“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
The first-century church in Thessalonica stands out as one of the healthiest churches in the New Testament. As evidence, we need only look to today’s passage, wherein Paul says the Thessalonian Christians were “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:6–7). (The Roman provinces of Macedonia and Achaia covered territory that makes up most of modern Greece.) Paul does not describe any of the other churches he addresses in his epistles as examples or models for others, so the Thessalonians evidenced Christian virtues in a special way.
Why was the church at Thessalonica an example to others? First, that church was located in one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. The provincial capital of Macedonia, Thessalonica lay near the conjunction of several imperial crossroads and was an important seaport. News of how the Christians there lived naturally spread to churches in other parts of the empire. Other believers could not miss the example that the Thessalonians would set.
Second, and more important, the Thessalonian church was a positive example, and this because the Christians in Thessalonica imitated the Apostles and the Lord Jesus Christ by receiving “the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (v. 6). Acts 17:1–9 reports the fierce opposition that the gospel endured in Thessalonica, and Paul references it elsewhere in the Thessalonian correspondence as well (1 Thess. 2:14–16). Nevertheless, the Thessalonians believed the Apostolic message even though they knew it would bring suffering, and they continued to suffer for the kingdom of God well after their conversions (2 Thess. 1:5). The Thessalonians, knowing that living as Christians would mean their suffering just as it meant suffering for Jesus and His Apostles, did not turn away from the faith preached to them (see Matt. 16:21; 2 Cor. 1:5–7).
Yet, the Thessalonians were examples not merely because they suffered but because they suffered “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). They did not reject the vocation of suffering for the sake of the kingdom of God, to which all believers are called; rather, they rejoiced that they could suffer for the sake of the Lord (see Matt. 16:24; Acts 5:41). They were not sadists who enjoyed suffering for suffering’s sake. Instead, they had the Spirit-wrought joy in suffering that makes believers willing to endure the harshest opposition if that is what it means to be faithful to the Savior.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Disciples are not above their master, so we cannot think that we are above suffering for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matt. 10:24). Jesus and His Apostles suffered, and we must be willing to do the same. As we trust the Lord, we will even find ourselves rejoicing in our sufferings for the gospel, as the Holy Spirit works joy and endurance in the hearts of His people to make them persevere through the pain, looking to the coming glory (Rom. 8:18).