A man applying for a job was asked, “Why were you fired from your last job?”
He answered, “I was overly ambitious. I wanted to take work home with me.”
The manager was a bit surprised. “That doesn’t seem like grounds for firing. Who was your employer?”
The man’s answer: “First National Bank.”
As we continue to work our way through the book of Ephesians, we come to Paul’s instructions regarding the sin of stealing. Paul discusses this in Ephesians 4:28.
This verse comes in a section dealing specifically with five sins which many Christians struggle with and which are particularly harmful to the health and future of any church.
We’ve already looked at lying and anger, today we look at stealing.
Now, we all know what stealing is: taking something that doesn’t belong to us. But some people are better at stealing than others. The most successful bank robbery in United States history resulted in the loss of $18.9 million. But other robbers are not so successful.
I have a book in my study called “America’s Dumbest Criminals” which is filled with stories of ignorant criminals doing dumb things. It is amazing how foolish some of them can be.
Jon Carter sent me an e-mail just this week one “would be” robber by the name of Steven Richard King. He walked into a Modesto, CA Bank of America branch without a weapon. Apparently, he used his thumb and forefinger to simulate a gun, but unfortunately, he failed to keep his hand in his pocket … That’s a dumb criminal.
But as we are going to see today, probably the worst type of thief, is the one who doesn’t think that they stealing. The most foolish robbers are those who don’t think they are robbing anyone.
Let’s begin to see this by reading Ephesians 4:28.
28Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.
This command by Paul is similar to the ones regarding lying and anger. Paul first states a negative command telling us what not to do, and then he gives a positive command, telling us what to replace that sinful action with, and then he concludes with a motivation for why we should follow his instructions.
Let’s begin with the negative command.
The Sin of Stealing (Ephesians 4:28a)
Ephesians 4:28a. Let him who stole steal no longer …
Paul is speaking specifically to those who have stolen in the past and who are currently stealing. He is speaking to all the former or current thieves within the church.
He says, “Those of you who steal … stop it!” This is, by the way, one of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:15 says, “Do not steal.”
Now most of you believe that you do not steal, and so right about now, you are beginning to think of ways to tune today’s message out because it doesn’t apply to you.
But the truth is that all of us are thieves in one way or another.
So when Paul says, Let him who stole, he is talking to all of us. Most of us are thieves, and we don’t even know it.
Before we see how, let’s talk briefly about the type of stealing all of us are familiar with. Let’s talk about obvious types of theft.
When we think of stealing, we picture the bank-robber, car thief type of person. But there are other types of obvious theft as well.
With today’s technology, with scanners and high-resolution printers, there is the counterfeit money business. I doubt any of us are involved in this, though.
But what about shoplifting?
Statistics say that one in eleven Americans shoplift. So chances are, of those here today, three or four of us are shoplifters. According to a study in Washington, few shoplifters steal out of need; 70 percent of shoplifters are in the middle-income bracket and 20 percent had high incomes. Only 10 percent were in the lower income range. Even this is no excuse.
The U. S. Commerce Department has given some astounding figures about shoplifting. About four million people are caught shoplifting each year, but it is estimated that for every person caught, 35 go undetected. If the estimates are accurate it means that 140 million shoplifting incidents occur in a nation of 215 million people.
But let’s get a little closer to home. Many of us might not shoplift, but maybe we take things that do not belong to us from the place where we are employed. You might not think of it as stealing. Maybe you consider it as “one of the perks of the job.” Maybe you justify it by saying “They owe it to me for all the work I do for them.” After all “Nobody is ever going to miss a box of pens or a ream of paper.” Does that sound familiar?
But you know what? According to insurance statistics, internal business theft accounts for thirty percent of all business failures each year.
Criminals from inside and outside of business stores are draining off $40 billion annually in lost cash and goods. This is 17% of total business income before taxes. Many stores lost 50% of their profits to unaccountable “inventory shrinkage,” generally believed to be internal theft by employees.
