Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1).
An instruction sheet should to be enough to teach us how to pitch a tent, but most of us find it helpful to watch someone demonstrate pitching the tent.
In like manner, God’s written word should be enough to teach us how to behave, but it’s next-level to see the word of God on display in the life of a faithful person. “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17, cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:9).
“Be forgiving,” the Bible says. But when I saw a wife receive back a husband who had cheated on her, I saw a powerful example of how I must forgive.
“Give generously,” the Bible says. But when I saw a young struggling family put a large check in the collection plate, I saw a powerful example of how I must give.
“Walk in holiness,” the Bible says. But when a saw a couple walk out of a movie theater, I saw a powerful example of how I must walk in holiness.
“Put other people’s salvation above your own comfort,” the Bible says. But when we see Paul, in the passage above, skipping dinner because someone pointed out the meat had passed through an idol’s temple, we see a powerful example pleasing people that they may be saved and God glorified.
It’s important to note that Paul doesn’t just say “imitate me”; he says, “imitate me as I imitate Jesus.” Paul’s life is worthwhile example only to the extent it follows the example of Jesus.
Why should Jesus be a worthy model of life? For Jesus alone is the divine Son of God. Jesus is in fact “the Word,” the Word in the flesh, a tangible explanation of the divine nature (John 1:1, 14, 18). Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). “In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus is the ideal of what a human being should be, in the image of our Creator. The goal for all Christians is to mature until we attain a “measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Jesus knew this, and often encouraged His disciples to take note of His behavior and copy it. Jesus Himself would say, “if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny Himself and take up His cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). After He washed the disciples’ feet, He said, “If I, then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:14-15). It’s important to remember that the gospels don’t only teach by recording the commandments of Jesus, but also teach by showing us the actions of Jesus. Asking ourselves, “what would Jesus do in this situation?” is an important way to determine how to live a godly life.
Peter says, “you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled He did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:21-23). The word “example” is an interesting word-picture here. It is the Greek word hypogrammos; literally by the roots, “underwriting.” This refers to the perfect exemplar of a letter provided by a teacher, for a child to trace in order to learn to write the letter. Students start out sloppy, but get better at following the copy over time.
Thus, every Christian should not only search for models of Christ-like behavior, but so live and speak to be models of Christ-like behavior. Paul instructed Timothy, “let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12).
Clearly, the people we chose as models need to be good examples. Because flesh-and-blood examples influence us so strongly, our choice of friends is important. The people we choose to spend our time with have a large influence on our behavior. Mickey Mantle was a baseball star of mythical proportions, but struggled with drugs, alcohol, and personal problems. In 1995 just before he died, he said in an interview, “kids, don’t be like me” (LA Times, 8/14/95). Sadly, that’s easier said than done, for kids follow the behavior of their heroes. Exemplary behavior has little to do with hitting the most homeruns, scoring the most touchdowns, having the most top 40 hits.
This is especially important as parents. A Harper’s Index poll discovered that only 39% of teenagers wanted to be like their parents. Hypocrisy damages. It’s sadly confusing when one must say of religious leaders, “do not according to their deeds” (Matthew 23:3-4). “Do not be deceived: bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). “Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, Or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself” (Proverbs 22:24-25). Instead, “I exhort you be imitators of me. I have sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).
Hebrews 13:7, “remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.”