For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. – 1 Thessalonians 1:4-7 ESV
For Paul, the reality of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit was far from an intellectual argument based on solid biblical proof and human reasoning. It was something he believed in because he had both experienced and witnessed it. At his miraculous conversion, he had received the Holy Spirit and his life radically transformed from that of a rabid persecutor and exterminator of the followers of Christ to that of an avid proponent and promoter of “the way”. What brought about this remarkable transformation? What is through careful study of the Torah? Had he been convinced through the reasoning capabilities of one of Christ’s followers? No, he had come face to face with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. This encounter had left Paul blind. But not only was he incapable of seeing, he was left wondering what all this meant. All Jesus had told him was “rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6 ESV). Luke, the author of the book of Acts tells us “for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9 ESV). Then Jesus sent Ananias with the job of restoring Paul’s sight. Luke describes the encounter between Ananias and Paul. “And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened” (Acts 9:17-19 ESV).
Along with his sight, Paul received the Holy Spirit, and it was to be a game-changing moment in his life. Most of us think it was his encounter with Jesus on the road that brought about Paul’s radical transformation. But that only left him blind and confused. It was the coming of the Spirit of God into his life that brought about the remarkable change Paul experienced. It was the Holy Spirit who gave him a new direction and motivation for life. Jesus had told Ananias, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16 ESV). As a result of his reception of the Holy Spirit, Paul went from persecuting Christ and His followers to proclaiming the truth of His claim to be the Son of God. He immediately went to the local synagogue and “confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 9:22 ESV). They couldn’t believe that this was the same man who had once spent his life chasing down and locking up Christians. What had happened?
The Holy Spirit is what had happened. Yes, Paul had met Jesus on the road, but it was the presence of God’s Spirit that brought about his transformation. It was the Holy Spirit who transformed Saul, persecutor of Christians, into Paul, proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So when he told the Thessalonians that he knew God had chosen them, he gave as his proof the power of the Holy Spirit. He said, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” 1 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV). I like the way The New Living Translation puts it. “For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true.” It had not been Paul’s powers of persuasion that had brought about the conviction and conversion of the believers in Thessalonica. It had been the Spirit. Paul told the believers in Corinth the same thing. “I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan” (1 Corinthians 1:1 NLT). Instead, he said, “my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 1:4 NLT).
As a result of their acceptance of God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ, the believers in Thessalonica also received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is He who became proof of their conversion and the source of their transformation. As a result, these new believers became imitators (mimētēs) of Paul. That doesn’t mean they simply mimicked what he did. It means they experienced the very same thing he had, the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Their lives were immediately and irreversibly changed by the Spirit of God. So much so, that they became examples to “all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is typos, and it means “a pattern, a type, a person or thing prefiguring a future person or thing”. It was not so much that the way they lived their lives was an example for other believers to follow. But it was the indwelling, transformative presence of the Holy Spirit that would be the form or pattern that all believers would experience. We are transformed by the Spirit of God. We are sanctified, made more holy, by the Spirit of God. And our lives should be living proof of His power and presence. Others should be able to see His power at work in us and through us. The Thessalonian believers had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV). That was the result of the Spirit of God, not human reasoning or human insight. Our belief in Christ was the Spirit’s doing, not ours. Our transformation into His likeness is the Spirit’s doing, not ours. And our future glorification will be his doing as well.