Paul was raised a scholar (Acts 22:3) but he had a trade (Acts 18:1-3), so was able to say he didn’t eat any man’s bread “for nought” (IITh.3:8) or for nothing. That is, he paid for his keep. Paul had to work “night and day” (3:8) to pay for his own needs and those of his helpers (Acts 20:34).
He did this even though he had the “power” not to do this (IITh.3:9). When he told the Corinthians he had the power to “forbear working” (ICor.9:1-6), he wasn’t implying that being an apostle wasn’t hard work. He told Timothy to give himself “wholly” to the ministry (ITim.4:13-15), and he wouldn’t ask him to do anything he wasn’t doing himself. Giving yourself wholly to studying and teaching the Word is hard work (Eccl.12:12).
No, he meant he had the power to “forbear working” as a tentmaker. He gave up this right in Corinth (ICor.9:12,15) because they were a big church, the only church Paul wrote to that was too large to meet in a home (ICor.11:18cf.22), and they were in a wealthy city. Because of this, “ten thousand instructors” had descended on the church, all claiming to be spiritual leaders, and all wanting to be paid.
That means when Paul hit town, he knew he had to do something to distance himself from these religious hucksters, so he didn’t do what he usually did when he entered a city. He usually went straight to the synagogue (Acts 13:13,14; 14:1; 17:10). He eventually got to the synagogue in Corinth (18:4), but first he got a job (18:1-3) to show he wasn’t after their money like all the religious profiteers. This way they knew he wasn’t lying when he told them he didn’t want their money, he wanted them (IICor.12:14).
Paul also gave up his right to forbear working in Ephesus, as we’ve seen he told the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:34). He prefaced that remark by saying he hadn’t coveted their gold (v.33) because he’d probably been charged with coveting their gold. People probably suspected he put the idol-makers out of business so that he could swoop in and start a church and start collecting the money that people used to spend in worshipping Diana. In addition, since Paul added that he worked with his hands in Ephesus to teach the elders to give to the weak (v.35), we know this was another reason he gave up his right to forbear working.
In Thessalonica, Paul gave up his right to forbear working as “an ensample” to them (IITh.3:9), knowing that some had quit working when they heard the Rapture was imminent. To address this error, he reminded them that from his very first visits with them he had told them if any wouldn’t work, he shouldn’t eat (3:10). Notice that he didn’t say if any couldn’t work he shouldn’t eat, he was addressing those who could work but had ceased working.
Even under the Law, if you lost your job, no one handed you a free lunch. Farmers were told not to glean their crops too carefully so that the poor and unemployed could follow the reapers and earn their meals (Lev.19:9,10).
It is human nature to overreact to the thought of imminent deliverance. After Moses told Israel they were about to be delivered (Ex.4:29-31), they couldn’t quit their jobs as slaves, of course, but they may have slacked off enough to give merit to Pharaoh’s charge that all that talk about going into the wilderness to sacrifice to God had “let” or hindered them from their burdens (Ex.5:4,5). It is natural to overreact to the thought of imminent deliverance, but doing what comes naturally is never a good thing (ICor.2:14).
If you’re thinking this wasn’t much of an Easter message, I assure you that working for a living is part of living the resurrection life of Christ (Phil. 3:10). “The power of His resurrection” was the power that enables us to do good works. When the unbeliever does good works it is sin (Mt.7:22,23). So if Paul says we should work with our hands the thing which is good (Eph.4:28), surely going to work is a good work—if you are a believer. If you are not a believer it is a sin (Pr.21:4). Going to work is a good and righteous thing to do, but if you are not saved, it is a work of self righteousness, something that is filthy in the eyes of God (Isa. 64:6).