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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We are back to our series on Paul to the Thessalonians. Remember with me: Paul, Silas and Timothy ministered in Thessalonica, but had to leave because a mob was after them. Paul was concerned because he hadn’t finished giving these new converts all the teaching that he had intended. So he sent Timothy back to check on them. And now that Timothy has reported back to Paul, he is writing this letter in part to give them further instructions based on some concerns raised by Timothy’s report.

The first topic was sex, learning to control our own bodies in holiness and honor. Today the topic is mutual love or loving and helping each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And as well how this love can be taken advantage of and misused by some.

Our passage begins with Paul –


Encouraging the practice of mutual love

“9 Now concerning mutual love . . .” [Paul has talked about their love several times before this: 1:3 – their “labor of love”; 3:6 – “the good news of your faith and love”; 3:12 – “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all”] The word for love here is Philadelphia, which literally means love for one’s brothers and sisters. This word was used for the love that you are to have for your natural family. In the New Testament it is used for the love that we are to have for those who are in our faith family.

All throughout 1 Thessalonians Paul emphasizes that these new believers – Jews and Gentiles, and Gentiles of different backgrounds – are now a part of a new family because of their faith; he emphasizes that the church is a family. Indeed Paul calls the Thessalonians “brothers/sisters” 19x in I Thessalonians. That’s a lot! And he refers to those who are not Christians as “outsiders” in v. 12.

In our context here in 1 Thessalonians this familial love, like in a regular family, extends beyond affection and friendship to helping each other out with material needs. [See also Hebrews 13:1-3 where “philadelphia” is used in the context of giving hospitality and helping (providing for) those in prison due to persecution.] [Philadelphia is not being used in contrast to agape. It is used in parallel to it in v. 9 – “now concerning mutual love (philadelphia) . . . you have been taught  by God to love (agape) one another.” It simply speaks of their love in a familial context.]

Paul goes on – “9Now concerning mutual love you have no need for anyone to write to you . . ..” Why no need to write? “for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” Paul is alluding here to Isaiah 54:13 – “all your sons will be taught by the LORD.” This text talks about the time of the kingdom of God. More broadly in Scripture we learn that at this time, God will be more active working amongst his people; and the Spirit will dwell in all God’s people and lead and teach them. [John 6:45 quotes Isaiah 54:13. See also Jeremiah 31:33-34; 1 John 2:20, 27]  No doubt Paul had taught them Jesus’ command to love their neighbors. But it has really taken root and the Spirit has brought this to life in their hearts.

How does he know God has taught them? They are doing it. “10for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia.”

And to love those who are not a part of your natural family or your friend network – as family; to have affection for them and to care for their needs is surely a sign of God’s work in their hearts.

They “love one another” in their own group, but also have this family love for all their fellow Christians, in all of the province of Macedonia, which included the cities of Philippi and Berea. This most likely evidenced itself in giving financial support for those in need, including food for the hungry (2 Thessalonians 3) and hospitality for those who were traveling through Thessalonica.

 “But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do this more and more.” Paul is praising them for their love and generosity; that they are helping those with needs. And essentially he is saying be even more diligent in this sharing.

Next Paul moves to –

Correcting the abuse of mutual love

Here is where we get to the problem he wants to address. It was not that they weren’t loving each other and being generous to help those in need. It was that a few were taking advantage of this mutual love and generosity. Though able to work and support themselves they were living off the generosity of others. In other words, they were “idle.”

And those who are idle; who aren’t busy with their own work and life tend to become busybodies. As we will see some got involved in other peoples’ business and were talking about other peoples’ lives and concerns. Thus they were being disruptive to the community. In chapter 5:14 Paul specifically calls them “the idle.” The word that he uses can mean both not working, but also “disruptive,” which fits well with their meddling behavior.

 “11 and (we urge you) to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.” The phrase “to aspire to live quietly” speaks to how idleness leads to being a busybody. It can refer specifically to not speaking or spreading gossip, or more generally to not being disruptive in the community. 

