Thomas a Kempis was born in 1380 in the village of Kempen near Düsseldorf, Germany. The period in which Thomas was born and lived was called the “Calamitous Century,” because of all of the chaos and turmoil that seemed to be pervasive. Europe was in a state of constant upheaval. The Hundred Years War was still in progress. There were repeated bouts with the Black Plague which swept away one fourth of the world’s population. The Great Schism tore the church apart, seating one pope in Rome and another in Avignon. In rural areas, roving bands of thugs pillaged villagers. Peasant revolts against rising taxes kept urban centers reeling with confusion. It seemed like the world was coming apart at the seams.
Throughout history, when there has been great unrest, God has always provided a witness, a voice crying out in the wilderness, and in the dark days of the 1400s there was that voice. A Dutch street preacher named Gerhard Groote called the people in Deventer, Holland back to God and the Bible. He wasn’t a priest, but he was called by God to walk the streets and call the townspeople to “Turn away from sin, live like Jesus, and read God’s Word.” The people listened and the word spread. Those who were drawn to the message eventually became known as the Brethren of the Common Life. They were humble people who desired to live like the early Christians and pattern their lives after Jesus. Groote and his followers were committed to the authority of the Scriptures first and foremost. They believed that the teaching of God’s Word had to be practical and accessible to all people. They founded schools to educate young men and women so that they might be wise and discerning believers as well as solid citizens.
Thomas a Kempis’ parents saw the state of the world and they feared for their son. They decided to send Thomas to live with the brothers at Deventer. At first, Thomas thought that by patterning his life after the lives of the Brethren of the Common Life that he would find salvation, but soon he learned that simply copying the lifestyle of those around him wouldn’t do…he must trust in Christ alone for his salvation.
Eventually Thomas was given the responsibility of helping novices grow in their spiritual life. Thomas wrote four booklets between 1420 and 1427. They were eventually combined and given the name “Of The Imitation of Christ.” Thomas sensed God saying to him,
Let the worthless one draw near to Me, that he may be made worthy, the wicked one that he may be converted, the imperfect one that he may be made perfect, let all draw near to Me, and taste the living waters of salvation… (Peterson, William. Introduction to “Of The Imitation of Christ.”)
Of the Imitation of Christ has been described as “the most influential book in Christian literature.” It has been translated into more than fifty languages and has profoundly influenced men and women throughout the ages. The devotional is easy to read and Scripture is found on every page. Someone once said that there are more than one thousand Bible passages referred to in the book.
In the book, Thomas asserts again and again that simply meditating on the life of Jesus, admiring the life of Jesus, is not enough—we are called to live the life of Jesus. In Chapter 42, “On the Wonderful Effect of Divine Love,” Thomas writes,
Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden, and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing, and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble, and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things, and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it or ill fortune cast it down. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or earth; for love is born of God, ( I John 4:7) and can rest only in God, above all created things. (Thomas a Kempis. The Imitation of Christ.)
We may not be dealing with the Black Death plague or rival popes in our day, but I don’t think it will take much effort on my part to convince you that our world is mired in trouble, uncertainty, unrest, and turmoil. Every generation is presented with hardships, challenges that press us, confound and confuse us, and we, like those who have gone before us, must make a choice as to what we will do in times like these. Paul has some wise counsel for the people of God. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Ephesians 5:1-2.
1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2 NIV)
Only two verses yet we could spend the rest of our lives fixed on the application of these two little verses. Bible teachers are not in agreement as to whether these verses go with the passage which comes right before or immediately following. I don’t think we need to make a choice. Ephesians 5:1-2 fits perfectly in the context of both sections of Scripture. Let me show you what I’m talking about. If we read Ephesians 5:1-2 with the Scripture which comes just before it, then this is what we will learn.
32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2 NIV)
Here is the lesson: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Don’t imitate the world and its ways, imitate God and live a life of love. Makes perfect sense to me, how about you? If we read the text with what comes immediately following then this is what we will find. Follow along with me.
1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a man is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:1-7 NIV)
Once again, don’t imitate the world and its ways, imitate God and emulate His ways. It seems to me that imitation is written right into our DNA. Young moms know what I’m talking about. When things get real quiet in the house mom knows it’s time to investigate. When she begins her search for her little girl she finds her in the bathroom with her little feet stuck deep into her mom’s shiny high heels. She’s leaning into the mirror, just like mom, while she smears lipstick on her little lips. The “imitation gene” doesn’t go away with age. Teenage boys wear a Kevin Durant jersey while they shimmy at the free throw line. A young artist will sit for hours and trace over the works of the Masters hoping one day to rise to the standard of the greats. Aspiring dancers practice for hours on end the dance moves of their favorite dancer. Paul tells us, in Ephesians 5:1-2, that there is no higher goal, no greater aspiration, for the people of God than to imitate God.
