A Commentary by John Stott

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. 3). Paul urges us to love one another.

Paul moves on in this section from chastity to charity, from control of sex to the importance of work, from the need ‘to help the weak’ to the need to ‘warn those who are idle’ (5:14).

It seems clear that there was a group in the Thessalonian church who needed a very different kind of instruction and exhortation. They are identified in 5:14 as the *ataktoi*, and Paul says they are to be ‘warned’ rather than ‘helped’. In classical Greek the word *ataktos* was applied to an army in disarray, and to undisciplined soldiers who either broke rank instead of marching properly or were insubordinate. It then came to describe any kind of irregular or undisciplined behaviour. The AV therefore translated the word ‘unruly’ or ‘disorderly’, and for centuries people wondered what kind of rebellious group this was which was causing the apostle so much anxiety. But discoveries earlier this century of secular papyri, dating from the first century, which had been well preserved in the dry sands of Egypt, showed that the word *ataktos* had developed another meaning in non-literary Greek. MM gives an example from an apprenticeship contract with a weaver which a father signed for his son in AD66. In it he undertook that if the boy played truant and missed any workdays, he would make them up. And the verb for ‘play truant’ is *atakteo*. The RSV and NIV therefore translate *ataktos* ‘idle’, although TDNT draws attention to its ‘attested breadth of meaning’ and states that outside Christianity, in relation to work, its emphasis is ‘not in the first instance…on sloth, but rather on an irresponsible attitude to the obligation to work’. Paul uses the word (as adjective, adverb or verb) four times in his letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thess.5:14; 2 Thess.3:6-7, 11), and here in 4:11 the same group of people are evidently referred to, although the word *ataktos* is not used. The context in each case makes it plain that the *ataktoi* had given up their work and needed to be exhorted to go back to it.

But why had some Thessalonian Christians abandoned their jobs? What was the cause of their *ataxia*? Several suggestions have been made. Some think there was a scarcity of work in the city. But Paul implies that the idle are unwilling, not unable to work (2 Thess.3:10). Others believe that they had adopted either the Greek disdain for manual crafts or the super-spiritual idea that Christians ought to be preaching, not labouring. More recently Dr.Bruce Winter has proposed that Thessalonian *ataxia* was due to the social convention of patron-client relationships, whereby a wealthy patron would gather a large clientele of dependents. He points out that AD 51 was a famine year, so that many may have been on the ‘corn dole’. Paul’s purpose then was to persuade clients to work and patrons to stop acting as benefactors. Only in this way would dependence be overcome. Even if this background is correct, however, the traditional explanation remains cogent. It still seems probable that the *ataktoi* had misunderstood Paul’s teaching about the Parousia and had stopped working in the mistaken belief that it was imminent. Their idleness was due to their ‘eschatological excitement’ or ‘Parousia hysteria’.

Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. 3). Paul urges us to love one another (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.