Imitators of God, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Meet God. Get to know Him. Bear a close resemblance to Him and through you the Holy Spirit will change the lives of the people next to you.

A few months ago I went to see a very nice space exhibition by NASA. I’m not a space fanatic but technology has always intrigued me so I kept running from one item to the next, often only reading the captions on the explanation screens. It was half way through the exhibition that I realized that quite a few of the items were in fact replicas. Some of them were used by NASA at some point but others served only for display purposes.

As it turns out, museums do this all the time. For preservation, restoration, logistic or security reasons they often display copies of the artifacts instead of the originals. If it weren’t for the small text on the information sign the vast majority of visitors would never be able to tell the difference anyway. The copies are that good. Not to mention that throughout the years a lot of what were once considered original artifacts have turned out to be very good copies.

And that’s the thing with us, people and replicas – if they are a good representation what we see is the original. It’s a very different story, however when you pay the premium price for a mobile phone and you get a $15 iPhane in the mail. Or when the sole of your running shoes falls off on the 2nd day you wear them to only remind you that you actually purchased a pair of Adibas. We’re swamped with cheap imitations nowadays. So much so that the concept of representation or imitation carries a mostly negative connotation.

How about our lives and our faith – are we imitators or are we thinking, breathing and acting as cheap imitations? Let’s look at Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica and see what the differences are between these two.

In what many believe to be Paul’s earliest canonical letter, he writes to the largely gentile church in the city of Thessalonica:

1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. 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. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, NIV

The birth of the church in Thessalonica is recorded in Acts 17:1-9/15 and if you read this passage you’ll notice that it wasn’t a very pretty or easy beginning. Paul and Silas taught in the synagogue and were followed by some Jews and a lot more Greeks. However, within days they were so severely persecuted that they had to flee the city under the cover of night. Remember this persecution as it will appear again later on.

As for the city itself – it was a busy seaport hub along one of the major Roman roads at the time, Via Egnatia. As such it was a gate for the Gospel to reach new groups of people, but one which also came with a set of challenges, temptations and easy opportunities for sin. Like any big city of today’s time, in other words.

After staying with the new church for only a short time, Paul wanted to ensure that the young believers were encouraged in their faith and learned a little more about what it means to live a godly life in the midst of temptation and sin. It’s not that they needed it as badly as some of the other churches, but later in the letter it becomes evident how much Paul wanted to stay longer in the city and how much he cared about them.

It starts with God, the original

Already from the beginning of his letter apostle Paul outlines the source of the power sustaining the life of the Thessalonian believers – God. Paul praises the church for its work and endurance in the midst of strong persecution. Notice, however that it is the believers’ faith which leads to good work and not the other way around (verse 3). It begins with God and continues from there. God’s place in the beginning ensures our pure motives in all that we do.

But it’s not just our motives that are purified by God. Once we have met Him and experienced His love, the way we relate to the surrounding world changes as well. We are able to love in a way which mimics the love that Jesus has for us and also for the people we interact with. It humbles us and makes see the other person and his needs as more important than ourselves. It changes us to such an extend that the selfish rules of society no longer limit what we do and how we do it.

In the mind of the 1st century Thessalonian Greek manual labor was not only avoided but it was despised. It was a thing of everyday life saved only for the slaves. Yet here we read about an intense labor, most likely paired with troubles and suffering which the believers lovingly kept on doing. It is because of our experience of  God’s love that we are capable of this.

God is not just our motivation and eye opener for the needs around us, He is also the sustaining power for our lives as Christians. Yes, you may have pure motives for some of the things you do without knowing God. He continues to be the source of it but at a distance. Yes, you may be able to sacrifice yourself for others without having recognized that this is a fingerprint left on us by our Creator. But to keep on doing this through your entire life, stepping it up with each following move – this is only possible with God. Attempting to do it without God would be like trying to re-paint da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by memory when the only time you’ve seen the painting was on a post stamp.  The closest you’ll ever get to is creating a cheap imitation.

What helps us endure even the most difficult of times in our life as followers of Jesus is the hope in His return. This is no ordinary, oh-how-badly-I-wish-it-would-happen hope. It’s not based on how hard we try or even how deeply we believe in it. It’s a given but without an exact time and date of arrival. It will happen and we are confident in this beyond any doubt as we patiently prepare for it through the days in-between.

It starts with God and continues with God

Apostle Paul knew very well that without God’s presence, power and guidance none of the hostile Thessalonians would have been saved. The combined experience, vigor and good will of both Silas and himself is simply not enough. Paul and Silas are the “words” in verse 5, but the gospel came with much more than words. It came with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (as in full assurance).

When we first get to know God we are eager to become honest imitators of Him. To do as He does, to love as He loves. We then often move on in life by relying mostly on our own skills and resources, making the distance between ourselves and Him even greater, until one day we realize that we’re trying to imitate what has now become only an unclear and blurred image.

