1 Thessalonians: 4:11-12

map of greeceI’ve been in the hospital the last few days dealing with an infection. I’m still there, and so I apologize for any mistakes I make. I blame the drugs.

Not sure when I’ll be up to joining in the comments. But I’m feeling well enough to do a little expository Bible study.


(1 Thess. 4:11-12 ESV)  11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you,  12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. 

Interesting stuff … I mean, how many sermons have you heard on “work with your hands” or “mind your own affairs.” Our preachers (and many of our members) do neither. Are we sinning? What is Paul really expecting? Is is wrong to have a job that doesn’t involve manual labor? Or do we just decide we don’t like this verse and so strike it from our Bibles? — which is exactly what we’ve done, you know.

Many commentators believe that Paul has the patronage system in mind. In Grecian society, the very wealthy and powerful would do favors for the less fortunate (due to “grace”) and the benefited person received these gifts without payment. However, he was expected to respond to the patron’s grace by giving honor to the patron, that is, by being faithful to the patron and living in a way that brings him honor and glory. (Sound familiar?)

Paul’s teachings on grace may well be read in terms of the patronage system — with the important distinction that our patron is Jesus and no one else. We may not seek patronage from anyone other than our Messiah.

The Greeks saw manual labor as shameful — suitable for slaves but not freemen. For those not wealthy, labor was avoided by seeking patronage — but human patrons create a divided loyalty. You can’t be faithful to a pagan patron and Jesus. The Jews (and Paul) strongly believed in the honor of manual labor — very contrary to the Greek way. And Paul calls his readers not to be afraid of a little hard work. Paul was, himself, a tentmaker for this very reason.

The counterpoint to patronage was labor, to work with your hands. Manual labor was generally despised by those of the Greek aristocracy and by those who aspired to a higher social status. To work with your hands was something that slaves and artisans did (the work of the artisan was compared with that of a slave), but those of high social rank and wealth lived “knowing nothing of labor,” according to Philo. … Therefore, to call those who had lived as clients to engage in manual labor to gain their living was shocking.

Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 211.

Ben Witherington makes a similar argument —

In other words, Paul and Plutarch would have quite dramatically disagreed on what amounted to honorable and decorous behavior. Christians are not called to establish their names in the public sphere and seek prestige. They are to be ambitious in a different and perhaps counterintuitive and “quiet” way. Paul is talking about not retirement but avoidance of conflict and doing purposeful work and community-building. Christians were to strive within and for the Christian community.

One can think of a good reason for this: Christians were being persecuted, and the lower profile they maintained the better it might go for them. Paul is not countering apocalyptic lethargy brought on by the belief that Jesus was coming any minute, making work pointless. He is dealing with social factors and forces not least of which is trying to help his Christians survive in a hostile environment.

There may be another social factor at work as well. B. Winter has urged that we see hints here and in 2 Thess. 3:7–9 of Paul setting an example of avoiding entangling alliances with patrons and encouraging his converts to follow that example. They are to be quietly busy, not busybodies, which is to say not living on the dole of some patron and then spending their time spreading the patron’s name around and seeking to win friends and influence people for the patron. Christians, by contrast to the patron-client system, were all to work as they were able, avoid being a burden to others, and earn money to do good to others without thought of return. Love and doing good to all, especially the household of faith, rather than reciprocity, was to be their guiding principle. Perhaps especially there would be concern that Christians not be beholden to non-Christian patrons, who could demand all kinds of things of their time and work, some of which might be quite unethical and un-Christian. All of this raises some questions about manual labor which we must attend to at this juncture.

Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 121–122.

All this is very contrary to prevailing Greek culture — and would have been considered madness by many pagans. Why work when someone will support you if you honor him? Why live a quiet life when you want to convert more people to your religion? This all so goes against common sense, not only then but now.

Now, while the Jews honored manual labor, they also honored men such as Daniel, who served his God and his people more by his intellect than manual labor. The same is true of Joseph and many others. The OT doesn’t require that one’s labor be manual to be honored. Therefore, I read Paul as urging honest work in contrast to living off charity just because you don’t like to work.

A routinely ignored passage is key, to my thinking —

(Eph. 4:28 ESV)  28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 

Notice that the point isn’t “so that he may avoid merely intellectual labors.” The point is that followers of Jesus work — and we work in part so that we can give away our earnings to those in need.

Paul does not preach self-sufficiency or independence. He preaches that we must love our neighbors. Love sometimes requiring sharing with those in need. And so we should work to be able to share.

This is a very different view of work from what American Christians are generally taught. We are taught to be self-sufficient and not to ask for charity to avoid work — but it stops there. I’ve never heard a preacher urge his congregation to work so that they have more to share with those in need. It’s not how we think. Because it runs contrary to our American worldview, when we see such passages, they are invisible to us.

For example, this teaching requires a whole ‘nother way of thinking about retirement. I mean, by what right do I play golf on my pension when I could work, make more money, and give that money away to people in genuine need? Or spend my retirement leisure as a volunteer in missions or service projects? My retirement years are not my own. They belong to God. What does he want me to do with them? (Obviously, those limited by health, for example, aren’t held to the same standards as those not so limited.)

