What motivates you to live the Christian life? When making a decision between a good action or bad action, what is it that gets you to choose the good? Is it Guilt? You know that if you do the bad action, that the guilt you would feel would hang over your head for hours, days, weeks, so you choose to do the good action instead? Or is it Shame? This is the same as guilt, only instead of feeling guilty before God and yourself, you would feel guilty if anyone else found out, so you choose the good action? Or is it Fear? You know that God is holy and must punish sin, and is omnipotent, and thus can judge sin, so you are afraid of Him; thus you choose the good action?
These motivations of guilt, shame, and fear are powerful, but we all must admit that they are each incapable of giving us power to overcome sin and live in holiness. In our passage this morning, Paul teaches us that while these others may play some role in curbing sin, our chief motivation should be love, and specifically love for God and love for others.
In vs. 28, Paul is still working under the paradigm/model he set forth in vs. 22-24. The question he intimates there is, “How is it that we ‘learn Christ?’” In other words, what is the Christian’s lifestyle to look like? His answer? “To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” You will remember that Paul then gives examples of how this new paradigm works. Paul exhorted believers in vs. 25 to speak the truth, and in vs. 26-27 to be angry without sinning, Here in vs. 28 he is now going to tell us how to live the Christian life with regards to work by giving us three admonitions: put off your old self (do not steal), put on the new self (work hard for the good), and a motivation for both (so that you can share with those in need).
Paul here reiterates one of the ten commandments given to Israel in the story of their exodus from Egypt. “Thou shall not steal.” In the mind of the early church, stealing was equal to what we might consider the worst of sins. Think of 1 Cor. 6:9-10: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
There is no question - it is wrong to steal. But I want to ask this morning, “Are we thinking correctly about why it is wrong to steal?”
First, we need to define what is meant by stealing? The definition of the two greek words here that refer to both the one stealing and the action of stealing, kleptw, is “to take secretly, and without permission, the property of someone else.” What does this look like in today’s world? “Easy. Taking things out of a store for which I haven’t paid, or breaking into someone’s house and taking what is not mine.” True, but does this command only refer to shoplifting or burglary? Hardly.
In our technologically savvy and lazy culture, we have created new variations on this same theme. Downloading MP3’s for which we haven’t paid; using software that is not licensed to us for multiple computers; watching pirated videos; using articles you find on the internet for school papers without citing the references; checking out your fantasy football league while on the clock at work; putting down a little extra here, a little less there on your tax forms; being physically at work, but not really AT work. In each of these cases, we would be taking secretly, and without permission, the property of someone else, whether it be material, intellectual, or financial.
Which brings us to the second way we need to think correctly about stealing, Why is it wrong to steal?
Notice that the definition of “to steal” doesn’t take into account the worthiness of the person to have what you are taking. Robin Hood may have been a hero in Nottinghamshire for “stealing from the rich to give to the poor,” but he was still guilty of stealing. This same kind of argument is often used for music and movie pirating. “The record and movie companies are so greedy and ridiculously wealthy, and are even keeping most of the profits from the artists. They don’t deserve the money they would be getting if I paid for this album. So, I will take it. I’ll stick it to the man. I’ll make them pay for their incredulity.” But in thinking this way, and stealing as a result, we take vengeance into our own hands, and forget that vengeance is not ours to exact - it is God’s.
Which is why it is wrong to steal. In stealing we try to take some of God’s roll in creation upon ourselves. It may be as above, we try to wield vengeance, to get back at those who take advantage of us.
Or, it may be that we steal because we are not happy in the way that God has provided for us. We want an easy way to get what we want. Maybe you can’t support your family the way you would like, so you feel justified in taking what is not yours. Or worse, nothing so noble as supporting your family, you just simply covet what is not yours, and want what you can’t earn easily by honest labor. So you choose the route of least resistance, and instead of working overtime or getting multiple jobs, you steal.
But no matter what you may feel, your reason for stealing is not your need; it is as Jesus said in Matt. 15:19-20a, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person...” You are not a thief because you steal, you steal because you are a thief.
