In Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, two themes rise to the top of the list of those touched on most often: the coming day of the Lord and the need for the Thessalonians to work and earn their own living. I have often heard it said that these two issues are linked together. That is, some of the Thessalonians misunderstood Paul’s teaching about the day of the Lord, believing that His return was imminent, and therefore they had quit working. However, upon a closer examination of the text, a different picture begins to form that shows these two issues are not related and that idleness was always a problem within the church at Thessalonica.
The Thessalonians’ Misunderstanding of the Day of the Lord:
During Paul’s three weeks with the believers in Thessalonica, (Acts 17:1-10) he taught them the nature of the coming day of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:5). Paul continued his teaching on this topic and the resurrection in his first epistle (ref. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 5:1-11). When Paul wrote his second epistle he addressed the subject again (2 Thessalonians 2:4-12) because there was some confusion regarding the coming day of the Lord. However, the confusion and misunderstanding was not that they believed that day of the Lord was forthcoming, but rather that it had already come. Read carefully 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3:
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together with Him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.”
The faith of some of the Thessalonians had been shaken because they had received a letter, which seemed to be from Paul, stating the exact opposite of what he had taught them (cf. 2 Timothy 2:16-18). Their focus was not that the day of the Lord was looming, they were afraid it had already passed and they had missed it! So, the idea that the Thessalonians misunderstood Paul’s teaching on the subject is not supported by the text.
Paul’s Pleas for the Thessalonians to Work
Within the church of the Thessalonians there was a segment that worked hard to avoid work. During Paul’s three week stay with them (ref. Acts 17:1-10) he taught them that as Christians, they were “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) And, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Paul also addressed this issue in his first epistle, reminding them of what he had taught them (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and commanding that those who were still idle should be “admonish[ed]” by the church (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
By the time Paul wrote his second epistle, the problem of idleness was still not resolved (2 Thessalonians 3:11). Therefore, the situation called for Paul’s strongest words on the issue:
“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. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 11-12)
Why does Paul tell the church to “keep away” from idle brethren? Because of their hardheartedness toward apostolic authority. Paul has repeatedly taught the Thessalonians to work and earn their own living but, there were some who simply refused to heed his teaching and remained idle. The end result was that the church was to “keep away” from, or “withdraw” themselves, from such rebellious people.
So what did we learn? The Thessalonians’ misunderstanding about the coming day of the Lord was not that it was eminent; rather, they their faith had been shaken, believing that it had already passed. This misunderstanding did not have any bearing on the idleness of some in the church. Rather, this had been an issue among the believers there in Thessalonica from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry there.
It’s my hope that this short study has helped further you knowledge and application of the scriptures and especially the church of the Thessalonians.