For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. (3:10)
To the missionaries’ example, Paul added a pointed command. The divinely revealed, authoritative, axiomatic truth that those who are not willing to work are not to eat was not new to the saints. Ignorance was not their problem, for even when the missionaries were with them, they used to give them that order. Paul had also discussed this issue in his first epistle (4:11; 5:14). His point is simple: if people get hungry enough, they will work to get food. As Solomon put it, “A worker’s appetite works for him, for his hunger urges him on” (Prov. 16:26). Believers who have the opportunity and the ability to work for their own food are to do so. Those who do not are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8).
It is important to note that Paul addresses here the issue of those not willing to work, not those unable to work. Both individual believers and the church as a whole have a responsibility to care for the poor (Matt. 6:2, 3; Gal. 2:10; 1 Tim. 5:4; Heb. 13:16; James 2:15–16; 1 John 3:17). But neither the world nor the church owes a living to those too lazy to work. We are used to “entitlements” in our society. This is the idea that those who will not work hard are entitled to be paid money taken from those who do. The results of the welfare culture are visible for all to see—family breakups, immorality, crime, hopelessness, meaninglessness, and bitterness.
10 Paul reinforces his example by this command. From a very early time, denying food to the lazy was a traditional form of discipline in the church (see Ge 3:19).
3:10 / Not only did the missionaries model how the Thessalonians should conduct themselves in this matter of self-support, but they instructed them to the same effect and, judging by the tense of the verb (imperfect), they did so repeatedly. The sense of the Greek is: “we also (a better translation of kai than niv’s even, meaning in addition to their example) used to command you” (parangellō, cf. 3:6 and see disc. on 1 Thess. 4:11). That command is repeated using their original words (the Greek hoti is recitative, the equivalent of quotation marks in English): “If a man (tis could be either a man or a woman, although the reference is undoubtedly to men) will not work, he shall not eat.” The present imperative, he shall not eat, expresses a general rule. Exceptions, of course, can always be made. The words have about them the ring of a proverbial saying which, if proverbial in origin, may go back to Genesis 3:19 (cf. Gen. Rab. 2.2 on Genesis 1:2). But some suppose that it was a Greek proverb. Or it may have been a maxim coined by Paul himself. At all events, the apostle sees this saying now as indicating God’s will for his people. Strikingly, however, what is condemned is not worklessness but the unwillingness to work. The verb thelō implies a deliberate choice, a conscious decision not to work (see disc. on 1 Thess. 5:14). “It is an impossible exegesis which argues (from this text) that all poverty is self-willed, a product of a welfare mentality which should be countered not with food stamps but denial of support. The implication in the letters is that these disruptive persons were perfectly capable of supporting themselves but refused to accept that responsibility, busying themselves instead by meddling in other persons’ affairs, compounding the problems they were creating” (Saunders). An implication of the rule laid down in this verse, which lay beyond Paul’s interest, is that the ability to earn one’s living is an important factor in human well-being. We should understand, then, how demoralizing unemployment is for those unable to work. For the conscious recollection of what was said when we were with you, cf. 2:5 and 1 Thessalonians 3:4.
3:10. While Paul, Silas, and Timothy were in Thessalonica, they must have seen indications that this lazy attitude and lifestyle posed a problem. Even then they had instructed them, If a man will not work, he shall not eat. The apostle had given them this rule face-to-face. Now, because they had neglected following it, he repeated the command.
The command did not apply to those who could not work for some debilitating reason, but to those who “will not work.” Paul directed his disdain toward those who sponge off others, whatever their stated reasons—misguided asceticism, work beneath their ability or desire, or too busy. Paul’s point was that no one within the Christian community should presume upon the charity of others, nor should they shrink from work. Every person was responsible to provide for himself and his family. For those capable of work, any other course was wrong.
10. The Thessalonian “irregulars” could not excuse their conduct by saying, “You never taught us any different.” They knew the way, because the missionaries:
- had given them an example of unselfish devotion (verses 7, 8, 9)
- had also (note καί at the beginning of verse 10) given them a definite precept, namely, “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat” (verse 10).
Hence, the conjunction for in verse 10 really refers back to verse 7, the thought being, “You yourselves know … for when we were with you (in addition to teaching you by means of example) this we used to command you,” etc. In a sense this for refers all the way back to verse 6: “the tradition which you received from us.”
For also when we were with you, this we used to command you, If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat. No true parallel to this word of Paul has been found anywhere else. A maxim such as, “If they do not work, they have nothing to eat,” is no parallel. That is a mere truism, an axiom so obvious to all except the rich that its very expression seems a bit superfluous. But what Paul had been saying again and again while in Thessalonica, and what he reaffirms here, is something else. It concerns the pious (?) sluggard who does not want to work, and who proceeds from the idea: “The church owes me a living.” Substitute “world” or “government” for “church” and the passage would fit many people living today, both inside and outside the church!
The command which Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was constantly issuing was this, “Do not permit such a person to eat,” that is, “Do not supply his material needs.” If he refuses to work, let him go hungry. That may teach him a lesson.
Paul keeps perfect balance. While, on the one hand his heart goes out to those who are really in need, and he is the kind of a man who is even willing to undertake a missionary journey that will have as one of its purposes the energetic promotion of a collection for the needy saints in Judea (see II Cor., Chapters 8 and 9; cf. Rom. 15:26–29; Gal. 2:10), on the other hand he has no sympathy whatever with the attitude of people who refuse to do an honest day’s work. It is necessary to grasp the deep root of this labor-philosophy. As we see it, the apostle is not (at least not merely) “borrowing a bit of good old workshop morality, a maxim applied no doubt hundreds of times by industrious workmen as they forbade a lazy apprentice to sit down for dinner,” but is proceeding from the idea that, in imitation of Christ’s example of self-sacrificing love for his own, those who were saved by grace should become so unselfish that they will loathe the very idea of unnecessarily becoming a burden to their brothers, and, on the other hand, that they will yearn for the opportunity to share what they have with those who are really in need. While it is certainly true that every man in whom any sense of justice is left will assent to the justice and wisdom of the maxim here expressed (“If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat”), it is nevertheless also true that for the believer this maxim has added force, for selfishness and the truly Christian life are direct opposites.
3:10 The Thessalonians had already been commanded not to support shirkers. If an able-bodied Christian refused to work, neither should he eat. Does this conflict with the fact that believers should always be kind? Not at all! It is not a kindness to encourage laziness. Spurgeon says, “The truest love to those who err is not to fraternize with them in their error but to be faithful to Jesus in all things.”
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 2 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 482). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Larson, K. (2000). I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Vol. 9, p. 128). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2059). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.