Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 07/04/1999
"Let him who steals steal no longer, but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with those who are in need."
In teaching us the specifics of the worthy walk, Paul has dealt with some pretty basic issues, including truth (v. 25) and the internal control that makes a life of truth possible (v. 25). Now in v. 28, he turns to an equally basic and important area of life: our relationship to work and property. About this area he tells us three things: what not to do (steal), what to do (work), and why we ought to do it (to share with those in need).
Let him who steals steal no more, Paul commands. The present participle KLEPTON ("stealing") is surprising. Why was it needed? Obviously it implies that the Ephesian believers were currently stealing. But how? Surely they did not need to be told not to knock over a liquor store, burgle their neighbors' houses, rob a bank, or hold up a Brinks truck. And neither do we. But the Apostle is not just flapping his gums, either. So the question he asks us to ask is, "What are the more subtle forms of stealing for which such a warning was, and is, needed in the lives of believers?"
To answer that question, we must first define what stealing is. And to do that, we must review the biblical concept of STEWARDSHIP. A steward is a servant who manages someone else's property for the benefit of the owner. God owns everything by right of creation, and owns the Christian and all that is his doubly by right of redemption. But he has made each of us responsible for a small portion of his property, to manage it for the support of our families and the advancement of his kingdom. "Property" for the Christian then is simply the physical form (or, in a modern society, often the mathematical form) that this responsibility takes. Stealing is wrong because it means usurping responsibility that God has actually given to someone else. Since ownership is then simply another word for responsibility to God as the steward of a designated bit of his property, it follows that stealing is involved in any failure to carry out that responsibility properly--whether by usurping another's area of responsibility or by neglecting one's own. In the one case we steal from our neighbor and fellow steward, and in the other we steal in effect from the Owner, from God himself.
It would seem then that there are many more forms of stealing than we often acknowledge. Armed robbery, burglary, and embezzling are just the more blatant and obvious ways you can steal. But when we realize the connection between property and responsibility in the context of stewardship, then there are many others. Failure to take care of anything God has entrusted to you, failure to develop and use your natural talents and spiritual gifts, failure to tithe, failure to give an honest day's work for a day's pay, failure to give an honest day's pay for a day's work, cheating on a test (or just not studying for it!), cheating on your income taxes, wasting time--all these things could be considered forms of stealing. The one that seems to be in the forefront here is not working (see the next point).
The verb translated "labor" or "work" here is KOPIAZO. It means to toil, to labor, to exert oneself, to sweat. This does not mean that a person in an air-conditioned office is not working, but it does imply that work should involve a significant commitment of both effort and time. The point is that the Christian should not have a job just because it is the thing to do or in order to pay his bills. Rather, he should find something that is worthy of striving and dedication and give it his best effort.
The first reason to work is obviously that Christians ought to support themselves; they ought not to be parasites. This is obvious, but there is much more, and it is not even the most important reason. The focus here is on doing something that is good. In other words, as Stewards of creation and of our time and talents, Christians should work even if they did not need money, because they are Stewards. It is part of our identity and our calling. We should avoid dead end jobs that are only for the sake of paying the bills. At the end of the day, there should be something we have built or done or provided--a house, a car, a story, a lesson, a service--that brings benefit to our fellow men and glory to God.
The first implication of this passage for the Christian's view of work is FIND SOMETHING WORTH DOING. Your career is probably going to take more of your time and energy than anything else. If you are just doing it for the money, you will end up hating it and being a slave to it. Therefore, seek out something that you love for its own sake, something worth doing even if you did not get paid for it, and give yourself to that, even if it makes less money. To decide on your career thus is not being selfish--it is being obedient! For God commands us through his Apostle to "perform with our own hands what is GOOD."
Then, having chosen to do something worth doing, do it as well as you can. To just get by, to cut corners, is to steal from at least three parties: from your employer, who deserves a better return for the wages he is paying you; from the consumer, who has to pay higher, inflated prices for an inferior product; and from God, who is not glorified by shoddy work. Your purpose is to walk worthily, to glorify God--not just to receive a check. As Udo Middlemann once said, "If archaeologists ever find one of the tents Paul made--it had better be a very good tent!"
The best summary of this teaching is the Lord's own words in Mat. 5:16. "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."
One good way of understanding this passage in a deeper way is to notice the progression of focus that moves through the verse. The one who steals is focused on himself, on what he wants, even if he has to take it or cut corners to get it. The one who works is focused on the work itself, on the product. This provides a worthy motive already, to do something that is in itself good. But we move on from that to a focus on others. This then is the reason we work: to do something good, to glorify God, to support our families, and to have a surplus that we can share with those in need. One of the best examples of a person who lived this way was C. S. Lewis. He produced something that was very good--lectures, tutorials, books that were among the best ever done. Then, since he was supported adequately--though not richly--as an Oxford professor, he put all his royalties into a trust fund. Because his books were so successful, he ended up giving away two thirds of his income over the course of his life! And most of it went anonymously to individuals, to help with things like school bills. And most of this was not even made known until after his death.
The Christian then is to be a person who is not a parasite. But he is to be much more. He is also to be a person who is not a slave to things, money, status--which means also that he is not a slave to his job. He works because he is a steward of his time and talents. He thus supports himself, and because he works well and is a good steward and not given to indulgence, he has a surplus to share with those in need. The ideal is not a life of poverty but a life of responsibility. As John Wesley put it, "Make all you can; save all you can; give all you can." This is the lifestyle that brings glory to God and is therefore worthy of our calling: "Let him who steals steal no longer, but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with those who are in need."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams