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This is regarding 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1, Philippians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, and 2 Thessalonians 3:7 and 9. A number of bible-translators have put into those verses wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that the apostle Paul told people to “follow him as their leader”. But, a check of the Greek text of the New Testament shows that he did not do that. What he did, was that he told them to imitate him, that is, copy his example. – Believers should know what that example was. That is what this article is all about.
This has to do with the six above-mentioned verses and their context. All might not even know that they refer to imitating, copying an example, because many bible-versions have in those verses such words as “follow” and “followers”.
In the Greek text, the relevant words are mimeomai, mimêtês and summimêtês which all refer to imitating, that is, copying an example. The following takes a closer look at the passages in question, one by one, including their context.
A number of translators have put into that passage wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that Paul people to “follow him as their leader”. But, he was talking about imitating an example. Again, believers should know what that example was.
Here is verse 16, as the LIT has it:
1 Corinthians 4:16 Because of this, I urge you, be imitators of me. (LIT)
“Because of this” – because of what? And, really what were the saints to imitate? Here is some of the context, as the BBE has it:
1 Corinthians 4: […] 6 My brothers, it is because of you that I have taken Apollos and myself as examples of these things, so that in us you might see that it is not wise to go farther than what is in the holy Writings, so that no one of you may be lifted up against his brother. 7 For who made you better than your brother? or what have you that has not been given to you? but if it has been given to you, what cause have you for pride, as if it had not been given to you? 8 For even now you are full, even now you have wealth, you have been made kings without us: truly, I would be glad if you were kings, so that we might be kings with you. 9 For it seems to me that God has put us the Apostles last of all, as men whose fate is death: for we are put on view to the world, and to angels, and to men. 10 We are made to seem foolish for Christ, but you are wise in Christ; we are feeble, but you are strong; you have glory, but we have shame. 11 Even to this hour we are without food, drink, and clothing, we are given blows and have no certain resting-place; 12 And with our hands we do the hardest work: when they give us curses we give blessings, when we undergo punishment we take it quietly; 13 When evil things are said about us we give gentle answers: we are made as the unclean things of the world, as that for which no one has any use, even till now. 14 I am not saying these things to put you to shame, but so that, as my dear children, you may see what is right. […] 16 So my desire is that you take me as your example. (BBE, highlighting added)
Please read the above-quoted verses, at least one more time, slowly and with thought. One aspect of Paul’s example was his humility and self-sacrificing way of serving others.
A part of that example was that the apostle Paul supported himself, also in Corinth. Note for instance verse 12, “and with our hands we do the hardest work”. Paul was a skilled worker, a tentmaker. Acts 18:1–3 shows that when he was in that town, he worked in that occupation. Those who carefully study all of 1 Corinthians 9, will see that Paul had not lived at the cost of others, and that he was not about to do that, either. (The article nma050.htm has more on this.)
Acts 20 records how Paul reminded the elders from Ephesus that they knew that he had always supported himself through manual work. 2 Thessalonians 3 shows that when he was in Thessalonica, he and his companions “worked night and day” so that they would not be a burden to anyone, and that they “did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it”; there is more on that passage, later in this article.
Now, consider this: Why did Paul in his letters several times remind people about the example which he and his companions had set?
It appears that one reason for this was that after Paul’s departure from Corinth, things had gone bad. There had come forth deceivers who presented themselves as “apostles” or something similar. It appears that some such men had set up themselves as “leaders” and even managed to make people pay them. Paul’s two letters to that town contain a number of notes in regard to the men in question, but we do not know the details. The saints in Corinth of course knew what things and which persons Paul referred to. (A note: 1 Corinthians 5:9 shows that Paul had written to Corinth already before he wrote the letter which we call “1 Corinthians”.)
Before going to the other passages which mention this with imitating, let us first read what Paul said about the men who did not follow his example but acted in a different way. He had some pretty acid things to say about those deceivers. We read:
2 Corinthians 11:13 God’s messengers? They are counterfeits of the real thing, dishonest practitioners masquerading as the messengers of Christ. 14 Nor do their tactics surprise me when I consider how Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is only to be expected that his agents shall have the appearance of ministers of righteousness—but they will get what they deserve in the end. 16 Once more, let me advise you not to look upon me as a fool. Yet if you do, then listen to what this “fool” has to make his little boast about. 17 I am not now speaking as the Lord commands me but as a fool in this business of boasting. 18 Since all the others are so proud of themselves, let me do a little boasting as well. 19 From your heights of wisdom I am sure you can smile tolerantly on a fool. 20 Oh, you’re tolerant all right! You don’t mind, do you, if a man takes away your liberty, spends your money, takes advantage of you, puts on airs or even smacks your face? 21 I am almost ashamed to say that I never did brave strong things like that to you. Yet in whatever particular they parade such confidence I (speaking as a fool, remember) can do the same. (PH72)
As you can see, it is obvious that at least some people in Corinth had allowed themselves to be deceived and used. Paul was in fact mocking them, because of that – verse 20: “Oh, you’re tolerant all right! You don’t mind, do you, if a man takes away your liberty, spends your money, takes advantage of you, puts on airs or even smacks your face?”
