Request for Prayer, 1-5

3:1 Finally, pray for us, brothers and sisters, that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored as in fact it was among you, 3:2 and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. 3:3 But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 3:4 And we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing—and will do—what we are commanding. 3:5 Now may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ.

That the message of the Lord may spread rapidly – lit. ‘that the word (ho logos) of the Lord may run’.  ‘Paul sees ‘the word’ as active and vigorous, moving swiftly to accomplish God’s purpose.’ (Morris)

God’s love and Christ’s perseverance – ‘The construction is not precise; perhaps the primary thought is that of God’s love for us, with the further thought that we should respond with an answering love. We should similarly think of Christ’s perseverance as inspiring perseverance in his followers.’ (Morris)

Christ’s perseverance – is the perseverance that he demonstrated in his trials.

Hendriksen gives the following examples of endurance/perseverance:-

Rom 5:3-4: endurance in the midst of tribulation
Rom 15:4-5: endurance in the midst of reproach (cf. verse Rom 15:3)
2 Cor 1:6: endurance in the midst of suffering
2 Cor 6:4: endurance in the midst of affliction
2 Cor 12:12: endurance in the midst of persecution, distress
2 Thess 1:4: endurance in the midst of persecution
1 Tim 6:11: endurance in the midst of “the good fight of faith” (see v12)
2 Tim 3:10: endurance in the midst of persecution, suffering (see v11)

Response to the Undisciplined, 6

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

Paul moves from a message about spreading the word to one about obeying it.  ‘There is something fundamentally anomalous about Christians who share the word with others while disregarding it in their own lives.’ (Stott)

The following passages deal with church discipline: Mt 18:15-18; 1 Cor 5; 2 Cor 2:5-11; Gal 6:1; 2 Thess 3:6-15; 1 Tim 5:19f; Tit 3:9-11.

We command you – Wright explores the idea of ‘stepping out of line’ (which is prominent in this passage) by pursuing the analogy of dancing.  But this is slightly perverse, given that Paul’s language is so clearly quasi-military.

‘This peremptory address, which was prompted by their failure to heed his milder admonition in the previous letter (1 Thess 4:11f) charges the whole community with the responsibility of disciplining the few who refused to earn their daily bread.’ (Wilson)

Brothers…brother – ‘Paul appeals to brotherliness, and it is part of being a brother that no member should condone the deeds of another who, while claiming to be a brother, denies by his actions what the brotherhood stands for. Corporate responsibility is important.’ (Morris, TNTC)

Keep away – ‘steer clear’.  This include not giving them handouts of money, and not inviting them for meals.

Live – lit. ‘walk’; habitual way of life.  ‘There is a difference to be made, both in the inflicting of church censure by church guides and in the withdrawing of familiar fellowship by private Christians, betwixt those who, being surprised with some violent temptation, do but once or twice step aside from the rule of their duty, and others whose continued strain and course of life is still disorderly; for he bids “withdraw” only from those whose continued way and course were such, as the word “walk” imports.’ (Fergusson)

Idle – This is the third group who were troubling the church in Thessalonica (the others being the persecutors, ch 2, and the false teachers, ch 2).  The underlying word has to do, not specifically with ‘laziness’, but with ‘disorderliness’, with being ‘out of line’ or ‘out of step’ with others.  The particular manifestation in this case, however, has to do with failure to work.  This group has already been referred to, more gently, in 1 Thess 4:11; 5:14.

Following Hendriksen, we may suggest that the disorderly conduct included

  1. loafing – sitting back and waiting for the parousia to occur (cf. v11)
  2. gossiping – chattering excitedly about Christ’s imminent return (cf. 2:2)
  3. sponging – reluctant as they seem to have been to ‘eat their own bread’ (cf. v12)
  4. meddling – interfering with the business of others (cf. v11)

Although it may be that these people were fundamentally lazy, it is quite possible that, believing that parousia was imminent, they had given up going to work and were sponging on others.  Or, they may have imbibed the Greco-Roman disdain for manual labour.  Or again, they may have adopted a Cynic outlook and lifestyle, in which they spend their time ‘hanging out’ in the marketplaces (including that in Thessalonia = Acts 17:5).  Paul had already told them to get back to work, but evidently they had not responded.

