When our son was about a year old, we were sitting at the supper table. After he finished his food, he threw his spoon, which landed on the floor some distance from the table, almost beaning me in the head. As I was trying to instruct him that he should not do this, my wife pointed out that he was just doing what he had seen me do. I was not even aware of what I had been doing, but it was true that after a meal, I would often push my chair back, lick the rest of dessert off my spoon and toss it so that it landed neatly on the table beside my plate. My son did the same thing, the only problem was that his aim was not quite as good yet. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Whether I was prepared to accept it or not, I knew that from that point on, I would have to live with the recognition that my son was going to imitate me.
I have taught canoeing to my children and also at camp. Whenever I have done so, I have never had manuals, and so the instructions have always been “hands on.” I would demonstrate the proper strokes to those watching and would invite them to imitate what I did. As I used this method of “watch me and do what I do” to teach, I never considered it arrogant. It seemed a most natural and effective method of passing on useful information.
As Christians and particularly as leaders in the church, we are in a position in which, whether we say it or not, we will be imitated by others. Do we have the nerve to say to others, “Imitate me?”
As we study Scripture, we quickly observe that the apostle Paul was not afraid to say this to others. On numerous occasions, we hear him say, “do what I do.”
There are different interpretations about why Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Gordon Fee suggests that false teachers were making their way into the church, and were teaching a different gospel than that which Paul had brought to them. As the teachers attacked the teaching of Paul, they also attacked Paul. Several times in the book, he encouraged them to remain true to the teaching he had brought to them. One such passage is I Corinthians 4:16. In 4:15, he reminded them that he was their spiritual father who had brought them the true message of Jesus Christ. Because of this relationship he said to them in verse 16, “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” He was not afraid to invite imitation because he knew that correct teaching was the only way that would lead them to life.
In Philippians 3, Paul describes his goal in life. He has described the danger of legalists in the beginning of the chapter and his own experience of conversion and then his goal to continue to press on to maturity in Christ. Once again, in this context, he urges them in Philippians 3:17, “Join with others in following my example, brothers…” Here he urges imitation of the goal to be mature in Christ and to follow sound teaching.
Later in the same book, he gives a broad appeal for imitation when he says in Philippians 4:9, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” This time, he urges a total lifestyle imitation - what you have learned, received, heard or seen. Paul was saying in a bold way, I am a model to follow and you can safely watch what I do and do it and you will be doing the right way.
In II Thessalonians 3:7, 9 when dealing with a specific issue of discipleship, Paul puts his sacrificial service before them as a model for them to follow in ministry. The issue being addressed was that some were avoiding work. It is possible that they were so focused on the coming of Christ that they stopped working. Paul points to his own lifestyle. He worked as a tent maker and a preacher of the gospel. He worked two jobs so as not to be a burden to anyone. He mentioned that he had every right to take a living from them, but that he chose not to in order to be a model of diligence to them. He says to them, “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example… We were not idle when we were with you, We did this… in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.”
Paul was not afraid to invite imitation. In fact, not only was this a principle of his own life, but he urged this principle on those he mentored.
In I Timothy 4:12 he urges Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” Timothy was somewhat timid, it seems, and needed a word of encouragement. He urged him to be diligent in his life and to deliberately live it so that it would be an example to others. The example was to be in speech, life, love, faith, and purity.
He teaches the same thing to Titus in 2:7,8 where he says, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.”
In these passages, there are two primary Greek words for the concept of imitation. One is the word, “mimetai” from which we get our words, mimic and imitate. Even the word itself is a clue to its meaning. The repeated “m” suggests that this word means doing what you hear done. It urges others to imitation. The other word is the word “typos” which refers to the impress of a blow. It conveys the idea of marking another item with an original item, sort of like a stamp or a brand. It encourages Christians to be a model that can be impressed on others.
Paul’s theology of leadership included an emphasis on modeling faith to others.
But how can he do this? I talked about this passage once and one person came up to me quite adamant that they could not do this. They were not willing to tell others to follow them. I have often felt the same way.
Why would I tell others to imitate me? I know what my life is like and it is far from perfect. If people imitate me, I am afraid that they will learn things that will not help them in their faith. I know my own imperfections and I certainly do not want others to imitate them.
