A Walk of Imitation: Ephesians 5:1-2

“Therefore, become imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

 

In much Jewish thought the idea of imitating God was anathema. With the initial sin of Adam and Eve in “desiring to be like God” along with the prohibition of the second commandment forbidding the making of any likeness to God, for Jewish believers in Yahweh, any earthly imitation of the invisible, heavenly Lord was a step too far.[1]  It’s very likely that Paul held such convictions before becoming a Christian. And yet now, as follower of Jesus, Paul is encouraging and commanding other fellow believers to do just that: imitate God.

The difference? Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God who became a man and who died for sinful men in order to make them sons of God.[2] There is in the incarnation, and in the death and resurrection of Christ, a bridge reconnecting the Divine Creator with his fallen image bearers. And the purpose of Christ’s coming was to restore those broken image bearers to once again reflect the beauty and goodness of their Creator. Thus, Paul can say, be imitators of God.

There is, in the natural order of things, a mimicking which must take place when a child loves a parent. A son who has a loving father, wants to and will, more often than not, imitate his father. Paul says this is just as true of Christians who are now “beloved children” of God. In Christ, God has made us his adopted children, indeed, his beloved children – children who are changed by the love of God in Christ. Changed to do what? Imitate.

Paul has already told us, earlier in Ephesians, that we used to imitate the world as well as Satan, an imitation “in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). But not anymore. Now we imitate God. As an important exegetical side note, Paul uses the present imperative “to become” rather than “to be” implying an ever-continuous habit of imitation. As our love of God grows and our love for this world diminishes, Christians will inevitably find themselves imitating this world less and less and instead following after and imitating God more and more. This is our sanctification.

But how? What does it look like to imitate God, the incomprehensible, unapproachable, glorious omnipotent God? Well, we certainly can’t imitate God in his incommunicable attributes; try as I might, I simply cannot become omniscient. No, what Paul says is that we grow in imitating his love. Specifically, we’re to walk in love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us in his death upon the cross.

In other words, true imitation of God looks like loving others just as Christ loved others: loving God with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving his neighbors as himself. Well, so too must we. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Of course, Jesus is talking here about true love – a love that sacrifices, a love that is costly, a love that will leave heaven itself in order to serve. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Let me end with three brief application points that can help us with obeying and living out this passage.

First, know. You must know about Jesus in order to love him and walk in a love that imitates him. Therefore, do all you can to know Jesus Christ. Peter commands believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Do you want to grow in love, being a better imitator of God? Then grow in your knowledge of the Son of God. Make the Lord’s Day worship an inescapable priority in your life. Make the reading of God’s word unavoidably essential. Devote yourself to prayerful prayer. Read the best books about Jesus.[3] You cannot expect to walk in Jesus-like love if you’re not growing in your knowledge of who Jesus is, knowing how he loved and, even now, still loves.

Second, walk. The command here is to daily walk, practice, do the things that love requires. Habituating yourself to loving others strengthens your ability to love. Perhaps you need to start with baby steps: pray for others. Invite others over to show hospitality once every other month (or maybe even a few times a year). Then, begin to take bigger steps: push yourself to be more engaged in the lives of others; loving others involves knowing others. How can you better love and serve the church member who has lost her job due to Covid lockdown rules? Have you taken the time to talk to your unbelieving neighbor about the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Loving them certainly requires as much. So, take the steps; start walking. And don’t stop.

Third, rest. Paul ends verse two by reminding us that Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf was a fragrant offering to God. Which means, God is pleased with you because of what Jesus has done. No one’s “walk” is perfect; we all trip and stumble in countless ways. And of course, Christians get back up – this is what it means to repent daily. But we must rest in the truth that Christ has walked perfectly and loved perfectly for us. Our ability to walk well doesn’t secure God’s love for us. Rather, knowing that God has loved us and has sent his Son to “walk in love” for us, encourages us - indeed, enables us - in our walk. It is only in that truth – the good news of Christ for us – that our imperfect walk and imitation is at all acceptable. Know Jesus and walk in love, imitating the love of Christ, but do so ultimately as you rest in Christ.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



[1] Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1998), p. 466

[2] Or as the Nicene Creed so wonderfully states the matter: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human.” A fantastic line to meditate upon this Christmas season.

[3] Start with Knowing Jesus by Mark Jones, The Cross of Christ by John Stott, Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, or God the Son Incarnate by Stephen Wellum.