The Lord's Day Morning
May 14, 2006
“Stealing and Work, and the Glory of God”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. As you take your Bibles and turn with me to Ephesians 4, I want to say I've had a number of very encouraging conversations during the course of this week. In fact, this study in this book, this chapter of Ephesians, has provoked more discussion with members of the congregation than any series I can remember in some time now. People have been deeply affected by working through this, and I'm appreciative of that, your sharing with me your thoughts and your input and your questions. It's been very, very uplifting and encouraging to me.
And today we come to yet another one of these specific exhortations, and we may think that whereas truth-telling and anger management are issues that are right up our alley, and that the Apostle Paul is stepping all over our toes, we may well think in this congregation, “Well, stealing — that's not a problem for me. Whew! I can take a breather this week, because Paul really isn't going to have me in his bull's eye.” Well, think again, my friends, because the commandments of God are exceeding broad and very deep, and we will find together as we study God's word today that Paul has a word for us even about stealing. Even if we aren't petty thieves, Paul has a word for us.
So before we read God's word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord, this is Your word, and we know that it is given by inspiration. Every word of it is inspired. Every word of it is authoritative. Every word is applicable. Every word is profitable for our reproof and correction, and training in righteousness, that we might be equipped for every good work. So because this is Your word, work in our hearts an understanding of it, an embrace of it. Enlighten our eyes to behold wonderful truth in your word, and we’ll give you the praise and glory. And we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“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 him who has need.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
There are several things we need to say about this passage, just to make sure we understand what Paul is doing. The first thing we need to say is Paul is not telling us here how to become a Christian. He is not saying that the way to become a Christian is to stop lying and to start telling the truth. He's not saying that the way to become a Christian is to gain control of our sinful anger and to govern our expression of anger in a godly way. He's not saying the way to become a Christian is to stop stealing and start being an honest person. Paul is not teaching self-salvation here.
No, Paul has very clearly for four chapters explained to us that only God can change a person's heart; only God can make a Christian. And you know, John and Peter and Paul and the New Testament writers have striking ways that they illustrate to us how it is that God dramatically, by His grace, changes human hearts. John will say becoming a Christian is precisely like God causing you to be born again. John will speak of becoming a Christian as “the new birth.” It's something you can't do. Only God can grant that new birth.
Paul, in Romans, will speak about becoming a Christian as a “resurrection,” God raising us from the dead with Jesus Christ. We can't raise ourselves from the dead; the dead can't raise themselves; only the power of God can raise us from the dead. It's another way for Paul, just like John, to stress the power of God that has to be at work in our salvation. Or, Paul, in the passage we're studying here and back in verse 17 and following, will talk about becoming a Christian as God causing us to “die to the old man” — to our old self, to the sinful self — and to be raised again to newness of life, to be made a new creation: putting off the old self, putting on the new. That's something that only God can do.
And so Paul is not giving us a list of things that we have to do in order to become a Christian. No, Paul is speaking to those whom God has already granted the new birth, whom God has already raised again from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ, whom God has already put off the old nature, the old sinful self, and put on the new creation, the new self raised to life in Christ. He's speaking to Christians. He's speaking to those who have been changed from the inside out by the gracious power of God, and he's saying to them ‘This is how a Christian lives.’
It's very important for us to understand that. Paul is not giving a list of things — do this, do this, do this, and then you’ll be saved. No, he's saying God has changed you, God has saved you by His grace, and this is how someone whose life has been saved by God and God's grace lives.
The second thing we need to say as we come to this passage is Paul is not reducing the Christian to merely a list of do's and don'ts. This is not some school teacher with a list of 534 things that you can't do in his or her classroom. No. The Apostle Paul is telling us what life is to be like in the family of God. This is so important for us to understand. Law, in the Bible, in the first place (the commands of God in the Bible, in the first place) is family instruction. It is how we are to live together in the family of God.