The Greek word that is translated, “imitators,” is the word, “μιμητής” (mimetes). It is the Greek word from which we get our English word, “mimic.” To “mimic” someone means to copy specific characteristics of another person. Here, in Ephesians 5:1, we are called to “mimic” God. It is one thing to “admire” God. There are many people today who say they believe God. They go to church now and then. They feel guilty when they do something wrong. But God desires more for us than simply to believe and admire. There are others who spend long hours meditating on the things of God. They can recite Scriptures for you and expound upon the great doctrines of our faith, but God desires more for us than simply to be receptacles of religious knowledge. Charles Haddon Spurgeon once wrote,
“Be you imitators”—that is, do not only meditate upon God and think that you have done enough, but go on to copy what you study. Meditation is a happy, holy, profitable engagement. It will instruct you, strengthen you, comfort you, inspire your heart and make your soul steadfast. But you may not stop at meditation—you must go on to imitation of the Character of God! Let your spiritual life not only bud and blossom in devout thought, but let it bring forth fruit in holy action. Be not satisfied with feeding the soul by meditation, but rise up from the banquet and use the strength which you have gained! Sitting at the feet of Jesus must be succeeded by following in the footsteps of Jesus! (Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. Imitators of God. June 10, 1883.)
What wonderful counsel for you and me. Don’t stop at admiration or meditation. We must keep going and seek to follow in His steps, to imitate God in the way we live our lives.
In Ephesians 5:1 we are urged to imitate God. This is the only place in the New Testament where the call to imitate God is found, but it’s not the only place in the New Testament where the word, “imitate” is found. Let me show you a few of the places. If you will turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:1-2. Paul writes to the folks in Corinth and says,
1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. (1 Corinthians 11:1-2 NIV)
Paul urges the Corinthians to “mimic” his example as he seeks to imitate Jesus. When you stop to think about it, Paul isn’t really seeking followers, asking folks to follow him, he is really urging people to follow Jesus; the One Paul is patterning his life after.
There is an interesting verse in 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 that gives us, the Body of Christ at Britton Christian Church, insight into the need for us to seek to be a model for other churches. Let me read it to you.
6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia–your faith in God has become known everywhere… (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 NIV)
We should be an example for the churches of Oklahoma City and around the world in the way we live our lives, in the way we willingly sacrifice to help those in need, and in the way we love and support one another.
The only place in the New Testament where we are urged to imitate God is found in Ephesians 5:1, but the call to imitate God is rooted in the Hebrew Bible. In Leviticus 19:1-2, God told Moses to speak to the people and this is what he was to say to them.
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2 NIV)
“Be holy…” Why are we to be “holy?” Is it because we want to appear pious, righteous, and religious to our culture and community? Not at all. We are to be holy because God is holy. He is Set Apart. He is uncommon, extraordinary, the epitome of righteousness, mercy, justice, love, forgiveness, and patience. We can get an even clearer picture of what being “holy” means by taking a look at Deuteronomy 10:11-13.
11 “Go,” the LORD said to me, “and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” 12 And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:11-13 NIV)
What does being “holy” mean? What does God desire from us? We are to “fear the LORD our God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees…” There are some characteristics of God that are absolutely impossible for us to imitate, to pattern our lives after. These are called God’s “incommunicable attributes.” You may not recognize that phrase, but you will certainly recognize the aspects of God that fall under this heading. God is self-existent, self-sufficient, and eternal. God is omnipotent, He is all powerful. God is omniscient, He knows everything and there is nothing outside of His knowledge. God is omnipresent, He is everywhere at all times. All of these aspects of God separate Him from us as these characteristics do not describe any of us in any way.
Alongside of God’s incommunicable attributes are God’s “communicable attributes.” God’s communicable attributes are those aspects of God’s nature in which we share. Some of God’s communicable attributes are love, mercy, tenderness, forgiveness, faithfulness, justice, holiness, and wrath. These aspects of God’s character are to be imitated; we are to live our lives in such a way that they are marked by these characteristics. God’s love is matchless so we know that our love will never rise to the love of God. God’s patience is patient far beyond anything we can even imagine so we know that our patience will never parallel the patience of Almighty God. We could go through each of the communicable attributes of God and see how far short we fall, but the good news for you and me is that we have a Standard, a Model, and Example in which we can follow and seek to emulate.
