What Do Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians Teach us About Work?

(Note: This article was posted in the Coram Deo blog.)

The Theology of Work Bible Commentary (TOWBC) indicates that “Workplace themes are woven into the fabric of the Thessalonian letters.” There is a reason for that. One of the problems in the church of Thessalonica was that some believers were idle. Here, Paul reminds them, “Christians need to keep at their labors, for the way of Christ is not idleness but service and excellence in work.”

In this article, I have collated some excerpts from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession that highlight what the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians teach the church about various aspects of work. I have done this previously with several other books of the Bible (Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Minor Prophets, the Gospel of John, Romans, and Exodus).

A Christian’s motivation for work

In his greeting, Paul makes the first of many statements regarding work. 

In 1 Thes. 1:2-3, we read that Paul thanks God for the church in Thessalonica, specifically remembering their faithful work and loving labor, which he praised in 1 Thes. 1:8, “The Lord’s message rang out from you … your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

Regarding God as a worker

In 1 Thes. 2:13, Paul is thankful that the church in Thessalonica accepted God’s Word, which is described as being at work in those who believe. This living and active Word of God came from God the Father, was revealed by Jesus the Son, and was given through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God has always used His Word to transform lives, and its power is still effective in every believer’s heart and mind today.  (See Heb. 4:12.)

In 2 Thes. 2:13-14, we observe that Paul reminds his readers that they have been chosen and were called to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Regarding God’s purposes for work

In the context of the instrumental value of work, meaning that work is not just good because God created it and is a worker (intrinsic value), but work is good for us. It serves various God-given purposes. Through work, God meets our needs and our family’s needs (1 Thes. 4:11-12).

Regarding how we should work

In 1 Thes. 4:11-12, with the context of the church neglecting their earthly responsibilities in light of their belief in Jesus’s imminent second coming, we see Paul’s command to the church to make it their ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind their own business, and to work with their hands so that they might earn the respect of nonbelievers and be responsible and independent.

In his final instructions at the end of his first epistle, Paul tells the church to respect those who work hard among them and to warn those who do not work hard (1 Thes. 5:12-14). He has much stronger language for these idle Christians in his next letter, which we will discuss now.

Refusing to work in light of Jesus’ return

In 2 Thes. 3:6-12, Paul exhorts the church to keep away from those who are idle by choice. If a man does not want to work, he should go hungry. A few commentaries and writers have shed some light on this unusual command, which may also help to explain the strong words of exhortation to the sluggard in Proverbs. Let me share some insights from them to help us out.

The TOWBC provides some background. “Many believe that some of the Thessalonians had stopped working because the end times were at hand … They might have felt that Jesus was coming at any minute, and thus there was no point to work.” They call attention to the fact that these passages warning those who are idle are found “in the context of teaching on the end times.” The commentators exhort, “Responsible Christian living embraces work, even the hard work of a first-century manual laborer … If people can work, they should work.”

The TOWBC confirms what I had heard regarding what Paul demands here. “The positive view of hard work that Paul was promoting was countercultural. The Greco-Roman world had a very negative view of manual labor.” They continue, “In Paul’s assessment, manual labor is not beneath Christians, and Paul himself had done what he demands that these idle brothers do. The apostle plainly regards work as one way believers may honor God, show love to their fellow-Christians, and display the transforming power of the gospel to outsiders.”

Working in light of the creation mandate

Nelson indicates, “At first blush, Paul’s rather blunt words seem cold and lacking Christian compassion, but upon further theological reflection, Paul’s words convey to us some needed insight. Paul does not rebuke those who, for various legitimate reasons, cannot work, but he does say that an unwillingness to work is no trivial thing. For anyone to refuse to work is a fundamental violation of God’s creation design for humankind.”

R. Paul Stevens states, “The sluggard knows nothing of the creation mandate, that work is good, that work is part of our God-imaging dignity … In short, the idler has no theology of work. Realizing neither the intrinsic value nor the extrinsic value of work, the sluggard refuses to see work as a gift, a calling, and a blessing.” This insight is absolutely right on target.

I appreciated how both Nelson and Stevens emphasized the need to understand the creation mandate. We were designed by God in His image and called to work to expand His kingdom. This basic concept of work gives working in light of Jesus’s imminent return a whole new perspective.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 41 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. Russ received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth minister. He served 20 years on active duty. Russ works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Since 2015, he has written 170 articles on faith and work topics. Eighty of these have been published over 150 times on several Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, and The Gospel Coalition. (See published articles on Linktree.)

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