17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21)
Our focus this morning will be on verse 17. As I read that verse, I’m reminded that the Apostle Paul never runs out of bold statements. Does verse 17 strike you as a bold statement? “Brothers, join in imitating me.” I don’t know how many times I have read that, and as I do there is a part of me where I cringe. I think, “Wow, that is bold!” I’m more comfortable, frankly, to say, “Join me in imitating Christ,” or even, “Join with me in imitating Paul, or Peter, or Charles Spurgeon, or John Calvin, or Al Mohler, or John Piper, join me in imitating those guys.” It’s almost frightening to think of saying, “Join in imitating me.”
It is funny though how we do imitate others. We learn that very early on in life. I remember years ago, I would mow the yard and my now 26-year-old son would follow close behind me with his Fisher Price bubble mower. That’s imitation. It starts very early in life. We had a bird in our fireplace once. It came down the chimney and was in the fireplace. I put some work gloves on to reach in and get it out, then took it outside and let it go. That apparently impressed my now 23-year-old, because for days he would put those gloves on and reach into that fireplace, hoping, I guess, to pull out a bird like he had seen his dad do! He couldn’t even talk, could barely walk, but he could imitate what he saw his dad do. I saw a picture last week of little Rachael Conte standing in an elevator, I believe, standing just like her dad who was next to her. She saw how he was standing and positioned herself in exactly the same way. She was imitating her dad.
As a father of now mostly grown boys, I can tell you it’s real cute when they are real young. But at some point it really hits home that yes, they really are watching. Yes, at some point we may see them do something as young men and think, “Where did he get that? Why is he acting that way?” Only to be hit with, “Oh, probably from me!”
We see this in other areas, that is imitating. Why do so many young girls want to dress like the latest rock star? Because they’re imitators. Why are clothing styles what they are, how do they catch on so quickly? Because we are imitators. Now, this may at times be frustrating as we see people we love pick up habits from those we may think are not good role models. Imitating can be a bad thing, can be really burdensome, or can be just mildly annoying.
So is it good or bad that we like to imitate others, that we are imitators? Well, did you know that God created us to be imitators? He created us with imitation in mind. Did you know that? We often champion in America the idea of individualism – “Be your own person, do your own thing,” but in reality most of what we do we have already seen done by someone else, and furthermore, God’s plan is that we do imitate. You may say, where do you get that? Where do you get that we are to imitate? I get that from the Bible. The first place in the Bible is from Genesis, way back in Genesis.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
What God did was create man in His image and likeness. We are to be, then, image bearers of the Most High God. This is part of His plan of creation. Did you know that we are to bear the image of God, we are to live in the likeness of God, we are to be imitators of God’s character? You have purpose in life, and that purpose includes being an image bearer of God.
Back in the day when Genesis was written, there would be kings who would travel great distances to conquer neighboring kingdoms. If the aggressor kings were successful, they would not generally stay in that conquered land, but would eventually return to their home, to their original kingdom. But before returning home the king would set up statues around the newly conquered land statues of himself, as reminders to the people that he is now their king. These statues were to represent the new king who had conquered the land. Do you know what the statues were called that were left behind? They were called an image and likeness. So when Moses penned the words in Genesis 1 that we were created in the image and likeness of God, the people understood what that meant, it was a familiar term to them.
We are to image God in this world. We are to be visible representatives of God, or as we read in 2 Corinthians 5, we are to be ambassadors of Christ. We are to be copies of Christ in the world, imitators of Jesus Christ. We are not first of all individuals who go our own way, we are first of all image bearers of God.
Being created in the likeness and image of God, being ambassadors of Christ, imitators of Jesus carries huge implications for us. This means we have purpose here, this gives purpose to our very being. Our purpose is to live as representatives of God, right here where we live, in this day, at this time, where God has placed us. Everyone who is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is to do that. Is everyone with me so far on that? Because I’m going to present to you some challenges with this.