Security officials estimate that 9% of all employees steal on a regular basis and 75% of all employees in retail establishments steal to some degree.
Do you think that shoplifting hurts businesses? Statistics tell us that employees take on average, five times more than shoplifters! We all look down on the $2 billion dollar a year shoplifting industry, but employee pilferage costs businesses over $10 billion annually!
So there are many kinds of obvious theft. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you.
The curious thing about these types of theft is that those who do it rarely consider it wrong. They call what they do “wealth redistribution” or something.
Robin Hood is a perfect example. He is a great hero of folklore, but he was really a thief.
Of course, he justified his actions because King John was stealing from the people by overtaxing them—and so Robin Hood was simply taking back what had previously been stolen from them.
I love the story of Robin Hood. He was one of my child-hood heroes. But in reality he was a thief. So was King John, but that is a different issue. “Abuse is no excuse for abuse in return.”
The Jewish people in the days of Jesus Christ had similar issues with the Roman government, and they thought that the evil Roman empire was unjustly stealing from them by overtaxing, and so some of the Jews tried to get away with not paying taxes – others—like the Jewish Zealots—sometimes tried to steal back from the Romans. Just like Robin Hood.
But then Jesus came along, and when asked what the people should do, he asked for a coin, and holding it up, asked whose picture was on the coin. “Caesar’s” was the reply.
And Jesus said, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:17-21).
Which brings us to some of the less obvious kinds of theft.
Do you understand what Jesus is saying there? He is telling His followers that if we do not pay to the government what is theirs, we are stealing from the government. But more importantly, if we do not give to God what is His, we are stealing from God. And Jesus is not talking about tithing.
When Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” He wanted us to ask ourselves, “If Caesar’s image is on the coin, whose image is on us?”
We all know from Genesis 1:26 that humans were created in the image of God. Everything about us belongs to God. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul calls us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
So, have you offered yourself to God? Your legs and your feet to God to go where He wants you to go? Your arms and your hands to do what He wants you to do? Your ears, maybe to listen to those who need someone to talk to? Your eyes to see people in need? Your mouth to speak God’s Word of love and encouragement—and maybe at times correction to those who need to hear it? Have you offered your mind to God for training and instruction?
If not, you are stealing from God. You are created in His image, and that means you belong to Him. But there’s more to us than just our bodies, right?
What about our skills and talents? You know you are only able to do what you do because God has enabled you and gifted you to do it. Is there some way you can use your abilities for His glory either within the church or for bringing to people the good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ?
We talked about this extensively earlier in chapter four and the importance of discovering and using your spiritual gifts.
If you are not doing this, you are stealing from God.
But we also steal from God in other ways. We’ve talked about our bodies and our skills, but what are you doing with your money and your possessions? These belong to God as well. He gave you the abilities you have to work hard. He gave you the mind to think. He gave you healthy arms and legs to work. He has given you your position in life that you have.
You know, he could have caused you to be born in the poverty stricken sections of Africa or Asia. He could have caused you to lose your job. He could have allowed your house to burn down.
All you have and all you own and the salary you make is because God has given it to you. All you have belongs to God, and out of appreciation, God wants you to give some of it back to Him.
In Malachi 3:8-12, God says this: “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, Even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, That there may be food in My house, and try me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.”
Do you ever wonder why America is in the condition it is in? We point to corrupt politicians and decreasing morals and the slime oozing out of Hollywood, but according to Malachi 3, it may be because God has made us the wealthiest country in the world, and we have not used that wealth for Him.
We have robbed God, and so we may be under a curse because of it.
Now immediately, I can hear objections being raised. I can imagine someone saying, “I don’t make enough money” or “I have too much debt.” A popular excuse by many Christians today is “Well, tithing is an Old Testament principle.”
Well, I’m not giving a message today on tithing, so I am not able to respond to these sort of objections. Let me just say that the New Testament does provide a lot of teaching about what we are to do with our money, and the New Testament principles go way beyond the Old Testament teaching about tithing.
