“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” (Ephesians 4:28)
A small Hebrew family slept serenely in the evening warmth of the Jerusalem countryside. Sleeping was easy for this first century family. It usually followed a long day of hard work, hearty meals, and an extensive reading of the Torah — for the little ones, the Torah reading was an invitation to doze off into pleasant slumber as they slipped away cuddled in the deep folds of their mother’s robe. These were simpler times, and the simplicity of agrarian life spared their minds 21st-century insomnia.
This family was not easily wakened, either. Since there were no glass windows or insulated ceilings to block the outside noise, the boisterous chorus of the nocturnal world was as much an assistant to their sleep as an oscillating fan is to people today — they’ll run it in the dead of winter because they can not rest without its steady hum. Livestock, frogs, owls, and the innumerable species of bugs served these early farming families by providing a curtained background of noisy stillness.
But insects and frogs were not the only wildlife that made their way through the cover of darkness. Lurking towards the friendly shelter came an unwelcome stranger whose night-loving roguery would soon relieve this family of their valuable goods. With the balance of a spider and the silence of a desert mouse, this human invader would make three trips in and out of the house, carting off food, garments, and denarii without so much as rousing a blink from the snoozing family members. By morning the cabinets, closets, and coffers would be swept clean. They would know a thief had visited them in the night.
Much like today thieves were a perpetual annoyance in the Mediterranean world. Unless one was wealthy or held great political or religious power, people could not afford to hire guards to protect their goods and property. So prevalent and anticipated was the thief that God provided Moses with clear penalties for theft. Stealing was a violation of the eighth commandment, and if the thief was caught the punishment usually entailed restitution (Ex. 22:1-4).
Paul and the Thief
Although the subculture of the early church was spiritually transformed, thievery was still a possibility. Converted hearts did not guarantee that first century Christians did not steal. After all, Israel in the days of Roman occupation was no middle-class utopia. Jobs were difficult to come by and the economic lines fell cleanly between the rich and the poor. Hunger and necessity drove many well-meaning Christians to steal for their very livelihood. This “theft of necessity” drew a measure of sympathy as men do not despise a thief, if he steals to satisfy his soul when he is hungry
But it is easy to make a habit of stealing — why should a person seek out work when he’d become quite adept at “borrowing” permanently from others? We also justify our misbehavior when our sin becomes habitual. It’s the only way to soften the persistent blows from our guilty conscience. Like Adam and Eve, we camouflage our misdeeds with the ill-fitted draperies of fig leaves as aprons (Gen. 3:7).
But a new creature in Christ does not seek a life of sin — at least he shouldn’t. By the redemptive power of the blood of Jesus, a Christian is compelled by the Spirit and the Word to live in terms of his new life in Christ.
This is Saint Paul’s thrust in the Ephesians passage regarding the thief. But this concept is not isolated to the thief. It’s simply an example of how the new covenant applies to life’s diverse affairs. In other words, how Paul deals with the thief is how God deals with us. How God delivers the thief from his sinful habit is how God will deliver us from ours.
Inner Healing, God’s Way
The modern evangelical church places great emphasis upon “inner healing” as a means to liberate a captive soul. This is how the idea of counseling developed since Sigmund Freud repositioned the science of the soul on the fulcrum of autonomous man. Mimicking his methodology, the church soon departed from the Biblical idea of counseling and moved steadily towards a humanistic balm that neglected the root of psychological dysfunction — sin.
Many Charismatics added to this the neo-Romanistic element of exorcism, or “casting out devils.” A person’s problem is rooted in a demonic “oppression” or “possession” that must be confronted with spiritual authority. The premise is that once the demonic influence or control is removed, the captive Christian can walk in victory over his or her insurmountable bondage.
Christians today who are seeking freedom from sinful habits, soulish insecurities, and problematic relationships, claim genuine deliverance by pop-psychology or casting out devils. However, these methods are flawed because they violate a central thesis in the Biblical view of man.
Paul did not believe in Greek dualism, the view that the spiritual world is good and the world of the flesh is evil. But many Christians do. Compounding this misguided starting point, modernistic psychologists have added Freud’s concept of the “subconscious” — an indescribable “inner-world” shaped by the circumstances, relationships, fears, and strivings of our unseen self. Whereas Christians today are turning inward in search of freedom, Paul turned the thief outward to live out his liberty in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in terms of God’s law.
The Pauline View of Man
Today’s Christian takes Paul’s exposition of the new life in Christ as one of a perpetual struggle of flesh and spirit. No doubt, we certainly battle with pressing temptations, disreputable thoughts, and shameless passions, and these carnal allurements do hail from our being made in the image of Adam. Yet our deliverance is not found by surveying our inner-selves. The depth of the heart is “no man’s land” because it is “God’s land.” Only He can accurately assess what He created.
