There are a couple of things that immediately strike me as I consider this passage. The first is that the gospel is powerful enough to take those who once were thieves and to make them members of the church. Think about the kind of person you associate with robbers. These are members of the criminal classes, people who have very little, if any, respect for their fellow man. And yet, the apostle is addressing people in the church at Ephesus who once participated in that kind of life. As John Stott so aptly put it, “none but Christ can transform a burglar into a benefactor!” And Christ does this. He takes people from the darkest parts of society and remakes them into new men and women. He takes people who took from others and recreates them into people who now give to the very people from whom they once stole. I’ve seen elephants and lions, constrained by thirst, drink from the same pool of water. There is an uneasy truce, as they eye each other while they sip up the water. Some things can bring even enemies together in this world. But the gospel does more than this: it takes wolves and lambs and causes them to lie down with each other in mutual friendship. It takes enemies and turns them into brothers and sisters in Christ.
We need to remind ourselves of the power of the gospel. It is so easy to look at people and to think they it would just be impossible for them to be converted. We lose heart and fail to bear witness to the gospel because we don’t believe that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. We need to remember that our own conversion is just as impossible as that of anybody else. Do you remember what our Lord said to the apostles after the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus’ call to come follow him? “Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23-24). The apostles, we are told, were astonished at our Lord’s indictment. To them, this man was the paragon of virtue. How could he be lost? They asked, “Who then can be saved?” (ver. 25), to which our Lord responded: “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (ver. 26). Salvation is an impossible thing, humanly speaking. We cannot save ourselves. But God can save anyone. That includes the person you think would never listen to or receive the gospel.
Now suppose someone was once a criminal and then came to Christ and wanted to join your church. Would you be okay with them being a part of the church? Would you mind sharing the same pew with them? It’s one thing to subscribe to the power of the gospel on a theoretical level; it’s another thing to put it into practice. I’m not saying we just accept a profession of faith without evidence of genuine conversion (we shouldn’t), but neither should we always be looking out the corner of our eyes at other Christians who have a different set of life experiences.
But there is another thing that strikes me as I consider this verse. It is that sanctification is a process. Yes, the gospel is powerful, but that does not mean that conversion does away with every vestige of sin this side of heaven. Paul, writing to a church, puts in this exhortation, “Let him that stole steal no more.” Now, I don’t think this means there were a bunch of people in that church who were shoplifting every time they went to the marketplace. But I do think it means there were people in that church for whom stealing had been a lifestyle before their conversion. Their conversion had been real, but it didn’t erase their previous lifestyle from their memories. And some might be tempted from time to time to go back to that lifestyle, and so Paul writes this verse in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.
Now there are some things that you just can’t do as a matter of lifestyle and be saved. Theft is one of these. In another place, the apostle writes, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioner, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). You see that “thieves” is a part of this list. If that describes who you are, you are not saved, and if you continue in this lifestyle, you will not inherit the kingdom of God. But this does not mean that once you are saved out of these lifestyles, you will never be tempted to go back. It may happen that way for some; it is certainly not that way for most of us. We will struggle with sin until our dying day.
And that means we need to be careful about avoiding these two extremes. One extreme is to say that as long as you’ve made a profession of faith, well then you are saved no matter what you do afterwards. The Bible doesn’t teach that because the Bible recognizes the reality of a false faith, which the apostle James calls a “dead faith.” Dead faith doesn’t save. It’s not that these people were saved and then lost their salvation; the reality is that they were never saved to begin with. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all us” (1 Jn. 2:19). Someone who tells you they are saved because they have made a profession of faith and been baptized and yet go on stealing from others is simply not saved. Their faith is fake.
On the other hand, we need to beware of thinking that if you are saved, then all your problems with sin are over. That is not taught by the Bible either. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). Sanctification is a process. When you are saved, you a put on a trajectory of spiritual growth. But that does not mean there will not be times when we go backward. Like a river, our general direction is consistent, but there are tracks of our life where, like bends in a river, we are for a time going in the opposite direction. Someone may be saved out of a terrible lifestyle, and if they are saved, then the general tenor and direction of their life is going to be going in a direction away from that sin and towards God. However, temptations may for a time bring them back to that sin. If they are truly saved, they will eventually repent. True saints persevere. But the point is that just because they are for a time drawn back to this sin for a time does not mean their salvation is not real.