According to passages like 2 Corinthians 8-9, God doesn’t want us just to give 10%. He wants us to give until it hurts. He wants us to give generously and joyfully.
Giving of our money is a bit elusive because the standards are different for each of us. R. G. LeTourneau gave away 90% of his income, but he was making $10 million a year, so he was still keeping $1 million annually, so he wasn’t exactly living on nothing.
Nevertheless, it’s great when the rich give away so much. LeTorneau gave 90% of his income generously and joyfully. But it’s much harder to tell the single mother who is barely scraping in $20,000 a year to give away 90% of her income. She’ll be doing incredibly well just to give away 5%.
All of us though, can be giving more. The national average is somewhere around 2%. You know what that is? That’s stealing from God. Churches would NEVER have any money problems if people tithed on their income.
Now, I am not saying that you have to give your money to a church. There is no requirement in Scripture for you to tithe to the church. But God does want us to use our money to meet the needs of others in our society and culture, and to financially support others who are spreading the gospel in various ways.
This might involve giving to a charity or a non-profit organization, but it also might mean helping out your neighbor with some food or rent money. God has given you the money you have so that you can use some of it to meet the needs that He brings to your attention.
In fact, one financial advisor figured out that if all Christians only gave 10% of their money to meet the needs in this world, we would not need a welfare system in North America. We could provide food and clean water for everyone in the world who needed it. Everybody would be fed, and all medical debt would get paid off. There would be so much money to go around, Christians could buy all the hospitals and provide free health care. We could provide full financial support to missionaries and ministers of the gospel. We could increase the quality of our educations system.
We Christians often look to the government to provide all these things, but God is looking to Christians. We vote in politicians who we hope will fix healthcare, and fix education, and fix immigration, but God has already elected us to fix all these things, and has given us the resources we need to do it. But we hold on to these resources for our own personal use.
This is a form of theft, and Paul calls us to stop it.
If you are not giving generously and joyfully of your money to meet the needs that God brings to your attention, then you are stealing from God.
Note that you cannot actually give your money “to God.” God doesn’t want it or need it. He own the cattle on a thousand hills. He owns all the cattle and all the gold in the world. So He doesn’t need your cash. Never let anyone put a guilt trip on you because you are not giving enough “to God.”
So when God says we are stealing from Him, He means that we are not using our money and resources the way He wants, which is to use them to feed and clothe others, to take care of the health and housing needs of others, and to care for and love others.
We “give to God” by giving to other people. If we don’t give in such ways, then we are stealing from God, because He has given us these resources to use for the sake of His Gospel and His Kingdom.
But there is another kind of less obvious stealing thought which we need to be aware of. This kind of stealing is a result of laziness. We sometimes refer to it as “mooching” or “free-loading.”
It’s when someone gets something for free which they could have or should have worked for. They are actually stealing it from those who are really in need.
Some of those who are on welfare—not all, but some—are guilty of this. I know the welfare system is messed up, but still, in some cases, the people who are getting welfare money could be out working and providing for themselves. If someone can work, and they don’t work, because they want to game the system and get free stuff from the government, or from local charities, then they are stealing from others who really need this care. This also is wrong.
Sometimes, pastors, and missionaries fall into this trap. Scripture does say that the worker is worth his wages, but some people who are on the mission field are doing little more than taking an “all-expenses paid vacation.” These types of missionaries are stealing from those who really need to finances.
Some pastors are only in the pastorate because they don’t want to work. And they don’t. They get their sermons off-line, or out of ready-made sermon books, they play around on their computer and make a few phone calls, and make a lot of copies so they look productive, and show up late at the office, and leave early, and go golfing or fishing every afternoon.
Some pastors are in the ministry – it’s hard to believe – but some are in the ministry just for the money. For some, the pastorate can be a very lucrative job.
They fleece the flock. Swindle the saints. Charge huge speaker fees. Collect millions of dollars in donations. Sell miracles and healing potions. Ask for donations to feed the hungry around the world, but then use most of it on themselves. They buy private jets and giant mansions, and drive luxury cars.
