a genuine imitation of the lord
You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, (1:6a)
The fifth identifying mark proving the Thessalonians’ election was that they became imitators of Paul and of the Lord. Imitators (mimētai) is the word from which the English term mimics derives. This transforming work occurred at the moment of salvation when the Thessalonian believers became new creations (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Patterns of holy living immediately began replacing the old sinful ones (cf. Eph. 4:22, 24). The Thessalonians, in the middle of a pagan environment, without any veteran church leadership, had in the power of the Holy Spirit become imitators of the apostle, his co-laborers, and—most important—Christ. Salvation starts the work of sanctification (cf. 1 Peter 1:1–2). As Paul reminded the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3–4; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).
The Thessalonian believers’ lifestyles started becoming far different from the sordid, idolatrous paganism of their past and from the legalistic self-righteousness of the Jews in their city. They had become imitators of Jesus Christ. Paul commanded believers to pursue that reality as a way of life: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He told the Corinthians that it was a progressive experience of sanctification by the Holy Spirit that moved them upward to increasing levels of glory, more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).
a joyful endurance in tribulation
having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, (1:6b)
A sixth identifying mark that confirmed the Thessalonians were truly elect was their joy in the midst of suffering and hardship. No matter how difficult circumstances become, true Christians do not lose their ultimate joy because the Holy Spirit dispenses it to the elect. The kingdom of God is joy (Rom. 14:17).
Paul again noted that the Thessalonians had received the word, which was simply a reiteration that they had believed the gospel and been converted. But they did so in much tribulation, that is, in severe suffering that began when Paul first preached. As recorded in Acts 17:1–4, and noted earlier, Paul and his fellow missionaries launched an effective evangelistic ministry spanning three Sabbaths in the Thessalonian synagogue, after which they continued their work in another location for several months—long enough to receive two collections from Philippi (cf. Phil. 4:16), be employed (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8), and care for the church in depth (1 Thess. 2:7–11). As a result of the transforming impact of that gospel ministry, the Jews hurled tremendous persecution and opposition against the apostle:
But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them. The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. (Acts 17:5–10)
After Paul and his company had left Thessalonica, it is likely the unbelieving Jews and pagan Gentiles intensified the persecution. Paul later reflected on that assault: “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out” (1 Thess. 2:14–15).
The Greek word rendered tribulation is thlipsis, which means “intense pressure,” as opposed to something mild. So the new believers in Thessalonica experienced severe persecution, but the genuineness of their salvation transcended that affliction so that they never lost their joy (cf. 1 Thess 3:4; 2 Thess. 1:4; in contrast, see Ps. 51:12).
The Thessalonians’ responding to persecution and suffering with the joy of the Holy Spirit was reminiscent of the apostles’ reaction early in the book of Acts. After the Sanhedrin flogged them, ordered them not to preach the gospel again, and released them, “they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).
But one should not consider those Spirit-filled responses of joy strange or incomprehensible—joy is a divine benefit of the Christian’s standing in Christ, one of the “spiritual blessing(s) in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Romans 5:1–4 declares:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope. (Cf. Acts 16:22–25; Gal. 5:22; Phil. 4:4.)
Mere human joy will die under persecution; the joy of the Holy Spirit will transcend it and grow. Yet again, though such joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), all believers are called on to pursue greater and greater joy (Phil. 4:4).
6 The kai hymeis at the beginning at this verse carries the connotation “and you on your part.” These words introduce a new point in Paul’s explanation of how he knew God had “chosen” the Thessalonians (v. 4). In a relatively short time they “became imitators.” Egenēthēte (“became,” GK 1181) is the same verb and tense as egenēthēmen, “we lived” (lit., “we became”), in v. 5. Now their lifestyle was completely different from what it was before the gospel came to them, because their conversion led them to imitate Paul and his companions.
Paul repeatedly encouraged such a wholesome following of examples (1 Co 4:16; 11:1; Gal 4:12; Eph 5:1; Php 3:17; 4:9; 1 Th 3:12; 2 Th 3:7, 9). He did not hesitate to present himself as one to be copied because he was patterning his own life after Christ’s (1 Co 11:1). That is why he adds “and of the Lord” here. The notion of imitating God and Christ applies especially to holiness (1 Pe 1:15–16), love (Mt 5:43–48; Lk 6:36; Jn 13:34; 15:12), and suffering (Mt 16:24–25; Mk 10:38–39; Lk 14:27; Jn 15:18–20; 1 Pe 2:18–21)—three areas touched on later in Thessalonians (holiness in 3:13; 4:3, 7; love in 3:12; 4:9–10; suffering in 3:2–4).
