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2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 meaning

Paul deals with an issue within the Thessalonian church. There are some believers who aren’t providing for themselves by refusing to work.

Paul addresses one final issue specific to the Thessalonian church. It can be inferred from this passage and from exhortations Paul gave in his first letter, that there were some in the church who had taken the perspective that, "Since Jesus is coming back soon and will rule the world, there's no reason to waste our time working a job or worrying about money." This perspective was wrong, as Paul will explain, but it also created a burden on the other believers who were continuing to work at their day-jobs and provide for themselves. Those who decided to stop working (since Jesus's return was imminent) still needed to eat and drink to stay alive. So they apparently became leeches, freeloaders, mooches on their fellow believers.

Paul takes these people to task: Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. Right off the bat, Paul tells the Thessalonians to keep away from every brother (a believer in Jesus) who leads an unruly life. They needed to cut the freeloaders off. Stop giving them food, water, and possibly money while they live an unruly life. Do not support their unwillingness to work. Do not be an enabler of counter-productive living. Slothful living does not bring glory to the word of the Lord, as Paul prayed their lives would accomplish (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

This was such an important principle that Paul issued a command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was a serious problem, and required stern action. Paul is writing to brethren, fellow believers, in order to lead them to the greatest benefit for themselves and their community. His command is to keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life, which in this case means refusing to work. By referencing every brother, it makes clear these are believers in the Thessalonian community who are walking in the wrong path. The Thessalonians are to keep away from them. They are not to participate in any way in enabling the destructive behavior of these unruly brothers.

Paul declares that this idea to cease work and take advantage of others believers is not according to the tradition which you received from us. Neither Paul, Silas, nor Timothy modeled this behavior to the Thessalonians, nor did they ever teach the doctrine that, "Jesus is coming back, so don't take care of yourself anymore." Quite the opposite. Paul was diligent to provide for his own needs, from his own labors (1 Corinthians 9:1-8, 15-18, 2 Thessalonians 8).

Paul recaps how he and his team lived while they were in Thessalonica preaching the gospel: For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you. The word translated undisciplined has the same Greek root as the word translated unruly. Both words are appropriate. For a community to thrive requires the members of that community to have the discipline to work, to contribute their gifting as a valuable member of a constructive team. To do otherwise tears at the fabric of the community, and denigrates its order.

Paul took care to be a good example of discipline and industry, and did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it. Whatever food Paul and his team ate, they bought with money, or if a new believer shared food with them, they reimbursed them for their provision.

How did Paul and his missionary team have money? From working a day job. Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the example he set for them, even as one who believes Jesus was returning any day to establish His kingdom: but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you. Paul was a tentmaker, and worked at least part-time to be able to buy basic necessities, so that he could spend the rest of his time preaching the gospel (Acts 18:3-4). At times he did receive financial aid from the church at Philippi (Philippians 4:15-16). In fact, he received some aid from Philippi while in Thessalonica. But either that came later, or it was not sufficient to pay their entire way, because they kept working day and night to have sufficient funds to prevent becoming a financial burden to any of the Thessalonians.

Paul asserts that as an apostle of Christ, he could ask freely for food and drink. It would not be inappropriate for him to have done so, but that was something he believed would hurt his credibility: not because we do not have the right to this (ask to be fed by others), but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. Paul's goal was to provide a model and example for the Thessalonians. In doing so, he was trying to prevent the issue that he's now having to correct. Perhaps he could foresee immature believers thinking, "Oh, since Jesus will return soon, earthly ambition doesn't matter. I might as well take it easy while I wait." His model and example was one of industry and selflessness. To earn money to pay for one's own needs is an act of service to others, because it prevents us from becoming a burden on our friends and family.

Years after writing this letter, while saying farewell to the elders of the Ephesian church, Paul explains his perspective on earning his own way through his ministry:

"I have coveted no one's silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands served my own needs and the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this way you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
(Acts 20:33-35)

This showed that Paul's practice of providing for his own needs through his own labors continued to the end of his ministry. It is, therefore, understandable that Paul viewed slothful behavior harshly, and determined that the only way to put an end to it was to set a simple but severe boundary against those who were trying to take advantage of other believers: For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

It was common for believers to share food out of generosity and love to those in need. We see such an example in Acts 2:46, where there was a sharing of goods. However, it is likely that this was to make up for losses being incurred due to persecution, not to feed people choosing to freeload.

