1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.– 1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV
When you think of a godly person, who comes to mind? And what are the characteristics that lead you to believe they’re godly? Is it the quality of their prayer life, the level of their compassion, their knowledge of Scripture, or just they sense of spirituality they convey?
Each of us has at least one person we admire, look up to, and consider an icon of spiritual virtue. Depending on how we were raised, we will utilize different criteria to determine godliness and assess Christlikeness. For some, the primary determiner is love. For others, it’s biblical knowledge. And then there are those who see selfless, sacrificial service as the most effective barometer measuring another person’s godliness quotient.
But what does the Bible say? And is it useful or even right to judge one another’s spirituality? Better yet, is it helpful to assess our own spirituality by comparing ourselves with others?
As we saw in our last post, we were created by God in His image. We bear His likeness. Not that we are mini-gods or human representations of deity, but that we were meant to reflect His glory in some limited way. Unlike the rest of creation, man was given unique capabilities by God that allow him to create, reason, love, and provide caring dominion over the rest of creation. Man is a rational being, capable of intellectual thought and the capacity to operate according to something other than mere instinct alone. Man as a will.
And Adam and Eve utilized their wills in choosing to disobey the expressed command of God to stay away from the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They saw, they desired, and they ate. And sin entered the world for the very first time. Those two, created in the image of God, became infected with the virus of sin, resulting in their forced quarantine from the garden and a loss of the unhindered communion they had enjoyed with God up until that moment.
Now, every aspect of man’s nature has been contaminated by sin. Even man’s reasoning capacity has been infected and affected. In his letter to the Roman believers, Paul describes what happened.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. – Roman 1:21-22 NLT
Paul goes on to describe all men as “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (Ephesians 4:18 ESV). It is not that humanity has lost its intellectual capacity. Mankind has more than proven its capacity for intellectual rigor and scientific discovery. But man’s intelligence has been marred by sin. His ability to think of ways to improve human existence is always juxtaposed with his seeming penchant for using innovation to inflict pain and suffering.
So, the image of God has been damaged by the fall. But Jesus came to restore that sin-damaged image, and He began by taking on human flesh and showing what it looked like for a man to live in perfect, sinless obedience to God. He became the image of God unveiled and uninfected by the damaging influences of sin.
Which brings us back to our the verse and questions that opened up this post. The apostle Paul invites us to imitate him, but he provides us with an important caveat. His invitation to be imitators of him is qualified with the words, “as I am of Christ.” In other words, the ultimate model for our behavior is Jesus Christ Himself. But Paul, knowing that the Corinthian believers would never see Jesus in the flesh, would need a tangible representation of His presence. So, he offered himself as a stand-in for Jesus. In doing so, He was not claiming equality with Jesus or setting himself up as on the same spiritual plane as the Messiah. He simply stated that he was an imitator of Jesus. The Greek word Paul used is mimētēs, and it is where we get our word, “mimic.” In other New Testament passages, it is sometimes translated as “followers,” but it carries the same basic idea. Like the children’s game, Follow the Leader, we are to mimic or replicate the actions of Jesus. Paul told the Thessalonians believers:
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 1:6-7 ESV
Jesus, as the ultimate bearer of God’s image, left us an example to follow. He has provided us with a tangible expression of what it means to live a Christlike life. And Paul’s invitation to use his own life as an example was his way of saying that he had made Jesus his model for Christian living. And Paul was making it clear that the Corinthians were only to imitate him as long as he effectively imitated Jesus. If at any time he failed to imitate Jesus, they were no longer to follow Paul’s lead.
The preposition “as” is vitally important. When Paul says, “as I imitate Christ,” he is effectively saying “in the same way that I imitate Christ.” Paul’s main emphasis is Jesus. If Jesus was not the focus of Paul’s life and the model by which he lived his life, then he was going to make a lousy example to follow.
Paul’s primary concern was that the Corinthian believers fixate on Jesus. In fact, that was Paul’s concern for all the churches he helped to found. He told the Philippians:
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. – Philippians 2:3-5 NLT
But Paul made it his life’s ambition to be like Christ, to have the same attitude that He had. Paul determined to live a selfless, sacrificial life. He made it his goal to live humbly and obediently to the will of God. Why? Because Jesus did, and whatever Jesus did, Paul wanted to do as well.
That is the heart of sanctification. It is all about growth in Christlikeness. It is about becoming like Christ. Paul told the Roman believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14 ESV). He told the Galatian believers, “all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes” (Galatians 3:27 NLT). Paul compares putting on Christ to putting on a new set of clothes. We are to array ourselves with the nature of Christ.
Back to our original question: When you think of a godly person, who comes to mind? It’s actually a trick question. Because the answer should be “Jesus.” When you think of someone whom you determine to be godly, you should immediately be reminded of Jesus. Paul wanted his life to mimic the life of Jesus. When people looked at Paul, he wanted them to see Jesus. But sometimes, the godly people we admire tend to reflect themselves more than they mirror Jesus. They are good people doing good things. They are well-meaning individuals whose lives are worth emulating, but we have to always examine whether their actions truly reflect those of Jesus. Do they have the mind of Jesus? Do their lives reflect the character of Jesus.
Ultimately, sanctification is God’s method of molding us into the likeness of His Son. And, as we will see, God uses His Word and His Spirit to accomplish this lofty goal. Through time in His Word and willing submission to His Spirit’s leading, we can find ourselves growing increasingly more like Jesus, in our words, thoughts, and actions. And we too can find ourselves able to say, as Paul did, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
As we live our lives, we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus. He must be our ultimate example and the one by whom we model our life. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “…let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith” (Hebrews 12:2-3 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Caro l Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.