If you played hockey and your coach expected you to imitate Wayne Gretzky, would you think that was an achievable goal or not? If you were taking a cooking class and the instructor challenged you to cook like an Iron Chef, would you be encouraged or intimidated? If your piano teacher expected you to play like Beethoven, would you think that was fair?
I ask all of that because the first verse of Ephesians chapter 5 commands us to imitate God.
“Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for you, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Paul in his letter to the Ephesians 5:1-2
But how in the world can we do that? There is no doubt that we cannot imitate everything about God. God is the creator of the universe and we can’t imitate that. The best we can do is take what God has already created and use it in different ways. God is our redeemer. In an amazing story which began in the Garden of Eden and was completed at Golgotha, He has redeemed all who come to Him through faith in Jesus. We can’t imitate Him in that.
Nor is Paul calling you to imitate God in those things, but as you look at the text, you see that you are called to imitate Him in one particular respect: love.
The call to such imitation is not a suggestion, but a command. (John 15:12) But you need to be careful how you hear this command to imitate God. Paul isn’t calling you to work harder to be better to get right with God. Nothing you do could ever settle that balance. God paid that balance Himself through Jesus’ death on the cross. Instead, Paul calls you to be imitators of God because He has made you His child. This call to imitate God is a response to what God has first done in you. That command to be imitators of God can still seem daunting, but it’s possible for three reasons.
First, it’s possible because you have been changed. This is what enables you to imitate God. When the text says “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” there is a connection made that you are called to imitate God because you are His children. You are able to imitate God because of how you have been changed. In our natural state the Bible is very clear that we are God’s enemies – Romans 5:10 speaks of the time when “we were [God’s] enemies.” In our fallen state, it is impossible for us to imitate God because our hearts are not inclined to obey God or even to hear or listen to Him. There is rebellion in our hearts. But in Baptism, God’s Spirit comes and dwells in your heart. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In baptism you are changed from an enemy of God to a “beloved child.” Suddenly your will is changed so that you want to obey God. God not only calls you to imitate Him, but by making you His son or daughter He enables you to do so.
Second, the command to imitate God is possible because you are loved. This is the source of our motivation to imitate God. The command to imitate God is not completely impossible because God loved you first. I John 4 reminds us that “we love because He first loved us.” (v. 19) Ephesians 5 says a similar thing when Paul writes, “Walk in love, as Christ loved you.” (v.2) This shows where the motivation to imitate God comes from.
Love is the most powerful motivator to action in this world. Just this February a story hit the news about a young girl who sacrificed her life to save the lives of two other children. Ten-year-old Kiera was playing outside with some other children when she saw a car rolling down a nearby driveway. She pushed two toddlers (ages 1 and 2) out of the way of the car and was hit and killed herself. Without any thought for herself, Kiera did what she could to save two others who could not save themselves. That is true love in action. For more of Kiera’s story Click Here Jesus Himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The greatest act of love the world has ever seen was Jesus sacrificing Himself on the cross to give you a place in God’s family. That one great act of love motivates us to love God and one another.
Third, the command to imitate God is possible because in Jesus we have an example of what this walking in love looks like that Paul talks about. If you’ve ever tried to do something yourself for the first time, then you likely know how vital having a good example of what you are expected to do can be. Reading written instructions can be helpful, but there is no substitute for being able to watch someone do the thing that you are about to attempt yourself. This is why, in these cases, I typically turn to You Tube. I just type in my problem and I can watch any number of videos of people fixing that problem before I attempt it myself. Examples are indispensable when it comes to learning. We learn best through imitation.
We see this with parents and kids all the time. It’s not a coincidence that so many children grow up to follow in their parents’ professional footsteps. One of my friend’s families is a case in point. His dad is a pastor and now both he and his brother have followed in his footsteps. But it doesn’t always happen that way. My dad was an engineer and I became pastor. I think it broke his heart a little when I turned down the invitation to join Purdue’s School of Engineering. But even though I didn’t follow in my dad’s footsteps when it came to our professions, I am still my father’s child, in my mannerisms, work ethic, love of reading and countless other ways. In many respects if you know me, you know my father. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen my father. Funny thing is Jesus once said something very similar. One of His disciples, Philip, asked Jesus to show them the Father. And Jesus told him, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9)
It is possible for us, as children of God, to obey the command to imitate God in love because we have the example of Jesus who has demonstrated what it means to love. When Jesus served His disciples by washing their feet he said, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:15) So it is possible to imitate God in love because you have been changed, and because you are loved, and because in Christ you have been set an example.
Rodney Atkins released a song in 2006 that illustrated this work of learning and growing through imitation. In his song, “Watching You,” he tells the story of a son mimicking his father. The song begins with the pair driving down the road. His four-year-old son is strapped into a booster seat happily munching on some fries, when his dad suddenly hits the brakes. The little boy’s fries go flying, his drink gets spilled and the dad hears his son mutter a four letter word that begins with “s.” The dad says, “Son, now where’d you learn to talk like that?” His boy said, “I’ve been watching you, dad. Ain’t that cool? I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you.”
When they got back home the dad went to the barn and bowed his head and prayed, “Lord, please help me help my stupid self.” Later that night, just before he was going to tuck his son into bed, he watched as his son crawled out of bed and got down on his knees. He closed his little eyes, and folded his little hands and spoke to God like he was talking to a friend. And his dad asked, “Son, now where’d you learn to pray like that?”
You know what his son said? “I’ve been watching you, dad. Ain’t that cool? I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you.” “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ love us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”