The Thessalonian church was dear to the apostle Paul. He loved this new, fledgling congregation, and he was grieved when persecution forced him south to Berea and then to Athens (Acts 17:10ff; 1 Thess 2:17). Indeed, so anxious was the apostle Paul about their spiritual condition and stability, that he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to assess their situation and to better establish these young believers in the faith (1 Thess 3:1-5). Thankfully, Timothy’s report was positive: the Thessalonian Christians were doing well. They were living lives that were pleasing to God (1 Thess 4:1), loving one another (1:3; 4:9), remaining steadfast in their hope in Christ (1:3), and serving believers in the greater Macedonian region (4:10).
There were a few problems, however. There seemed to be some sexual misconduct within the church, which required Paul to address the importance of purity and abstinence from sexual immorality (4:1-8). But there were also some Thessalonian believers succumbing to idleness (1 Thess 4:11-12). Actually, so pervasive was this problem of idleness that Paul had to address it again and in greater detail in a following letter (2 Thess 3:6-12). The exhortations in both letters remind us of the importance of work in Paul’s theology of the Christian life.
Make it Your Aim to…Work?
We see the significance of work in Paul’s initial exhortation: “We urge you brothers…to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12). What’s most remarkable in this statement is Paul’s use of the word, “aspire.” Other translations render this word, “make it your ambition” (NASB, NIV) or “seek” (CSB). Even without any reference to other passages in the New Testament, this is a strong statement on its own. Paul is exhorting the Thessalonians to make it the aim of their life to live quietly, to mind their own business, and to work diligently. But the intensity of this exhortation is increased when we consider the two other places where Paul uses this word.
For example, Paul uses this word in the latter portion of Romans to describe his own ministry desires. “…thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation…” (Rom 15:20, ESV; emphasis added). Paul’s aim in life was to preach the gospel in places where people had not yet heard of Christ. It was also his goal, whether on earth or in heaven, to please God in all that he did: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9, ESV; emphasis added). The primary objective of the apostle’s life was to please God.
We may conclude that Paul’s stated ambitions in Romans and Second Corinthians are the ones we should emulate—these are the aspirations that constitute the exceptional Christian life. To live quietly, to mind our own business, and to work hard? That’s sounds a little, shall we say, mediocre.
Actually, the Christian’s quiet, diligent, conscientious conduct was an essential aspect of their public witness. To live in a way that exhibited diligence, financial independence, and self-restraint when it came to the affairs of others was to “walk properly before outsiders” (4:12). Lazy, fiscally-dependent busybodies would be a blight on the church’s reputation. According to Paul, the integrity of the gospel in the eyes of unbelievers rested in some measure upon the Christian maintaining a simple, quiet, diligent, well-ordered life (see also Titus 2:5, 10).
Rooted in Biblical Wisdom
Far from mediocre, this kind of behavior flowed directly from biblical wisdom. Paul’s exhortations were not derived from his own experience as a Roman citizen or some philosophical ideal he picked up while in Athens. No, Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians was rooted in the doctrine of creation and deep knowledge of Old Testament wisdom literature. God created his image-bearers to exercise dominion over the creation and to apply themselves to productive labor (Gen 1:26-31; 2:15). When one is diligent in their work, they are living in correspondence to the way God created humans and the world. This is why the Proverbs classify the hard-worker as wise, and the lazy person as foolish (see Prov 6:6-9; 10:26; 12:27; 15:29; 20:4; 21:5; 24:30). The same can be said about cultivating a quiet life and minding one’s own business (Prov 15:18; 25:17; 26:7). Rather than indicating that a person has settled for a half-rate Christian life, all three of these practices characterize one who has yielded himself to divine wisdom.
In contrast, the one who refuses to work and earn his living receives a strong chastisement from the apostle that is even tagged with a warning in his second letter: “If one is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Paul is not referring to those who are in genuine need of financial support (see 1 Tim 5:1ff), but to those who were able-bodied yet who resisted the call to work and earn a living. If a person could work but chose not to, he shouldn’t have access to free food. Paul even appealed to his own example of hard work to motivate the Thessalonians to resist laziness and exercise diligence.
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 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. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.2 Thess 3:7-9
Although Paul could have utilized his apostolic authority and received support from the Thessalonians, he earned his own living while ministering to them in order to give these new believers an example of a godly work ethic.
We must conclude, then, that while there is more to the Christian life than living quietly, minding our own business, and working hard, there isn’t less. Amazingly, Paul instructs us to make it our aim to pursue this kind of lifestyle for the glory of God and the furtherance of the gospel.