Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 08/22/1999
"Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children."
As we all know, the words of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the chapter and verse divisions often seem to have been inspired by the Devil. Such is the case with Ephesians chapter 5, where no new topic begins at all, but the first verse is intimately connected to what comes before--the discussion of walking worthily of our calling. That connection is the first thing we need to explore today, as the first word of our passage tells us: "Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children."
The connection of this exhortation to imitate God with the concept the worthy walk is twofold, both to the larger context and to the immediate one. The "far" connection is a chain of references that begins with 4:1, the command to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. We are to walk worthily because of our calling, which is to be living stones in the eternal Temple God is building to the glory of the grace of his Son. In 4:1-16, we look at our growth in grace in the context of the church as the necessary context in which the worthy walk occurs. Then in 4:17 we see the negative side of the coin: we are not to walk as the gentiles do in the darkness and futility of their mind. That darkness and futility is analyzed through v. 21. Then in 4:22-24, we learn that a whole new principle of life is necessary to this walk: we must lay aside the old self and put on the new which God is creating in us. In 4:25 we begin to learn the specifics of what that new life is like, speaking the truth, etc. Now in 5:1, we look back at the whole process: because of all this, "Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children." This imitation is both a summary of walking worthily and the means of doing so.
The "near" connection reaches back only to the end of chapter 4. In 4:32 we were to forgive one another just as God in Christ forgave us. Forgiving then is the immediate context. Since you are to forgive like God, therefore be conscious and deliberate about imitating Him in that forgiving. Do this because not only is being like God the key to being able to forgive, but because becoming transformed to the image of his Son is a good model for the whole of the Christian walk anyway.
The word translated "imitators" is the Greek MIMESIS, a word familiar to students of literature because of Erich Auerbach's classic work on the representation of reality in fiction and poetry. We get from it the English words "mimic," "mime," and "mimetic," all of which have to do with representing something by copying its actions or characteristics. Now, there is a strong biblical basis for this "copying" as an important part of the Christian life. It comes from our very identity as human: created in the image and likeness of God. We were created to be like God: language users like him, capable of abstract thought like him. possessing free will and hence a moral nature like him, capable therefore of responsibility to him in a sense not true of the animals. So imitating or copying him is consistent with our very created identity as human beings.
It is also tied to our identity as Disciples. "Disciple" is the oldest, most primitive, most basic name for a follower of Jesus. Disciples is what we are to be; it is what we are to "make" in the Great Commission. And what is a disciple? It is one who learns by copying or imitating his master, who odes not just lecture but says "Watch me; do it this way." Think of Luke and Yoda, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jin. Despite its implicit neopaganism, the Star Wars series does give us an accurate portrayal of the master-disciple relationship. To be a disciple of Jesus, to be a Christian, is precisely to be an imitator of God.
Therefore this exhortation is central to being a Christian, to living the Christian life. There are limitations to our imitation of God. We are not omniscient or omnipotent, and cannot become so. More pertinently, we are not Judge or Lord. So simplistically to ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" does not necessarily produce helpful ethical guidance. Lacking his access to God's omniscience and lacking his authority, I should not necessarily, for example, call people whitewashed walls or run them out of churches with a whip just because Jesus did these things. This is to substitute a superficial and mechanical rule for imitation done with real understanding.
But there are definite ways in which we should be consciously imitating Christ. We should copy Jesus in his devotion to the Father's will, making it our meat and drink just as he did (Jn. 4:34). We should copy his dependence on the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:32). We should copy his compassion for the lost, the sick, the poor, and the rejected (Mt. 9:35). And most especially in this context we should copy his kindness, his tender heartedness, his capacity for forgiveness (Eph. 4:32). From the Cross itself he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Paul gives us a most interesting picture of this imitation he is exhorting us to: we are to do it like "beloved children." Little children naturally want to be like their parents. When my son was little he wanted to be just like me. But he grew out of that, and did not grow up to be a pastor or an English professor, rightly so. Why? Because I was too small a role model for him to base his whole life on. But the desire itself is instructive. What Paul is implying here is that God is a Father big enough so that even adults should still want to be just like him. And even we can fulfill that role in limited ways for our children. When I think of my own father, the picture that comes into my mind unbidden is of him sitting at a picnic table reading his Bible by the light of a Coleman lantern on one of our family camping trips, his head bowed over the Bible in that bright circle of light fading into rhododendron branches and darkness. He did not know I was looking; he just did it because that is who he was. And though I am very different from him in many ways, sometimes because he was imperfect and sometimes because I am, I hope I am like him in that. Let us be the kind of people our own children can copy at the important points, so they may learn to imitate God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ also.
How then should we apply this exhortation to be imitators of God? First, beware of the temptation to turn it into one more form of legalism, one more form of works. If we do that, it becomes worthless. Imitation should flow from the relationship we have with him as his beloved children. If your relationship with God does not inspire you to want to be like him, then you do not know him very well. Therefore, get into the Word--not to learn theology only but to get to know Him. You know I would never disparage theology. But a theology that consists of facts alone is bad theology. Theology that does not lead to doxology is no theology worthy of the name. And by the same token, any theology that does not inspire imitation of God as beloved children is a theology that has something badly wrong with it.
Do you want to walk worthily? Then plug into the ministry of a church where you can grow and help others grow in their knowledge of Christ. Speak the truth in love. Do not steal, but work with your hands what is good. Let no rotten word come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for edification that it may bring grace to those who hear. Be kind and tender hearted, forgiving one another as Christ forgave you. And above all, "be imitators of God, as beloved children." For that is both the summation of the worthy walk and the key to it. May God help us insert the key into the lock and turn it as we draw near to him in Communion.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams