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Imitators To Be Imitated

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Many Bible students have observed the prominence of the theme of emulation in the writings of Paul. In fact, the average reader might even feel a bit scandalized by the undeniable reality that Paul throughout his teaching and writing commends Christians for following his example and even at times commands this imitation of them!

However, just as unmistakable and prominent as Paul’s calls to personal emulation is his underlying desire that Jesus Christ be the ultimate object of his own, and everyone else’s, admiration and imitation.


 Emulation Encapsulated


Paul’s emulation theology is perhaps captured most succinctly in his first epistle to the Thessalonians. As Paul acknowledges the genuineness of their salvation, he goes on to give his reasons for such confidence. First, the gospel came in power to them, was received by them, and had obviously transformed them. But a second evidence of God’s grace, Paul tells them, is that you “became followers of us, and of the Lord,” to the point that you yourselves became examples for others (1:6-7).


Here is a wonderfully clear and concise expression of Paul’s view of imitation.


First, Paul is elevating Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model, for himself and everyone else: “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” Paul mentions himself and other teachers merely as stepping stones to the ultimate goal of imitating the Lord Jesus himself because, as he explicitly states in verse 8, “your faith” is of course ultimately, in receiving “our gospel,” not in us but “in God.”
Second, Paul is—and this should not be missed any more than it should be misunderstood—portraying himself and other godly Christians as people to be imitated. And this is not unique in Paul’s writing, or in his treatment of this emulation theme. With only two exceptions, in every passage where Paul uses this root word mimetes (from which we get our English word “mimic”) he is putting himself forward as one to be mimicked! But, as we’ll see in more detail below, it is also worth noticing that even here in writing to the Thessalonians Paul is really only among those to be imitated: in fact, he never sets himself uniquely up as a person to be imitated.

Third, Paul is not only commending the church at Thessalonica for imitating him and Christ, but for themselves becoming examples worthy of emulation by other believers (1:7) and it seems also by non-Christians: “from you sounded out the word of the Lord” and “in every place” your faith in God is being spoken about (8). Paul is not merely content with the short-term goal of one group of Christians being sanctified themselves through Christian emulation, but seems clearly to have a vision for them then to replicate the entire process with others.

Here, then, is Paul’s paradigm in short: he himself is following Christ in order to point others to Christ, in hopes that they will in like manner become “imitators to be imitated” by others. Or, to put this Pauline principle into terms of our own 21st century application: because Jesus is our ultimate role model, we are to imitate Christ-likeness in others, in order that we ourselves may become imitators worth being imitated by others.

Let’s look at each of these steps, then, in a little more detail.


 Jesus Is Our Ultimate Goal


The ideal of, and command to, striving toward God-likeness is as old as the Old Testament itself (Leviticus 11:44; 20:7; Psalm 17:15). And Peter unambiguously brings the Old Testament command into the New Testament era (1 Peter 1:15-16). This of course makes sense, because if you really believe God is perfect you will not only want to obey him: you will want to grow more like him yourself! But it is Paul who most frequently and explicitly transfers the object of our imitation to Jesus Christ specifically, not just the Yahweh of the Old Testament.

In fact, according to Paul, the very purpose of salvation climaxes in making us like Jesus! Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). For Paul, the ideal/object of imitation is always ultimately God — and specifically God as he is revealed perfectly in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:4; Philippians 2:5).

Christ, for Paul, was the motivation and goal of our emulation—not just because he was a good example or prophet or person, but because he is our “Savior” and “Lord” and the core of the gospel message itself. While Paul does at times use Jesus as an ethical example (Romans 15:3; 2 Corinthians 8:9; 10:1; Philippians 2:3-8), this is not the thrust of Paul’s teaching regarding Jesus — and thus regarding the imitation of Jesus either. For Paul, Jesus was perfect substitionary Savior first, ethical example second (Ephesians 4:31-32; 5:1-2ff, 25; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 8:7-9).


 Christians, Imitate Christ-likeness


Having plainly seen that Jesus Christ was Paul’s ultimate motivation and goal for all Christian emulation, we nonetheless cannot—and should not try to—dodge the import of what Paul is calling for and encouraging: the imitation of imperfect people, including himself, as an important part of the Christian life.

This can be seen in many places, but nowhere is Paul’s language clearer or stronger than in the capsule of emulation theology we’ve already noticed in his first epistle to the Thessalonians. Here Paul commends the saints for imitating himself. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “I know that God has chosen/elected you to salvation because, among other things, you became imitators of me.”


Not only is it right and good to imitate me, Paul says, but it is in fact a mark and assurance of your salvation!


There’s no escaping the conspicuous reality that Paul not only points Christians to Christ—in order that they be like Christ—but also invites/commands/pleads with them to imitate himself in order that they be like Christ.
Yet, as striking as this observation is, we must still temper even this point in Paul’s theology with the realization that he never points to himself uniquely as the only Christian person or leader to be imitated. In fact the opposite it true: Paul consistently includes other Christian leaders or churches in the list of those to be so mimicked.

In 1 Thessalonians his commendation is that they became imitators of us (plural). In 2 Thessalonians, likewise, the message is that you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you (3:7). In his letter to the church at Philippi Paul even encourages the saints to carefully choose their own role models as long as they live and teach according to the same gospel (3:17). And, stronger still, in 1 Thessalonians 2:14 Paul even commends the imitation of entire churches.

In other words, Paul is not saying he alone is to be imitated, but all godly leaders, and all godly churches, and all godly Christians as they live out the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully. Yet, there is no mistaking Paul’s emphasis that such Christian imitation is a vital part of Christian sanctification and discipleship.

Do you want to have a better prayer life? Paul’s solution would be, at least in part, “Sit down with a prayer warrior, and a pad and pen, and start asking questions!” Do you want to learn how to make time for personal devotions? Find the best and busiest Christian you know, and ask them how they fit it all in. Do you want to know how to gain victory over your struggles with anxiety, lust, finances, marriage, parenting, etc.? Start watching, asking, learning from other Christians around you.


Become Imitators to Be Imitated


As we have said, Paul is never content with a model of leadership or discipleship that is limited to a single group, or even generation, of Christians. And this modeling ministry is not only for apostles or elders, according to Paul’s vision for the church. Rather it should be the goal of every saint to be influencing, discipling, exampling for, leading others. The apostle Paul did not mean for the early Christians to mimic his words and actions, just because he was an apostle; he desired that every Christian believer not only follow good examples but become godly role models themselves.

As we’ve already seen in 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s commendation of them includes the fact that their imitating him, other leaders, and the Lord led them to be examples themselves — to both believers (7) and unbelievers (8).


Can a good example be an effective witness even evangelistically? Certainly!



In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul’s chief reason for instructing a believing wife to remain with an unbelieving husband seems to be that, by living out the Christian life in front of him, she may win him by her godly example (cf. 7:13-17).

So, we are come back to the starting point of Christian exampling and imitation: unbelievers and less mature Christians, growing as they model more mature Christians, as they display Christ-likeness in their daily lives.

Paul’s vision stretches into the future as far and as wide as the Christian church itself. His desire for each and every Christian is that they become “imitators to be imitated.” Imitators—not merely of Paul’s own personality or preferences, but—of Christ, and of Christ-likeness wherever they see it.


By Justin Huffma