Homes, churches, and businesses suffer when lazy and selfish men take advantage of others. The Apostle Paul directly addressed the eighth commandment in the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians. In verse 28, Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” The context of his admonition was regarding the Christian’s duty to walk worthy of his vocation, his calling in Christ. The Christian is a child of light and should therefore walk in the light! Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that they should put away lying and speak the truth. Believers are to put away uncleanness and walk in purity. A Christian should put on “the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). As men choose industriousness over idleness and thievery, then homes, churches, and businesses will prosper.
Some of the Christians in the new church in Ephesus had a background not unlike that of Zacchaeus the taxpayer in last week’s biographical sketch. The Ephesians were sinners who had taken advantage of unscrupulous business practices to prey upon others. Some of these believers living in Ephesus may have been what we now call “white collar criminals”—those who had used positions of power and influence to steal and embezzle public funds. Some may have actually been former criminals, such as thieves, robbers, and burglars.
Others may have stolen in more subtle ways. Have you ever considered that slothfulness is a form of theft? It steals one’s own productivity or even the work product owed to an employer. Many Roman citizens were enrolled in the public welfare system, enjoying the “bread dole” and receiving free food with no work requirement. This system of government welfare nurtured slothfulness! Eventually, the resulting fostered laziness brought the Roman economy to its knees and contributed to the fall of Rome and to its final conquest and overthrow by Germanic Vandals. What happened to ancient Rome can happen to our society if we allow slothfulness to permeate our culture. Any slothful society will eventually decay and wither away.
In contrast to a spirit of laziness, the Apostle Paul asserts that diligent labor is a means to avoid thievery. “Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labour” (Ephesians 4:28, emphasis added). Good character manifested in a strong work ethic is the solution to theft, and diligence is the virtue that must overcome slothfulness.
In our lives and communities, what are the full implications of slothfulness? A lazy employee robs his employer by not being fully productive on the job. Being late to work; taking a long lunch break; surfing the Internet, online socializing, or playing games on company time; and daydreaming or napping at the workplace is stealing from the company. A neglectful father robs his family of his time and affection. His apathy and indolence allow his home to fall into disrepair, resulting in costly remodels and repairs down the road. A slothful pastor who throws together a hastily-prepared sermon at the last minute robs his congregation of spiritual nourishment and responsible shepherding. A slothful civil magistrate who spends his time at fancy dinners and fails to fulfill his official duties robs his community. An educator who fails to diligently prepare his lessons robs his students of important knowledge.
The Book of Proverbs says much about the “sluggard” or the slothful man. For example, this man does not believe that he is slothful (see 26:16). He makes easy or “soft” choices in life (see 20:4). He does not value the importance of time (see 6:6–8), nor will he complete his tasks (see 12:27). He lives in a world of wishful thinking (see 21:25–26). He wastes the resources of his employer (see 10:26). A slothful man is a victim of self-induced fears (see 22:13), and he is an inordinate lover of extra sleep (see 19:15) that takes from him wealth and vitality.
To fight against slothfulness, Paul urged diligence. Jesus earned His bread for the first years of His adult life working as a carpenter in Nazareth. Peter, James, and John earned their living on the Sea of Galilee as fishermen. Even the Apostle Paul had a trade as a tentmaker, weaving fabric from goat hair and then sewing the cloth into tents for his clients.
Paul continued making tents, even as he traveled throughout the Roman Empire as an evangelist. “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:8–10).
Through his occupation of tentmaking, Paul’s path crossed with Aquila and Priscilla, a married Jewish couple living in the city of Corinth. “And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers” (Acts 18:3).
Western civilization, with all of its many achievements, was not the result of any racial or cultural superiority found in Western Europe. The success and advancement of Western European society was largely achieved because of what is known as the “Protestant work ethic.” During the Middle Ages, ordinary labor was seen as demeaning and filled with drudgery. Merchants, craftsmen, farmers, weavers, bakers, and cobblers were looked down upon by men of wealth, power, and education. But after the Protestant Reformation, pastors again began teaching their congregations about the value of honest work, hard labor, and the honorable nature of a man’s vocation.
This positive view of labor brought about a revolution in trade, agriculture, science, navigation, banking, construction, and in the textile industry. Wherever the Gospel has been embraced, men have found satisfaction and blessing in the fruitfulness of lawful occupations, however menial the labor might seem. God delights in productivity, and we ought to delight in it also.
Consider the motive that Paul gave for diligence in the final words of Ephesians 4:28. The purpose of diligent labor is not to become rich or comfortable. Paul said, “let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Those new converts in Ephesus who once were slothful and lived by stealing now ought to work hard so that they could provide for the real needs of others. Christian charity always outperforms government welfare in the meeting of real needs. The New Testament church was built, funded, and advanced by diligent men who learned to put away stealing and slothfulness, work earnestly, and give generously. The Kingdom of God is advanced today by the same means: diligent men who take the words of Scripture seriously and apply the Bible to every area of life. In what areas are you rejecting slothfulness and diligently seeking to advance God’s Kingdom?