In our discussion of Philippians 3, Paul has been speaking of his own pursuit of Christ. Paul wanted to know Christ and to become like Him. That should be our desire as well.
Sometimes when trying to comfort a child who is afraid, we as parents want to remind them that God is with them. But far too often, our children want (and need) a “god with skin on.” They want a real, flesh-and-blood person right there with them.
And that is why Jesus Christ became flesh. He came so we could see what God was like and so imitate him. He was Immanuel, “God with us.” He came and dwelt among us to show us the glory of God.
The reality is, for us to grow in faith, we need other people. We need their presence, their support, their encouragement, their prayers, and we need them to show us the way.
Unfortunately, in our digital age, we sometimes forget that the essence of discipleship goes beyond merely informing and instructing. People need a model to imitate. That is what made Dawson Trotman’s discipleship of men so powerful. He invited men into his home to see how he lived, and how he and his wife Lila lived together. He knew that discipleship is more caught than taught.
Paul says in Philippians 3:17-21
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Then Paul mentions why they needed to imitate him…
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.
Then he concludes by saying…
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.
Notice that first verse, “imitate me.” What seems like the height of arrogance is really one of the key factors of effective discipleship. Before we can teach someone else how to walk with Christ, we must walk with Christ.
Imitation is an important part of Paul’s ministry to others.
The Apostle Paul hit this theme a number of times in his letters. For example:
1 Cor. 4:15-17: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 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.”
Phil 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
2 Thess. 3:7-9: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.
2 Tim. 3:10-11: “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra. . . .”
John Piper comments on two additional verses:
1 Cor. 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Phil. 3:17: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and fix your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
Notice the sequence:
- Jesus lives the perfect life for imitation.
- Paul imitates Jesus.
- Others “walk according to the example they have in us.”
- Finally, we fix our eyes on those who follow Paul’s example.
What makes this so remarkable is that Paul says it is spiritually wise to consider not just Jesus’ life, and not just the lives of those who follow him, but also the lives of those who follow those who follow him.
This seems to imply that the line of inspiration and imitation goes on and on.
Paul recognizes, first of all, that imitation is part of what it means to be human. For our earliest years we learn by imitation. We imitate parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, friends, and basically anyone that we spend much time around. Paul is simply being open about a basic fact of human experience: we learn through imitation.
We all know that we learn by watching others. Young Johann Sebastian Bach was a studied observer of the great organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach made repeated long trips on foot to Buxtehude’s church to observe and hear the master, even copying the composer’s scores by hand—all of which had a marked effect on Bach’s style and vitality and the shaping of his brilliance. Bach, surpassing genius that he was, rode on the lesser genius and example of his mentor.
Whether through apprenticeships in trades or through coaching in athletics, we learn by watching others. It’s part of human nature.
That’s why, in 1 Corinthians 4:16, Paul draws the explicit parallel between imitating him and imitating your parent.
In our culture which emphasizes individualism and “finding yourself,” it seems out of kilter to say that children should imitate their parents. But it is just reflecting the reality of human nature.
You probably don’t need a fancy science experiment to see that kids imitate their parents. You probably notice it every day.
When you’re sweeping the floor, you might notice your little one pretending to sweep too. Or, you might hear your preschooler put her stuffed bear to bed the same way you tuck her in at night. Kids repeat what they hear, and they imitate what they see. For this reason, you need to be mindful of the things you’re inadvertently teaching your child.
Some of us are old enough to remember seeing Jaws when it first came out. It was pretty scary. But there was another scene from the movie which, for an adult, might have made a deeper impression.
There is a wonderful moment between Sheriff Brody and his son at the dinner table.
As his wife clears plates off of the table, Brody sits staring off into the distance, clearly deep in thought. He doesn’t notice his young son watching his every move from a foot away. When he takes a drink, his son takes a drink. When he folds his hands, his son folds his hands. Finally, he sees his son mirroring him. He starts to playfully make movements and faces for his son to copy–ending with a kiss. The most powerful role models for children sit across from them at the dinner table. It’s you.
Recognize that and build upon it.
“Join in imitating me” is an invitation to a relationship in which through spending time together in personal relationship, in study, in ministry and in everyday life, Paul’s life and faith would be rubbing off on them.
Secondly, Paul is not calling them to focus only upon him. Paul nowhere suggests that we should imitate him because he’s such an amazing person. Instead, he sees himself as a signpost pointing toward a more important reality. Thus, his appeal is not merely to “Follow my example,” but to do so because Paul also strives to “follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Even when it sounds like Paul is highlighting his own accomplishments, his greater purpose to direct our attention to what God can do in and through us. Thus, writing to Timothy he draws attention to “my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured” (2 Tim. 3:10).
That sounds rather impressive. And it could also be pretty self-centered. “Hey look at me. Aren’t I awesome! You should be just like me.” But Paul quickly directs our attention away from himself, focusing instead on the Lord who rescued him from this persecution and who will similarly bless and protect all who strive to live godly lives in Christ (v. 11).
