Embracing the Dignity of Work
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
Have you ever known someone so caught up in his or her work that family, health, and everything meaningful was neglected? How about the opposite extreme? Have you known or seen someone who was downright lazy, who had no ambition, no drive to achieve, produce, or provide? Unfortunately, society is full of both extremes. On one hand, you have workaholics. On the other hand, you have bums avoiding work. Both of these lifestyles or choices are wrong, but of the two, people who avoid work are more strongly addressed by Scripture and is more prevalent in society.
The workplace is full of disorderly workers, workers who slack off and do as little as possible; workers who are men-pleasers, who work only when they see the boss coming. In addition to these, there are many in society who could be working, but who choose not to work due to selfishness, laziness, and lack of motivation. They have found ways to sponge off the government, social services, churches, and neighbors. The result is that a tragic dullness and a spirit of “give me, give me” have pervaded the workplace. But believers, above all others, should never be categorized as lazy. When it comes to diligence and hard work, we should be setting a dynamic example for others to follow.1
As we enter this holiday season, I want to take a moment today and focus on what the Bible says about work. We looked at contentment and gratitude, which are related to the work that a person does. Here, I want to examine the role of work in my life as a Christian.
The Bible defines work in the following way:
“Work” is not limited to earning a paycheck, but is focused on fulfilling whatever purpose God has called us to fulfill.2
6 REASONS WHY CHRISTIANS WORK
1. I work so that I won’t become a burden to others in the church
“we did not eat anyone’s food free of charge; instead, we labored and toiled, working night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:8, CSB)
Paul shows here that he worked so that he would not be a burden to people in the church. He had the right to support from the church, as he states in the following verse:
“It is not that we don’t have the right to support…” (2 Thessalonians 3:9, CSB)
2. I work to be an example to other Christians
“It is not that we don’t have the right to support, but we did it to make ourselves an example to you so that you would imitate us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:9, CSB)
Paul and other apostles worked as an examples for others to follow. I don’t think Paul says that he works so that other people can work. I don’t think he means that we are following his example in working in general. I think Paul is noting the connection between work and my witness. Paul is out in the world working, and he shares Jesus in that world. This is the example that Paul wants others to follow. My work can be a positive witness to others in the world. My work fulfill God’s purpose of witnessing to others about Jesus.
3. I work as a means for God to supply my needs
“In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.”” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, CSB)
Paul is actually quoting a command that he prescribed in the first letter to the church of Thessalonica:
“to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, CSB)
This apparently had been an ongoing problem. Paul had to make a rule to keep people from causing problems. We don’t really know why Paul put this rule in place. We are never told the reason. Some scholars think that people in the church were quitting work to wait for the return of Jesus. Yet, there is no evidence this is the case.
There are times when a Christian needs to ask for help from others. However, those times should be rare. God provides a way for me to supply my needs. That way is called work. Work is not a product of the Fall in Genesis 3. Work was meant to be enjoyable. What the Fall did was corrupt the nature of work. Work becomes hard and you will toil, sweat and be in pain as a result of work. But that doesn’t mean that work in itself is a bad thing. One reason is because God is a worker:
1. God Himself is a worker.
2. God created people in His image to be His coworkers.
3. God established work before the fall.
4. God commends work even after the fall.
5. Work itself was not cursed in the fall.
Yet, one can notice three ways that this curse affected work:
1. Work had been a joy, but now it would be “toil.” People would feel burdened down by it, and even come to hate it.
2. “Thorns and thistles” would hamper people’s efforts to exercise dominion. In other words, the earth would not be as cooperative as it had been.
3. People would have to “sweat” to accomplish their tasks. Work would require enormous effort and energy.
Most of us know all too well how burdensome work can be. Workplace stresses and pressures, occupational hazards, the daily grind, office politics, crushing boredom, endless routine, disappointments, setbacks, catastrophes, frustration, cutthroat competition, fraud, deception, injustice—there is no end of evils connected with work. But work itself is not evil. Far from naming it a curse, the Bible calls work and its fruit a gift from God.
“It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts.” (Ecclesiastes 3:13, CSB)
“Here is what I have seen to be good: It is appropriate to eat, drink, and experience good in all the labor one does under the sun during the few days of his life God has given him, because that is his reward. Furthermore, everyone to whom God has given riches and wealth, he has also allowed him to enjoy them, take his reward, and rejoice in his labor. This is a gift of God,” (Ecclesiastes 5:18–19, CSB)
So work is actually a gift from God. To not work is to abuse the gift that God has given us as humans. When Paul makes the rule that no one should eat because he has not worked, I think it is because it is to remind Christians that work is a gift from God.
“If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” That may sound hard, but the wisdom of that Scripture is seen in the story of one New York man.
According to the Associated Press, this thirty-six-year-old resident of New York was quoted as saying, “I like to live decent. I like to be clean.” Nothing wrong with that; the only problem was he didn’t like to work. So he found other ways to satisfy his cultured tastes.
