Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Before we read the passage and pray, I’d like to update you on the process of hiring a new pastor. After our leaders prayed and thought about it, and after we listened to the feedback from the survey we collected from you this summer, we are confident the right position is an associate pastor of connections. This pastor will help newcomers become involved and those who are involved become leaders, all with a view to helping us become the type of persons and community God wants us to be.
We have assembled a search team, which consists of two pastor-elders (Scott Elder and myself) and four members of our church. There are dozens of members at our church who would do a good job, but the four members are Shonda Chapman, Tony Pitts, Melody Sullivan, and Daniel Wendt. The job of the search team is to advertise the position, narrow in on a handful of candidates, and then hand one candidate back to the pastor-elders for more vetting, and then we’ll present that candidate to our membership for final affirmation. All this will likely take 6–9 months. The job description is posted on our website and is with several seminaries and other job boards. Please advertise with us if you know pastors who might be interested. The first meeting of our search team is tomorrow night. We appreciate your prayers.
As we turn our attention to God’s word, I’ll mention that there is a certain excitement to beginning something new, and there is an excitement to finishing something strong. This morning, after fifteen sermons through the letters of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, we’ll finish this series.
Follow along with me as I read 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.
17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
To get us into this passage, I want to bring you into our last pastor-elder meeting. This church has appointed a handful of men to care for the spiritual needs and direction of this church. We meet for probably 3–4 hours every other Wednesday night. We eat a meal together, pray together, and discuss what God seems to be doing here and how we can be helpful.
As many of you know there was a pastoral transition at our church this summer. Many things leading up to that transition and flowing out of that transition have been exceptionally positive. We celebrated a faithful pastor, we commissioned he and his family to a new calling, we identified needs here, we realigned roles a few staff according to giftings and passions, and we put plans in place to reload our staff. When the transition was first announced I had my own fears and apprehensions, many of them, it turns out, were nothing more than my own insecurities. People keep coming. People keep giving. People want to join new small groups. People want to be baptized and testify to the rest of the church and their extended families and friends and co-workers that Jesus has changed their life. It’s wonderful, really.
But that’s not to say life is easy, that a tailwind pushes us along as we run downhill. In fact, I’ve been watching the pastor-elders of our church. They are godly men with their sleeves rolled up and sweat on their foreheads, and I admire them and their gifts and service at this church. But as good as things are happening, I’ve also noticed a weariness.
When we met a few days ago we mentioned prayers to pray for our church, and I asked if we could pause for a few minutes and share concerns in our own lives. I won’t relay the specifics to you because the prayer requests were said to those in the room, not all of us. But in generalities let me say that one father and fathers-in-law of elders have passed away this summer and two others are very sick. One of our elders has a travel schedule this fall that will pull him from his home more than he would like and he longs to still love his wife and children well through that time. Another man is short-staffed at his work, and he’s trying to train new employees, which takes a full six months, but until then things have to be done without enough staff. Several of us have had had a slew of difficult conversations. Some are fighting inner battles to have soft, tender hearts when bitterness seem like more enjoyable options. I could go on. We did for 45 minutes in prayer.
If we had 6 hours together this morning, maybe all of us could share the anxieties of our heart and cast them to the Lord in prayer.
A lot is going on in this passage, which I hope to explain in a moment. But the central encouragement is this: do not grow weary. It’s a good way to end a letter, I think. In v. 13. Paul writes,
13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
This encouragement is what Paul, inspired by God, felt led to share with these young believers, and it’s the encouragement I believe God has for us.
The temptation to lose heart and become weary with doing good is real. You keep serving Jesus, but people persecute you (Chapter 1). You keep serving Jesus, but false teachers claim you’ve missed something about the return of Jesus and you’re confused (Chapter 2). You keep serving Jesus and working your day-job, but others mooch off the generosity of the community (Chapter 3). “Why should I, why should we, keep going?” they were likely asking. Why should you keep going? Why should we keep going?
As we talk about this passage, I want to do so in two cuts. In the first, we’ll talk about the particular problem they were experiencing and the solution to that problem. But then I want to expand out from the specific problem and talk about the bigger problem and the bigger solution.
