such idleness and get back to quietly working with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).  He later urged the believers there to admonish the unruly or undisciplined (ataktos, “out of order, disorderly, undisciplined”).  In view of this chapter, it is clear that either they had not heeded Paul’s admonishment or they had not listened to the admonishments from the church body.

This is a sad illustration of wrong interpretation or wrong application of biblical truth.  The New Testament does teach the imminent, any-moment possibility of the return of the Savior for His church; it is imminent, but no one knows when He will return.  It could be today, but it might not be, as has been the case for hundreds of years.  The principle is that . . .

We are to live as though

It will be today . . .

While working and

Continuing on in life

As though it could

Be tomorrow.

We must hold both truths

In proper balance.

As we learned from 1 Thessalonians, the coming of the Lord with all that it means to believers is to be a strong motivation to living in obedience to the teachings of God’s Word through the power of the Holy Spirit so that God will be glorified.

Misinterpretations and misapplications of the truths of God’s Word can cause endless trouble.  History records the foolishness of people who set dates, sold their possessions, and sat on mountain tops waiting for the Lord to return.  Any teaching that encourages us to disobey any divine teaching is not Bible teaching.

In these verse Paul offers two principles to help these believers get back on course in the lives and ministry.

1) The Exhortations of the Apostolic Team

Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 3:6, “But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition you received from us.”

The seriousness of this exhortation is seen in the use of the word “command,” in Paul’s appeal in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the nature of the command “to keep away.” “Command” means, “give orders, instruct with authority.”  It was used for various directions given from persons in authority like human rulers, Jesus, and the apostles.  Paul used this strong word in connection with the idle busybodies in the first epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:2 and 11) and in this epistle in 3:4, 6, 10, & 12.

The word was a military word often used of a command by a superior officer.  The lesson here is simple:

The church is engaged

In spiritual warfare

(Ephesians 6:10ff))

With each believer a soldier

Whom God has enlisted

Into His army.

When we fail to follow

The directives of the Savior,

It leads to disorderly conduct

Which hurts our effectiveness

(1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2;3-4)

Paul uses another military term to describe the problem at Thessalonica.  Some of the saints were “undisciplined,” literally, “out of order” or “out of rank.” (see also 3:7 and 11).  This family of words was used of soldiers who were out of step or moving in disarray.  For another passage that uses military metaphors, we might compare by way of contrast two words the apostle used in Colossians 2:5 when he wrote, “For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit, rejoicing to see the order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”  Here the apostle was thankful for the orderly way the Colossians had closed ranks and presented a solid front of soldiers in standing for the cause of Christ.  “Order” means “a fixed succession or order.”  It was a military term used of a rank or orderly array.  “Firmness” means “a solid body; steadfastness, firmness.”  This too was a military word and continues the military metaphor and means, “a solid front;” it was used of Roman soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder with their spears pointing forward.

In this regard, Paul appealed to the Thessalonians in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Commander-in-Chief of the army of God.  In essence, then, these commands came by the authority of Christ.  Paul was passing on authoritative instructions as an apostle, one sent by the Lord Jesus to plant or establish churches and to lay the biblical foundation for the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:20).  To disobey Paul’s directives was to disobey the Lord.

The command is spelled out specifically, “To keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition you received from us.”  “To keep away” originally meant “to set, place, arrange, fit out as an army for an expedition;” hence “to prepare, equip.”  Then it came to mean “to bring together” or “to gather up” as when one furls the sails of a ship.  Hence it came to mean, “to shrink back, restrain, withdraw oneself, hold aloof, avoid.”

The phrase “from any brother” stresses the principle and need of impartiality.  The tendency in exercising church discipline is to show partiality to some because of their standing in the community or in the church, or because of financial status, or simply because they are very likable people, but such cannot purify and toughen up God’s army for spiritual warfare.  As we are warned in 1 Corinthians 5, a little leaven eventually leavens the whole lump.

Paul goes on to pinpoint the specific problem, “Who live an undisciplined life and not according …”  As we break down these words, we can clearly see why Paul needed to so strongly address this issue.  “Who live” is literally, “walking in a disorderly way.”  “Walking” is a common word used in the Bible for one’s way of life or conduct in general.  “Undisciplined” is a vivid word that describes the nature of their behavior. “… The word means “to play truant.”  It occurred in an apprentice’s contract in Paul’s day in which the father agrees that his son must make good any days on which he “absents himself from duty or plays truant.”

The Thessalonians in their excited idleness were truants from duty and from work.  Such truant behavior was foolish because of the natural consequences and because no one knows when the Lord will return.  But it was more than just foolish, it was rebellion because it was contrary to the truth handed down to the Thessalonians previously (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12; 5:14) and to the teaching of the Word in general.  In essence, this constituted walking in disobedience to the Word of God.  This was rebellion and no excuse could justify such behavior. So strong measures were needed.