It’s not that we disagree with Paul. Rather, we watch financial planning commercials on TV and assume that they tell us the right reason to retire — to take my leisure and become generally useless. That’s the American worldview — wear  yourself out to have enough money to live an Epicurean, self-indulgent lifestyle. Paul would be horrified.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in 1 Thessalonians, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 1 Thessalonians: 4:11-12

  1. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    I was wondering if you were okay. Praying for you to have a speedy recovery.

  2. Alabama John says:

    Jay, praying for you!!!! Keep us posted so we can name exactly what you need.

    In many ways, Paul saw things back then the same way Trump and the voters are seeing them in our politicians today.

  3. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    I’ve never heard a preacher urge his congregation to work so that they have more to share with those in need. It’s not how we think. Because it runs contrary to our American worldview, when we see such passages, they are invisible to us.

    That is an important teaching for us all.

  4. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    The reason for Thessalonian idleness is very interesting. Paul addresses idleness in chapter 5 and then again in his second letter. I had always assumed their idleness was related to the expectation of an imminent second coming.

    Weima writes:

    Although nowhere in the two Thessalonian Letters does Paul explicitly make a direct connection between eschatological excitement and the problem of idleness, at least three factors can be cited to support such a link. First, the problem of idleness, which is raised twice in 1 Thessalonians (4:11c–12; 5:14), frames the extended discussion of matters concerning Christ’s return (4:13–5:11)—thereby suggesting that the two topics are related. And this juxtaposition of topics occurs also in 2 Thessalonians, where the treatment of idleness (3:1–15) appears immediately after a lengthy discussion of the day of the Lord (2:1–17). Second, the frequent and lengthy references in both letters to the expected return of Christ—far more than in any of Paul’s other letters—suggest that the Thessalonian church possessed a heightened expectancy regarding Christ’s return. Third, the frequency with which eschatological excitement has led to idleness in a variety of religious groups over the centuries testifies to how easily this problem could have occurred at Thessalonica.

    Weima, Jeffrey A. D. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1–2 Thessalonians. Ed. Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. Print.

    Regarding the patron-client relationship, Weima writes:

    Most in the sociological camp have tried to explain the problem of idleness at Thessalonica in terms of the patron-client relationship that was popular in that day (so, e.g., Russell 1988; Winter 1989; Aune 1989; Williams 1992: 150; Green 2002: 208–13). In this relationship, members of the lower class would attach themselves to benefactors from among the upper class, from whom they would then receive sustenance and help in various matters in exchange for the obligation to reciprocate with expressions of gratitude and support. It is argued that Paul’s converts included those of the urban poor who had formed client relationships with wealthy members in the Thessalonian church, but who exploited the generosity of their new Christian patrons. But while patron-client relationships may well have existed in the congregation, this relationship in and of itself may not be the specific cause of the idle behavior of some Christians in the city. For the obligations that clients typically had to fulfill for their wealthy patrons (e.g., greet them in the morning with the salutation, or “morning salute”; appear with them in public; work in their public campaigns) involved sufficient activity that clients would not likely be accused of idleness.

    Weima, Jeffrey A. D. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1–2 Thessalonians. Ed. Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. Print.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I address the theory that the church anticipated an early Parousia in Monday’s post, but we’ve covered the same ground before. The theory is largely rejected today (although it was widely taught in the last century) because the church historians find no evidence in support of the theory. The early church fathers never express surprise or disappointment that Jesus hasn’t yet returned nor do they suggest that a rethinking of how to live as a Christian is in order because Jesus hasn’t returned.

    It’s a significant argument in Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God — which is a great read and makes a much more extensive argument.

    On the other hand, it’s possible that the Thessalonians misunderstood Paul, and it’s impossible to prove otherwise (due to the logical difficulties of proving a negative). I could sort through the arguments, but ultimately, it just doesn’t matter in terms of the question posed: did Paul intend to limit us to vocations involving manual labor or does he intend that we adopt any God-honoring vocation?

    If the Thessalonians are not working because they misunderstood the timing of the Parousia or because they are pursuing patronage from pagans, either way, Paul is not saying that they must engage in manual labor as opposed to God honoring labor.

    One of few major commentaries I don’t have is the Baker Exegetical Commentary. But Christmas isn’t far away …

  6. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    I’ve really liked the BECNT. FWIW, Best Commentaries rates almost all the individual titles rather highly. Authors include Bock, Kostenberger, Moo, Silva, Jobes, Green, Osborne, Garland. I got them for $9/ea during a sale on Logos.

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    What is this, “Paul is not saying that they must engage in manual labor as opposed to God honoring labor.” When has the Word explained to any of God’s followers that manual labor is not God honoring? What was that work that God assigned to Adam and Eve? Or Noah? Something other than manual labor?

  8. Larry Cheek says:

    We must temper Paul’s words with other words which he has written.
    2Th 3:6-12 ESV Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. (7) For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, (8) nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (9) It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. (10) For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (11) For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. (12) Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
    These people are definitely different than the poor. It appears that we are to recognize the difference and not support the individuals who are poor just because they chose to be.

Leave a Reply