If I said Jesus is coming back exactly a year from now, January 26, 2015–what kind of effect would this kind of false prophecy have on you, the listeners? If you took this prophecy seriously, some of you might say, forget school, or forget work. The same thing happens when people hear the news, you have terminal cancer and you have a few months to live. Most people who are diagnosed with terminal cancer would not continue working or going to school? The vast majority would understandably quit whatever they were doing and spend time with loved ones. And if you are a Christian, you would prepare yourself spiritually to meet Jesus face to face. Same thing, if you knew exactly the date when Jesus was going to return, some here would sell everything and read the Bible all day and pray and evangelize to your family and friends because what’s more important than salvation and eternal life? You would be urgent to live single-minded for the Lord.
Thankfully, Paul wrote a second letter to this church, 2 Thessalonians. In his second letter, Paul helps to connect the dots for us in 2 Thess 3 and he clarifies for us where this church went wrong. Remember, this was a faithful church. Their faith in God was strong. Their faith was refined and tested in the fires of persecution. Satan had no opening in terms of distorting their faith. So what does Satan do? He goes after their hope. A false teaching begins to spreads–Jesus is returning very, very soon. In fact, God revealed to me through a vision exactly what date the Second Coming will be. It’s great news. Finally, some relief from this persecution! Jesus is coming to set things right.
What happens next? Some of the brothers start quitting their jobs. Probably the leaders first because they are the “spiritual” ones so of course, they are the first in line to devote themselves to praying and reading the Bible the most, right? I imagine some of the other members following their lead. They, too, quit their jobs. Of course, the leaders can’t tell everyone at the church to quit because somebody has to put food on the table and provide for the financial needs of the church. Now do you see why Paul was so adamant about being an example for them regarding finances and hard work?
They said, Christ is coming on this exact date. Then, the day that everyone was waiting for, the day when Jesus was supposed to return, the day came and it went. What happened to this church after the supposed Day of the Lord came and went? I don’t know. Maybe some admitted, I guess we were wrong and they started looking for a job. But it looks like many stayed unemployed. Or, maybe they had a revised prophecy. God gave me a new prophecy and I got the month and day right, but I admit the year was wrong. This time next year, trust me, Jesus is coming back.
More time passes. More revised prophecies and more revised dates of the Day of the Lord. What happens as time passes? You lose your edge. Back to the original illustration, if I know that Andre is going to rob my house tonight, I can stay alert and be on guard, but if I have to be on high alert for even a few days, my alertness quickly diminishes. That’s why when you’re in the military and you have to keep night watch or be on guard, you take turns and your window of being on high alert is only a few hours because we can’t maintain a high alert battle readiness for too long. And this is exactly what happens at Thessalonians. The brothers who quit their jobs and who were on high alert gradually lost their battle readiness. Instead, their eager waiting for the Lord degenerated into idleness. And what did they do with the huge chunks of free time they had? They sinned.
When I working full-time at a crazy, chaotic startup and I had 3 young boys, free time was such a luxury. I got up at 7am and from the moment I was up, it was chaos. Get the kids ready, feed them breakfast, make their lunches, change their diapers and out the door by 7:30 or 8. Then I had to battle LA traffic during an hour commute to West Hollywood and the whole time I am struggling to keep my eyes open. Work ends and then I usually got home around 7-8pm, I eat dinner, get the kids ready for sleep and half the nights I would be out to teach a bible study or lead a small group or to counsel someone and then by 9-10pm, I’m ready to crash and then the whole routine starts up again.
Many people live this way. There is no free time. And so we have a culture of weekend warriors. They live for the weekends. But even the weekends are exhausting with kids sports and practices and shopping and running errands. So you work hard all year for that one vacation. And the whole time while working, you are thinking, on the weekend, I will spend some unhurried time with the Lord or on my vacation, I will finally get to catch up on my Bible reading. But what happens? When you have a free weekend or a day off, don’t you find it hard to focus on spiritual things? Students, just look back at your winter vacation. You might have made excuses that you were too busy for God during the school year. But did you follow through with your spiritual commitments when you had the time?
When I was working, free time was such a precious commodity and I longed for the day when I could quit and be a full-time minister. And now that I am a pastor, I see the wisdom of why Paul was a tentmaker. If you are super spiritual, like a Paul, then having tons of free time would be great because you could pray 3 hours in the morning followed by 40 chapters of Bible reading in the afternoon and then you can spend the rest of the time evangelizing, discipling and ministering to others. But Paul knew that most people are not very spiritual. Read the Old Testament and you will see chapter after chapter of people who are quite unspiritual. Rather than being spiritual, the people of God are complainers, they are thankless, they are fleshly, they whine, they grumble, they give up their birthright for a bowl of soup, they want to go back to Egypt, they commit adultery and murder. This is who we are. We are sinners to the core.
So I believe this is why Paul advises, as a general rule, for most people, just work hard. While he himself probably could have handled a lot of free time, he understands that for most people, more free time doesn’t translate into more godliness. In many cases, more free time means more opportunities to sin.
That’s why it is not surprising that in 1 Thess 4:1-8, Paul has to remind them about sexual purity. In the absence of a structured work schedule, they became idle in their free time. And then idleness led some to slip into acts of sexual immorality. It’s no different today. What do most people do with their free time? They watch TV and movies and what do you see in TV shows and movies that causes many to stumble? You are bombarded by inappropriate images. If you have kids, it’s impossible to watch TV without telling the kids to close their eyes every few minutes. Times certainly have not changed.
What else happens in this idle free time if it’s not more prayer and reading of God’s word and loving neighbors? Paul gives a clue in 2 Thess 3:12 [READ].
Why does Paul emphasize that they should be “quietly” working? Does that mean tiptoeing around your workplace and whispering and typing really softly so as not to disturb your coworkers?
In idle free time, what do people do? They commit sexual sin through action or thought. Also, when people are idle, they talk. Timothy faces a similar problem of young widows who are at an age when they can work to support themselves, but they don’t look for a job. Why? Because they assume that it’s the church’s responsibility to take care of their financial needs. Paul says, if you are an older widow who would have a hard time getting a job, that’s understandable. The church should take care of its own. But if you are a young widow, Paul would say, go out and get a job. But instead of finding a job, these young widows end up sitting around and what happens? The words begin to fly. Paul lays it out in 1 Tim 5 – these women are not only idle, but are also gossips and then he uses an interesting word. Instead of being busy working and supporting themselves and their family, they are BUSYBODIES.
What is a busybody? Someone who goes from house to house, getting in everyone’s business and saying things about others they shouldn’t say. Worst of all, Paul says that in the process of being idle and putting their nose in everyone’s business, some have turned away to follow Satan. This is scary stuff. And it underscores an important principle–how we manage our finances and our free time is a big deal because it can affect our eternal destiny.
In terms of an application, I had a hard time coming up with one because our situation in Pasadena in the year 2014 is vastly different from the situation in the first century at Thessalonica. With the exception of a few here, I don’t think I have to remind people to work hard. Actually, I might have to say, work hard, but remember, work is not your life. Paul worked hard, not because the work itself was so important, but he worked hard in order not to be a burden on others and to be an example so that people would not fall into idleness.
For most of us, our primary motivation for working hard is not to ease burden for others, but it is simply because we want status, respect, glory for ourselves. Examine your motives for why you work so hard. How do you know whether or not you are working hard in a God glorifying sense vs. working hard for selfish motives? Here’s quick test. In the midst of your work, are you living out 1 Thess 5:16-22? Are you able to rejoice always and pray constantly and give thanksgiving in everything? God’s will for you is not should I take this job or that career? God’s will is clear–in whatever job you choose, are you rejoicing, praying and giving thanks in everything? If so, choose whatever job you want, be free, because you are following God’s will.
The most obvious difference between the Thessalonian context and ours is persecution. No one in this country is threatening to throw us into prison or to kill us because we are Christian, at least not yet. Life here is quite good. When you are under heavy persecution and you are suffering, it’s natural for you to long for Christ to come back soon. Maranatha – come quickly, Lord. I’m dying here. I need your help. Persecution gives us a sharp sense that this world in its present form is not our final destination. We are just passing through. Jesus is coming back and he is going to take us to a new heaven and a new earth. He is preparing a place for us in His Father’s house.
I think our struggle is, I kind of like it here. Things are not so bad. Jesus, take your time, I’m in no rush to go home. I have things I want to do and things I want to experience. If this is your attitude, Jesus will show up one day like a thief in the night and you will be thoroughly unprepared.
Our context is quite different but the principle is the same. Whether super busy or having a bit of free time, whether persecuted or living in relative ease and comfort, be ready. Jesus is coming back. Are you ready to meet Him?