Picture this scene:
There is a young person — 10, 11, 12 years old. That young person comes from a foreign culture, and that young person has never been exposed to the privileges or to the standards of life within your family. In your mercy, you and your wife adopt this young person into your family. They don't know how your family operates, they don't know what the family standards are, the family goals are, the family attitudes, the way the family thinks. And as they are incorporated, as this young person is incorporated into your family, one of the things Father and Mother are concerned to do is to say, “This is how we live in our household. These are the things we believe in our household. These are the things we don't do in our household. These are the things that we do in our household.” In other words, you are inculcating in that young person the values, the standards, the attitudes, the goals, the life of your family. It's a gracious thing. It's a wonderful thing, especially if this child is being brought from a place of underprivilege without those glorious biblical standards.
And that's what the Apostle Paul is doing. Remember, he's got a mixed congregation of Jewish believers and Gentile believers, and those Gentile believers, unlike those Jewish believers, have not had the privilege of being reared in homes where the word of God was read and taught. They don't know how the family of God is supposed to act. The Jewish believers had been raised on the Bible from the days of their youth, but the Gentile believers had come out of paganism. They needed to be taught how the family of God lives together, and that's what Paul is doing here. And it's no less relevant to us today than it was to the Ephesians, because God is bringing to Himself men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation — and let me tell you, the culture isn't helping us out there learning how to live as the family of God. People don't come to faith in Christ having been taught by the culture how Christians live distinctively. No, the culture is doing everything that it can to run down the standards of morality set forth in the word of God, and so the Apostle Paul is saying here are our standards as the family of God. This is how we live together as God's family.
It's so important for us to understand that. Yes, Paul has do's and don'ts here, but those do's and don'ts are in the context of grace, they’re in the context of God's redeeming work which He has accomplished by His own power, and they are in the context of being brought into God's family and being told lovingly by God: ‘This is how My children live. This is what My children believe. This is what My children don't do; this is what My children do.’ It's in this context of this beautiful work of God's creating His own family out of those who were once His enemies, out of those who once marched to the beat of their own drum, headed straight to destruction. And He brings them graciously into His family and says ‘This is how we live together.’
Now, of course, the third thing we need to say is that Paul is saying this because it is vital to our witness to the world. The Apostle Paul knows that the witness of the power of God in the gospel to the world will in large measure be judged by the world on the basis of how we live as Christians. In other words, God's plan for showing the world the power of grace — are you ready? — is you, living together in the church, loving one another, caring for one another, forbearing with one another, being the family of God together, and being different from the world. And the Apostle Paul knows that the major objection that the world has to our proclamation of the gospel is this: When the world looks at us and says, “You know what? Thank you for this message about the power of grace. It's really nice. You are no different from me; so, why in the world should I be interested in this message that you have?”
The Apostle Paul knows that our witness in our lives together in the church is either an irrefutable testimony to the world that God's grace is at work in us, or it is a stumbling block to the proclamation of the gospel. And so he's saying to these Ephesian Christians ‘Look, you've got to be different from the world, from the culture, from the city around you, if you’re going to be able to bear witness to the grace of Christ.’
The fourth thing we need to say is that the Apostle Paul is especially concerned that we live these ways, that we do these particular things, because in them we glorify God, and through them we promote the unity of the family, which glorifies God and bears witness to the world.
In other words, Paul is in a long section here in which he has exhorted us to live together as Christians, and he's getting specific with us because he knows these things. And he could have talked about other things, but he knows these things are absolutely vital to our really being a family.
You know, one of the things that struck me, as I was reviewing these six specific illustrations that he gives, is how many of them have to do with the mouth — with our speech — and how quickly our speech can bring either dissention and division or can promote unity in a family, or in a body. But Paul zeroes in on these things because these things will either detract from the unity of God's family, or, they will contribute to the unity of God's family. And so for all these reasons, Paul is going through this list in which he says don't do this, do this; don't do this, do this. And he's not being a legalist. Far from it. No, the Apostle Paul is teaching us gospel logic, the logic of grace. When God's grace is at work in your life, here's how it looks in the way we live.
