We’re wrapping up the letters of from Paul to the church of Thessalonica today. Paul’s 1st letter consisted mostly of encouragement as the church faced prosecution and urged Christians to live by high moral standards in an immoral society. Anybody think this might be applicable today? Paul also talked about Christ’s Second Coming, urged the faithful Christians to warn believers who refused to work, and gave guidance on how to live as Christians.
Paul must have received news that in spite of his first letter, the Thessalonian Christians still struggled with three major problems, so he wrote the 2nd letter to Thessalonica. In Chapter 1, Paul encouraged the believers that God is fair even if the world is not. God will punish those who punish the faithful, so we should leave judgment to Him. In Chapter 2, Paul provides additional information about the Second Coming of Christ and encouraging them to persevere despite the hardships and to seek correct doctrine and obey the Word.
Now, in Chapter 3, Paul asks his brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for him, and then addresses the growing problem of believers who not only won’t work, but also interfere with the work of others.
II. Faithful Outside the Church (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)
Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.
Responsible Christians pray and obey to spread the Gospel. When Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to live morally in the immoral society they lived in, he’s recognizing one of the greatest truths of the bible: we cannot do God’s will in this world under our own power. The powerful Christian life always involves two forces; the power of God and the obedience of the believer. There is no doubt Paul was one of the most effective missionaries in the history of the world. Paul was knowledgeable about scripture, Paul was obedient, and here we also see Paul relying on the power of prayer. In verse 1 he asks for prayer that God’s will may be done through him. Paul constantly asked for prayers when he wrote his letters – Romans 15:30-31, Ephesians 6:18-19; Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Philemon 22; the list goes on and on. It pleases God when we pray for His will to be done, and the prayers of a righteous man are powerful. Prayer has many facets to it –
a. Continual Prayer.
In verse 1, Paul says “Pray for us.” The tense indicates a continual prayer, not just a one time event. Paul recognized the need for constant prayer; in 1 Thessalonians 1:2, Paul says he prays for the Thessalonians constantly, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul tells them to pray without ceasing. The world is as lost today as it was in the time of the Thessalonians and is in need of a savior they don’t even know. Pray they hear the word; pray we tell them the word. Pray and obey.
b. Offensive Prayer
These continuous prayers should be both offense and defense in our earthly battle. The words Paul chose for “spread rapidly” implies an imagery from the Old Testament where God’s Words runs swiftly, as though a runner in a race. Psalm 147:15 says, “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.” And “honor” – or “glory,” in some translations, indicates a winner. The runner receives glory through winning, and God’s Word receives glory when somebody comes to Christ. Evangelistic prayer encourages us to go on the offense and spread God’s message so He may receive glory.
Offensive prayer has a purpose. Our world, you may have noticed, is sick. Our world is dying. The Word of God is life-saving medicine. Paul prays that the medicine is spread rapidly because lives are at stake. Jesus had the same urgency in John 9:4: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”
c. Defensive Prayer
Prayer is also defensive; we must never forget we are soldiers of Christ engaged in spiritual warfare. The breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit are all parts of the armor of God to protect us. We are at battle with spiritual darkness and the plans carried out by evil men. Evil men that have not only corrupted themselves but intent on corrupting others. Evangelists are on the front line on this battle, and need both offensive prayer to spread the gospel effectively, but also defensive, protective prayer against the evil that would stop them.
III. Faithful Inside the Church (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.
If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Discipline inside a church is necessary. And just like we’d like God’s justice to reign down on somebody else while only God’s mercy reigns on us, we only want church discipline to be imposed on other people. Some people and even some churches use discipline to kick people out of a church. But church discipline as used by Paul is a loving act. Church discipline is demanded by scripture to bring our wayward brothers and sisters back to the church, back to the fold, to heal wounds, to restore them in love.
Listen to what Jesus says in Mathew 18:15-17
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
The relationships we have with one another are those of brother and sister, and they reflect our understanding of the love God has shown for us. If we can’t show love to our brother or sister, do we truly understand love at all?
In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus tells us that our relationships with each other are so important that until we are reconciled with our brother, our offerings to the Lord are of little value. Our service to the Lord, our tithes, our worship, worthless. Jesus says to put your offering down and go reconcile with one another. Then come back and give your offering.