If a pastor wants to make a lot of money, there are numerous ways to do so. Some simply steal from the offering plate. One ministry professional who did this was a well-known man by the name of Judas. Did you know this? According to John 12:6, Judas was a thief, he was in charge of the money bag, and he stole from it on occasion.
But Judas was not alone then and his kind are not alone today, either. Many ministry professionals are only in it because people are gullible and there is money to be made. The movie “Leap of Faith” by Steve Martin is an example.
And we can be sure that Jesus has the same reaction toward this today as He did 2000 years ago. Remember, what Jesus did when he discovered religious thieves in the temple? He picked up a whip, overturned the tables, and drove out all those who were stealing from the worshippers (Matthew 21:12-13).
I guess what I’m saying is that those in full-time ministry—whether they are pastors or missionaries—need to make sure that they are not lazy, but diligent and hard-working (1 Timothy 4:5; 6:5-11). Paul was the perfect example of this. He worked tirelessly to spread the gospel across the known world. As a result, there has never been a greater missionary in the history of the church.
Even churches and non-profit organizations can steal from others. Many people give lots of money to churches and organizations, and God expects these groups to be wise stewards of this money, and use it for the gospel and to join God in expanding the kingdom on earth. But instead, these groups often use the money to construct nicer buildings, buy state-of-the-art soundboards, or spend their money on all sorts of things that do not matter and will not last.
And in fact, some organizations steal from God by stealing from the people they are supposed to help. For example, God wants His church to help orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27), but often, the church raises money for the orphans and then keeps most of it for themselves, and then rather than helping the widows, instead asks the widows to donate what little money they have to the church.
The story of the widow’s mite is often used by churches to tell poor people that even if they have very little, they should still give it to the church. But this is the exact opposite of what Jesus is teaching in that story. Jesus is not praising the widow for giving her last two mites. Instead, He is sad that she has been lied to by the religious leaders into thinking she needs to give to them, when in fact, it is they who are supposed to be giving to her.
So when a church asks that even the poor give to them, they are stealing from God, because it is actually the church that is supposed to give to the poor.
As you can see, there are many forms of stealing. And Paul says here in the first part of Ephesians 4:28 to stop stealing.
Next, he gives us the cure for stealing.
The Cure for Stealing (Ephesians 4:28b)
Ephesians 4:28b.… but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good
The root attitudes behind stealing is most often selfishness and laziness. It’s selfish, because it is the desire to have, to possess what I want. Stealing is all about “me” and my desires. It shows a complete lack of respect for others and their possessions. The thief says, “I alone matter, nobody else counts.”
Because of this selfishness, the outlook of the thief makes fellowship among Christians impossible.
Stealing also comes from laziness because ultimately, the thief dislikes work. He despises honest labor. His idea is to have the maximum while doing the minimum. I know that robbing banks is a lot of hard work, but for the most part, bank robbers see it as an easier way to get money than through working honestly at a job.
And other forms of stealing are the same. Most often, if you are diligent and disciplined enough, you can work hard enough and long enough in order to buy the things you want. But those who steal, do so because they think it is a shortcut. They want that piece of clothing now—and so they shoplift.
It’s basically the same attitude behind all forms of stealing. We want money, and we want possessions and we want them now. Stealing helps us get what we want now, rather than taking the hard route of working for them.
So Paul, knowing that selfishness and laziness is behind most kinds of stealing, tells those who have stolen to replace stealing with labor, with working with his hands.
The word Paul uses for labor is a very strong word meaning “labor to the point of exhaustion.” It is beyond just getting a job. In today’s society, almost everybody has a job. That is not what Paul has in mind here. He says labor—wear yourself out in your job.
And then, at the end of this phrase, Paul uses that word good in reference to working. Work is not bad. Work is not undignified. Work is good. Yes, rest is important, but we do not work so that we can rest – some people seem to be at work just so they can have fun on the weekend, or so they can have a good retirement—no, Scripture is very clear, we do not work so we can rest … we rest so we can do better at work. Work is a good thing.
