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!

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)

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