“And you, in your turn, followed the example set by us and by the Lord; the welcome you gave the message meant grave suffering for you, yet you rejoiced in the Holy Spirit; thus you have become a model for all believers….” (1 Thess. 1:6-7).
Today in America, one can become a Christian with relatively little cost. It is easy to take this for granted. Becoming a Christian might mean enduring a little social sneering. But it is far from the “grave suffering” experienced by the Thessalonians. Just after the first Thessalonians converted, jealous Jews gathered a motley crew and started a riot (Acts 17). Jason, and other friends of Paul, were jailed. Christians in Thessalonica continued to face hatred and resistance.
Paul says they followed the example he and his companions set. They had just come from Philippi, where Paul and Silas were publicly whipped and thrown in jail. Paul connects their experience with Jesus, who was also tortured, jailed, and then crucified. From the outset, the Thessalonians understood that to follow Jesus was to deny self and take up one’s cross (Luke 9:23). This was the gospel they accepted.
It is easy to see how someone could come to Christ kneeling in a carpeted church, swaddled by soft worship music, surrounded by an approving community, listening to an eloquent speaker talk up Christian life. But who hears an invitation to join someone in beatings and imprisonment and accepts it? Who hears of the sufferings of Christ and decides to follow *that* example?
We talk of “altar calls” today, where people come up front to accept Jesus. But we don’t often come to an altar in any real sense—not the sense of death and blood-letting and destruction of self that comes with any actual altar, especially the altar of the cross. This is the altar call the Thessalonians responded to.
We died with Christ when He died on the cross. This may mean we experience physical suffering and death; it may mean psychological suffering and death to ourselves. But somehow, we will participate in Christ’s altar if we are His (1 Cor. 10:18, 21).