Imitators and Examples: Discipleship and Martyrdom

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.

Imitating Jesus means imitating his examples.  

So, imitate those thriving unto perseverance. What evidence of grace exhibits thriving perseverance, and are grounds of assurance that lead to true perseverance?

  1. Conversion: A cataclysmic change of belief and allegiance.
  1. Worship: Seeing the worth of God in proportion to pain, and everything else. 
  1. Discipleship: The humility to identify and imitate the godliness of good examples.
  1. Mission and witness: Authentic word and faith goes forth and goes everywhere. 

We’ll look at the last 2 today.  

Discipleship: We imitate those who have proved examples in godliness 

Conversion (faith) and worship (joy) lead to imitating God as he is displayed in Christ Jesus. This imitation, this pursuit of godliness, is called discipleship.  

But no one can make Jesus their direct object of complete imitation. He is ascended. He said this is because God with us is now the Spirit—God’s work no longer limited in space, but everywhere present—and yet imminent. 

So how do we imitate God, or even Jesus, now? We imitate his best examples as compared to his word. The word we have of him is incomplete, yet representative. You can follow him based on his word, and his disciples. 

1 Thessalonians 1:5-7  You know how we lived among you for your sake.  6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  

What makes up this dynamic here:  

  • “How we lived among you” (imitating Jesus with integrity)
  • “For your sake” (doing it partly for the observers) 
  • You became imitators of us (choosing to respond) 
  • In spite of severe suffering (you came out in the midst of opposition) 
  • So you became a model  

Godliness means being like God in the ways we are meant to be. It is evidence of imitation. We are told we bear God’s image—that is, God created us to imitate and replicate his own image in creation.  

Discipleship: the school of godliness in which we imitate Christ by imitating his examples.  

We must become a disciple (imitator) of Jesus, but none of us can be discipled by Jesus. His ascension led to his sending of the Holy Spirit, to form godliness in all Jesus’ imitators. 

“Disciple” means learner—a relationship of teaching and imitation. Heavy on imitation.  

Jesus’ commission to “make disciples” given to the whole church assumes that we must be disciples, and that we must make disciples. Or in Paul’s language here, to be imitators and to become examples.  

But we can use doctrine to discern the most wholesome examples around us that are imitating Christ. We can imitate them, or at least the things in them most like Christ. 

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (vs 6 ). the two are bound together. By becoming imitators of Christ’s disciples, we become imitators of Christ himself.  

Godliness must always accompany the gospel. It is its attracting fragrance, and its concrete and concentrated form in us. The message of the gospel must produce: 

  • Real piety in the heart 
  • A working faith (conversion and obedience) 
  • A laboring love (mission and martyrdom) 
  • A steadfast hope (worship) 

This is the heart of the activity of a healthy church.  

It may also be the future of the church’s organization. We may organize our faith in the most expensive way ever devised right now. Buildings, staff, marketing, technologies, seminaries, think tanks, merch. 

Discipleship rooted in imitation costs nothing—time, infrastructure, money.

  • Requires no formal institutions 
  • Can be done while doing other things—like tent making or tree removal 
  • Is not a heavy tax on time—since you can include it in much of your life as it already is

This is the result of worldliness: 

  • Performative Christian leadership—the pursuit of celebrity and salary.
  • Seeing the church as a growing market to which to sell lots of things.
  • Consumeristic expectations about what churches should provide that leads to an arms race among churches to provide ever more goods and services for church attenders—who see the church more and more like a business they patronize, rather than a body they are a part of. 

 Martyrdom/faithful witness: We imitate those who speak and show the gospel bravely 

1 Thessalonians 1:7-8   7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. 

The direct and severe persecution and affliction they experienced didn’t seem to silence them.  

1 Thessalonians 1:9  9 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, 

The message of the gospel “rang out” and the witness of their faith “has become known” everywhere. Others were now telling about it everywhere. News was traveling. 

