The Apostle Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” Paul’s success as an apostle and an evangelist can no doubt be attributed to his practice of following the example of Jesus Christ. In doing so, Paul became the most influential Christian the world has ever known. He established countless churches, was chosen to write more New Testament books than any other inspired writer, and stands today as an unparalleled example of dedication and faithfulness to the cause of Christ. More about Paul’s life is revealed on the pages of the New Testament than any person other than our Lord. He is known even today as the all time most successful champion of the faith. Yet, Paul was constantly under pressure from false teachers and misguided brethren to defend his authority as an apostle. Most of the books which bear his name contain sections in which he speaks “foolishly” (2 Cor 11:16) in defense of his right to claim apostleship and instruct churches.
Possibly the first book written by Paul, First Thessalonians contains a “foolish” section in which he was forced to defend hinmself. Chapter two and verse one points out that Paul’s work in Thessalonica had been declared a failure (in vain) by some and Paul is forced to respond to the unfair and false criticism. Within the course of his response the apostle points out not only that much had been accomplished through his efforts for the cause of Christ in Thessalonica, but it was done in such a way that revealed great qualities of spirituality on the part of Paul. Qualities of Christ which Paul was imitating. It is the purpose of this article to point out these qualities as worthy of our imitation as well as we imitate him who imitated Christ.
Foremost in the example of Jesus we see the quality of sacrificial service. Philippians 2:5-8 reveals the extent of that sacrifice. In coming to earth, Jesus renounced equality with God, made himself of no reputation, took the form of a bond servant, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. In turn, Paul becomes an example of sacrifice. As he states in 2 Cor 12:15, he was willing to “spend and be spent” for the sake of those whom he desired to be saved.
Before coming to Thessalonica, Paul had suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, but that was not enough to send him packing. He then “dared” to preach the same mis-aligned gospel in Thessalonica. He showed nothing less that great bravery in taking the gospel to others. How much opposition (either from within ourselves, or without) are we willing to overcome and endure to get the gospel message out to the throngs of people surrounding us? If we expect to grow as an individual Christian or as a church, we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves, in keeping with Paul’s example of sacrifice which was in turn based on the example of our Lord.
Even under the most extreme conditions of rejection and abuse, Jesus remained pure. Peter encourages us to follow the example of Jesus in maintaining our purity even in the face of similar abuse. “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth: who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return: when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1Peter 2:21-23).
Paul was personally chosen and approved by God as an apostle (Gal 1:15,16). Part of that approval was based on his zeal and dedication to personal purity. He was striving to please God who looks on the heart (Rom. 8:27). There was no “error”, “impurity” or “deceit” on Paul’s part as he delivered the gospel in Thessalonica. In 2 Thessalonians 2:10 Paul writes, “You are our witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you who believed.” Had there been dishonesty or deceit on Paul’s part and the accusations against his motives been accurate, he would have accomplished nothing good for the cause of Christ.
We also must first be pure (James 3:17) if we expect God to approve our ministry. To be entrusted with the gospel is a sacred honor. We must strive to uphold it with purity both in word and example. Let there be no one among us who uses flattery, greed, hypocrisy, or a men-pleasing spirit as we seek to bring others to Christ.
No one cared for the needs of people as much as Jesus Christ. In speaking to the citizens of Jerusalem Jesus expresses his compassion and tenderness toward them as he declares, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . .” (Matthew 23:37). The willingness of Jesus to suffer and die for our sins was because of his care for our needs. We are encouraged to cast our cares upon him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
Again, in keeping with the example of Jesus, Paul expressed unsurpassed care for the churches in his charge. As an apostle, Paul could rightly have expected and pressed the saints in Thessalonica for more financial support. He insisted that he had this right, but usually refused to take advantage of it (1 Cor 9:3-14; 2 Cor 11:7-11). On the contrary, he was to them as a mother – gentle and caring. Among those of the church who were weak, Paul emphasized his capacity for care rather than authority or dominance. The nursing mother referred to in this context may not have been the natural mother, but a surrogate mother, who nonetheless grew close to the children in her care. She often formed a bond with the children which under the circumstances was closer than that of the biological mother. Nevertheless, Paul uses such words as gentle, caring, little children, love, delighted to share, and dear to us in describing his attitude and actions toward those saints at Thessalonica. Can we be any less caring toward one another and those whom we desire to bring to Christ?
Jesus lived and worked with no other thought than to obey his Father, and serve the spiritual needs of mankind. He had no home or financial security (Matthew 8:20). He lived an itinerant lifestyle and worked tirelessly in teaching others. In like manner, apparently Paul had to remind the saints in Thessalonica of how he had laboriously preached the gospel among them. Maybe this remembrance would prove to them that his motives were pure. He brings to their attention the long hours of extreme toil and hardship, working night and day, supporting himself through secular work (along with additional help from the church in Philippi – Phil 4:16) as he preached and sought to establish them spiritually. He later points out that he worked in such a manner due to the fact that they needed to see an example of personal sacrifice (2 Thess 3:7-10). Are we willing to work as hard for the growth of the church? When we can truthfully say that we are working as hard in the Lord’s church as the apostle Paul did in Thessalonica and elsewhere, then we will see the church grow.
As intimidating as it must have been for the apostles to live in the presence of the Son of God, it must have equally been a great source of encouragement. Who but Jesus could have motivated a man to step out of a boat and expect to walk across the open water (Matthew 14:29)?
Earlier in his word to them, Paul compared his service to the Thessalonians to that of a mother, loving and caring for her children. He now reminds the Christians at Thessalonica that he also behaved toward them as a concerned father. He uses such words as encouraging, comforting and urging as he sought to lead them into lives worthy of the God, who had called them into a kingdom of glory. Is this not a great sermon for those of us who have earthly children in our homes, as well as to those of us who seek to reach others with the gospel? How eager are we to edify brethren and convert sinners?
There is indeed a great need for leaders in the Lord’s church, not just in the form of elders and influential evangelists, but also in all Christians who love to seek and save the lost. If we are willing to add to our lives the qualities of leadership that Paul exemplified in reaching, teaching and strengthening the Thessalonians with the truth, we are likely to see growth in the church as surely as they did in Thessalonica!