Make Gracious Restoration Your Aim

I. Paul issues an apostolic command on the church’s response to idleness (6).

A. This is a serious matter for Paul uses three phrases in this single verse to indicate that the truth and honor of God is at stake in this matter.

    1. As Paul indicated in verse 4, he had authority to command and they had the duty to obey his command. Now he issues a specific command concerning a matter of their life together as the body of Christ and their witness to the world.
    2. He adds even greater force to the command by inserting specifically what is implied in an apostolic command, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is saying, your compliance with this command reflects on the character of Christ himself and reflects your submission to his authority.
    3. “According to the tradition you received from us” means that this specific aspect of behavior was dealt with in teaching while Paul was with them. This was a matter of conduct to which Paul gave attention. It was a matter of character

B. The persons addressed are the whole church, adelphoi, brothers. The body of the baptized are to take this command on themselves, led by elders, but nevertheless responsible in this solemn act of necessary discipline. See Paul’s instruction to the church in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 to the “brothers” immediately after his description of some of the responsibilities of the bishops or elders ((12, 13). The elders instruct and teach but it is the responsibility of the body to engage this matter and to participate in harmony with the view of the majority (2 Corinthians 2:6). This must be a church action or the judgment and its effect will be voided in the experience of the one so disciplined.

C. The person referred to is one that is presently in communion with the church, has been identified with the church through baptism, is considered a member of the fellowship. We have nothing to do with those outside the church, except to deal with them honestly and to bear witness when possible, but for those who are inside we have a particular responsibility. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul wrote that they were not to associate “with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” For the Thessalonians also Paul isolates the one who is brother by profession but maybe not by true possession; this is a brother in name but possibly not in fact.

D. What is this person doing, or not doing? This person is pursuing an “unruly” style of living; he is not in line with the apostolic instruction that has been delivered to him under the authority of Christ. Translations vary from highly literal to highly contextual: “living in idleness; living an ill-ordered life; life is disorderly; who is loafing; who is living as a shirker; lives a vagabond life; whose life is undisciplined; walking in idleness.” Already Paul had given serious admonition that the church issue warning to the “careless, unruly, disorderly, loafers, vagabonds” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). That he must now deal more seriously with this problem, perhaps in light of failure to respond properly to the first letter, gives rise to a more detailed expectation of how to handle the problem.

E. The command to keep away means not only an exclusion from the Lord’s Supper, but from any communion in the church—they are truly excommunicated. They are not to enjoy any kind of fraternal social interaction. The statement here, parallel with that of 1 Corinthians is “Keep away from every brother,” that is, who presently bears that name. They are to keep away as a body and as individuals.

II. “Follow our example” (7). Paul reminds them of his apostolic example of the goodness and dignity of personal labor (7-9). In addition to the instruction that Paul has given in words, he uses his own example as an inspired model of conduct. He indicates this idea of imitation of apostolic conduct in Philippians 3:17 (“Brothers join in imitating me”) and combines both the verbal and the imitative instruction in Philippians 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

A. Paul makes a general summary statement saying, “We did not act in an undisciplined manner among you.” He uses the same root word in a verbal form translated “unruly” or “undisciplined” in verse 6. The Living Bible paraphrases, “You never saw us loafing.”

B. They did not loaf, and they did not freeload. They worked in order to sustain themselves in food and shelter. The Acts account (Acts 17:5-9) makes it clear that Paul lived in the house of Jason. They probably found shelter for themselves early in their time in Thessalonica, but, after his conversion, Jason, like Lydia in Philippi, opened his home as a base for their operations. With a place to stay, Paul still refused to feed himself at Jason’s expense: “nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it” (8). Paul and Silas worked for their food while there. They did this so they could live among them and not be a burden to any of them while testifying to the truth of the gospel. And it was not easy work; it was labor, heavy drudgery, taxing. It was time consuming for they continued at it night and day. We know that in Corinth, Paul worked as a tentmaker, for that was his trade (Acts 18:3).

D. According to Paul’s letter to Philippi (4:16), the Philippian church did send monetary support to Thessalonica to support Paul and Silas. This was entirely legitimate and did not impose on the new believers in Thessalonica. As an apostle, and more generically as a worker in the gospel, he had a right for support but did not assume to impose that on the Thessalonians, though he urged them to give special appreciation and honor to those who were their leaders, probably elders (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13).

E. Paul urged them again to follow his example of working to support himself. He refused the apostolic stipend “in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example” (9).

III.  Paul based this command to the church on a command issued when he was with them and on a present problem (10-12). “When we were with you, this we commanded you” (10).

A. Paul reiterates what he had said in 1 Thessalonians 2:9—“For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” He told them, and now repeats it with urgent emphasis, “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat either” (10). He must provide for himself and his dependents and give an example to the laggards of the city that the gospel transforms people into productive and responsible members of society.