He would walk into a fine restaurant, order top cuisine and choice liquor, and then when the check arrived, shrug his shoulders and wait for the police. The sometimes homeless man actually wanted to end up in the slammer, where he would get three meals a day and a clean bed. He has pled guilty to stealing a restaurant meal thirty-one times. In 1994 he served ninety days at the Rikers Island jail for filching a meal from a café in Rockefeller Center.3 Some people don’t see work as a gift from God.
4. I work to keep myself outside of trouble.
“For we hear that there are some among you who are idle. They are not busy but busybodies. Now we command and exhort such people by the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and provide for themselves.” (2 Thessalonians 3:11–12, CSB)
This is the reason for the command to work or not eat in the previous verse. People were not working and they were causing problems in other people’s lives. Getting involved in other people’s lives caused problems in their relationships. You know the kind of people. They get involved and re-arrange your shelves in your home because they don’t work for themselves to do. They butt in to your life and strain relationships.
The believer’s work should remain focused and steady, a good example regardless of the habits of others. For example:
Ben and John worked as janitors for the same company. Ben felt his Christian testimony should be reflected in his work. John knew this as well, but never seemed to let that interfere with a good conversation.
One day Ben was busily washing windows. John was busy too, busy talking to Ben. Ben wanted to stop and talk, but knew he had to stay focused to do a good job. He was soon glad he had resisted the temptation to goof off. In the reflection of the glass, he saw the supervisor walking up the stairs behind them. Ben continued to clean. John continued to talk. The boss continued to observe.
Several minutes later, John turned and noticed the boss. He greeted him with a quick, “Oh, Hi,” and moved along to his area. Later John asked “Ben, why didn’t you tell me the boss was standing there?” “Well, not to sound mean or anything,” Ben replied, “but Christ was standing there the whole time, and that didn’t seem to bother you.” John got the point and worked more faithfully from that point on.
How diligently are you working? Remember, the Lord is watching you!4
5. I work to help fulfill God’s purpose in my life
“But as for you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing good.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13, CSB)
Remember the definition of work: fulfill whatever purpose God has for me to do. I work so that I may do good for others. This doing good for others helps complete the work of the Gospel. The word used here “doing good” is found only here in the entire Bible. It means to do the honorable, and right thing. In this case, we need to do the right thing by embracing the dignity of work. Work helps fulfill what God wants out of my life.
The section ends with a warning to disassociate oneself from people who won’t embrace the dignity of work. The reason is because my work is a gift.
6. I work because my work is a gift from God
“If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take note of that person; don’t associate with him, so that he may be ashamed. Yet don’t consider him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14–15, CSB)
Many preachers and scholars take this text and associate it with church discipline. The idea being that the church can correct the misbehavior of a person in the church. However, I don’t view the text in this way. I think Paul has Ecclesiastes in mind when he writes his instruction to the church. I think Paul views work as a gift. I think that he is encouraging the church to remind people who don’t work the value that work holds for the Christian.
The warning here is a reminder that my work is a gift. Coupled with the previous verse, the context shows that my doing good (an expression found only here in the Bible) is a result of work, and that this work comes as a result of the gift of God. People who don’t work are abusing that gift that God gives them.
What is “right” could be having that difficult talk with these troublemakers and show them they are disruptive. However, it could also be that “doing what is right” means having a tender and caring heart for them in spite of their unruliness.5
Therefore, the warning here is not punitive. It is not punishment for doing something wrong. Instead, it is a redemptive. The goal here is for the person who is not working to go back to working. Notice the sentence construction. “If” anyone does not work, take note. And don’t associate with them. The shaming serves a redemptive purpose. The shaming should point a person back to embracing the dignity of work. A person is not an enemy if they don’t work. This is why Paul says: “but warn them as a brother.” The idea is similar to Galatians 6:
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1, CSB)
The caution here is that as a Christian we still love people who don’t work like they should. However, we don’t associate with people who don’t embrace the dignity of work. Paul notes here that as I work, other people who should be working and are not working will note what happens in my life. My work ethic will shame them. The shame comes from knowing that work is a gift and they are not using that gift that God gives them.
Dr. Larry Osborne notes:
You wouldn’t ever dream of locking your car up in the garage for a decade or two. Why? A car is designed to work! If you don’t allow it to carry out its function, it will be wasted. God Himself worked for six days and rested on the Sabbath. It’s part of who we are, made in the image of God, that we are workers. To deny ourselves of what God designed us to do will mean that we simply become as useless as that car sitting in the garage, wasting away.6 Work is a gift from God. Embrace it and use it for God’s glory.
1 Leadership Ministries Worldwide, Practical Illustrations: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 2003), 130.
2 Frank Crouch, “Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13,” 13 November 2016, Internet, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3082, accessed on 15 November 2019.
3 Craig Brian Larson, 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers & Writers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 611–612.
4 Leadership Ministries Worldwide, Practical Illustrations: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 2003), 131.
5 Nijay K. Gupta, 1-2 Thessalonians: A New Covenant Commentary, ed. Michael F. Bird and Craig Keener, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 151.
6 Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook, 2007 Edition. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007), 319.