Early Christians considered the conscious imitation of praiseworthy models to be of utmost importance. They took the discipline of imitation and skillfully adapted it to a life of Christian discipleship to Jesus. Desiring to be shaped into the image of Christ, who is himself the image of God (Col. 1:15), and knowing that in Christ were hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3), apprentices of Jesus took very seriously the call to imitation. Consider the apostle Paul’s constant exhortations to imitation — the imitation of Christ, of God, of himself, of other faithful disciples, and of the church:

  • Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1 – 2). 
  • Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:15 – 16). 
  • Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17).
  • Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice” (Phil. 4:9).
  • You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord .… And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:5 – 7). 
  • For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).

In all these texts the central theme is the same: there is a pattern of thinking and living that Christ’s followers are called to imitate. This pattern is displayed most exactly in Jesus himself, but it is also displayed in apostles like Paul and in faithful Christians everywhere. As we follow it by imitating them, we learn to think what they thought, to live as they lived, to love what they loved. 

Who are the people you — or I — have chosen to imitate thus far in our lives? Has our imitation of them helped us to live wisely and lovingly? Think of how often we imitate — consciously or unconsciously — actors or musicians. I remember, for instance, how much I loved the music of Jim Morrison and the Doors in my late teens and early twenties. Yet the darker tones in Morrison’s music and behavior proved a hindrance for me as I attempted to move more fully into Christ’s light and love. The music Jesus was singing and the music Jim sang too often clashed for me. 

Perhaps some of you have had the same experience with other people you have deliberately chosen to imitate. Perhaps not. This is not the time to judge each other over the choices we have made. It is the time to be wise and acknowledge the profound effect those we choose to imitate have on us. Some may be able to listen for hours on end to the Doors and remain protected and unaffected by the darker side of Morrison’s lyrics, rhythms, and actions. I found I couldn’t, so I had to leave him behind on my new journey with Jesus as his apprentice. Yet I must admit that when a Doors song begins to play on the radio, I find it virtually impossible to turn it off! The man could sing. 

Over the past thirty years I have found other exemplars to imitate, often leaders of the ancient church. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople in the late fourth and early fifth centuries is one of them. I’d like to introduce you to him next week. 

PC: Wikimedia Commons

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.