Formations 09.04.2016: Examples

1 Thessalonians 1

Art-Students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery, wood engraving (Wikimedia Commons, Brooklyn Museum).

Art-Students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery, wood engraving (Wikimedia Commons, Brooklyn Museum).

As he begins his letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul writes, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (vv. 6-7). Paul knows that we don’t follow examples for the sake of following them but because, in doing so, we learn how to be examples too.

This is particularly obvious as people learn new forms of art. Painters crowd around and copy paintings in museums. Poets try to follow the meter and rhyme of classic poems. Saxophonists transcribe Coltrane solos.

In an interview I saw the other day, Taylor Goldsmith, the leader of the band Dawes, talked about how his goals as a songwriter have changed. He remembers that when he was younger, to be told one his songs sounded like Bob Dylan or Warren Zevon wrote it was the ultimate accomplishment. But as he grew, the goal changed. Instead of wanting to sound like his heroes, he wants to write Taylor Goldsmith songs.

Now, many people, myself included, would like to write a song that sounds like Taylor Goldsmith wrote it. It is surprising that we learn how to create new things by copying old ones, that we become examples by following them.

The Thessalonians imitated Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. But they couldn’t do that forever without becoming examples to the many churches around them. And while we can learn how to follow Christ by reading the Bible and studying theology, the examples we set for others likely look most like the examples set for us by people in our communities.

Bracelets and t-shirts that ask what Jesus would do may be the most obvious expression of this desire to imitate Christ. But some people point out that we have choices Jesus never did. Our world sometimes asks us different questions than it asked the people whose example we first learned from. While we can probably agree that Jesus cares about making sure the hungry are fed and the homeless are housed (Matt 25:35-36), it is equally likely we would disagree about how this should be done. I probably think Jesus would do things the way I’m doing them (not how you’re doing them). But we don’t live in an isolated province of first-century Rome, and our technology and governing structures have changed. So if we’re honest, we can’t know how exactly Jesus would respond in our context.

We can, however, know that Jesus did respond to the world he encountered. And we can study the biblical accounts of what Jesus did do, what he cared about. We can look to the examples who have come before us and who were also imitating Jesus. We can try to listen for the voice of the “living and true God” guiding us into new and unexplored directions (v. 9).

Paul tells us that he and the Thessalonians brought “joy in spite of great suffering” (v. 6). We have many examples to choose from. Some are safe while others are dangerous. Some are destructive or productive. Some are boring and others exciting. The examples of the Thessalonians, Paul, and Jesus were dangerous, invited challenges, sowed hope, and reaped joy.

The Off Camera Show, “Taylor Goldsmith On Creating a Singular Voice,” YouTube , June 27, 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbL-Ag-1GuA.

Discussion

• Who are people who have been examples of Christ for you? What did they teach you? How have their examples been sufficient in your life? How have you had to revise them to respond to new or unexpected experiences?
• What examples have you followed that brought more joy into the world? Which have brought about pain?
• What specifically can you—as an individual, Sunday school class, or church—do to follow Jesus’ example by bringing joy into a suffering world?
• What is the best way you can be an example of Jesus in each of your communities?

Reference Shelf

Paul and the Thessalonians

In Paul’s day, Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia in northeastern Greece. The Romans had taken over the area in 167 BCE and made the city a regional headquarters. Travelers could leave Rome on the Via Appian, which led them to the southeast coast of Italy, take a short sea voyage across the Adriatic, land in Apollonia, and follow the Via Egnatia all the way across northern Greece to Byzantium. Thessalonica’s location on the Via Egnatia made it a bustling commercial center. Paul no doubt traveled along this road from the Aegean Sea when he came first to Thessalonica.

Piecing together bits of information from Paul’s own letters, we can judge that he arrived in the area of Macedonia following an extended sick leave in Galatia (Gal 4:13) and missionary activity in Asia Minor. His first stop was at Philippi (1 Thess 2:2; Phil 4:15-16) and then Thessalonica. Apparently he stayed there for some time, long enough to earn money from his tent making (1 Thess 2:9) and to receive at least two gifts of support from the believers at Philippi (Phil 4:16). Paul with his co-workers (Timothy and Silvanus) preached the message of Christ in Thessalonica, and a certain number of Gentiles accepted the good news, turned from their pagan worship, and formed a community (1 Thess 1:9-10).

From 1 Thessalonians we can determine that a deep, intimate bond was forged between Paul and this early group of believers. Like Philippians, the letter is filled with warm words of affection and high commendations for their faithfulness in the gospel (1:3-8; 2:13, 17-19). And yet when Paul and his co-workers first left Thessalonica he acknowledged that he worried about them. He feared that they might be shaken in their faith. To break with their religious past and embrace a new way entailed social consequences, alienation from family and friends, and harassment of various sorts. So concerned was Paul that he sent Timothy from Athens back to Thessalonica to offer encouragement and to bring word of their circumstances (3:1-5). The report Timothy brought was exceedingly positive and became the occasion for encouragement to Paul amid his own stress and trials (3:6-7). The letter then is written to the Thessalonians to say all this and to answer specific queries carried back by Timothy. The picture of Paul’s relations with the Thessalonians

Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 197–98.

Imitation

The words of affirmation continue in v. 6: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction.” Elizabeth Montgomery Barrett, the first woman to publish a translation of the New Testament from the Greek text, and who also served as the president of the American Baptist Convention in 1921, renders v. 6 in this manner: “Moreover, you began to follow the pattern I set before you, and the Lord’s also, receiving the word with joy in the Holy Spirit, although amid severe persecution.” Montgomery’s English rendering of this verse provides clarity of interpretation lacking in the King James translation: “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.” The stumbling block for postmodern readers is this: how can a person demand that anyone imitate, or follow, someone else when the one doing the leading is much like the one doing the following? Both leader and follower are only human. Furthermore, only deranged leaders of totalitarian regimes and autocratic governments demand full imitation. Paul does not demand that the members of the congregation become robotic clones of himself, speaking as he speaks or dressing as he dresses. Rather he is affirming their role, to place the relationship in contemporary terms, of mentor and mentee. Paul has been the mentor; the members of the congregation have imitated his pattern. They have done it well. Like Paul, the believers have endured much for the sake of the gospel.

The way the community manages its adversity becomes a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia (1:7). The church is a model community for all other believing communities in the region. As the community imitates Paul, so will other communities of faith imitate the Thessalonian community. David Stanley observes, “As Paul’s living out of the gospel had, under God and Christ, been efficacious in bringing the Thessalonians to faith, their existence as a community of faith in its turn served as a means of spreading the gospel, since from it the ‘word of the Lord rang out.’”

Linda McKinnish Bridges, 1 &2 Thessalonians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary ( Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 23–25.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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