In recent decades, it seems a lot of people don’t like Paul or his epistles very well. Even in the church, there are those who think they see a dichotomy between Paul’s words and Jesus’. The closer anyone looks, the harder it is to find any of the supposed contradictions between Paul and any other New Testament writer, but too many Christians today content themselves with an occasional glance. In 1 Corinthians 4:16, Paul urged that church to imitate him. That sends the critics into an uproar, excoriating him for his arrogance.
1 Thessalonians 1:6-10 gives a somewhat different view of the same concept, except instead of urging a church to imitate him, Paul commends a church for the way they imitated him. That’s certainly worth a closer look.
In spite of persecution, the Thessalonians received the gospel with joy. Paul, in spite of persecution, continued to proclaim the gospel with joy. If someone can remain joyful even when suffering abuse, that’s worth imitating. That joy was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If someone can set desire for human approval aside and turn to the Holy Spirit for inspiration, that’s worth imitating. If anyone or any group of people can live in such a way that other people who follow decide Jesus point to them as role models, that’s worth imitating.
Now, we know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No descendant of Adam is always a worthy role model, but the Thessalonians did not just imitate Paul and his staff. They imitated the Lord. So here’s the thing. If you see someone imitating the Lord, figure out how they do it and do the same thing. If you notice in something that they’re not imitating the Lord, well, don’t imitate them in that.
If you see someone trying to be like you, that’s a good thing if they’re imitating you as you imitate the Lord. It’s not a good thing if they start taking after one of your bad habits. We should all pray for discernment so that we know the difference—not only so that we can try to minimize our bad habits and follow the Lord more consistently, but also so that we can more consistently be a good example for others.
Here’s how the Thessalonians served as a good example to other Christians: They welcomed Paul and his staff. That is, they were friendly and hospitable when they heard the gospel. They turned away from the idols they worshiped before and decided to serve the living God himself.
We know that every one of us worshiped idols before we met Christ. They were not idols made out of wood, stone, or precious metals. We did not have a shrine where we offered incense or sacrifices, but we worshiped idols nonetheless. What are modern day idols that people worship? Basically, they are things we can see, hear, taste, smell, or feel. When we devote our lives to obtaining them or pleasing them or otherwise focus our full attention to them and neglect to please God, focus our full attention on him, and obtain the blessings he has chosen to give us, we are worshiping idols.
When we accept Christ and decide to follow him, it can be very difficult to shake off the attraction of these idols—especially if family, friends, neighbors, or society as a whole take offense at our decision. The Thessalonians did just that, with a joy and cheerfulness that caused people from many other towns to comment to Paul about their faith.
In a post on the first half of this same chapter, I noted that maintaining faith, hope, and love are hard work; the Thessalonians worked hard at it. In particular, they based their hope not on their pagan neighbors eventually becoming nicer, not on any end to persecution, not on the prospect of moving to a more hospitable area.
Paul had preached a crucified and resurrected Christ who promised to return to the world and rescue his followers from the wrath of God that would be revealed against the unrepentant unrighteous. And so they placed their faith and hope in an absent Christ who promised to return at some indefinite time in the future.
As a matter of fact, as we continue to read this epistle, we find that Paul wrote it to break the news that Christ wouldn’t be coming back in a few months or years. The work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfastness in hope require that we keep believing in the return of Christ and the final judgment of evil even as we see no evidence in the world around us.
Jesus went to the cross on faith. Nothing he saw his last week in Jerusalem gave him any evidence that his death would redeem the world. The Father abandoned him on the cross. He asked why in a loud voice, but still did not abandon his faith that he would triumph by death and not by coming off the cross as his enemies demanded. Paul imitated that faith in the absence of any visible Jesus or any promise that he would live to see his return. Paul’s work or believing in God’s grace and faithfulness earned him the right to urge others to imitate him.