Being Busy For Christ

2 Thessalonians 3:6-18

December 8, 2002 | Brian Bill

A woman went with her husband to the doctor’s office.  When the checkup was over, the doctor asked the man to wait outside so he could talk to the wife.  He had a very somber look on his face and asked her to sit down, “Your husband is suffering from a very severe stress disorder.  If you don’t do what I ask, he is not going to make it.  Here’s what I want you to do.  Get up early each morning and fix him a healthy breakfast.  Make him a nutritious lunch and prepare a really special dinner every night.  Be pleasant at all times.  Don’t burden him with chores or discuss your problems with him.  You will need to do almost all the work around the house.  And, you can’t nag him about anything.  If you can do this for a year, your husband will completely regain his health.”

As they were driving home, the husband turned to his wife and asked, “What did the doctor say?”  To which she replied, “He said you’re going to have a very difficult year!”

This wife wasn’t interested in following the doctor’s orders by doing the work that it would take to make things better.  As we come to the closing verses in 2 Thessalonians, and to the final message in our “Don’t Be Left Behind” series, we’re going to see that some believers were not interested in following Paul’s orders and had stopped working altogether.

Follow along in your Bible as I read 3:6-18: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example.  We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.  On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.  We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.  For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’  We hear that some among you are idle.  They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.  And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.  If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him.  Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.  Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.  Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters.  This is how I write.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”

The church in Thessalonica had some problems.  Like physical ailments, if they were left untreated, these chronic complaints would only cause more sickness and pain.  Some of the believers had a wrong response to the imminent return of Christ and had stopped working and become idle.  Because they had nothing else to do, they ran around spreading panic and putting their noses where they did not belong.  Paul refers to them as busybodies.  Warren Wiersbe puts it this way: “They had time on their hands and gossip on their lips, but they defended themselves by saying, ‘The Lord is coming soon!’”

This wasn’t the first time that Paul had to address their faulty views of work.  

  • Look at verse 10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”  Right after starting the church, Paul gave them some guidelines for how to handle those who refuse to work.  We could say it this way: No loaf to the loafer and no soup for the slacker. 
  • Then, because Paul’s words were not taken seriously, he stepped it up a notch in his first letter to them in 1 Thessalonians 4:11: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you.”  
  • Now, just a matter of weeks after receiving the first letter, Paul pens 2 Thessalonians in part to rebuke those who withdrew from the work world.

This is now the third time Paul tackled this topic, and each time you can sense the rising intensity.  

The Worth of Work

The question begs to be asked: Why did he spend so much time talking about work?  In fact, the topic of labor takes up almost as much space as the focus on the return of Christ in his letters to the Thessalonians.  Before we jump into our passage, I think it’s important that we understand why work is worthy in God’s sight.  Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “Work fascinates me, I can sit and watch it for hours?”  Here’s one that some of you may agree with: “The worst day of fishing is better than the best day of working.”  Another one I’ve seen goes like this: “Hard work may not kill me but why take a chance?”

Our culture has some confusion about work.  On the one hand, we have workaholics and on the other extreme are “workabhorics.” And, in the middle, the majority of people today follow the philosophy of another bumper sticker: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.”  Homer, the famous Greek writer, said that the gods hated humans so much that they invented work as a way to punish people.  

Some of you may have heard that work is a consequence of Adam’s sin.  Genesis 3:17-19: “…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…”  Is work a product of the Fall?  Turn back to Genesis 2:15 for the answer: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”  Work is a worthy pursuit, designed by God, who is Himself a worker.  Work is woven into the very fabric of creation.  The Fall didn’t introduce work; it just cursed it by bringing in thorns, thistles, and trials.  Someone put it this way: God designed man to be a gardener but the Fall made him a farmer.  That’s pretty good.  At the beginning Adam’s job was to care for what God had planted.  When sin entered the world, work became more difficult.