1. The problem and the solution
The particular problem in view in chapter 3 that this church was experiencing was fairly straightforward. I’ll tell you what it was and then show you in the passage. The problem was that some in this church refused to work and earn a living. Their idleness was a strain on the other hardworking members of the community. And more than that, the reputation of the church was at stake. The laziness of some members would give all the members a bad name when they were already maligned in society simply for being Christians. But even more than their reputation being slandered, God’s reputation was on the line. Look with me at vv. 6, 11–12.
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
The problem is clear, right? Idleness. There are a few plays on words, like walking in idleness, which is like saying driving in idleness. You’re using gas, but you ain’t going anywhere. You’re walking, but not in anything productive. Then Paul speaks of not being busy at work but being busybodies. That’s the problem.
What we don’t know is why this was happening. Some theologians speculate it has to do with the themes of chapter 2. If Jesus is coming back soon—or as the false teachers were saying, he’s already come—then why work? Don’t invest in a 401(k) if next week eternity begins. Perhaps this was their thinking. Other theologians speculate that the general disdain in Greek culture for hard, menial work had rubbed off on them. Perhaps that was it. Or perhaps it was just the general reason anyone in any culture might desire to avoid work. We don’t know. But whatever the reason: the problem was clear. And so were the solutions.
Paul talks about his own pattern while among them, namely, that of hard work. And he speaks directly to the persons given to idleness, commanding them to work diligently and quietly. And he speaks to the rest of the community of believers to, if the individuals are not responsive to Paul’s commands, to draw back from them so as to make them ashamed, a shame that would then incline them to work. Paul wants faith in Jesus to not simply influence what you do on Sunday but Monday through Saturday.
I’m not going to re-read the whole passage again, but that’s the point. There’s an important phrase in v. 10, so I do want to read that verse again. Paul says,
10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
We mustn’t miss the word “willing.” Paul is not reprimanding good men, good women who want to work but for some reason they are unable. He’s talking about those who could work but are not willing to work. Those unwilling to work drain the community of their resources, give the church a bad name in society, and more importantly give God a bad name.
If I felt this was a significant issue in our context, if every other week our pastor-elders were addressing those given to idleness, I would spend more time on this. Generally our problem is not a lack of work but overwork. Our great problem is not lack of work but treating busyness like a virtue. The more busy we are, well, obviously, the more important we are, right? But again, because this is probably the most straightforward passage in the two letters and because I don’t think this is a major problem among us, let me go on to the last point of the sermon.
2. The bigger problem and the bigger solution
We’ve talked about the particular problem and the particular solution(s), but I want to back up and talk about the bigger problem and the bigger solution. To do so, we’ll need to grab a few other verses before we look back at this passage again. If you have a Bible, turn back with me to the very end of 1 Thessalonians. In the end of his first letter, Paul closes with a host of general instructions. In vv. 12–22 we read,
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
Now, there are a lot of words in there, right? Paul can’t possibly expect us to listen to and obey every one of these, right? Surely these were suggestions or guidelines, something we’re just supposed to get the gist of, right?
Did v. 14 stand out to you? Look at it again.
14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle . . .
Admonish the idle, he says in this first letter. If you see people who are not working, then you must admonish them. You must lovingly but firmly pull them aside, and tell them that what they are doing is wrong and it must stop. Admonish the idle.
Now look back at 2 Thessalonians 3:11.
11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.
“For we hear . . .” Paul writes. Evidently, Paul got word that the idle had not been admonished or if they had, not strongly enough. And that gets at the bigger problem. I don’t mean whether they specifically admonished the idle or not. That’s not what I’m calling the bigger problem. That’s the particular problem. The bigger problem is fidelity to the word of God in everything that it says. Paul expected them to do the things that God instructed them to do. Just as God expects us to do the things he instructs us to do. God expects us to be faithful to his word, every single command. There are no throwaway lines that we are supposed to just get the gist of.
Some of you have heard me talk about my ordination paper that I’ve been preparing. It’s a dense, 40-page paper on all things related to Christian theology. I have to give an oral defense of the paper and my understanding of theology on Tuesday morning October 8. I’ve heard that 15–20 people are going to come from our church, which is wonderful. To take a vacation day to carpool to Allentown to enjoy seeing me pummeled with theological questions, you must either really love me or really hate me. I’m not sure. The paper and my oral exam are organized around the Evangelical Free Church’s statement of faith. I’d like to read article 2 from our 10-point statement of faith, which sets forth our church’s view of the Bible.
