The Thessalonians: A Life Worth Imitating

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    1 Thessalonians 1 Matthew 13:5-6,20-21

“Set a good example!” You’ve probably said it if you’ve been around kids for any length of time. I know I have. We all agree that we should be a good example, but what does a good example look like for a follower of Christ? The Apostle Paul applauded the Thessalonians for being good examples to believers throughout Greece (1 Thessalonians 1:7), but what set them apart? How did they model for us a life worth imitating? Let’s turn to 1 Thessalonians and find out.

They Persevered in Their Faith

From the very beginning, the church at Thessalonica encountered opposition and resistance. So much so that Paul feared the Thessalonians wouldn’t be able to resist the lies of the enemy and that his missionary work in Thessalonica would be in vain (1 Thessalonians 3:5).

Paul did not have as much time as he would have liked with the Thessalonians. Persecution followed him everywhere he went, and Thessalonica was no different. After three weeks of preaching the Good News, he was pushed out of the city, leaving the newly founded Thessalonian church to fend for itself. It turns out that Paul feared needlessly because, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Thessalonians persevered in their faith despite encountering much persecution and suffering.

They Remained Planted

Seed in Rocky Soil – Jesus’ Parable of Sower

When the Thessalonians heard the Good News, they could have been like the seeds in Jesus’ parable of the sower that were sown on rocky ground with little soil. These seeds sprung up quickly but soon withered and died in the sun because they had no roots. Jesus explains that these seeds represent people who receive the Word with joy but immediately fall away when tribulation or persecution arises because of the Word. (Matthew 13:5-6,20-21).

You’ll notice similarities between the Thessalonians and the fair-weather friends represented by the seeds that fell on rocky ground. Both received the Word joyfully and then experienced great tribulation and persecution because of it. However, the Thessalonians didn’t fall away, unlike the stony ground seeds. They remained planted, growing into a flourishing and generous church. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5) So what made them different? Why did they stay planted?

Holy Spirit Empowered Them

The Thessalonians did not fall away because they received the Good News in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Paul knew that it was only because of the power of the Holy Spirit that the Thessalonians could receive the Word with joy amid severe suffering AND hold on to it too!

Paul thanked God that when the Thessalonians received the Word, they accepted it not as the word of men but as it really was, the Word of God, which Paul described as “at work in believers.” (1 Thessalonians 1:13) The Holy Spirit worked within the Thessalonian believers, convincing them of the truth of the Word of God. This conviction enabled them to persevere even during persecution. The Thessalonians stood firm in their conviction because they kept their hearts open to the Gospel: they heard the Word, understood it, and put it into practice. They became imitators of Christ and of the Apostles.

They Became Imitators

Today we often think of the term imitator in a negative sense. People say, “don’t imitate others; just be yourself!” However, in the New Testament context, being an imitator is a positive thing: we are encouraged to imitate godly examples and the ultimate example, Christ.

Let’s break the word “imitator” down a bit. In Greek, it is “mimetes,” meaning an imitator, or a follower. It is the root of the English word “mimic,” which means one who imitates or emulates. The HELPS Word-study explains it as “the positive imitation that arises by admiring the pattern set by someone worthy of emulation, i.e., a mentor setting a proper example.”

Imitation Empowered by the Word

Twice Paul describes the Thessalonians as imitators of the Apostles and Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14). Each use of the term “imitator” directly follows Paul’s account of how the Thessalonians received the Word of God.

The Thessalonians only became imitators of the Apostles and Jesus in their suffering BECAUSE the Word empowered them. With open hearts, they received the Gospel in power, through Holy Spirit, with conviction and believed it was the Word of God. But the Thessalonians did more than imitate the Apostles and Jesus in their suffering; they also imitated them in their response to their suffering! Their response was one of JOY. Paul and Jesus both knew something about joy in suffering. Paul sums it up this way:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5

Imitators of Paul

Throughout the New Testament, Paul repeatedly admonishes believers to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1, Ephesians 5:1). Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to imitate him, the other apostles, and Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 3:9). Paul did more than talk the talk. Paul walked the walk. He lived his life as an example to follow.  

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:1

By Rembrandt - National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Public Domain
  1. Paul knew Christ. He counted everything else as garbage compared to the infinite value of knowing Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
  2. Paul aimed to please Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:9)
  3. Paul was humble before God. He recognized that only when he was weak was he strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
  4. Paul loved Jesus more than his life. (Philippians 1:21)
  5. Paul lived for God. (Galatians 2:19)

Paul’s pattern of living is worth emulating. He set a good example that we can still follow today. Not only should we look to Paul’s godly leadership in Scripture, but we should also look for godly leadership in the church. The key is finding leaders worth imitating.

