Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:28c “. . .but rather let him labor,. . .”
Stealing is on the rise in American culture, and has seeped like sewage into the churches. This is happening despite the fact thievery is universally disdained. Even stealers condemn theft. We never hear of a thief who deems it okay for others to steal from him.
“Let him that stole steal no more” is an admonition still much needed today, but the Apostle does not end with this prohibition. He presses on to suggest a substitute behavior for thievery. A negative word is followed by a positive. In God’s strength, wrong deeds can be displaced by right deeds.
Paul’s encouragement to us is, “let him labor.” “Labor” here refers to toil, exertion, strenuous work which produces fatigue. Hard work has never been popular among thieves. The very purpose of stealing is to get things easily, to gain without exertion, to have the most while doing the least. The latter explains why stealing builds a person’s ego. A feeling of superiority is achieved by getting for nothing things which others sweat to obtain. A person working hard and gaining seemingly little is deemed ignorant, but the thief gets away with something, outsmarts society, and outwits others. He feels a cut above the rest. In fact, a successful thief is so proud, such a confirmed egotist, that his own bragging often leads to his arrest.
“Easy money” is a thief’s motto, but Christians disagree. We are not to be ashamed or afraid of manual labor. Hard work is a Christian duty. The Bible does not encourage asceticism, monasticism, or laziness.
Christianity was designed for busy people. Paul wrote, “This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 TH 3:10). A society should provide for people unable to work, but for those who can labor and choose not to, Paul bluntly settles the issue by saying they should not eat. “This solution remains the best approach for any society” (Criswell Bible). This attitude is so much a part of Biblical Christianity that our culture calls it the “Protestant work ethic,” a philosophy which had much to do with the two centuries of material success our country has enjoyed.
Idleness makes thieves. An idle mind is Satan’s workshop. Any unwilling to work tempt Lucifer to tempt them to steal. Thus, “let him labor.”
Eph. 4:28d “. . .working with his hands. . .”
Stealing can be stopped if hands are used for labor, in contrast to the former idleness or bad use of those same hands. Hands are meant to be used in labor rather than in robbing the hands of others.
Hands are wonderful instruments, marvels of creation, but a thief misuses these God-given limbs to accomplish devil-driven ends. Hands given to Satan reveal to whom the heart belongs. A believer is to entrust his way to God, but a stealer shows no faith in God’s ability to provide, and thinks, “God is not giving me what I want, so I will take it on my own.” The thief thus begins to yield himself to the dark sources of evil spiritual power, and uses “his hands” in a way which plays into the devil’s hands.
Satan, the master-thief who wrenched man from God and robbed man of innocence, seeks small replicas of himself. Judas, the thief who pilfered the disciples’ money (JN 12:6), was called a devil by Jesus (JN 6:70). Every other thief is also merely a cheap imitation of the wretched master-thief.
Eph. 4:28e “. . .the thing which is good,. . .”
This refers to jobs which are honest and honorable. To avoid thievery, we should earn money by means of a vocation which yields a good product or provides a worthwhile service, and which is ethical in every way.
Christians should not be in jobs which harm others. Any work whereby a man enriches himself by the loss of another is theft embellished and refined, vocational thievery. Gambling exemplifies this. Gamblers and thieves have much in common. Neither worries about their victims. The one who gains provides nothing worthwhile in exchange for what the loser loses. The winner and loser both craved something for nothing, and the loser cheated his own family to satisfy the craving.
Christians should not be in jobs which call for compromise of convictions, or require us to violate God’s commands. Tertullian once asked one of his parishioners why he was sculpting idols for pagans to worship. The craftsman said, “We have to live.” Tertullian replied, “Do we?” He later confirmed with his own blood the conviction of his words.
Through the years, I have seen many young people begin their slide away from God by taking a job which required them to work on Sunday and miss church. A boyhood friend of mine was recently arrested for committing the only triple murder in the history of my home town. He and I were close friends, we stayed overnight in each other’s home often, his dad was a deacon in the church where my dad was pastor. Upon hearing the disturbing news, I called Dad. In the conversation I mentioned being unable to remember much about my friend being at church after about age 15 or so. Dad immediately replied, “That’s when he took a Sunday job.” Dad went on to say he even went to the boy’s parents and discussed the matter with them, but they saw no harm in it.
For the Christian, work is to be honest and honorable. This concept of labor lifts it to a high and holy level. Our tasks at work are to be seen as acts of worship offered up to God. Labor thus comes to entail dignity.
A common misconception, even among believers, is that work is part of the curse God placed on humanity due to Adam and Eve’s transgression. This is dreadfully wrong. Work was given as a blessing. It was part of the original design in Eden. Genesis 2:15 says God put man in the garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it.” Not until Genesis 3:17 does God say, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” God declared work would not be as productive as before, but work itself was part of the blessing.
Christians need a proper understanding of labor, for in our day there is an insidious mentality which despises work. Pleasure and fun are elevated to the supreme position, while labor is relegated to being a dreaded necessity. Work is deemed a nuisance, something to be escaped. No wonder many people are miserable on their jobs. They begin from the premise that work is bad. Thus, their attitude is skewed from the first.
The moment we begin to think of work as degrading or demeaning, we multiply our chances of being miserable on the job, and also increase our danger of committing theft. If our vocation is deemed a nuisance or a curse, we are more likely to be tempted to take advantage of it and our employer. However, if work is counted as worship, we will be trustworthy.
Eph. 4:28f “. . .that he may have. . .”
Scripture’s admonitions regarding thievery presuppose people’s right to private property. A legitimate, Biblical reason for earning money is “that ye may have lack of nothing” (1 TH 4:12b). Every individual has a right to his own possessions. A willingness to live by this rule draws boundaries within which we can securely live, and around which social order is possible.
A thief refuses to accept this God-ordained method of boundaries and limits, and decides he has the right to invade the private domain of others. Theft is a violation of another person. For every theft, someone somewhere eventually is hurt. Thieves see only property, potential possessions, and lose sight of the personal pains they inflict.
Refusing to accept the boundaries God has drawn for others and for self, a thief becomes his own deity. The result is a lack of respect for others and their possessions. He begins to think he has a right to anything he sees and desires. Self becomes God, taking is an idol, possessing is a graven image–what I want, and what I can snatch, takes priority. Others become self’s servants, and the God of Heaven is left out of the equation.
Eph. 4:28g “. . .to give. . .”
We work for remuneration in order to “have” (4:28f) and “to give.” We labor to secure some property which is private. We labor also to have some property which is not private. Communists say private property in and of itself causes social ills and destitution. They are wrong; the causes are selfishness and sin. Private property is not wrong when the owner remembers his possessions are to be shared with others. Private property is theft only when used for nothing but self-gratification.
Paul, realizing thievery is caused by selfishness, struck at the root of the evil. He hopes to turn the thief’s attention away from self and to the needs of others. Paul believed rousing the spirit of brotherhood could help a pilferer become honest. It is hard to steal from someone we love.
To end thievery, dethrone self, respect God’s intended order, value people’s rights. Others matter. We are to give, not to take. A thief thinks the world owes him, but we must face the fact we are debtors to God, family, friends, society. To withhold from them our best efforts is to steal what they invested in us. “A gentleman puts more into life than he takes out of it” (Bernard Shaw). We need to make a positive difference in this world by giving back more than we receive. This church gives me a chance to return in small measure what others invested in me (love, school, seminary, confidence, spiritual gifts). Most of us have a lot of giving back to do. We best do this by honest and honorable hard work, thereby receiving in order to give. As FDR said, “Never has a man of ease left a mark on history.”