So, with that, let's look at three things together in this passage today. I want you to see first the negative part, the prohibition. Here's what Paul is saying don't do. Then, I want you to see his exhortation. Here's the command; here's the positive part: don't do this, but do this. Then, thirdly, I want you to see the transformation. There's a prohibition, there's an exhortation, and there's a transformation. In other words, there's something that underlies our ability not to do what's wrong and instead to do what's right. I want to look at those three things with you today.
I. Stop getting for yourself by taking what is not yours (28a) [The Prohibition]
First, let's look at the prohibition. You see it in the very first words of verse 28: “He who steals must steal no longer.” In other words, Paul is saying stop getting for yourself by taking what is not yours. It's a prohibition against getting for ourselves by taking what is not ours. He who steals must steal no longer.
Now, probably, in this congregation in Ephesus, there were those who had committed petty larceny before they were converted, and they were being tempted to continue doing that even though they had been converted to Jesus Christ. Many of them were perhaps from the slave or servant classes in Ephesus and would have been tempted to skive off of their masters.
We see these kinds of things even in our own day. My mother-in-law had a dear lady from the Middle East who was a very, very hard worker, who would help her a couple of days a week, just to help keep the house straight or to prepare for entertainment in the home, and this woman's husband lost his job, and lost his health insurance. Then my mother-in-law began to notice things go missing around the house, valuable things: jewelry and money and things. And finally she confronted this woman and the woman admitted that she had taken this from her, and she began to explain all the difficulties at home. And my mother-in-law said, “Look, if you had just told me about these things I would have done everything I could to have helped you. But I can't trust you anymore.”
So we know this kind of petty theft that goes on around us. We see it all the time, and perhaps we ourselves have committed this sort of sin. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘No! Stop doing this kind of thing! It robs glory from God and harms our witness to the gospel, and it actually divides the body and breaks its unity.’
If you haven't committed that kind of petty theft lately, or have forgotten that you have, or haven't realized that you have, let me just tell you, friends: this command is broader than you think. It applies to you. John Stott says
“ ‘Do not steal’ was the eighth commandment of Moses’ Law. It had, and still has, a wide application…not only the stealing of other people's money or possessions, but also to tax evasion; to employers who take advantage of their workers; and to employees who give poor service, or who work short time in relation to their employers.”
No, this command is very broad. Any unlawful and unethical acquisition of wealth and property, any defrauding of our neighbor, is a violation of this exhortation from Paul. Any indulgence of habits that tend to impoverish ourselves or others is a violation of God's will. Income tax evasion is an unlawful defrauding of our responsibility to God and government. Frivolous uses of wealth — gambling, excessive consumer debt, negligent payment of bills — all of these things violate this command of God.
Some of you are golf advocates, and love to play golf and read about golf. I don't know much about golf, but I read enough about golf and sports in general to know the story of John Daley. Isn't it a sad story – the guy with incredible talent, who struggled both with alcohol and with gambling, and has gambled away literally millions of dollars playing $5,000-a-pull slot machines in Las Vegas? He played against Tiger Woods and lost a playoff, and won $750,000 just a few months ago, and went to Las Vegas on a plane as soon as the tournament was over and gambled away $1.5 million dollars. All of that is a violation of exactly what Paul is speaking of here.
Taking advantage of those who are less fortunate than us, unfair dealings with the poor — all of these things are a violation of this command. It's an exceedingly broad command. It's even applicable to things beyond the property and the material resources and money of other people. It applies to our usage of what God has given to us. What do we have that God has not given us? Every talent, every ability, belongs to God. When we do not use it for His glory, we are robbing from Him, so the Apostle's word isn't just for former petty thieves in Ephesus, it's for folks at First Presbyterian Church, for you and me. And he is saying to us, “He who steals must steal no longer.”
And I want to say that it's important to realize what this sin reveals about the human heart. Most of us in our setting, when we commit this sin, do so because of selfishness and because of a sense of entitlement.
Now, if we were in the third world somewhere where our families were in desperate need, there might be other things that would drive you to steal; but for us, for most of us, it's selfishness and a sense of entitlement. We just think that we are entitled to better our own condition at the expense of others, because we're selfish, we're self-centered, and we're self-focused.
