How the Hope of the Gospel Is Found in Working

Yesterday, Pastor Byron taught on 2 Thess. 3. You can hear the message here (Aug. 25, 2019). In this Christianity Today article, Leland Ryken discusses the “Puritan Work Ethic. Yet this wasn’t an idea that sprang from the Reformation. Diligence in hard work in what we do is found in the teachings of the New Testament. One of the clearest passages connecting diligent work and Gospel living is found in 2 Thess. 3:6-13. Let’s look at three aspects of diligent work and Gospel living.

1. Diligent Work Brings Value to the Faith Community

Jesus said, “No one who takes his hand from the plow is worthy of the Kingdom.” (Luke 9:62). I know that the context of that verse deals with the cost of following Jesus. Yet the analogy is related to a very concrete scenario. In the agricultural world, if the farmer didn’t plow his field, he would lose his crops. That meant insufficient food for his family and lack of produce to sell at the market. His and his family’s livelihood depended on him completing his work. This reality is what caused Jesus’ analogy to strike home with his listeners. It is the same reality that drove Paul to do what he did in Thessalonica. 

In cities, people are often removed from the food production process. They ply their trade in exchange for money or goods. Food is shipped in from the agricultural realms and purchased by tradesmen. In this way, cities drew in moochers, people who would take food and meals from well-intentioned people without giving something of value in exchange.

As we read in 1 Thessalonians, travelling philosophers were doing just that in Thessalonica. Much like the prosperity preachers of today, offering promises of financial and health payoffs for funding their ministry. So Paul’s method in Thessalonica turned the expected process on its head while simultaneously shaming the method of travelling philosophers.

Paul and his team worked themselves ragged. Paul was an experienced tentmaker (many believe leatherworker is more fitting). They would work to earn their keep during the day and preach into the late hours of the night. They sacrificed their cultural claim to patronage in order to set an example of hard work for the kingdom.

Hard work in a trade or vocation brings value to the faith community. We must keep in mind that in Paul’s day, there was no Platonic separation between heaven and earth. They were intertwined. That means the physical value a Christian brought to his faith community also benefited them spiritually. One of the earliest monastic movements is the Benedictines. Their motto embodies this perfectly: Ora et Labora–Work and Prayer. From Genesis on, work has been associated with sacredness. Adam and Eve in the Garden weren’t just hanging out all day in the lap of luxury. They were maintaining a sacred space, much like the Levites who attended temple duties for over 1000 years. Paul models this to the Thessalonians. He benefited Thessalonica by not taking wages for the Gospel message. Instead, he started his discipleship process by reinforcing his message with physical work and providing for his team’s material needs.

Our diligence in work reflects our character and dedication to the kingdom of heaven (which includes our modern church communities). By working hard and contributing to the faith community’s physical needs, we partner with God in advancing the kingdom of heaven.

2. Diligent Work Reflects Responsible Faithfulness

Which would you say is more important: the material world or the spiritual world? In Christianity, we are regularly directed toward the transcendent, and rightly so. We are directed to put our attention and efforts toward advancing the kingdom of heaven. After all, isn’t that what the Great Commission is all about? Yet when we read the New Testament through the lense of 1st century Judaism, we see there isn’t so much a separation between the physical and spiritual, but rather a seam that connects the two into one reality.

Jesus taught, “He who is faithful in what is least will be faithful in also in much” (Luke 16:10-12). This has a direct correlation to what Paul taught and modeled. This part of Jesus’ teaching is all about proving one’s faithfulness in spiritual things by being faithful with material things. Jesus uses the term “mammon” which basically means material wealth. So he’s saying, “If you are faithful (trustworthy) with your use of material means, then you are will be reliable with spiritual means (the greater of the two).” Many of Jesus’ teaching center around living rightly in the here and now as a way of being faithful with the higher (or transcendent) things of God. If we can’t even manage our material lives well, there is no way we will manage our spiritual lives well.

Diligent (and responsible) work is part of our mammon. If we are faithful with it, then the evidence is there that we’ll be faithful with spiritual wealth. All too often we have pitted material wealth and substance against spiritual wealth and substance as if they were as incompatible as oil and water. Yet all the while, material wealth is part of the same world and value system as spiritual wealth and serves as a testing ground for faithfulness.

  • Will I act above the law when I have enough wealth to pay off judges?
  • Will I continue to be faithful to my spouse if I have enough wealth hide an infidelity?
  • Do I keep up my devotional life when all my material needs are more than covered?

It is said that wealth changes people. I wonder if another dynamic is at play. I wonder if wealth doesn’t change people, it just removes their restrictions. So then the question becomes, will I continue to be faithful to God and his kingdom when I am not restricted by material means. Will I be proved faithful with kingdom wealth? In the end, mammon serves as a litmus test to faithfulness in transcendent wealth.

3. Diligent Work Prevents Undue Burdens to the Faith Community

One of the common issues faced in Roman cities was the travelling philosophers. They claimed to have special or secret knowledge and offered to share it in exchange for getting their material needs met. They would find interested patrons and prey on their hospitality. When they were in town, they would burden their patrons, demanding money, food, lodging, and any other number of luxuries. Paul’s opposite model was to reduce the amount of burden to Thessalonians so they could freely receive the Gospel message. As Paul said, “We worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thess 3:8). This was an important model in starting new churches. I would guess the most impacted group of converts would be the future leaders of the local church. Had Paul followed the model of the travelling philosophers, he would have set an example of mooching for the leaders who would be “dedicated to the spiritual things of the church” and would exempt themselves from real work.

This goes against the patterns set in the New Testament. Even Jesus (Son of God himself) lived as a working human being. He put down his privileges and power to live like a human. That is why it says in Hebrews, “We do not have a high priest who is unsympathetic to us” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus knew what it was like to live as a human and to suffer and die. Paul followed that model and knew what it was like to earn his keep by the sweat of his brow and to provide for himself so as to not burden a newly founded Christian community. That model is intended to guide church leaders in any setting. Leaders who don’t work, but rather go around visiting and mooching off the congregation are called busybodies.

The simple question to ask ourselves, whether in leadership or not is this: What kind of value to I bring to the community? If we can’t answer that question, then it may be worthwhile to start seeking the answer. Paul warns the Thessalonians that they are not to enable busybodies, but rather warn them. Where do we as individuals and churches stand with this exhortation? Is there anything we need to confess and repent of (meaning a change in our lifestyle and thought patterns).

Thank you for reading today’s blog post. I know it may have been a bit more challenging than some of the others. That is because the chapter dealt with very real and very heavy material faced by the Thessalonians. I hope this post has helped you better experience our Lord’s

Presence. Love. Power.

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