The mind is so important to the Christian. Solomon informs us that “as [a man] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). How we think influences how we live; belief affects behaviour. What is in our minds affects what comes out of our mouths; what we ponder gives direction to our path; our convictions are manifested in our conduct. These are truisms—and they are important ones.
The Scriptures exhort the Christian to not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1–2). But this counsel is not merely intended to change our behaviour, though this is important. No. Rather, God tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is only by such a renovation, by such a change of mind, that we will have a consistent change of life. We need to work our minds if we will change our lives. This is a looming principle in this passage (Ephesians 4:17–32). We must not lose sight of this. The Christian has undergone a profound transformation of mind and the expectation is that we will live like it. A renovated mind is a terrible thing to waste.
In the practical exhortations of vv. 25–32, we learn that the transformation of our minds leads to the expectation that we will mind our mouths (v. 25) and that we will mind our tempers (vv. 26-27). In the next verse (v. 28), we learn that we are to mind our business. That is, when it comes to earning a living, the Christian has a mind to work.
This is a very relevant matter, at any time, but perhaps most notably at this time of the year.
As we come to the end of another year, we look forward to a break from our regular labours. Many, in fact, are longing for a long break. And that is okay. Yet at the same time, this is a good opportunity to actually develop a biblical mind for work.
I think that far too many Christians view work as a curse, and the result is that they view their job as merely a means to get them to the next holiday. Related to this is the nonsensical, because unbiblical, view that our jobs are all about retirement. Far too many Christians think that life is all about getting to and then living for retirement. As John Piper pointed out years ago, to live for retirement is to waste your life.
The problem in all of this is that we have lost sight of the biblical doctrine of vocation. We have lost sight of what the Bible teaches regarding the importance of labour, the importance of work. Each of us is responsible for the business of work. But if we do not mind our business, if we do not appreciate the value of work, the losses can be tragic. For one thing, we will be tempted to steal.
It seems that some in the churches in the region of Ephesus had this problem. So, Paul hits it head on in one small and yet very powerful verse.
In this study, we will begin to expound and to apply this verse. May God the Holy Spirit grant us insight to help us to mind our business.
We are to set our minds on work; we are to set our minds to work. In other words, we must mind our business.
The verse is straightforward: The Christian is not steal, the Christian is to work, and the Christian is to share. But, like most truths in the Bible, there is a lot more here than meets the eye.
Paul writes, “Let him who stole steal no longer” (v. 28a). If we will properly understand the biblical teaching on work, on vocation, then we need to see its antithesis—thieving.
The phrase “let him who stole steal no longer” is in the active tense and so, more accurately, what Paul is saying is, “Let him who is stealing, stop stealing.”
Apparently, there were some kleptomaniacs in the church at Ephesus. Imagine that! So, Paul writes and tells them to stop it.
Does this seem strange? After all, Paul is writing to a church. Seriously, is this really a problem Apparently it was. And please don’t think that this was only an ancient problem. It remains a problem for Christians.
Let’s consider this problem—both its history and its relevance.
First, God told the first “church” to stop stealing.
The eighth commandment, revealed to Moses, pastor of Israel Baptist Church, reads, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). Among other reasons, this was an important rule for those who were living in such close quarters. It was God’s way of posting a hands off sign over people’s private property. In outlawing stealing, God was revealing the good principle of private ownership. This is an important principle for Christians to grasp.
God and Fidel Castro did not share the same worldview. God believes in the principle of private property, not socialistic collectivism. As Margarette Thatcher once said, the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money. (We will discuss this briefly later).
Regardless of what you think about socialism, the eighth commandment establishes the principle of private ownership. To the degree that this principle is not respected, a society goes into economic decline. Cuba serves well as Exhibit A.
Since the Ten Commandments are as relevant today as in any other day—since they are as binding as they have always been—this word in Ephesians is important. It is relevant. Christian, don’t take that which belongs to another.
