Why KJV and NKJV render "imitators" as "followers" we do not know. In what sense did they imitate Paul and the Lord?
Kretzmann: They imitated their teacher, believing as he believed.
The NEB translates this verse as follows: "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." NIV is similar. These translations understand it to mean the attitude with which they welcomed the Gospel even to the point of suffering gladly.
Lenski: 'By receiving the Word in much affliction together with joy of the Holy Spirit' (genitive of source) indicates what likeness is referred to.
These Thessalonian Christians had barely become children of God when they faced suffering. But, rather than grow sullen and fearful, they welcomed the Gospel, though their affliction was heavy. They rejoiced with the joy which only the Holy Spirit can give. There is no account of the Thessalonians suffering (cf. Acts 17:1-9) but it is assumed that after Paul left, they had to suffer, as did Paul, at the hands of Jewish enemies.
The last thing which Jesus said before speaking the words of John 17 was that in the world the Christians would have tribulation but they should be courageous for Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33). Paul and Barnabas inform us that through many tribulations we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). The Thessalonians learned that lesson early but, like Paul and Jesus Himself, joyfully trusted in the Word and were upheld by the Holy Spirit.
RSV translates: "So that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." KJV and NKJV have the plural "examples" because of a variant reading. Note the substantival participle which brings out the fact that faith in a Christian is a constant and living thing.
Macedonia and Achaia cover all that was once ancient Greece. These names, of course, are the names of Roman provinces, under the Roman government.
In what sense were the Thessalonian Christians models or examples? Obviously in their Christian faith, suffering and evangelism. That is brought out more clearly in the next verse. However, before we leave this verse we note that there is a lesson in this verse for us. We should always be conscious of the fact that our life is a model for other people. If we live in sin, others might begin thinking that this is an acceptable life-style. But if we live a life of Christian faith, courage and responsibility, we are bound to be models for others. It is amazing that Paul can pay the Thessalonians such a high compliment after only a few weeks of instruction.
An explanation. This verse explains verse 7. "The Lord's message" occurs no place else in the New Testament, and contextually means "the Gospel." Bruce is of the opinion that "everywhere" as "spreads everywhere" at 2 Corinthians 2:14 and "revealed" in Romans 1:18. Even if it is a hyperbole the expression is a very strong one. This verse repeats Macedonia and Achaia and goes beyond these provinces.
"Rang out" denotes a loud sound like that of a trumpet. The sound had carried far. Paul does not give us specifics on how far.
Again, how could all this have happened in such a short time? It is remarkable. It has been pointed out that Thessalonica was a sea-port and a very busy, commercial city. As merchants and travellers left Thessalonica they must have carried the news about the conversion of the Thessalonians far and wide.
Notice again how "the Gospel" and "your faith toward God" are tied so closely together. According to the NIV the last clause in this verse reads: "Therefore we do not need to say anything about it." We think this gives the precise intended sense. Paul is not saying that there is no further need of preaching the Gospel. Not at all. He is saying that the message and news about the Thessalonian Christians needs no added comment by the Apostle Paul. It speaks for itself. Paul is not saying that the Thessalonians have preached the Gospel. He says that their faith and what they believed has travelled rapidly as news far and wide. Can that be said of us?
Another explanatory verse. This verse and verse 10 explain verse 8. The intended sense of "they themselves" is the people in Macedonia, Achaia and every place. It is the testimony of these people who, in some way or other, have testified to Paul about the conversion and courage of these Thessalonian Christians.
But even more than that. RSV reads: "For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you" . What is meant by "concerning us" ? Evidently the meaning is that the report is very personal concerning the coming of Paul, Silas and Timothy. This part of the sentence tells about their attitude toward these missionaries. Lenski is of the opinion that Paul is here distinguishing between the quacks and true messengers of God. Like the medicine men during the early days of our country, these quacks came around for the purpose of swindling people out of their money. Not so with Paul, Silas and Timothy. They received a genuine welcome from the people.
But even more than that. They also reported how the Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve the living (life-giving) and genuine God. The commentators tell us that the infinitive in this verse and the one in the following verse are epexegetical, i.e. that they are explanatory. They tell in what sense the Thessalonians turned toward God. The Jews gave up idolatry after the Babylonian captivity. Therefore, this verse likely speaks of the conversion of Gentiles, in addition to the Jews who are mentioned in Acts 17:1-9. The Triune God, unlike idols, is a life-giving and genuine God.
We know from the two Epistles that the Thessalonian Christians had some problems with the Parousia. They wondered about the fate of those Christians who would die before Christ returned again. Some were concerned about the time of the Parousia. Still others were so certain that Christ would return soon that they gave up their daily work. But, be that as it may, they were awaiting Christ's second coming. Paul calls Him "his Son from heaven," which clearly implies that the Thessalonians confessed that Jesus was true God. This is indicated also by the fact that Paul mentions that God raised Him from the dead. According to Romans 1:4 the resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that He is God's Son.
Paul calls Him Jesus here which means Savior. Note that Paul also calls Him "the One Who delivers." He has already saved us. But we still face Judgment Day. The death and resurrection of Jesus did not do away with the wrath of God in the sense that they no longer exist. They do. But Jesus delivers us from the coming wrath which, of course, points to the last day. We think here of John 3:36: "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." (NKJV).
Notice how this text, verses 6-10, opens as does a beautiful flower. Paul began by saying that the Thessalonian Christians were imitators of Paul and his helpers and of the Lord Himself by the way in which they welcomed the Gospel joyfully despite persecution from the enemies. This in turn caused these Thessalonian Christians to be models for all the believers in the whole of Greece and beyond the confines of Greece. The Gospel itself sounded forth from them like the sound of a trumpet and news about their faith went out. There was no need of Paul to explain what was going on. Their faith spoke for itself. These people to whom this news came knew how they had welcomed Paul and his helpers and that they had turned from idols to the God who is life-giving and genuine, not dead and phony like the gods of the heathen. They knew also that these Thessalonian Christians were awaiting Jesus from heaven and were confident that Jesus would deliver them from the wrath of God which will be apparent on Judgment Day. Do we today make this kind of impact on people?