The phrase “to mind your own affairs” can also speak to not being a busybody, that is, keep your nose out of the business of others. But it can also mean “attend to your own home and things.” That is, focus on taking care of your own needs. 

The last phrase “to work with your hands” addresses the core issue. If you are at all able, work to provide for your own needs. Don’t live off of the generosity of others. Provide for yourself and your family. [See also Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 5:18.]

  And just as the problem of idleness leads to the problem of being a busybody, so the solution of working to provide for your own needs solves (at least in good part) the issue of being a busybody. For if you are busy working at providing for your own needs, you will most likely not have time to be meddling. [See also 1 Timothy 5:13.]

  Now, Paul not only taught them this, as he says, “we instructed you,” he was a model for them. He says in 1 Thessalonians 2:9, “For you remember, brothers and sisters, 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.” Paul had the right to live off of the generosity of the family of God, because he was doing the work of the kingdom. But he declined this in order to model for them how they should each work hard and provide for their own needs. [See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8]

“12 so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Paul expresses two concerns. First a lifestyle of idleness and meddling is a bad witness to unbelievers. We are to be a witness to a new way of life in Christ, of the transformation that he brings.

Second, unless we are disabled in some way, we are not to be dependent on the generosity of others. It’s one thing to receive help and to be blessed by your faith family in a time of crisis or need. This is what we are to do more and more for one another. But it’s another to live off of others while not working.

Idleness in 2 Thessalonians 3

Apparently this letter didn’t solve the problem, because in 2 Thessalonians Paul has to deal with it in more detail. [The word “idleness” v. 6, is the same as in 1 Thessalonians 5:14.] Here also some were “not willing to work” – 3:10. They were able, but unwilling. They were “not busy at work, but busybodies” – 3:11.

  The answer is spelled out in clear terms here: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” – 3:10. Don’t give to them anymore. With regard to being a busybody, they are “to do their work quietly and . . . earn their own living” – 3:12. [The word “quiet” is the same as in 1 Thessalonians 4:11]

I believe in these verses Paul gives us

Six challenges

– to think about and put into practice.

1. Do you see the church as your family? Your faith family? Do we have this sense of identity?

In several places in Scripture we learn that God is our Father (Matthew 6:9; 23:9) Jesus is our eldest brother; the firstborn (Romans 8:29), and we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord (Matthew 23:8).

We are not just a collection of individuals with all of our differences and different natural families. We have been melded together in Christ. And we need to embrace this identity and live it out.

2. Are you growing in your love for one another? Where do you need to grow more and more?

  • Do you need to spend more time with your brothers and sisters in the Lord?
  • Do you need to take time to show concern and love?
  • Do you need to be more involved in giving to help with the needs of brothers and sisters in the Lord?

3. Are you taking care of your own needs? If we are able, we are to take care of ourselves and our families. Let the generosity of God’s people go to those who truly need it, those who are not able to care for themselves.

4. Do you create dependence when you give to others? Every person must carry their own load; that is, be responsible for their own needs. So let this be a guideline for you as you seek to be generous, so that your giving will truly be a blessing and not a snare to those you seek to help. [Here the focus is on getting the idle to work and not be dependent. Not giving to them is only implied. In 2 Thessalonians 3 not giving is made explicit.]

5. Do you stop giving because some take advantage of you? This is precisely what is going on here. But notice, Paul doesn’t say stop giving or don’t be generous. He doesn’t say it’s OK to develop a hard heart.  He tells them to give “more and more.” There are plenty of people in real need, for whom our giving will not create dependency. And so we need to grow in our love and giving by sharing with these.

6. Are you a busybody? A meddler? A gossip, disrupting the community? Maybe you are working, but still have enough free time. And you don’t need a lot of time given the advent of facebook! If you have too much free time, busy yourself with the work of God, not the work of the evil one.


Where is God speaking to you today? May God work in each of us so that we are “taught by God” in all these areas to do God’s will and to be witnesses to others who don’t know Christ. 

William Higgins

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