From Imitator to Imitable (1 Thessalonians 1:5b-7)


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!

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Grace and Peace to You (1 Thessalonians 1:1c)


Letters typically begin with a greeting.

In New Testament times, Greek-speaking writers began their letters with the word chairein, “Greetings!” (e.g., Acts 15:23, 23:26; James 1:1). Paul, who wrote his letters in Greek, transformed this epistolary convention by replacing chairein with the similar looking and sounding charis in the greeting of all his letters, and by adding eirēnē. So, this is the standard greeting in Paul’s letters: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”[1]

Paul’s standard greeting is a wonderful way for Christians to begin their letters (or emails) to other people.

For one thing, it perpetrates a little theology by defining who God is. He is “our Father,” that is, the Creator of the cosmos (Acts 17:28), the First Person of the Trinity (John 5:18), and the Adoptive Parent of all who believe in him (Eph. 1:5). Paul further describes God using the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ.” The word Lord names Jesus’s divinity. He is the Second Person of the Trinity (Phil. 2:9-11, cf. Isa. 45:23). The word Christ names Jesus’s purpose. He is “the Messiah, the Lord”—the one whose coming into the world brings “good news of great joy to all people” (Luke  2:10,11). And finally, this Divine Person, this Promised Messiah is simple Jesus of Nazareth, who “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, …was buried, …was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and … appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3–5).

For another thing, Paul’s standard greeting perpetrates a little soteriology—i.e., the doctrine of salvation—by identifying the source (grace) and result (peace) of God’s saving work in our lives. Charis means “favor,” and grace is God’s unmerited favor, his decision to love, redeem, forgive, and bless sinners who don’t deserve any of those things. “It is by grace you have been saved,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8. Peace has three dimensions: We have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), with one another (Eph. 2:14–18), and within ourselves (Rom. 8:6).

The doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation in the simple greeting of a letter!

But here’s the kicker: In 1 Thessalonians 1:1—and there alone in the greeting of all his letters—Paul simply wrote, “Grace and peace to you.” He left out “from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul assumed the Thessalonians knew the ultimate source and result of God’s saving work. He had founded their church, after all (Acts 17:1–9).

So why did he leave out the rich bits of theology and soteriology? Because it is one thing to wish God would give people his grace and peace, and another thing to give them your own grace and peace. Paul wants us to be Christians who don’t talk about God one way and then act toward people another way. He wants us to imitate God’s way of doing things in everything we do.

So, grace and peace to you…from me. Please pass them along to others!

The Church’s Physical and Spiritual Locations (1 Thessalonians 1:1b)


The church exists on two planes: Physically, it is located at a specific place and time. Spiritually, however, it is located in God, who is eternal and whose saving purposes for humanity cross the boundaries of geography and chronology. Paul took note of these two planes in 1 Thessalonians 1b: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We often read this address line of Paul’s letter as throwaway verbiage, a mere convention of first-century letter-writing. Letters are from somebody to somebody else, so why pay attention when Paul names his readers? Why? Because Paul doesn’t waste words and transforms epistolary conventions into opportunities for theologizing

Here the theologizing is overt and instructive.

First, with regard to its geography and chronology, the church is “of the Thessalonians.” In the late 40s, when Paul wrote this letter, Thessalonica was a Greek-speaking, free city of the Roman Empire. It was a port city, located in the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, and a hub on the Via Egnatia, the 700-mile land route connecting Roman cities from the Adriatic to the Bosphorous. Proud, powerful, and prosperous—that was the Thessalonica of Paul’s day.

It was also a dangerous place for Christians. Acts 17:1–9 records Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s founding of the church. As was their custom, these missionaries first evangelized the synagogue. Verse 4 indicates that they were successful: “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” Unfortunately, verse 5 notes, “other Jews were jealous,” and they launched a mob action against the missionaries. This mob went before the city officials and charged the missionaries and their converts with treason: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (verse 7). Such treason in a Roman town could not be tolerated. The Thessalonian believers rushed the missionaries out of town (17:10), but they themselves endured suffering (1 Thes. 3:2–4). The city was proud, powerful, and prosperous, but the Christians were persecuted.

But, second, the physical location of the Thessalonian church must be seen in light of its spiritual location. That church existed—and every church exists—“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s God is not just any god. He is “Father.” Here we see God in his role as Creator of the Cosmos, First Person of the Trinity, and Adoptive Father of humankind. He is a powerful God, but good too—a loving Father, in fact. And then we see Jesus, the Son of God, who really is a “king,” but whose crown has been woven from the thorns of intense suffering.

In all ages, the church finds itself located amidst the world’s pride, power, prosperity, and persecution. But we must keep both its temptations and trials in perspective. For Thessalonica is but a temporary address—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. God, however, is our permanent home.

