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July 2004

The power of example

However you view the possible marriage of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker-Bowles, most would agree that they have set a deplorable example in their marital and extra-marital relationships.

Whether the Church of England has set a better example in dealing with these matters is doubtful. Nor can our generation look to the Government and its ministers to set good examples in moral matters, as its legislation and programmes amply demonstrate.

How much more important, then, that those who hold a consistent biblical position should set a consistent biblical example – not only in morals but in all things.

Exemplary conduct

The Christians at Thessalonica ‘became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 1:7). Perhaps they can teach us something, for good examples are all too rare, even among those who profess to follow Christ.

But 1 Thessalonians actually reveals exemplary conduct at three levels – the believers, the missionaries and Christ himself.

First in order is the example set by Paul and his companions, who could say, ‘You know what kind of men we were among you for your sake’ (1:5).

What kind of men were they? The answer is clear. They were men whose conduct was wholly consistent with the message they preached.

Not in word only

The gospel they brought to Thessalonica ‘did not come … in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance’ (1:5). These words immediately precede the missionaries’ claim to have lived exemplary lives – suggesting a link between the power and fruitfulness of the gospel preached and the lifestyle of the preachers.

We should not be surprised at this conjunction. Nor should we be slow to extend it beyond those who preach Christ to all who profess Christ. Just as a Christian can nullify the faith he professes by a careless life, so those who practise what they preach engage the power of God in their endeavours.

These are neglected truths. These verses will not let us put too great a separation between the objective truth of the gospel and the subjective behaviour of its advocates.

Living the gospel

Is the gospel a message of truth?

Then Paul’s ‘exhortation did not come from deceit or uncleanness, nor was it in guile’. Having been ‘approved by God [and] entrusted with the gospel’ Paul and his companions spoke truthfully – ‘not as pleasing man, but God who tests our hearts’ (2:3-5).

In short, they were open, honest, transparent and God-fearing, seeking to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things’ (Titus 2:10).

Is the gospel a message of grace – of God’s abundant generosity to rebel sinners? Then Paul and his companions were also generous, giving themselves unstintingly to those they sought to save, ‘labouring night and day’ and being ‘well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives’ (2:8-9).

As Christians we are too much taken up with our own affairs, unwilling to put ourselves out for the sake of others, including the unchurched masses. We must point them to Christ by our example, not just our words.

Is the gospel a message of love? Then the missionaries ‘were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children’. They ‘exhorted and comforted and charged every one … as a father does his own children’.

Christ’s example

But the motive power behind the examples of the missionaries and their converts was a greater example – that of Christ himself. For, says Paul, the Thessalonians ‘became followers of us and of the Lord’ (1:6).

‘Followers’ here cannot mean ‘disciples’, for their allegiance was to Christ alone, not Paul. Rather it means imitators of Christ, followers of his surpassing example – ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might be rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).

That was the ultimate example they followed – the self-giving of the Son of God. We should do the same.

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