“Imitation” may be, as Charles Colton once famously wrote, “the sincerest of flattery.” However, some attempts at imitation may also be the sincerest of sheer folly. A six-year-old might, for example, try to flatter LeBron James by trying to dunk a basketball – with potentially disastrous consequences.
Who can, however, as Paul’s calls us in Ephesians 5:2, imitate God? Isn’t that sheer folly? Even God’s adopted sons and daughters are, after all, natural imitators of the evil one. We see evidence of that impersonation nearly everywhere. We see it in our own reluctance to love God above all and our neighbors as much as ourselves. Some members of our families are blind to Jesus as Lord and Savior. What’s more, our spiritually nearsighted neighbors and co-workers serve a myriad of gods.
The danger of such blindness, what Paul calls “darkened … understanding” (4:18), lies in the steep downward path on which it plunges us. Being spiritually blind is a bit like trying to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon while blindfolded. You may, after all, eventually get there. But you’ll probably get at least severely injured on the way.
Paul insists that what begins with spiritual blindness quickly degenerates into what he calls the “hardening of” peoples’ “hearts.” That, in turn, spirals downward into alienation “from the life of God.”
Finally, spiritual blindness plunges its victims into what verse 19 calls “sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases this in The Message, spiritually blind people “let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every kind of perversion.” Once people lose our spiritual sensitivity, we also naturally also lose all self-control. So were it not for God’s restraining grace, life apart from the Lord would be utter anarchy and chaos.
How, then, can Paul call people like you and me who are by nature spiritually nearsighted imitators of the evil one to be “imitators of God”? Joel Kok, to whose work in The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, (Eerdmans, 2001, p. 329ff.) I’m (again) indebted for many of these ideas, writes that apart from what Paul writes earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, such a command would be either “ludicrous or cruel.” Because even the godliest people can’t imitate God on our own, a call to do so would completely discourage us.
However, when we remember what Paul has written earlier about re-creation and conversion, his call to imitate God makes sense. In Christ, after all, as Paul notes in verse 32, God has forgiven God’s adopted sons and daughters. So God’s adopted sons and daughters’ imitation of our Father is a bit like writing a thank you note to someone who has given a generous birthday or wedding gift. After all, God’s people want to thank the God who has done so much for us by loving God and each other “just as Christ loved us” (5:2).
God has also, however, to stretch the imperfect analogy, both bought and given us the thank you cards. God has, after all, equipped God’s children for loving living. God is, quite simply, busy converting Jesus Christ’s friends from our old, unloving ways to new, loving ways.
In verses 22ff. Paul compares this conversion to a change of clothes. We generally change out of the clothing in which we, for example, work out before we come to church. What’s proper attire at the gym is, after all, often not proper at a wedding.
In a similar way, Paul says the “clothing” that is things like lingering anger and vulgar language isn’t proper for those God has saved in Christ. So the apostle calls believers to take off the old, smelly “clothing” that is our old way of living and put on the clean clothing that is our “new self.”
Yet even faithful Christians are naturally like people who so much like our reeking clothes in which we work out that we don’t want to put on clean clothing. Spiritually speaking we’re naturally “sartorially challenged.”
So God’s people need someone to help us recognize how “dirty” the clothing that is our old behavior is. In fact, we’re also like babies who need help just to change out of our soiled clothing.
Thankfully, then, Paul insists that God helps God’s adopted children to both recognize how “stained” our clothing that is our old way of life is and put on a “clean” way of living. He uses the imagery of recreation to describe that transformation.
In the very beginning God created people in God’s image, to be much like God. We, however, have almost hopelessly blurred that image so that we naturally resemble God very little. Even Christians are naturally like people whom some sort of injury has virtually obliterated any resemblance to our parents.
God, however, is like a surgeon who does plastic surgery so that we once again in some ways resemble our heavenly Father. God equips those whom God has made “like God” to be, in some ways, like God. God empowers those whom God has made in fundamental ways to somehow resemble God to, for example, “speak truthfully” and “not let the sun go down while” we’re “still angry.”
After all, as Paul writes in verse 39, we’ve been “sealed” by the Holy Spirit of God. While this primarily means that God made us God’s children by putting the Holy Spirit in us, it also means that God equips us to imitate God.
Yet how can Jesus’ friends know what to imitate? We sometimes say that you can learn a lot about a person’s character from what she does when no one is looking. Paul would say that we can learn a lot about God’s character by studying Jesus Christ. In fact, as Kok notes, chrestos, the Greek word for kindness about which Paul talks in verse 32 sounds a lot like “Christ.”
So God’s adopted sons and daughters learn a lot about God’s kindness by watching the gospels’ Jesus deal kindly with people others mistreated. We also learn to watch Jesus who repeatedly showed the virtue of “compassion” that Paul mentions in verse 32.
On top of all that, God’s adopted children see the supreme example of forgiveness (32) in Jesus Christ. After all, while we naturally find it impossible to forgive people for even the most minor slights, Jesus forgave even the people who so unjustly crucified him. Of course, we can’t actually watch Jesus be kind, compassionate and forgiving. So in order to imitate Jesus, his followers study, pray about and meditate on his actions the Bible describes.
Of course, even then even God’s holiest people still can’t perfectly imitate God. Jesus’ friends can’t live up to Jesus’ call to, for instance, be as perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Even Paul who sometimes called his readers to imitate him admitted that he didn’t perfectly live up to his calls to imitate God.
Thankfully, then, God, of course, saves us by God’s grace, not by our imitation of God. But those who, with Isaac Watts, survey the “wondrous cross” want to give back to God “my soul, my life, my all.”
So, with the help of the Holy Spirit, God’s adopted children constantly look for ways to deliberately do things like sharing with those in need. We try to build each other up by what we say. Jesus’ followers beg God to let the Spirit create in us kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
God doesn’t, after all, just give us Christ’s example of imitating God. God doesn’t even just give God’s dearly beloved people God’s Holy Spirit who equips us to increasingly imitate God. God also gives us the sacraments by which God strengthens our faithful imitation of God.
The Lord’s Supper is what one prominent Reformed theologian called “spiritual food and drink for the time between” Christ’s first and second comings. Those who would imitate God, then, regularly feast on the sacraments’ offerings. The Spirit uses the Sacraments as a means of grace, after all, to help equip us for a life of love that offers at least a pale imitation of Jesus’.
In his essay, “Christianity and Literature” in the book, Christian Reflections, C.S. Lewis argues that much of the New Testament assumes that major human relations (Christ to God, us to Christ) are imitative. Reflecting on that essay, Cornelius Plantinga notes, “Whereas modern criticism views imitation in literature, for example, as bad and unhappy (creativity, originality, spontaneity all put imitation in the shade), it is the normal way in the New Testament of presenting the art of life itself.
“Only God, maybe only God the Father, is truly original. All else is derivative and reflective. Saints are not moral or spiritual geniuses. They are imitators. [Lewis writes] ‘Our whole destiny seems to lie . . . in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed; in becoming clear mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours’.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 8, 2021
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Commentary