The problem, as Wright points out, only occurs in a community that is seriously trying to live together as a family, where all are committed to sharing with one another according to need.  The danger with this arrangement is that some can fail to make a proper contribution, and lean too heavily upon the others: ‘Just as in any household it is sometimes tempting for one member to sneak out of regular domestic duties, and rely on the others to be ‘nice’ and ‘not make a fuss’—trading on their ‘love’ to get a free ride—so it can be in the church.’

‘The community itself was responsible for doing what was necessary to assure that the members lived in harmony with the apostolic tradition. This was not simply the obligation of the leadership but of the whole church. In a collectivist culture like this one, the control of an individual’s conduct and the correction of those who departed from the norms were always taken up by the community. While personal responsibility was in no way minimized, there was also a keen sense that the group was in some way responsible to insure the good conduct of the individual. Such social control received support from the traditions of the community, and censure (blame) was employed to bring those who did not conform back in line. Such dishonor in an honor/shame culture was strong motivation to act as one should. If we also understand that in these cultures the identity of a person was bound up intimately with the group to which he or she belonged, the force of this social control becomes evident.’ (Green)

‘Have you noticed that God called people who were busy at work? Moses was caring for sheep (Ex. 3). Joshua was Moses’ servant before he became Moses’ successor (Ex. 33:11). Gideon was threshing wheat when God called him (Jud. 6:11ff), and David was caring for his father’s sheep (1 Sam. 16:11ff). Our Lord called four fishermen to serve as His disciples, and He Himself had worked as a carpenter. Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:1–3) and used his trade to support his own ministry. (Wiersbe)

The teaching you received from us – They knew the behaviour was wrong – they had already been instructed and warned.

3:7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 3:8 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. 3:9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 3:10 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.” 3:11 For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. 3:12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat.

It would appear that Paul and his companions were paying guests at Jason’s home, Acts 17:5-9.

‘Paul did teach elsewhere that to receive financial support for Christian service was an acceptable practice, although he did not make use of this privilege (v. 9; 1 Cor. 9:7–14; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17–18; cf. Matt. 10:10). On the other hand, he raised his voice against those who engaged in ministry simply for financial gain (Acts 20:33; 1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; and see 1 Tim. 6:9–10; Heb. 13:5; 1 Pet. 5:2; 2 Pet. 2:3).’ (Pillar)

‘Truly, what the disorderly persons were doing was the very opposite of what the missionaries had done. The latter had been preaching the gospel and working at a trade besides! The former did not do a stitch of real work in either direction. They were loafers and spongers! Instead of being a help they were a hindrance to the progress of the gospel.’ (Hendriksen)

Not because we do not have the right to such help – See 1 Thes. 2:6b; 1 Cor. 9:4–6, 14; Gal. 6:6.

‘Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 9:1–18 that the apostles did have the right to receive their support from the churches (1 Cor. 9:4, 6, 12), basing his argument on the common norms of labor and salary (1 Cor. 9:7), the Law (1 Cor. 9:9–10), the practice in the temple (1 Cor. 9:13), and the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself (1 Cor. 9:14).’ (Green)

A model for you to follow – See also Mt 11:29; Phil 3:17; 1 Thess 1:6–7; 1 Tim 1:16; 1 Peter 2:21; 5:3.

We gave you this rule – ‘The verb is in the imperfect tense, which suggests that the teachers had given this command on various occasions during their rather short stay in Thessalonica. The disorderly who continued to hold on to their client status did so in the face of repeated commands to break off from patronal relationships. These people were disobedient, not simply ill informed or confused.’

“If a man will not work, he shall not eat” – This is (mis)interpreted by the Sceptic’s Annotated Bible as meaning that ‘those who will not or cannot work should starve to death.’  It is clear that it is in the form of an aphorism, the meaning of which must be, “The church should not support those who can support themselves”.  Moreover, this teaching is not directed against those who cannot, but those who will not work.  It cannot be used as an argument against the provision of welfare for the unemployed.