So, though we want to see evidence of a lifestyle of godliness for those who claim the name of Christ, neither should we be so harsh that every misstep is a reason for us to reject them as brothers and sisters in Christ. The church has often been likened to a hospital. A hospital is a place where sick people are (hopefully) getting better. We are all sick people getting better through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, not healthy people coming to be admired. No church is going to be in a position to disciple immature believers into mature believers if they are not willing to be patient with each other.
Now those are some general principles that I see in this text. But we must come down to the specifics. And I want to immediately point out that these words are not just for thieves but for all of us. It may be true that you are not a thief. Very well, but what the apostle goes on to say is for all of us. In these words, the apostle affirms not only the value of work, but also one of the chief reasons we are to work. He continues in the pattern he has established back in verse 25. He begins with a negative prohibition (“Let him that stole steal no more”), followed by a positive exhortation (“but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good”), followed by a reason for the exhortation (“that he may have to give to him that needeth”).
Before we look at the specifics, I want to make the observation that true Christianity does in fact deal with the nitty gritty of our lives. In other words, if we are following Christ, we are not going to be content to simply make a profession of faith and then get on with our lives. Christianity is not Jesus tacked onto your life. It is Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior transforming our lives so that we are being conformed into his image. And that means that every aspect of your life is coming under the lordship of Christ. In every aspect of our lives, we need to be asking the question, “How does this part of my life honor Christ as Lord and Savior?”
And this of course applies to our work. It is simply inconceivable that our Lord would have nothing so say about our work, especially considering the fact that it takes up so much of our lives. He does, and this text will help us to see how we ought to think about it.
First of all, we see in this passage that God values work: “let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good.” Now, I think it’s important at the very beginning here to note what Paul does not say about work. He does not limit the value of work to distinctly Christian ministry. Throughout history there have always been those who make it sound like if you are not in the ministry, then you are somehow a second-class citizen of heaven. In fact, in Paul’s day some took this even further and went to the extreme that they quit working altogether to wait for the kingdom of God! Such people did not get a commendation from the apostle but rather a rebuke: “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:7-12).
“Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven” does not mean to abandon your earthly responsibilities. Nor does it mean that you have to be a preacher or a missionary in order to do something that honors the Lord. It means that, as the apostle would say to the Colossians (addressing the slaves): “and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Col. 3:23). We sanctify our work when we do it unto the Lord. You may have an unbeliever as your boss, but as a Christian, you are to recognize that you ultimately serve Christ, no matter where you work. And if you work with that mindset, you are seeking first the kingdom of heaven, whether you are an accountant or a school teacher or an entrepreneur or whatever.
Of course, there is also the opposite danger, although this is not likely to come from believers, though even they can adopt this attitude. It is the attitude that Christian work is not really work, and that those who go into the ministry are somehow avoiding working a real job (especially when this involves raising support). This is equally wrong. We need pastors and missionaries and the Bible says that “if a man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:1). And believe me, it is work. Those who do Christian ministry right know it is not a sinecure. And we need pastors and missionaries. And so we need to encourage young people who are considering a life in Christian ministry. As our Lord himself said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Mt. 9:37-38).
God values work. It is something that even man in his innocence, before the fall, was tasked to do. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15, ESV). Before sin, before the fall, man was supposed to work. It is part of what God made us to be: he made us to work and keep things. God did not make you to sit in front of a computer and play video games in your parent’s basement. He made you to take something like a garden and work and keep it. Work is not bad, it is not sinful. Work is something that God made us for. Work is good. Work is sanctified by God’s plan for mankind.
And it’s important to understand that sin did not take work and make it bad. It’s not like work was good before the Fall but now it’s bad. No, sin did not take work and make it bad; sin took work and made it hard: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19, ESV). Work is hard, that is why it is called “labor,” but that does not mean it is bad, or that its hardness gives us a reason not to work.
In fact, when Paul describes work, he describes it in terms of labor. The word Paul uses in Eph. 4:28 is connected to the idea of tiring out, or growing weary, through work. One commentator writes, “The point is that the labor exerted is exhausting. In this context the stealer used to obtain things with little effort, but with the acquisition of the new person all things are acquired with labor that requires much effort.” Christianity is not a life of ease, and this is true in our work as in all of life. Conversion does not release us from weariness and labor; conversion sanctifies that weariness and labor so that it is not longer done in vain. It is worth something because it is done for the Lord, and “whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free” (Eph. 6:8).
