“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:1-2 (ESV)
An imitation is a copy of the original that is considered a success when the difference—between the copy and the original is indistinguishable. When it comes to people, to imitate is to follow someone as a model. Most of the time, however, we do not like imitators very much. Those who imitate other people usually do it poorly. They are not being themselves. Imitation can be a form of deceit when people put on airs, act more important than they are, or fake various kinds of behavior. We would tell the imitator, “Don’t put on an act. Don’t impersonate, ape, or mimic—it’s not you. Don’t be so shallow. Be yourself.”
When it comes to the Christian life, being yourself is a problem. As a Christian, you do not want to be yourself. If we truly know ourselves in our sin, the last thing we would want is to be ourselves. A Christian would say, “I don’t want to be me! I know the horror of being me. I know the sins, the bad things in my life, the slander, the lying, the cheating, and the failure that I am. That is not how I want to live anymore. Instead, I need to learn how to live as the new creation I am by Christ’s Spirit.”
Christians know they need a role model. We need someone to show us what real living actually is. The only choice, the only One who is different from everyone else, is Jesus Christ. Paul told us to look to Him when he wrote: “Be imitators of God.” Look to Jesus, the God-man. Be imitators of Him.
The reasons Paul calls us to imitate Christ are given in Ephesians 4. Paul warns us against walking like the unbelievers, who are in darkness. Instead, if Jesus is our Lord and master, our life will look different, and Paul spells out how different that life would be. He writes, “That is not the way you have learned Christ.” He follows that up with a list of things that are expected from godly people, such as putting off our old self; not lying, but telling the truth; being angry but not sinning in our anger; not keeping our anger alive; not stealing; doing honest work; not talking trash; letting what we say be good; and not grieving God the Holy Spirit who lives in us. The apostle tells us, “Do not be bitter; do not be angry; do not slander other people. Put all that stuff behind you.” Paul’s point is this: You are different. You are Christian. You are supposed to look different and live differently: “Be imitators of God as beloved children.”
Most of us have seen children play house. Often they imitate their parents and even pick up on mannerisms their parents may not be aware of. This kind of imitation generally never leaves us completely as we grow older, although we often prefer not to admit it. Not only do we tend to look like our parents because of our shared DNA but we also tend to grow into the same mold as we get older. Young people may say that they do not want to be like their parents and that their prospective future family will be different. However, as time goes by, they start to do things the same way, and you can see the familial patterns emerging. Many parents are able to see their reflection in their children. Herein lies a subconscious, natural imitation. Paul wants that and still more. He calls us to imitate the One who has the single biggest influence in our life. “Be imitators of God like beloved children.” This is the consequence of being a Christian: do not be like everybody in the world out there, but be like the One who has rescued you from eternal death.
Thus, our imitation of Christ must not only rise from our subconscious but it must also be a conscious effort. Paul pinpoints our imitation as a walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. There was nothing subconscious about that as He purposefully strode to the cross on our behalf.
Love, contrary to popular opinion, is not just a nice feeling we have about someone that rises mostly from our subconscious. Love goes much deeper than that. Love is a decision. We decide to love, and we must do so in an ongoing way. Love is to be our guide, and it is to govern our emotions, actions, and decisions. This is completely consistent with the two great commandments to love God above all and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love comes before the law and all the guidelines we live by. Those only work if there is love. You have to live love, breathe love, and smell like love. It has to shine in everything and everywhere. Walk in love.
Paul points us to the example of how that exactly works. Do it—love as Christ loved you. And we know the whole story of His love. Most of us were brought up with it. You know how He loved. He came to earth motivated by love. He would have come if you were the only sinner on earth. He suffered for you. He died for you. His love is a deep and personal love. That is the love to look at, imitate, and live out.
To be Christlike, to be imitators, our relationship must not be one of seeking what’s in it for us. Jesus was not like that, and we may not be like that either. Rather, our lives must be one of self-sacrifice and servanthood to Christ and our neighbor, always remembering that we are objects of God’s mercy and that our only hope is in Him.
Let our prayer be this: “We are looking to You, Lord. Help us to deal with each other and love each other in the same way You deal with and love us. Help us to have mercy and loving kindness in a big way, yet such a small way when compared to the mercy that You have shown to us.”
Rev. Hank Vander Woerd is the co-pastor of the Trinity Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta.