Sharing and Living the Word (preaching resource for 11/13/22)
This post exegetes 2 Thessalonians 3, drawing on commentary from John Stott in providing context for 2Thess. 3:6-13, the Revised Common Lectionary Epistles reading for 11/13/22.
|St. Paul by Rembrandt (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
In 2 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul peers into the future and sees Christ revealed on the last day. He also sees the Antichrist's rebellion, preceding that day. Meanwhile, a cataclysmic outbreak of lawlessness is being held back, though the spirit of lawlessness is already at work in the world. In this situation between the two advents (appearings) of Christ, what is our responsibility as Christians? How are we to live? Notice what Paul says in 2Thess.3:1-5.
1 As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message [the word] of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. 2 And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has [the] faith.3 The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 4 We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.
Paul's command: the Word
The things Paul commands (4) the Thessalonian Christians to do pertain to the revelation of God given through the message (1) (more appropriately translated the Word of the Lord). But what is this Word? First and foremost it's the message concerning the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Secondarily, it is the deposit of truth that Paul preached concerning Christ--a message recorded in the New Testament, which is part of the written Word of God. Jesus gave Paul and the other original apostles the unique responsibility and privilege of receiving this Word directly from Jesus, and then passing it on as the good news (Gospel) that it truly is.
Share the Word
As we note in 1Thess1:8, Paul had reminded these Thessalonian Christians of how they had positively received "the word of the Lord" (KJV), and now in 2Thess.3:1, Paul asks them to pray that this Word will spread and be positively received throughout the region:
...Brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.
In v2, Paul also asks them to pray that he and his ministry team will be "delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has [the] faith."
Relying on the Lord's faithfulness
Sadly, there were within the church in Thessolanica and other areas *wicked and evil people* who were rejecting the Word of the Lord, which Paul was proclaiming. As Paul says, *not everyone has the faith* (NASB)--not everyone is willing to receive the Word (the deposit of faith, the apostoloic Gospel). However, Paul reassures them that the Lord [Jesus] is faithful, and will protect them from evil people, as well as the evil one, apparently a reference to the devil (3).
Paul's point is that the faithlessness of humans and even the power of the devil cannot overturn the faithfulness of God to his Word. Grounded in that assurance, Paul calls on these Christians to engage in spiritual warfare by entreating in prayer the faithful Lord who watches over his Word, and confirms it by his Spirit in the hearers' hearts, so that it will work effectively in the lives of those who will be hearing the declaration of that Word (see 1Thess.1:5; 2:13).
This affirmation that 'the Lord is faithful' is pivotal in Paul's thinking. It looks back to the spread of the Word and on to the strengthening of the Church in the work of spreading the Word (evangelism). Paul was assured that God will not allow either his Word or his Church to fail in this task. Hence his confidence in the Lord concerning both, and his call to the Thessalonian Christians to pray for both.
Getting serious about the Lord's mission
We learn a lot from these verses concerning the mission of the Church. First we learn that its mission is wrapped up in the message (the Word, the Gospel) which is to be spread in all the world. This word has a specific content. By 'the message of the Lord' (2Thess.3:1), Paul is referring to his own preaching. 'Pray for *us*, he urged, 'that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly'. He knew himself to be bearer of God's Word (as in 1Thess.2:13). His Gospel was God's Gospel (1Thess.1:5, 8; 2:2, 4, 9)--a specific cluster of truths revealed by God, which may not be manipulated or edited by us, and which continue to be Good News (Gospel) for everybody everywhere. This message, this Word, this deposit of truth is to be borne by the Church throughout the world.
Secondly, the mission of the Church concerns the reception as well as the proclamation of the Word. As followers of Jesus, we are to pray that the proclamation of the Gospel will *be honored* (2Thess.3:1), and that those who proclaim it will *be delivered from wicked and evil men* (2). There is in the Church's mission the interplay between four groups: The intercessors pray. The evangelists proclaim. Some hearers honor the word by believing it, while others refuse the Word and oppose its messengers.
Thirdly, the mission of the Church is concerned with the supernatural. Evangelism is not a merely human activity undertaken by human energy and ingenuity. Unseen spiritual forces are at work. Hence the call to prayer. Behind the evil men opposing the Gospel stands the evil one. But behind the bearers of the Lord's message stands the faithful Lord. What encouragement we who are willing to share the Word with others should draw from the affirmation that *the Lord is faithful* (3).
