1 Thessalonians 4:9-12
Paul wrote two letters to the church at Thessalonica. In the first century, Thessalonica was the signal city of Macedonia. It served as the capital and had been a free city since 42 BC. Its location on the famous Roman road, the Via Egnatia and its natural harbor made it quite a commercial center. Acts 17:1-9 records the visit of Paul and his entourage to this influential Greek city.
While Paul was in Athens, he became concerned about the church in Thessalonica and sent Timothy to check on things (1 Thess. 3:1-3). Timothy returned to Paul – who had moved on to Corinth – and gave him an encouraging report of what was happening in the church (1 Thess. 3:6-7). Evidently, Paul felt led to immediately write the church a letter and it is now known as 1 Thessalonians.
In both letters to this church, Paul addresses the topic of work. In fact, in the second letter his tone is a bit more direct and harsh to the point of saying that if someone is unwilling to work, he is not to eat (2 Thess. 3:10). There must have been some issue that caused the Thessalonian Christians to need some specific instructions about a theology of work. We are not sure of the specific background. Some have proposed that believers were so infatuated with the return of Jesus that they had quit their jobs in anticipation of the end of time. Others have surmised that the believers there were so committed to evangelism, they had left their jobs to witness to the community at large. Others propose that some church members had become too publicly and politically involved with the city government that they were neglecting their vocational responsibilities and become a burden to the other church members.
It may have one of these issues, or some combination of all three, that led Paul to specifically address the topic of work. Regardless, our passage for today’s lesson offers helpful insights to us as we seek to construct a theology of work for the 21st century.
Philadelphia – don’t panic, Cowboys’ fans, I’m not referring to the dreaded Philadelphia Eagles! This is a Greek word in our New Testament and it is found in verse 9. The new NIV translates it, “your love for one another.” Concerning Philadelphia, “brotherly love” – Paul is using the compound word built from adelphos – “brother” and filia – “affection.” He states that he shouldn’t need to address anything concerning this topic. In other words, Paul is chiding the Thessalonians by saying “I shouldn’t have to give you any more instructions about how to love each other in Christ.” In fact, he uses another word for “love” at the end of verse 9 – agape – “unconditional love.”
Paul is encouraging these believers to demonstrate the love of God towards each other in their daily lives. In verse 10 he commends them for their love and how well known it is throughout the believing community in Macedonia.
However, he wants them to grow and develop in their love for each other. How are they to do this specifically?
In verse 11 – he offers this challenge, “make it your ambition.” He seems to connect this challenge to three specific places in their lives: lead a quiet life, mind your own business and work with your hands.
The first two have to do with how the Thessalonian believers conduct themselves in public affairs and relationships. Was there a problem in these areas? Were these Christians being too noisy in their public life? Were they calling attention to themselves by their activity in public? Was this bringing harm upon the church? We are not sure. We do know the Jewish community was not particularly happy with the establishment of a church that contained Jews in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). In any event, Paul asks these believers to be more discreet in their public life and pay attention to their own affairs.
Work with your hands – this is a Hebrew idiom drawn from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 2:7; Jeremiah 1:16). It is not a specific direction for all workers to find jobs as craftsman and artisans. Basically, Paul is instructing these folks to “get jobs and go to work!” This New Testament admonition fits the assignment given to humanity back in Genesis 2:15. Human beings have been uniquely designed by God to work. Work is not a result of the curse of Genesis 3. Work is honorable and it has dignity. God is the original Worker. He has called us to work.
You will not be dependent on anybody – this passage concludes in verse 12 with Paul’s summary comment about working for a living. If these believers will engage in honorable work, they will earn a profit and not be dependent on others. That is the core lesson for us today in this study. We can achieve a healthy independence from others if we will work for a living.
Duane A. Garrett, in his commentary on Proverbs, shares these insights on this passage in particular, “No one is prepared for life who has not learned some basic lessons on financial prudence, a meaningful work ethic, and moral precepts for dealing with society” (Duane A. Garrett, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture and NIV Text: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Broadman Press, 1993, p. 95).
Proverbs 6:1-5 – This passage seems to condemn the practice of co-signing on a loan or a debt with someone. That is implied, however, there are examples in the Bible where assuming responsibility for someone else is admissible (Philemon). Yet, this passage cautions against mortgaging all of your assets and resources that are needed for your own family in order to provide for someone else. We should avoid legal entanglements that jeopardize our ability to meet our own responsibilities.
Proverbs 6:6-11 – This text addresses the topic of our work ethic. The reader is instructed to observe the activities of ants and learn. Ants are diligent workers and they plan for the future! The writer condemns the sloth of sluggards and slackers. Laziness leads to dependence on others that is unhealthy and unnecessary. In fact, this passage warns that calamity and disaster are in the future of the worker who chooses not to engage in meaningful labor.
Certainly there are times and mitigating circumstances where we need others to intervene on our behalf and assist us to meet our responsibilities. Forced unemployment, depressions, health emergencies – these come to mind readily as examples when we can’t be gainfully engaged in working for a living. People who live in impoverished communities where jobs are unavailable also need to be mentioned in this regard. However, I am addressing the broader contexts where work is available and we are able to work. We should have a strong, healthy work ethic and a balanced understanding of profit.