Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
There is a very practical exhortation in the passage today—the call to work and not to be idle, or a busybody.
There are a number of possibilities as to who these idlers might be.
First, it may be that the idlers are those who claim to believe that Christ is coming soon (2 Thessalonians 2:1) and they therefore conclude, “Why bother working, it’ll all be over soon?”
This is easy to dismiss as nonsense, but there is a version of this that may be seen to be prevalent today. There are those who are particularly committed to the belief that Christ will return soon, and there will be some version of Armageddon, and judgement for the wicked. As a result of what can be this very blinkered commitment, such people ignore that call to work for justice, and truth, mercy and compassion in the world. They ignore the weak and the lowly, they disdain the challenge to reflect the life of Jesus in their lives and prefer instead to allow wickedness and malevolence to increase in their misguided and deviant idea that this will all hasten the coming of Christ.
Second, it may be that there are those who have become part of the community of believers because there it exhibits and models a level of care, kindness, and generosity. However, once some folk have joined this generous community they then themselves take advantage and become a drain on the community. We might think here about the generous and gracious community of believers that is pictured in Acts 4 who shared everything that they had, ensuring that no one went without, and then reflect how easy it might be for someone to take advantage of others’ generosity.
Third, we might suggest that the lazy idlers are those who are wealthy and think therefore that they have no need to work. After all, why would they want to dirty their hands, when others will do it for them? We know of course that within the body of Christ there is no such thing as privilege, nor status based on wealth or background, or social position, but it may be that this passage is a challenge to those who hold to the lie of privilege that they should humble themselves, and work righteousness and justice, mercy, compassion, and generosity.
This exhortation to work and challenge that if you do not work you shall not eat, has been taken by people both of the left and right wings of the political spectrum (examples such as Lenin’s principle of socialism in the early communist era and Michele Bachmann articulating doctrine of the political right-wing in the United States) and used in various malicious and unkind ways to deny the needy and struggling in our society.
However, the key to how we can interpret and apply this passage today is to be found in the very last phrase: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
The challenge and exhortation are ultimately in doing what is right in and through our work. Taking this approach, we can now see that there will be those who confess faith in Jesus Christ, say the creeds, join the church and so on, but are idle and neglectful when it comes to “doing what is right.”
The writer of this passage has spoken earlier not just about what is right, but also about the traditions that have been painstakingly and repetitively passed on to each new generation of believers. There is an expectation that new believers, as they enter and become part of the community of disciples, will accept these traditions and will work hard to follow them. Those who do not adhere to these traditions of righteousness, justice, truth, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness are the idlers.
If we were to trace the tradition that has been passed on by the apostles and lived out among the Thessalonians then what would we find? Limiting our search solely to 2 Thessalonians we see that this tradition includes:
- There is an emphasis on grace, and peace (2 Thessalonians 1:2, 12; 2:16, 3:16).
- There is the reminder that the revelation of Jesus Christ is rooted in his relation with God the Father (1:1).
- The relationship between the Lord Jesus and his disciples is one of devoted love (1:13, 16; 2:5).
- The faithfulness of Jesus if doing the work that his Father called him to (3:5).
- The otherworldly power of the Lord. He will destroy the “lawless one” with the “breath of his mouth” (2:8). The “lawless one” has built his life and reputation upon lies and fake news and the Lord Jesus will simply speak the truth and the words (breath) of his mouth will annihilate him.
There is then a call to work, but to work for righteousness. To work hard so that the traditions passed on by the apostles, based on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, might become a reality within our communities and society.