Which is more important: what you say or what you do?
In one sense, this is a false dichotomy. Both our words and our deeds are important. Indeed, they need one another. Without deeds, words are empty. Without words, deeds are mute.
Paul brings words and deeds together in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10. Verses 4-5 speak of Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s Spirit-driven preaching that was demonstrated by “power” (miracles) and resulted “deep conviction” in the heart of the Thessalonians. Out of that deep conviction, and following the missionaries’ example, the Thessalonians themselves lived lives that gained renown throughout the area.
In another sense, however, deeds speak louder than words. Consider what Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote in verses 5b-7: “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”
In the course of these three verses, the missionaries chart the course from being imitators to becoming imitable.
The course begins with someone to imitate. Here, Paul, Silas, and Timothy themselves are the examples the Thessalonians followed. “You know how we lived among you for your sake.” According to Acts 17:1-9, persecution followed hard on the heels of the foundation of the Thessalonian church. A lynch mob went looking for Paul and Silas. Unable to find them, they dragged a Thessalonian believer named Jason and unnamed others to court, accusing them of sedition. Afraid for the missionaries’ safety, the Thessalonians rushed them out of town in the dead of night. We don’t know how long Paul, Silas, and Timothy lived among the Thessalonians–perhaps a matter of weeks–but their hard work (1 Thes. 2:9) left a deep impression on them.
So, imitable lives produced imitators: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.” The missionaries didn’t make up their example. They simply imitated Jesus. So, by imitating the missionaries, the Thessalonians imitated the Lord. In what way? “You welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” In reading this, I am reminded of two statements, one by and one about Jesus. First, in Gethsemane, facing certain death, Jesus prayed, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And second, Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. The Thessalonians learned how to suffer joyfully from the missionaries, who themselves learned it from Christ.
Finally, the imitators themselves became imitable. “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. People who imitate Jesus inevitably become people whom others want to follow. Being shaped by him, they began to shape others in his image.
Words are important. But in a real sense, how you live is your most convincing sermon. So live a life worthy imitating!