The Christian Life, Part Three: Imitators of God
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, August 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. - Ephesians 5:1-2
The story is told of a soldier named Alexander who served in the army of Alexander the Great. This Alexander was a coward who trembled when the battle raged. When Alexander the Great heard this, he asked him: "How can you bear the name Alexander and be a coward?" Then he commanded him: "Either drop your cowardice or drop your name!"
If we claim to be children of God, then we should imitate our heavenly Father. Otherwise, we should stop calling ourselves Christians. In Ephesians 5:1-2, God commands us to live according to the highest possible standard of behavior-that of God himself. This teaching appears only here, even though Jesus Christ told his disciples they must be perfect, even as the heavenly Father is perfect.
This command to imitate God is impossible for an unbeliever because the unbeliever is dead in trespasses and sins. Under the rule of Satan, he lives a life of disobedience, always gratifying the cravings of his flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Because his understanding is darkened, he lives in the futility of his thinking. He is ignorant of God and separated from the life of God. His heart is as hard as flint, completely insensitive to divine things. Thus, he gives himself freely over to sensuality, to practice every form of impurity with greediness.
Can such a person imitate God? It is utterly impossible. So we must understand this is not a command to unbelievers; it is for the children of God. It is very natural for children to imitate their father. C.H. Spurgeon remarked: "Holiness of life is the proof of regeneration." The children of God are to behave like their Father.
The Responsibility of the Children of God
If we have trusted in Jesus Christ for our eternal salvation, then certain things are true of us: We have died with Christ, been buried with him, been raised with him, and even now are seated with him in heaven, ruling with him. We are new creations, having the mind of Christ. Because we have received divine nature and have been recreated after God in righteousness and holiness of the truth, we now desire to know God's will and do it. We have been given the highest possible blessing of being adopted as sons and daughters of God so that now we are members of God's royal family, a people who bear God's name. We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of God and have been made rich in Christ. We have been made qualified to judge the world and the angels and have the right to come into the presence of the Father and to pray to him in the name of Jesus Christ. We are saints of God, every one of us, having been chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in God's sight.
The mission of Christ is to make us a radiant church, without stain, wrinkle, or any other blemish. This process will be completed when Jesus Christ appears. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Then shall be fulfilled God's eternal purpose for us, as revealed in Romans 8:29, that we will be conformed to the image of his eternal Son.
Beloved of the Lord
First, then, we are told, "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children." As new creations in Christ, we are now God's beloved children. Now, we know that Jesus Christ is the eternally beloved Son of God. In Ephesians 1:6, he is called the beloved one, in whom we are given grace. He is the beloved Son with whom the Father was well-pleased because of his total obedience to God the Father. He always sought to please his Father, even to the death of the cross. But here we are told that we are also God's beloved sons. In his Son, we have been beloved of the Lord from all eternity, and we shall always be beloved of him throughout all eternity. Nothing can change the love God has for us, even our sin, although this fact should motivate us, not to sin, but to do what pleases our Father.
And what is the scope of this love God has for us? In John 17:23 Jesus prays: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." What an amazing statement: God loves his church-corporately and individually-just as he loves his own eternal Son! It is unbelievable, yet true. Do we need to know anything more to live for the glory of God?
As beloved sons of God, we have responsibilities as well as privileges. We should never do anything that brings shame to our heavenly Father. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus exhorts us: "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your heavenly Father," and in John 13:34-35 he tells us, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another." The holy life we live in this world is what will attract people to God.
Become Imitators of God
Next, we are told to become imitators of God. In the Greek it is not "be" but "become," which speaks about continuously becoming. God is commanding his children to imitate him. Because we have been made beloved children of God, it is natural for us to imitate him. As we do so, we prove our regeneration and adoption into his family.
One's life proves one's parentage. It is very easy to identify who the father of a lawless person is. The Bible says, "Your father is the devil." A person can speak all he wants about grace, but his behavior will show whether he belongs to the devil or God. Godliness proves our parentage and reassures us that we are God's dear children indeed.