Second, stealing was, in many parts of the ancient world, culturally acceptable. Salmond writes, “Stealing was not wholly condemned by ancient heathen people…. It was a vice into which the recently converted—living in the old pagan surroundings, especially when unemployed, might all too readily slip.”1
That is an interesting observation, especially in the light of the reality that most cultures today condemn thieving. Why is this? Could it be that the spread of the gospel has brought about this moral capital into the world? I think so.
When it comes to respecting the property of others, Christians, like those in Ephesus, need to be grounded in this truth. Stealing is a sin. Don’t do it. And if you are doing it, then stop doing it. Kleptomania sounds like a disease, but it is, in fact, an act of disobedience. It is not a sickness, it is a sin. So, Christian, put it off. We need to hear and to heed this.
Don’t take office supplies that you have not paid for nor for which you have no legal right. Don’t take your parents’ money off their dresser or out of their wallet. Don’t take money out of the offering basket. Don’t steal from petty cash. Don’t charge for hours that you did not work. On the other hand, be sure to work the hours for which you are being paid. Don’t pad your expense account. Don’t cook the books. Don’t be fraudulent with invoices. Don’t over charge or overprice. Don’t steal Bibles from the church! Don’t keep change that you were accidentally given at the store.
In summary, as one commentator has noted, “stealing … covers every kind of misappropriation. For the new man in Christ, all this must stop…. Hands that used to pilfer the property of others must now be hardened like Paul’s in honest toil (Acts 20:34–35).”2
Third, it is possible that Paul is addressing this matter because of those who were freeloading. Some members may have been abusing the generosity of the lavish love of the church. Acts 2:42–47 and 4:32–47 relate how wealthier members in the early church sacrificed to assist those who were poorer.
It is highly likely that many in the church at Ephesus had lost their source of income when they converted to Christ. Like many pagan cultures, the economy is directly connected to the dominant false religion. In their case, the worship of Artemas (Diana) was a huge money-maker for many (Acts 19:23–28). However, once converted, those who had been in the idolatrous business would no longer have an income. The church perhaps did what they did in Jerusalem: sacrificially gave to support one another materially. This was a wonderful thing, but it could lead to abuse. It could lead to a sloth cloaked in spirituality, as it did in Thessalonica (see 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15).
This problem is still with the church today. In some cases, it might arise because of a wrongheaded sense of entitlement.
Sometimes, Christians can adopt a mindset where they assume that they are entitled to financial support from the congregation. Of course, the church is supposed to come to the material aid of destitute Christians in one’s fellowship (Acts 6:1–7; Acts 11:27–30; Romans 15:25–27; Galatians 6:10). However, even here there are factors to be considered. Paul identifies some of these in places like 1 Timothy 5. There, he gives some ground rules for whom the church should prioritise in dispersing financial, material aid. Faithfulness and display of godly character is in the mix.
At the risk of becoming sidetracked, it is important that we address—albeit briefly—the matter of what some might call entitlement economics and what other would call socialism. This topic requires that we carefully listen to what Scripture says and that we do not jump to unwarranted conclusions.
Socialism (and communistic collectivism) is often presented as the solution for our world’s problems. This is particularly relevant in the light of the spotlight being on Cuba as well as the economic debate that is front and centre here in South Africa. What is a Christian response?
There are those who instantly respond that the Bible teaches free market capitalism. Does it? Or is that merely a reading of Scripture with a particular cultural lens? In many cases, it may be so.
It is hard for me to see in the Scriptures that the CEO of a bank should rake in millions of rands in annual salary while those who work for them as fulltime tellers make a pittance in comparison—not even enough for basic necessities. Don’t try to justify that from Scripture. You might want to argue that it is what it is. And indeed, it might be. But I don’t need to accept this as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Many Christians see nothing good about socialism. Many Christians would echo the sentiments of Winston Churchill, who famously said, “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”
Personally, I think that is a bit too strong. And here is why: Just look at the rest of our verse! Paul says that we are to labour, to work, in order that we “may have something to give him who has need.” I understand that this is not speaking about a social welfare system under the management of a government. Nevertheless, when you consider all parts of this verse, it is very clear that Paul recognises that there are some who will not work (and so they steal), and there are those who cannot work—or, they cannot work enough to earn enough to meet their own needs. Paul expects Christians to share what they have earned with them. As Boice puts it, “The poor must be helped by Christian people who work hard precisely so they will have something to give to those in need.”3 This is God’s design to provide for those who are in need. “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lends; and his descendants are blessed” (Psalm 37:25–26). Again, “He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and He will pay back what he has given” (Proverbs 19:17).
