In the case of the Thessalonians, Paul and his team clearly lived among them in a specific way for the sake of those they were ministering to. These new believers imitated their leaders and ultimately became a model themselves to new churches. It's interesting to note that "imitators" is plural while "model" (or "example") is singular. Each person had to walk out his or her own imitation - but together, as a whole, they became a model for other churches to follow. Later, in chapter 2, we learn that the Thessalonian church imitated the churches in Judea - the organic development of the church spread as each body became greater than the sum of their parts! None of us will get imitation perfectly but somehow, together, we can reflect the character of our Savior.
Our modern Western world tends to be resistant toward intentional imitation, though the warp speed at which fashion trends, hashtags, and slang traverses the globe testifies to our internal bent to imitate someone. On some level we think that imitation is phony, that we give up some degree of individuality. But Biblical imitation is anything but uniformity. Instead, it's an intentional choice to emulate someone in specific ways. Consider the following:
- Paul taught others how he followed Jesus and urged them to do the same.
- "I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church." (1 Corinthians 4:16-17)
- "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you." (1 Corinthians 11:1-2)
- "For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you..." (2 Thessalonians 3:7)
- "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 1:13)
- Spiritual leaders should have faith and lives worth imitating.
- "It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate." (2 Thessalonians 3:9)
- "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." (1 Timothy 4:12)
- "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Hebrews 13:7)
- We are taught to intentionally draw our attention to those whose lives follow Biblical examples.
- "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us." (Philippians 3:17)
- "As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord." (James 5:10)
- "We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (Hebrews 6:12)
What do we imitate? 3 John 1:11 tells us to imitate actions that are good "Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God." The Hebrews 13:7 passage above tells us to imitate the faith of leaders whose long-term walk has visible results. The same verse tells us we should consider the outcome of their life- this speaks to a long-term walk with visible results, not a trendy following of the latest fads. And several passages make it clear that suffering enters us into a special type of imitation (see 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14, and 1 Peter 2:21).
So what does this look like in practice? There are as many answers to that question as there are Christians. As I've learned about imitation, I've realized the importance of being very intentional and prayerful. Imitation first starts with Christ, so I have to be very aware of His life through the Gospels and live accordingly. I should always be able to identify characteristics of my "role model" that reflect the character of Christ. I've also learned that God doesn't want me to be an exact replica of someone else. God isn't about creating cookie cutter Christians, who follow exactly some pattern. So in my own life, imitation seems to be centered on specific areas where God is working in me. Let me give an illustration.
One of the dearest people in my life is Judy. I often describe her as my "second mom." Judy attends my church now, but for years was a pastor's wife. Judy is a quiet, peaceful presence in any room, and in Bible study she is known for attentively listening and often not speaking at all. But when she does speak, it's like the old commercial: "People listen." She has a way of simplifying whatever we've been discussing into the basics, and always increases our faith. In short, she brings much wisdom without many words. Regular readers of this blog know that the same cannot be said about me! My gifts of teaching and encouragement often tag team to make it difficult for me to keep my mouth shut. However, I know from Scripture that sometimes, the better part of wisdom is found in silence: Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19). So one day I had lunch with Judy and asked her the secret to developing that kind of discernment. She shared with me her life experiences and things she learned along the way. I have a long way to go, and I know that God has gifted me in certain ways that mean sometimes I have to speak where others are silent, but there are definitely times where God reminds me, through Judy, of the beauty of silence and careful speech. I also pray that my words would fall to the ground and God's words would remain. No one will ever confuse me with Judy, but her influence in my life has strengthened my faith and sharpened my walk with Christ.
Your experience will be different. If you are struggling in an area, find someone to imitate. Talk to your pastor or other church leader; read Christian biography; look in Scripture for someone God commends who has the same problem, gift, or situation.Ultimately, we imitate God, and all imitation of others must be kept within this context:
- "For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you." (John 13:15)
- "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children." (Ephesians 5:1)
All of us should strive to live a life worth imitating, because there is always someone watching. However, if you are in leadership, or are involved in any kind of ministry, it is absolutely essential. Whether you are aware of it or not, people will imitate you. As we seek to live lives worthy of imitation, we absolutely must keep our eyes on Jesus. We have to first imitate Him so that we know we are on solid ground if anyone imitates us. Beyond that, though, we should be authentic and specific. It makes a big difference whether I say, "I begin each day with prayer" or, "I pray for a half hour first thing in the morning because if I don't, I find that my prayer time never happens and my day is more frustrating."
Imitation also can require sacrifice. In many cultures today new believers are paired with someone who meets with them daily. Paul's frequent practice was to live among the churches he started; they saw firsthand what his life was like. They knew when he rose for prayer and how he studied the Bible. I often ask myself, would I be willing to share my quiet time with a new believer? I look at that as my "alone time" with God - but maybe He would have me invite someone in for a period so they can hear my prayers and study with me. While Jesus did have a place of "farther still" where He went alone, the closest three disciples still heard what He prayed (they wrote it down in the Gospels) and those three were with Him in some of His most intimate moments with the Father.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Charles Colton wrote in 1820. That might be true in worldly things. But in matters of the faith, imitation is far more than flattery. It's a divinely-appointed means of our spiritual development and one of the ways that God shapes us into the image of His Son. Biblical imitation is not uniformity. The beauty of our faith is that it is infinitely translatable - it doesn't look the same because the focal point is not what we do, but Whose we are. When we are in Christ, we find that our different gifts and approaches become part of a majestic mosaic that, when pictured from a distance, shows an increasingly clear picture of our Savior.
Ministry challenge: Who are you imitating? Reflect on an area where God wants to transform you, and ask Him to give you someone to imitate.