In 1 Thessalonians 1:5b-7, Paul is still thanking God for the Thessalonians, and his thanksgiving sets the pace for the rest of the letter.
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.
And again in 2:14 –
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.
Let’s read some verses that use the word “disciple”. In the gospels we see the word “disciple”. Disciples are learners. When Jesus called his first disciples, he said “follow me”. Later on in Matthew 5:1b-2, “His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.”
But being a disciple is not just learning about Jesus or the kingdom of God; it means to learn to do what Jesus does:
Matt 10:1 – Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
Matt 14:19 – Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.
Matthew 7, in my Bible, has a heading: “True and False Disciples”. Although it doesn’t exactly mention the word disciple, the concept is there:
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
What is the difference between a real disciple and a pretend one? The true disciple doesn’t just read or hear the truth, but does the truth.
As a teacher, I am supposed to think not only about giving out information, but challenging my students to practice what we learn. You know, in my seminary days I took a course on evangelism – we learned a lot of concepts, we had book learning (which is important!); but that is where it stopped. At ESEPA, one of our professors would teach the evangelism class on Saturday morning; then later when WalMart opened, he would say, “Let’s go over to the parking lot, and we will actually evangelize people!”
When our Sammy and I cross a busy street, I stress, Now watch me! I say, one, two, three, go! And then later on I said, Okay, what do we do? And he counts one, two, three, go. When it’s real life, I don’t just want him to pass a quiz, I want him to “demonstrate learning” – that’s the technical phrase.
And didn’t Jesus emphasize the same thing in Matthew 28:19a, 20a –
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Does he say “teach them all the concepts they have learned”? No, he says, “teach them to obey”, to take obedient action. The original disciples imitate Jesus, they should teach others in the same way, and so on, through 2000 years down to whoever taught us.
The gospels and the book of Acts use the word “disciple”. In his letters, Paul does not use the word disciple, although he could have. The word he does us is “imitator”, and it has the same sense as disciple.
“Imitation” can have a bad sense, as in fake (imitation gold, watch); but here it’s positive, patterning yourself after a good example.
In 1 Thessalonians 1, we can identify three stages of imitation:
The Thessalonians had models to follow:
- Apostles – “You know how we lived among you for your sake.” (v. 5b)
- Lord Jesus – “imitators…of the Lord” (v. 6)
“You became imitators” (v. 6)
They in their turn, became models for others to imitate:
“And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (v. 7)
These people had only been Christians a few months at the most. And already people in this wide region were saying, let’s live as the Thessalonians do, because they are showing how we should act.
Paul mentions “Macedonia and Achaia”. Satan had blocked Paul and Silas from going back to Thessalonica, and now Timothy has gone and returned, and he’s returning again with this letter. Apart from this new contact, Paul had had no direct communication from the church. But he must have heard indirectly: let’s say he runs across a Christian from another place in Macedonia, who reports, Oh, we know all about Thessalonica! And then from Achaia, weeks away from that city; of we’ve heard all about what the Lord is doing in Thessalonica! And a point we’ll look at next time is, they are apparently witnessing to people, who in turn get saved – “the word is ringing out from you!” So Paul runs into a Christian, who says, you know, I met a new convert a few weeks ago, and she said the woman who led her to the Lord was named so-and-so – and Paul says, “So-and-so…from Thessalonica??” “Yeah, that’s right! How did you know?”
So, in Macedonia, Achaia, everywhere. They are a beacon. They are showing their world what it means to follow Christ, and in the middle of harsh persecution.
Let’s think about teaching and learning by “imitation”; the technical term is mimesis. The imitation of a “master” is widely used to teach such skills as cooking, art, gardening, home renovation, tennis, the martial arts, golf, and even doing surgery: one method of teaching surgery is “See one, do one, teach one.”
Mimesis was especially suitable to a culture where few could read. Pastors could not ask their people to read a guide to discipleship and then fill in the accompanying workbook. And even in a culture today where people can read, maybe we rely too much on just giving out information: Someone asks, How do I pray? And we answer: Well, I’ll preach sermons about it. Or, well, here’s a book that tells you how. The apostle’s way is, “Meet with me once a week, sit down with me, I’ll pray, and then you pray.”
Usually we think of mature Christians giving a good example to newer one. But I can also testify that, I often pick up good help from watching believers who have the same mileage as I do, or who are a lot younger than I am in the Lord.
Let’s look at other examples in the New Testament.
First of all, Paul provided a living pattern when he was present; he also went on to develop a sort of “distance teaching”—holding himself up as a model to his disciples in writing, usually connecting their present need with something his readers had earlier seen him do with their own eyes. This happens in 1 Thessalonians, and also in 1 Corinthians:
1 Cor 4:16-17 – Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
1 Cor 11:1 – Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. Or the NKJV – “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
1 Corinthians 4 and 11: Paul isn’t present with them, but he asks them to picture in their minds, What would Paul do? So in his epistles it’s long-distance imitation.
Paul not only taught by example, he taught his disciples to teach by example:
1 Tim 4:11, 12b – Command and teach these things…set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.
Titus 2:7 – “n everything set them an example by doing what is good.”
And apart from Paul are other texts; 3 John 9–12 is all about imitation, John the elder holds up generous and loving Demetrius as a proper model and proud, divisive Diotrophes as a negative one:
Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. (3 John 11).
And beyond 1 Cor. 11:1, we are told to imitate Christ, and imitate God:
Hebrews 12:1-2 – And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Ephesians 5:1 – Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. Or as the CEV has it “Do as God does.”
And so the fact that the Thessalonians are doing this well, imitating and letting themselves be a model to others, this is all great news, it is the picture of successful discipleship.
Now, let’s think of the scary part of imitation: all Christians, especially leaders, but everyone – must assume that they are always being watched and imitated. Now, if you watch a video of some cooking expert, after he signs off, in a sense, you don’t know and maybe don’t care about his personal life.
But Christian discipleship on the other hand is the imitation of the whole person, and the discipler is in theory always on duty. Sometimes we are at work, sometimes at rest, but we are never off-duty from being Christian examples. A flawed model will result in a flawed disciple, who will beget flawed followers in turn.
1 Cor 11:1 NKJV has that intimidating statement of Paul – “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” If you want to unpack that, then he is saying: I am able to invite you to imitate me, because I can assure you that I am imitating Christ. So when someone says, “What would Jesus do?”, in an imperfect but real way, one answer would be, “Well, look at Paul.”
Where do we go with this teaching? Let’s look at both sides of the coin:
First, we should make it a point to look up to good examples. I used to tell my kids, One of your most important decisions is who your friends will be; because they will rub off on you for good or ill. This is for adults as well, because we will slowly turn into people we admire. We see someone on TV or read what they write, and we get on the wrong track: Just look at him, he blurts out whatever he thinks and doesn’t care who he runs over! He says what everyone else is thinking and is too afraid to! We imagine he is brave, and we should be brave too, where maybe he’s just out of control.
Don’t say it out loud, but answer in your mind: What Christians do I admire and try to be like them? And have I made good choices with them?
Second, how about people who pattern themselves after us. That’s the part that makes some people squeamish:
I wouldn’t dare to tell people to imitate my way of life!
Maybe that was okay for Paul, but not for me!
If I said something like this, it would come of sounding really arrogant!
Christians, it says in 1 Cor 11:1, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” It is not optional. It is not just for leaders. It is not just for Paul.
If you have any interest in being a disciple of Christ, then by definition you are signing up to be an example to other Christians. You can’t switch it off, take a break. In my home, whatever I say and do, I have to always keep in mind that, “Little eyes are watching you!”
And beyond that, are you on purpose looking out for people who you can help out? Who is the newer Christian in your circle of friends? “Oh, I could never say, let’s get together and I’ll teach you how to pray; or share your faith; or read the Bible; or have more joy or love or patience!”
It’s your job too. And you might be surprised that there are people who are just waiting to be asked, and they are too shy to say so.
Meditation: Lord, give me someone to help by example.
This expository series is based on my volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament; readers might want to acquire that commentary if they wish to see the exegetical work behind these talks – warning: it’s written at a technical level.
“A Disciple is Basically an Imitator,” [Studies in 1 Thessalonians, Week 4], by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D. in New Testament Exegesis, Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica