Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (Ephesians 4:28, appointed Epistle for August 12, 2018)
It’s going to sound weird, but this is one of my favorite Bible verses.
I know, I know, it sounds like some goody-two-shoes legalism, a bit of behavior modification trivia in the midst of the Bible’s great universal message.
But it supplies much more if we take a look.
I. Sure, it does start with “law.” Bad behavior must be confronted and corrected for any kind of human progress to ensue, as Carey Nieuwhof points out in his worthwhile new book.
Call it KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), Occam’s Razor or whatever. The basic beginning is to stop the unholy behavior, as this Native American comedy troupe points out (Language and Content caution),
II. But keeping the rules isn’t the completeness or perfection (telos) toward which Christ calls us.
The passage says rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands – to take the skills that made their predatory behavior effective and put them to a better use.
It’s not enough to suppress the bad (that would be goody-two-shoes). We must embrace what is good. As Paul wrote,
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
Paul says that praiseworthy practices are, in a broad sense, prayerful, because when we undertake them the God of peace will be with you.
On the spiritual plane, I think this helps make sense of Jesus’ strange words in Matthew 12:43-45,
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.
It isn’t sufficient to boot out the evil. That leaves a vacant space that needs filling. If not filled with good, it is vulnerable to a greater evil taking up residence. (It is worth noting that Jesus said this in the course of disputes with religious authorities who rejected him and tried to reassert legalism as the way of salvation. The devil is shrewd enough to lure our good deeds into dead works that assume our own and/or our group’s merits take the place of Christ’s work on the cross).
III. Which leads to the depth of the verse about thieves: it is a call to receive the life of Christ as our own.
Sure, stop stealing. Yes, do honest work. But that stops with our own frail flesh if we end there. Go beyond, it says: so as to have something to share with the needy.
It is to live sacrificially, to bear in our bodies the marks of Jesus, not as physical stigmata but as spiritual transformation into life lived not just “for Christ,” but by him and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, rendering glory to the Father in heaven,
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… (Philippians 2:4-9)
Since Paul wrote this verse about thieves to the church in big, busy Ephesus, and placed it in a batch of instructions for church members, we can assume that known thieves were starting to hear the Gospel and worship there.
The verse is hopeful testimony that Christ can welcome and transform any person, and that a… uh… diversity of characters in the congregation means that something right is going on.
We might fault some “conservative” churches for being content to teach socially acceptable behavior and preach legalism.
We might fault some “progressive” churches for extolling the value of diversity while neglecting the transformative power of the cross.
The “thief” verse from Ephesians challenges us – all of us – to keep going, to remain unsatisfied by anything but new life in Christ himself.