The Power of Imitation for Good or for Ill (Sat. Jan. 15)

The word of the day is “imitate.”  Most often if we want to know something we look it up.  We used to consult a book or encyclopedia.  But nowadays we will probably ask “Siri,” search on Google or YouTube, or consult our friends on face book.  But how do we find out how to live the Christian life?  Of course, we can read our Bibles, hear sermons, or study both ancient and modern sources.  But how do we apply their teachings, guidelines, commands, counsels, and directions?  Today’s reading suggests that the best thing to do is to find an example that will show us how to put the words of instruction into practice.

Thus in today’s reading, the apostle begins his counsel on “walking in love” (vs. 2) as “children of light” (vs. 8) with the words “Be imitators of God as dear children” (vs. 1). Today we explore what it means to be “imitators” when it comes to walking in the way of the God.

Contemporary society advises us to be true to our own selves and that means making our own way in life.  On the other hand, the social order offers all sorts of advice on how to live.  The result is confusion.  We either try to forge our own path and get lost in the complexities of life.  Or we find that the guidebooks that promote successful living are really just trying to sell us something.

Imitation: a Repeated Theme in the New Testament

Thus we might reconsider our tendency to reject imitation.  We might reconsider the admonition of today’s text to “imitate God” (vs. 1).  When we do, we find that the New Testament includes a number of directives about imitation.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul admonishes his flock to imitate him as their spiritual faither (OSB 4:15-16).  Again, in the same letter, Paul says that his congregation should imitate him and he “imitates Christ” (OSB 11:1).  Paul also says that the Thessalonians “became imitators of us and of the Lord” (NIV 1 Thessalonians 1:6).[i]  And finally in Hebrews, the apostle writes, “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (NIV 6:12).

These repeated references prompt us to reflect on what “imitation” means.  We get the English word “mimic” from the Greek term that refers to the copying of a pattern, adopting a habit, or following the example of someone who is admired or more experienced (Strong’s #3401, #3402, 165).

Imitation begins with observation and continues with action that duplicates what is observed.  It is the first and primary way that small children learn.  But we continue to copy the models of others throughout our lives.

Imitate God?

As there is nothing higher than the Almighty, to “imitate God” is the most startling thought of all the instructions about imitation in the New Testament.  Our surprise jolts us to ask, what is there about God that we should copy?  Certainly, we should not try to emulate the Almighty’s divine nature, His omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc.  These attributes are far above human comprehension and capacity.

Rather, Paul teaches that we should “imitate God as dear children” (OSB vs. 1).  This directive clarifies that we should not copy the Creator of heaven and earth as equals.  Paul explains that as children of God we should “walk in love.”  Love is the primary nature of God but it is also the fundamental way that the Lord calls us to follow.  Love comes from God, (1 John 4:7), for God is love (1 John 4:8).  Therefore to “imitate” God is to love as He loves.  To illustrate the love that we should imitate, the apostle reminds us that “Christ has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to god for a sweet-smelling aroma” (OSB vs. 2).

If Paul advises that we should “walk in [such] love,” he also says we should “walk as “children of the light” (OSB vs. 8).  As God dwells in the light of purity, generosity, and holiness, so Paul teaches that we should forsake everything that is impure, covetous, and unholy.  We should not have anything to do with those whose conduct is unclean, whose speech is filthy, whose motives are greed and lust, who follow the ways of idolatry and disobedience and whose words are empty and frivolous.

Paul’s Warning Against Evil Follows from Thoughts on Imitation

Why does the apostle skip from his promotion of living in love to warning against such evils?  The key is the principle of imitation.  If we associate with those who are good, true, and pure, then we will be prone to copy their righteousness.  But if we associate with those who are evil, untruthful, and impure, then we will be tempted to wittingly or unwittingly emulate them.

For Reflection

The book of Proverbs repeatedly warns against associating with the foolish and wicked.  For example, Proverbs 16 teaches, “A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good” (16:29).  Then, there is the warning, “Do not enter the path of the wicked and do not proceed in the way of evil men” (Proverbs 4:14).  And this book of wisdom begins: “Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful” (Proverbs 1:1).

Likewise, Paul writes “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).  And he quotes a familiar maxim, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33).

In summary, in our study today we have discovered the power of imitation.  Association leads to observation.  Observation leads to influence.  And influence programs us to yield to it even if we are not aware of it.  So then when it comes to the practical living of the Christian life, we should choose our company and our examples carefully.  We should be aware of and watch out for the influence of those who do not share our beliefs, values, morals, and hopes.  And we should imitate, the Almighty, Christ, Paul and the other writers of scripture, the saints, and the church fathers.’


[i] The New King James version translates “imitators” as “followers” in 1 Thessalonians and in Hebrews 6:12 whereas the New International Version appropriately uses the term “imitators.”

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