Anyone read the news lately? If you have you may ask, “How do we do this in the time in which we live? How do I live like Christ, according to His attributes, in this world in which we live? What does it even look like to live like Christ in our society?” That’s a good question. I would say that no matter how unique we may think our day is, our society, our culture, it is really amazing how we find similar societies, or predictions of what society will be, in the New Testament. For instance listen to this from 2 Timothy 3:
1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:1-7)
Okay, so in that world, in that society, how are we to live? Is Paul as he writes to Timothy describing our day? As those who have been made in the likeness and image of God, how are we to conduct ourselves in a world like Paul describes? As we mirror Christ, we simultaneously live in opposition to current societal trends. This can be really challenging, to say the least. So challenging at times that we may all scratch our heads and say, “How?”
How do we love our neighbors who hate God? How do we stand for God and not condone sinful behavior while showing love? How do we walk in love with our neighbors, and stand firm in faithfulness to our God who has called us to represent Him? I don’t know about you, but these are the kind of questions that I pour over, and think about almost constantly. Things that occupy my mind frequently.
We are to love God and love whom? Our neighbors, who are sometimes our enemies, and enemies of the cross. In fact, every unregenerate sinner is an enemy of the cross.
2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:2-4)
These are the ones we are to love. Does this represent a challenge for you? It does for me. Even this last week, I visited with a friend for a couple of hours and we discussed this very thing. How do we represent Christ, be the likeness and image of God that we were created to be, while surrounded by this evil culture? How do we hate sin and yet do good to those who love sin and hate us? It’s a dilemma, a challenge. How do we carry out our calling in practical, every day interactions in this world?
There is no simplistic answer. There is not a simplistic answer here when it comes to all the hundreds of thousands of particular scenarios that we may face as individuals. I mean, we understand the general principles, but what about a particular extended family issue you may be dealing with? An extended family member who is militant about their sin, comfortable in their sin, they see you as a hater of people because of what you believe, how do you interact with them while bearing God’s image? Or do you at all? How do you fulfill the two great commands practically in this, loving God and loving your neighbor? Or a coworker very vocal about a lifestyle of sin? Or a sibling, or a neighbor?
There are not always easy answers when we get down to a practical, situational level. But God of course does not leave us alone to figure these things out. For the believer we have His Spirit in us and we have His word written for us. Right? But there is even more. Listen again to what Paul says.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)
We have the Spirit of God in us, we have the Bible to guide and instruct us, and we have each other, the Church. We have living, breathing examples around us to help us more clearly see how to live the Christian life in this world. When Paul says, “join in imitating me,” he says that within the context of what he has written so far in this book of Philippians. He is saying, “As I have been proclaiming in this book, as I have been instructing you on how to live a life that is consumed with Christ, as you see me live out these words, imitate me.” It is almost as if he is blazing a trail for them to follow. He’s saying, “Listen to what I say, and do as I do as I walk in that way.” The idea is to follow him, an imperfect sinner, as he followed Christ. And so not only do we have the Lord Jesus Christ to follow, but we also have others, followers of Christ, whom we can imitate. I have to tell you, I am so glad this is true. I am so thankful to have people around me who help me in how they live, help me to see more clearly how to obey God’s Word in difficult circumstances. We have a community of believers around us that we can look to, watch, observe and even imitate as they are imitating Christ.
Paul goes on to say, “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” This means “fix your eyes on” or “focus on” those around you who are walking faithfully according to God’s Word.
With that, several questions come to mind: Who are you imitating? Who are you hanging out with? Who are you watching? Who are you fixing your eyes on, focusing on? Do you even have people in your life to look to, to observe in various situations of life, to observe as they follow Christ? Are we living closely enough with each other that we can observe how to respond or react in a variety of situations for Christ?
Two things come to mind as I consider these questions. First is how Jesus called His disciples, and what he called them to do.
