There was probably a reason for it. Some of the brethren at Thessalonica had quit their jobs and had been filling their up their now ample spare time with ungodly pursuits. Perhaps the reason was doctrinal. There had been some who were making all kinds of statements about the coming of the Lord. Why plant the crops or build the house if Jesus is coming next week?
In the first letter to the church of Christ at Thessalonica, Paul had warned them to busy themselves in righteous, honest labor and had told them to admonish the "unruly" among them (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 5:14). He had also sought to clear up misconceptions about the second coming of Christ, both about its nature (4:13-18) as well the fact that no one knows when it will be (5:1-11). To cease working because somebody claims to know that Jesus' coming is imminent is a foolish thing to do, and not at all pleasing unto the Lord.
The second letter to the church of God at Corinth elaborates further on these things. The Holy Spirit makes it clear that there is more history to come before the Lord's return, so the first century date-setters were wrong, just as they have been in every century since, including our own (2 Thessalonians 2:1-ff).
But some had not heeded the earlier admonitions and were continuing to lead undisciplined lives; to being busybodies and refusing to work. What is the church to do about this? Our text provides the answer (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).
The Errors Involved
"...from every brother who leads an unruly life...if anyone will not work, then neither let him eat, for we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing not work at all, but acting like busybodies...and if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter..." (2 Thessalonians
3:6b; 10b-11; 14). There are at least four errors that are involved in Paul's rebuke:
a) Leading an unruly life - The context itself helps define this error by explaining it is "not according to the tradition you received from us." (3:6c). We often think of "tradition" as human in origin, but actually the word only refers to teachings handed down from one to another. In this case, it comes from God through the inspired apostles. Their lives lacked proper adherence to God's rules for living. God had given a command, but they were not obeying it.
b) Not working - Specifically, they were not obeying God's command to work and make our lives productive (cf. Ephesians 5:28; Titus 3:8,14). Even before sin entered the world, man was assigned responsibility, though the once pleasant task became difficult toil after the fall. (Genesis 2:15; 3:17-19).
c) Acting like busybodies - What a remarkable thing! These brethren were now misusing their time to meddle in other people's business, but the reason they had so much time is because they were not taking care of their own business! Their lives had thus become useless (cf. 1 Timothy 5:13).
d) Not obeying apostolic instructions - To reject the words of the apostles was to reject God, for the words they wrote came directly to them from Him.
Those who truly believe obey these things (1 Thessalonians 2:13). On the other hand, those who do "not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" will be lost (2 Thessalonians 1:8,9). The most tragic result of those caught up in this error was not that they were wasting their lives (though that is bad enough) but rather that they were forfeiting their own souls.
Paul's Good Example
"For you, yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you." (2 Thessalonians 3:7,
cf. vss. 8,9). Paul had a right to receive material support (1 Corinthians 9:1-18) as he preached the gospel, and sometimes did. But at Thessalonica he and the workers who traveled with him had given up that right so that they could provide a good example to their new converts. It had meant for long hours, but Paul had felt it important that these new believers have some living examples of a living faith. Those who were not working were
failing to follow this godly example (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1; Philippians 3:17).
The Response of the Church
"Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who...if anyone will not work, then neither let him eat...But as for you brethren, do not grow weary of doing good...take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." (2 Thessalonians 3:6a; 10; 13-15). This problem had existed for some time. Exhortations and warnings had been given, but some had refused to listen. Paul commands that the following course be taken by the church:
a) Keep aloof from unruly brethren - The word "aloof" ("withdraw" KJV) is translated from an interesting Greek word. Among its definitions, "stellomai" means to "furl a sail", and that is probably its meaning here. So why is it translated this way? The word has to do with a naval military maneuver where one ship seeks to avoid contact with a hostile ship by "furling its sail". Paul is telling the brethren to maintain a certain distance from those who are unruly, and he further qualifies this later by both being more specific as well as explaining that some level of contact is permitted.
b) Neither let him eat - This is not a command to follow the man around and grab food out of his hands every time he is about to take a bite. But it is a statement that a man who will not work ought not to be supported with food by the members of the church. Jesus commends feeding the hungry, but those who create their own neediness by their own, freely chosen, ungodly idleness are not to be assisted. Neither the church nor the individual has any responsibility to provide for the idle.
c) Do not grow weary in doing good - Sometimes, bad habits can spread. If I work hard for my food, but my next door neighbor gets his donated to him
as he relaxes day in and day out, I may begin to wonder if all my work is worth it (it is; in the dignity, esteem and self-respect earned by being productive and doing good work). Paul urges the faithful not to follow the examples of those who had stopped "doing good".
d) Take special note of that man - The members of the Lord's church were to individually note for themselves the unruly nature of the one living in an undisciplined manner. The Greek literally means "to mark for oneself, to note for oneself".
e) Do not associate with him - The idea is to "not mix together" with the unruly; to "not keep company" with him. This word is used three times in the New Testament, all occurring in contexts discussing church discipline (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9,11). Of course, there are other commandments of God which further expand on the extent of this lessened association. For example, if I owe a brother money, I would need to be honest about my debt and pay him. If he were hurt, I would try to help him. If he or she were one of my parents, I would still have a son's obligation to render parental honor. If it be my husband or wife, I still have certain responsibilities to fulfill there as well. These all involve other commandments of God, and this one must be obeyed in the light of the others, and the others in light of this one.
f) Admonish him - There is a limited amount of association that is proper with such a one. He is not to be regarded as an enemy to be crushed, but rather a brother who needs to be made ashamed and admonished. The goal of all admonishment is to both warn and encourage so as to put into one's mind a sense of proper conduct.
"Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and
strengthen your hearts in every good work and word." (2 Thessalonians 2:16,17).
Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 21.3; March 2014