It also creates considerable pressure. If we are to live such lives, it means that we can never let down our guard. What pressure to live perfect lives! If you live in a city or a small town, you sometimes notice that most people like to have their curtains drawn at night. Otherwise, people can drive by and see exactly what is going on inside. If you are going to live with your curtains open, your life must be lived in such a way that you don’t mind it being under constant inspection. If we are to say, “imitate me” our life must be lived in such a way that we don’t mind it being under constant inspection.
How can Paul say this?
In some ways, this is the wrong question. The reality is that whether or not we accept it, our lives are a model. Just like my son was modeling me without my being conscious of it, people are imitating us. So it is not so much a question of whether or not we want to be a model, the question really is, am I bold enough to say that I will be a model deliberately. Am I committed enough to doing things Jesus’ way to make such a life a priority?
How did Paul do it? I Corinthians 11:1 is another passage in which he expresses the invitation to imitate him, but this time, he tells us the basis for this statement. He says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
The particular issue discussed here is eating meat sacrificed to idols. He has already told them in verse 31 - “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Then in verse 32 he encourages them not to cause anyone to stumble…”I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” It is in this context that he then says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Christ’s life was one which was lived for others. He came to earth, served, and gave his life so that others would be saved. Paul’s life was about serving others and he urges the Corinthians, in the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols to follow his example, as he follows Christ’s example of being most concerned to do whatever is necessary to win others to Christ.
Of course, the real power of this statement is that Paul invites imitation because he himself is an imitator. In fact he is saying, “You can follow my example because I am following the perfect example. In saying to others, “imitate me” he is not drawing attention to himself, but to the one he is himself modeling. We are not the originals which should be copied, but we point to the original and we are really saying, “copy Him.” As the image of Christ is imprinted in our lives, we ought to be willing to say to others, follow me because in me you will see what Jesus is like and what it means to follow Him.
Of course, this does not lighten the load. If we are to say, “imitate me as I imitate Christ,” then we had better be like Christ.
As we read the Scriptures, there are numerous places where the life of Christ is held up as a model for us. I would like to mention just a few. I think that it is particularly important for leaders to imitate Christ in these ways so that they can be a model for others also.
In a call to throw off sin in Hebrews 12:1-4, we read in part, “… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…” Jesus is our model in holy living. In a world that looks for every flaw, we must be above reproach, as Christ was. People should be able to look at us and see holiness.
In Philippians 2:5, we are urged that “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…” Of course, this is a great passage that talks about Christ’s willingness to humble himself. As leaders, we have a particular temptation to position. Many leaders hold to position long after they stop leading. Jesus would never have done that. He was willing to recognize the need for a task and do it even though it meant giving up position, power and glory in order to accomplish it. Can we as leaders model such humility?
As EMC, we are particularly familiar with the example of Jesus in servanthood as demonstrated in the washing of the disciples feet. Jesus deliberately gave the disciples this example of servanthood and told them to follow it. His intention was not so much that we model the ceremony, as that we model servanthood which is what the ceremony points to. Participating in the ceremony reminds us of this.
I am always challenged by Jesus compassion. I get so tired and there are times when I hope the phone doesn’t ring and people don’t demand my attention. I want to sit alone at home and be quiet. So did Jesus, but when the need arose, he was willing to serve and so we read in Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We as leaders need to model his compassion. The other aspect of Jesus compassion that impresses me is that he had compassion on those who needed it most, the outcasts. It is so easy to show love and minister to those who are friends or who will reward us for our ministry. Matthew 11:19 tells us that Jesus was identified as, ‘…a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.’” May we learn to model our examples compassion.
And so the question I leave with us today is, “are we willing to live our lives as models for others to see? Are you and I willing to say to others, “Imitate me!”
The implications of that are powerful for our ministry.
It means, first of all, as we have seen, that we must model our lives after Jesus. How much time do we spend knowing Christ and seeking to follow His example?
I believe the second implication is that we must live our lives with others. We can’t sit in the ivory tower of our church office or our prayer closet and think holy thoughts. Saying “follow me” means that like Jesus, we must get down where it is dirty and where the risk of becoming dirty is ever present and say by our lives, “there is another way, look at me.”
May the Spirit of God empower us to do what is humanly impossible as we say “Imitate me as I Imitate Christ.”