How We Work

March 21, 2021 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Dear Thessalonians

Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 3:6–12

6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 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. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

There’s a website that runs a series of articles called, “How I Work.” It consists of various “interviews with famously productive people.” You can find out quite a bit about a person by seeing how they work. We can see a person’s personality sometimes just by looking at their desk.

The way we go about our daily duties and responsibilities says a lot about the persons we are, and even the kind of Christians we are. The way we work and live our lives ought to demonstrate that we depend on God and seek his honor above all else. The Apostle Paul shows us this as he explains in this passage something about the Christian way of living, the social concern he has for the believers, and the example he sets as an apostle.

The Christian Way

First, we can note that just as there is a Christian doctrine, beliefs that define what Christianity is, so there is also a Christian way of living. There is orthodoxy (right beliefs) but there is also orthopraxy (right behavior) in Christianity. So Paul writes in verse 6, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Just as there is a doctrine that is outside the pale of Christianity, there are ways of living that are heterodox as well. And this matters. It is a big deal. In the Bible we find not only specific things to believe; we also find specific ways we are to behave.

Christian Liberty

Now I suppose that most people understand this. In fact, it is the regulation of behavior that many people think is the central purpose of the Bible. The average “man on the street” will probably say that the Bible is in some way a “guide-book for life.” Now that is not true. The Bible is first a story about God and what he has done, not a story about us and what we do or even what we ought to be doing. But it would also be wrong to conclude that the story of God does not affect how we ought to live our lives.

The problem is, of course, that we seem to struggle to agree on the kind of the behavior the Bible requires and the kind of behavior the Bible forbids. What exactly is the Christian way of life? In these verses, we find a clear Christian command. We are not to walk “in idleness,” verse 6 says. And verse 10 is a well-known biblical dictate: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

But before we look at this command closely, let’s make a broader observation on the Christian way of living. Many of us know all too well the threat of Christian legalism, a tendency that threatens the crucial doctrine of Christian liberty. We must be careful about defining the proper Christian way of living more narrowly than the Bible truly does define it. When it comes to specific questions about whether this or that behavior is legitimate for Christian living, we need to promote and preserve the freedom that we really do have in Christ. We must not pass judgment on one another where our Lord has not clearly passed judgment (Rom 14:4). Let’s tread carefully here.

Having said that, you can’t take seriously a passage like the one before us now if you say that we can never pass judgment on a fellow Christian’s behavior. The freedom that each of us has in Christ must not be allowed to turn inward. How I live my Christian life ought to be a concern of yours, and vice-versa. The Christian life is a “team sport” because God’s purpose is not merely to save individuals but to create the church.[i] We are in this together, as brothers and sisters. We are in solidarity with one another. We don’t all have the same roles, so our behavior as Christians will have plenty of distinctions. But we can’t be pulling in opposite directions either. There is a Christian way.

The Traditional Way

This Christian way of living, whatever it is, applies to all believers in all times and all places. It is traditional. Here in verse 6, the apostle warns of a certain behavior that is “not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Back in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, we noted that this “tradition” refers not to the way we’ve always done things or even the things we’ve always believed. It is not a dead traditionalism, but a living tradition that originates with a very-much alive Messiah who has brought us into his glorious new creation.

This kind of tradition is trans-cultural. That is, we must be careful to distinguish between certain cultural expectations of Christian living that have more to do with what is expected in a particular place but do not apply elsewhere.

For example, a verse like verse ten is the kind of thing that many American Christians misapply to other cultures. We’ll get in to this more deeply in just a moment, but I simply want us to consider the possibility that we are prone to confuse the American work ethic (or even what has been “traditionally” called the Protestant work ethic) with the biblical view of work implied in a passage like this one. There are devastating consequences that stem from workaholics, and we must learn to discern between the sin of idleness in view here and the sin of total disregard for sabbath. Work is biblically required, yes, but so is rest.