In a sermon on this topic, John MacArthur gives four biblical insights about work that I’d like to share this morning: 

  1. God commands us to work. Exodus 20:8-9: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”  We talk about the importance of rest but we must remember that the command here involves working six days.
  2. God models work for us. Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them…” God is the greatest worker in the universe.  The Bible describes His works of creation, judgment and redemption.
  3. Work is part of the creation mandate. Stars shine, plants grow, water does what its supposed to do, clouds do what they do, and when we work we’re doing what we’ve been designed to do.  Psalm 104:23: “Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.”  Work is our contribution to God’s amazing creation.
  4. Work is a gift from God.  When we labor out of love for our Lord, we put on display the genius of God who created each of us uniquely to reflect His beauty.  When we work in concert with Him according to our giftedness and abilities, God is glorified and we’re fulfilled because that’s what He’s made us to do.  Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

John Stott captures the essence of work when he writes: “Work is the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.” 

There’s a story told about three men who were digging a foundation.  When asked what he was doing, the first man replied that he was earning money to feed his family.  The second man said he was working so he could go out and party on the weekend.  Only the third man captured the architect’s plan for the structure when he said, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of God.”  Friend, do you see your job as an avenue to promote the purposes of God?

As we come to our text today, it’s important to understand that the Thessalonians were inundated with at least three influences when it came to work.

  • Some with Jewish background believed that only those who studied Scripture like the scribes were doing worthy work.  They separated the spiritual from the secular.
  • Those from Greek background believed that work was demeaning and belonged only to slaves.  They had a superior attitude.
  • And there were some from the Thessalonian congregation that believed work was no longer necessary because Jesus was going to return any moment.  As a result, they withdrew from work and became busybodies.

This background is helpful in understanding Paul’s passion to promote a biblical theology of labor to this young congregation.  I see 6 Ways to Stay Busy For Christ in this passage.

1. Stay away from the idle (6). 

Since Paul has already exhorted and warned the believers to keep working, he now appeals to the authority of the “Lord Jesus Christ.”  He uses the Savior’s full title here to communicate the absolute seriousness of the problem.  This is not just Paul’s opinion or suggestion.  The word “command” in the Greek comes right at the beginning of verse 6, “We command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” A general would use this word when he gave orders to his troops.  The commander-in-chief of the armies of heaven is ordering us to stay away from the idle.

Those who are idle are disorderly and have gone AWOL from their God-given responsibilities

The phrase “keep away” means to abstain or avoid.  It was used of furling the sails on a boat.  When the wind would come up they would unfurl the sails, or open them up.  When the wind died down, they would furl them, or pull them back in.  Likewise, we’re to pull back from believers who are “idle,” which is another word from the military world that means to be out-of-step or out of rank.  Those who are idle are disorderly and have gone AWOL from their God-given responsibilities.  

The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about those who are intentionally idle by referring to them as sluggards.

  • 6:9: “How long will you lie there, you sluggard?  When will you get up from your sleep?”
  • 10:26: “As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him.”
  • 19:24: “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!”
  • 21:25: “The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work.”
  • 26:14: “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.”

It seems a bit strong to sever ties with slackers, doesn’t it?  Paul will develop this further in verses 14-15, but for now, remember that work is worthy because it has been stamped with God’s creativity and sanctified by His eternal purposes.  Also, keep in mind that these believers had ignored Paul’s face-to-face instruction, had blown off the exhortation in the first letter, and were continuing in their errant behavior.  

These recalcitrant leisure lovers were defiantly disobeying a direct order.  In order to bring them back to the ranks, busy believers were to pull back from lazy loafers.  It’s time now for some discipline.  The aim of this alienation is for the wayward to get back on board.  Disfellowship should lead the person back to fellowship.   Romans 16:17 echoes this sentiment: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.”  We’re to pull back for our protection and for their restoration.

2. Follow the example of hard workers (7-9). 

Next Paul appeals to his own example in verses 7-9.  Along with Silas and Timothy, they modeled what it means to “labor and toil,” which means, “to work to the point of pain.”  And, they did this night and day when they were with them.  They worked hard, not because they weren’t entitled to some support, but because they wanted to give them a model that they could imitate.  Because they were planting a church, they did not want to be a burden to the believers.  The sluggards, on the other hand, were trying to leach off the church when they should have been working.

