There is no Christian with a perfect human record; Paul writes in the Spirit, “all have sinned” (Rom. 3.23). For this very reason, the Christian rejoices in the fact that in Christ there is “redemption through his [Jesus’] blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1.7). It is an incomparable thought to reflect on the fact that “with his stripes, we are healed” (Isa. 53.5).
In this piece, we continue our series and turn to another vice which characterized some of the Corinthian Christians before their conversion: thievery. The challenge for us, as was true for them, is to make our repentance complete from such behavior for “it is incompatible with the kingdom”. Let us, then, consider the sin of thievery, a sin that will make many lose their eternal inheritance (1 Cor. 6.9).
You Are Expected Not Steal
In the covenant with Israel God make it perfectly clear that a person ought to respect the property of another (Exod. 20.15). This anticipates the possibility that in Israel, one’s “brother” may desire another “brother’s” property and acquire it without his consent and/or knowledge. Such behavior is called stealing, and those that act in this way are thieves.
In Exodus 20.15, the Law reads “you shall not steal” (ESV). This is not just a “simple warning” (i.e. “do not do”). It is interesting to observe that the word for “steal” is the Hebrew verb ganab, which is in the imperfect here (tiganab); moreover, it is coupled with the negative adverb la (“no, not”).
This is significant, for this phrase (la tiganab) is “especially used in enforcing the divine commands”, making this commandment a prohibition “with the strongest expectation of obedience”. God tells Israel in essence, “I expect you to never practice in any instance thievery”. In the days of Jesus, observing this law was viewed important to inheriting eternal life (Matt. 19.18, Mark 10.19, Luke 18.20).
Moreover, in the New Testament the Divine prohibition against stealing is stated as an expression of the “second” great commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13.8-9, Lev. 18.11, 19; Matt. 22.34-40). Only if one loves the Lord completely, and loves themselves with one’s one best interests at hand, will the child of God be able to extend love to their neighbor to the point that they will not by fraud or in secret take what does not belong to them. For this very reason, Peter affirms that a Christian should never “suffer as a thief” (1 Pet. 4.15). How tragic it is when Christians suffer by their own “sticky fingers”.
Thieves versus Robbers
In his useful work, Synonyms of the New Testament, Richard Trench provides a comparison between “thief” (kleptes) and “robber” (lestes). To summarize his discussion, he affirms that both kinds of individuals take the things of others (hence are thieves), but they do so in different ways.
(1) The Thief
A thief operates “by fraud and in secret”. The thief will use the cover of deception, secret, and manipulation to take what they want. The thief will operate “below the radar” in order to obtain their stolen desires (Exod. 22.2; Jer. 2.26). Such a nefarious individual may even appear “caring”; as was the case of Judas Iscariot (John 12.6). Because of the resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish elders charged the disciples of Jesus with this type of “cat burglary”, claiming they stole the body (Matt. 28.13; 27.64).
The imagery of one “secretly and without permission [taking] the property of someone else” (cf. Matt. 6.19), becomes an apt metaphor of judgment and the second coming of Christ (Rev. 3.3; Thess. 5.2,4; 2 Peter 3.10; Rev. 16.15; Matt. 24.43; Luke 12.39-40). Contrary to “end time” prophets, no one will know when Jesus comes until he is here (Matt. 24.36, 43). He will come “without permission”; he will come in God’s appointed time.
(2) The Robber
A robber, on the other hand, is one who takes what is not theirs “by violence and openly”. When Jesus cleansed the temple, he quotes Isaiah 56.7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”, and adds Jeremiah 7.11, “but you have made it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21.13). This is a reference to “the dishonesty with which their sacrilegious traffic was conducted” (Jer. 7.9).
As in the parable of the man who fell among “robbers” (Luke 10.25-37), the character of lestes is evident for they “stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10.30 ASV). Paul would run into individuals of this low caliber in his “perils” (2 Cor. 11.26), men who rob by “force and violence” (John 10.1, 8, 10). One needs only to study Barabbas to understand the violent nature of a robber (John 18.40; Mark 15.7; Matt. 27.16), and the “robbers” that were affiliated with him, who were crucified beside Jesus (Matt. 27.38; Mark 15.7).
The Power of Conversion
In conclusion, Paul makes it very clear that being a thief will hinder a Christian’s entrance into the eternal kingdom. For this reason, we must live according to God’s teaching on this matter (Rom. 2.21; 2 Pet. 1.10-11).
When Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus he expands on this idea:
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. (Eph. 4.28)
The life of a thief, yea even a robber, is so transformed by the loving gospel of God that one goes from taking the things of others, to honestly earning the financial means to have their own possessions, so that they may use those resources to help others (Luke 10.33-35, 12.33; Matt. 6.19-20).
- Leon Morris, 1985, 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Comentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans), 93.
- F. W. Gesenius, 1909, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 2nd English edition, edited by E. Kautzsch and A. E. Cowley (London: Oxford University), 317; Reprinted, Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2003.
- Richard C. Trench, 1894, Synonyms of the New Testament, 12th edition (London: Paul, Trench, and Trubner), 157-60.
- R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, 157.
- Johannes P. Louw, and Eugene A. Nida, Editors, 1988, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2d edition (New York, NY: United Bible Societies), 57.232.
- Trench 157.
- John W. McGarvey, no date, A Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight, Ark.: Gospel Light), 180.
- Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 57.240.