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

Imitation

A King of Their Own Making

Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15).

It seemed as if everything was working out the way it should.

Jesus had come as the Messiah, the Son of God and God the Son (John 1:1-51). The angels spoke of His kingship from His birth (cf. Luke 1:32-33, 2:11). He was going about doing signs and wonders, healing people, and most recently fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes (cf. John 2:1-6:13). The people perceived that He was the Prophet who was to come into the world: this is the Messiah (John 6:14)! They wanted to make Him their king!

Jesus knew this, and yet Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15). At what would seem to be the crowning moment of His ministry, He goes alone to the mountain.

So why would Jesus avoid being made king if He came to be the King of the Jews? The answer, in a sense, comes from Jesus’ response: He withdraws to the mountain by Himself, praying to His Father (Matthew 14:23). He is seeking to do the will of His Father, and takes His cues from God, not man.

This is certainly not the way things normally work in the world. Today we see no end of people who try to obtain fame, glory, and honor through almost any means available. Positive publicity, negative publicity, whatever: as long as there is publicity, things seem to be good. We can only imagine how our modern media environment would have handled Jesus, His story, and His work had He come today as opposed to two thousand years ago. Perhaps there was good reason why the first century was the appropriate time!

Yet Jesus acutely understands the main challenge with the way worldly fame and fortune works: when one becomes famous, one loses control. When one obtains a great fortune, in a sense, one loses control. To obtain power may seem like getting control, but in a real sense, one loses control of one’s image and direction. One’s persona starts being fashioned by those who have made them famous, prosperous, and/or powerful.

Had Jesus submitted to the will of the people, He would have become a king in their own making. The Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and rid them of the Romans and re-establish the Davidic monarchy centered in Jerusalem. There would have been little tolerance for Jesus’ real purpose and what the Father sought for Him to do in that environment and with those expectations. He did not come to be the Messiah of the people’s imagination; He came to be the Messiah of whom God had spoken who would fulfill God’s purposes.

God’s path for Jesus and His Lordship would prove much tougher: He lived humbly, served others, was arrested, suffered greatly, and was executed as a common criminal, raised in power on the third day, ascended to Heaven after another forty days, and His rule would be proclaimed by His twelve followers and those who took up their cross to follow after Jesus because of that proclamation. His Kingdom would become more substantial and real because it was not physically substantial; His rule was more certain because it derived from God in Heaven and not from the whim and dictates of man. By withdrawing from the people, He reconnects with the Father and maintains His integrity and the distinctiveness of His purpose and proclamation.

There is much we can gain from Jesus’ example. We find ourselves constantly tempted and pressured to live our lives according to the way the world works. It is tempting to want to gain prominence so as to serve Jesus on a grander scale. But when we try to do so according to the ways of the world, we lose control of our image and the story which we are trying to tell; it becomes the possession of the media, our society and culture, or other forces, and it gets distorted into the story they want to tell. There are moments when it is best for us to withdraw and commune with God in Christ, maintaining our integrity and distinctiveness of the Gospel message which we seek to proclaim. There is always value and wisdom in seeking to proclaim the message of Christ the way He would want us to proclaim it, and to live the Way of Christ according to the way He would have us live it (cf. 1 John 2:1-6). In all things we ought to be rooted in Jesus and take our direction from Him (Colossians 2:1-10).

The Israelites wanted to make Jesus a king of their own making according to their own desires; Jesus resisted this, choosing the harder but ultimately more satisfying path of being the King according to God’s desire. As His servants, let us always proclaim and magnify Him in His own way, and let us not allow ourselves or others to turn Jesus into a king or other figure of their own making for their own purposes. Jesus is Lord, not us, and let us honor Him properly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A King of Their Own Making

Itching Ears

For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

As Paul encourages Timothy to continue on with the work of an evangelist (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5), he presents a rather bleak picture for the future. Believers, influenced by their worldly, carnal desires, will no longer endure proper, healthy instruction in the message of Jesus; instead, they will have “itching ears,” seeking to hear what they want to hear, turning away from the truth, and toward fables, or myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This warning is consistent with the message of the previous chapter: Paul spent much time in 2 Timothy 3:1-17 describing how many would conduct themselves in immoral ways despite professing belief in God. Such a distressing picture!

While the picture is distressing, it should not be surprising. We should not imagine that these difficulties are relegated only to these “last days” during which Paul is writing and in which we continue to live or the “time to come” after Paul’s writing. The people of God before Paul found it difficult to endure sound teaching, and often wandered off into myths. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God, the Israelites made a golden calf and served it (cf. Exodus 32:1-35). After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they soon began serving the gods of the neighbors (cf. Judges 2:11-23). They also imagined that they could serve YHWH by bowing down before an image, a myth of their own making, and certainly not what God intended in Exodus 20:4; it would be the cause of ruin and exile for both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:7-23). Jesus attests to the fact that the ancestors of the Israelites mistreated the true prophets but honored the false ones (Luke 6:22, 26). Jesus Himself endured persecution by the hands of people who wandered off into myths, those waiting for the Messiah of their own imagination while crucifying the Messiah God sent them (cf. Matthew 23:29-36, Acts 7:51-53). This was not a new problem.

But why? All people have a built-in desire to hear the things that make them feel better. Likewise, all people have built-in defense mechanisms against anything that makes them uncomfortable or exposes difficulties in their thoughts and actions. Hence Paul’s description of “itching ears”: these people have decided to hear only what satisfies their lust. They are looking for relief in ways inconsistent with God’s purposes and at times when they may need exhortation. At such times, it is easier to believe the myth than it is to accept the truth.

The city of Jerusalem presents a great illustration of this principle. In the days before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, prophets like Jeremiah declared YHWH’s judgment on Judah for its transgressions at the hands of the Babylonians. Other prophets like Hananiah declared that YHWH would break the yoke of Babylon and would maintain the sanctity of His Temple (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17). In the days of Jesus, many Jewish people expected YHWH to preserve the Temple and Jerusalem and to destroy the infidel Roman power. Yet Jesus pronounced condemnation upon the Temple and Jerusalem because of their rejection of their Lord (cf. Matthew 24:1-36, Luke 19:41-44). And, lo and behold, most of the people followed after the views of Hananiah and the standard Jewish expectation regarding the Messiah. Few were those who trusted in the word of God as delivered through Jeremiah and Jesus. And when the events took place as the true prophets spoke, being right proved to be cold comfort to those who trusted in God’s word.

Therefore, to what, in particular, is Paul referring in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? The very question will get us into trouble! We can make all sorts of applications of what Paul has said, and that proves the challenge that exists.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 is often quoted and then directly applied to whatever issue exists at a given time. For some it will be modern cultural issues; for others, doctrinal disputations. Those applications are most often apt: we can find plenty of examples of people going astray from the true teachings of God and follow after myths that are more culturally acceptable.

The challenge comes, however, when we ossify the passage and believe it refers only to a given set of issues. The slope is very slippery: warnings are issued about deviations regarding a particular set of issues. There then is preaching and teaching on that set of issues. People who reject the truth on that set of issues are said to be the ones regarding whom Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. And yet, ironically, people can then become guilty of the very thing which they are trying to avoid. They can easily start heaping up for themselves teachers talking only about that set of issues to the exclusion of all else, and that placates their itching ears. Meanwhile, they have neglected other challenging topics, may even resent hearing messages regarding those challenging topics, and lo and behold: they have now wandered off into myths!

Paul’s warning must be taken very seriously in a circumspect way. We must be constantly vigilant to hold firm to healthy, true teachings of God, and not to wander off into myths. We must never develop those itching ears but must seek after God’s healing message of truth. There are always going to be teachings that are difficult, controversial, and contrary to cultural norms. Yet there will also always be teachings that will challenge people’s assumptions and “sacred cows” in uncomfortable and unpleasant ways. Such is why Paul warned Timothy to be ready in season and out of season to exhort, reprove, and rebuke (2 Timothy 4:1-2). The medicine of truth might hurt, but it will always work out for the best. Let us not wander off into any myths, but instead seek after the truth of God in Christ Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Itching Ears

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

Imitating Christ

God in Man’s Image

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Romans 1:22-23).

Human beings have been searching after the divine for as long as they have existed. There is an undeniable impulse in humanity to seek that which is beyond himself (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11, Acts 17:27).

Yet as long as that impulse has existed it has also been corrupted. As opposed to discerning the true nature of their Creator God, people have gone ahead and divinized various aspects and elements of His creation (cf. Romans 1:20-32). This is idolatry– perhaps one of the first sins, and certainly one of the most pervasive sins of mankind throughout his generations.

While it is true that many people considered the sun or various creatures to be gods or divine in essence, we find constant representations of at least some of the gods of a given nation to be in the form of men. These forms may be extravagant in some ways, and yet there is always something familiar about them. Human representations of Egyptian gods do not look like Hittites, Greeks, or Babylonians, but like Egyptians. The gods of the Greeks, mostly in human representation, were just like Greeks: they lived near Greece on Mount Olympus, fought each other, committed sexually deviant behavior, were capricious, and so on and so forth. What we see is that as opposed to people recognizing that they have been made in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), they fashion gods or a God in their own image!

Yet we live in the twenty-first century. At least in America we do not often come upon people bowing down to the image of a human or an animal. But we should not confuse this with real progress, for the same impulse is still at work among us. It is still very easy to make God in our image as opposed to being conformed to God’s image!

The statistics present a rather stunning picture. The vast majority of Americans believe in a Higher Power. Most believe in the Creator God Who revealed Himself through the message in the Bible, and that Jesus of Nazareth is His Son. Most believe in Heaven, and believe that they are going there. Fewer accept the reality of hell, and even fewer think that they will go there.