Seek godly leadership like Paul. Get to know their heart. Do they know Christ and put Him before all else? Do they rightly handle the word of truth? (1 Timothy 2:15) Carefully consider the outcomes of their way of life: are they producing the fruits of the Holy Spirit? Do they look like Christ? If so, imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).

I like how Leonardo De Chirico put it in his article “Watch Who You Imitate,

 “We are to imitate those who are more mature, more experienced, those whom God has approved in their ministries and lives. We are to learn from their prayer lives, from the way they handle problems, from the way they witness, from their family lives. As godly people imitate God, they embody for us godly human patterns of Christian discipleship.”

Although we should imitate leaders that follow Christ, leaders are human. They are not perfect. And that is ok because we have a perfect example in Christ.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcomes of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Hebrews 13:7

Imitators of Jesus

Jesus lived a perfect life, a life worth imitating. He calls us to follow Him. Follow seems like such a simple word, but it means more than following someone from place to place. It also means to “cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying also.” To follow someone means to imitate them.

Jesus of Nazareth by Fernando de Gorocica

If we claim to be a follower, we must live as Jesus did.

John 2:6

We are to follow Jesus. If we claim to be a follower, we must live as Jesus did (1 John 2:6). We must do as Jesus did.

So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet." John 13:12-15

However, imitating Jesus’ actions is not enough. Our motivations must also line up with His heart. We must take on Jesus’ attitude. Paul understood this very well.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:3-8

We are to be imitators and followers of Christ. We are also to imitate those godly leaders who imitate and follow Christ. By this, we set examples for believers and non-believers alike. This is precisely what the Thessalonians did.

They Became Examples

Paul recounts in 1 Thessalonians 1:7 that because the Thessalonians imitated the apostles and the Lord, they became an example to all of Greece.

“Example” is the Greek word “tupos.” It means a figure, a model, or a type. It is from the word typto, which means to strike repeatedly. It refers to a model forged by repetition. Figuratively, it means the correct paradigm, based on reliable precedent for others to then follow.  

What struck me (see what I did) is that the definition refers to a model forged by repetition. Setting a good example for someone isn’t a one-time deal. Setting a good example requires washing, rinsing, and repeating.

Paul commends the Thessalonians for their work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3). “Work,” “labor,” and “love” describe actions that reflect a pattern of conduct forged by repetition, not a one-time event.

Not only did the Thessalonians’ work, labor, and love set a good example for other believers, Paul tells us that the Lord’s message sounded forth from the Thessalonians throughout Greece. But that’s not all. Despite severe persecution and suffering, their example of unrelenting perseverance spoke for itself. Paul didn’t have to tell other believers anything. The Thessalonians’ change was evident. Yesterday they were one way, and today they were another. They used to be idol worshipers, and now, even after persecution and suffering, they stood firm in their faith. This change spoke volumes. It increased other believers’ faith. It solidified what they knew to be true. It gave them hope. Good examples do that.

Be A Good Example

The Thessalonians modeled a life worth imitating through their perseverance in faith and by remaining planted despite suffering and persecution. When they heard the Word, they understood it and put it into practice. They followed the example of Paul and of Christ and in turn became good examples to other believers through their display of faith in the midst of persecution and suffering.

We can learn from the Thessalonians. They had it right. They followed Paul who followed Christ and then in turn they became good examples. Paul’s model of living continues to encourage us today. His example did not lead the Thessalonians astray and it won’t lead us astray either. Not only should we look to Paul’s godly leadership in Scripture, but we should also look for godly leaders in the church who follow Christ. Ultimately, however, we are to be imitators and followers of Christ.

For further study, click the links below.


Answer the following questions:

  1. The Thessalonians received the word joyfully, in much affliction (2:14; 3:3). Do you remain faithful to the word even in the midst of trouble (Matt 13:20-21)? Are you able to maintain spiritual joy even when things are difficult?
  2. The Thessalonian’s faithfulness despite persecution was an example to others. In what ways has your faithfulness been an example to others? Have there been times when you’ve been a bad example? What could you have done differently?
  3. The Thessalonians experienced a dramatic transformation when they were saved. One day they were one way, and the next day they were another. In what ways have you experienced such a transformation since you believed the message of the Gospel? Can those around you see that your faith has transformed your life?
What’s next?

Read 1 Thessalonians 2


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