And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
(1 Thessalonians 1:6–8 NIV)
Key Observation: God’s kingdom spreads when believers live in a manner worthy of imitation.
Understanding the Word. Have you noticed how passion is contagious? If you’ve ever had a teacher who loves her subject and her students, you know what I mean. You can’t help but share the excitement; the passion rubs off. That’s what it was like when Paul got to Thessalonica. He was nothing if not passionate. Remember Paul sacrificed an upwardly mobile and influential life to become a traveling church planter. He was dedicated to the mission. His love for Jesus rubbed off on the Thessalonians. They became imitators of Paul.
Now this is the first time in the letter Paul mentions how the Thessalonians endured persecution. He doesn’t go into detail, but he does connect their perseverance to imitation. Like Paul, they remained faithful despite the cost. Ultimately, imitation is about Jesus, who suffered and died to redeem us. Jesus wasn’t focused on his own needs or comfort. He didn’t prioritize the preservation of his life; he prioritized the salvation of the world. He “emptied himself of all but love,” as songwriter Charles Wesley put it. All Christian imitation boils down to imitating the self-giving love of Jesus. That’s a life worth imitating. Paul imitated Jesus. The Thessalonians imitated Paul.
Now if we’re going to talk about imitation, there are two concepts to cover: transformation and multiplication. Let’s take transformation first. When Paul says the Thessalonians “became imitators” of him, he implies that their lives changed. The Thessalonians had to be willing to look at themselves and determine what didn’t line up with God’s best. Whether it’s idolatry, anger, laziness, or something else, following Jesus means some things stop and other things start. How do we know what to stop doing and what to start doing? God gives us people to imitate. The Thessalonians looked at Paul as an example of commitment to Jesus. He taught them how to be single-minded, devoted, and holy. He lived a life worth imitating, and his life was an instrument of grace to the Thessalonians. In Paul, they saw a real difference.
What’s striking is that the process didn’t stop when the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul. As they changed, they also became an example for others to imitate. Their reputation spread to the north (Macedonia) and the south (Achaia). That’s what I mean by multiplication. If one believer lives a life worth imitating, and a few people begin to imitate him or her and others begin to imitate them, then the number of people who embody the character of Jesus grows. Imitation is how the world changes.
I hope you are beginning to see that Christian community is essential. If we think of Christianity as a solo project—a private relationship between me and Jesus that doesn’t depend on others—then there is no place for imitation. If we are going to imitate someone, then we need to be in community with that person. And if others are going to imitate us, the same is true. Imitation requires community.
Questions for Reflection
- Think of a time when you experienced a challenge or setback. How did you respond? Would you respond differently now that you know imitation of Jesus involves perseverance through suffering?
- Do you have mature followers of Jesus to imitate? Who are they? Do you live in a way that is worthy of imitation? Could you tell a new follower of Jesus, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ”?
- What changes do you need to make to begin to live a life worthy of imitation?
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