Are You an Imitator of Christ or an Imitation Christian?
—Paul’s Messages to the Thessalonians
THE apostle Paul was an exemplary Christian. Because he zealously followed Jesus’ example he could properly make this recommendation to his fellows in the faith: “Become imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Paul’s course of life and his teaching helped many of his contemporaries to find and abide by “The Way” of true Christianity.—Acts 9:2.
Paul felt loving concern for others. Very appropriately, when God summoned Paul and Silas to leave the area of Asia and take up missionary work in Macedonia, He gave Paul a vision of a man there entreating him and saying: “Step over . . . and help us.” In faith and with fellow feeling, Paul and Silas willingly obeyed, setting out by ship from Troas.—Acts 16:6-10.
After landing at Neapolis, Paul and his companions first visited Philippi. From there they moved on along the great Roman highway Via Egnatia through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica, a total of some 75 miles (121 km). (Acts 16:11, 12; 17:1) In Thessalonica Paul made use of the Sabbath-day gatherings of the Jews in the local synagogue to preach the “good news.” As a result, “some” of the Jews, together with “a great multitude of the Greeks,” became believers.—Acts 17:2-4.
Jealous of Paul’s success, the unbelieving Jews formed a mob and caused an uproar in the city of Thessalonica, so that the brothers sent Paul and Silas on to Beroea. The message of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ had proved to be a stumbling stone to the Jews. They even raised an accusation against Paul and Silas and the Thessalonians who had associated themselves with them, saying: “These men act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.”—Acts 17:5-10.
Paul’s Concern for the Thessalonian Christians
On reaching Corinth, Paul sent back his young co-worker Timothy to contact the newly formed congregation at Thessalonica. When Timothy returned to Paul, he conveyed the welcome news that those newly baptized Christians were firm in the faith and thriving, despite continuing persecutions. They had become imitators of other faithful Christians in enduring tribulation. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 3:6, 7) Paul was anxious to let the Thessalonians know of his feelings toward them and to give them further encouragement and counsel. So he wrote two letters to the congregation. Likely, these were Paul’s first canonical letters, written in the years 50 and 51 C.E. They well describe what is involved in true Christianity.
However, does not Luke’s report in Acts 17:11, 12 speak unfavorably of those Thessalonians, as not having received the word as eagerly as the Beroeans? No, for here Luke is referring, not to the Christians, but to the Jews. In contrast to the meager results of Paul and Silas’ preaching among the Jews in Thessalonica, “many” who went to the Jewish synagogue in Beroea became believers.
The newly converted Christians at Thessalonica studied and adhered to God’s Word. Paul commends them in his first letter for having imitated him and the Lord on the basis of their acceptance of “the word under much tribulation with joy of holy spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) They had accepted the “good news” as “the word of God,” and now this was “at work,” that is, bearing Christian fruit, in the believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:3-5, 13) In no sense were they imitation Christians.
Paul himself was a hardworking imitator of Christ. Short though his first visit to Thessalonica may have been, the members of the congregation there had his self-sacrificing example indelibly imprinted on their minds. They had given up their former idolatry “to slave for a living and true God” and they, in turn, had become an example of faith to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. (1 Thessalonians 1:7, 9) Among them were overseers who were “working hard” to take care of the needs of the flock, as should be the case in all congregations of true Christians.—1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Peter 5:2, 3.
Yes, Paul and his companions had given their all for those Thessalonians, working night and day, fearlessly making known the truth and nourishing the congregation tenderly “as when a nursing mother cherishes her own children.” (1 Thessalonians 2:3-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 8) With what purpose in mind? That these new brothers in the faith might “go on walking worthily of God” and “that no one might be swayed by . . . tribulations.” Paul wanted to stimulate them to “stay awake” spiritually, to make them “firm in every good deed and word.” He wanted them to ‘endure for the Christ,’ so that they would never “give up in doing right.”—1 Thessalonians 2:12; 3:3; 5:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; 3:5, 13.
Paul’s deep concern for those Thessalonians is recorded for our encouragement also today, that we may continue to walk with God and as pleasing him. (Amos 3:3) For one who calls himself a Christian to do anything else would amount to his being no more than a worthless imitation Christian.—1 Thessalonians 4:1.
A Threat From Within!
Unbelieving Jews had brought persecution upon the young congregation from the outside, but now even greater danger was threatening from within! Evidently some in the congregation were spreading twisted views about Jehovah’s day as being imminent. Paul hastened to set things straight, saying with regard to that “day”: “Let no one seduce you in any manner, because it will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness gets revealed, the son of destruction.”—2 Thessalonians 2:1-3.
When Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, warned the congregation of this coming “man of lawlessness,” the details of that one’s lawless course were still a “mystery,” or a religious secret. However, the apostle mentions that even while he was yet with them he “used to tell” of this future apostasy and the “restraint” holding it back.—2 Thessalonians 2:5-7.
