Imitators of God
I’ve been teaching my way through Ephesians and I’ve reached Ephesians 5:1-2:
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
My attention was drawn to the opening phrase: be imitators of God.
What does it mean to imitate God?
The word ‘imitator’ is the word from which we get the word ‘mimic’. In the ancient world the word referred to an imitator or copier. Just as an actor would impersonate a person so too we are to ‘imitate God’. But how do we imitate God the Father?
The ESV translates the phrase as ‘be imitators of God’ but commentators point out that this is a present imperative which means ‘become imitators of God.’ We are to develop continuously into imitators of God.
But what does it mean?
Paul, having told the Ephesians not to walk as Gentiles – pagans – tells them to walk in kindness,gentleness avoiding gossip and anger. It is a call to follow Christ’s sacrificial example, so surely this is what is meant by imitating God? Following Christ’s loving example?
I decided it was time for a word study and discovered that all but one reference to imitating stem from Paul’s pen. The majority encourage believers to become imitators of Paul as he is an imitator of Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7,9). The idea is also used of believers imitating other faithful believers (1 Thess. 2:14; Heb. 6:12).
Isn’t it interesting how Paul’s words challenge them to look to the example of their leaders? How comfortable are we with that idea? Do we set such godly examples that we are comfortable openly recommending our example?
A story is told of President Coolidge. Coolidge invited some people from his hometown to dinner at the White House. Since they did not know how to behave at such an occasion, they thought the best policy would be just to do what the President did. The time came for serving coffee. The President poured his coffee into a saucer. As soon as the home folk saw it, they did the same. The next step for the President was to pour some milk and add a little sugar to the coffee in the saucer. The home folks did the same. They thought for sure that the next step would be for the President to take the saucer with the coffee and begin sipping it. But the President didn’t do so. He leaned over, placed the saucer on the floor and called the cat.
We are not to follow anything. We are called to follow leaders who follow Christ’s example. As a leader I am called to imitate Christ so that others can imitate me! What a challenge and what an example to follow.
Paul says Christ: “gave Himself up for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.”
This refers to the substitutionary atonement of Christ (cf. Isaiah 53; Mark 10:45; Rom. 5:8; 8:32; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Thess. 5:9). He died “instead of” us. His death was a “a fragrant aroma”, a phrase that’s an OT metaphor for God’s acceptance of a sacrifice (cf. Gen. 8:21; Lev. 1:9, 13; 2 Cor. 2:14; Phil. 4:18). As the sacrifice burned it produced smoke which rose out of human sight into the heavenly realm. We imitate Christ by offering ourselves to God sacrificially. Such a sacrificial example is a fragrant offering before God.
James Baldwin said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Straight forward enough, I guess. I am to imitate God by looking at Christ’s example, exemplified by Paul…
Then I got to thinking: what’s the opposite of imitating God? If Paul’s challenge is to get them to do something they often weren’t doing then what were they doing when they weren’t imitating God? We imitate God when we sacrificially love and we don’t when we are selfish? Is selfishness and sinfulness the opposite of imitating God?
I frequently ask questions like this to make sure I truly understand whats going on. If imitating God is following Paul’s selfless example as he imitated the sacrificial lifestyle of Christ then surely the opposite is, say, selfishness, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no …
I paused and put my mind to work.
I imagined that I was teaching this and had someone come up on stage and perform 3 simple gestures that another person, standing behind them, would imitate. This is what imitate or mimic looks like I thought.
So what’s opposite? Is it to stop? I opened one of my many word study guides and discovered some surprising antonyms of imitate. Before revealing them, let’s return to our illustration and see the antonyms in action.
In a teaching session I’d have the person repeat the first gesture only for the impersonator to turn his back and leave the auditorium.
What did the impersonator do? He left, walked away, refused, declined, had nothing to do with, rebelled, and despised the example of the example giver. This is the opposite of imitating God (Luke 18:9; 23:11; Romans 14:3, 10-11; 1 Corinthians 1:28; 1 Timothy 4:7; 5:11-13; 2 Timothy 2:23, et al). It is to decline or refuse to have anything to do with the example giver, in this case God Himself. Second, it’s to show contempt, despise and bring to nothing.
Is this what the Ephesians were doing when they weren’t imitating God? By no means!
The opposite of imitating God is not refusing to copy someone’s behavior. It is rejecting the person. It is walking away, showing scorn, despising and rejecting His Christ whose life was given as an example for us. Refusing to imitate is rooted in the refusal to follow Jesus the one rejected by men but accepted by God (see the story of John 6 especially verses 41, 60-70).
This idea is found in passages like Matthew 21:42:
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Then there’s Acts 4:11-12:
“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
As I saw this I recalled how many people have struggled with their failure to follow Christ’s example. Time after time people have sought my counsel over struggles to reflect Christ’s personality in the way they feel they should. Many have viewed their failure as proof that they aren’t truly saved. Their failure, they claim, signifies that they never truly received Christ. But what does the Apostle John say? He encourages us in his first letter to confess our sins – failure to follow Christ’s perfect example – to the one who is able to forgive and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Our failure to perfectly follow Christ’s selfless example is not the same as walking away, despising, and rejecting the finished work of Christ.
Paul is encouraging the Ephesians to become imitators of God because in the New Testament salvation is a past, present and future reality. It is past: I was saved. It is present: I am being saved. It is future: I will be saved. Reading Scripture and recognizing change is necessary doesn’t invalidate a person’s salvation. It doesn’t mean they have walked away. It means there is work God still needs to do. Our failure is proof of that.
Walking away, interestingly enough, is also to be an imposter. An imposter is someone who pretends to be someone they are not (and have no intention of becoming). A word from the same root as imitate is counterfeit. A good counterfeit is as close to the original as possible. They may look the same; do the same things but they aren’t the same because they have no intention of becoming like the one they are imitating.
Wow! It’s possible for someone to copy the actions of another and be an imposter not an imitator. Why? They aren’t relationally connected to the source.
Living in Florida my boys have grown to love ‘Shark Week’ and the documentary programs that air. During ‘Shark Week’ recently my teens and I watched ‘Jaws.’ There is a great scene in that movie where the policeman, Roy Scheider, is at the dining room table lost in thought over this problem with the killer shark. Suddenly he looks out the corner of his eye and realizes his small boy is copying his every move. So he pretends not to have noticed, and a very touching scene ensues as the boy’s intent mimicking draws Dad away from his troubles and steals his heart.
Now it’s not something we encourage our children to do. They do it because they love us and they want to be like us. It obviously blesses a father’s heart when he suddenly realizes one day that his boy wants to be just like him. The mimicking flows out of relationship.
To wrap this up, being imitators of God taps not so much in to the deeds we do but the source of the deeds we do. Does what we do stem from an intimate relationship with the Christ who reveals God to us? Are our actions flowing from the Spirit of God who gives us the personality of Christ (Eph. 4:1-3; Gal. 5:16-26)?
Imitating God is only possible when we know God’s Son. Becoming like the Son is possible only through our daily dependence upon the Spirit. We can not please God or do God’s will in our own strength. It is His enabling power that enables us to ‘mimic’ the Christ who reveals God the Father to us. Yes, we fail. We fail when we make a choice to allow our flesh to control our actions. We fail when we try to honor God and follow Christ’s example in our strength not His. Having said that, the New Testament says that there is comfort, forgiveness and a new beginning for all who turn to Him for help.
Let me encourage you to be an imitator of God this week. When you fail, fear not. Press on regardless. Set a godly example for others to follow!