But sometimes theft is done just for the pure malice of it. Young people, have you ever taken something that wasn't yours just for the sheer fun of it? Do you know that that is the sin that God used to show Augustine the wickedness of his heart? When he was a little boy, he tells us, he went down to a marketplace where a man was selling fruit, and he stole pears with his friends. And the interesting thing that Augustine tells us is…he didn't even like pears. He stole the pears and he threw them away. He didn't want to eat them. He didn't need them. He just stole the pears because he wanted to. The sheer malice of his own heart…and in God's grace and in God's time, God showed him ‘Augustine, the fact that you would do that when you didn't need to (and you didn't even want the pear!) shows you that you need the grace of God to change your heart.’
So, my friends, if you’re struggling with any kind of stealing, whether anyone else knows it or not, take care to note what that teaches about your heart. It always pushes us back to our need of grace, doesn't it? God's grace, to change our hearts.
There's the prohibition: “He who steals must steal no longer.”
II. Start doing good honest work (28b) [The Exhortation]
But here's the exhortation. Paul never tells you to stop doing something without telling you to replace that ungodly behavior with a godly behavior. Notice what he says, again in verse 28:
“But rather he must labor, performing with his own hand what is good….”
So Paul says stop getting for yourself by taking what is not yours: start doing good honest work. There is Paul's positive command. Paul's approach to sin is never to say merely, “Stop it,” but to replace it with a corresponding godly pattern of living. The Apostle Paul knows that when you’re fighting temptation in one direction “stop it” does not replace that tendency to sin with a correspond ending tendency to righteousness that really leads to lasting change in your life, and so he always says not only “don't do that,” but positively, in its place, “this is the direction that you ought to be going,” so that this becomes natural to you, not the sin. And so he says, in contrast to taking what is not ours, to start doing good, honest, work.
Again, he's not telling you there how to become a Christian. No, as John Stott says, only Christ can turn a burglar into a benefactor. Only the grace of God in Christ can change a burglar into an honest man. But Paul is saying to Christians who have been changed by the grace of Christ ‘Don't live in accordance with your old habits. Don't be like the world.’
You know, one of the real shames that we hear all the time in the business world is ‘Boy, I sure don't want to do business with a Christian. Somebody puts that little fish on their advertisement in the Yellow Pages — that's the last person I want to deal with. Somebody makes a big noise about being a Christian, I don't want to deal with them, because they’re dishonest.’ That besmirches the testimony of the grace of God, and it should not be so.
Paul is saying ‘Christian, we must be known for our honesty, for our doing what is right, in all our transactions regarding other people's persons and property, and possessions and money. We must do good honest work.’
III. Become a philanthropist, by giving of what you've earned to help those who are in need (28c) [The Transformation]
But Paul doesn't stop there. Paul doesn't just say ‘Stop stealing; start working.’ He tells you what is to underlie the change in that selfish, self-centered, sense of entitlement that underlies most stealing, and the work ethic of good honest labor in providing for your family and for yourself. And notice how he puts it at the end of verse 28. He's to
“…labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with the one who has need.”
You see, the Apostle Paul says there's a transformation in the Christian's understanding of how he or she fits in this world and what we're here for. The Apostle Paul is giving us the logic underneath his command to stop stealing and to start doing honest work. He's telling us here that we need to stop viewing ourselves as the center of the world; that we're to stop viewing ourselves as entitled, and we're to start doing our work as a means to bless others; that God has given us our ability to work and to return from our work not only to provide appropriately for ourselves and our families, but so that we can provide for others. It's not only that we're not to take from others what belongs to them: it is that we are to take from what God has provided for us, for ourselves and our families, and give it to others who are in need.