But we live in a society that enshrines leisure. We are experts at doing just the bare minimum at our work places. Unions, which originally were for the protection of the employees, now are detrimental to most workplaces, because nobody is allowed to work faster than the slowest employee. We’ve become lazy at work. We live for the weekends. We’ve developed slogans like TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday). We work only so that we can play.
I think that there is a danger in becoming a workaholic, but there is far more danger in becoming lazy at our jobs. We often look upon work as a curse, but when you go back and read Genesis, we discover that work was not part of the curse. It was part of life before Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. There is dignity and Godliness in a job well done.
Anything short of this is a form of stealing. The moment we begin to regard work as something degrading, as a nuisance in the way of fun, we are on the slippery slope toward stealing. That is what Paul is saying here in Ephesians 4:28.
The principle Paul is giving here is similarly stated over in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 where Paul says “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”
There is no mooching, there is no freeloading, there is no laziness…there is no stealing for the Christian who wants to please God.
By not working, you are stealing—from others, from God, and from yourself. So to stop stealing, start working. Replace stealing with working.
Finally, in Ephesians 4:28, Paul gives us the reason we should do this. The motivation to stop stealing.
The Motivation Against Stealing (Ephesians 4:28c)
Ephesians 4:28c.… that he may have something to give him who has need.
This is completely contrary to modern motivations for work. We think hard work should result in a better standard of living: a better house, a better car, nicer vacations.
But Paul says, “Work hard, not so that you can get more, but so that you can give more.”
The antidote to stealing is working to supply—not for our own needs—but for the needs of others. This is one of the main differences between communism and Christianity.
Karl Marx praised the example of the early Christians in Acts 2:44-45 when it says that they had all things in common, and each one sold his property to supply for the needs of others. It is supposedly this principle that communism is built upon.
But as we have seen in the former Soviet Union, living this way breeds laziness in those who have power. Was the Bible wrong? No. Karl Marx and communism misunderstood what was going on.
Communism is built on the principle which says “What is yours is mine. Your work helps me.”
The Christian work ethic, on the other hand, is built around the principle which says, “What is mine is yours. I work to help you.” The two are similar, but very different. One results in stealing, the other results in giving. One comes from the sinful nature, the other can only come from the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
So that is what Paul is talking about here. The way to defeat selfishness and greed, the way to defeat stealing, is through generosity. Rather than taking from others, start looking for ways to give to others. That is the way to defeat stealing. Simple, isn’t it?
Some people have tried some not so simple solutions to stealing.
In 1947 a prison inmate by the name of Willard Wright consented to an experimental operation involving the cutting of nerve pathways in the forebrain. It was an attempt to discover a cure for his urge to steal. He behaved so well that he was paroled after two-and-a-half years. He secured a job, got married, and gave every evidence of going straight.
Five years later, in Pittsburgh, Wright was identified as the man who had passed some stolen goods. Police found thousands of dollars’ worth stored in his home. Back in prison, Wright simply said, “With me, it just didn’t work.”
Dr. Edward E. Mayer, Allegheny County court behavior expert, said that in his opinion there never was any reason to believe it would work, because a lobotomy reduces self-control. When detectives asked Wright why he had gone back to crime, he shrugged and said, “You fellows know the questions, so you ought to know the answers.”
In commenting on this story, Time magazine said, “The truth was that neither the detective nor the neurosurgeons were any nearer to knowing what makes an incurable thief, let alone how to cure one.”
But where science has failed, the Bible has the answers.
If you have trouble with stealing—get a job (if you don’t have one)—so that you can buy what you need, and so that you can have something to give away. Maybe it would also be a good idea to go home, and pick out some of your possessions to give away.
If you have been stealing from your place of employment, I would encourage you to not only return what you have stolen, but also to replace it with extra. The thief in the Old Testament had to return five times as much as he stole. If you stole a box of pens, go buy five boxes and put them in the supply room.