If you are a Christian, then you are to put in labor and effort into your work. That means that if you are a student, you don’t take shortcuts in your studies. You master the subject you are being taught. It means that if you are employed by someone, you don’t steal your employer’s time by doing things that are not connected with your work. It means that you do the very best job you can do within your abilities. If you are self-employed, it means that you do the very best job for your customers. Whatever you do, as Scripture tells us we are to do with all our might.
Now we shouldn’t read too much into the phrase “working with his hands the thing which is good,” as if to say that only manual labor honors the Lord. The point is that God expects us to work hard at our jobs, whether it involves mainly our minds or mainly our hands.
The only caveat Paul places here in his exhortation to work is that we are to work at “the thing which is good.” In other words, not all work is good and therefore not all work is something a Christian can do. We cannot as believers do anything that compromises our integrity or is at odds with the gospel. If my boss asks me to lie or to steal or to cheat, as a Christian I simply cannot do that, even if it costs me my job.
And then we see the reason for work: “that he may have to give to him that needeth.” There are all sorts of wrong reasons why people work. Some people find their identity in their work, so that if you took it away from them they would simply go to pieces. God did not make you to find your identity in your work. Adam and Eve found their identity in being created in the image of God. Their work in the garden was simply an expression of that identity. As believers in Jesus Christ we are being re-made in the image of God. Therefore, we are to find our identity in Christ, not in our jobs. Your job was never meant to fill up your life with meaning or to give you ultimate satisfaction, and if you seek that in your work, you will end up sorely disappointed. Only Christ can fill up our hearts. Therefore don’t measure yourself by your employment. Don’t compare yourself to others you make more than you or do something which has a greater cultural appreciation. If you are in Christ, you can push a broom for the kingdom of God. The richest person in the world has nothing on you if they have not Christ.
Beware therefore of being a workaholic. There is a balance between working hard at our jobs and being consumed by them. Those who are consumed by their jobs so that they neglect other equally important areas of their lives (like family, their personal devotional life, etc.) have probably fallen into the trap of seeking their identity in their work. The reality is that if I am a Christian, I do not have to outperform others, I don’t have to work to get the attention of other, and I don’t have to work so that people recognize my work and give me rewards. I don’t have to do this because I don’t need the acceptance of men: I am fully accepted already by the God of the universe through Christ. My job doesn’t need to fill out the meaning of my life because Christ has already given that to me.
Why then are we to work? To give to those who need. Of course, the first place to which we give is our own family: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). But I don’t think that is primarily what Paul is talking about here. He is talking about people who work hard at their jobs so that they not only have plenty for themselves and their family, but also for others who are in need.
Here is what the apostle is saying. He is saying that the gospel completely changes the outlook of the Christian. Before they were saved, they thought only of themselves. They stole, they took from others in order to benefit themselves. They didn’t respect others, their persons or their property. But the gospel introduces this tremendous change in the outlook of the believer. They no longer think of themselves and their needs and their wants and their comforts; now they think of others and how to help and minister to others. Now they want to weary themselves with work – not so they can build a big retirement account and retire early and buy vacation homes and go on cruises – but so they can give to others who have less than they. Their thought is of others.
And what induces this change of mindset? The gospel. For the essence of the gospel is this: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Our Lord was infinitely rich and glorious in heaven with the Father. He gave all that up for a time, he became indescribably poor. We will probably never understand, at least on this side of heaven, what Christ forsook when he was born in Bethlehem. The step from heaven to earth was an infinite drop. Why did Jesus do this? “That ye through his poverty might be rich.” As the Shorter Catechism puts it, his poverty was being born in a low condition, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death on the cross, in being buried and continuing under the power of death for a time. He did that for his people. He took their sins upon himself so that they might have his righteousness and eternal life in the presence of God forever. He took the worst thing in the universe upon himself (the wrath of God upon sin) so that we might have the very best thing in the universe (perfect fellowship with God forever).
If we believe this, then, how could we not image this to others, however faintly we can? “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:3-8). A person who does not want to give to others knows nothing of the redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross.
And ultimately, all that we do as Christians is meant to be a picture of the gospel, because God’s heart is to see his people gathered through the gospel into the church. The amazing thing is that no matter how much we have taken in sin, God is still willing to give salvation to those who believe in his Son. He takes thieves, and the despicable and outcasts of society, and brings them into his family and gives them eternal life and joy in his presence. May we know the Giver of salvation and may we know how to imitate him to others.
 John Stott, The Message of Ephesians, p. 188
 Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 625.