I’m thankful for the strong work ethic that my parents passed on to me.  Both my mom and dad worked with everything they had.  I’m also grateful for the hard workers in this congregation who model what it means to labor to the point of pain.  Many of you understand that there really is no difference between the secular and the sacred as you live out the truth of Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

3. Work is the responsible thing to do (10-12). 

In verse 10, Paul refers back to a maxim that he repeated all the time: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”  Now, this doesn’t mean that those who can’t work, for one reason or another, shouldn’t eat.  He’s referring to those who will not work, to those who are idle even when work is available and they are able.  

We should never use this verse to hammer the poor or the unemployed because we often don’t know the whole story.  Some of you have been looking for work for many months and you can’t find a job.  We hurt for you and we support you.  This verse is referring to a small minority of believers who had willingly decided to just live off others and put their noses where they didn’t belong.  Having said that, the principle still applies.  If we want food we must be willing to work.  It’s interesting that after Jesus fed the 5,000 in John 6, the next day they showed up again for breakfast, only this time He didn’t feed them.  He fed them the day before in order to teach them and reveal Himself to them, but he wasn’t interested in subsidizing slackers or providing people with an eternal welfare state.

Verse 11 describes what the idle had begun to do: “We hear that some among you are idle.  They are not busy; they are busybodies.”  A busybody is one who has so much time on his hands that he stays busy by meddling in the lives of others.  The Greek word literally means, “to be working around.”  Someone has compared busybodies to mules: When they are pulling, they cannot kick; when they are kicking they cannot pull.  A person who is working hard is generally not lashing out at those around him.  The individual who is inflicting pain on others is usually not pulling her load.

Proverbs 26:17 paints a vivid picture of what can happen when we meddle in matters that shouldn’t matter to us: “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.”  Busybodies often turn into gossips according to 1 Timothy 5:13: “Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house.  And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.”  It’s easy to get into the habit of being idle.  When that happens, being a busybody and passing along gossip can easily become a vocation in itself.

Paul has some strong words for those who are in the habit of being idle in verse 12: “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.”  Notice again the use of the word “command” and the full title of Jesus.  He’s calling the slacker to mind his own business and to stop flitting around in the lives of others.  To “settle down” means to be still or quiet.  Or, we might say, “chill out and find a job.”  Ephesians 4:28 provides some helpful insight: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”  When we work we don’t have to lean on others but can instead help those who are hurting.   

Work is a wonderful antidote to anxiety and an unbalanced speculation about the return of Christ.  We are to work so we can eat.  Jesus may come back tomorrow but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to work in the morning.  One day, Francis of Assisi was hoeing in his garden and was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back that very day.  Do you know what he said?  This was his answer: “I’d keep hoeing.”

4. Do the right thing even when others aren’t (13). 

Don’t get tired of doing what is right

In verse 13, Paul recognizes that it’s easy to get discouraged when we see people doing things that are wrong.  Some of you students who are trying to live for the Lord see a few of your Christian classmates who are not walking with Christ at school and you’re bothered by it.  Or, maybe you’ve tried to help someone and have been taken advantage of.  Whatever the case, don’t lose your focus.  Don’t get tired of doing what is right.  Regardless of what others are doing, hang in there.  

Specifically, Paul is encouraging those who are hard workers to not get bummed out when they see those who are not working.  Galatians 6:9 likewise challenges us to keep on doing what is right and to trust God with the results: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” We should not withhold financial help from those who legitimately need it and not let busybodies bother us.

5. Don’t hang out with slackers (14).

Verse 14 deals with the matter of church discipline, a subject that we strive to take seriously as a church: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him.  Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.”  These idlers had refused to obey orders and were clearly exhibiting a rebellious spirit.  As a result, specific and tough measures were needed.  The Bible gives us several other passages that have to do with disciplining a straying disciple (Matthew 18:15-18; Galatians 6:1-3; Titus 3:10; 1 Corinthians 5:1-3). For our purposes, and for the sake of time, let’s look at three steps we should take with those who fit within the parameters of our passage for today.

