Prayer, Idleness, and Exhortation – 2 Thessalonians 3

Read the Passage: 2 Thessalonians 3

Request for Prayer (3:1–5)

In his two letters to the Thessalonian believers Paul mentions prayer six times, as he notes his prayers for the church three times (cf. 1 Thess. 1:2; 3:10; 2 Thess. 1:11), he commands prayer once (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17), and he asks for prayer twice (cf. 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1). Whereas in his first request for prayer, Paul simply wrote, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25), in 2 Thess. 3:1–2 Paul asks for prayer and gives two specific requests: first, pray that God’s Word would spread; and second, pray for deliverance from evil men. Note the “unreasonable and wicked men” (2 Thess. 3:2) whom Paul cites in this passage were unbelieving Jews who summoned Paul to appear before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, at the judgment seat in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:12–17). Paul’s request for prayer is interesting, for God had already told him he would not be hurt (cf. Acts 18:9–10).

At 2 Thess. 3:3 Paul reminded the church that “the Lord is faithful.” Recall that Paul had earlier told the believers in Thessalonica, “He who calls you is faithful” (1 Thess. 5:24; cf. 2 Cor. 1:18; Heb. 10:23). Perhaps here Paul had in mind Jeremiah’s well-known Old Testament testimony, “Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:23; cf. Deut. 7:9; Ps. 119:90). Just as Paul knew that he was under God’s faithful care, so he told the church that God “will establish you and guard you from the evil one” (2 Thess. 3:3). Note, however, that being guarded by God doesn’t necessarily mean that believers will avoid suffering, trials, or persecution—even unto death; rather, it means that God sovereignly superintends the lives of all believers. In 2 Thess. 3:4–5 Paul wrote that he was confident the Christians in Thessalonica would obey his commands, which contextually included praying for him.

Warning about Idleness (3:6–12)

Having already declared his confidence that the church would obey his prior commands, beginning in 2 Thess. 3:6 Paul gave a new directive to the church, “We command you, brethren . . . that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly.” As he explains in this passage, the disordered walk that Paul had in mind involved idleness. While the reason for idleness among some in the church is not explained in this passage, many have speculated that it was the result of errant end-times doctrine. To elaborate, it may have been the case that since some believed they had missed Jesus’ return, they either lost hope and could not work, or they reasoned that they now would not be held accountable for their idleness and would not work. In any event, such idleness was clearly sinful, for Paul appeals to his own example of diligent labor in Thessalonica to encourage obedience.

Of course, the opposite of idleness is labor. In 2 Thess. 3:10–12 Paul continues to address the disorderliness of some in the Thessalonian church by encouraging labor. Paul begins this passage by reminding the church of his own previous teaching, namely, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Observe that there is a difference between one who cannot work and one who will not work. To elaborate, someone who cannot work (e.g., due to natural disaster, personal illness, oppression, and the like) ought to be freely given aid. However, someone who will not work (e.g., due to person sin) ought to be left alone to fend for their own material needs. The idea here is that if aid is given to one who is sinfully idle or lazy, then they will be enabled to sin. A better way, writes Paul, is for all Christians “to work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:12; cf. 1 Thess. 4:11; 1 Tim. 2:2; Titus 3:2).

Exhortation to Holiness (3:13–18)

Paul gives an important exhortation in 2 Thess. 3:13 as he writes, “Do not grow weary in doing good.” By implication, Paul notes in 2 Thess. 3:14 that a reason why some in the Thessalonian church may be tempted to grow weary, is a failure of others in the church to obey the Scriptures. Indeed, it is imperative for believers to not judge their own value in ministry by visible achievements. Rather, success in ministry is measured by faithfulness to one’s calling and obedience to the Word of God. In 2 Thess. 3:14–15 Paul writes that in ministry, rather than growing weary in doing good because of those who are either disobedient or contentious, mature believers must “not keep company” (2 Thess. 3:14) with the disorderly. In conclusion, as he does in almost all of his thirteen epistles, in 2 Thess. 3:16–18 Paul pens a benediction in which he wishes the church peace and grace.

Application Questions:

  1. Given that God had told Paul he would not be attacked or hurt in Corinth, why do you believe Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for his safety?
  2. Do you ever doubt that God is faithful? How can Christians nourish their belief in the faithfulness of God?
  3. Is idleness always sinful? How can we distinguish between sinful idleness and prudent rest?
  4. Regarding someone who is idle, how can we discern when providing aid will help them and when it will hurt them?
  5. What is the best way in the church to deal with contentious people? As you serve the Lord, what types of things cause you to grow weary in doing good?

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David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.