B. Paul was keenly aware of the tendency of some in Thessalonica to be laggards and tending toward loitering and laziness (Acts 17:5). Genuine repentance would move them from that disposition to one of honest toil—“In all toil there is profit” (Proverbs 14:23). To the converted thieves in Ephesus, and among all the Gentiles, Paul wrote, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Work was an element of the blessed life in the Garden of Eden prior to the fall (Genesis 2:15). Since the fall, work has not lost its dignity and its manifestation of the divine image (Genesis 2:2), but the toil and difficulty of work has been increased (Genesis 3:17-19).

C. Maybe owing to an unmortified lazy streak some were so without an internal moral compass or conformity to external commands that they were “doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies” (11). Perhaps the false belief that the coming of Christ was just around the corner made them justify their hesitation to find a job or begin a trade or find someone to hire them. A. T. Robertson combines both in his hard-hitting evaluation, “These theological dead-beats were too pious to work, but perfectly willing to eat at the hands of their neighbours while they piddled and frittered away the time in idleness” (Word Pictures on 3:11).

D. Paul has a command and an exhortation. They should obey the command and profit from the exhortation knowing that the command arises out of love for them and the exhortation “in the Lord Jesus Christ” is to help them reflect his character in their lives. Instead of living as listless, parasitical, unproductive vultures, they must resist their tendency to ostentation and flagrant joblessness. The point of discipleship is simple: The ones who have shirked work are to “work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread” (12).

IV. Encourage the faithful and chasten the unruly (13-15).

A. John Gill remarks that this refers particularly to “acts of beneficence to the poor; for though the idle and lazy should not be relieved, yet the helpless poor should not be neglected.” Admonitions for the unemployed to work should not become an excuse for Christians to be uncharitable toward those who truly are in need and have no way to mend their situation. He wrote the same to the Galatians, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.” He then said that this spirit of benevolence, though primarily to fellow believers, should extend to all persons: “So then as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:9, 10).

B. Again, Paul indicates his authority in all matters of doctrine and of Christian living. “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter,” could refer to those who refuse to keep away from the unruly brother (6). Whole church discipline is not an optional matter for members of the church but must be executed by all when such an action is taken by the church. Without a doubt, it refers to those who are not working and yet are able-bodied.

    1. Take special note of that person—he is to be a marked man. He is to be singled out for special attention, both for admonition and for prayer, for discipline and for entreaty to return to a pattern of obedience.
    2. “Do not associate with him.” He must not be given any indication that he is in good standing concerning the vital and eternal interests of the church body. He does not share their sense of discipleship so he will not share their company.
    3. If this mark placed on him has its proper effect, and he genuinely has the Spirit of God in him, he will be “put to shame” and seek a remedy both for his sin and for his isolation from the body. We find this present in the case of one who was disciplined by the church at Corinth. He was brought to a remorseful shame in himself and needed quick reception and affirmation from the church: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything” (1 Corinthians 2:6-10).
    4. The quick reception that Paul advised to the Corinthians is an expansion of his earlier instruction to the Thessalonians: “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (15). The severity of the admonition and the necessary exclusion from the body and all related association is designed as an opportunity for manifestation of faith and resultant recovery of fellowship. In 2 Corinthians 13:11, 12, Paul wrote “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Gaining restoration through obedience to apostolic command is one of the evidences of true faith (14 also 2 Corinthians 2:9).

V. Grace, Peace, and true identity (16-18).

A. If we are at odds with God’s revelation, we will be in continual disturbance of conscience and put ourselves under the humiliating convictions of the Holy Spirit. Reconciliation with God comes only through the completed work of Christ to which we submit by believing its testimony and trusting fully in its outcome. “The Lord of peace” has granted us peace through Christ and will continue to do so as we are more and more conformed to his revealed truth and his operations to produce holiness in us. We will sacrifice peace, increase conviction and spiritual uneasiness, and assault our own consciences when we seek to sidestep obedience to the word. “IF we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and the cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In such a way we may have “peace in every circumstance.”

B. In the same way that the unruly person should be marked (14), so Paul marked his letter with his signature. In light of false instructions flying under his name (2:2), Paul wanted them to know that these words were truly revealed apostolic doctrine and moral instruction. (1 Corinthians 16:21; Colossians 4:18). In other letters probably he wrote the last sentence of greeting or benediction. Some mark of initials and perhaps Paulos was appended.

C. Paul’s teaching is saturated with grace as the fountainhead of all blessings from eternity past, presently in Christian experience, and in the state of eternal life. Every letter ends with a benediction of grace. Romans is the only exception, and it ends with “to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:27). Seven verses earlier (16:20) Paul had said, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” In verse 7 of the first chapter (Romans 1:7), Paul wrote, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In both letters of the Thessalonians correspondence, Paul uses the same words, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” The Bible ends with these words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21). The entire Bible is a book of grace given in light of an overwhelming burden of sin, transgression, corruption and guilt. Though the entire New Testament is an exposition of the grace of Christ, the most extended verse involving the words “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” is found in 2 Corinthians 8:9. It exhibits the most striking condensation of language and concepts imaginable in light of the infinite wonder, power, and wisdom involved in it and is found in the context of giving: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes be became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” This is the true source of grace, peace, obedience, and restoration.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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