Out of Line

Ok, but what is this sin of idleness that Paul warns us about here? Again, the picture will become clearer as we go along, but let’s get one thing clear here. It is not laziness. That’s too narrow a definition. The Bible has plenty to say about laziness; this is not one of them.

It is probably better translated “disorderly” (KJV) or “irresponsible” (HCSB).[ii] The reason why Paul shows such concern about this sin is because it is an irregular behavior in the Christian way. This sin is far more serious than mere laziness, which is why it brings the sanctions it does in verse six. It is something that is way out of line with Christianity.

And it’s in this light that we need to understand a verse like verse 10. I’ve heard this verse used to justify an attitude of carelessness toward the poor. I’ve heard this verse used to defend legislation in our country that would remove assistance to a single mom who struggles to hold down a job precisely because she spends her time working to take care of little children at home, while her married counterpart is never accused of violating this verse even though her kids are secure in school and daycare all day long. Which one is more likely to be idle? But which one is also more likely to have access to plenty of food to eat?

All this to say that most Christians assume their behavior, like their doctrine, is perfectly in line with the Christian way outlined in the Bible. Let’s have the humility to let the Bible challenge us before we are so quick to apply it to others.

The Social Concern

Now we do need to have some understanding of what kind of sinful behavior Paul is calling out in this passage. We need to know how to detect this disorderly conduct in the Christian community if we’re going to apply a passage like this one to our lives. Paul heard, according to verse 11, “that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” To them he gave the command in verse 12 that they “do their work quietly” and “earn their own living.” What is the social concern that Paul was addressing?

The Heart at Work

We’ve already suggested that the problem here is not so much idleness but irresponsibility toward one’s daily duties. It’s not so much a problem with laziness, of doing nothing, but of doing the wrong thing. The energy that should go toward one thing is going toward something else.

Thus the problem Paul is addressing is not a problem that can be fixed by more discipline or more energy. The answer is not to create new habits or to eat better food. Paul is not a self-help guru giving us some good life hacks to be more productive in life. The Christian way is never primarily about the behavior that can be seen but about the heart that is underneath it all.

Why do we do what we do? That is the Christian social concern.

The Way of the World

To understand the sinful behavior that Paul was confronting in Thessalonica, we have to keep in mind the social conditions in which these Christians lived. The way the world worked in Thessalonica was under the Roman social system known as patronage. Roman society consisted of various class distinctions, and the important factor was never just about being a member of the upper class. The concern was to show off one’s high rank, to be honored in society. Thus a person of high social rank—a patron—would provide benefits to those lower in status, who would agree to serve as his clients. The responsibility of the client was to be exclusively loyal to his or her patron, and to see to it that they received special attention and honor, like appearing at their home for the morning greeting and giving them public support.[iii]

It is this system of patronage that Paul is denouncing here. He rules it to be out of line with proper Christian behavior, so Christians have no business being in this kind of system. Rather than getting their financial needs met by patrons, believers in Christ are to work with their hands to provide for themselves.

But the concern is still a matter of the heart. Would Christians order their lives around the customs and conventions of the day, or would they choose to organize around Christ? When Christ and culture conflict, which would they prioritize? Would they live dependent on a patron, giving honor to him, or would they live dependent on Jesus?

The Question of Entanglement

Now before you dismiss all this as completely irrelevant to the world in which we live today, consider again verse 11. Paul’s concern with the system of patronage is that rather than being “busy at work,” Christians were being “busybodies.” The English translation is meant to capture the wordplay evident in Greek, but the meaning of a “busybody” is someone who is a meddler, someone who gets involved in things that are none of their business.[iv]

Now you probably know someone you would describe this way, but the context requires us to remember the system of patronage that Paul is decrying. By agreeing to the social contract of serving as one’s client, a Christian would put himself in a place of becoming entangled in affairs that they ought to have nothing to do with. A patron was basically a politician, and by agreeing to give honor to one’s patron, a client would put himself in a position of supporting the political aims of the patron.[v]

Just in case we aren’t seeing the application, let me be blunt. Many American Christians today have become meddlers by entangling themselves with one or the other political party. In order to receive benefits for ourselves, we’ve given honor to politicians and have become entangled in causes that we ought to have nothing to do with.

