Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
If anything, this letter is about relationship and imitation. Paul makes this clear from the beginning.
He says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6). The apostle reminds us indirectly that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep, trusting relationship with one another. Even more, this relationship has more depth when it is experienced along with God. In addition, imitation becomes an outgrowth of this strong relationship.
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,” signals to use that this relationship engenders a strong resemblance. How do the Thessalonians know (and how does the apostle know) that they have become imitators of the Lord? They were persecuted, yet they “received the word with joy.” In short, their experience of persecution resembles that of Jesus’ crucifixion. Later, the apostle elaborates on this imitation.
He says, “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots, as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; for they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved” (2:14-16a). (Cautionary Note: We are not certain where this idea that the Jews killed the prophets actually comes from, but it is sprinkled through several New Testament documents.
Some scholars believe that this idea derives from the extra-biblical work called the Martyrdom of Isaiah, which narrates the death of several prophets. I would caution, however, that there is no real historical evidence for this conclusion. This volatile statement must be treated with care.) The apostle never goes into great detail about what these “same things” (auta in Greek) are, but we can conclude that they are death-like experiences considering his invocation of the experiences of himself, the churches of Judea, Jesus Christ, and the prophets. In short, entering into this special relationship with God and the church involves death-like experiences on the part of believers.
Persecution and death are not the only way we, as believers, imitate Paul, the other churches, and the Lord. Consequent to these crucifixion-like experiences are resurrection-like experiences. Paul indicates this when he notes that the Thessalonians “received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine). The inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is an indication that she has transcended persecution, just like Jesus’ resurrection transcended death (i.e., “whom [God] raised from the dead;” 1:10).
This experience of the Holy Spirit is important to Paul. It is the prime indicator — the down payment — God makes in our lives to let us know that we are in this remarkable relationship with the Almighty. Living in the Spirit, in fact, is the main rule of conduct the apostle outlines throughout his letters: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). Thus, this relationship is one in which we experience the fullness of our lives by imitating the life experiences of our fellow believers and of the Lord.
Far too often we find ourselves, because of our own hardness of heart, seeking to find excuses — seeking to find loopholes — to avoid the vulnerability that such a relationship demands. We far too often are looking for ways to be offended so that we can justify the severing of a relationship, or at the very least distance ourselves from other believers. Maybe we do not want to do the work — desiring to avoid particularly these death-like experiences. Maybe we are tired of doing the work, but each of us has experienced — probably more often than we care to admit — that we look for ways to get out when we find a relationship too burdensome.
The apostle alludes to this possibility when he says he cared for the Thessalonians “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” and that he “worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 9). In fact, the emphasis the apostle places upon his own behavior is so vigorous that it raises the question of how fragile this relationship can be. Again, Paul highlights God’s success among the Thessalonians by saying, “[W]hen you received the word of God you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers” (2:13).
In other words, when it comes to human-human and human-divine relationships, which are already so fragile, we are misdirected when we pour our energies into figuring out how to justify ending them. The Thessalonians could have attributed the persecution they experienced to entering into a bad relationship with God through the apostle, but because they were open to the Holy Spirit, they realized that the persecution was not a sign of a bad relationship. It was a sign of an imitative relationship.
This imitative relationship is important in the advancement of the gospel. Paul says, “[Y]ou became an example [typon] to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (2:7). The use of the adjectival form of typos indicates that the Thessalonians were a “type” or “paradigm” for other believers to understand and imitate. In other words, the experience of the Thessalonians further progresses the line of imitation this relationship engenders stretching back to that of the Lord. The Thessalonians have entered in a imitative pattern — a history of gospel reception and advancement — that solidifies their place in the salvation history of the entire world.