2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
By Prof Christopher Byaruhanga
Every culture says something about idleness. For instance, the Romans said, by doing nothing, men learn to do evil. One of the Fathers of the English hymns, Isaac Watts wrote, “For Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do”.
The Jewish scholars taught that he who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to be a thief.
Some Christians in Uganda say idleness is the devil’s workshop. You and I have heard it said from our Sunday school days that cleanliness is next to godliness.
The truth is, hard work is also next to godliness. Hard work enhances Missio Dei (God’s mission). Paul’s message in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 is for his audience to know the importance of their works in relation to their calling.
His thanksgiving prayers in chapter 1 and his theological section in chapter 2 focus on the fulfillment of good works, by God’s grace, which cannot be accomplished when one is idle!
When we come to chapter 3:1-5 some New Testament scholars think that Paul wanted to end this chapter at verse 5 but he realised there was an issue that was disturbing the church in Thessalonia namely, idleness, and he needed to confront it immediately.
Under Paul’s guidance the church in Thessalonia had overcome persecution and moral laxity but idleness still plagued them. Two things characterised the idlers’ behaviour and these were: doing no work at all; and meddling in other people’s affairs.
The idlers had become busybodies rather than self-supporting workers. Instead of becoming a blessing to the church, they were unproductive parasites. As a result, the idlers were resented by their colleagues.
Paul had indirectly spoken to this situation in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, but in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 he tackles it directly saying: “… 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.”
At this time some of the brothers and sisters were saying, the Bible urges us to love our neighbours as ourselves, not to be judgmental and to share all things in common, how do we handle this situation of idlers in our church?
Paul, therefore, attempts to set the boundaries by raising another question: what do we do when a brother or sister takes advantage of the fellowship’s generosity without contributing?
In response, Paul avoids talking about those Christians who cannot find work. Instead he talks about those Christians who choose to be idle and to cause chaos in the Christian community.
According to Paul, the issue here is obedience to the biblical injunction. The lazy believers know what the Bible says, but resist it.
There are a number of reasons why some Thessalonians were idle. One was their false views about the return of Christ, which had led them into an excited idleness that they spread from one person to another.
One scholar has said that these Christians had time on their hands and gossip on their lips. They said, “If the Lord is coming back tomorrow, why work today?”
Those who stopped working eventually ran out of money and food. The situation was so bad that they began to expect the hard working Christians to support them.
The wrong response to Jesus’ return not only led to idleness but also to lack of ability to support oneself and family.
That is why Paul commanded and urged the idlers to settle down and begin to work.
Here in Uganda, word had spread that Jesus’ return was on the first day of the year 2000 and that he would meet his elect at Namboole. To our surprise Jesus did not appear physically at Namboole on that day.
It is true the New Testament talks about the imminent return of Jesus Christ. But no one knows when He will return. Not even the professor of systematic theology at UCU knows when Jesus will return. It could be today, but it might not be, as has been the case for hundreds of years now.
However, this should not be an excuse for laziness. The principle is that we are to live as though Jesus’ return will be today but at the same time, continue to work as though it will not be for years to come. Paul made it clear that we should always be prepared for Christ’s return but in the meantime while we are here, we should not live in idleness.
This article is part I of excerpts from the sermon by the author, delivered on 07 March 2017, in Nkoyoyo Hall