‘The necessity of working formed part of the ethical tradition of the church (cf. Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11–12), finding its roots both in the OT (see Gen. 3:17–19; Ps. 128:2; Prov. 10:4; 12:11; 19:15) and in Jewish literature (e.g., Gen. Rab. 2.2, “If I do not work, I have nothing to eat”). The same idea appears in Greek literature (Phaedrus, Fabulae 4.25.17, “You don’t work? For this reason you don’t have anything when you need it”) as well as in later Christian instruction (Did. 12:1–5). The Didache says that if a traveler comes, the church may help him for a few days, “And if he wishes to settle among you and has a craft, let him work for his bread” (12:3). The church should reject anyone who is unwilling to work (12:4).’ (Pillar)

Nor is this command directed against leisure (although it might be argued that leisure has a grossly exaggerated place in many lives today).

The Christian work ethic goes back to the creation, Gen 1:28; 2:15.  To work, when we are able to do so, is part of what it means to be human, and part of what it means to fulfil God’s will for our lives.

‘It is necessary to grasp the deep root of this labor-philosophy. As we see it, the apostle is not (at least not merely) “borrowing a bit of good old workshop morality, a maxim applied no doubt hundreds of times by industrious workmen as they forbade a lazy apprentice to sit down for dinner,” [Deissmann] but is proceeding from the idea that, in imitation of Christ’s example of self-sacrificing love for his own, those who were saved by grace should become so unselfish that they will loathe the very idea of unnecessarily becoming a burden to their brothers, and, on the other hand, that they will yearn for the opportunity to share what they have with those who are really in need. While it is certainly true that every man in whom any sense of justice is left will assent to the justice and wisdom of the maxim here expressed (“If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat”), it is nevertheless also true that for the believer this maxim has added force, for selfishness and the truly Christian life are direct opposites.’ (Hendriksen)

‘Every man should have a calling to follow, and should follow his calling…God has given no man a dispensation to be idle. The rule is, and that by commandment, that if any will not work, that is able to work, neither should he eat.’ (Ralph Venning)

Some among you are idle

Not busy; they are busybodies – This reflects the play on words in the original – not ergazomenous but periergazomenous.  However, it slightly obscures the sense of the original.  It seems that, as was commonly the practice of the day, certain people had attached themselves to wealthy benefactors and would ‘sponge’ for money.  The problem was not that they were meddling in the affairs of others (as the NIV translation implies), but rather that they were not earning their own keep.  Moreover, in the public assembly of church they would be likely to support the interests of their patrons, involving themselves in issues that were none of their own business (cf. 1 Thess 4:11f).

The devil finds work for idle hands to do!

3:13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 3:14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. 3:15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

The faithful believers might have asked, “If they don’t have to work, why should we?”  So Paul encourages them to persevere in doing what is right.

In context, this includes caring for those in genuine need, even if some take advantage of it.

Take special note of him – This may entail, or include, keeping a written record. Cf. Rom 16:19.

In order that he may feel ashamed – ‘In a society oriented primarily toward the group rather than the individual and in which honor and shame were fundamental motivations for human action, the prescribed social separation that provoked shame would have been a powerful discipline. Honor in Mediterranean societies came from the group to which one belonged, and the loss of honor resulted in shame. To be dishonored by the community was a strong moral condemnation. The censure of the body to which one belonged would have been one of the most effective ways to assure conformity to the standards of the group.’ (Pillar)

This verse, and the following, indicates the limited extent of the discipline.  The offender is not to be excommunicated, but kept at a distance; not to be rejected as an enemy, but corrected as a brother.

Stott identifies the following practical guidelines on church discipline arising from Paul’s teaching here:-

  1. The need for discipline arises from the fact that the offense is not trivial, and previous warning have been given.
  2. The nature of the discipline entails the majority distancing themselves from the offenders, even though they are still to be regarded as Christian brothers.
  3. The responsibility for the discipline belongs to the congregation.  The leaders may need to take the initiative, but the action itself is to be by the whole church, if factions and divisions are to be avoided.
  4. The spirit in which the discipline is exercised is to be friendly, not hostile.
  5. The purpose of the discipline is positive and constructive.

In rejecting that apostles like Paul exist in the church today, Stott reminds us that we submit to apostolic authority by submitting to the teaching of the Bible.

‘This discipline was redemptive at its heart and was not designed to destroy the person.’ (Green)

Conclusion, 16-18

3:16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you all. 3:17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter. 3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

My own hand – cf. Rom 16:22