AN IMPORTANT COMMAND

2 Thessalonians 3:6—18; Matthew 18:15—17

Paul had a lot of good things to say to and about the church in Thessalonica. But there was one very big problem in that congregation: laziness. This seems to have been long-standing problem in that church, reaching back into Paul’s first letter:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12)

And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

What was hinted at in his first letter, Paul was forced to deal with explicitly in his second. This proclivity toward laziness was brought on by doctrinal misunderstanding. Frequently, practical misconduct results from doctrine misunderstanding, and in this case some members of the church misunderstood the doctrine of the Second Coming. They thought, incorrectly, that they needed only to watch and wait for Christ to return; that they need not work.

Paul’s gentle admonitions in his first letter failed to nip the problem in the bud, therefore he had to be much more forceful this second time around.

1. Avoid disorderly and divisive people, 2 Thess. 3:6, 7

What Paul was about to write was so important, he prefaced his admonition with the phrase, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This means that what he is about write carries the same authority as though Jesus Himself wrote it.

a. Choose your associates carefully, vs. 6

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.

The KJV translates this verse slightly differently:

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.

Is it “disorderly” or “idle” brothers that should be avoided? There were, no doubt, brothers in the congregation engaging in “disorderly conduct,” which probably included the following:

  • laziness, or “loafing” around, doing nothing.

  • spreading all kinds of gossip (see 2:2).

  • asking to be supported by the church (see vs. 12).

  • meddlesomeness (see vs. 11)

All of this unruly conduct resulted from their idleness. We all know how the old saw goes: “Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.” Clearly not every member of the church was like this, but there were more now than when the first letter was written, hence this rather lengthy admonition. These erring members were properly called “disorderly,” from a Greek military term meaning “those out of rank.” In other words, they were behaving in a most unchrist-like manner.

Paul’s authoritative admonition was to “withdraw” or “remain aloof” from these lazy people. This self-imposed “aloofness” was not to be characterized by an air of superiority or condemnation, but rather it was to be an “aloofness” that signified no condoning of the erring brother’s way of life. This advice was consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere, especially of his advice to the Corinthians, which was to excommunicate a brother involved in sexual immorality. Here, excommunication was not called for, but a kind shunning was.

b. Follow good examples, vs. 7

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you…

While avoiding these lazy members, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to copy his (Paul’s) example, and the example of his friends, who were anything but idle. Paul and his companions never sponged off anybody, therefore no member of the Thessalonian church should, either. Paul’s use of the word “ought” suggests this was more than an exhortation, it was an obligation. In other words, it is the obligation of every believer to work as Paul did: diligent and hard.

2. Fulfill your responsibilities, 2 Thess. 3:8—13

a. Financial responsibility, vs. 8—11

Paul’s example of hard work was the polar opposite of how the erring, lazy brothers were living. Paul and his friends not only preached the Gospel in the church, they worked “on the side” to support themselves! The missionaries had every right to be paid for their work in the church by the church, but here was a “teachable moment” too good to pass up! Paul and his friends would lead by example. Since some members of the congregation were too thick to understand his written word, Paul would show them the right way to live.

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. (vs. 9)

Verse 10 is Paul’s stern, clear piece of advice on this matter of laziness:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

The quotations around the rule suggests this was a common saying of Paul’s day; one which Paul appropriated for use within the church. Simply put: no work, no eat.

Paul was not cold and heartless. His was a perfectly balanced theology. Here was a man who had no trouble telling people “get a job” and “stop sponging off others,” but at the same time risked life and limb to collect offerings for the poor. He had no sympathy for those who could work but refused not to.

Ultimately, all believers need to understand Paul’s doctrine of welfare versus work: it all boils down to imitating Christ. He sacrificed everything to help those who could not help themselves. Those recipients of Christ’s saving grace ought not to be a burden on others, but should be willing to, like Christ, sacrifice what they have for others who don’t have it themselves to help themselves.

b. Calm dispositions, vs. 12

Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.

Instead of being busy, these lazy brothers had become busybodies! The interesting thought behind verse 12 is that when one is able to work but does not, he becomes restless; he literally looks for trouble to get into. But when one works, the opposite happens: he has a kind of inner peace and he keeps out of trouble.

c. Doing good, vs. 13

And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

This is a great piece of advice for the folks in Thessalonica who where living as they ought. Regardless of how long the Lord’s coming may be delayed, regardless of whatever “disorderliness” surround us, we should always engage good work; we should conduct ourselves according to the highest standards we are capable of reaching in terms of word, discipline, orderliness, and quietness of mind.

3. Discipline lovingly, 2 Thess. 3:14—16; Matt. 18:15—17

a. Fellowship withdrawn, vs. 14—16

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.

Bringing his letter to a conclusion, Paul again stresses the importance of church discipline, a subject foreign to the average church-goer these days. This advice included two very important points:

  • Take special note” of those who will not obey Paul’s advice in this letter to work hard and live properly. Every member of the church needed to heed Paul’s instruction to become a part of the disciplinary process. Offenders needed to be taken note of so that the whole congregation could co-operate in disciplining them

  • Do not regard” lazy members, but “warn” them as brothers. These were fellow believers, after all, men whom Christ died for. Even though their behavior wasn’t right, it wasn’t motived by maliciousness. The entire church had an obligation to warn them and to help back on track.

The purpose of this kind of church discipline was to restore the disobedient to complete fellowship. Paul was sure these lazy brothers were still in the faith; they had not lost it in any way. Therefore, as much as hard work was an obligation, so was restoration to fellowship.

b. Distinct pattern, Matt. 18:15—17

The idea of corporate discipline of believers didn’t originate with Paul. Jesus, the founder of the Church, gave us the pattern to follow:

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.”

Up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had spent considerable time teaching on the dangers of causing someone to stumble; of sinning against another. With verse 15, Jesus flips the coin over so as to deal with the possibility of a brother sinning against you. What do you do if “your brother,” or a fellow church member, does something to offend you? Tell them about it, face to face. Jesus’ teaching comes right out of the Old Testament:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. (Leviticus 19:17)

The danger in keeping the offense inside, whatever you think it may be, is that it will fester and grow and cause you to sin; instead of being the offended, you will turn into the offender! So, it’s better to go in private and talk to the person who offended you. Privacy is the key; if the offense is kept only between the two involved, then the rest of the church won’t be prone to take sides and get involved.

If the brother refuses to listen, then other people need to get involved, namely, a couple of witnesses who will take note of the proceedings. If the brother still refuses to listen and apologize, and the problem remains unresolved, then the offending brother needs to be shunned; treated like a tax collector. Most scholars think Jesus has in mind excommunication.

Church discipline is an important, though highly scorned, Biblical doctrine. In the past, it was surely abused by pastors and elders more interested in building their own little kingdoms than in expanding God’s Kingdom. There is no excuse for taking advantage of a Biblical doctrine for one’s own gains.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Church of Jesus Christ gets lost in the tall grasses of false teaching is that church discipline is ignored for the sake of political correctness or to avoid one or two members of the church. Church leadership, when it strays from the first principles of Biblical doctrine, will always shoot themselves in the foot no matter how noble their intentions may be.

There is a reason why the Bible says the things it does. God, not man, knows what’s best for His Church. Let’s pay attention.

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