Martyrdom: Faithful witness no matter what will happen to you. We call it: mission, evangelism, witnessing, profession… 

  • I think the word “mission” can sound too corporate to our ears now. And “evangelism” like a church program. That is not really the feel of it in the Bible.  
  • Martyrdom” is from Greek word that means “witness” or “professor.” It came to mean, those that profess Christ no matter what will happen to them. 

A martyr isn’t a preacher or an apostle, just a faithful witness in word and in deed. Not everyone in Christ is an apostle, but everyone can be a martyr in this sense.  

Imitation: Willingness to speak in spite of opposition and affliction. Not stopped by intimidation.  

In chapter 2, Paul tells them that he had faced a lot of opposition in his last two stops. 

1 Thessalonians 2:2  2 We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition

It had occurred to him that being a faithful witness and confessor of the gospel was going to lead to more trouble, and to trouble for those who believed it. Yet he preached it anyway.  

In Thessalonica, people acted with jealousy, drama, political outrage, reputation assassination, and violence; among other things. We are told that this is a characteristic of the prophets and Jesus.

A family line—the line of martyrs:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16  14 For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews,  15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men  16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. 

  • The Prophets 
  • Jesus  
  • The Apostles 
  • The first Churches—in Judea 
  • Now Thessalonica 
  • Then: Faithful believers through the whole history of the church 


  • You are a child of the God the human race mistreats
  • Many of God’s faithful witnesses in every generation are mistreated 
  • They are often mistreated by religious people—even people who claim to be of their own faith. Like the Jews who killed their own prophets, and who killed their own Messiah. For us it will often be people that identify as Christians or generally religious/spiritual. 
  • This displeases God.
  • They are hostile to all humanity, because they are trying to deny them access to the message of salvation. They think they are protecting people, but they are harming them, dramatically and damnably (damnably: “heaping up sins to the limit” and “the wrath comes at last”).   

This is part of the Christian identity—the family line of the faithful. We determine and prepare to be faithful witnesses, and he determines how much opposition we will face. 

God also promises to give grace in the work of being a confessor. It is the position of greatest reward—if you are called to suffer greatly.

  • Martyrs in heaven (Revelation 6:9).
  • Hebrews 11:35—did not avoid suffering in order to “gain a better resurrection.”  

Imitating Jesus means imitating his examples in discipleship and martyrdom.  

Think about the spiritual family line from the prophets to us.  

In Hebrews 11, that line starts with Abel, the first martyr and true confessor, up to the present moment. Jesus is the first and the older brother of all of us who will be disciples and confessors. And we are called to believe and follow in that line—imitating his examples, and becoming examples ourselves.  

Now this is the question: How do you feel about that?  

Does it seem completely unreasonable? Or does it sound like an incredible privilege?   

This is an evidence of grace, and a means of assurance. If you have come to see it as a privilege, then you have embraced the cross—and much of its real meaning.  

Being like Jesus and those who are truly his is more valuable to you than mammon, and leisure, and promotions, and vacations, and a good name. 

It is evidence that God is working in you by his Spirit. That you can be assured that he is operating in your life, and that he is drawing you on to thriving perseverance.  

For some, you can feel yourself on the brink of this thing. It feels a little like jumping out of an airplane. It seems like an exhilarating freedom, but at the cost of all safety and security—in your person and in your inner self. 

But you feel that you could chose to believe. You do see the value in Jesus, and you see something of the dead end of this world. That is called “conviction”—to know a scary thing is true and that you should believe it. 

Some of you are even experiencing “deep conviction”—to where it almost feels like pain.  

All I can say is that it’s a good day to jump.  

Today is the day. If at any moment you have the grace to believe—do it. To deny the Spirit’s conviction is not just to lose the Spirit—it leads to losing yourself. 

But to say yes: To be converted. To become his disciple. To come into the line of faithful witnesses in the earth. The gain is incalculable.  

At the moment of conviction you know the costs—you feel them. But you don’t know the gain—you don’t have the experience yet, nor the imagination to see it. You only have the good promise of the truthful God of all power and perfect providence.  

Make your choice. Open your heart to the truth of God until it is irresistible. And then embrace it with all you heart, soul, mind and strength.  

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