We, too, have become dependent on the conventions of our day rather than on Christ and his way. We’ve lived as if the gospel of Jesus is irrelevant to our daily lives and concerns.

The world we inhabit may give us only two choices, Republican or Democrat. But there is another way. And, no, I don’t mean a third political party, and I don’t mean you have to be a registered Independent, and I also don’t believe the Bible suggests we get out of politics altogether. I simply mean that the Bible gives us a different way to live that cuts across every ideology and political philosophy, never quite comfortable with any one of them.

The Apostolic Example

This third way is the apostolic example laid out in these verses. Verses 7-9 reveal some of the characteristics of the Christian way that Paul exemplified. And it was the apostolic way of life, coupled with the apostolic teaching, that, according to verse 7, now has the “normative character of a received tradition.”[vi] That’s why Paul can say to the Thessalonians that they “ought to imitate us.” And so must we so that we are not guilty of the sinful irresponsibility that Paul takes aim at. Let’s observe what Paul and his associates show by their example.

Not Waiting for a Handout

First, Paul says that they did not “eat anyone’s bread without paying for it” (v. 8). By this he clearly does not mean to imply that it is sinful to receive hospitality, otherwise the Bible would never command us to be hospitable. He does not mean that if someone invites you over to their house for dinner that you must pay them back for it.

Back in the first letter, he said that when they came to Thessalonica, they did not come seeking glory from people (1 Thess 2:6). His attitude was one of humility and service rather than arrogant expectation of being served. The example Paul set here was that even though he was an apostle, he did not expect anything to be handed to him. He was unassuming. This is the Christian way to work.

In our day this would not mean that you should not negotiate your salary with your employer. It does mean that you should never expect to be given anything freely. And you should guard against the belief that you deserve anything without working for it. And anything you are given freely you should receive with gratitude. With thanksgiving and humility. We believe in unmerited favor, in grace. And we know from whom grace comes, so we give him praise for it when it does.

Not a Burden

Next, Paul says that the Christian way to work is to work hard not to be a burden. “With toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.” Now again, we can see first what this does not mean. It does not mean that Paul was against receiving financial help for his ministry. Even while he was in Thessalonica he received financial support from the Philippian believers (Phil 4:16).

But what it does mean is that the Christian way was not just denying the way of the world, but affirming a completely different way of life, an entirely different system that turns the systems of the world upside down. That system is the Christian community, a community of believers who see themselves as family and who care for one another like a family does. In this family, social status means nothing. We seek to live in a healthy interdependence with one another. No one is autonomous, but no one is a burden either.

Quiet Work

The exhortation is that we do our work quietly and earn our own living (v. 12), the same exhortation we saw in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. There we are told to live by a paradox, to be “ambitious” about “living quietly.” The quietness commended is to be discreet and not seek honor through trying to impact society, you know, like using social media to stir up a fight.

But to be ambitious is to be engaged with society in our ordinary vocations, seeking to do good, first to our faith community, but also to all our neighbors.

It is not always an easy balance to strike, but what we aim for is a steadfast dependence on God, seeking his honor rather than our own, and thereby being conduits of his blessing in an anxious world.

This is the way Christians work. And it should speak volumes about the kind of people we are: believers in the goodness of God who welcome anyone to come and see just how good God is.


[i] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 127.

[ii] Walter Bauer (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [BDAG], rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000], 148) understands the word here to mean “without respect for established custom or received instruction.”

[iii] Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 208.

[iv] Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990, 286.

[v] Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 351.

[vi] Wanamaker, Epistles to the Thessalonians, 283.

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