We see in this way of thinking what Paul called in vs. 22 “being corrupt through deceitful desires.” In other words, we are deceived as to what is truly desirable. We think that having more stuff, or living above our means will make us happy. But we are deceived. We do not see reality as it is, but instead through the veil of sin. And what should be unfathomable because it goes against God’s very nature, instead becomes a lesser of evils.
We steal because we love ourselves and our wants more than we love God or others. This is why we goof off at work, why we download illegally, why we cheat on our taxes, why we don’t pay our employees what they’ve earned - we love us, sinfully. I want me to be god, and I want you and God and everything in creation to serve my wants and desires. This self-ish motivation is at root of the desire to steal, thinking that my desires will be filled if I can just have _____.
But Paul tells us that if we are to live as Christians, we are not to steal any longer. We are a new creation, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Therefore stealing is no longer an option when we are weighing our options.
But what if we have stolen? What can we do about our stealing? You need to be forgiven, and Christ is able and willing to forgive those who come to Him. Do remember that even while Jesus was dying on the cross, in intense agony because of the physical pain He was undergoing and the spiritual and emotional pain of being separated from His Father because of the sin and wrath He was then bearing for His people, even then He forgives a life-long thief who was being put to death for his thievery. Like that thief, come to Jesus, recognize your need for that which only He can give - forgiveness because of your sin.
But notice that Paul doesn’t merely say, “stop stealing.” As in all of the Law, there aren’t just one-sided commands. In this case, the negative command “Let the thief no longer steal” is buttressed by the positive command, “but rather he should toil, working the good with his hands.”
The word used here for “toil/labor” is one that intimates working so hard that you grow weary. This isn’t playing at doing work - it is really toiling in your labor. And what is it that you are to work to do? You are to work so that you do the work that is good. Some of your translations may say, “let him labor, doing honest work” and others “let him perform labor...doing what is good.” The same thing is meant in both. In short, you cannot live this verse and work as a drug smuggler, or an identity thief, or a corrupt politician. Your work is to be good work.
So this verse, while speaking to our need not to steal, also speaks to our need to choose work that is worthy of our Lord, who Himself set the example of working hard throughout His life. At times, we even see Paul use himself as an example of how to work hard so as not to be a burden to the Corinthian and Thessalonian churches. And again when speaking to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:33-35 he said, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
So we see that we must not steal, and that we must work. But in this passage in Acts 20, and in our passage in Ephesians 4, we see Paul pointing to a further action that constitutes a Christian ethic of work. According to these verses, you are not yet living as a Christian if you are simply not stealing. You must work...hard. But, you are also not yet living as a Christian if you are simply not stealing AND working hard.
To live as Christ, and to follow the Holy Spirit to righteous and holy living in our new creation-ness, then we must see the motivation for not stealing but toiling - “so that he might have, to give to the one having need.
I’m afraid that I have stopped short of this full paradigm in my Christian walk. I know that it is wrong to steal, and I do my best not to do that. And I know I must work hard, and I try my best to do that. But if I stop there, then do you see the danger? Right actions without right motivation can still be wrong! It is possible for me not to steal, to work long hours, coming home worn out, and still to use the money that I have earned in ways that promote my own prideful, deceitful desires. “You know, I don’t think my TV is big enough? I still have 5 inches to spare on each side of that wall - I think I need a bigger one.” “My car does what it should in getting me from point A to point B, but it doesn’t have, well, style. I think I need a better one.” “Those shoes, they’re so end-of-winter-2009 - I need something better suited to early-fall-2010.” And in thinking this way, we may be doing the right thing (not stealing, working hard), but doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
According to Eph. 4:28, the Christian who is putting off the old self and putting on the new self earns money through hard work not so that he might build up himself, but so that he might give to those in need. That is the Christian motivation for work.
Caring for those in need is part and parcel of the Christian life. We see the practice of the early church in Acts 2:45, “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Or in Acts 4:32-35: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Remember that in Galatians 2:10 the apostles were eager for the new Gentile believers to remember the poor. Paul commands the Roman church to “contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (12:13).