Since some lack faith and are either unresponsive or actively resistant to the Word, how can we hope *that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored?* (1). Only because behind the Word of the Lord is the faithfulness of the Lord. It is he who spoke the Word in the first place and who speaks it still, who confirms its truth in human hearts, and who causes it to take root and bear fruit. He also stands faithfully by his Church, promising that he will never leave or forsake us as we work to share his Word with a hurting, sin-sick world. Let us share the Word. To do so is our mission.
Live the Word
The Church is commissioned not only to *share* the Word, but also to *live* the Word, because we as Christians know that the Lord's authority is behind his Word. Paul addresses this authority by addressing those who are not fully living the Word:
6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching [tradition] you received from us.
These "idle," "disruptive" persons in the Church in Thessalonica were refusing to work, probably because they thought the Lord's return was imminent and so they gave up their jobs. Paul had told them in his first letter to return to work, but evidently his directions had not been heeded, and so now he addresses their disobedience. Notice here how careful, yet direct Paul is in addressing this problem:
4 We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. 6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” 11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. 14 Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
Note how Paul repeats the words 'command' and 'obey' in order to take his readers through a five-part progression related to the willful disobedience of some:
1) He expresses his confidence in the Church as a whole (4-5). Paul expresses his general *confidence in the Lord* about the Thessalonians, that they *are doing and will continue to do the things we command* (4). Paul's confidence in the Lord leads him to pray to the same Lord Jesus that he would *direct their hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance* (5). Paul's prayer is that the Lord will lead the Thessalonians into a love like God's love and a patience or constancy like Christ's. He is confident that they will then express this love and patience in obedience to his teaching.
2) He tells the faithful majority to keep away from the idlers (6-9). He had given them this apostolic *teaching* (6b) when he was with them. They should, therefore, obey his instruction and *follow his example* (7a). As for the model he gave them, he mentions two negatives. On the one hand, he and his fellow missionaries *were not idle* (7b), and on the other they did not *eat anyone's food without paying for it* (8a). They were evidently paying guests in Jason's home (Acts17:5-9). And in order to be able to pay their way, *they worked night and day, laboring and toiling* (in Paul's case at his tent-making).
Paul and his friends had two reasons for adding physical labor to their mission work. First, they did not want to *be a burden* on any of the Thessalonian Christians (2Thess.3:8b), even though they knew they had *the right to such help* (9a). Paul gives no basis here for this right, although he had mentioned it in his first letter (1Thess.2:6b). It went back ultimately to the saying of Jesus that 'the worker is worth his keep' (Mt.10:10), and Paul was later to elaborate both his right and his renunciation of it (1Cor.9:3-14). The missionaries' second reason for earning their own living was in order to make themselves *a model* for the Thessalonians *to follow* (2Thess.3:9). Their resolve was to be an example, not a burden.
3) He reminds them of the principle he laid down during his visit (10). Paul reminds them of the authoritative teaching ('rule') which he had given them during his visit: *even when we were with you, we gave you this rule* (RSV, 'this command'): '*If a man will not [i.e. refuses to] work, he shall not eat*' (10). He apparently repeated this rule several times in Thessalonica and now repeats it again.
4) He directly addresses the unfaithful minority (11-13). Paul addresses the idlers who were disregarding his teaching. *They are not busy*, he writes; *they are busybodies* (11). Having no work of their own to keep them occupied, they had become meddlers in the affairs of others. In addressing them, Paul does not mince words: *Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down* (RSV 'to do their work in quietness', cf. 1Thess.4:11) and earn the bread they eat (12). He then addresses the rest of the *brothers* and exhorts them: *never tire of doing what is good* (13).
5) He gives instructions concerning the discipline of those who stubbornly reject his teaching (14-15). *If anyone does not (RSV, 'refuses to') obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him* (14a). Perhaps the ringleader of the group is in mind, for as in some translations, it's "him" rather than "them."
Concerning Church discipline
Verses 14 and 15 contain important New Testament instruction on the rather controversial topic of Church discipline. Note that Paul's instruction pertains to a particular person in a particular situation, and so we should not see what Paul says here as the norm in all situations. Nevertheless, we can glean from Paul's five-point instruction concerning the administration of church discipline.
1) The *need* for Church discipline does not arise from a trivial offense that can be dealt with discreetly in private, but from a public, deliberate and persistent disobedience to biblical (i.e. apostolic) instruction. In the case of the idlers in Thessalonica, Paul had repeatedly communicated his teaching by word of mouth, personal example and letter. The Christian standard in this matter was not in doubt. But certin people, in a spirit of defiance, were obstinately refusing to obey (14). It is these people (or perhaps a particular person) that Paul says must be disciplined by the Church.
