Imitation: Central to the Gospel Story
I frequently hear (or read) a teacher or preacher say something to the effect that while imitating Christ is good, it is not a significant motivation for the Christian life. However, Paul seemed to think the imitation of God in Christ is an important factor in our Christian walk and I would argue, as I did a couple of Sundays ago, it is central to a Biblical response to the Gospel.
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. (Eph. 5:1-2 ESV)
In order to understand why this call is integral to Paul’s Gospel, we need to go back to the beginning of the grand narrative of the Gospel—Genesis 1.
The imitation of God in Christ is an important factor in our Christian walk and is central to a Biblical response to the Gospel.
Humans Made as Images of God
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26 ESV)
Ancient kings (who were thought to be gods too) would place images, or representations, of themselves throughout their kingdom. These idols, or images, meant the god-king represented by the image ruled there. God’s people were forbidden to make images of God. But He was not without such representation.
Why was God opposed to idols such as those the nations had of their gods?
5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. (Psa. 115:4-7 ESV)
God would not be represented by lifeless images that could not speak, see, hear, or even smell. He would only be represented by something that could, in contrast, speak, see, hear, feel, and walk. God would only be represented by humans which could speak, and see, and act just like Him.
If one bears God’s image in their speaking, seeing, hearing, and even feeling, they are imitating Him! Humans were given the task to rule over the earth on God’s behalf. This same servant-king who created a paradise for His people called His people to be like Him, to serve the rest of creation, displaying the generosity of God. We’ve been called to imitate His benevolent rule of the earth.
If one bears God’s image in their speaking, seeing, hearing, and even feeling, they are imitating Him!
The Counter-story of God’s Kingdom
The story by which the people in the Ancient Near East lived, how they imagined the world to work, was that people were created by the gods to work the earth and produce food for the gods. Humans were slaves for the gods.
Genesis tells a counter-story of God as a servant-king who took a chaotic, lifeless world and turned it into a life-sustaining environment for creatures he would make. Among those creatures were humans which he placed in a garden of abundance which he had made.
God put the humans in charge of the garden instructing them to work it and take care of it (Gen. 2:15). They had been made in the image and likeness of God. Humans were made to imitate this servant king as servant rulers who would expand Eden to the ends of the earth (“fill the earth and subdue it”).
Humans were made to imitate this servant king as servant rulers who would expand Eden to the ends of the earth.
To image such a God requires that we act as servants toward one another. To imitate God is to walk in the image of God which is what we were called to be from the beginning.
Humans were created to rule within God’s kingdom by imitating Him but rejected that rule. Instead of ruling over the serpent for the good of creation by imitating their Father, they rejected God’s rule and invited chaos (death) back into the world (Gen. 3).
Any gospel that would address this fall must restore humans back into their image-bearing role. In other words, it must restore them to being imitators of God. This is why I believe the imitation of God in Christ is central to a Biblical response to the Gospel.
Imitating God begins with His character. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col. 3:12) and chief among them. To the Galatians described it as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
Imitating Jesus, who is the perfect image of God, includes feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick and vexed with terrible diseases, and loving our enemies. This is our God and if we truly love Him we will be transformed into His likeness.