Honest labor is a major theme of the New Testament epistles (Ac. 20:34-35; Ro. 12:11; 1 Co. 4:12; Eph. 4:28; 1 Th. 4:11-12; 2 Th. 3:6-12). It is a major theme of Proverbs (Pr. 6:6-11; 10:4, 26; 12:11, 24; 13:4; 14:23; 18:9; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13, 29; 24:30-34; 26:14-15; 27:23).
Paul deals with this issue in both epistles to Thessalonica (1 Th. 4:11-12; 2 Th. 3:6-15), and he said that he had already taught this when he was with them (“as we commanded you,” 1 Th. 4:11). It appears that there was a special problem in Thessalonica that called for such instruction. It could be that the Roman welfare system had weakened the character of some. See 2 Th. 3:11, “For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.” The Roman government had a program called Cura Annonae, which means “care of Annona.” Annona, the goddess of grain supply, was closely associated with Ceres, goddess of agriculture, whose temples were used as depots for the grain dole. The government supplied grain or bread for free or by subsidy to the poor. It was not compassion, it was politics. Combined with free entertainment (e.g., chariot races, gladiatorial games), it was a means of pacifying and controlling the population. The poet Juvenal called it “bread and circuses.” “The role of the state in distributing the annona remained a central feature of its unity and power: ‘the cessation of this state function in the fifth century was a major factor leading to economic fragmentation’” (WikiMili, citing Averil Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD 395-600). The Cura Annonae was not limited to Rome but spread to other Roman cities. “The Empire in general, but perhaps also Thessalonica in particular, had a high number of unemployed and people supported by the Imperial welfare system, and Paul seems to have alluded to this problem and the benefits of work and financial independence in his letter to the church there (1 Th. 2:9, 4:11; 2 Th. 3:7-12)” (Titus Kennedy, “Thessalonica,” Drive Thru History, Aug. 29, 2018).
Consider some lessons on labor in the Christian life:
Labor is a matter of study (“that ye study to be quiet and to do your own business”).
- Paul is describing a Christian who first and foremost looks after his own business before God. He is intent on doing God’s will in his personal life, in his home, and in his church. He is studying this matter, learning about it, working on it, busy with it.
- “Study” is philotiméomai, “to make something an ambition, to aspire” (CWSB). It is translated “strive” in Ro. 15:20, referring to Paul’s aspiration to preach the gospel where Christ was not named, and it is translated “labor” in 2 Co. 5:9, referring to aspiring to be acceptable to God. To “study to be quiet, and to do your own business” means to focus your attention on this. The believer is purchased with a great price and has been given a lot of business to do for the Lord in this present world, and he is to study how to live every part of his life in God’s will. He is to study to be holy, to love, to labor, to function in the home, to function in the church, to use his spiritual gifts, to be an ambassador for Christ, to be a priest of God, to be a skillful Bible student, to pray, to use his time wisely, etc. Men study many things, but the most profitable study is the study of God’s will for one’s life. We are taught by God to pursue a Ph.D. in this area of study.
- To be “quiet” is hesucházo, “to be still, to live quietly, to be silent, to acquiesce” (CWSB). It is translated “rest” (Lu. 23:56), “held their peace” (Ac. 11:18), “cease” (Ac. 21:14). It means to live quietly and to be at peace as opposed to living in strife and envy and division. It is the opposite of being a busybody in other people’s affairs (2 Th. 3:11-12; 1 Ti. 5:13).
We are to “work with your own hands” (1 Th. 4:11).
- There is a lot of work to do in God’s will. God’s people are to be busy; they are to be laborers; they are to redeem the time. God’s Word likens a slothful person to a destroyer. “He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster” (Pr. 18:9). A waster is a destructive person. “A poor or unfinished job differs little from a project that someone demolished; both projects are valueless” (Bible Knowledge Commentary).
- To work with your own hands is the opposite of being idle (1 Ti. 5:13), of being a sluggard (Pr. 6:6-11; 10:4, 26; 12:24; 13:4; 18:9; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13, 29; 24:30-34; 26:14-15; 27:23). As we have seen, godly labor is a major theme of the New Testament faith. See Ac. 20:34-35; Ro. 12:11; 1 Co. 4:12; Eph. 4:28; Tit. 3:14.
- To work with your own hands is the opposite of depending on a handout. Unless physically disabled so as not to be able to work, the child of God who is of age should not be dependent on relatives or friends or the government. He should not pursue “get rich quick” schemes.
- Christ modeled a laboring lifestyle. He had a plan in God’s will for every day, and He was busy fulfilling it. He was pressed by the people and by His enemies, but He never got sidetracked from doing God’s will. “Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (Joh. 4:34); “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (Joh. 9:4); “... for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do” (Joh. 5:36). In His prayer to the Father before Gethsemane, Christ said, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (Joh. 17:4).
We are to work so that we “walk honestly toward them that are without” (1 Th. 4:12).
- The Christian must be honest. “Honest” is euschemónos, “becoming, in a seemly manner, honestly, decently in contrast to disorderly” (Vine). It is translated “decently” (1 Co. 14:40). It describes an all around honest, truthful, commendable, upright manner of life that is a light for Christ in a dark world. The context is working and finances. The Christian must have a sterling reputation in this area. He must pay his bills and pay them on time. He must pay his taxes (Ro. 13:6). He must pay his debts and pay them on time. If something happens beyond his control so that he is delayed in paying, he must contact his creditor directly and apologize and make a plan to pay that which is owed. He must do everything he can to maintain a good Christian reputation. Paul taught that it is better to suffer personal loss than to spoil one’s reputation. “But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (1 Co. 8:6-7). The Psalmist teaches that the righteous “sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (Ps. 15:4). That means that he keeps his word even if it means personal loss.
- “Them that are without” are the unbelievers, and they are quick to judge Christ Himself by the reputation of professing Christians.
We are to work so as to “have lack of nothing” (1 Th. 4:12).
- The believer has many responsibilities before God, and he is to work so that he can meet all of these responsibilities. He is to take care of his own needs and of the needs of his family (1 Ti. 5:8) and of the needs of the church and the gospel (1 Co. 9:14; 1 Ti. 5:17-18; Tit. 3:13-14; 3 Jo. 1:5-8). He is to be “ready to distribute, willing to communicate” (1 Ti. 6:18; Heb. 13:16; 1 Jo. 3:17).
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