How do we do that? The first step is simple communication with each other. Just talk. If that doesn’t work, enlist a friend or two to help. If that doesn’t work, take it to somebody in the church leadership. Do that as many times as necessary, it’s not a one-time thing.
Human nature being what it is, you’re thinking of somebody that you’d like to drag up before the church leadership. But what if somebody drags you to the church leadership? What sort of attitude should you have?
Removing somebody from the church body is serious. Remember the goal is to restore sinners and bring them back into repentence. We should give them every opportunity to respond. The most important thing to remember is that we never have the right to treat them in an non-Christ-like manner just because they are acting in a non-Christ-like manner. Regardless of how the other person acts, we are to love them.
Here in the case of the Thessalonian church, Paul was dealing with a specific issues. In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul explained to the church how to act while under persecution. Chapter 2, Paul warned against false teachings. And now, Paul is addressing idle people. See, most of the Thessalonians were Greek and part of the Greek culture was a disdain for work. Work was beneath them, and so they owned slaves to do all their work. Did you know the Roman calendar at this time observed 156 holidays a year? Festival of feasting, Festival in honor of Mercury, Festival of Mars, Festival of Flowers, Festival of Childbirth, Festival of the Dead, Festival of Success. They even had a festival, Agonalia, honoring Janus, the god of gates and doorways.
The Greek Thessalonians used the return of Christ as an excuse not to do work. These idle Greeks became burdens to the church; rather than contributing to the benefit of all, the Greeks lived off the works of other church members, working hard to make a living and contribute to the church.
Paul begins his discussion on church discipline first by studying scripture, in verse 6 he says we must live according to the teaching we received. What does the Lord say about work?
Turns out God has a lot to say about work. Starting in Genesis 2:15, Adam’s job before the fall was to cultivate and keep the garden. In Ecclesiastes 9:10, Solomon says, “whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” There are a dozen proverbs (Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 12:11, 12:14, 12:24, 12:27; 13:4; 15:19; 18:9; 19:15, 19:24; 20:4; 21:25-26; 22:13, 22:29) that deal with work. Here’s Proverbs 6:6-11 –
You lazy fool, look at an ant.
Watch it closely; let it teach you a thing or two.
Nobody has to tell it what to do.
All summer it stores up food;
at harvest it stockpiles provisions.
So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing?
How long before you get out of bed?
A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there,
sit back, take it easy—do you know what comes next?
Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life,
poverty your permanent houseguest!
Ok, so scripture is consistent about work. After making sure your exhortation is consistent with scripture, the next thing Paul commands is that you yourself aren’t guilty of the same thing. Jesus once said that before you judged another for the speck in his eye, you had to make sure you didn’t have a plank in your own eye. Paul had a vocation; he was a tentmaker and earned his living as he traveled. He reminds the Thessalonians of his example in verses 7-10. In order to be an effective witness for Christ, you must examine your own life first to ensure you are a worthy imitator of Christ. Paul didn’t have to work so hard; I’m sure he was fatigued after teaching all day, writing letters to churches, and then making tents at night. As an apostle, Paul was entitled to accept help from the church, but instead Paul went the extra mile to make sure he was an example worth imitating and relieving the church of the burden of supporting him.
First, examine the scriptures, then examine ourselves. The next step is to examine the situation. Why are the Thessalonians not working? Is it because they are unable, or because they are unwilling? Some people are unable to work. Perhaps they are disabled. Perhaps they haven’t found an opportunity or there are no job openings available. Our country is in a recession, and it appears it’s getting worse, not better. We should be diligent in applying ourselves to work as soon as possible.
Don’t take this to mean that the job must be a well-paying job, or that it pays at all. Some of the most demanding work is housework or taking care of children or ministry work. The point is that, as far as you are able, to contribute to work instead taking, to be busy at the things that pleases God instead of using idle time to simply please ourselves or meddle in the lives of others.
Look at verse 12 again. What commonsense advice does Paul give? As Christians, how can we apply this in our approach to society in general? What type of character is created by honest work?
