We teach children how to walk and talk and interact and master skills by imitation. That’s sometimes a good thing, and it’s sometimes a bad thing, depending on what word or behavior they’re imitating. And all parents have their stories on that one.
I remember, for instance, being at our local science center with my youngest, who loved creating dams in a water play area. My son – who, to my knowledge, had never heard a bad word – started singing out, “DAM! DAM! DAM! DAM! DAM! DAM! DAM! DAM!” This is the definition of mortification.
Sometimes our children imitate our less innocent behavior. (I’ll spare you and myself the details.) It amazes me, then, how the Apostle Paul boldly told disciples to follow his example.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
– Philippians 3:17
It’s easy to have one of two reactions in reading that: first, wondering who Paul thought he was; and second, feeling completely humbled at the inability to share that sentiment.
But Paul knew exactly who he was.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.
– 1 Timothy 1:15
Paul had been a chief persecutor of Christians. He watched as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death for his faith. He was even on his way to persecute other Jesus followers when the Lord revealed Himself to Paul, and Paul became a Jesus follower himself. (For more on this, see Acts 8 and 9.)
When Paul committed his life to Jesus, there was no turning back. Paul used to know about God; now he knew God. That knowing put him in the precarious position of having to act upon that knowledge. He had to yield himself daily – hourly, continuously – to the power of the Holy Spirit that now dwelled within him.
That’s the source of Paul’s confidence – not a self-confidence but a God-confidence. Such confidence is so rare that we don’t know what to make of it. What a shame.
So when Paul asks others to imitate him, he’s actually asking them to imitate the Christ in him.
For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.
– Romans 7:18
Paul, then, gives us the example of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
– Philippians 2:5-8
Paul became an imitator of Christ Jesus. He gave up the life he had known and submitted himself to being beaten and stoned and hunted and jailed and eventually (as tradition teaches) killed for his faith in Jesus. His faith truly proved all-consuming. We can imitate him as he imitated Christ.
What is it that people could imitate in you? Could they imitate your habits or your speech? Could they imitate your compassion? Could they imitate your patience? Could they imitate your love? Could they imitate your diligence? Could they imitate your generosity? Could they imitate your heart for people who need Jesus? Could they imitate your heart for the Lord?
For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.
– 1 Thessalonians 4:7
Friends, your race could end at any time. Focus now on finishing your race strong. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who lovingly implores you, “Walk this way.” Then do it.