Spiritual advance was possible for the Thessalonians only after they first “welcomed the message” preached by the missionaries (“words,” v. 5, and “message,” v. 6, are both from logos, GK 3364). Even after their conversion, their response to the message was just as enthusiastic, though this response entailed “much tribulation” (NASB; NIV, “severe suffering”). “Tribulation” (thlipsis, GK 2568) plays a large part in these letters (1 Th 1:6; 3:3–4, 7; 2 Th 1:4, 6–7) because persecution was so common (Ac 17:5–9) and grew so intense as to be comparable to the bitter opposition by the Jews against the Lord Jesus and the Judean church (1 Th 2:14–16). There was no extreme to which Christ’s enemies would not go in making life miserable for Christians. Yet instead of misery the Thessalonians displayed the “joy of the Holy Spirit (NASB; NIV, “joy given by the Holy Spirit”). Such a response defies natural explanation. The same One who gave Paul and his companions power for proclaiming the gospel (v. 5) lived within those who received the gospel and transformed them with joy.
1:6. Jesus showed Paul how to live, and even personally instructed him (Gal. 1:12). Paul lived, led, and taught by the example he had received from Christ. In the same manner, the people Paul taught along the way—those in the churches he planted—got their signals from him. He became the model to others, just as Christ was the model to him.
In their letter to the Thessalonians Paul, Silas, and Timothy appealed to the Thessalonians memory, drawing them back to the lifestyle of the three men when they lived in Thessalonica: You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord. This pattern forms a great circle of discipleship and leadership which still applies today.
Leaders and teachers in the church are to follow Christ; those in the leader’s care follow after his example; they, in turn, become models of Christlikeness to people outside the church. It was the manner of Christ in Paul, Silas, and Timothy which helped inspire the Thessalonians to follow Christ.
It is a reminder to all of us that it is the image of Jesus in us—the way we model him—that attracts people to become like Christ.
Furthermore, the Thessalonians followed Paul and Christ with determination, in spite of severe suffering. Paul and Silas’s stay in Thessalonica was shorter than planned due to a riot which the Jews staged (Acts 17:5–10). Friends were arrested, the community shouted accusations, government officials became uneasy, and Paul and Silas escaped to the neighboring town of Berea under cover of darkness. With this background, the church in Thessalonica undoubtedly suffered under suspicion and community unrest. But the Holy Spirit gave them the joy and ability to receive the full message of Christ and to follow him.
Suffering and joy are almost always linked. It is the confirmation of John 15:18–21, that those who follow Christ will suffer as Christ did. As Paul later wrote in his letter to the Philippians, there is fellowship in suffering for Christ, a fellowship with Christ himself (Phil. 3:10). This brings a joy sustained by the Holy Spirit.
1:6 Thus Paul could say, “You became followers of us and of the Lord.” One would have expected him to say “of the Lord and of us,” mentioning the Lord first. But here he is giving the order of their experience. Their first introduction to the Lord Jesus was in the life of the apostle.
It is sobering to think that people are supposed to be able to see Christ in us. We should be able to say with Paul, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Notice that they received the word with affliction and joy. This is how they had imitated the Lord and the apostles. Externally there was affliction; internally there was joy. It is an unusual combination! For the man of the world, it is impossible to experience joy and affliction simultaneously; to him, sorrow is the opposite of joy. The Christian has a joy of the Holy Spirit that is independent of circumstances; to him, the opposite of joy is sin.
The affliction they endured was the persecution which followed their conversion.
1:6 followers of us and the Lord: Everyone needs teachers, especially new converts. At times, Paul encouraged new believers to imitate him (1 Cor. 11:1) as he was imitating Christ. All the writers of the NT lead their readers back to the footprints of Christ as shown in the Gospels (Phil. 2:5; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 2:6). This should be our goal also, to lead others to Christ by our own virtuous example. As we focus on Jesus, we will reflect His image to others (2 Cor. 3:18). Having received is not the usual word for reception, but a word expressing a warm welcome. The Thessalonians seized the gospel with joy, even if it meant facing persecution.
1:6. The outstanding fruit of faith in the gospel was the Thessalonians’ change of behavior. They became imitators of their spiritual parents, the missionaries. This is normal Christian experience. But they also went on to imitate the Lord. This too is natural, and the order is true to life as well. A new Christian first looks to other believers as his pattern, but then as he matures he realizes that Jesus Christ is his best “model” (cf. 1 Peter 2:21).
Despite severe suffering the Thessalonians welcomed the message. The Jews among them must have felt the hatred of their unbelieving brothers in the flesh who, as has been pointed out, were especially antagonistic to the gospel in that city. The Gentile converts must have had to swim against the swift current of paganism that flowed like a torrent through the conduit of commercial Thessalonica. And the city’s chief men’s wives, who had become Christians, had to go home to unbelieving husbands who would not have appreciated their newly sensitized consciences. Yet in spite of trials without, the Thessalonian believers possessed joy within, the joy of sins forgiven. It is interesting that Christians who have tribulations in their daily walks often seem to have greater joy in the Lord than those who live in more comfortable spiritual climates. A Christian’s joy should be determined not by his circumstances but by his relationship with Christ. This was true of the Thessalonians. The source of their joy was the indwelling Holy Spirit.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 23–25). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 1 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 381). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Larson, K. (2000). I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Vol. 9, p. 9). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2024). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1573). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
 Constable, T. L. (1985). 1 Thessalonians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 692). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.