If these statistics are to be believed we should be looking across this country and seeing a most religious people, thoroughly devoted to serving God and accomplishing His will. But such is not the way things are here. We live in a society plagued with all manner of ills– rampant sexual immorality, divorce, misery, pain, and distress all around. What has happened?

Yes, indeed, people profess to believe in the God revealed in the Bible. Most are quite sincere in that profession. And yet they really do not believe in the God revealed in the Bible, but instead the God they think should exist based on part of what the Bible teaches.

Who is this “God”? It will depend on the person with whom you speak. For many, He is in no way different from divinities of other religions, in person, in nature, or in teaching– to them, one can believe in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a host of other beliefs, and reach the same destination. Many also believe in the God of “love” who would never condemn anyone whom we would define as a “good person.” Many think that God has no concern with what you believe as long as you conduct yourself in appropriate ways. The list goes on and on.

These statements are at variance with what the Bible teaches, and many people understand this to a degree. It is not as if Jesus’ statement that He is the only way to the Father is confusing or unclear (cf. John 14:6). Galatians 1:6-9 is pretty clear about what happens to those who teach differently than what was originally taught. Matthew 7:21-23 quite clearly indicates that many people might be religious and yet will not make it to Heaven. We might even suggest these passages to people who believe in God in their own image, and hopefully some of them will understand the difference. But many others will attempt to explain them away or will have no explanation period. But that will not stop them from thinking that they believe in the God of the Bible.

We must recognize that the danger is not just from those around us, for it is just as easy for us to make God in our own image as it is for them to do so. What happens when it becomes evident that something we believe about God, about ourselves, or about our world is at variance with what is revealed by God in His Word? If we persist in our belief, our God is an idol– the God we want, at least in one respect or another, and not the One True God. But if we are willing to change our belief to come into greater conformity with the will of God, then we make it evident that we are serving the true God, being fashioned according to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29), and not ourselves.

Idolatry may not be as physical today as it was in times past but it is no less prevalent. Let us make sure that we are serving the One True God and not the God of our own image or liking!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God in Man’s Image

Conformity

For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29).

And be not fashioned [conformed] according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2).

Conformity involves taking the shape of one’s surroundings. A simple way to see conformity in action is to consider a glass of water: if the glass is tall and thin, the water is tall and thin. If you pour the water into a short and wide glass, the water will take on that shape. If the glass spills, the water spreads over the surface of the ground. It would be an odd day indeed if water no longer took the shape of its environment!

Many people have a very uneasy feeling about conformity. For the most part, being called a “conformist” is not a compliment. Nevertheless, everyone, to some degree, is a “conformist.” Everyone follows some type of pattern! Many young people seek to free themselves from the “conformity” of their parents and/or the “system,” but in the process conform themselves to the “groupthink,” habits, and styles of their peers. Even “nonconformists” conform to something, even if it is not the “standard” mold!

The Bible makes it clear that everyone conforms to something. In fact, there are only two forms to which we can conform: to the world (Romans 12:2) or to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

Conformity to the world is easy: it does not take much effort. You can just “go along” with the flow. Conformity to the world may take on many forms. It may mean that you blindly follow the customs and traditions of your family. It may involve the repudiation of those traditions for other views. It could be just based on cultural conditioning and accepting the prejudices and norms of early twenty-first century America. It might involve following after popular religious trends or forms of “spirituality” that are not consistent with the revelation of God in the Scriptures (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). Or it may be blazing your own path and doing what you think is right. All of these, and many more, are simply different ways to conform to the world and its thoughts and lusts (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). They may be easier to handle in life, but they come with a heavy consequence in death (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)!

The more challenging path is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. His way is truly counter-cultural and against “conventional wisdom.” Jesus came to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:25-28). He was humble, and declared that the humble would be exalted while the exalted would be humbled (Matthew 23:12). He loved everyone, including those who hated Him (Matthew 5:38-48). He ultimately expended His life for God’s purposes, and challenged His followers to do the same (Matthew 16:21-25).

Conformity to the image of Christ is difficult indeed. It requires constant growth and work and all of our resources (2 Peter 3:18, Galatians 2:20). We must constantly and honestly compare ourselves to Jesus our Standard and work to better reflect Him (2 Corinthians 13:5). It may lead to persecution, temptation, hardship, and perhaps even death. Yet, while it may be difficult for the time being, it cannot be compared to the eternal weight of glory that await those who are conformed to the image of Jesus the Son (cf. Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18)!

That’s the choice with which we are all faced. Shall we just go along with the crowd and conform to the world? Or shall we stand against the corruption of the world and be conformed to Christ? Eternity hangs in the balance. The path may be difficult, but let us be conformed to the image of Jesus the Christ, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Conformity