Paul noted, sarcastically, “I am almost ashamed to say that I never did brave strong things like that to you.” Paul and his companions acted in a very different way. Their manner of life – their example – was totally different.
(Here, some might wonder about 2 Corinthians 11:8, because many translators have put into that verse such wordings as “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them that I might minister unto you”. The article nma090.htm has more on that passage and its translation and meaning. The article nma050.htm takes a closer look at 1 Corinthians 9:14–18.)
Even 1 Corinthians 11:1 records how the apostle Paul told the saints in Corinth to copy his example. Some translators have put into that verse such wordings as “be you followers of me”. That might cause casual bible-readers to think that Paul told people to follow him as their leader. But, the Greek text shows that he was talking about imitating, copying an example. Here, the context is slightly different, but even in this case, Paul noted that he was not seeking his own profit.
1 Corinthians 10:32 Give no occasion to stumbling, whether to Jews, or Greeks, or the assembly of God. 33 Even as I also please all in all things; not seeking my own profit, but that of the many, that they may be saved. 1 Corinthians 11:1 Be my imitators, even as I also am of Christ. (DBY)
As you can see, Paul told the saints in Corinth to imitate his example. In contrast to how some men had acted, he was not using religion for his own profit.
Also in Philippians 3:17, a number of translators have made it to “be followers of me” (as if following a leader). But, the Greek text talks about imitating, copying an example.
That verse records how Paul told the saints in Philippi to copy the example which he (and Timothy) had set. Their example was in stark contrast with the manners of certain men who were after earthly things (“their god is their stomach”, verse 19).
Philippians 3:17 Join in imitating me, brothers, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. They are focused on earthly things, 20 but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (HCSB, highlighting added)
Note even verse 19, “their god is their stomach” and “they are focused on earthly things”. Paul was not that way. He was not after earthly things. Several New Testament passages show that one aspect of his example was that he did not live at other people’s cost. He and his companions supported themselves through manual work. They proclaimed the Good Tidings for free.
(Sometimes when Paul was imprisoned, he received help from certain people. And, it appears that it was the same on some occasions when he was either sick or recovering from beatings or the like, so that he could not work and support himself.)
Still regarding verses 18 and 19 – it is not clear whom Paul referred to (he did not mention any names), but several passages in the NT indicate that there were some who were after earthly things and used “the Gospel” for their own profit. Paul repeatedly warned about persons of that kind, and he told the saints to mark and avoid them and cast them out from their fellowships. The article naa100.htm has more on that matter, but even this present study considers one of the passages in question.
Some bible-versions have in 1 Thessalonians 1:6 such wordings as “you became followers of us” (as if following a leader), but even in that case, the Greek text refers to imitating, copying an example. Here, Paul was talking about people who actually did imitate the example which was set by Jesus, and also by Paul and his companions.
1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, to the assembly of Thessalonians in God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ! 2 We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, 3 unceasingly remembering of you the work of the faith, and the labour of the love, and the endurance of the hope, of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the presence of our God and Father, 4 having known, brethren beloved, by God, your election, 5 because our good news did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance, even as ye have known of what sort we became among you because of you, 6 and ye—ye did become imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation, with joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that ye became patterns to all those believing in Macedonia and Achaia, 8 for from you hath sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God did go forth, so that we have no need to say anything […] (YLT, highlighting added)
Verse 6 states that those people imitated, not only Paul and his companions but even Jesus. Verse 7 shows that they “became patterns to all those believing in Macedonia and Achaia”.
A number of bible-versions have in verse 7 such wordings as “you ought to follow us”. That might cause someone to think that Paul told people to follow him as their leader. But even in this case, Paul was talking about imitating, copying an example. Verse 8: One aspect of the example which Paul and his companions set, was that they did not “eat anyone’s bread without paying for it” and that they “worked night and day” so that they would not be a burden to anyone.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to withdraw yourselves from every brother who leads an idle life, instead of living according to the instruction you received from us. 7 For you know in what way you should imitate us, because we did not behave disorderly among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 Not that we did not have the opportunity, but we made ourselves a model for you to imitate. 10 Even when we were with you, we told you this: If someone does not want to work, neither let him eat. 11 But we hear that some among you are leading negligent lives, not working at all but being busybodies. 12 We charge and exhort such persons, by our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to keep quiet and work and eat their own bread. 13 So, brothers, keep on acting in an upright way. 14 But if someone does not give attention to what we have said in this letter, note that man and have no company with him, so that he may be ashamed. (BPT)
Verses 7 and 8 speak their clear language. “For you know in what way you should imitate us, because we did not behave disorderly among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you.”
Verses 8 and 9, “so that we would not be a burden to any of you—not that we did not have the opportunity” – that passage and its translation and meaning is discussed in more detail in an appendix at the end of this article. Even the meaning of the word “busybodies” in verse 11 is considered there.
Verses 10 and onward: Paul said that all were to work. Please note that he did not state this as a “suggestion” but as a specific commandment relayed from the Lord. Clarification: In the Greek text of verses 6 and 12, we find the verb parangellô whose primary meaning was “to pass on or transmit a message”. Paul wrote those things “in the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah”, verse 6, and “by our Lord Jesus the Messiah”, verse 12. In other words: It was an instruction from Jesus that Paul in this way relayed to the saints in Thessalonica.
(Obviously, the instruction that all should work and support themselves, applied only to able-bodied people in their sound mind and in their working age. Several New Testament passages record how the saints were instructed to take care of those who for different reasons such as age, disability, sickness or poverty were not able to support or manage themselves.)
More: The above-quoted passage shows that Paul told the saints to mark and shun (keep away from) men who wanted to live at other people’s cost. They were to close such persons out from their fellowship.
As was noted earlier, sometimes when Paul was imprisoned, he received some aid from certain people. That was an altogether different matter, of course. And, it appears that he may have received aid even on some occasions when he was sick or for instance recovering from beatings or stoning (see 2 Corinthians 11:24–25) so that he could not work.
On one occasion when Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, he made a stop in Miletus and sent for the elders from Ephesus and asked them to come to meet him. (Earlier, he had lived a longer time in Ephesus.) He reminded those elders that they knew the example which he had set, how he had acted. At the same time, he warned about men who would act in a different way.
Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the assembly. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, You are familiar with, from the day when I arrived in Asia, after what manner I lived among you all the time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility […] 28 So, take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians over, to tend the assembly of God which he purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know that after my departure, burdensome wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own selves shall arise men who speak perverted things, in order to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore keep watch, remembering that for three years, I did not cease to warn everyone, with tears, night and day. 32 And now I commit you, brothers, to God, and the word of his grace, who is able to edify you and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothes – 34 rather, as you yourselves know, these hands have provided for my needs and for those who were with me. 35 I have shown you in everything, that by working hard like this, we must support the infirm and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (BPT)
Verse 35, “I have shown you in everything” – that is, Paul had set an example, for those elders to copy. He noted, verses 34 and 35, that they knew that he had supported himself through manual work, and that he had even provided aid to people who could not support themselves. That is what the words “we must support the infirm” refer to, verse 35. In was in that connection, that he reminded those elders of that Jesus had said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. As you can see, Paul had been on the giving side, so that he had even provided aid to people in need. He told those elders to copy his example, in that regard.
The article nma020.htm has more on Acts 20, including verse 35 and its translation and meaning. The article nma010.htm sorts out the “tithe question”.
The apostle Paul told the saints to imitate (copy) the example which he and his companions had set when they went proclaiming the Good Tidings. One aspect of that example was their humble and self-sacrificing manner of serving others. They did not live at other people’s cost but instead worked so that they could support themselves. That example also included patient endurance during times of hardship and persecution. In short: Those men put their lives into the service of others. Unselfishly, without payment.
There are many other passages which are related to Paul’s example. All of them cannot be included here, but here is one of them:
Philippians 4: […] 9 Put in practise also what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me; and the God of peace shall be with you. (CT)
As you can see, Paul told those saints to copy his example, to act as he had done.
By the way, regarding that chapter – a casual bible-reader might come to think that verses 14–16 mean that Paul lived at the cost of others. But, it appears that verse 14 refers to aid which he received when he was imprisoned. And, verse 16 perhaps refers to the time when Paul and Silas had been scourged in Philippi and were recovering in Thessalonica. The article nma100.htm has some notes on this.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendix below.
2 Thessalonians 3:7 For you know in what way you should imitate us, because we did not behave disorderly among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 Not that we did not have the opportunity [Greek exousia], but we made ourselves a model for you to imitate. 10 Even when we were with you, we told you this: If someone does not want to work, neither let him eat. (BPT)
Bible-translators have not always given the many-faceted old Greek noun exousia the meaning which is correct for the context.
The noun exousia was derived from the verb-like word construction exesti which was used in many different ways and meanings, such as “it is right”, “let”, “permissible”, “permitted”, “it is allowed”, “it is in one’s power”, “it is possible”. Here is what ‘Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon’ by Liddell and Scott (Clarendon Press, 1889) has on exesti (which is the root of the noun exousia):
it is allowed, it is in one’s power, is possible, c. inf., Hdt.: c. dat. pers. et inf., id=Hdt., attic; ἔξ. σοι ἀνδρὶ γενέσθαι Xen.:— c. acc. pers. et inf., Ar.:—part. neut. absol., ἐξόν since it was possible, Hdt., Aesch., etc.
So, the word exesti meant such things as “it is allowed”, “it is in one’s power”, “it is possible”. – Its derivative, the noun exousia, was used in many different meanings, such as “power”, “right”, “power of choice”, “liberty of doing as one pleases”, “permission”, “chance”, et cetera. The OLB Greek lexicon gives exousia such definitions as these:
1. power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases
a. leave or permission
2. physical and mental power
a. the ability or strength with which one is endued, which he either possesses or exercises
3. the power of authority (influence) and of right (privilege)
(Those are the first three points in that lexicon entry.)
It is always the context that shows how the speaker or author used the noun exousia and meant it to be understood. In the case of 2 Thessalonians 3:9 which is quoted in the main part of this article and also here, it is obvious that Paul used that word in the meaning “chance”, “opportunity”. Read on, for more on this.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to withdraw yourselves from every brother who leads an idle life, instead of living according to the instruction you received from us. 7 For you know in what way you should imitate us, because we did not behave disorderly among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 Not that we did not have the opportunity, but we made ourselves a model for you to imitate. 10 Even when we were with you, we told you this: If someone does not want to work, neither let him eat. 11 But we hear that some among you are leading negligent lives, not working at all but being busybodies. [a] 12 We charge and exhort such persons, by our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to keep quiet and work and eat their own bread. 13 So, brothers, keep on acting in an upright way. 14 But if someone does not give attention to what we have said in this letter, note that man and have no company with him, so that he may be ashamed. (BPT)
Verses 8 and 9, “so that we would not be a burden to any of you—not that we did not have the opportunity” – it appears that Paul and his companions were politely stating that they knew that the saints in Thessalonica were generous and would have permitted them to stay as guests, for free. Through this, they would have had the chance or opportunity (exousia) to be a “burden” for those people. But, Paul and Silvanus and Timothy were relaying a command from the Lord (see verses 6 and 12), and so, they made it clear that they would not live at the cost of others. Verse 8, “nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you”.
A note regarding verse 10: Obviously, the instruction that all were to work and support themselves, applied to able-bodied people who were in working age and had a sound mind. Several New Testament passages record how the saints were instructed to take care of those who for different reasons such as age, disability, sickness or poverty were not able to support or manage themselves.
a Regarding the word “busybodies”, verse 11 – it is hard to form an English phrase that would carry over the “taste” of what Paul wrote in Greek. Some other translations have “meddlers”, “over-interested in the business of others”, or similar. But, those wordings do not really make it clear what the apostle Paul was saying. Clarification:
Paul often played with words. This can be seen in the Greek text, but unfortunately, most of that is lost in translation. Regarding the word-play in verse 11 (Greek text):
Paul used the phrase ergazomenous alla periergazomenous – that is, he was contrasting the verbs ergazomai (ergô) and periergazomai (periergô).
And so, one edition of the paraphrase WIL renders verse 11 this way:
2 Thessalonians 3:11 But we are informed that some among you are living as shirkers, mere busybodies, instead of busy at work”. (WIL)
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
On 2 Corinthians 11:8, the translation “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them”. Was the apostle Paul paid for his proclaiming work? → nma090.htm
Some notes on 1 Corinthians 9:14–18. → nma050.htm
What the Bible says about marking, avoiding and excommunication. → naa100.htm
Acts 20:35 – what the apostle Paul meant when he reminded the elders from Ephesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. → nma020.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? → nma010.htm
On Philippians 4:14–16. → nma100.htm
Regarding monetary things in connection with religion, look also under the heading “Money” on the page key42.htm
Table of contents – Key-word index – Search function – On the goal and purpose of this site
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