Christianity Is a Team Sport (1 Thesslonians 1:1a)


In 2011, Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing record, a record which had stood for 27 years. Can you name the center who snapped him the ball? The left tackle who guarded his blindside? The running back who caught the ball? Me neither, not without Google anyway.* But Brees couldn’t have broken Marino’s record without their help, or the help of the other seven members of the offensive team.

We sometimes think of the apostle Paul as a Lone-Ranger missionary who single-handedly evangelized Gentiles in Asia Minor and Europe. But like Drew Brees, Paul had help. He played on a team.

First Thessalonians 1:1 names the members of the team: “Paul, Silas and Timothy.” Silas joined Paul in Antioch at the start of his second missionary journey (Acts 15:40), and Timothy joined them sometime thereafter in Lystra (16:3). This was the team that founded the churches in Thessalonica (17:1-9), Berea (17:10-15), and Corinth (18:1-17, cf. 2 Cor. 1:19). Timothy also accompanied Paul on his final journey to Jerusalem (20:4).

We know a lot about Paul, but what do we know about Silas and Timothy?

Silas was a both a Jew and a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37). He was a leader in the Jerusalem church (15:22) and part of a two-man team commissioned by the Council in Jerusalem to communicate its decisions about the requirements of Gentile conversion to Gentile believers in Asia Minor (15:22, 27). He was also a prophet whose words encouraged others (15:32). He was beaten and imprisoned alongside in Paul in Philippi (16:16-40), and with Paul escaped Thessalonica under cover of night in order to avoid a mob action (17:5-10). He is a named co-sender of two of Paul’s letters (1 Thes. 1:1, 2 Thes. 2:1), and he helped Peter write one of his letters (1 Pet. 5:12).

Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage, his mother being Jewish and his father being Greek (Acts 16:1). Prophecies had been made about him (1 Tim. 1:18). Although a team member on Paul’s second missionary journey, he evidently was not beaten or imprisoned as Paul and Silas were. He is named as co-sender of six of Paul’s letters (2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thes. 1:1, 2 Thes. 1:1, Phm. 1:1). He served as Paul’s personal messenger to churches the apostle had founded (Acts 19:22, 1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Thes. 3:2). Later in Paul’s life, Timothy served as the “young” pastor (1 Tim. 4:12) of the church in Ephesus, in which capacity he received two letters of advice from Paul (1 and 2 Timothy). Paul refers to Timothy as “coworker” (Rom. 16:21), “my son whom I love” (1 Cor. 4:17), “our brother” (2 Cor. 1:1), “servant of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:1), and “man of God” (1 Tim. 6:11).

Christian ministry, like Christian life, is a team sport. Some players, like Paul, receive more attention than others. But no one can–or should!–play alone.

So, as 2012 begins, who is your Paul? Your Silas? Your Timothy? Who is on your team?

*Brian de la Puente (center), Jermon Bushrod (left tackle), and Darren Sproles (running back)

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Best. Conspiracy. Ever.

Make sure to watch it all the way through. And read the credits; they’re hilarious.

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“Egypt in crisis talks after Muslim mobs attack Christian churches” or “12 dead in Egypt as Christians and Muslims clash”? GetReligion.org tries to sort out the facts.

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Is a bad marriage better than a good divorce? “Social scientists are concealing the harm that divorce, single parenting and stepfamilies do to children. Not only that, they are also hiding the benefits which even unhappy marriages bestow, not just on children, but on the couples involved.”

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Is a national curriculum a good idea? “National control over curriculum creates a single lever you can pull to move every school in America. Would conservatives trust progressives, and would progressives trust conservatives, not to try to seize control of that lever to inculcate their religious and moral views among the nation’s youth? And if you don’t trust the other side not to try to seize the lever, is there any reasonable alternative to trying to seize it first?”

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In “Europe’s Concerned, Worried, and Doubting,” David Mills reflects on the differences between European and American reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden.

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California college adds major in secularism. Of course, on many college campuses today, students get a minor in it already, though without knowing it.

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“How Christianity and capitalism can ‘heal’ the world.” An interesting article about “social investing.” Theologically, however, I’d prefer to delete –ity and capitalism from the title.

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“LGBT ‘Welcome’ Ad Rejected by Sojourners, Nation’s Premier Progressive Christian Org.” I’m on the opposite side of the issues from Rev. Robert Chase, but I too wonder how a Christian magazine can avoid taking sides on this issue.

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In “Judas,” Lady Gaga goes clubbing with Jesus, who’s a Latin biker, and… Oh, who cares! There’s no “shock value” in this video, only “shlock value.”

