In the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul tells the church they ought to imitate him as he imitates Christ. In fact, the church is doing just that: they have become a model for other congregations in Macedonia and Achaia. But the prayer does not really explain what Paul means by “imitate me,” he begins to outline some of the ways the church can follow his model in chapter 2. Paul reminds the church how he conducted himself when he was in the city, providing some details on what he sorts of things he models for them in imitate. Abraham Mahlrebe suggested that this description of Paul’s motivations for ministry are not really apologetic, but rather he intends to present himself as an example of moral behavior he expects out of his congregation. Although this might sound arrogant to the modern reader, Greco-Roman philosophers often set themselves as a moral examples for their students to follow.
But Paul is also trying to separate himself from the typical traveling teacher that plagued the ancient world. For Example, the sophist used their oration skills to gain popularity and wealth. Paul contrasts his motives with those of the sophists or other philosophical mountebanks. Like snake-oil salesmen in the American old west, the traveling teacher was a well-known character in the Greco-Roman world. Bruce Winter suggested that Paul was distancing himself “from the habits of the sophists, who entered the cities of the empire with great pomp in order to gain an audience and disciples for their teaching” (Cited by Green, 112). Gene Green cites Dio Chrysostom as an example of a philosopher who set himself up as a model to be followed (in contrast to other philosophers and sophists):
But to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow- man stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy, but rather the good fortune of a very lucky city, so great is the dearth of noble, independent souls and such the abundance of toadies [flatterers], mountebanks, and sophists. (Dio Chrysostom , 32.11)
In 1 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul claims he did not have “Impure motives” or a moral error (ἀκαθαρσία). When he preached the Gospel, Paul was not trying to get people to believe his message out of a desire to use them immorally. The noun is used for uncleanliness, for dirt and refuse, even the contents of a grave (which a Jew would have considered very unclean). Not surprisingly the word has a connotation of sexual sin, Paul uses the term elsewhere for “every kind of immorality” (Wannemaker, 95).
It is an unfortunate fact that people who attain power use it to sin sexually. This is quite evident that high government officials seem to use their power to be immoral, whether for sexual affairs or quasi-legal bribery. Unfortunately this is as true for religious leaders in our own day. There are people who take advantage of their position in the church to gain sexual favors; it was true in Paul’s day, and it is true in our day.
Paul also says he was “not trying to trick you” when he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica. A snake-oil salesman intends to trick the audience. This word (δόλος) is often translated as “deceit” or “treachery” (BAGD). In non-biblical Greek, the word is used for baiting a hook, a cunning plan to deceive. The most obvious example in the Greek world was the Trojan horse. Paul is not trying to trick people into accepting the Gospel so he can later hit them up for huge donations. Paul had no other motive that to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There was no trick involved, no catch, no hidden clause or fine print. What Paul taught was all there was, and he was successful in Thessalonica because of this.
It is possible Paul is responding to attacks against his character made by opponents either by Jews from the synagogue or the Thessalonicans themselves. It is even possible people in the congregation wonder about Paul’s motivation for preaching the Gospel in their city and founding the church. After all, Paul was only in the city for a short and he left under suspicion of “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:5-9). He left Thessalonica after Jason posted bond, possible giving credence to the rumor that Paul was preaching the gospel for the money and did not really care about the church.
One way to define yourself is to describe what you are not. For example, I might say I am a Christian, but not like those guys on TV or like those people who predict the end of the world. In saying this, my intention is to define accurately what I do believe by contrasting myself to more well known “characters” from our culture. Paul does not want to be seen as a sophist anymore than I want to be seen as goofy people claiming to be Christians.Paul’s point in these verses is to remind the readers he is different than the popular philosophers and hucksters they knew well, he genuinely cared for them as he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, it is easy to dismiss the Gospel because people who claim to be Christians have used their power to to terrible things. People use religion to con people into giving them political power which they abuse to enrich themselves. But not every Christian is trying to manipulate people for money and power! How does the contemporary church convince the culture it is “not like those people?” If Paul is a model in this passage, how do we follow that model and avoid moral and intellectual error?