This sounds like a type of “socialism” to me. It is biblical or Christian socialism. In fact, this is love in action. John put it this way: “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). The straightforward answer to his question is, it doesn’t!
But, having said this, more needs to be said about socialism. No doubt, it is all too true that what passes for compassionate socialism is nothing but a smokescreen for sinful attitudes of envy and/or entitlement. This verse does not justify that. In fact, it does the opposite. It tells us not to steal. Unfortunately, so much of what is presented as socialism is, in fact, thieving. What South Africa needs is both compassionate wage payers and a biblical work ethic. This verse presents both. This is the Christian’s approach to the economy. This is the Christian approach to “redistribution.”
Fourth, stealing is often the result of a lack of work ethic. As Lloyd-Jones said, the idea of the thief is to have the maximum while doing the minimum! This is true sometimes even among Christians.
We will study this more closely under the next section, but let’s make a few observations here.
Some in the church at Ephesus may have been lazy freeloaders. Paul therefore implies, rather strongly, that such behaviour is tantamount to thieving. He therefore exhorts them to get off their backsides and go get a job.
Rather than making it their business to live off the hard work of others, Paul perhaps is enjoining them to mind their own business of getting down to the business of work. It is vital that we make the connection, which Paul does here, that the problem of stealing is very closely connected to this matter of having a mind to work. In fact, if we mind our business we won’t mind what others have. We will set our minds to work, not on that which others have acquired by their work.
If a person is not willing to work (I am not speaking of those who want to, but cannot, work) and yet they want to survive, and even to thrive, then apart from a major inheritance, stealing may look like their best option. Those without a proper work ethic are the most likely to be takers. Literally. Paul here puts several nails into that coffin of thinking.
If you do not have a biblical work ethic, then you will be tempted to steal by becoming a freeloader. Some members of the church at Thessalonica were like this. Some think that the problem was a faulty eschatology. They may have reasoned, “The Lord is coming soon, so why waste time working?” Recently, I heard a well-known pastor and Bible teacher say that, ultimately, the presidential elections in the United States did not matter because—and I quote—“we are on the Titanic, and it makes no sense to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.” Of course, if that is your view, I guess neither does it matter if you pilfer the gold candelabra since it’s all going to the bottom of the sea anyway! Whatever the reason for their aversion to work, Paul addressed it head on. Note two particularly pointed passages.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:10–12 Paul writes, “But we urge you, brethren …. that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.” Apparently, they continued to struggle with this problem, so he exhorted them again, in 2 Thessalonians 3:11–12, “For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread.”
It seems that some church members were stealing from other church members through the attitude, “You sweat and I’ll eat; you earn and I’ll spend.” Paul had already addressed this in person, as he reminds them in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” In short, “Work, don’t steal.”
We have only scratched the surface of this verse, yet I trust you are beginning to see that the doctrine of vocation is such an important one for the church to recover, and to reform, and to practice. It is vital that we learn, and that we teach one another, to mind your business. If we don’t, then we will be tempted to steal.
Behind stealing is a mindset about work that must be adjusted. If we understand the biblical teaching about work, about labour, about vocation, then we will increasingly despise the sin of stealing. The commandment prohibiting stealing is inseparable from the commandment to start working. A biblical understanding of work will in fact steel us against stealing. Let’s turn our attention to this matter of working.
Paul continues, “but rather let him labour, working with his hands what is good.” Though movies like Ocean’s 11 (and Ocean’s 12, and Ocean’s 13!) make stealing look glamorous, the real glamour in acquiring wealth is seen in sweat.
