Imitation

Beloved, imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11).

Much has been said in a such a short letter: John has spoken to Gaius regarding the support of those who proclaim the Gospel (3 John 1:5-8), warning him about Diotrephes (3 John 1:9-10), and will commend Demetrius as well (3 John 1:12). The core moral instruction and encouragement John has for Gaius is clearly and concisely presented in 3 John 1:11: do not imitate evil, but imitate good; those doing good are of God, while those who do evil have not seen God.

The exhortation is to not imitate evil, but imitate good. Such a declaration assumes there already exists a standard defining good and evil, and the only question left to decide is whether our thoughts, feelings, and actions will be done in imitation of that which is good or if it will imitate evil. We might like to think that there is some form of “originality” in the thoughts and feelings we have or in the actions we do, but we are all just imitators in the end. We go along whatever path we feel like going along; we find it well-worn at every point. Perhaps this is why God thought it best to send Jesus His Son in the flesh to embody that which is good in thought, feeling, and action (John 1:18, Acts 10:38, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). We now know whom we are to imitate; we are to conform to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29).

Meanwhile the world does well at promoting evil through imitations of what seems to be good. Very few people are so bold as to imitate evil for evil’s sake; most people imitate evil by imitating things they think will lead to the good or happiness but are, in reality, fraudulent. We are constantly tempted to take God’s good things and make gods of them, to give the honor due the Creator to the creation (cf. Romans 1:18-32). People pursue imitation love, imitation peace, imitation joy, and all sorts of other imitations, all of which do not lead to righteousness and holiness but more often immorality and evil.

We do well to note how little vagary exists in this exhortation. One either imitates good or imitates evil; one manifests whether they know God or whether they have not seen Him. A similar delineation, spelled out in greater detail, is found with the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-24. Sometimes we would like to think that there might be some “gray areas” when it comes to good or evil, and yet the Scriptures remain stubbornly black and white about the matter. There is what is good, right, and holy, marked by humility, love, and compassion, full of grace and mercy, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit: this is the good which we are to imitate, and in so doing recognize that we are of the God who is all of these attributes. There is also that which is evil, sinful, and base, marked by fraudulence, deceit, lust, and worldliness: this is the evil we are to avoid, for no one who has seen God or truly knows of God would continue in such things which are entirely contrary to His nature and purpose. And never shall the twain meet!

There is good, therefore, and there is evil; the two are opposed to each other like the poles of a magnet. If we are to imitate the good, every process of life should be good: our thoughts should be good (2 Corinthians 10:5, Philippians 4:8), our feelings, attitudes, and disposition should be good (Galatians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:12-15), so that our deeds can be good as well (Matthew 7:15-20). This demands that we pay as much attention to the process as we do to the final product. It might be tempting to seek to promote or defend God’s purposes using the Devil’s tactics or playbook, but it cannot work that way; it is impossible to promote good with evil. We must defend and promote God’s purposes in God’s way, with love, humility, grace, and mercy (1 Peter 3:15). Contentiousness, sectarianism, anger, and all such things cannot produce the righteousness of God (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, James 1:20)!

This sharp contrast should remain with us as a good reminder and form of encouragement. It is not always easy to imitate good; there are a lot of forces marshaled against us (cf. Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8), everything from lust to temptation to fear to pain to inertia. But if we have encountered the living God through Jesus His Son, how can we do anything else? He thought that which is good, maintained a good attitude and disposition, felt compassion on others, and went about doing good, and we ought to imitate Him. Let us imitate what is good, demonstrating that we know God, in the process as much as in the final product, in our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as much as in our deeds, and so glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Imitating Christ

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