Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nevertheless, it is rarely fashionable to be an imitator. People do not tend to like imitation foods, imitation clothing, and especially people who are more imitation than “real.” Many in society crave some sense of individualism, an idea of non-conformity. “Imitation” is seen as the ultimate in conformity.
And yet, somewhat ironically, there is very little out in our world that is not an imitation of something or another. Teenage children (and sometimes older) who want to look “different” still look like their peers– it is more an issue of whom it is that they imitate more than imitation itself. Even the search for individualism and non-conformity is still a following after, or an imitation, of others who have previously sought the same things.
In reality, we all learn by imitation. We learn language as small children through imitating the sounds we hear our parents and siblings and others make. The play of children often involves an imitation of what they see the “grownups” and themselves doing in real life– playing “house,” “church,” “school,” and so on. This is a trend that, perhaps to our chagrin, does not end with childhood. As we grow up we pick up all kinds of cues from our compatriots in life– clothing styles, food preferences, colloquial language, and even various forms of body language. In the end, we are all grand imitators of something.
The question, then, boils down to who it is that we are imitating. It is natural to begin our lives as imitators of our parents. As we grow up, it is easy to begin imitating our peers. If one lives in the world today, one is then easily suggested into imitating celebrities and their ilk. Without any diligent effort to the contrary, we easily become conformed to the image of the world (Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15-17)– if all we ever do is look around us and never upward, we will look and be entirely like what is around us.
This is why Paul desires to set up a different standard for Christians. He calls believers to imitate him as he is an imitator of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Paul’s example is quite profound, as is recorded in Acts 9:1-31, Galatians 1:10-2:18, and in other passages. A former persecutor of the church, he changed his entire way of living and began to preach Christ to any and all who would listen. He received beatings and endured all kinds of shame for the name of Christ. Yet in all things he attempts to set forth a good example of the Christian to imitate– he suffers for righteousness’ sake, is not slack or idle, and strives to do what is right while avoiding the wrong (cf. Romans 12:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).
But Paul is himself an imitator of the Ultimate Model– Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son, the very image of God (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3). When we see Jesus we see God, and therefore we have the model to which we should all aspire (cf. John 14:5-10). There can be no higher compliment than to be seen as an imitation of Christ!
We have to come to terms with the reality that we live in a world full of imitation. We should be wary of imitating that which is of the world and is vanity; we must instead seek after Jesus and imitate Him in all things. We must be able to discern that which is really worldly and exhort all people to avoid it, no matter how seductive it may be or how supposedly empowering it might seem. Since we must imitate, we would do well to imitate the Author and Completion of life and faith, Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 3:15, Hebrews 12:2). Therefore, since we imitate, let us accept no substitutes or frauds– let us imitate God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth!
Ethan R. Longhenry