Thirdly, Paul doesn’t make imitation exclusive. He is not encouraging them to imitate him alone, but any others who walk this same way. In the rest of verse 17 Paul says…
and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Paul wasn’t so proud to think that he was the only one who could be such an example.
Doubtless he had in mind Timothy and Epaphroditus, as well as any others who pursued Christ like he did. The Philippians had “us,” not just Paul, as an example to follow.
I know that if I’m the only person discipling someone, that he is not only going to imitate my good example, but he will also imitate my flaws. That is why discipleship is best done from within the body of Christ, which has many spiritual leaders to imitate and learn from.
And that kind of imitational diversity is wise for at least a couple of reasons. First, it protects us again from the very real possibility that even our “best” models will eventually blow it. It will still be devastating when a cherished leader fails, but less so when your identity isn’t built entirely around him or her. Second, life is complex and its challenges legion. A variety of godly models stands a better chance of giving you something to imitate across a range of difficult circumstances than any single model possibly could.
Imitating me might be good. Imitating us will always be better.
Fourth, imitation is for everyone. Throughout our lives we will imitate others, and someone will be imitating us. It may only be our children, our family. But if we are intentional about it, we will find models to imitate and we will intentionally engage in discipleship relationships so that others can imitate us.
So Paul calls for us to be intentional models for imitation. He appeals to Timothy to be an example “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Oh, is that all?
And Titus gets a similarly broad appeal to be an example in “everything” (Tit. 2:7).
Imitation isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just that I imitate others, but they also imitate me. Relationships work like that. Paul’s appeal, then, is to be mindful of our own modeling so that, like Paul, we can be signposts, pointing people toward the One who is so much more.
Donald Carson writes:
You who are older should be looking out for younger people and saying in effect, ‘Watch me.’
Come—I’ll show you how to have family devotions.
Come—I’ll show you how to do Bible study.
Come on—let me take you through some of the fundamentals of the faith.
Come—I’ll show you how to pray.
Let me show you how to be a Christian husband and father, or wife and mother.
At a certain point in life, that older mentor should be saying other things, such as: Let me show you how to die. Watch me.
Fifth, we shouldn’t imitate everyone. That is what verses 18 and 19 are about. Not everyone is worthy of imitation. Unfortunately, we live in an age of celebrities who are not worthy of imitating.
Life is all about finding the right models to imitate. Children don’t automatically know how to choose good models. They are impressionable and molded by anyone.
Hopefully you are a strong enough role model in their lives so that they want to follow your example, but you are going to have to continue to help them discern whether popular classmates, pop stars, or movie stars are worthy of emulation.
One thing you can do is to consistently expose them to good role models. Find contemporary or historical persons and encourage them to research about them.
Another thing you can do is to continually emphasize character. Sure, a person may have charm and charisma or immense talents, but what is most important is character. Continue to teach them about good character qualities in their own life so that they will discern whether their models have good character and are worthy of imitating.
Keep the dialogue focused on values; ask kids which values they look for in a role model, and why. And remind kids that it’s OK to choose more than one role model and to change role models as they grow up and expand their interests.
If you are serious about discipling others, then you need to live a life worth imitating. Here are a few questions you need to ask yourself:
1. Is my life worth imitating? Why or Why not?
2. What areas of my life do I need to repent of and grow in?
3. What are ways in my life I can be more intentional in teaching my faith to my children?
4. When I look at my life, am I the person I want my children to be?
5. What are things in my life I need to ask forgiveness for from my children?
6. Am I reflecting Jesus to my family?
What is at stake for Paul in this command is that without a role model like him, we make ourselves vulnerable to becoming an enemy of the cross of Christ. There are many people who sadly come to Paul’s mind as those who have forsaken his example and become enemies of Jesus. They went a different route and it ended in destruction (Philippians 3:19).
Notice that Paul uses the same verb to describe them—they walk, too. I highlight this to say that if we’re not walking in Paul’s example, then we are surely walking in someone’s. Maybe we’re trying to blaze our own trail after the shadow of ego, or maybe we’re lining up behind a Pauline stranger, either way we are following and if it’s not in Paul’s example then it won’t turn out well.
A role model like Paul is not an optional add-on to our Firefox browser. Following men and women like Paul is not like a scarf that accessorizes our Christian outfit. This is life or death. Having a role model like Paul is indispensable to following Jesus. As Paul imitates Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1), so do we by following Paul’s example and keeping our eyes on those who walk like him.
So I want to encourage you, find someone who is a Christ-follower and ask if you can spend some time with them, asking them questions, asking them to show you how they follow Christ, and learn from them.
If you are a Christ-follower, then spend some time with younger Christians, showing them the way.
Someone has said that to successfully live the Christian life we need three relationships. We need a Paul, to disciple us, a Timothy to disciple, and a Barnabas, to encourage us. Go out and find your Paul, your Timothy and your Barnabas.