Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 5:1a “Be ye therefore followers of God,. . .”
When we forgive others as God forgave us in Christ (4:32), we thereby act the way we are supposed to act, as the followers of God’s example which His children ought to be. The King James Version uses “followers” here in the sense of following the example of another. The Greek word is “mimetai,” from which we derive “mimic.” The word refers to copyists, imitators.
Paul’s command to be “imitators of God” is the biggest challenge which can be made, “the highest standard in all the world” (Barclay). Clement of Alexandria later daringly said a Christian practices being God.
The word “mimetai” was a popular word in Paul’s day. He took this fashionable secular word, baptized it, and used it for godly causes. Imitation was a concept the ancients understood. Their whole philosophy of life was built around the concept of imitating great heroes who had lived before.
Plutarch, renowned Greek writer, wrote biographies of many famous Greeks and Romans to rouse people to greatness through imitation. Pliny said, “It is great folly not to propose always the best pattern.” Seneca desired the instructive examples of good men, “Let them always be before my eyes, let them be a second rule by which I may correct my life and manners. Let me not lose this help, which God hath granted me, of imitation.”
Imitation was a guiding factor in every area of ancient life. Warriors prepared themselves for battle by studying heroic soldiers of old. Alexander always carried with him a copy of the Iliad in a box studded with jewels.
The Greeks, masters of public speaking, taught that the learning of oratory depended on theory, imitation, and practice. They studied and copied masters who had gone before. To master oratory, they said, imitate the masters of oratory. To master life, Paul says, imitate the Master of life.
By using this “power word” from his culture, Paul sent out a clarion call to practical duty. He expects action from us. When we praise and magnify God, sing unto Him, and meditate upon Him, we have not fulfilled our duty. Worship entails imitation in addition to contemplation and admiration. Corporate worship services are worship begun. We depart places of worship to continue our worship through obedience and conformity to His example. We must on weekdays copy Him whom we focus on each Sunday.
Eph. 5:1b “. . .as dear children;. . .”
This is why we should imitate God. Believers are offspring of God, and children should be like their parents. “Like father, like son” and “like mother, like daughter” are two familiar proverbs. Children imitate their parents for at least four reasons: heredity, environment, duty, and desire.
Children imitate parents due to heredity. Chromosomes and genes transmit certain DNA traits. I have Grandpa Hill’s height, Grandpa Marshall’s temperament and body-build, Grandma Marshall’s hands, Grandma Hill’s eyes. People often say my son looks like me. These things are as they should be. Children share similarities with ancestors due to heredity.
This is true of believers, also. We are children of God, not merely by metaphor or figure of speech, but in fact by adoption and regeneration. As our parents’ genes gave us physical life, God’s seed gave us spiritual life. God implants in believers His life, His nature. Thus we have a propensity to do things He would do, and to act in ways He would act. By giving us His nature, God starts us on the road to imitating Him. We should respond by letting His nature do what it does best, and wants to do–to be like Him.
Children imitate parents due to environment. Children imitate naturally by observation, by watching their parents’ example. Infants see mouths moving, vocal sounds being produced, and thus try to talk. Babies see legs being stood on, and try to walk. Children observe cause and effect, and practice on light-switches. When I baptize, I lean the candidate back on my left hand, as my ambidextrous dad always did. One day a dear saint told me I was baptizing “backwards.” The advice came too late, the habit was already established. Children learn from their parents by example.
This is true of believers, also. The new nature we receive by spiritual heredity is given to conform us to the example of Jesus. Believers are saved with this purpose in mind. We were predestined “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (RM 8:29). There is no doubt about which example we should imitate. We are to reproduce the moral character of God as revealed in the earthly life of Jesus. God sent us an incarnate prototype, and gives us a written Word to let us never forget that one perfect life. Jesus gives a clear map, a true compass. We know where we are headed.
Children imitate parents due to duty. A family’s honor depends on the children. Being Pastor Marshall’s son put extra responsibility on me. A child represents a family, and realizes people judge the whole by the one.