What does the Bible teach about manual (or menial) labor?  For one thing, labor was a part of man’s life before sin entered the scene.  God gave Adam the job of tending and guarding the Garden (Genesis 2:15).  Although sin turned labor into toil (Genesis 3:17-19), it must never be thought that the necessity for work is a result of sin.  Man needs work for the fulfillment of his own person.  God created him to work.

Have you noticed that God called people who were busy at work?

  • Moses was caring for sheep (Exodus 3).
  • Joshua was Moses’ assistant before he became Moses’ successor (Exodus 33:11).
  • Gideon was threshing wheat when God called him (Judges 6:11ff),
  • David was caring for his father’s sheep (1 Samuel 16:11ff).
  • Our Lord called four fishermen to serve as His disciples.
  • Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3) and used his trade to support his own ministry.

The Jews honored honest labor and required all their rabbis to have a trade.  But the Greeks despised manual labor and left it to their slaves.  This Greek influence, plus their wrong ideas about the doctrine of the Lord’s return, led these believers into an unchristian and unbiblical way of life.

Later, the apostle will show that . . .

The issue here was ultimately

One of unwillingness.

The circumstances of life

(Sickness, loss of a job,

Economic conditions)

Sometimes keep people from working,

So the question was not one

Of inability but unwillingness

(Note verse 10, “if anyone is not willing to work, …”).

2) The Example of the Apostolic Team

1 Thessalonians 3:7-10 says, “For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you.  It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate.  For even when we were with you we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.”

The apostle was always deeply concerned about his own example of Christlikeness, for he knew that a student will become like his teacher (Luke 6:40).  His great concern for this is evident in his statement in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 when he said, “… for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved (literally, “came to be”) to be among you for your sake.”

In these verses, then, Paul was able to turn to his own example and that of his team.  “Imitate” is the Greek word “mimeomai” from which we get our word “mimic.”  The idea of this word is that of modeling, becoming like, or following after another.  It stresses the nature of a particular kind of behavior modeled by another that we are to follow.  In the New Testament, it has a spiritual, ethical or moral emphasis and is generally linked with an obligation to a certain kind of conduct or character as a product of faith in the directives of the Bible and the example of the apostles or other leaders who were also following the Lord Jesus as their ultimate example.

It is linked to certain ones

Who are living examples

For the life of faith

And the character of Christ.

This, the apostle states, is a moral and logical obligation.  He said, “you must imitate us.”  The word “must” refers “to the compulsion of duty, of law, of custom, or of an inner necessity that grows out of the situation.”  Here it is the moral necessity that arises out of the fact these men were their spiritual mentors who followed the Lord Jesus and who had provided them with a godly example.

Thus, Paul adds, “because we did not behave without discipline among you, …”  Though they had the right to receive support from the Thessalonians, they set aside that right in order to provide a fitting example of Christ-like behavior (see verse 9).

This not only provided

An example to new Christians,

But was a way of answering

The false accusations of their accusers.

The word “without discipline” means “to be out of order, out of line.” It’s the verb form of the word used and discussed above in verse 6.

Paul himself was not idle.  His readers could verify this claim (“you yourselves know,” verse 7; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:1; 3:3; 4:2; 5:2).  In imitating Paul, they would be imitating the Lord Himself (1 Thessalonians 1:6) because Paul’s life was so carefully patterned after his Lord’s.  He did not loaf at Thessalonica (verse 7b), nor depend on others to supply him with free food (verse 8a).  He supported himself in spite of much fatigue (“laboring to the point of exhaustion,” verse 8) and many obstacles (“toiling,” verse. 8; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:9) in order to relieve the new Christians in Thessalonica of the burden of supporting him.

Paul did not have to exert himself so tirelessly.  As an apostle, he had “the right to such help” (verse 9; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:4ff; 1Thessalonians 2:7) from his converts.  He decided, however, to forego this privilege and leave an example for them to imitate.

With verse 10, the apostle reinforced their example by reminding them of their previous instruction as it pertained to working and supporting oneself and family.  As I noted previously, the instruction here is aimed at those who are “unwilling to work.”

This instruction was not just a matter

Of some cultural tendency

They may have noted

In the Thessalonians,

But of a fundamental biblical principle.

God is Himself a worker.  After all, He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  As such, He designed a working vocation as a necessary part of life even before the fall and He expects each of us to be involved in some form of vocation that we might support ourselves and our families, find a sense of significance and destiny in our labor, and be a productive member of society.

Thus, denying support to those who are unwilling to work is not cruel, but becomes a basic form of discipline to force idlers into reality and into the responsibility of becoming productive people. This kind of discipline is tough love and provides a protection to both the individual and to the society.

This is God’s Word For Today … This Is Grace For The Journey

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”


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