It is my conviction – and that of many missionaries – that missionaries should emulate the apostle Paul in their missionary work.
In my dissertation, I argued at length that Paul intended for Timothy to emulate his missionary model, even after his death (2 Tim 3:10-4:8). I argued that Paul likewise intended for Timothy to teach others to imitate Paul’s model (2 Tim 2:2). Therefore, Second Timothy teaches us that modern missionaries should emulate Paul in their missionary activity.
A primary difference between Second Timothy and First Thessalonians is that Second Timothy provides a model for cross-cultural missionaries to imitate Paul. At the same time, First Thessalonians focuses on believers in a local church following Paul’s model.
In his commentary on Acts, Craig Keener argued that Luke intended to present Paul and others as ongoing models for emulation. His primary argument was that Ancient Greek and Roman biographies and histories generally presented historical figures as being worthy of emulation. Therefore, according to Keener, one purpose of Acts was to provide missionary models for the early church to continue in that mission.
In this blog post, I want to extend the same argument to First Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul praised the believers at Thessalonians, saying, “you yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of great persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit.”
The first thing that we see is that there is not a great conflict between imitating Paul and imitating Jesus. The Thessalonians imitated both Jesus and Paul! Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Some have asked me, “Why focus on emulating Paul instead of Jesus?”
The primary reason we should focus on Paul instead of Jesus is that Jesus was the unique Son of God. As the unique Son of God, there are aspects of His life and mission that we cannot and should not emulate. For example, we should not emulate His sacrificial death for our sins, which was the central act of our salvation. Instead, we stand as witnesses of His unique person and work. In this way, we are more like Paul than Jesus. Paul’s life shows us what aspects of Jesus’ life we should and should not emulate. Thus Paul said, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We honor Christ’s unique person and work when we make this distinction.
Returning to First Thessalonians, we see at least four ways Paul expected the Thessalonians to follow his model.
1. Paul praised the Thessalonians for standing firm during persecution, as Paul did.
“You yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of severe persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 1:6
When the church at Thessalonica began, persecution broke out against the church. The church leaders were put on trial for their faith, and the local church had to pay a large sum of money as bail (Acts 17:1-9). Despite these difficulties, the Thessalonians followed the Lord diligently.
Paul reminded them of how he had “previously suffered and been mistreated at Philippi” (1 Thess 2:2). In Philippi, Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned overnight. Despite that persecution, they came to Thessalonica and preached the gospel boldly. Paul was pleased that the Thessalonians likewise stood firmly in Christ despite persecution.
Jesus provided a model for Paul to stand amid persecution. For the joy before Him, our Lord Jesus endured the cross, despised the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the Father (Heb 12:2).
In the same way, following Paul’s model means that we must stand amid persecution. And when we stand in persecution, we are not alone.
2. Paul praised the Thessalonians for proclaiming the gospel, as Paul did.
“For the Word of the Lord rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place that your faith in God has gone out.” 1 Thessalonians 1:8
Gary Shogren wrote, “ The Thessalonians have come full circle and have become ‘evangelized evangelists.’” (Shogren, 1-2 Thessalonians, page 71). The result of the Thessalonians proclaiming the gospel amid persecution was that the word of God spread quickly across a large geographic area. Specifically, it was reported that the Thessalonians had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thess 1:9).
Imitating Paul means imitating his example in boldly proclaiming the gospel. Paul did not expect every believer at Thessalonica to become a missionary, but he hoped that they would share Christ with their friends, families, and neighbors. Today, some will become like Timothy and imitate Paul by becoming cross-cultural church planters. Others will imitate Paul by working hard in their jobs and proclaiming Christ in every opportunity. The first model is present in Second Timothy. The second model is evident in First Thessalonians.
3. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to follow his work ethic.
”Seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that we may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
Paul commanded the Thessalonians to work hard with their own hands. Regarding his own example, Paul wrote, “you yourselves remember our labor and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God’s gospel to you” (1 Thess 2:9). The book of Acts reports Paul making tents shortly after his time in Thessalonica (Acts 18:3). By extension, it seems likely that Paul was involved with the same work in Thessalonica.
Please note that Paul worked hard to provide for his needs while proclaiming the gospel. However, when sufficient funds were available, he left tentmaking to focus on preaching the Word (see Acts 18:5).
Following Paul’s model means to live a life of diligence and hard work. Working hard with your hands is legitimate, as Paul demonstrated. Paul’s model leaves space for individuals in full-time ministry, bi-vocational ministry, or those engaged in full-time work. All three should work hard, as Paul did. And all three should be diligent in proclaiming the gospel, as Paul did.
4. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to imitate his spiritual life.
”Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Many have agonized over a way to obey the command, “pray without ceasing.” Often unnoticed is that Paul used this same adverb to describe his own prayer life in First Thessalonians. First, he referenced “making mention of you without ceasing in our prayers” (1 Thess 1:2). Then he wrote that “we thank God without ceasing” (1 Thess 2:13). In light of this, we can paraphrase the command “praying without ceasing” as Paul saying, “pray as much as I do.”
Ministers of the gospel should be able to tell their disciples, “pray as much as I do.” Many are uncomfortable with this statement because they see their weaknesses in their prayer lives. Brothers and sisters, this is the most critical part of imitating Paul. We must love God with great zeal. We must pray constantly. We must abide in Jesus. We must keep in step with the Spirit. Paul provided a powerful model in his spiritual life for the Thessalonians until he could say, “pray as much as I do.”
Likewise, we should each go and pray as much as we desire our disciples to pray.