If you are stealing from God, if you are always worried about your bills, and your car payment, and the credit card charges—take your paycheck every month, and before you pay any bills, cut out of it a generous portion to make available to others. This might require you to get control of your spending. Giving to others requires you to start controlling your money, rather than having your money control you. You will be forced to budget. You will have to stop buying things on a whim, and will have to watch your spending. And I believe God will see and will bless. Maybe not with financial blessing, but with self-control and eternal reward.
Which brings up an important point.
One of the curious things about stealing is that those Christians who steal are actually losing possessions. By taking from others, they are actually losing out. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “… Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, no sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Inheriting the kingdom of God is not the same thing as receiving eternal life. Some confuse the two, but they are vastly different. Inheriting the kingdom of God is similar to receiving an inheritance from a rich grandfather, or from some other wealthy relative.
Generally, the largest portion of the inheritance is given to the son/daughter, grandson/granddaughter, nephew/niece, or whomever most pleases the wealthy relative the most. Those who displease the wealthy relative are disinherited.
Paul is telling us in 1 Corinthians 6 that God is our wealthy relative, and among those who displease God are Christians who steal. Therefore, he will disinherit them. They will make it to heaven—Paul cleared that up in 1 Corinthians 3—but when they get there, their stealing will have actually resulted in a loss of inheritance, a loss of possessions, a loss of eternal reward.
When you take from others you are actually stealing from yourself for eternity.
In closing, let me say that in all of this, we don’t want to be legalistic. A man once told me that if he was walking down the street, and he saw a penny lying on the sidewalk, he would pick it up and take it into the closest business because they owned that part of the sidewalk, and so they owned that penny, and he didn’t want to steal it from them.
He also said that he would never even take an extra paperclip home from the place he worked. He said that if he got home from work and found a paperclip in his pocket, he would get back in his car and take it back to the office. This is a little ridiculous. (This man was later convicted of child molestation, which shows that extreme legalism in one area is often just a way of hiding or compensating for extreme sin in other areas.)
The point here is not to be legalistic. That is what the Pharisees did. In Matthew 23, Jesus condemns them for their legalism. He says they would strain out a gnat and swallow a camel, meaning that they tried to follow the law so carefully that they missed the whole point.
Obedience to the law is not an end in itself. Rather, love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:14; Matt 22:37; etc.).
These commands which Paul gives here, are not given so that we blindly obey them, but so that we can better love each other and reveal to the world our love for God.
Don’t stop stealing simply because Paul says so here. That will never work. You will never be able to stop. The goal is not simply to stop stealing. The goal is generosity out of love for the brethren. Those who truly love other Christians and who truly love God will give generously and joyfully from what they have worked hard for.
So are you a thief? We all are to some degree. We’ve seen that today. But this makes sense, because thievery is in our bloodline. The first Adam, became a thief when He took from God the fruit that was forbidden to him. As a result he was cast out of the Garden of Eden.
But God, sent His Son, Jesus Christ, as the last Adam, and during his final hours before His death on the cross for Adam’s sin, turned to the thief on the cross next to Him, and said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” I don’t think this was coincidence that the last Adam, paying for the sin of stealing by the first Adam, was put on that cross next to a thief, so that those who were kicked out of paradise, could now gain reentry into paradise.
Only the great grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord and His blood shed for us on the cross can cover over the sin of stealing and turn us into giving members of His glorious Kingdom. Let that be an encouragement to you. The strongest witness a Christian can make in our materialistic driven society is by becoming a giver. Let God transform you from a burglar into a benefactor.
 Frank Sacks, “Employee Theft Happens Much More Often Than You Think,” Wichita Business Journal, September 2, 1996, 1.
 McCalley, 51.
 Bob Russell, When God Builds the Church (W. Monroe, LA: Howard, 2000), 236.
 D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17: Darkness and Light (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 247.
 Lloyd-Jones, 246.
 Snodgrass, 258.
 Stott, 188.