This is true of believers, also. We belong to the royal family of heaven. People watch us and judge God by our behavior. We who carry God’s name must imitate His character. A cowardly soldier named Alexander was once brought before the tribunal of Alexander the Great. The infuriated leader commanded, “Change your ways or change your name.” Believer, be like Christ or be not called Christian. Imitate God or give up the name.
Children imitate parents due to desire. In our text, “as dear children” is literally, “as children beloved (agapeta).” Love responds to love. We tend to grow more like those whom we admire. In choosing our heroes, we often choose our own future behavior, and in the early years, a special bond develops which makes a child want to be like the parent.
This is true of believers, also. Loved by God, we respond to His love. We imitate God “as children beloved,” not as slaves dreading the crack of a whip. “Holiness must be spontaneous, or it is spurious” (Spurgeon).
When we come to grips with how dear we are to Him, when we grasp the love, we are overwhelmed, our hearts melt and all rebellion is conquered. The very hairs of our head are all numbered. God knows us all by name. He cares about what is happening in our daily lives. As I realize this, and grow in my understanding of it, the strongest desire of my life will become to show my love for Him, and to please Him in all I do.
Concentrate more on His vast love for us. His relationship with us is not mechanical. He watches us with the same intensity as when we watch our children take their first steps, speak their first words, and leave for school the first time. The Father loves His children. In the story of the Prodigal Son, we are told how glad the Father was when the son returned, but nothing is written about the Father’s reaction to his son’s departure. Some things are too sad to describe. God loves us profoundly.
We need to sense the love. A mother whose daughter chose a profligate life and ran away from home conceived a unique plan to find the prodigal and woo her home. The mom had copies of her own picture enlarged and posted on walls in the part of town she thought her daughter was staying. The pictures, without name, had written beneath them, “I love you always.” Crowds tried to guess the pictures’ meaning, but no one had a clue until finally a young lady passed by, saw one of the pictures, and understood. The message was for her. Her mother loved her, forgave her, wanted her. Those words transformed her. She immediately left her sin and went home to her mother. Fully knowing the love changed the life.
R. A. Torrey succeeded D. L. Moody, but as a young man was a bitter atheist. As he left home one day, renouncing family and God, his mother made one request, “R. A., in your darkest hour, call upon your mother’s God, and you will get light.” Later, in a hotel room, with pistol in hand ready to end what he called “this farce called life,” he remembered her words, and cried out, “Oh God of my mother, if there is such a God, give me light, and I will follow it wherever it leads.” In moments he had light, and decided to go home to Mom. As he headed down the lane to his house, his mother saw him, and came to meet him. He started to tell her he had become a believer, but she interrupted him, saying, “R. A., I already know.” Remembering a mother’s love, and experiencing God’s love, changed the life.
When we discern God’s love, and view Him as wonderful and noble, as the greatest person we know, we will be constrained to be like Him. He will be our ideal, and we will find ourselves craving to imitate Him.
Christians should imitate God due to spiritual heredity, environment, duty, and desire, but even all these in themselves are not enough to enable us to achieve our objective. We cannot be like God in our own strength. The imitation of God is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit whom God sends to indwell us. The Spirit cultivates the seed of God planted within us. The Spirit inspires us to study the life of Jesus, and enables us to reproduce His acts. The Spirit gives the inner sense of duty and desire.
Never forget, we believers are “children.” However much we grow in the Lord, we ever remain “children.” This, of course, confronts us with a paradox. We all know the goal of Christian living is to grow into a mature spiritual adult. In many ways we are to develop, but in other ways, we need to retain a child-like spirit, and cultivate “the child-heart” (Parker).
Certain qualities of a child we should never outgrow. A child is tender, obedient, trusting, willing to be dependent. Children are lowly in heart, and have no room for spiritual pride. A child is teachable, and assumes he or she will continue to grow. Childhood is a time of purity.
Growing up does not automatically make us better in every area of life. True maturity involves changing the things which need to be changed, but retaining and improving those traits which are good. However much a believer matures, we should retain an attitude of conscious weakness, and a spirit of humble dependence for grace from God to help us.