Once the examination of scripture and examination of ourselves is complete, we may find that it’s time to confront another in the church out of love and to heal the body of Christ. Verse 13 is key to our heart at this point; Paul says we are never to tire of doing what is right. Doing what is right may be uncomfortable, but it can also be a time of significant personal growth. Here are some reasons for Christian confrontation –
i. Personal differences. This is probably the most common. We are so quick to judge others, yet are so blind to ourselves. The Thessalonians may have grumbled among themselves, “If they don’t have to work, why should I?” Sin is often unintentional, but sin nonetheless hampers God’s plan for us and for His church. When there is sin in the life of a believer, the health of the church is affected. Paul’s word for these believers were “disorderly” believers, people that marched out of step with others, disobeying Christ’s commands or the instructions of church elders. Instead of being busy, they were busybodies, and 1 Timothy 5:13 says that busybodies are more than just idle gossipers, they may be opposing God’s will by talking nonsense about others and doing Satan’s will. How tragic to find that we think we are good Christians but find instead that our idle talk is encouraging Satan instead of the church.
ii. Doctrinal error. We may find another Christian teaching the wrong doctrine. If they are doing it out of ignorance or lack of knowledge about scripture, we are to teach them the truth. 2 Timothy 2:25 says we are to do this so that God will grant them repentance and lead them to the truth. If they continue, Titus 1:10-14 says we are to rebuke them sharply. If the error continues, Romans 16:17 says avoid them, and 2 Timothy 2 says eventually we are to separate from them because their teaching will spread like gangrene.
iii. Another reason for righteous confrontation is if a believer has been overtaken by sin. This happens to believers, far more often than we think. Even the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, David yielded to lust, Moses to pride, and so on. Galatians 6:1-3 says that for these believers, we the church are to restore them gently. Remember Jesus and the adulterous woman? Jesus wasn’t harsh with her, He was gentle, admonishing to her to go and sin no more. The word “restore” literally means “to set a broken bone”. It takes gentleness and kindness and patience, not sudden judgment and condemnation.
iv. Then we get to the repeating troublemaker. Titus 3:10 tells us to warn them twice and then have nothing to do with them. These people are divisive, they often have good scriptural knowledge but because of their pride, they love to take side and encourage argument. They have a strong opinion because they love to get their way – they may argue about how the Lord’s Supper ought to be served or how the worship songs should be sung or even what kind of service to the Lord is more important. Pride is at the root of division, and Satan uses such heretics to divide a church.
v. And then, there is the church member living in open immorality. 1 Corinthians 5 deals with a case of incest within the church. The church was proud of their tolerance, how despite this open, flagrant sin, the church passed no judgment on him. There are many churches like this today that openly accept members and elders in open sin. Paul tells us that instead of being prideful of our tolerance, we should be in mourning. A believer in open sin should be expelled from the church. Paul warns us not to treat these people as enemies, because they are not. They are our brothers and sisters. Just like Lot fell out of fellowship with Abraham and the Lord because he moved to Sodom, Genesis 14:14 says, “When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” Our goal is to rescue our brother, not condemn him.
2 Thessalonians 3:14 says we should have such a purpose in our separation. When it comes to the idle, the busybodies, the heretics, the unrepentant sinners, after trying to restore them, rebuke them, disassociating with them, the purpose of our actions is to bring them back into the Lords will. Examine scripture first; make sure you are correct in your theology. Examine yourself, make sure you do not have a plank in your own eye and that you are a good example. Confront them individually, with another believer, with a church elder in order to restore them. And then, if all else fails, leave them alone and mourn that they are not in fellowship with the Lord.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.
I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Paul wraps up 2 Thessalonians 3 with note that as Christians, the Lord of Peace himself will give us peace at all times and in every way. This peace is for all Christians; notice Paul says, “The Lord be with all of you,” and this includes those he just finished rebuking. This peace is for us. Let us examine ourselves and our church family and work for what is right for the benefit of all, to make a strong, healthy body of believers for our Lord and Savior.
In the two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul taught them how to live in fellowship as believers. The lesson Paul taught is just as true today. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we do know that His return is eminent. Until then, we have tasks to do as His body. Work eagerly and joyfully at the tasks God has given us on this earth, all the while keeping an eye toward heaven. In this Chapter, Paul tells us about two of those tasks; we are to pray, and we are to earn a living. In all circumstances, we can take comfort in the peace given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.