  • The plan: Take “special note” of those who are disobeying.  This means that the whole church is to take this seriously by keeping an eye on the person who persists in going down a wrong path.  
  • The process: Do not associate with him.  They are to watch him so they can avoid him.  This verb in the Greek means that they are not to “get mixed up with” or have close associations with a slacker.  Likewise, you and I must be careful to not endorse or enable self-destructive behavior.  Sometimes we need to pull back in order for people to fall down so they will look up.
  • The purpose: The goal of church discipline must always be restoration.  The hope was that the idle individuals would be isolated to the point that they would feel ashamed of their actions.  This should then lead them to become so hungry that they would be forced to go back to work.  When idlers are ostracized from intimate fellowship with believers they should feel some shame so that they will respond to the cries of their conscience.  

We’ve lost the element of shame today, haven’t we?  The word itself is distasteful.  Literally in the Greek it means to “turn on yourself, to feel what you really are.”  While I certainly don’t want to “shame” people when I preach, because many of us are already paralyzed by false shame and guilt, the Bible does declare that we should feel some shame about our sins.  Jeremiah 6:15: “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?  No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.  So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them, says the LORD.”  Properly understood, shame should always lead us to the Savior.  Psalm 83:16: “Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD.

6. Be loving toward other sinners (15). 

Verse 15 provides us with a much-needed reminder to not be too harsh with those who are messing up.  I’ve said this many times before, but our default setting is to get angry with those who sin differently than we do.  Paul recognizes this when he writes: “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”  The offenders are not enemies but fellow believers in the Lord.  They are brothers to be admonished, not enemies to be abused.  At the same time, we’re not to excuse behavior; but we’re to “warn,” in a “tough-love” kind of way.   To warn someone is literally to put sense or biblical wisdom into the mind so that it changes behavior.

A Prayer For Peace

Paul concludes with some final words that are very comforting in verse 16: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.”  1 Thessalonians begins and ends with a focus on peace, and Second Thessalonians follows the same model.  Jesus is the Lord of peace because He is the only one who can bring peace.  The phrase “himself” is emphatic, meaning that it is Jesus, and only Jesus who can give us peace.   John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

This peace that surpasses all understanding can be experienced “at all times” (continually), and in “every way” (in all circumstances).  This was especially comforting to these believers because they were facing persistent persecution, rumors about the return of Christ, and now they needed to discipline fellow disciples.  This reminds us that life is loaded with trouble and circumstances that can easily unsettle us.  No matter what you are going through right now, you can have peace at all times and in every way.  

Some of us desperately need that kind of peace because we’re caught up in the stress and anxiety of the Christmas season.  Others of us are filled with fear.  Some of you have friction because of ruptured relationships.  The peace that Jesus gives is not the absence of trouble, but is rather the confidence that He is there with you always.  Notice how peace and His presence are linked together in verse 16: “The Lord of peace himself give you peace…The Lord be with all of you.”  

I began this morning with a story about a doctor and I read this week about another doctor who put together a very interesting survey involving his patients.   As they waited in the waiting room, they were asked to complete a questionnaire.  One of the questions asked was “What is your number one wish?”  Do you know what it was?  67% of his patients wanted to have peace of mind!

Friends, Jesus came to give us peace.  This peace first involves coming into a relationship with God the Father.  The Bible says that by our nature we are at war with Him.  It’s only through the sacrificial death of the Savior that you and I can have peace with Him.  Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  

The only way to experience internal peace and to be truly at peace with others is to make sure you are at peace with God.  The final salutation of this book draws our attention to the only thing that makes our peace even possible: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”  Once you have been saved from your sins by grace and have been born again, the Bible declares that you will be at peace.  In other words, you cannot have the peace of God until you know the God of peace.  Do you know Him?  Would you like to get to know him right now?  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?