Paul uses the word mimÍtai, mimic. Children naturally mimic their parents. When little boys see their fathers shaving, they want to shave too. When little girls see their mothers putting on lipstick, that is what they want to do too. As young boy I would come home from the church, climb up a tree, and begin to preach. It was a very natural thing for me to do because my father was the preacher!
To imitate anyone, we must have communion with that person and know him intimately. As sons of God, we commune with the triune God. Ephesians 2:18 tells us, "For through [Jesus Christ] we both have access to the Father by the Holy Spirit." We are told elsewhere in this epistle that God the Father dwells in the church by the Holy Spirit (2:22) and that we kneel before the Father in prayer (3:14). Second Corinthians 3:18 tells us, "And we, who with unveiled faces, all reflect [or behold] the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." When we look into the word of God and worship him in spirit and in truth, we behold the Lord's glory. Thus, we are changed into his likeness. That is why we must not watch television or use the Internet or any other media sources uncritically. We tend to imitate what we see.
By the Holy Spirit, we understand what God has revealed to us in the Scripture. So if we want to see God, we have to understand what the Bible is saying. In the Bible we see Christ, and in Christ we see the Father. As we read the Scripture, pray, and worship God with the saints, we are fellowshipping with God.
As we increasingly know God through Jesus Christ, we will imitate him in our thoughts and behavior. Proverbs 23:7 tells us that as a man thinks in his heart, so he is. We can tell what a man thinks by his actions. If God's word is filling our hearts, we will do what the Father is doing. Jesus himself said, "[T]he Son can do noting by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does" (John 5:19).
Although we are told to imitate God as his dear children, we cannot imitate God's incommunicable attributes, such as his self-existence, self-sufficiency, eternity, infinity, immutability, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience because we are not gods. But we must imitate him in attributes such as holiness, righteousness, justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, faithfulness, longsuffering, honesty, and so on. Grace teaches us and enables us to imitate God in these qualities.
As children wanting to bring only honor to our Father, we must be very careful how we live. When I was young, I was told I must always conduct myself in a way that would always bring honor, not shame, to the family. It was a heavy responsibility, and it is the responsibility we have also as children of God. Paul instructs us in 1 Corinthians 11:1, "Follow my example" - mimÍtai mou ginesthe - "as I follow the example of Christ." In the same way, we have a responsibility to tell those under us, "Imitate me as I imitate Christ."
In 2 Thessalonians 3:7 and 9, Paul also tells the Thessalonians to imitate him. Paul did not live by handouts; he was industrious and worked hard. So he says to the Thessalonians, "Why don't you imitate me and work hard?" Parents, are you able to say to your children, "Imitate me"? The Corinthians were to imitate the apostle, for the apostle imitated Christ just as Christ imitated the Father.
As children of God, then, we must imitate our heavenly Father. "Be perfect," Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:48, "therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." In Luke 6:36 he says, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." Paul adds, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). This is the very high standard to which we are called.
Walk in Love
When we look the injunction to be "imitators of God . . . as dearly beloved children and walk in love," we notice that we are to imitate God especially in the quality of love. God loved us and, in Christ, forgave our sins.
The Bible tells us that "love covers a multitude of sins." We may think, "Isn't that wonderful? God should just forgive all my sins." But consider how God covered the multitude of our sins: he sent his beloved Son to die on the cross. Never think that sin is a small thing. Sin put Christ on the cross.
Because God loved us, he forgave us our sins through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. So when we love, we are fulfilling God's law. We read in Romans 13:8-10: "Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not covet,' and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does not harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." This is not speaking about sentimentality or emotional romantic love. This is a love that sacrifices one's life for the wellbeing of the other.
In what, then, are we to imitate God? Specifically in agapÍ, in love. So we are commanded: "Walk in love" - peripateite en agapÍ. Again, this is an imperative; we are to walk in love continually.
Before we were Christians, we were enemies of God and sons of disobedience who lived in sin continually. But now we are to walk in the sphere of sacrificial love continually, so that each decision we make should be based on love to God and to his people. Notice, Paul uses the word "walk." This is not a one-hundred-meter dash. There is no great drama in walking; people will not come to watch us walk. But God is calling us to a steady, balanced, progressive way of living that will enable us to arrive at the destination of the heavenly city.
As God's children, it is easy for us to walk in love. After all, God has loved us from all eternity and in Jesus Christ has forgiven all our sins, as we read in Ephesians 1:7: "In [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through his blood." As we said, love covers a multitude of sins, but we must always keep in mind that the price of that forgiveness is the shed blood of Christ. Because our infinite sin has been forgiven by our infinite God, freely, completely, and forever, we must forgive others as God forgave us.
How must we live in view of this blessing of having our sins forgiven? We must walk in love. No one should say, "Oh, my sins are forgiven; let me sin more." That would be unreasonable. (PGM) God has shed his love abroad in our hearts so that we may live in love-the love that spares no pain for the benefit of others, the love that fulfills God's law, the love of God that surpasses knowledge.
What do we know about this love of God? Ephesians 2:4 tells us what happened to us who lived as sons of disobedience and as people who were under the control of Satan and on our way to hell: "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive." In Ephesians 3:17 Paul tries to describe the love of God, saying, "And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." This is the great love God has shed abroad in our hearts in abundance (Romans 5:5). So as children of God, we are asked to imitate God, not to come up with our own way or to create some new way, but to simply follow God and his Christ in the way of God's love.
Jesus Christ said, "Deny yourself daily, take up the cross, and follow me." That is the easiest thing in the world for a Christian. Just follow him, one step at a time. Peter speaks in the same vein: "But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps" (1 Peter 2:20). We read the same thing in 1 John 2:6: "Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did."
Imitation of Christ
Not only are we to walk in love, but we are to "live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us." What is the standard? Jesus Christ, and, specifically, his death on the cross. We are to imitate God by imitating his Son, Jesus Christ, who walked among us and revealed God's love to us, especially when he said, "Not my will but thine be done," went to the cross in our behalf.
Yes, this standard is very high indeed. I know some people will say, " We would rather go to a church that preaches grace." But if you do not want to forsake your sins, you are revealing that you do not belong to Jesus Christ. A church that does not preach holiness is a synagogue of Satan.
The high standard for our behavior is God himself. Notice, we are to forgive as God forgave us. We are to be perfect as God is perfect. We are to be merciful as God is merciful to us. We are to walk as Jesus walked. And now we are told we are to love as Jesus loved us and died on the cross for us.
So we are to walk in love as Christ loved us. The greatest demonstration of God's love is seen on the cross. Otherwise, we cannot appreciate it. Few people speak about sin today. I was listening to a professor of religion who had talked with several pastors of large churches. He asked them, "What are you preaching?" And the answer came: "We don't preach sin. We don't preach repentance. We don't preach any of those things anymore." This man was fascinated, because he does not believe in preaching these things either. "What, then, do you preach?" The pastors answered: "Love." So such pastors will not speak truth anymore, even though the Bible tells us we are supposed to speak truth in love. But these churches are sending people to hell. If you do not preach sin, then what is love all about? We cannot understand love if we don't preach sin.
God so loved the world of sinners that he did not spare his own eternal Son but delivered him up for our salvation, that the sinful sons of men may become holy sons of God in his beloved Son, who died for them.
In 1 John 3:1 we read, "How great is love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" How did we come to be God's children? By God handing over his Son to die in our place on the cross. God loved us and gave up his Son for us, turning his face from him and allowing him to become sin in our place. Additionally, Christ himself loved us and demonstrated that love by freely, actively, and willingly dying in our place. His was an active, not passive obedience. In John 10:15 he tells us, "Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep. . . ." And in verse 18 he declares, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again." Jesus Christ consciously and deliberately loved us and gave his life on the cross for us.