18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20)
This was an invitation that was very personal. It was not, “Hey, come to my class, or read my book, or sit in on my lectures.” No, it was, “Come with me, follow me, go where I go, and learn as you do.” Jesus was inviting these men into His life. In this call to Peter and Andrew, and then in verses 21-22 to James and John, it was, “Let’s go together, come see, observe, live life with me.” It ended up being a walk with Christ for three years. There was a classroom of sorts, but it was a traveling one. They saw Jesus in a variety of situations: when he was at a wedding party, when he healed sinners, they observed his countenance when he was attacked, they ate with him, saw him teach. They lived life together.
When Jesus was gone, ascended to heaven, don’t you know that the disciples would have, in their own trials and circumstances, thought back and said, “Yes, I remember a time when Jesus was in a similar place, and this is what He did.” He had been their example, and they could now imitate Him. They would have seen how he took biblical principles, truth, and what it looked like to apply those truths in a variety of situations. That’s our challenge, isn’t it? “What does it look like.”
We are limited in what we can do, I know, but are we spending time with others from whom we can learn, imitate, and are we bringing others with us so they can learn from us as we pursue Christ? We’re talking about discipleship. There are ways in which I could imitate you for the glory of Christ, and there are ways you could imitate me for the glory of Christ. It is not, I don’t believe, putting one or two people on a pedestal, but recognizing various strengths of faithfulness from many people. We don’t have a great deal of opportunity to get to know each other in such an intimate way on a Sunday morning alone. Life takes place outside of Sunday mornings. Are we interacting with each other beyond these walls, in daily life?
A second thing that comes to mind as I think through those earlier questions is the early church in Acts 2. You are familiar with Acts 2 and the early church probably. They met together often, shared meals, gathered for teaching, they spent significant time together. Theirs was life lived together in a very significant way. That is the sense you get from Acts 2 and the early church.
Did you know that there are probably people around you who have dealt with the trials and temptations that you may be facing right now? People who have passed through the storms of life that you are about to pass through. But how would we know who they are?
Do you have a impossible boss who challenges your faith daily? Someone else has probably faced that too, and dealt with it according to biblical principles. If so, that person can help you, you can imitate him in that matter. God tells us: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Do you know how comforting that should be for us? That means someone around you has or is dealing with very similar things. And it could be that you can imitate them as they are following Christ through that trial.
The opposite of living life together, knowing each other well, and getting to a place where we can even imitate others who are following Christ, the other side of that is to live in isolation. This would be to think, “I can do this, I can live the Christian life apart from an active participation with other believers.” This might be to think, “I’ve got this, I’m okay, I don’t really need others in my life. I don’t want others to know my business. I don’t need others around me to guide me, to teach me, or to be living examples for me.” I get this, I can be independent in many ways, but when I do, I usually get into trouble. And the reason is God did not create us to be this way. We were made to live and interact with each other in the body of Christ. The Bible is full of what we call the one anothers of Scripture. These are simply commands that instruct us on how to interact with each other. And it would be impossible for us to obey the one anothers of Scripture if we were not consistently getting to know each other and interacting together.
In fact, as you read the Bible verse by verse through the New Testament, ask yourself as you go, “Can I obey this passage, this verse, simply on my own, or must this be obeyed within the context of a community of people?” That’s usually the case. It is pretty neat to do that and see just how intertwined God intends that we be with other Christians.
We are imitators. We were created to be imitators. We are to walk in God’s image, we are to walk in the image of Christ as His ambassadors. We are to imitate others who are imitating Christ. We are to be observant, watchful of those who are walking with God, and we are to be walking in a way so that others can imitate us. All of this requires community involvement. You knowing me and me knowing you, all of us getting to know one another for our spiritual growth as God has prepared it.
The days we live in are dark in many ways. We will need to learn from each other and lean on each other as we practice navigating through these days in a way that honors our Lord. My hope is, and I know our other church leaders share this hope, that we all grow together and find ways to grow together in love, grace, wisdom, and fellowship. I would encourage all of us to begin, even today, to spend time getting to know others around us who love Christ. God has put them and you here for each other.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)