Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:28a “Let him that stole. . .”
Paul was a realist. “Him that stole” translates a present participle which should be literally rendered “the one stealing.” Our text is directed by Paul to stealers. Since Ephesians was written to Christians, not the lost, we know Paul realized there were thieves within the church membership at Ephesus. The Apostle knew believers are not perfect.
In the impoverished conditions of the ancient world, thievery was for many a means of survival. “What could not be begged had to be stolen” (Powell). Plus, what multitudes did for survival, many others did as a way of life for profit. Stealing was such a prevalent cultural vice that it tended to seep into the Church herself. Behavior and attitude osmosis from the world is always a problem the Church must be careful to avoid.
For several generations, churches in the United States enjoyed the luxury of being part of a culture which by and large abided by the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” (EX 20:15). This ethic was at one time part of the warp and woof of American society. When a young store clerk, Abraham Lincoln, who was a reflection of his generation’s thinking in this matter, once accidentally charged a woman six and a half cents too much. At day’s end, before he slept, he walked several miles in the dark to return the overage. On another occasion, he weighed out a pound of tea for a customer. He later found a small weight on the scale. He immediately weighed out that quantity of tea and delivered it to the shopper.
Theft was essentially unknown on the American prairie. One man left a wagon of corn stuck in the mud for two weeks near a frequented road. When he returned, some corn was gone, but money had been left to pay for what was taken. Grandpa Marshall, whose attitudes were shaped in the early decades of this century, was still leaving his doors unlocked at night as late as 1980. Sounds like long long ago in a land far far away.
Sadly, times have changed. America has developed a serious problem with thievery. According to official FBI crime statistics, the number of reported burglaries, larcenies, auto thefts, and robberies increased from 3.2 million in 1960 to 13.1 million in 1989 (Reader’s Digest Almanac). Business people in our country, when assessing their liability considerations, now have to figure in stealing as a major factor. Shoplifting has become a monumental problem. In some large stores up to a third of the price of merchandise is used to cover theft losses of various kinds (MacArthur).
As the culture around us has an increasing problem with theft, we believers are becoming ever more susceptible to accepting its warped views on the subject. Paul was a realist. Let us also be realistic. Some believers steal, and we are all ever in danger of falling into this sin.
Stealing is an American problem which reaches even to the churches. A pastor friend of mine was forced to leave his church because he bought a television and other appliances and charged them to the church.
A pastor who preceded me at one church left unpaid bills at a local store. Each time I went in to witness to the elderly store owner, he would turn off his hearing aid. I finally paid off the former pastor’s bill. Next time I came in to witness to the store owner, he still turned off his hearing aid. That experience taught me a good lesson at a young age–unbelievers are lost essentially because they want to be lost. Their cries about hypocrisy among believers are a smoke-screen to cover the hardness of their own hearts. Despite the store owner’s intentional hardness of heart (and hearing), I felt good about paying the bill, because something had been done which would hopefully help clear the name of Christ and His Church.
Fellow believers, let us beware. In creating ways one can steal, the devil has a prolific imagination. There is seemingly no end to the ways we can steal: overdue bills, unpaid debts, pocketing what a clerk overpays in change, gambling, failing to report income to the IRS. Christians must not view government as an evil, an enemy to outsmart. Government is ordained of God. Paying taxes is a Christian duty (RM 13:6-7). When Jesus said “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (MT 22:21), He was holding in his hand a coin minted by the Roman government. Taxes involve currency. If we wish to avoid paying taxes to the government, we must quit using its currency. Do not steal from the government.
Intense temptations to steal are often experienced on the job. In the work place we find stealing in the misuse of trust funds, unfair wages, intentional overestimating, falsified cost overruns, embezzlement, padding expense accounts, reporting more hours than are worked, using employer time for things other than work, arriving at work late, leaving early, stretching coffee breaks and lunch hours, pilfering business stamps for personal letters, making personal long-distance calls and charging them to the company.
Pastor Kent Hughes tells of a paper given at a recent American Psychological Association symposium on employee theft. Department and chain stores show an eight billion dollar inventory shortage every year–10% due to clerical error, 30% to shoplifting, 60% to employee theft.
When working for a large company or a wealthy boss, it is tempting to rationalize certain wrong deeds. One can easily become careless in their thoughts–“They do not pay me nearly what I am worth. They will not miss such a trifling amount.” Such wrong thinking often leads to wrong doing.
We can steal when young at home by taking money off dad’s dresser or out of mom’s purse. We can do it at school by stealing credit for someone else’s work, as in plagiarism or cheating on exams. Some steal at church by withholding from God the tithe which is rightfully His.
The list could go on and on. Just as sad, these practices are often accepted as normal by multitudes of people. Martin Luther said, “It is the smallest part of the thieves that are hung. If we are to hang them all, where shall we get enough rope? We must make all our belts and straps into halters.”
To some, stealing is merely a game in which the only cause for shame or regret is getting caught. The sin is so prevalent that we can agree with the saying, “The stars are still in the sky only because they are beyond the reach of man.”
Thievery is a problem, inside the church as well as outside. Paul was a realist.
Eph. 4:28b “. . .steal no more:. . .”
Paul was an optimist. He believed “the one stealing” could “steal no more.” Whatever the social conscience of the age, the Christian has a higher standard he can and must live by. The child of God is expected to be trustworthy anywhere in any circumstance, even in the smallest matters.
If Christianity does not make a man trustworthy, it does nothing for him. A believer should never take away what rightfully belongs to another. The believer is prohibited from every unfair, dishonest way one may transfer to self that which is the property of another. The Christian must not misappropriate to self the results of labor done by another.
These are standards expected of us, and attainable by us, even if we have a weakness in the very area of stealing. In our text, Paul is not telling the trustworthy man to quit stealing. The command is directed toward the thief, and every command of Scripture is also a promise of provided power to fulfill it. The Gospel is not given out to perfect, larger than life, paragons of virtue. It reaches to sinners and transforms them. The Gospel “is the power of God unto salvation” (RM 1:15). It rescues people from Hell and can deliver them from any sin known to man. A power which saves one from Hell can also thwart any deed from Hell. No believer should ever feel hopeless, or deem self in the throes of a sin impossible to overcome.
Paul settled this matter once and for all in his first letter to the Corinthians (6:9-11). He followed the list of those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God–“Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers”–with the phrase, “And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Gospel changes people.
If we do not believe the Gospel can change people we need to close our doors and devote our time and energies to something else. A lost person can be saved from Hell and a saved person can be delivered from any sin. Never despair. Never allow self to slip into utter hopelessness. If we ever do this, we have lost sight of what it means to be a Christian. If any one word can be used to describe the Christian life, it is “victory.”
At 4:1 Paul began this section of Ephesians which deals with the Christian walk, living the Christian life. He is presenting practices he actually expects Christians to implement in daily life. He expects the proud to become humble, the impatient to become long-suffering, the hard of heart to be loving. He says every Christian has a spiritual gift, and expects them to find it and to exercise it. He assumes the spiritually immature will grow up. He expects the liar to begin being honest, the angry man to gain control over every word and deed, and the stealer to steal no more.
Paul was a realist. He knew believers were not perfect. At the same time, Paul was an optimist. He fully realized a part of our birthright as believers is that we can overcome any sin by taking advantage of everything which is ours in heavenly places. Realism and optimism combined in Paul, enabling him to say, literally, “The one stealing, no more let him steal.”