Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Imitation as a Principle of Christian Living

According to the Bible, the normal Christian life should involve a lot of imitating what others do. 

Imitating Jesus

First and foremost, we should imitate Jesus Himself.

Relevant here are the Gospel passages which refer to Christians as those who ‘follow’ Christ. 

For example, in Mark 8:34 Jesus teaches: 
‘If anyone wants to follow Me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow Me.’ 
Similarly, in John 8:12 He states: 
‘I am the light of the world.  He who follows Me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ 
And in John 12:26 He says: 
‘If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me . . .’ 
Many other Gospel passages also contain this theme of following Christ.

It is true that the concept of following Jesus in all these passages has mainly to do with submitting to and obeying Him.  But there does seem to be a sense too in which, to some extent, they are teaching us to follow Him by imitation.

In the New Testament letters we are also encouraged to imitate Jesus. 

In Philippians 2:5-7, for example, Paul tells the church in Philippi: 
5 Have this attitude among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.  6 Although He existed in the form of God, He did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.  7 Instead He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and was made in human likeness.’ 
Here Paul is instructing the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility and service.

Similarly, in Ephesians 5:2 Paul teaches: 
‘. . . walk in love, just as Christ also loved us . . .’ 
And later in the same chapter, at Ephesians 5:25, he says: 
‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church . . .’ 
Given that love is the number one virtue in the New Testament, it’s no surprise that Paul should want Christians to imitate Jesus in His love.

Peter is another writer who teaches the imitation of Christ.  In 1 Peter 2:20-21 he states: 
20 . . . But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, this brings God’s approval.  21 For you have been called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.’ 
In these verses Peter is encouraging his readers to imitate Christ’s patient endurance in suffering.

According to the Bible, then, every Christian should be someone who imitates Jesus in various ways.  And as we read Scripture, it is worth keeping this principle in mind. 

Something else that can also be helpful when we are confronted with a difficult situation is simply to ask what Jesus would do if He were in our shoes.  This too is a kind of imitation of Him, or at least an attempt to imitate Him.

Exceptions to the principle of imitating Jesus

It is true that there is a limit to how much we should imitate what Jesus can be found doing in the Bible.  There are times when imitation is not appropriate. 

One example of this is Jesus’ response when He is questioned by the Jewish Sanhedrin and by Pilate (e.g., Matthew 26:62-64; 27:11-14).  He remains largely silent and mostly refuses to straightforwardly answer the questions that are put to Him.

The significance of Jesus’ silence before the Sanhedrin and Pilate is debated.  However, it seems that there was some special reason for it that applied specifically at that time. 

It would surely be a mistake to argue that Christians who find themselves being questioned by authorities should not cooperate with those asking the questions because that is what Jesus did.  That would be to take the principle of imitating Him too far.  And it would also fit badly with those passages which assume that Christians under cross-examination will speak out (e.g., Matthew 10:18-20; Luke 21:12-15). 

It is a mistake, then, to think that we must try to imitate everything we find Jesus doing in the Bible.  There are times when imitation is not appropriate.  But nevertheless, as a general principle it is still right for us to aim to imitate Him.

Imitating God

Because the God-Man Jesus was fully human and without sin, it really isn’t surprising that the Bible teaches us humans to imitate Him. 

What is perhaps not so expected, however, is the command Paul gives us in Ephesians 5:1: 
‘Therefore, be imitators of God . . .’  
What this must mean is that we should aim to develop moral characteristics that fit with God’s nature.  He is infinite love, goodness, kindness, faithfulness etc., and we should imitate these qualities.  This verse recalls another remarkable verse, 2 Peter 1:4, which tells us that Christians are partakers in the divine nature.

Just as there are some ways in which Christians shouldn’t attempt to imitate Jesus’ life on earth, so there will be even more ways in which we shouldn’t attempt to imitate God.  In many respects He has rights that we don’t have, and playing God by doing something that He alone should do is a grievous sin.  By contrast, however, attempting to imitate God’s moral qualities in no way denies His sovereignty.

Imitating biblical personalities

As well as including commands to imitate Christ and God, Scripture instructs us to imitate other biblical personalities too. 

To begin with, there is the apostle Paul.

In 1 Corinthians 4:16, for example, Paul tells the Christians in Corinth: 
‘Therefore I urge you to imitate me.’ 
And in Philippians 4:9 he teaches: 
‘Put into practice what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me . . .’ 
He says something similar in 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6 and 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9.

Obviously Christians today don’t know Paul personally.  So we can’t look directly at his life and copy things that we see. 

Nevertheless, in his letters we can get plenty of ideas about how to imitate him.  Mostly this will be by following his moral example.  But we can learn too from how he dealt practically with situations he was confronted with.

The letter to the Hebrews also encourages imitation of biblical personalities.  In Hebrews 6:11-12 the author tells his readers: 
11 And we want each of you to show the same diligence, so that you may have the full assurance of hope until the end.  12 Then, instead of being lazy, you will be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.’ 
Because these words are followed immediately in verses 13-15 by a reference to Abraham, v. 12 is surely referring, at least mainly, to Old Testament men and women of God.  There is doubtless also a connection between v. 12 and the list of heroes of the faith in chap. 11, all of whom are certainly presented as examples to imitate too. 

Imitating each other

Moving away from major figures of the Bible, Scripture also instructs Christians to imitate each other. 

In Philippians 3:17 Paul tells his readers: 
‘Brothers, join in imitating me, and pay close attention to those who live by the example you have in us.’ 
Here Paul instructs the Philippians to imitate those who are themselves imitating him and his close co-workers.

And in Hebrews 13:7 the writer says: 
‘Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.’ 
In this verse we see encouragement to imitate devout Christian leaders. 

We can surely all gain a lot of insight into how to live a holy life from simply observing how other Christians act and speak.  And whenever we see something good, we should aim to do likewise. 

For instance, we might know believers who seem especially Christ-like in some way, perhaps in their love or humility or another virtue.  Or we might meet such people from time to time.  Instead of just admiring these qualities, we should consciously aim to imitate what we see, praying that God would help us do so.

Imitating other churches

Nor should imitation be just an individual thing.  Churches should also aim to imitate things of value that can be found in other churches. 

Any church which is seriously trying to follow Christ as Lord will be continually modifying its practices.  The Christians there will be constantly looking at what they are doing to see what could be improved.  And one major way we can make improvements is simply by watching what other churches do and then imitating what is best.

Concluding thoughts

It is clear, then, that imitation should be a major principle in Christian living.  There are many biblical texts where we are instructed to imitate others.  And following good examples is something that so obviously makes sense anyway. 

Each of us should get into the habit of imitating Jesus, God, biblical figures and Christians we know.  And churches should also imitate each other. 

Whenever we see things that are positive, we shouldn’t just admire but always aim, if possible, to follow suit.  It’s such a simple principle, but one that is so worth putting into practice.

See also: