As Paul continues to give thanks to God for the church of the Thessalonians in 1 Thess 1:6-10, he shifts to thanksgiving for the marks of true faith exhibited in this congregation, which he would have known firsthand during his limited time in town but also through Timothy’s report that prompted this letter (cf. 1 Thess 3:1-7). In the first part of this second section of thanksgiving, Paul gives thanks that the Thessalonians “became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess 1:6). That statement, however, has raised questions about the nature and extent of imitation in the Christian life. That said, I will use this reflection to explore imitation theology in hopes of clearing away some questions about it.
First of all, in context, there is a question about the relationship between the Thessalonian’s imitation of Paul, Silas, and Jesus, and their receiving of the word in much affliction. Whatever the precise relationship between becoming imitators and receiving the word in much affliction, it is clear that the concept of imitation has some flexibility in Paul’s mind. Since our Lord Jesus never received the word in much affliction, Paul cannot be making a simple one-to-one connection between the idea of imitation and the activities of the Thessalonians. Rather, there seems to be a broad parallel between imitation and action. Just as Jesus served in much affliction, so the Thessalonians are saved by Jesus in much affliction. A servant is not greater than his master, so the Thessalonians are imitating that man of sorrows as they respond with joy rather than dejection in the midst of much affliction.
Thus, when Paul talks about imitation, we do not need to pivot to a narrowly construed view of imitation. Rather, we can appreciate the general parallels and apply the general principle, and still be faithful to Paul’s idea of imitation in this text.
But that then raises another question. To what extent can we imitate Paul, Silas, and Jesus? To be sure, none of them have been called as apostles of Christ Jesus, nor have any of us been called to save God’s people from their sins. Clearly, there are some things that are not within the realm of imitation. On the other hand, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
That said, there are two ways we can understand imitation in the Christian life. First, there is the broad imitation of a way of life under the lordship of Christ. “Paul probably is not thinking of specific occasions in the earthly life of Jesus, but rather of the authority of the exalted Messiah, who is present in his word and Spirit, and of the kind of behavior that would be consistent with existence in the sphere of his lordship. Christ is not merely a general human pattern but the archetype; he himself fashions the activity and fulfillment of our life” (Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 3.306).
Second, there is still an exemplary aspect to imitation that is rooted in specific events or actions in Christ’s earthly ministry. Paul uses Christ as an example for imitation in several of his letters. For example, to the Romans he writes, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (Rom 15:2-3 ESV). To the Ephesians, he said, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2 ESV). Finally, to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess 3:5 ESV).
Importantly, Silva (NIDNTTE, 3.305) points out that Paul is reticent to use himself as an exemplar without qualification. For example, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul invites his readers to imitate him: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil 3:17 ESV). But, he had already acknowledged his own imperfection in this life: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12 ESV).
Moises Silva then sums things up well by reminding us that Christ is the source and strength for imitation of him. Imitation is “an attitude of thanks in response to the salvation that has been given to us. The summons to discipleship can be fulfilled only when a person is grasped by Christ and undergoes the transformation that existence under his lordship involves” (NIDNTTE, 3.306).