Imitators and Examples

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 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.

Our brain is wired for an imitating mind. The part of our brain that controls our arms is part of what activates when we see another person using their arm, especially if their movement is unfamiliar to us. Imitation is the means by which technicians are trying to make machines able to learn.

Imitation isn’t popular to do, though it is prestigious to have done of you.

Since imitation is substantially the opposite of innovation—where being different, individual and unique is valued—imitation is seen as a form of weakness. To imitate is to not have a sense of self, to lack creativity, or to go along with a mindless crowd.

But this misunderstands imitation and borders on delusional arrogance. It is simply a fact that we are all imitators. We do it so naturally that we don’t even know we are doing it. So naturally that we can actually think we are mostly innovators, when we are 99.9% imitators. Even in our innovations, we have built them mostly within the framework of other things we have imitated.

Not only that, but most people that excel at specific skills have intentionally imitated people or can tell you who formed them extensively—people they imitated. By imitating people in lower order actions, we can focus our innovating energy in the specific areas we really feel need change.

Last, what do we expect others to do if we invent a truly positive innovation? We expect them to imitate it. Don’t we? That is why we’re having a fight with China over intellectual property rights. We have laws making it illegal to do the most natural thing in the human mind—imitation. You don’t have to incentivize people to imitate others. But you do have to create incentives for people to innovate.

The right human response to something good—a true improvement—is imitation.

Knowing this, God has been leading us to imitate him in all his leading of us.

To bear his image is to imitate his character and type of action. The law is a display of God’s character so the Israelites could imitate it. We are, as Romans 8 says, “conformed to the image of his Son.” We are formed into his image—we are his imitators.

In John 15, Jesus says that to see him is to see the Father. In what way? In his glory? No. In his will, purpose and character—everything a human being can imitate.

Jesus had hundreds of disciples that listened to him, and imitated him in life and teaching. But that didn’t end with Jesus, it passes on through the spiritual generations of the Church. The truth and ways of Christ are passed on personally by a coordinated combination of word and example. Like a rabbi to his disciples, or a master to an apprentice, teaching and example flow in and out of each other in a woven whole. Teaching helps us understand the meaning of the example, and the example authenticates and embodies the teaching.

This is why Jesus made it the explicit mission of his people to make disciples: intentional learners by hearing and imitating a master disciple. Every Christian disciple is an apprentice of Jesus through others of his apprentices.

The whole passage is structured around imitation and examples: This makes sense.

  • Paul was only there a short time.
  • There was no Bible to read.
  • All they had was the Old Testament, Paul’s preaching so far, and everything they had observed while watching Paul and Silas as examples.

You can see this in 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10:

  • The word came with power.
  • Paul, Silas and Timothy: “how we lived among you for your sake.”
  • Verse 6: “You became imitators of us, and of the Lord…”
  • And they welcomed the message.
  • “And so” you became a model, or an example, for all the believers.

Because of God’s unrelenting love displayed in the gospel:

Jesus builds his people by making examples of his imitators.

We are not that special, though we are individuals. We are the same kind of sinners as others, in the same experience of humanity, offered the same gospel, convicted by the power of the same Spirit, and offered examples of those that have come to faith before us. We are all called to leave our life of dead idolatry, and to serve the living God, to wait in hope for Christ’s return and to put our faith in his rescue from final judgment.

This might seem offensive in that we are the same as everyone else in these large ways. The ways we are not like everyone else, are not really ways we are like no one else—these are just smaller group traits. Sometimes we need examples in these lesser traits.

Imitating what?

Four things in this passage that we’ll cover in the next few sermons:

  1. Conversion: a cataclysmic change of belief and allegiance.
  2. Worship: seeing the worth of God in proportion to pain, and everything else.
  3. Discipleship: the humility to identify and imitate the godliness of good examples.
  4. Mission and witness: authentic word and faith goes forth and goes everywhere.

Becoming imitators and examples

People are struggling with what perseverance and growth are right now. while we feel pretty stuck. It takes humility to be an open imitator. It takes embracing responsibility to be an example.

We all have to ask ourselves whether our faith does work, whether there is a labor to our love, and whether our hope makes us steadfast.

The point of this book it to encourage us to perseverance. Not by driving us on like slaves, but by celebrating not only God’s worth (adoration), but also affirming that what God is doing in us is worth celebrating (affirmation).

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