As the Session was looking ahead through the upcoming readings in Revelation, one of the elders noted how long the world laments the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18. More than half of that chapter is devoted to their lamentations, and the subject of their lament is the loss of luxury and riches on account of the fall of Babylon. This lament is striking for how callous it presents the kings, merchants, and sailors who profited from Babylon. Vern Poythress puts it this way:
The catalog of luxuries in [Rev] 18:11-13 makes clear how people may indulge themselves at the expense of others (“bodies and souls of men,” v. 13). Other people, merchants and sailors, may admire the luxury, but are most interested in the profit that they get from supplying the luxuries to others (vv. 15, 19). In the context of the Roman Empire, the picture was literally true. The powerful (“the kings of the earth”) grew rich through the concentration of power in the Roman Empire, and they built their estates on the backs of slaves. Merchants and sailors stood profit from the trade in luxury items.
Poythress goes on to highlight the enduring reality of this text in Revelation in modern societies, emphasizing how those who exploit their power and position for gain are resistant to meaningful change. In contrast, those who love God work not for luxury or profit in and of themselves but for God’s glory and the good of others. Poythress concludes, “the righteous love righteousness more than any amount of earthly comfort and prosperity.”
In light of Paul’s exhortation in our text this week from 1 Thessalonians 4, it is all the more apparent that a lack of brotherly love is the underlying cause of the lament in Revelation 18. Rather than growing in a love for others, those represented by the kings, merchants, and sailors turned inward and love only self. Their labors are ultimately self-serving, and their lament will ultimately be self-interested.
On the other hand, Paul’s exhortation to increase in brotherly love includes the self-less type of love and labor. As Paul urges his readers to work with their hands, he supplies a good reason for this exhortation: “so that you may…be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:12). As I mention in my sermon, this means that when the members of the body of Christ live quietly and mind their own affairs and work with their hands, there will be no cause for needless burdens. How that is possible is because those who increase in brotherly love by working with their hands end up at least supporting themselves and often providing for others within the church.
Rather than working to exploit others for the sake of individual gain, an increase in brotherly love through work provides for the sake of others. Paul expresses this sentiment clearly in his letter to the Ephesians: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (4:28 ESV).
More generally, the Proverbs teach the importance of generosity, which is only possible when each member of the church diligently works. “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Prov 19:17 ESV). “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (Prov 22:9 ESV). “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want” (Prov 11:24 ESV).
Now, we also need to acknowledge that there are some within the body of Christ who cannot work, and others whose work does not produce income. Paul is not trying to shame either category, but to encourage those who can work to do so all the more to provide for these two categories of fellow brothers and sisters. In that way, brotherly love is shown within the church as diligent work reduces needless dependence and increases generosity for the appropriate applications of financial assistance. To be sure, all of this requires wisdom as we seek to show love to one another, but in the end it is not an optional expression of brotherly love. Therefore, let us love one another all the more by living quietly, minding our own business, and working with our hands so that needs are met. Let God be glorified rather than man be gratified.