2009-07-19 (am) 2 Thessalonians 3:6-8 Idle Worship
Have you heard the one about the born again Christian? One day a born again Christian was walking along the ocean while the tide was out. Suddenly, his foot got wedged between some rocks. No matter what he did, he could not free his leg. He was stuck. The tide started coming in. Even so, he was not worried.
Inexorably, the tide came in. When the water was up to his waist, a fellow pulled up in a boat. “Say, you there, do you need some help?” he asked.
“No thank you,” the man replied. “I’m a born again Christian, God will save me.”
Still the tide advanced, and now the water was up to his chest. Another fellow, in another boat came alongside the stuck Christian.
“Dude, what are you doing there? Are you stuck?” he asked.
“Well, actually, I am physically stuck.” The Christian explained. “However, spiritually, I am free in Christ and because I am a born again Christian, God will save me.”
With the tide looking like it was about to swallow another victim, with the water up to his neck, a coast guard helicopter hovered overhead, lowered a rescuer on a crane who asked, “Let me help you!”
To which the Christian calmly replied, “I’m a born again Christian, God will save me.”
Well, this born again Christian dies and goes to heaven, where he promptly begins to grill God. “Why didn’t you save me?” He asked.
God looks him in the eye and says, “What do you call two boats and a helicopter?”
That’s the attitude of some of the Thessalonian Christians. In that church, some of the members were treating Christianity as a spectator sport. They watched the world flow around them while doing nothing more strenuous than giving colour commentary. They did not work; they expected their fellow believers to supply them with their needs. They justified this with the attitude, “the Lord will provide.”
But it was even worse than that. It is not as though these guys were merely lazy, no, they were rebelliously lazy. They were able bodied brothers who chose not to work, and who rebelled against Paul’s instruction and example, not only while he established this church, but also after Paul warned them in his first letter.
So Paul deals with the matter head on. You can tell that Paul wishes he could be there himself. In fact, as you read our passage, you can almost imagine Paul jumping up off the page and banging some heads! Didn’t you feel that when I read the text? “We were not idle when we were with you… we did not eat… we worked… we would not be… we did this, not because we do not have the right.”
And you know that he wants to bang a few head together, or at least box a few ears because of the tone that starts verse 6. Actually, you can’t see it as clearly in the NIV because they start verse 6 with a clause. In the Greek we get the command first, “we command you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun the rebellious idlers.” Don’t let them get away with it any longer! Stop enabling them. Intervene!
Paul first addresses the church. The church has been enabling the lazy people by letting them get away with it. It is like a faithful wife who dutifully cleans up the house after her alcoholic husband gets drunk, vomits everywhere before passing out. In order to help her husband, she must stop enabling him by refusing to clean up the mess, and let him see the results of his alcoholism himself.
The full weight of responsibility doesn’t lie only with the rebellious idlers. The entire congregation bears responsibility. So Paul commands them, using hard words, appealing to the Lord Jesus Christ’s supreme authority. This is not something they can sweep under the rug. They must deal with it.
Now, in light of what Paul has written about the Thessalonian church in his first letter, we might wonder why Paul is so upset. Didn’t he commend the Thessalonian church? Wasn’t he on good relations with everyone there? Weren’t they living as examples to other churches? Weren’t they holding up well under pressure? Certainly when you compare them with Corinth, this is a lot more minor than a guy shacking up with his step-mom. So what’s the big deal?
In verses 7-10, Paul tells us why this is a big deal. Sin is sin, and the church must deal with sin in its midst. We must not think that Paul is saying that rebellious idleness is the worst of all sins. Rather, rebellious idolatry was threatening the congregation. It was disrupting the fellowship and love among the believers and it was affecting the church’s witness in the world.
So Paul responds to the situation by giving specific instructions that apply to holy living. All the Christians in Thessalonica are to imitate Paul in their work and lifestyle. They are to work for their food. That’s what Paul did. Even though Paul could have asked for remuneration for preaching and teaching the gospel, he did not do so. Paul goes into detail about this in 1 Corinthians 9; I encourage you to check it out. Instead, in addition to preaching and teaching, he chose to work night and day in order to provide for his own needs, as well as the needs of others.
If I were to ask, “What defines a Christian?” What would you say? Would you say, “A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus Christ?” Or would you say, “A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ, who sacrifices her own desires for the good of others.” In some ways, we’ve separated faith and deeds in our churches. We’ve concentrated on the importance of having a right relationship with Jesus Christ to exclude from it all others, particularly our relationships with our fellow believers. People are saying, “I don’t need to go to church in order to be a Christian.”
To push that to the utter extreme, it would be like Jesus saying, “I don’t need to be born of a woman in order to save humanity from sin. I don’t need to have fellowship with humans. I don’t need to humble myself, die on a cross in order to redeem people from the Father’s wrath against sin.” We need each other far more than we think! We are being built together to be God’s dwelling where he lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2.22).
Paul clearly indicates here that fellowship and caring for others is the task of every Christian. The Rebellious idlers weren’t having a problem with fellowship. They were all over that. But they weren’t contributing to the needs of others; in fact, they were draining the resources that should have gone to others. They were mooching of the rich Christians. They were able to work, but they didn’t want to. More than that, they refused to work, when Paul had told them flat out several times.
Being selfish and self absorbed; leeching off others is incompatible with Christianity. Christians follow and model Jesus Christ. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-7 NIV)!