It's a total reversal of the attitude of theft, which sees one's self as the center of the universe — I'm entitled to better my condition, no matter what it means to somebody else, and therefore I can take other people's money or possessions. It's an entire transformation. Now I view myself not as entitled, but as responsible. Now I am not the center of the world, God is the center of the world. I'm His servant giving myself for His glory and for others’ good. Now I'm not looking to take what is not mine for my own benefit, I'm looking to give what is mine for somebody else's benefit. It's a radical transformation!
In other words, Paul is saying ‘Thief, become a philanthropist!’ It's a radical change! Become a philanthropist by giving of what you've earned to help those who are in need. You see, the root of the sin of stealing is that sense of entitlement, that selfishness in which we are focused simply on what we want and need. And the gospel rejoinder to that is not simply to say ‘Stop it. Don't do that’; it's to say ‘Look, when you are saved by grace, one of the things you are saved from is this morbid focus on yourself alone. You are set free to be able to give yourself away in service to others.’ And so the Apostle Paul says instead of that sense of entitlement, have a sense of responsibility and privilege in how we get to bless others.
And you know the Apostle Paul himself provided such a good example of that. On at least two occasions, he told churches, look, I have every right to draw my income, my living, my earning, from the work of the gospel. And he goes out of his way to instruct the church in Ephesus, for instance, in the Book of I Timothy, about how they are to provide for those who work for the gospel. But he himself continued to be bi-vocational. Why?
One, he wants to show the churches that he's not in it for the money. He's not into the work of the gospel in order to enrich himself. Two, he wants to give an example to them of the attitude they ought to have: ‘Lord, everything that you give me, I want to use it to bless others.’ And so, the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of using what he earns to bless others.
Furthermore, he's a wonderful example about concern for the poor. Here he is in Ephesus, and all over Asia Minor he's witnessing to Gentiles as he's bringing them to faith in Christ, and then what's the first thing he asks them to do? He says ‘You know what? I wouldn't be here preaching the gospel today if there hadn't been brave Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem. Well, let me tell you, they’re in hard times, and they need your help. And I'm going to take up an offering to go back and help them. Won't you give?’ And he’ll ask the Thessalonians, and he’ll ask the Ephesians, and he’ll ask people all over Macedonia: ‘Won't you give to help those Christians in need?’ And so he encourages them to get out of the mindset that ‘everything that I earn is for my enjoyment,’ and to get into the mindset that ‘what I am given is to meet the needs of myself and my family, and then to be able to give to others.’ And the Apostle Paul is calling on the thief to become a philanthropist. He's showing us how we live out the gospel in this particular area.
Many of you have studied, perhaps, over the last weeks, months, or years, material by Dave Ramsey or by Crown Ministries, or some other Christian financial group that is trying to get you to look at money and possessions and finances from a biblical position. That's a good thing, to think biblically about that. But let me say that it's so much more important than simply getting hold of consumer debt and getting your own affairs under control so that you can retire at 57. There's a much more radical call from the Apostle Paul, and that is, the Lord has given you tremendous material blessings. Are you using those material blessings for the blessing of those who are in need, whether they’re in need for the gospel or whether they’re in material need?
And, my friends, given that we live in a congregation and serve and work in a congregation that is among the wealthiest congregations in the history of the world — we're in the 99.9 percentile of Christian churches in the history of the world — and we happen to be living, despite all our bellyaching, in the wealthiest economy in the history of the world right now. There's never been an economy like this. (Now, to stand around the water cooler, you wouldn't know that sometimes! We’re singing the blues…don't have quite enough to make ends meet.) But friends, we are in the most prosperous economy, the strongest, most powerful economy, in the history of the world, ever, period. Nowhere else has it ever been like this. That means that this is a huge obligation for us as a congregation. This is a real challenge for us. Are we robbing God? Are we giving like we ought? I don't think we're scratched the surface of our potential in this regard. Make this a matter of prayer as you go before the Lord, to see if the Lord would test your heart and see if you have become the kind of Christian who is concerned to use the blessings of God and the privilege of serving the needs of others for the glory of God and the unity of the body.
Let's look to Him in prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for this Your word. We ask that You would enable us to see our sin, to see the grace of our Savior, and to live that grace out in gospel lives of joyous service. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.