First Glance: Ephesians 4:17-5:2

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He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)

Q110. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?

A. God forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.

But in God’s sight theft also includes

All scheming and swindling

In order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves,

Whether by force or means that appear legitimate,

Such as,

Inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume;

Fraudulent merchandising;

Counterfeit money;

Excessive interest;

Or any other means forbidden by God.

In addition God forbids all greed

And pointless squandering of his gifts.

Q111. What does God require of you in this commandment?

  1. That I do whatever I can

For my neighbor’s good,

That I treat others

As I would like them to treat me,

And that I work faithfully

So that I may share with those in need.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul urges this group of believers to take off their old way of life, with its habits and desires, and to put on Christ – the new self they have been given by grace. After his soaring language of grace and identity, Paul turns to some specific examples of how this new life should take root.

Those who cling to falsehood should turn toward truthfulness. Those who sin in their anger should not give the devil a foothold. Those who let unwholesome talk come from their lips should work to build up. And, interestingly, those who used to steal should work to have something to share with those in need.

In naming theft and declaring generosity to be its opposite, Paul is giving us a framework in which to understand the value of work. The thief does not work, but instead takes from those who do. It isn’t the laziness of the thief that is criticized here, but his selfishness. The godly person, the one who has ‘put on the new self’ is not simply a hard worker, though that is important. The reformed thief ‘must work, doing something useful with his hands.’ But what separates the one who is living in the old self from the person who has put on the new self is selfishness. What is work for? What is the purpose of hard work? Paul tells us the one who used to steal must work hard ‘that he may have something to share with those in need.’

The purpose of work in Christ is to share with those in need. There is a lot of sweat that goes into this, but the ultimate purpose of work is never to simply provide for your own family or to allow yourself better vacations or more financial security. It is ‘that he may have something to share with those in need.’

By explaining the purpose of work, I believe Paul is suggesting that those who work only for their own gain are no better than the thief. Both take and take, but never share. Instead, the call to good, hard work with your hands is a call to share what you have with others. It is a call to produce wealth in order to share with those who are in need. It is a call to turn away from the old, self-absorbed self toward the identity we have been given in Christ.

As the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, the commandment ‘thou shalt not steal’ requires active compassion and sharing. It means

“That I do whatever I can

For my neighbor’s good,

That I treat others

As I would like them to treat me,

And that I work faithfully

So that I may share with those in need.”

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