But then we must ask: Did he do so because we were so nice? No. Romans 5:6-8 tells us, "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." And in verse 10 we read, "For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son." We were powerless sinners, ungodly enemies of God. Yet God loved us and Christ died for us.
What is the standard of love that we are to walk in? The love Jesus Christ demonstrated by his death on the cross for our behalf. Ephesians 5:25 tells us, "Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her." He was the Lamb of God who took away our sins by his sacrificial death. He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God forever in him. His blood was shed to atone for our sins. That is why we say sin is serious. The gospel makes no sense if we do not understand the heinousness of sin.
The proof of God's love for us is that he gave up his Son, and the proof that Christ loves us is that he died on the cross for us. So we read in Philippians 2 how Jesus came down, became a man and a servant, and became obedient to the death of the cross in our behalf. This sacrificial offering of himself was acceptable in God's sight. Heaven was filled with sweet fragrance when Christ died on the cross because God the Father was pleased that the sin issue was solved in justice. Because the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ was acceptable in God's sight, he now freely forgives our sin and justifies us.
Thus, we are to imitate God in his great love-the love that forgives our infinite sin. The doctrine of atonement must govern our daily Christian life. How can a Christian look at the cross intelligently and live in sin? It defies logic. How can a person look at the cross and refuse to forgive his brothers and sisters?
The doctrine of atonement should also govern our life in the church. First John 3:16 tells us, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." Now, we cannot show love by dying to atone for sin; only Christ can do that. But we can follow his example of self-sacrificing love on behalf of others. In Philippians 4 we read that the church sent gifts to Paul in prison. The love they demonstrated by doing so went to the very presence of God as a sweet-smelling fragrance, for God is pleased when his children walk in love. So Paul writes, "I have received full payment and even more. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God" (verse 18).
Hebrews 13:16 tells us, "Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices, God is pleased." Imitation of God is walking in love. It is laying down our lives for our wives, our husbands, our children, and our brothers and sisters. This is the divine command.
What can we conclude from this passage?
- If you are an unbeliever, you are outside of Christ. Thus, you cannot walk in love; you can only live in sin, and you cannot imitate God as his beloved child. What should you do? Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He will forgive all your sins and make you a child of God.
- Are you a believer? Then you are a beloved child of God, and you shall be so forever. This is the highest privilege a human being can have.
- Those who are sons and daughters of God have a heavenly Father to whom we can come to worship and pray. We are told he knows our need and will meet it.
- As God's children, we are given divine nature, so we can naturally do what pleases the Father. Holiness demonstrates divine parentage.
- The Holy Spirit dwells in us to enlighten, empower, and govern our life. So we can do all things for the glory of God. Things impossible for us are possible for God, and all things are possible for those who believe. Someone said we are like a harp. We do not produce music on our own, but the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, can produce sweet music through us for God's good pleasure. So we are told, "[W]ork out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13).
- In order to imitate God, we have to know him well. God has given us a Book, the Bible, in which we see him and learn how to live.
- We must learn to pray to our heavenly Father in the name of Christ, and he will give us abounding grace to live daily in self-sacrificing love.
- God has a holy church. We must fellowship and worship with God's people so that we may grow in love toward one another. How can we love unless we associate with people?
- We must always be aware that people are watching us. Parents, do you know that your children are always watching? They hear our language and observe our actions. They are going to imitate us and will bring us either honor or shame. Additionally, unbelievers are watching us. Are we able to say with the apostle Paul, "Follow me, as I follow Christ"?
Whenever you want to know what to do, ask this question: What would Jesus Christ do in this situation? He will let you know, and you do that.
May God help us to imitate him all of our life! And may whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, may we do it all for the glory of God. Amen.
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Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew
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