At the same time God is still working in the lives of those around you. What will these people see? They will see a pretty clear image of God as He reveals Himself to them directly. Standing right next to this clear image of God they will see you and me. But how closely do we resemble the original? Do we make sense standing next to God?

There is a very simple check you can do for yourself. It’s contained in one simple question: If people are to imitate you, will they become more like God? If your friends laugh at the same jokes as you do, will this bring them closer to God? If your family acts toward each other as you act toward them – will they get to feel God’s love? If your colleagues at work are as honest and responsible as you are, will God’s values become obvious to everyone?

It appears that Paul and Silas passed this check because according to verses 5 and 6 the people of Thessalonica saw them, then saw God and the two images matched perfectly. Now they had not one but two models by which to live.

It’s not possible to become a follower of Christ and continue to be one without staying close to Him. It’s only when we are truly close to God that we are able to continually adjust our lives to reflect His grace, love and forgiveness. This is important. Our responsibility is great because often God chooses to use us as a representative sample of who He is.

Nowadays companies, institutions and entire countries are more concerned with their image than ever before. Unprecedented care is taken to ensure that the original (or what needs to be regarded as such) is depicted as closely as possible – be it on the Internet, on billboards, in ads. We know very well that a single misrepresentation in the form of a poor product image, a badly constructed advertisement or the wrong words coming from the mouth of a public speaker can have catastrophic consequences.

Take cars, for example. If you happen to own a car from a certain brand and that car keeps breaking down all the time, you’ll probably look at other makers for a substitute. On the other hand, if you ended up with a car which never left you stranded, you will look no further when the time comes to buy a new one. Recent models of cars are produced in the hundreds of thousands, so a single sample out of the whole production shouldn’t have such a power to change your mind. One could argue that statistically it’s insignificant. But it does change your mind and the quality of that one car is significant to you. At the end, it still represents what the company building it stands for. Why is it that this is all so clear and natural to us when it comes to the perishable things of this world but we fail to see it in relation to God?

The Thessalonians became imitators of Paul and Silas and God. Then they themselves became models to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia (the two Roman provinces of Greece at that time) and it didn’t stop there. Their faith and the character of God echoed out of them into places near and far. It didn’t take much for this to happen because they represented God so clearly in a city filled with travelers and businessmen passing through daily.

If you are a follower of Jesus, chances are that at some point you also saw an imitator of God along your way. You became an imitator of him or her and of God. Today you are a display copy or a model to someone else in your life, whether you realize it or not. Someone is looking at you and what he or she sees is a copy of the original, except there is no placard or a tag on the side explaining this. Is there a striking similarity with the original or only a shocking misrepresentation?

Living as imitators, not cheap imitations

The Thessalonians saw God and turned away from their idols. Their genuine faith produced good works and empowered by the Holy Spirit they lived in order to serve God, looking forward with complete assurance to the moment of His return. In essence this is how one becomes an imitator of God.

No good company would ever weld patches on an old car and try to pass it on as a fresh new model. In the same way, as followers of Christ we can’t keep our old behavior and somehow be a good reflection of God. A Christian who doesn’t turn his back to sin, addictions and false gods will remain a cheap imitation.

Becoming imitators of God didn’t result in an easier life for the Thessalonians. Remember the persecution we mentioned earlier? Their new values were often in full opposition to where society was going. All of us will find ourselves in the exact same situation sooner or later. At some point you’ll have to say words of correction which your friends will not appreciate. For some it might mean loving in spite of being hated and hurt. For others it will mean sacrificing with no appreciation in return. If God did this for us and we are to imitate Him, we ought to do it for others as well.

Just as the Thessalonians not only endured but even overcame the persecution by continuing to spread the gospel, so will you also be unstoppable like a resounding echo if you keep close to God. Throughout the entire process God remains the source, the foundation, the sustaining power. Without Him we can keep trying and we’ll keep failing. Staying close to God begins with the recognition of His importance in all that we do and continues with the constant communication with Him through the Word, prayer and fellowship with other believers.

And last but not least, if we are to live as imitators of God we need to remember why we’re doing it. A copy of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, no matter how perfect would be of no value at all if nobody knew the original. A good advertisement is just an image or a boring movie if it doesn’t actually represent a high quality product. The purpose of the imitator or an imitation is to show the original. In other words, we live our lives to show God.

Creating a good copy of an original is not a momentary event. It’s a process. Between God and ourselves it starts at the strangest and most unexpected of times and places. If you’re reading what Paul writes of the Thessalonians and find yourself not worthy of consideration before God, note this: if you and I were to choose, the Thessalonians wouldn’t probably make it to the final selection. We would probably select the people from the neighboring town of Berea because as it’s recorded in Acts 17:11: “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians” (NIV). Just as he did with Paul himself, God selected the seemingly least suitable, made him more than suitable and accomplished His plan. No challenge is too great for Christ, no person is unworthy of His grace.

If you have not met the living God, turn away from your idols today. He will come and fill in the gap, the emptiness which nothing else has been able to cover up. He will then help you to become the display piece you were intended to be. Many will pass by and see you and their lives will be changed.