To some, imitation describes a cheap knockoff, something masquerading as genuine but is just a counterfeit in reality. To others, imitation is “the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” (Oscar Wilde). So, imitation is either pretending to be something it isn’t, or it’s trying to be something it can’t. Neither of these descriptions get at the heart of the New Testament’s emphasis on imitating others. Let’s learn more about how the NT describes imitation with some help from the Life Application Bible Commentary on the New Testament.

Imitator in the New Testament is the Greek word μιμητής (mimetes) and means one who is like another. The verbal form (μιμέομαι) means to follow another’s example. There are obvious similarities between this word, the Greek word μῑμικός/μῖμος, the Latin mīmicus, and their resemblance with the English words mimic or mimicry.

Imitating Paul—1 Corinthians 11:1

Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.

This verse belongs at the conclusion of chapter 10, not at the beginning of chapter 11, where it has been traditionally placed. Paul had just told the Corinthians that his goal was to seek the good of others, not himself. In this regard, Paul called upon them to imitate him. Elsewhere Paul had encouraged the believers to imitate him. In 4:15-16, he had stated, “For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me” (NLT).

As in chapter 4, Paul’s words were not prideful. He had just spent three chapters explaining how the Corinthian believers needed to deal with the issue of eating meat that had been offered to idols. His conclusion of the matter balanced freedom in Christ with responsibility to love the “weaker” believers. All Christians should be so focused on bringing others to Christ that nothing stands in the way of that goal. Paul followed his own advice (see 8:13; 10:33) and encouraged the believers to follow his example. The reason they could do so? Because he followed Christ’s example—just as I also imitate Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:14-16

I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me.

Paul was confident, even forceful, in his unique relationship with the Corinthian church. He had introduced many of them to Jesus Christ and told the Corinthians to imitate him. He was able to make this statement because he walked close to God, spent time in God’s Word and in prayer, and was aware of God’s presence in his life at all times. God was Paul’s example; therefore, Paul’s life could be an example to other Christians. Paul wasn’t expecting others to imitate everything he did, but they should imitate those aspects of his beliefs and conduct that were modeling Christ’s way of living. Make it a point to identify Christlike character traits in the people you allow to shape your life. Influences you cannot trace back to Christ cannot truthfully claim your commitment.

Paul’s tough words were motivated by love—like the love a good father has for his children. Because the church could trust him, they could also imitate him, so he boldly explained that they could follow his example.

Imitating God—Ephesians 5:1

Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.

Just as children imitate their parents, we should be imitators of God. His great love for us led him to sacrifice his Son so that we might live. We imitate God by following his example in Christ, emulating his attributes in our lives (see 1 Peter 2:21). The following verse (5:2) shows that Christ’s example of forgiveness should be the pattern we follow. The word “be” means “become.” Paul understood that this is a process. Because of our relationship with God through Christ and the power given us through the Spirit, we are to become Godlike in our characteristics and obedient disciples in our lifestyles.

Behavioral scientists have discovered an interesting phenomenon called “imprinting” in the early development of some animals. At certain critical stages, whatever other animal, object, or person the young animal is exposed to is taken to be its “parent.” If a young goose is “imprinted” with a dog, the gosling will see the dog as its mother. Paul says that such imprinting should happen in Christian growth. We should walk so closely with Jesus that he imprints on us his nature: loving, serving, sacrificing, pleasing to God the Father. Stay close to him through Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism so that you are always in a position to be transformed into his image.

Imitating Churches—1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14

And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit . . . For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans.

Jesus had told his disciples that because he suffered, so would they. The disciples had already faced much suffering: Just before coming to Thessalonica, Paul and Silas had been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16:16-40). Paul faced “severe suffering” during much of his ministry (some of these sufferings are recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33). So when the Thessalonian believers suffered for their faith, they were in good company. Through that suffering, they imitated the missionaries and the Lord himself (2:14).

The last statement of 2:13 points out that God’s Word continues to work in believers. One evidence of this work was the Thessalonian believers’ fortitude when they suffered persecution from [their] own countrymen—the Greeks in Thessalonica. But the believers in Thessalonica had good company, for in that persecution they had actually imitated the believers in God’s churches in Judea. Not that they had planned on this imitation—but in the way they faced and withstood persecution, they were just like the churches in Judea (see 1:6). While Acts 17:5-10 seems to indicate mostly Jewish opposition, it is certainly true that the Gentile Greeks were part of the opposition because the Christians refused to participate in the imperial religion.

Imitating Leaders

The New Testament places strong emphasis on imitating leaders. It also gives strong words to those leaders that they be worthy of emulation:

  • Matthew 11:29—“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Jesus told his followers to learn from his example of gentleness and humility.
  • Philippians 3:17—“Join with others in following my example.” Paul urged believers to follow his example of enthusiasm, perseverance, and maturity.
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7—“You became imitators of us and of the Lord. . . . And so you became a model to all the believers.” The new Christians at Thessalonica received training in discipleship from Paul, and even in suffering, they modeled before others what they had learned.
  • 1 Timothy 1:16—“In me . . . Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him.” Paul used his unworthiness to receive Christ as an example of grace so that no one would hold back from coming to Christ.
  • 1 Peter 5:3—“Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Peter taught Christian leaders to lead by example, not by commands.
  • Hebrews 6:12—”We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.”

Christians owe much to others who have taught them and have modeled for them what they need to know about the gospel and Christian living. They should continue following the good examples of those who have invested themselves in them by investing their own lives through evangelism, service, and Christian education. They, in turn, become models worth imitating.

The Reason for Imitation

Why did Paul say, “Imitate me” (11:1)? Paul wasn’t being arrogant—he did not think of himself as sinless. He had already introduced them to the Messiah; now he wanted them to follow his example.

The Corinthian believers did not know much about the life and ministry of Christ. Paul could not tell them to imitate Jesus because the Gospels had not yet been written, so they knew little of what Jesus was like. The best way to point these new Christians to Christ was to point them to a Christian whom they trusted (see also Galatians 4:12; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9). Paul had lived in Corinth almost two years and had built a relationship of trust with many of these new believers.

Even today, God’s Spirit still uses the faithful lives of Christians alongside the Scriptures to help people understand and follow Christ. Watch how faithful Christians live and, in the light of Scripture, pattern your conduct after theirs. Imitate them!

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