If we at this point open our Bibles to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 and examine the context of Paul’s words, we, too, can discern what Paul had in mind. The “apostasy” to come would be rooted in a lack of “love of the truth.” It would result from a ‘believing of the lie’ and taking “pleasure in unrighteousness.” It would come boldly to the fore soon after the removal of the “restraint” referred to by Paul. It would continue all the way down to the ‘manifestation of the presence’ of Jesus Christ, at which time Christ would expose and do away with that “lawless one,” bringing it to nothing.—Compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8 with Isaiah 11:4 and Revelation 19:11, 14, 15.
Identifying the “Man of Lawlessness”
Judging by the longevity of the “man of lawlessness,” from Paul’s day down to Christ’s presence, it had to be—no, not an individual but a class of people. Since this lawless one “lifts himself up over everyone who is called ‘god’ or an object of reverence,” application of the term focuses on the leaders of the apostasy. They would be associated with misleading “powerful works” done in Christ’s name. (Compare 2 Thessalonians 2:9 with Matthew 7:22, 23.) Multitudes would join themselves to them as an easier religious way, soothing to the conscience but unburdensome to a selfish, worldly, even immoral way of life. Such elements of counterfeit Christianity were already “at work” among professing Christians in Paul’s day.—1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; 5:6-9, 14, 15, 19-22; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; compare Matthew 25:41-46.
Paul and the other apostles and older men of the Christian congregation served as the “restraint” against such forces, shepherding the flock according to Christ’s example. In view of the threatening apostasy, Paul admonished the Thessalonians in these words: “So, then, brothers, stand firm and maintain your hold on the traditions that you were taught.” Following the death of Paul and the other apostles, self-seeking men pushed truth aside, set themselves up as leaders and led the flock astray. Only those who responded to Paul’s counsel were made “firm in every good deed and word.” The “man of lawlessness” became identified as the clergy of a counterfeit Christianity.—2 Thessalonians 2:15-17; compare Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43.a
Awaiting Jehovah’s Day
Paul had to warn the Thessalonian Christians of still another danger: That of becoming complacent or spiritually drowsy with regard to Jehovah’s day. Some religious writers of our time have tried to play down the significance and urgency of the Scriptural message about Jesus’ “presence and . . . the conclusion of the system of things” by reference to Paul’s later words: “We request of you not to be quickly shaken from your reason nor to be excited either through an inspired expression or through a verbal message or through a letter . . . to the effect that the day of Jehovah is here.”—Matthew 24:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2.
Now, could it truly have been Paul’s desire that sincere Christians be little concerned about the presence of their Lord and the day of Jehovah? Or did he not, rather, want them to maintain mental balance in the matter, to ‘keep their senses’ by making “sure of all things”? Thus, neither would they be thrown out of equilibrium by unfounded messages about Jehovah’s day being at hand nor would they be unprepared, careless and callous regarding it.—1 Thessalonians 5:8, 21; compare 2 Peter 3:3, 10-12 and 1 John 4:1.
Here we should bear in mind that those Thessalonians were fully aware that Jehovah’s day was “coming exactly as a thief in the night.” Far from being a reason for nonchalance, this meant that they should “stay awake,” as persons assigned “not to wrath, but to the acquiring of salvation.” After the apostasy had put in its full appearance, the day of Jehovah would come. This would be at a time when those in opposition to Jehovah’s Kingdom—including no doubt the “man of lawlessness”—would be saying: “Peace and security!” That would be the signal for their instant, sudden destruction. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) In that day of execution of righteous judgment, happy will be those ‘knowing God and obeying the good news about the Lord Jesus’!—2 Thessalonians 1:8.b
Imitators or Imitations?
Paul’s letters of loving concern to the Christian congregation at Thessalonica outline what true followers of Christ Jesus today must be, and what they must believe and do. But what of persons and groups that claim to be Christian and yet do not imitate Christ, Paul and the faithful Thessalonians? These stand exposed as imitation Christians! (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 7; 2 Peter 2:1-3) Paul emphasizes that only those who “obey the good news” will be “counted worthy of the kingdom of God.” Jesus expressed himself similarly with regard to the righteous “sheep” who inherit the realm of the Kingdom on earth.—2 Thessalonians 1:4-10; compare Matthew 7:21 and Mt 25:31-34.
The good news, as made known by Paul in his letters to the Thessalonians, should motivate us to hard work in God’s service, to high moral standards of living, yes, to endurance in leading joyful, prayerful, appreciative, spirited, blameless Christian lives that will recommend us to others within and outside the congregation of Jehovah’s people. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-23) May sincere deliberation on Paul’s example and letters and on the faith of the Christians at Thessalonica prove beneficial to you, so that you may “more fully” imitate Christ’s example. May this, in turn, bring you deliverance “from the wrath which is coming” and salvation to eternal life under God’s glorious Kingdom rule.—1 Thessalonians 1:10; 4:1; Hebrews 12:2, 3; Revelation 21:1, 3, 4.
a For a detailed discussion of the “man of lawlessness,” see our publication God’s Kingdom of a Thousand Years Has Approached, pages 364-397.
[Picture on page 14]
Paul writes about the rise of an ecclesiastical “man of lawlessness”