Since Paul denied Greek thinking, and fortunately existed in a “pre-Freudian” world, his concept of man streamed from a mind soaked in the Old Testament. For Paul, the make-up of man was a mystery, and godly men relied upon their Creator and His law for truth rather than psychology. In all likelihood Paul derived his view of man from passages such as Psalm 19:
Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. (Ps. 19:12-13)
We cannot discern our own errors. They are beyond our purview. Note that the psalmist requests forgiveness for his hidden faults and that he be kept from willful sins. How can you be “kept” from sin that is willful? David here recognizes that though he is choosing sin he cannot locate the reason on his own. His heart is beyond his powers of insight. This is the sustained testimony of the Old Testament — man’s deceitful heart cannot be known.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jer. 17:9-10)
Man cannot understand his heart. It is deceitful and only the Lord who made man can search and examine his inward parts. Yet the discipline of the Lord, Jeremiah said, would be according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve. Although sin proceeds from the heart, its fulfillment is demonstrated in sinful deeds. God searches the heart but judges the action.
Paul’s theology of man, likewise, focused on the outward deeds of the flesh. The apostle’s precise mind and spiritual authority was curbed in his definition of man’s nature by the clear testimony of the law and the prophets. Man was not intended to be a perpetual patient subjected to the guesswork of modern psychology. Rather, man was to be directed outwardly into judging and adjusting his actions according to the revealed will of God in Scripture — he must put off the “old man” (Eph. 4:22). There was no freedom to be found by turning inward.
Tell the Thief to Steal No Longer
Paul never suggests exorcism for the thief in Ephesians. He likewise neglects to summon the staff counselor at the Ephesian church to schedule a session with the habitual bandit. Instead, Paul instructs the fledgling church to bring the law of God to bear. For the law-word is useful for rebuking and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Here is his admonition: “Let him that stole steal no more” (Eph. 4:28).
Today’s psychologist would consider this a bit simplistic. Yet it is the first priority because it is the law of God: thou shalt not steal (Ex. 20:15). To begin with anything else (e.g., his childhood, his circumstances, our psychological methods) would be ascribing supreme authority to something other than God’s holy law.
God’s law forbids theft — end of discussion. Isn’t it possible that a tragic event in the thief’s childhood drives him to fill a void in his heart by stealing? No. He steals because he is sinful. No matter how acute our analysis, we are still seeing through a glass darkly. We do not yet know as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). Therefore, we can only admonish the thief according to God’s law. We must turn his vision outward.
Restoration and Productivity
Paul’s usage of the law in the New Testament is wondrous to behold. In Ephesians 4:28 Paul goes beyond the negative use of the law that only restrains theft. That in itself is incomplete and a guarantee the thief will likely fall back into his sin. Rather, Paul spurs the thief to productivity by embracing his primary calling as a man created in the image of God — go to work! In a simple but brilliant charge, Paul now brings the fourth commandment to bear upon the conduct of the thief: “[R]ather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth”
The law of Moses had declared, “Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work” (Ex. 20:9). Notice again that this also turns the thief outward to objective labor instead of inward to a subjective trivial pursuit. In the wisdom of God, Paul uses two of the Ten Commandments in conjunction with the liberating power of the Gospel to provide the thief with his freedom from sin. He turns the thief outside himself to his calling under God as a productive member of the Kingdom. By working, instead of stealing, the thief not only finds his “inner healing” but is now able to relieve his neighbor by “giving to him that needeth.”
Becoming an Asset Instead of a Liability
This is a stark contrast to today’s Christian who seeks freedom by exorcism or pop-psychology. Instead of becoming productive in his calling, the contemporary Christian is easily neutralized by becoming a perpetual victim chasing an elusive freedom. Like the woman with the issue of blood, they spend their money on professional remedies with no relief from the incessant bleeding of their souls.
Seeking pop-psychological remedies or demonic deliverance can create a vicious cycle. Those who do tend to drain the resources of others. By turning inward they become an emotional vortex that saps the time and energy from loved ones and ties up resources that could otherwise be used for productivity in their respective calling.
God has a better way. By turning outward and putting on the new man (Eph. 4:24), we can discover healing and restoration in such a way that we have to give to him that needeth. We become assets to our families and communities because we are unfettered by sinful and demoralizing habits that remove us from our calling to dominion. When Adam and Eve sinned, their own guilt drove them to hide among the trees thereby leaving their position of Kingdom authority. Since then God has labored to bring man from out of the trees to take his place once again as the Lord’s ambassador in history.
Any form of counseling or teaching must have this as its goal — the restoration of mankind to the dominion mandate. Man is manufactured by God and therefore can only be repaired by the manufacturer. God has not left man in a fallen state, but brought him restoration through Christ. Since we lack the discernment to understand our sinful hearts, let us now turn our hearts and minds to the pure revelation of God’s law that informs us of the way we must walk and the work we must do (Ex. 18:20).
- Christopher J. Ortiz
Christopher J. Ortiz is a freelance writer and independent communications specialist servicing churches, ministries, and publishers.