2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
The church at Thessalonica has experienced various problems since Paul’s brief visit there on his Second Missionary Journey.
• One issue was their understanding of the status of “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Paul assured them that “the dead in Christ will rise first” when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16). In this second letter, Paul gives them an idea what to expect at Christ’s coming (2 Thessalonians 5-12), and tells of events that will precede the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
• Another issue was Christians who refused to work (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Paul addresses that issue in our text for this week.
But first Paul asks the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him and his companions. He invites prayers for deliverance “from unreasonable and evil men” (3:2), and assures them that the Lord “will establish you, and guard you from the evil one” (3:3). He states his confidence in them—that they will do as he has asked (3:4), and prays that “the Lord (might) direct (their) hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ” (3:5).
2 THESSALONIANS 3:6. WITHDRAW FROM THOSE WHO WALK IN REBELLION
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion, and not after the tradition which they received from us.
“Now we command (Greek: parangello) you, brothers (Greek: adelphoi), in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves (Greek: stellomai) from every brother (Greek: adelphou) who walks in rebellion” (Greek: ataktos) (v. 6a).
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul urged (parakaleo) the Thessalonian Christians “to work with your own hands, even as we instructed you; that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and may have need of nothing” (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12). Because some Christian brothers and sisters refused to work, Paul now commands (parangello) those who have been working to separate themselves from those who have failed to work—parangello (command) being a much stronger word than parakaleo (urge).
The word adelphos (brother) can mean a sibling by the same physical parents, but in the New Testament adelphos is often used metaphorically to mean a spiritual sibling—a brother or sister by virtue of being children of the same Heavenly Father. Christians in the first century referred to each other as brothers or sisters (Acts 6:3; 9:30; 10:23; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 6:23; 1 Timothy 6:2; Revelation 1:9; 12:10). Some Christians today still use that sort of language. The rest of us would do well to recover it.
Paul commands the faithful to withdraw from those who walk in ataktos. The word ataktos has often been translated “idle”—but it means more than that. “Disorderly” comes closer than “idle” or “rebellion.” There is an unruliness about these people’s idleness—the phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” comes to mind. In verse 11, Paul calls the idle Christians “busybodies” (peiergazomai)—people who, because they are idle, have time to meddle and create mischief. That is the crux of the problem here. The people who have chosen to disobey Paul’s entreaty to work have become meddlers and mischief-makers.
When Paul commands the faithful Christians to withdraw from the idle-disruptive Christians, he doesn’t intend that withdrawal to be permanent (see vv. 14-15 below). Instead, he hopes to get the attention of those who are idle and disruptive—and to encourage them to start working and to stop meddling. At that point, they can be restored to the community of faith—which then will be harmonious rather than troubled.
Other scriptures that encourage this kind of redemptive withdrawal are Luke 17:3; Romans 16:17; Galatians 6:1; 1 Ephesians 5:7; Timothy 5:20; and Titus 3:10.
While Paul doesn’t specify exactly what this withdrawal should entail, it would most likely include (1) refusing to subsidize the idle-disrupters with free bread; (2) refusing the Lord’s Supper to those who are being unfaithful, and (3) avoiding social contact or conversation with them. These expressions of disapproval would put great pressure on the non-compliant to become compliant. Verses 12-15 makes it clear that this is Paul’s intent. There he expresses the hope that those who haven’t been working will begin to quietly work and to eat their own bread—rather than sponging off their Christian brothers and sisters.
“and not after the tradition which they received from us” (v. 6b). The tradition that Paul passed on—and that the recalcitrant Thessalonians received—included entreaties “to lead a quiet life, and to do (their) own business, and to work with (their) own hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
2 THESSALONIANS 3:7-9. IMITATE US
7 For you know how you ought to imitate us. For we didn’t behave ourselves rebelliously among you, 8neither did we eat bread from anyone’s hand without paying for it, but in labor and travail worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you; 9 not because we don’t have the right, but to make ourselves an example to you, that you should imitate us.
“For you know how you ought to (Greek: dei) imitate us” (v. 7a). Some Thessalonian Christians are Jewish, and Jewish disciples are expected to imitate their rabbis. Thessalonians are Greek, and Greek students are expected to imitate their teachers. What Paul is asking is both common practice and common sense. When Thessalonian Christians want to know what to do and how to act, they have only to ask, “What would Paul and his companions do?”
The ultimate challenge, of course, is to imitate Christ. When Christ calls us to follow him (Matthew 4:19; Mark 10:21; Luke 5:27; John 1:43), he is calling us to adopt his values and to act as he would act—even to the point of bearing a cross (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). When we wonder what we should do, we have only to ask, “What would Jesus do?”
The little word dei gives Paul’s words considerable force. That word means, “it is necessary” or “it is right and proper.” When Paul uses dei in this verse, he means that it is necessary (or right and proper) that the Thessalonian Christians follow the example set down by Paul and his companions.
“For we didn’t behave ourselves rebelliously (Greek: atakteo) among you” (v. 7b). As noted in the comments on verse 6a above, the words ataktos (adverb) and atakteo (verb) indicate idle and disruptive behavior. Paul points out that he and his companions didn’t behave that way when they were in Thessalonica.
