It seems like people naturally look up to others. When I was a kid my superhero of choice was Spiderman. I'm not sure if it was the underdog personality culminating from Peter Parker as the picked-on orphan and his unrequited love for Mary Jane or if it was just that swinging around New York City looked really sick (let's be honest, it was probably the latter. I wasn't that introspective.). Either way, I looked up to Spiderman and I couldn't get enough of the early 2000's saga with Tobey Maguire. I even still have copies of the Spiderman 1 and 2 games for Gamecube. Though not everyone grew up as fascinated with Spiderman as I was, all of my friends had their hero. Whether it was a comic book superhero or a sports star, everyone had their hero.
And it isn't something we grow out of, is it? Though we may not be as absorbed with Marvel and DC characters as we once were, our follower complex remains. Perhaps its some famous investor who always has pithy financial statements on social media. Perhaps it's a political leader who can rile up a sense of cause. What is obvious to us is that we have this tendency to look up to others in some form or fashion and I want to make a case that this is a good thing. Now, of course it truly does matter who you look up to. The media we consume and the company we keep impacts and is indicative of who we look up to and this can be to our good or bad. However, I want to say that looking up to people is a God-given ability that we have and to that end I will go to 1 Thessalonians.
Imitation in 1 Thessalonians
In this letter, Paul opens alongside Silvanus and Timothy with his typical warm greeting and begins to say how he thanks God for them constantly in his prayers. He then proceeds to recall the missionary work that Paul and others had done in first presenting the gospel to the Thessalonians. He is confident that they will recall it fondly as well as he writes in verse 5, "You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake". They had left a great impression on these new believers in Thessalonica. So great was their impression that it led to the Thessalonian Christians becoming imitators of Paul and his co-laborers and, consequently, imitators of the Lord (1 Thess 1:6, 1 Cor 11:1).
This is a striking connection that is made here as Paul makes his case that the Thessalonians imitating Paul and his fellow workers necessarily implied that they were following the Lord Jesus. One might initially think that Paul is claiming to be Jesus himself with this statement. However, something else is happening here that is truly quite beautiful; the Lord Jesus was using Paul and his fellow workers to be his ambassadors in Thessalonica (2 Cor 5:20). Thus, if the Thessalonians were to follow Paul and his friends, they were then following the Lord Jesus because Paul and his friends followed Jesus themselves. This not only was with their conduct (that the Thessalonians imitated Paul's virtuous ethic of living) but in their teaching as well which they received with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 1:6b). Paul makes a similar though perhaps even more staggering statement in the next chapter where he equates their preaching with the Word of God and not the mere word of man (1 Thess 2:13).
But it does not end there for Paul. It is not just that the Thessalonians became imitators but that as a consequence of their imitating, they became models to others. Christians throughout Macedonia and Achaia were thus stirred to imitate the Thessalonians. It truly was a domino effect of imitation with the chief object of imitation being God himself. These young Christians were not imitating Paul and his friends for the sake of Paul and his friends. Rather, the Thessalonians Christians saw so much of the likeness of their Lord in Paul and his colleagues that to follow them was a means by which they followed Christ himself. It was the authority and beauty of the Lord Jesus that captivated them, not the authority of man (1 Thess 2:13). These believers, just as we are, were natural followers and it was to their good.
It truly is an encouraging thing to know that as follow Godly people such as our parents or our pastors that God is using them as a means by which we can be followers of the Lord Jesus himself. However, this is also a frightening thing. For leaders, this should be a cause for self-reflection and examination. There are kind-hearted parishioners who will follow their pastor without much caution simply because they believe the best in him. This text (along with the chilling James 3:1) should stir in us a holy motivation to be constantly reoriented to the ways of Jesus Christ that those who follow us may not follow in vain.