We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises. (Evangelical Free Church, Statement of Faith, Article 2 of 10)
The Bible is to be “believed in all that it teaches,” we say. “Obeyed in all that it requires,” we say. Ben Bechtel and I were talking briefly on Thursday about some of our biggest takeaways from the letters of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. If you were here this summer at all you heard the repeated emphasis on the second coming of Jesus. These letters are well-known for that. Reflection and reminders about the second coming of Christ were encouraging to me as a pastor and a Christian, and I think encouraging to many of you. One mature Christian remarked to me this summer that preaching about the second coming of Jesus was like hearing a song he used to love but never hears anymore.
But Ben mentioned to me that his main takeaway from the study of 1 and 2 Thessalonians was the way the Word of God is described within the letters. Last week, I read a few verses from 1 Thessalonians. Let me read those again.
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5; 2:13)
They heard the word and loved the word and were changed by the word. And they heard something in Paul’s teaching that was true, and they heard it in such a way that they recognized that God himself was lovingly and graciously speaking his own words through the words of Paul. No one today has this authority, the authority to speak for God with perfect purity. No one today speaks in a way that what he or she says should be taken as exactly the word of God in such a way that what is said must be universally applied across all of the church. My authority as a pastor comes not from pointing to my words, but only in resaying what has already been said and saying it in a way that represents the truth and power of the original words.
But Paul and the early disciples were given that role. Jesus commissioned them as his authorized spokesmen. Paul had the role of speaking words that should be not be regarded as the words of men but the words of God. This is what I’m calling the bigger issue in this passage in 2 Thessalonians 3. The issues about work are fairly obvious, but they were not the big issue. The big issue for them and for us is how do we view the words of the Bible as God’s very words and do we have a heart to obey all that it says. Look how often in just this chapter the word and commands of God are emphasized.
3 . . . pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you . . . .6 Now we command you that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. . . . 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command . . .12 Now such persons we command . . . 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person . . . (vv. 1, 6, 10, 12, 14).
Our church denomination says about the Bible that we believe the Bible in all that it teaches and obey all that it requires. That’s not some abstract church dogma. We say what we say about the Bible because we read letters like 1 and 2 Thessalonians and try to make sense of it. Most of the people who come to our church, in my estimation, don’t overtly chafe at this idea. In fact, many of you come here because we hold this view of the Bible.
But my question to you is do you become weary of doing the good that God requires of us? Of course we do. Does following Jesus and obeying his word mean that sometimes you’ll have to have hard conversations? Yes, it does.
I want to come back to where I started. A number of weary men doing the best we can to love God, love his church, love our wives, love our children, work hard at our respective places of work, and in all this to honor and obey the word of God. And that is wearing. It can be exhausting at times. You don’t need to be an elder to know that. In article 2 of our statement of faith, not only do we say that the Bible is to be obeyed in all that it teaches, but also that it is to be believed in all that it promises. Paul concludes his letter by praying for them. He prays,
16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. . . . 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
A benediction is a prayer of hope and blessing prayed over people. Paul’s prayer here is a prayer of benediction, a prayer of hope and blessing prayed over people. And I just want you to realize that this prayer doesn’t come out of nowhere. After stressing and stressing and stressing loyalty and allegiance to the Word of God, he then prays for them to be blessed with peace and joy and the very presence of God among them. “The Lord of peace himself be with you,” Paul prays. “The Lord be with you all,” he prays. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all,” he prays.
For Paul to pray this way after stressing the importance of the Word is not schizophrenic. To instruct people to obey all that the Bible teaches is to instruct them to have the peace of God. Jesus died, Jesus rose, Jesus ascended, and Jesus is coming back. And between that day and this day, don’t grow weary in doing good.
The good news of the gospel came to these young believers, just as it has happened to many of us. And it’s changed us. Through the word of God we learned about the love of God. Through the word of God, we learn about peace with God. That’s why Paul tells us to not become weary in doing the good of the word of God. Yes, following God is hard, and yes it is wearying at times. But as we live the word of God together, even when it’s hard, God himself works among us.