I wrote an article several years ago commending my father for the example that he was to me. I said that, when I think about him, I usually picture him sweating. That is still true. I was saying to my wife the other day, as I used my dad’s old shoe horn, that I remember giving it as a gift to him when I was about ten or twelve years old. I also remember using it a couple of years ago when he asked me to help him put his shoes on. That was a humbling and sweet experience, but also a sad one. My dad could no longer do the most basic of things. And yet for most of my life I watched my dad labour; I watched him work hard. I can hardly think of him without the mental picture of sweat dripping off the end of his nose.
My father worked as a businessman for IBM during the day, and often worked in the evenings as a house painter. When he wasn’t doing that, he was working on improving our home. My dad knew what it was, in Paul’s words, to labour, working with his hands what is good. I am grateful for that legacy. It has made it easier for me to avoid the temptation to steal. Sweat in labour is a good sin repellent.
“Labour” is an intense word. It means to work to the point of exhaustion. It speaks of toiling (Luke 5:5); of being fatigued, even of being wearied (John 4:6). The word drips with perspiration. It was used by Paul numerous times, both regarding him labouring with his hands as a tentmaker (Acts 20:34–35; 1 Corinthians 4:12), and to describe his labours in his ministry (1 Corinthians 15:10; Colossians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 4:10; 5:17, etc.).
Not Much but All
I recently told a young man preparing for the ministry that some of the best counsel I ever received as I entered vocational ministry was a sentence in a book by A. W. Tozer. Tozer simply wrote, “It does not take much of a man to be a man of God; but it does take all of him.” Those who will be faithfully productive in ministry will be tired—very tired at times. A man who is not committed to working hard, to the point of weariness, will not be biblically productive in ministry. Fatigue, even exhaustion, is just part and parcel of the life of the minister. But equally, so it is for any godly person regardless of his or her vocation.
God expects men, in particular, to live to labour not to live to languish in laziness. God expects for us to work, and to work hard.
Reformation of Retirement
My dad did not waste his retirement. He did not live for retirement. My dad served the Lord. He took seriously the proverbial exhortation, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiasts 9:10).
In other words, my dad did not steal from God. He did not see his time as his own. He saw himself as a steward of the time that God had given to him. And so, he used it for His kingdom. Would to God that we would see such a reformation in our churches—a reformation of retirement; a reformation where those who retire simply retread for a meaningful, Christ-centred road ahead.
Work as a Gift, Not as a Grief
We need to understand that work is not the result of the fall. Adam and Eve were given work before sin entered the world. They were to tend the Garden and to work out from there to subdue the creation. They were to labour in their exercise of dominion.
What did change at the fall was that sweat would fall from the brow as there would be greater obstacles to fruitfulness. Work continued to be a gift from God, but it was now a gift that would require more effort to enjoy (Genesis 3:17–19).
The point is clear: We are to sweat to earn an income; we are not to steal.
The next phrase is important as Paul drives home that we are called to a life of “working with our hands that which is good” (“doing honest work,” as per the ESV). A few observations are important.
First, we are to be “working.” The word implies productivity. It is used in various texts in various ways, but primarily it is a marketplace word. It is even translated as “trade” in Matthew 25:16. It is used by Jesus to speak of His activities (John 5:17). It is used to describe the work of Aquila and Priscilla who, like Paul, were tentmakers (Acts 18:13). Paul uses the word to describe whatever employees “do” (Colossians 3:23). Paul is making it clear that Christians are to be vocational. They are to work!
Second, we are called to apply effort in work. We see this in the phrase, “working with [our] hands.” This is not implying that the only labour that is worthy is manual labour. The point that Paul seems to be emphasising is that the Christian is to reject laziness. Keep in mind that Paul wrote these words with calloused hands. On more than one occasion he said that he had used his hands to provide for his own needs (Acts 20:34; 1 Corinthians 4:12). We are to work—hard!
Finally, our labours are to be in “what is good.” In other words, not all work is honourable. Not all jobs are commendable. We are indeed to mind our business, but our business must be wholesome.