Jesus, God the Son, spent His earthly ministry going from town to town, giving His time and strength and life for the good of those who came to Him. In doing this, He gave us the example of how we are to live as His disciples. You might say, “But that is why He came! To give Himself for the many!” And you would be right. He came to give you eyes to see and ears to hear the good news of His kingdom! But What happens when He does that? Just a few chapters before our verse today we read, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:8). In Phil. 2:3b-7, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 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 made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Stealing is evil because it is the desire to have without effort. But it is also evil to desire to have with effort, if having is the end of the processes. Paul through inspiration of the Holy Spirit commands us to work so that we may share.
So, we see that the Christian obligation is not complete until all three commands are done: stop stealing, work for the good, and share with those in need.
But, we must stop and remind ourselves that this kind of life is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing our minds and giving us a new heart. Because if we are still in the “old self,” then these commands, as noble as they may be, are nothing but legalistic jargon, Christianese for the do-gooder atheist. So consider a few points of application:
1. How does this passage change the way you discipline your children? What do you do when your child is caught stealing a smurf belt from the Kmart in Gallatin, TN when he is 5? What is the purpose of teaching him not to steal? Not to steal? To be a good citizen, maybe. But ultimately, if that is the end of your moral encouragement, then you’re doing nothing more than making a Pharisee. He needs the Holy Spirit! He needs a love for God and others! A purpose of the Law may be to curb sin in culture, but it is also to drive us to Christ and cause us to see the perfections of Christ, because only He is perfect and righteous and holy and good. And through His work in making us a new creation, we too learn to love the Law like He does.
So when you’re child does the ghastly and takes what is not hers, or commits any sin, don’t be content to deal with the sinful action only. Go for the heart, from where the sin came; go for the idols that led to the dependence on something other than God; go to the gospel, where the only real hope for society rests. For only when they are new creations can they not only not steal, but they can work hard and give to those in need with the proper heart motivations.
And take that same mentality and go to others, whether in Germantown, Binghampton, Midtown, Mississippi, Chicago, D.C., Seattle, Amsterdam, Paris, Nairobi, Moscow or Istanbul, who steal and murder and commit adultery and worship false gods - they, too, need the gospel if they are to be changed in their hearts and have new affections.
2. How does this teaching affect the way we interact with our money? We must shift our affections from the stuff this world can offer and love that which is imperishable. Hebrews 13:5-6, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”” With the psalmist we can say, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11)
Our joy and happiness doesn’t come from what we can get, either by stealing or working, it comes from the Lord, who graciously provides for us and gives us what we need. We need Him. When we have this perspective, and we stop seeking to buy or take things to make us happy, but learn that in Christ, we have pleasure that will never run out and never decrease, because the nearness of God is our good (Ps. 73:28).
3. But let’s say we aren’t stealing, and we are working hard, and we want to share with those in need. How are we going to know with whom we need to share and how we should do it? In answer, it is important to see that there are specific instructions that we are to share with those in the household of the faith. This is one of the ways that Christian brothers and sisters show love for one another - we share when there is need. So, keep on giving to the benevolence offering when we take the Lord’s Supper. But don’t stop there! Keep your ears open. Keep your eyes open. Be creative in finding ways to do good for others. Seek out ways to help. Look around you - are there people sitting on your row or in the ones around you with which you could share personally?
But we cannot stop sharing with those in need within the context of this local body. There are saints throughout this city and our world that need our help, as well. How can we be serving the poor and Christian people in our city better? Meals? Clothes? Help with finding jobs? Training them for those jobs? Childcare? Time discipling them so that they can learn to stop stealing, work hard with their hands, and then turn and help others who are need like they used to be?
While helping those in need in the Church is commanded, we must also turn our eye to the poor of the world who do not yet know the Lord. Not all who were helped by the Lord Jesus believed in Him. Not all who come to our doors asking for help believe in Him, either. There are times when it is good to help those in need simply because it is a good thing to do. But even in doing that, our goal is not to make financially stable atheists. We are to share our money and our lives and our Lord with them. Get involved with those who are in need and are not believers. What a great way to give testimony to the kindness of our Lord who approached us and gave to us, even before we approached him and lived for Him.
So in conclusion, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27). Remember the way you learned Christ, “to put off the old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires (Let the thief no longer steal), and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self (Let him labor, working the good) , created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (so that he may having something to share with those in need).” Are you living with this new-creation motivation?
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