“neither did we eat bread from anyone’s hand without paying for it, but in labor and travail worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you” (v. 8). In Acts 18:2-3, Luke tells us that Paul was a tentmaker by trade. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, he mentioned working with his own hands (1 Corinthians 4:12). In his first letter to the Thessalonians, he mentioned working day and night “that we might not burden any of you” (1 Thessalonians 2:9)—an emphasis that he repeats in this verse. He paid his own way and reimbursed those who gave him food.
His words, “in labor and travail,” make it clear that his work had a burdensome quality to it—but he did it voluntarily so that he might bear the burden rather than imposing the burden on the Thessalonian Christians.
“not because we don’t have the right” (v. 9a). In his first letter to Timothy, Paul established that elders engaged in teaching the word of God are worthy of support. In support of that principle, he quoted two scriptures: (1) “You shall not muzzle the ox when it treads out the grain”—from Deuteronomy 25:4. The idea behind this law was that working animals deserve to eat. Paul adapted that to mean that working elders deserve to eat. (2) “The laborer is worthy of his wages”—from Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10—Jesus’ words. Jesus was establishing that it was appropriate for traveling evangelists to rely on the people they were serving for food and lodging—a principle that exactly parallels Paul’s situation (see also 1 Corinthians 9:1-14).
“but to make ourselves an example (Greek: typos) to you, that you should imitate us” (v. 9b). The Greeks used the word typos to refer to the mark or impression made by striking something with a patterned image. As a tentmaker, Paul would have worked primarily with leather—and leather lends itself to stamped images. However, a stamped image would need to be clear and accurate to be of value.
Paul says that he and his companions, in their decision not to receive funding from the Thessalonian Christians, had set an example of self-reliance and humble service—an example that they intended the Thessalonian Christians to follow.
2 THESSALONIANS 3:10-12. IF ANYONE WILL NOT WORK
10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” 11 For we hear of some who walk among you in rebellion, who don’t work at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now those who are that way, we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.
“For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: ‘If anyone will not work, neither let him eat'” (v. 10). My first exposure to this command came, not from the Bible, but from eighth-grade American history. In the fledgling Jamestown, Virginia colony in 1609, colonists were faced with the prospect of starvation. One of their many problems was gentlemen who were unaccustomed to hard work—men who considered themselves above menial labor and who refused to help with the hard work of planting and harvesting. John Smith, the leader of the colony, imposed the rule, “He that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled).” At the time, I didn’t realize that this was a Biblical injunction, but I considered it a logical and effective remedy to a serious problem.
While we must make provision for people who, through no fault of their own, are unable to work, we need strong incentives to encourage people to work. The reasons are simple: If a person isn’t working, someone else has to work “above and beyond” to support the person who isn’t working. Also, idle hands are, indeed, the devil’s workshop.
The need to be engaged in meaningful work extends to those who are officially retired from the workplace. It isn’t healthy to do nothing—nor is it healthy to do nothing but play. People need a sense of purpose, and one way to accomplish that is to do some sort of meaningful work—work that makes life better for the worker or for someone else. Whether it is paid or volunteer work is less important than whether it is purposeful.
“For we hear of some who walk among you in rebellion (Greek: ataktos), who don’t work (Greek: ergazomai) at all, but are busybodies” (Greek: peiergazomai) (v. 11).
Note the play on words between ergazomai (work) and peiergazomai (busybodies). Some translations, in an attempt to capture this play on words, say “busy” and “busybodies.”
When people are working, their energy is channeled into positive enterprises. When they aren’t working, their energy is available for meddling and mischief-making. That is the problem in the Thessalonian church. Christians who should be busy working to support themselves have become busybodies—meddlers and mischief-makers.
“Now those who are that way, we command (Greek: parangello) and exhort (Greek: parakaleo) in the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12a). Once again, we have a play on words in the Greek between parangello (command) and parakaleo (exhort). Parangello (command) is the stronger of the two words, but parakaleo (exhort) has a winsome quality to it that might speak to those who have a problem with authority.
“that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (v. 12b). This is the goal—that the idle and disruptive people might change their ways, getting jobs and earning money so that they might buy and eat their own bread rather than living off the toil of their Christian brothers and sisters.
2 THESSALONIANS 3:13-15. DON’T WEARY IN DOING WELL
13 But you, brothers, don’t be weary in doing well. 14 If any man doesn’t obey our word in this letter, note that man, that you have no company with him, to the end that he may be ashamed. 15 Don’t count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
“But you, brothers, don’t be weary in doing well” (Greek: kalopoieo) (v. 13).
In verse 12, Paul directed his remarks to the idle-disruptive people. Now, in verse 13, he addresses those who have been faithful.
The word kalopoieo is a combination of the Greek words kalos (good or well) and poieo (to do), and means “doing good things” or “doing well.”
Paul has commanded the idle-disrupters to get to work. Now he exhorts the faithful not to get tired and discontinue their good work.
“If any man doesn’t obey our word in this letter, note that man, that you have no company with him, to the end that he may be ashamed. Don’t count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (vv. 14-15). These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but one wonders why. They make it clear that Paul’s purpose in commanding withdrawal from idle-disruptive people is intended be redemptive rather than punitive—to shame them so that they might change their ways and be restored to full fellowship in the church.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2013, Richard Niell Donovan