A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. 3). Paul urges us to love one another (continued).
Paul frames his appeal to them in terms of brotherly love. His argument is that to work for one’s own living is a mark of love, because then we do not need to depend on the support of fellow Christians, while deliberately to give up work is a breach of love because then we become parasites on the body of Christ. Underlying this reasoning is the fact that a special kind of love binds the members of God’s family together. The word for this *brotherly love is Philadelphia*. In secular Greek and LXX it was used in relation to blood brothers and sisters, but in the New Testament it is applied to the fraternity of faith not blood (E.g. Rom.12:10; Heb.13:1; 1 Pet.1:22; 2 Pet.1:7). It is natural that those who know God as their Father should love one another as sisters and brothers in his family. So Paul writes that *about brotherly love* he does *not need to write* to them, since they themselves *have been taught by God to love each other (9). *And in fact*, he goes on, *you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia* (10a). In what sense were they *theodidaktoi*, ‘God-taught’? Of course God had taught his people in the Old Testament to love their neighbour, and Jesus had given his disciples his ‘new commandment’ to ‘love one another’ (Jn.13:34). But Paul’s reference seems to be to teaching given neither by the Father in the Old Testament, nor by the Son during his public ministry, but rather by the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts. The prophets had promised that in the Messianic age all God’s people would receive the Spirit, be ‘taught by the Lord’ and know him (Is.54:13; Je.31:34), and in the New Testament it was believed that this promise had been fulfilled (Jn.6:45). In consequence, strictly speaking, beyond the ‘anointing from the Holy One’ (probably a reference to the Holy Spirit) no human teachers are essential (1 Jn.2:20, 27; cf. Gal.5:22). To love our brothers is an indispensable sign that ‘we have passed from death to life’ (1 Jn.3:14). Nevertheless, although the Thessalonians did not need further instruction from Paul about brotherly love, he proceeded to give it to them all the same; *Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more* (10).
From this general teaching about brotherly love, Paul goes on to the particular manifestation of it which he sees to be missing in the *ataktoi*, who have given up working. He evidently has them in mind when he addresses three admonitions to the whole church. The first is this: *Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life* (11a). This is a striking oxymoron, or contradiction of terms, which could be rendered into English ‘make it your ambition to have no ambition!’ The idleness of the Thessalonians was apparently accompanied by a feverish excitement, which Paul wanted to damp down. As their second ambition they were to *mind* their *own business* (11b). As Paul was to write in his second letter, because they were ‘not busy’ with their own business, they had become ‘busy-bodies’ (2 Thess.3:11), meddling in other people’s matters. Thirdly, they were to *work with their own hands*, just as Paul had told them when he was with them (11c). It was the Greeks who despised manual work as degrading to free men and fit only for slaves. Christianity came into direct collision with this view. Paul the tentmaker reinforced the example of Jesus the carpenter and gave dignity to all honest human labour (E.g. 2 Thess.3:8-10; 1 Cor.4:12; Eph.4:28).
The apostle had two particular reasons for this threefold appeal to the Thessalonians to be quiet, non-interfering and hard-working. The first was that their *daily life* might *win the respect of outsiders* (12a, Cf. Col.4:5; 1 Pet.2:12), and the second that they might *not be dependent on anybody* (12b; cf. 2:9), but rather enjoy ‘an honourable independence’ (JBP). In this way Paul brings together the two communities to which all Christians belong – the world and the church, ‘outsiders’ and the Christian brotherhood. He is concerned about the Thessalonians’ relationship with both. He wants them to command the respect of unbelievers and not to be a burden on their fellow-believers.
We have no liberty to apply Paul’s teaching about work to the unwaged who are drawing unemployment benefit or living on welfare. The contemporary problem of unemployment is both a symptom of economic recession and a traumatic personal experience. What Paul is condemning here is not unemployment as such (when people want work but cannot find it) but idleness (when work is available but people do not want it). He is emphasizing that we should be keen to earn our own living, in order to support ourselves and our family, and so not need to rely on others. True, it is an expression of love to support others who are in need; but it is also an expression of love to support ourselves, so as not to need to be supported by others
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. Conclusion.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.