2) The *nature* of Church discipline that Paul called for involved a type of social ostracism. The idlers had already received a general admonition (1Thess.5:14). But now, because they had disregarded it, loyal Church members were to keep away from them (2Thess. 3:6). Then, if anyone continued in disobedience, they were to 'take special note of him', which implies some type of public censure, and not to 'associate with him' (14). This verb means to 'mingle or associate with' (BAGD) -- a verb Paul will use again later when telling Corinthian Christians not to have fellowship or even eat with Christian brothers who are openly guilty of such offences as immorality, dishonesty, idolatry and drunkenness (1Cor.5:9,11). But the verb may imply differing degrees of ostracism, ranging from the total separation involved in excommunication (as at Corinth) to the more moderate avoidance of intimate fellowship, which seems to be the case in Thessalonica because Paul goes on to say that they should continue regarding and treating him as a Christian brother (15).
3) The *responsibility* for administering Church discipline to a persistent, willful offender belongs to the congregation. Paul does not address his instruction to the elders who are 'over' them 'in the Lord', even though they have a special responsibility of admonition (1Thess.5:12). Leaders may need to take the initiative, but then a corporate decision/action should be taken by the whole Church membership. Without this, rival factions are bound to develop.
4) The *spirit* in which Church discipline is to be administered must be friendly, not hostile. It is to be done 'gently' (Gal.6:1). 'Do not regard him as an enemy' (2Thess.3:15), for that would be equivalent to treating him like 'a pagan or tax collector' (Mt.18:17), that is, excommunicating him. Instead, 'warn him as a brother' (15b), continuing to give him loving but firm admonition (the same verb is also used in 1Thess.5:12,14).
5) The *purpose* of Church discipline is positive and constructive. It is not taken to humiliate offenders, still less destroy them. It is rather to help stir them to change. Paul's intention is not that the offender be excluded from the community, but that he be restored (Cf. Gal.6:1). Jesus had made this plain by saying that if an offender listens to reproof, 'you have won your brother over' (Mt.18:15).
A word of caution
In these verses Paul claims to speak for Christ, and does so with great authority, calling for obedience to his *commands*. It's important to note that in speaking this way, Paul speaks as one of the original apostles -- men who bore unique authority in proclaiming God's Word. The original apostles had this unique authority because they had a unique historical role -- to be eye-witnesses of the risen Lord. In this role and the authority that came with it, they have no successors. Yet some in the modern Church claim to be apostles and speak in authoritarian ways -- laying down the 'law' and requiring obedience to their own pronouncements. We must politely, but firmly, reject all such claims and pretensions. There is nobody in the Church who has an authority that even remotely resembles that of the apostles of Christ; nor has there been since the last apostle died (probably near the end of the first century).
Leaders and teachers in the Church today are called to speak God's Word 'from' the inspired Word of the apostles --the deposit of truth that is preserved for us in the New Testament. That apostolic Word takes us to the inspired words of the Old Testament with the understanding of their meaning given to us by the apostles use of those words. In this way the apostles, who uniquely bore Christ's authority, continue to instruct the Church authoritatively in our day.
As Paul makes clear, we are to live (obey) the apostolic Word (deposit of truth), which is the Gospel. To do so we must interpret and apply it to our contemporary situations and cultures. Nevertheless, that Word retains a permanent and universal validity and authority. For if Christ spoke through the apostles and they spoke in the name of Christ, to disobey their teaching is to disobey Christ himself (Cf. Mt.10:40). The well-being of the Church in our day as in the first century, depends on our listening to Jesus Christ and obeying him as his Word comes to us through his apostles in the New Testament. Teachers and leaders in the Church today must teach and lead according to that Word. Any Church discipline must be administered according to that Word. In short, we are to be Word (Gospel)-directed in all we say, teach and do.
16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. 17 I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Here Paul pronounces a three-fold blessing from Christ upon the Church at Thessalonica -- hoping for them the Lord's peace, presence and grace. Will they receive the desired blessing? Only if they receive and respond to the Lord's Word.
The same is true for us today. While history moves towards its final climax and we await the rebellion of Antichrist, which will herald the bodily appearing of Christ, can we say with conviction: 'Let the Word of the Lord run and be honored as I participate in the sharing of that Word' and 'Let the Word of the Lord be honored and obeyed in the way I live personally and in the way we live together as a congregation.' If we can not only say that, but live it, we can humbly expect to experience and enjoy more fully our Lord's peace, presence and grace now and in even greater fullness when he returns one day in glory. Come Lord, Jesus. Amen.