God desires for us to give with an open hand, to be charitable, to be cheerful with our possessions, not miserly, and to prioritize giving to people who are genuinely in need (2 Corinthians 9:6-7, Luke 6:38, Proverbs 22:9). But God also desires that we both bear the burdens of others, as well as bearing our own load (Galatians 6:2, 5). We see from Paul's exhortation here that it is not charitable to enable slothfulness. We don't help people by supporting them to live a life that is undisciplined.

So for any person who is not willing to work, Paul writes, he is not to eat, either. Do not give him food, do not support his complacency. Do not provide an incentive to live a life that is undisciplined. When we enable people to be indolent, we are accomplices to a self-destructive lifestyle. Such a person is exploiting other believers, harming them, taking from them, rather than serving them. All believers are called to be servants to one another, not mooch off one another (Romans 12:1). Living slothfully does not glorify the word of God.

Paul then explains why he is addressing this problem, For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. It was likely reported to Paul from the Thessalonian leadership, or perhaps from Timothy when he visited the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 3:6), that some believers in the church were leading an undisciplined life, which meant they were doing no work at all. Of course, it is not very fulfilling to sit around doing literally nothing all day, so these believers who were doing no work at all found something else with which to occupy their time: they began acting like busybodies. Without a job to do, these people now have time to get into mischief. They aren't caring for their own business, so they've forced themselves into everyone else's business.

Paul's solution to fixing this problem regarding such persons was first to cut them off from handouts. So in very strong and direct terms, Paul writes that he, Silas, and Timothy command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ these layabouts to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. It is both a commandment and an exhortation, but it is also really the most obvious and loving solution. These people need to get back to work. And in quiet fashion, since they have become busybodies, they must exercise humility and stay out of other people's business. They ought to focus simply on taking care of themselves, and thus eat their own bread.

Paul turns back to those who are already working and taking care of themselves, as he modeled to them, But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good. Paul is not encouraging them to stop being generous; he desires they continue in doing good. He only wants to distinguish between what is actually good and what is harmful. Indulging lazy busybodies is harmful to them, to the community, and to the testimony of the gospel.

On a final note of discipline for these people who are living undisciplined lives, Paul gives one more action the believers should take, If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.

If even after this letter is read to the church of the Thessalonians, and the busybodies who are not willing to work do not repent and resume taking care of themselves, then they are in need of tough love, in the form of everyone else in the church ceasing to associate with them. This sounds unpleasant, but if these busybodies really could not be swayed by the Apostle Paul's own correction, his own instruction, then the last way to communicate with such people was to break fellowship with them. This was for their own good, for the protection of the community, as well as for the reputation of the gospel.

Also, if even after this letter is read to the church of the Thessalonians, and there are those who continue to indulge and enable the busybodies who are not willing to work, presumably these people should also be avoided. The command of Paul would logically apply both to those who refuse to work, as well as to those enabling their slothful behavior.

The goal was not to forever discard them, but to put these freeloaders to shame. Through experiencing isolation and shame, the hope is that these people would apologize, begin to work again in quiet fashion, earn their own bread to eat, and no longer be a problem and a burden on the church community. Paul writes, Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. This last drastic measure of refusing to associate with the busybodies was to admonish them, not to consider them as an enemy. The person refusing to work was still a brother in Christ, still a believer in the gospel; they were not opposed to God, not enemies of Jesus. Paul's instruction and command here is to restore such a brother back to fellowship with the other believers, so that the church could function in harmonious accord with one another (Colossians 3:12-13, Romans 12:16-18).

We can take from Paul's instructions here an important lesson in building organizational culture. Culture is largely shaped by what is honored or shamed. Paul here exhorts the Thessalonians to be intentional to honor industry and shame slothfulness. In doing so, he is making clear that the church should have a culture of discipline and hard work.




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