Paul demonstrated the attitude of Christ. He gave up all his rights in order to make himself a model for them to follow. Paul’s one consuming thought in his life was not himself, but Jesus Christ. He did everything in his power to witness Christ.
The actions of these rebellious idlers negatively impacted the church’s fellowship and ministry. It also marred the church’s witness to the world. It is very likely that part of the motivation behind these rebellious idlers was not just laziness, but also a carryover from their former way of life, before they became Christians.
Now the commentaries are full of explanations for the rebellious attitude. Some say they were idle because they fully expected Jesus to return at any moment, so they were waiting for him to show up. Actually, this idea floated around when I was in public school, my high school friend (who wasn’t a Christian) used to tell this joke, “What did Jesus say to the Teamsters before he ascended into heaven? Don’t do anything until I get back.”
Another explanation is that these rebellious idlers were trying to bring a secular method of living and working into the church. But, as Paul makes very clear, that is impossible. That whole method of living and working was incompatible with Christianity. Sure, it seemed innocent on the outside; it was harmful because of its ties to false religion.
Likewise today, a Christian has to be very careful in making career choices. Will my career have a negative impact on my faith? Will my career enhance or nullify my opportunities for witnessing to Christ. Will my attitude at work be one of entitlement or gratitude?
Within the church, we have to ask ourselves if our work contributes to the needs of the church. Am I contributing my time, talents and treasures? If I’m not doing my part, am I creating an extra burden on others? A while ago, the deacons published a breakdown of giving in our congregation. Almost 25% of the members at that time hadn’t contributed anything. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I contributing less than I should? Am I benefitting without sacrificing anything?
The rebellious idlers were soaking up the benefits, but not contributing, and I don’t mean financially only. They were busy in the church, but without actually doing anything. They were all show and no go. We might call them pew warmers today. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. They show up all right, but all they do is complain, or criticise, or give their opinion without lifting a finger to get anything done.
Paul’s command to the idlers is to settle down and get to work. They must do this. Not only is this a strong command from Paul, it carries with it the full weight of the authority of Christ. But Paul isn’t just waving a big, heavy stick over their heads. Paul gives another reason why they should settle down and earn their living.
Paul urges them in the Lord Jesus Christ. Why does Paul say “in” the Lord Jesus Christ? It is because they are in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are believers! They are part of the church. They have received everything they can possibly need already! They are in! Because of that, God is transforming them so that they stop thinking only of themselves and enabling them to think of others first. It seems contradictory, but by working for themselves, for their own living, they will be able to serve others. These guys might have truly considered themselves as selfless, trying to focus all their attention on others, but in fact, the opposite was true.
Paul closes this section of his letter with four instructions for the whole community.
“Never tire of doing what is right.” Even if these leeches persist on sucking you dry, keep serving. Don’t let them get away with it, as much as you’re able, but don’t neglect your duty for others who truly are unable to provide for themselves. In other words, don’t neglect real needs as a means of sidestepping those who are taking advantage of you. It is easy to become cynical. It takes shrewdness to know who has a legitimate need. But let us not become callous because of a few bad apples, rather, let’s err on the side of abundant grace.
A simple situation: You’re walking down a street in Edmonton. There’s two guys begging. One is playing drums on some overturned buckets. The other is just walking up to people asking for money. Give the cash to the guy who’s working at something, reward the one who is playing the drums, at least he’s trying to entertain.
The Thessalonians had to deal with the rebellious idlers. The situation was getting out of hand. It wasn’t something that happened over night. It had been building ever since Paul brought the gospel to them. Paul knew it would be a problem, that’s why he lived as an example for them. Paul briefly touched on in it in his first letter, but now he’s taken it to the next level in this letter. They must take drastic measures, because the sin is beyond the first steps laid out in Matthew 18:15-20.
The next step is to shame them through disassociation. It is difficult to know exactly what Paul had in mind here. Most likely, it involved a refusal to permit them to participate in communal meals, the Lord’s Supper perhaps. But it is not as far as excommunication.
We know that it isn’t that far by Paul’s instructions in verses 15—don’t regard them as enemies. The goal of this discipline is restoration. The object is that the rebellious idlers may become obedient workers. They are not enemies; they are fellow believers, brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The church must continue to warn them as brothers. The disassociation wasn’t a complete cut-off. It was a sanctioned separation. In spite of the discipline, they were to maintain relationships, exhort and encourage the brothers to respond to the discipline by repenting and turning to live a holy and productive life in service for others.
It has been years since I’ve seen a church discipline its members. Maybe we just don’t have problems in our churches anymore. No, we still have problems. Many times, thankfully, we’ve been able to deal with them one on one. Still, we tend not to deal with them as we should. Are we worried about offending anyone in our litigious society? Do we have too low value for church membership and fellowship? Is it because members can easily avoid censure by going to another church? Sometimes, instead of dealing with rebellious members, the church gets rid of its pastor.
Whatever our fears and concerns, our excuses to avoid this responsibility, Paul reminds us that we cannot sit idly by. We cannot empower rebellious and idle living. We cannot worship and be idle. True worship is imitating Christ. So, we must be honest and true. We must rebuke and warn one another. So when we see a brother, a born again Christian with his foot stuck and in danger, we won’t settle for, “God will mercifully, graciously save me.” We’ll jump in and pull him out of his situation, saying, “Yes, you’re right, God will save you. He sent me.” Amen.