I am the youngest of five children, and because of that reality I had to follow my siblings in school with many of the same teachers they had. I heard these statements more than once: “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” (the studious valedictorian) and “Why aren’t you like your brother?” (the nice quiet one). I sometimes had this icky feeling in school that I somehow fell short because I wasn’t like them.
The task of the Christian is to imitate Christ – not impersonate Jesus by being someone we are not. God created each of us uniquely and has sovereignly gathered us together as the church. So, we need to strive to be the best individual person possible in imitating Jesus by means of who we are, learning to work together, appreciating one another as we seek to follow Christ.
The Apostle Paul wrote the New Testament letter to the Philippian Church because the fellowship had broken down into some rancorous in-fighting. This left the believers disillusioned. So, Paul passed on four imitations of Christ (not impersonations) to help them (and us) experience the unity God desires for his people.
1. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right values (Philippians 2:1-2).
Shared values, not smooth sailing, keeps a group of people together. Paul appealed to lived experience. If anyone has experienced encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, or compassion, then we need to recognize it, remember it, and then pass it on to others. Those values happened because God granted blessings to us through other people. In other words, we owe to others what God has done through others for us.
These common valued experiences occur as we participate in the life of our triune God. They come from the perfect relational dynamic that endlessly occurs within God himself as Father, Son, and Spirt. As we spend time with God and are filled with the divine life, these relational values spill-over in our human interactions.
Passing on encouragement and compassion is not a function of willpower in trying to impersonate Jesus; it is a matter of spending time with God – because people tend to imitate those they hang around. If we spend time with people who typically complain, we will end up constantly cranky. If we hang out with people who continually pray, we will find ourselves reflexively praying about everything. If we are around chronically negative people, we will become constantly unhappy. If we make it a regular practice to hang out with Jesus, we discover that we are imitating him in our relationships through encouragement, love, comfort, and compassion.
The word “joy” pops up a lot in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, yet it is never an exhortation to be joyful but rather an exhortation to unity. The by-product of unity is joy. Joy and happiness are the direct result of unity, and unity comes from embracing the shared common values Paul expressed.
2. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right service (Philippians 2:3-4).
Humility is the remedy for dissension and disunity. Strife comes from stubbornly guarding our own opinions. Humility, however, considers others better than oneself. We are to do nothing out of selfishness or vain conceit. Instead, we are to imitate Jesus – to take up our crosses and follow him through dying to things which create disunity. Trying to impersonate Jesus results in lording over people and circumstances. It leads to division. However, imitating Jesus results in being like him in his humility and gentleness. It brings unity and peace.
Nik Wallenda is a Christian and a high wire artist. In 2012 he walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls; and, in 2013 he became the first person to high wire walk across the Grand Canyon. Nearly a combined billion people saw those two incredible feats. After every tight rope walk for the crowds, Nik Wallenda engages in a simple spiritual discipline: he walks where the throngs of people just stood and watched him, and quietly picks up their trash.
Wallenda says about this practice, “My purpose is simply to help clean up after myself. The huge crowd left a great deal of trash behind, and I feel compelled to pitch in. Besides, after the inordinate amount of attention I sought and received, I need to keep myself grounded. Three hours of cleaning up debris is good for my soul. Humility does not come naturally to me. So, if I must force myself into situations that are humbling, so be it …. I know that I need to get down on my hands and knees like everyone else. I do it because it is a way to keep from tripping. As a follower of Jesus, I see him washing the feet of others. I do it because if I don’t serve others, I’ll be serving nothing but my ego.”
3. We are to imitate Christ by passing on the right attitude (Philippians 2:5-11).
The Apostle Paul bluntly stated that our attitude is to be the same as Jesus: laying down life for the benefit of others. Impersonating Jesus leads to a martyr complex that wants others see our good works. However, imitating Christ’s attitude is to serve without being concerned who sees it or who gets the credit. It is an attitude of passing on what we have received from God.
In the way of Jesus, the way up is down; the way to gain is by giving; the way to life is through death; the way to praise God is humble service for others. When my grandson was in one of his many hospital stays in the epilepsy ward, I watched him (3 years old at the time and without any prompting) make his way from room to room encouraging other patients and serving them. In the room where a ten year old girl had just had brain surgery with no hair and unattractive bandages, I overheard him say, “Oh, I like your new hat; it looks great on you!” Making his way to the next room of a twelve-year-old boy who was near death, he said, “Would you like a drink? I can get a drink for you!”
I saw parents in the epilepsy ward who were as different from one another as you could imagine. Yet, we all shared a common purpose which gave us a common attitude. We all wanted these kids to be seizure free, and we were doing whatever it took to help each other realize that dream.
Jesus humbled himself and became a man, being obedient to death on a cross, because his purpose was for humanity to be sin-free. Christ did whatever it took to make that happen. If a small little boy can be used of God, then how much can you and I adopt the attitude of Jesus and do whatever it takes to see that people realize freedom in Jesus Christ!?
4. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right commitments (Philippians 2:12-13).
The Christian life is meant to be lived together with other believers. We can try to impersonate Jesus, which will result in trying to impress the wrong crowd. However, when we imitate Christ, we commit ourselves to the people God has placed in our lives. Just as it was not our choice which family we were born into, so it is not our choice which spiritual family we are born again into. The church is not a voluntary society, any more than a family is. The church belongs to Jesus and we are neither to just fluidly move in and out of it as if it were a hobby that we toy with once-in-a-while, nor treat it as a spectator sport just watching what happens and playing arm-chair quarterback on Monday morning.
Paul exhorted the believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. That means we are to live-out our collective salvation together in being mindful of each other. In other words, unity takes a lot of work – work which requires imitating Christ through a shared commitment to one another.
The promise we have is that when we do this kind of good work that it is God who acts to bend everything to his good purposes. This is a wonderful promise, one we need to take to heart with a good dose of godly reverence and awe.
My oldest sister was the valedictorian of her class. I did not follow in her steps. My brother was the kind of kid that teachers envied to have in their classes. I think my teachers wondered if we were from the same family. My other sister was friends with all her teachers, and they all enjoyed her. I just remember getting a lot of sighs and eye-rolling from my teachers. I often struggled with my identity as a kid.
I found my identity in Christ. I discovered I did not have to be like anyone else. God used me for who I am right where I was, learning to imitate Jesus. We need not be worried or discouraged about how far short we fall in comparison to others. Instead, we are to be concerned about how God wants to fulfill all his good promises in Christ through us – because at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. We are to pass on to others every good thing we have in Jesus Christ.