To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. —1 Peter 2:21
God wants us to become like Jesus—“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). And Jesus himself tells us to follow His example.
We may ask, however: How can we emulate Jesus when He is invisible to us now? The answer lies in the Gospels, which record the life of Jesus. Through them, we can hear what He said and see what He did. The four gospels in the New Testament provide authentic, reliable portraits of Jesus. Notice that they do not tell us much about His physical characteristics—nobody knows how tall He was, whether He had long hair, or what His complexion was. These details may have been deliberately omitted because God didn’t want us to obsess over His Son’s physical attributes. Instead, the gaps in the portraits of Christ give us room to concentrate on His character and relationships, which lie at the heart of Christ-likeness.
Imitating Christ does not mean simply mimicking Him. Mimicry only involves copying someone’s actions, like a parrot repeating what its owner says, or circus animals entertaining us with human-like actions like standing and dancing. Animals can be trained to mimic humans, but they cannot imitate us. Similarly, we can mimic others without imitating them.
Imitation involves not only copying external behaviour but also replicating internal motivation. When we imitate Christ, we not only do what He did, such as praying, but also do it for the same reason. Jesus prayed because He loved His Father and those He prayed for (see John 17). We can make the mistake of trying to mimic Christ in actions, but without His motives and character.
In Matthew 7:22-23, Jesus warned that pious actions alone would not save us when we stand before Him one day. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Why would Jesus say this to such people? Was He not impressed by their works? The clue lies in what He says to them—”I never knew you.” These people did not have a relationship with the Lord; they did not love Him, obey Him, or do His will.
We are to have a deep relationship with Christ—a living relationship marked clearly by our obedience, submission, and love for the Lord. Without love, all our actions—no matter how impressive or persuasive—will amount to nothing; they would simply be mimicry. The motivations behind our actions will determine whether we are truly imitating or simply mimicking Jesus. Mimicry arises when there is no living relationship with the Lord—when people try to do things for Him without coming to Him, taking up His yoke, and learning from Him.
How can we grow this living relationship with Jesus? By drawing close to Him; knowing Him, His voice, His character, and His will; seeking to be like Him; and being obedient to Him. That is what it means to love Jesus with all of our hearts.
Our love for Jesus begins as something that no external circumstances can overcome, then grows into constant communion with Jesus, and finally finds fulfilment exclusively in Christ. In other words, our love for Jesus grows when we do not allow external circumstances or internal thoughts and desires to distract us, such that our deepest focus and joy come from our relationship with Him. That is how He loved His Father. When we learn to love Jesus in this way, we will be able to let His love flow out and touch all our relationships with others.
In all that we do, we are to display the love of Jesus. It is this love that enables all our actions to be true imitations of our Lord’s. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9). He also said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). These two instructions make it clear that we are to love the way Jesus loves us, which is the same way the Father loves Him. It is this standard of love that validates all our acts of righteousness and piety.
Read through one of the gospels in 2019. Observe Jesus as He is portrayed and ask pertinent questions such as:
- How did Jesus pray?
- How did He handle people’s unfaithfulness, ignorance, and treachery?
- How did He respond to the crowds?
- What did He focus His energies on?
- How did He teach and preach?
- How did He handle suffering?
- How did He respond to sinners? To hypocrites? To His disciples? To His mother and siblings?
- How did He handle opposition? What did He do when He was unjustly criticised and accused?
- How did He respond to the poor? The sick?
- How did He handle temptation?
- How did He handle God’s Word?
- What was His attitude to the Law? To sin? To the downtrodden? To the world? To wealth?
- How did He relate to the Father?
- How did He train His disciples?
- How did He die?
Excerpt from Finding Rest for the Soul by Robert Solomon. © 2016 by Robert Solomon. Used by permission of Discovery House. All rights reserved.