The apostle Paul lived in such a way that his life would be an example to others. There were some in the Thessalonian congregation that refused to work, who needed to imitate the work ethic of Paul. Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9, “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.”
Paul particularly mentioned that he did not eat any man’s bread without paying for it. Now, Paul is not talking about simply going to someone’s house for dinner; “to eat bread” is equivalent to our expression “put food on the table.” “Bread” among the Jews was a term sometimes used for eating food in general (1 Samuel 20:34; 28:20; 1 Kings 21:5; Psalm 41:9; 102:9); moreover, “to eat bread” stood for making a living (Amos 7:12). The connection between working and eating has its roots early in the Bible going back at least to the principles of Genesis 3:19. The Old Testament touches on this principle time and again (Psalm 128:2; Proverbs 10:4; 12:11; 19:15). If one is able to work, then work should be done to support self and help others who are in legitimate need (Ephesians 4:28).
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were not motivated by greed when they came to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:5), but came to save souls. To demonstrate this lack of covetousness among them, they refused to be a financial burden on anyone (1 Thess. 2:9), but instead made their own living. While many of the social elite of the first-century Greco-Roman culture regarded manual labor as degrading, Paul did not underplay but in fact highlighted his own manual labor in establishing his upstanding character (1 Thess. 2:9).
Paul did teach that financial support for preaching and other Christian service was acceptable, but on several occasions he did not make use of this privilege (2 Thess. 3:9; 1 Cor. 9:7-14; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18; cf. Matt. 10:10). One is not fit to be supported for Christian service if his ministry is motivated solely by financial gain (Acts 20:33; 1 Tim. 3:3, 8; 6:9-10; Titus 1:7; Heb. 13:5; 1 Pet. 5:2; 2 Pet. 2:3). Many philosophers and religious leaders of the day looked for patrons to support them, but Paul, Silas, and Timothy avoided this practice, making themselves a model for the church to follow.
In the epistle of 2 Thessalonians, Paul returns to the teaching on work given at their initial visit: “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). God’s response to one who could work but refuses is essentially, “You choose not to work? Then you choose not to have the necessities of life when you need them.” Often there is a mistaken notion of charity today, where “the Christian thing to do is always provide for the needs of others” even when they could provide for themselves. This is not Christian; it is not what the Bible teaches. While 2 Thessalonians 3 commands that we be merciful and do good (2 Thess. 3:13), it also prohibits us from enabling someone in a life of freeloading (2 Thess. 3:10-11).