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In closing, and a bit more reverentially, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gil shine on this country rendition of “How Great Thou Art”:

I totally want to go to whatever church these two provide “special music” for.

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 P.S. Shameless self-promotion: Check out my article in Enrichment: “Up There, Down Here, Among Us, In Me.” It’s about praying for God’s kingdom.

A Festschrift of Sorts for N.T. Wright by Critics Who Are Also Friends


 Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). $24.00, 294 pages.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God publishes the papers presented at the nineteenth annual Wheaton Theology Conference, hosted by Wheaton College on April 16–17, 2010. It doubles as a Festschrift of sorts for N. T. “Tom” Wright, whose books—whether academic or popular—alternatively influence and infuriate their readers, especially their evangelical readers. Its authors, though sometimes critical of Wright’s theology, are also personal friends.

The book, like the conference, examined Wright’s theology of Jesus (Part One) and his theology of Paul (Part Two). Following each chapter, Wright offers a short response to the author of the chapter. At the end of each part, Wright outlines the evolution to date of his thinking, using a “whence and whither” formula. The book includes a “Subject Index” and a “Scripture Index,” both of which are helpful for academic readers. A select bibliography of Wright’s books and articles would have been helpful, but it is not included.

For me, Wright’s two “whence and whither” essays were worth the price of the book. Wright is a prolific author. His three-volume series, Christians Origins and the Question of God, contains 2,016 pages of densely argued prose. The “whence and whither” essays helped me understand the gist of Wright’s portrait of Jesus, how he reached his conclusions, and how those conclusions apply to the life of the church today.

Of the other essays, two stood out to me in particular: “‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God” by Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh and “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology.” The former offered a provocative (and controversial) reading of Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds that got me thinking about economic justice. The latter helped me navigate the debate between Wright and John Piper on the doctrine of justification by faith and suggested “union with Christ” as a point of rapprochement between the traditional Protestant doctrine and Wright’s own interpretation of justification.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God makes an excellent companion volume to InterVarsity Press’s book, Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (1999). If you are interested in the critical assessment of Wright’s work, especially from an evangelical point of view, these two volumes are a good place to start.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

What’s Food Got to Do with Anything? (1 Corinthians 8:1a)


Sometimes, I read the Bible, scratch my head, and wonder what it’s talking about. I scratched my head when I read 1 Corinthians 8:1a: “Now about food sacrificed to idols…” These words introduce a three-chapter argument Paul makes against the Corinthians in 8:1–11:1.

I haven’t seen any idols lately, let alone sacrificed food to them. So, I feel tempted to skip this portion of Scripture and move on to another that relates to my world. Perhaps you feel tempted to do the same.

Resist that temptation! The particular example Paul uses may not be relevant to people like us—because we don’t eat food sacrificed to idols—but the way he thinks about this example definitely is

In the ancient world, people sacrificed animals to the gods. They gave some of the meat to the priests, and they consumed some of the meat in a religious feast at the temple. The priests sold leftover meat in the public market, which was then consumed in private homes.

Today, our post-Christian society considers religion to be a private affair. Ancients interpreted religion differently. Religious duties, including religious feasts, were an integral part of a person’s civic responsibilities. Performing these duties and attending these feasts generated social and political benefits. Failing to do so generated social and political costs.

The first generation of Christians strove to avoid idolatry, which violated the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Living in cities where idolatry constituted the majority religion forced them to ask themselves three hard questions:

  1. Can we eat food sacrificed to idols as part of a religious feast at the temple?
  2. Can we eat food sacrificed to idols, sold in the public market, and consumed in private homes?
  3. Can we afford the social and political costs associated with answer “No” to the first two questions?

The Corinthians and Paul offered contrary answers. The Corinthians answered, “Yes,” “Yes,” and “No,” respectively. Paul answered, “No,” “Maybe,” and “Yes.” How they reasoned to these contrary answers explains why we shouldn’t skip 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1.

The Corinthians based their answers on knowledge. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (8:4). Knowledge confers rights. If idols are nothing, then eating food sacrificed to them is also nothing. And if nothing, I have a right to eat food sacrificed to idols and to enjoy the social and political benefits my city confers.

Paul based his answers on love: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:2). Love confers responsibilities. If I love God, I avoid anti-God rituals. If I love people, I take their scruples into account as I choose how to act. If those loves conflict, I take responsibility for the costs my decision imposes.

Eating food sacrificed to idols may not be relevant to us today. But how we negotiate the tensions of decision-making—knowledge and love, rights and responsibilities—certainly is.

More on that in our next devotional.

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P.S. I’ve started a new feature called “George’s Book Reviews.” If you’d like to receive occasional book reviews from me via email, click here to subscribe. You will need to respond to a confirmation email before your subscription goes active.

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