READ : 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
The idea of the Last Judgment and the eternal punishment of sinners have got to be the least popular subjects in all of the Bible. But that’s just it – they’re in the Bible, and we need to hear about them.
In writing his letters to the church in Thessalonica, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul has been focusing on the last things, those great events with which history and our world will come to a dramatic conclusion. Those include Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment where believers in Christ will be vindicated and all sin will be punished publicly and eternally by a just God. In 2 Thessalonians, he goes on to write in chapter 2 about the great conflict between good and evil, the cosmic struggle between the forces of lawlessness and the power of God, the restraining power of his Word, of his law, in society. So these are huge issues and they sort of put us into a backdrop of an eternal confrontation between good and evil, between God and Satan.
And now as he comes to the conclusion of 2 Thessalonians in chapter 3, Paul turns, of all things, to the subject of work – something as utterly practical and down to earth as that. You’d think he might want to somehow shoot out into the vast reaches of eternity, but no, he comes back to earth in a hurry and addresses the Thessalonian Christians in very pragmatic, practical terms, about their need to work, day in and day out, at their jobs, at their callings, whatever it might be.
I think what was on his mind was the temptation that has arisen from time to time among Christians to simply drop out, to become so obsessed almost with the end of time and the return of Christ that they can’t really focus their minds on day-to-day living. One of the most dramatic examples of that, I think, of that in church history happened in America in the nineteenth century when a group of people known as Millerites, because of their leader, William Miller, literally sold all their possessions, donned white robes, and went out on a hillside in upstate New York because their leader had convinced them that Christ was going to return on October 22, 1844. Well, as you might imagine, when morning dawned on the 23rd of October, there was considerable disappointment, even disillusionment within the group. So what is the right attitude for us to take, not to become obsessed with Christ’s return, not to get involved or caught up in date-setting or projecting, but simply get on with what God has called us to do. Listen to how Paul puts it in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3, beginning at verse 6:
Now we command you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from those who are walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 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. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing good.
So there it is, practical instruction for day-to-day life. And the instruction all has to do with work. God wants us to take practical matters as seriously as we do doctrinal ones, and both are addressed at length in the New Testament. So what’s Paul’s teaching here, and what’s its significance for us? First of fall, I think, it shows us if we look behind his commands what our attitude toward work ought to be. Now it’s true: work is problematic, and that’s especially true today. On the one hand there’s the problem of people who give themselves too much to their work; workaholics we call them, people whose lives are so wrapped up in their jobs that they really don’t have time or attention for anyone or anything else.
Today especially, though, the opposite problem is evident: people who want to work and can’t find it as we continue to struggle in the throws of recession and a slowly recovering economy, as job after job has left our shores and gone abroad, as people who’ve been competent and highly qualified at what they do suddenly find nobody’s hiring, nobody wants them.
So the first thing to notice here is that Paul is speaking about what our normal attitude and approach should be, our normal behavior. He’s not talking about people who can’t work or who can’t find work or who are retired and have finished their careers in their work. He’s talking about what in the ordinary course of things we ought to be doing. And he begins by giving us insight into the motivation between all human labor, at least as Christians understand it: why we should work, not just because we have to.
I think one of the problems we have in our culture is the widespread attitude in all walks of life almost that work is something we sort of put up with so that we can get to the weekend or to the holiday or to the vacation when real life and real pleasure and enjoyment can occur. You remember the old bumper sticker, I’m sure you’ve seen it: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” We only work because we’re required to in order to make enough to pay our bills. Work is a necessary evil that we endure to get to the point where we can really live and enjoy ourselves.
But that’s not the Bible’s understanding or approach. We don’t do our jobs just for the money. We work as Christians because we know we ought to. Notice what Paul says about himself. Paul says he worked voluntarily and he expected the others to do the same. His work as a pastor among them in Thessalonica could have been enough to earn him his support. He has that right, he says, but instead, to set them an example, Paul worked with his hands. He worked Monday to Saturday at his trade of tentmaking so that on Sundays he could give himself to teaching them and pastoring them.
And then he gives them his famous rule in verse 10: “If anyone won’t work, let him not eat.” Notice how he puts it, if anyone won’t work, if they don’t want to work, if they’re able to and they have an opportunity to but of their own volition they choose instead to be idle, then they ought not to eat. His implication is that useful, productive work is a moral duty for those who are capable of it. We work because we ought to, because working is right because that’s what God created us for. That’s why idleness was so abhorrent to Paul: simply twiddling your thumbs and doing nothing and expecting others to support you.
We are made in the image of God. That’s the Bible’s teaching, and God is a working God. He’s a creative God. “My Father is at work,” said Jesus, “and so am I.. Work while it is yet day for the night is coming when no one can work. I have come to do your will, O God,” Jesus says, quoting from the psalms.
Do you remember how Adam and Eve in the garden were charged with the command to tend the creation, to be fruitful and to multiply and to care for the garden for the earth? This was before sin came into the world. Work is not a curse. It’s not one of the consequences of the fall. The frustration of work is a curse and a consequence of the fall: the thorns and thistles that infest our fields and make it hard to keep them clean and productive. But work is a gift of the Creator to us because it imitates what God himself does. In the first place we imitate God with our work when we are creative, when we too create: things like art, for example. Think of great music, or beautiful poetry, or literature. You know that the word poem comes from the Greek word “to make” or “to shape.” Sometimes we create with our minds and with our words, sometimes we create with our hands and with our bodies, but our creative work, filling the world with good things, with necessary things, and even beautiful things, is one way in which we are like God, our Creator.
And there’s another whole area of work that allows us to imitate God. It’s God in his work of providence because God still cares for the world. He upholds it. He maintains it. That’s what we mean by the providence of God. And so our jobs, whether we’re senators or street sweepers, in some way contributes to the maintaining of community, to the care of the earth. If you have that attitude toward your job, whatever it is, and not just your job but any work that you do – volunteer work, a work in retirement, any kind of thing that contributes to the well-being of others, and to the well-ordered maintenance of society and of the earth itself – that is God-like behavior and activity. That is why we work.
And all this, says Paul, is part of the command and the encouragement that he gives to the believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a Christian thing, you see, it’s part of our Christian discipleship. Our daily work falls under the heading of our obedience to Christ. Really, strictly speaking, we shouldn’t think of sacred versus secular. Christians don’t have any secular life. Everything we do is sacred. It’s part of our calling. God calls us to serve him in the world and we do that through a job and through a dozen different ways, but we do it above all by serving Christ in the persons of others. We serve God by serving people. And that’s the work that he’s given us to do. “Do not grow weary in doing good,” the apostle concludes. What a wonderful thought! You know, doing good, there’s a job you’ll never retire from.