We are not left to try and decipher what “love” looks like—all we have to do is become familiar with how God loves. We are not left to determine what “justice” looks like—all we have to do is become familiar with what God says about justice. The other bit of good news is that God, by His Holy Spirit which lives in us, empowers us, enables us, to live in a way that reflects who He is to the world.
Paul says that we are to imitate God “as dearly loved children.” If you are in Christ then you are no longer a stranger or an alien to the ways of God. You are His child and He has given you, provided for you, everything you could possibly ever need to live a life that reflects your Father’s love, mercy, and grace. Peter wrote,
3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4 NIV)
“Everything we need for life and godliness…” We lack nothing. This is important for us to understand as we take a look at Ephesians 5:2. Paul writes,
2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2 NIV)
If we were to list all of the communicable attributes of God there would be one that would stand out above all of the rest—love. We are called to “live a life of love…” As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have to form committees or take a poll of what we “think” love is, how love behaves, or who is deserving of our love. Paul answers any question we might have by adding, “…just as Christ love us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” The Bible speaks with a loud and unified voice when it comes to the love that God has demonstrated for each and every one of us. In Romans 5:5-8 we read,
5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:5-8 NIV)
God has poured, like the roaring waters of Niagara, His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When did God demonstrate His love for you and me? Was it after we had done something spectacular? Was it at our baptism? No, Paul says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I was thinking about this during the week when I had a thought: “God loved His enemies.” That is mind-boggling isn’t it? Do you love your enemies? Do you love those who hate you, slander your name, and desire nothing more than for you to fall flat on your face? Do you love them enough to die so that they might live? We are to imitate God in the way we love…even our enemies. Jesus said,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV)
Just as God loved us when we were His enemies, we are to imitate God by loving our enemies. John MacArthur says, “The greatest evidence of love is undeserved forgiveness.” (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians. pg. 195) When I stop to consider my relationship with God I am humbled and overwhelmed by the grace I have received throughout my life. I had no interest in God whatsoever, but He continued to send people my way. I mocked His followers, profaned His name, and desired nothing more than what I wanted in life…yet He kept sending people my way. I remember the day when I prayed to ask Him to forgive me, to come into my heart, and be my Savior. I was absolutely committed to living my life for Him. From that day to this I have failed Him a million times. I’m still a wreck. My heart is still hard. My motives for doing the things I do are often less than what they should be. He is still uncovering areas of my life that are far, far from what He desires for them to be. Yet, He continues to come to me with His love and forgiveness…a forgiveness that is unquestionably undeserved. If I, who am totally undeserving of God’s forgiveness, have been lavished with His forgiveness time and time again then how can I withhold that forgiveness from someone who has hurt me in some way? MacArthur says,
Because forgiveness is the supreme evidence of God’s love, it will also be the most convincing proof of our love. Love will always lead us to forgive others just as love led God in Christ to forgive us (Ephesians 4:32). ..Just as the depth of God’s love is shown by how much He has forgiven, the depth of our love is shown by how much we forgive. ‘Above all’ Peter says, ‘keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.’ (1 Peter 4:8 NIV) (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians. pg. 195)
God’s love forgives those who do not deserve it. God’s love is sacrificial, it cost God when He gave His Son for our redemption. These actions do not come naturally to us. The only way for us to be able to live out the forgiving, sacrificial love of God is if He will come to take up residence in us, live through us, and change our hearts and minds. We are to imitate God, not a cheap imitation, but a glorious reflection of the Father’s forgiveness and sacrificial love. Won’t you ask Him to come in and begin His work in you this very morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
July 27, 2012
What are we sent into the world for? Is it not that we may keep men in mind of God, whom they are most anxious to forget? If we are imitators of God, as dear children, they will be compelled to remember that there is a God, for they will see His Character reflected in ours. I have heard of an atheist who said he could get over every argument except the example of his godly mother—he could never answer that! A genuinely holy Christian is a beam of God’s Glory and a testimony to the Being and the goodness of God. Men cannot forget that there is a God so long as they see His servants among them, dressed in the livery of holiness. (Spurgeon)