Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
In this short passage at the conclusion of 2 Thessalonians, Paul and his co-authors develop an argument about the importance of working hard just like they did while they were in Thessalonica. And while this seems straightforward enough, a halfhearted interpretation could lead a preacher to do some harm, particularly due to the phrase we find in verse 10: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This pithy command, when taken out of the context of the overall passage, can and has been used to justify not supporting the most vulnerable in our communities, and has been cited in the public square to support policies such as work requirements for access to food stamps.1
But are Paul and his coauthors thinking about public policy or even charitable giving when they make this statement here in 2 Thessalonians?
Almost certainly not.
But they are making a very specific argument about how Christians need to behave within their community and the dangers of improper or disordered work.
To unpack this argument, we have to first place this passage in the overall flow of the letter. In chapter 2, the authors have warned about the “man of lawlessness” and encouraged their audience to not believe those who say that the day of the Lord is already upon them. It is still coming, even though it is near, and the believers in Thessalonica need to stand firm in their faith, just as they have received it.
Then in the beginning of chapter 3, we see a request from Paul that they pray for him as he spreads the gospel, and he again reiterates a prayer that they would continue doing the good they have been instructed to do, directing them to the steadfastness of Christ (3:5). It is after this that he turns to a warning, this time against those who have not held to what they have been taught and are not doing what they are supposed to do.
In fact, Paul accuses some of the believers of living idly (3:6). The word here for “idle” in Greek is ataktōs, a strange little adverb that only appears here in this pericope in verse 6 and verse 10 along with its related verb form, atakteō, in verse 7. Outside of the New Testament, this word means “disorderly or irresponsibly” and is often found within the context of battle imagery, of men not being ready at their post or ready for the fight ahead because of their disorder.2
In light of Paul’s continued claims in this epistle to stand fast in their faith and remain focused on the work Christ has placed in front of them, the imagery of this word makes sense. Certain people within the Thessalonian community have not stayed alert, and thus slipped into disordered work. Not only have they become idle or irresponsible, Paul claims, this subset of believers have actually become busybodies. And here we have another strange Greek work: periergazomai, which means “to meddle or interfere.” This word only appears here in verse 11 and nowhere else in the entire New Testament. Paul uses it to form a clever bit of wordplay with ergazomai (to work), and in doing so, he creates the idea that these folks are not only refusing to do their work, they are meddling in the work of others.
Biblical scholars debate who these busybodies are in the community and what led them to their idleness, but for the preacher, I would argue there are two plausible options. First, the busybodies have been led astray by those who say that the second coming has already occurred. This mistaken eschatological belief has led them to live disordered lives. They do not need to hold fast to what they have been taught because the end is already upon them. They are no longer standing at the ready, standing fast in Christ because they see no point since Christ has already returned and they missed it.
Second, these busybodies might not be “lay people” in the community, but rather they could be preachers and/or missionaries like Paul and his coauthors, and they have come into Thessalonica expecting to be supported in their ministries without having to work. This interpretation connects to Paul’s presentation of himself as an example of how to behave. He reminds the people how they worked day and night while they were with them, even though they had the right to ask to be financially supported. They didn’t do this, Paul argues, because they were trying to set the example of how religious leaders should behave within the community. We know from other early Christian sources like the Didache, that there were those trying to make a profit from proclaiming the gospel and expecting the support of communities. To Paul, this sort of behavior would be disorderly work.
The solution to disordered work?
So what is the solution to this disorderly work, whatever the root cause of it? Paul argues that it is to work quietly and eat one’s own bread (verse 12), a nice call back to his previous statement about how he did not eat anyone else’s bread when he was there. To avoid a life of idleness and meddling, one should simply and quietly do the work God has placed in front of them, and in doing so, support themselves. He then charges the church to not grow weary in doing what is right.
It is with this point that Paul is able to tie his arguments from chapters 2 and 3 together with this reminder to stay the course, and stay steadfast in the love of God. Know that God is faithful, is working for your salvation, and will keep you from evil. The end is not here yet, but it is coming. God will reign, so do not forsake your post.
- See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/31/gop-lawmaker-the-bible-says-the-unemployed-shall-not-eat/
- For instance, both Heroditus and Thucydides use this adverb in this context in their historical works.