I am not speaking of your particular type of work as far as skill or position. What Paul is concerned about is work that God sanctions. Working in a drug den might require labour, but it is hardly good. Working in an industry that takes advantage of clients is technically work, but cannot be called good. Manufacturing products that you know are faulty or even dangerous may require a lot of sweat, but it is not “what is good.” These believers in Ephesus may in fact have been employed in the idol industry that was so lucrative in Ephesus. They could no longer do that, for it could not be considered “what is good.” The Christian is called to labour and to work in tasks and in industries of which God approves.
We are not to steal but we are to sweat. But why? Paul tells us in the closing phrase.
The believer is to sweat so “that he might have something to give him who has need.” There are several reasons why we are to mind our business and labour and work. Paul identifies one of the major reasons as he closes this exhortation.
The person who was accustomed to stealing in his old life is to put that away. But as we have been learning, we must replace the bad with the good. So here. John Stott helpfully summarises, “Instead of sponging on the community, as thieves do, he will start contributing to it. And none but Christ can transform a burglar into a benefactor!”4 The new man has been created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness (v. 24). Therefore, we will reflect what God is like. He is truthful (v. 25), He is righteous in His anger (vv. 26–27), and He works and is giving (v. 28). God created this world and sustains His creation. He is at work in the world (see John 5:17), providing and sustaining it. He shares. So should we. This is a primary reason that we are called to labour and to work what is good with our hands. We are to mind our business to profit others.
Those who have received the greatest and most undeserved of gifts are called to emulate God and to give to others. Rather than like the thief, who is self-absorbed, we are to think of others and to be committed to their profit.
As mentioned earlier, clearly not everyone has the same economic privileges, or the same financial, material advantages of others. But that is where minding our business comes in. In a real sense, we are called to mind our business, and to be concerned about the business of those who cannot mind theirs!
Again, I reference my own father as an example of this. Things were often financially tight as I grew up, and for that reason my dad did extra work to pay the bills. But he also shared with those who were in need. I learned about sacrificial giving from my father—and mother. They exemplified this verse. My widowed mother still does so.
So much can be said about this, and in future studies we will do so. But as we wrap this up, let me make some pertinent comments.
First, we must see the principle that God gives to us in order to eventually give through us. Yes, He gives to us to meet our needs. And above that, we are to think of others. One indication of a renewed heart and mind through the gospel is how we view our possessions. Are we willing to part with them? Are we willing to use them to help those who, as Paul highlights, are in need?
Perhaps you anticipate a salary increase in the new year, or a Christmas bonus imminently. Perhaps you are anticipating the growth of your investments. What will you do with the extra God gives? Will you use it selfishly on yourself, or will you use it to be a blessing to others?
I don’t have a formula to suggest what to do with your disposable income. But I doubt that God intends for you to dispose it purely upon yourself. There are needs in the body of Christ. There is a world without the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it will take money to get it there. It will take your money, and mine.
Second, and related to the above, enjoy your holidays, but don’t live for them. In other words, mind your business more than your leisure.
God gives us business; He gives us work. Thankfully, He also gives us breaks; He gives us weekends, and even weeks, to relax and to rest. But sadly, many Christians are not wise with these blessings. They in fact abuse these gifts. They live for them, they constantly talk about them. And they go on holiday every chance they get. They go away, and they go away, and they go away, and they stay away—far more than what is good for them; and far more than what is good for their church.
This is not why God gives us so much extra income. I cannot, and I will not, prescribe how often you should be spending your money on leisure and holidays. That is between each of us and our God. But what I simply want to exhort is that we give serious thought to whether we are being good stewards of the incomes God has provided. Sharing must take priority over either hoarding and/or wasting.
As we close, let us consider the primary principle undergirding this verse—namely, the relationship between work and worship. We are to approach the matter of labour/work with a mind that is intent on honouring God in all that we do.
Since God has given to us so great salvation by giving us to His Son, who then gave Himself for us, we should be moved to give our ourselves to God. And, according to this verse, one way that we do this is by giving ourselves in labour that we might have something to give to those who are in need. That is gospel-driven living. Paul put it this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Brothers and sisters, let us no longer steal, but rather let us labour, working with our hands what is good that we might have to give to those who are in need. In other words, as we consider God’s Word, let us mind our business.
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:346. ↩
- A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:65. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 169. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 188. ↩