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A Theology of Imitation

Jim Thompson - 12/1/2019

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Do you know this old proverb? Maybe you’ve heard it, “Imitation is the highest form of compliment.” Even if it’s new to you, you’ve definitely lived it. When you were a kid, did you ever pretend to be your favorite athlete? Did you ever hang out with college students while you were in high school? You probably wanted to talk like them, dress like them, and listen to the music they listened to.

But this principle of imitation is most alive and well in the parent-child relationship. The Old Testament talks about “the sins of the fathers.” Meaning, we have a proclivity—even if we don’t want to—to imitate our parents. But this can also be positive. If your mother or father were nurturing and kind, you might naturally lean that way too. If your parents were both musically inclined, you might be the same. And some parents just say it outright, “I want to live vicariously through my kids.”

The point is, this idea is more present than we would normally think. And that's true because it's WHY we were created—to imitate. Page one of the Bible says that God created us to be image-bearers. We were made to rightly reflect him in everything we do. But the problem is that we fail at this. We fall short of imitating him. We choose lesser pleasures and quick fixes. But, the good news of the Bible is that God loves us too much to let us go our own way. God sends Jesus to restore us back to our imitation relationship with him. And we need to pay attention to how Jesus goes about this work of restoration.

In John 5, Jesus has just healed a man who was lame for 38 years. And yes, Jesus healed the guy because he had compassion on him, but he also did it on the Sabbath to get the attention of the religious leaders. And in doing so, he asserts a kind of equality with God, and the religious leaders lose it. In their minds, this is blasphemy, and you can’t say what he’s saying and get away with it. But Jesus keeps talking. It’s like he’s giving them more ammo to come after him. But starting in 5:19, the tone of what he’s saying in these verses is slightly different. They have accused him of making himself equal with God, but now Jesus starts to talk about his dependence on God as his Father: “I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.”

This is our principle of imitation. Jesus is imitating the Father perfectly. And he’s doing so to restore us back to our reflection relationship with God. But also, Jesus has in view a standard first-century father-son relationship. He knows that if your dad is a farmer, you’ll be a farmer. If your dad is a carpenter, you’ll be a carpenter. He’s telling the Jewish leaders: “I’m in the family business. I’m just following my Father’s lead.”

And Jesus is doing this because he is our representative Messiah. He’s doing this in our place because we’ve failed at it. He was so in tune, so in step, so attentive to what, how, and why the Father was ‘doing what he was doing,’ that Jesus perfectly understood his role and response in it all— imitation.

Now, this is the principle, but what is the action? What is it that Jesus sees the Father doing? What is it that he sees the Father doing? And is this just something special that Jesus sees? Or can we see it too? Also, is this something that Jesus sees only on that day when he healed the lame guy? Or this something that he has seen was seeing and knew he would continue to see?

I think John is telling us implicitly and explicitly that Jesus saw one main thing that the Father had done, was doing and would continue to do, AND I think that we can see it too. For Jesus, the Father was doing one primary thing in many ways, and the main way he was going to do it was still to come. The Father brings life out of death. That’s what he does. And I think Jesus saw this in the Hebrew Scriptures, I think he felt it when he healed people, I think he sensed it when people believed, and I think he knew that his death and resurrection would be signposts of the final future resurrection. So, what is the primary thing that should be included in our theology of imitation?

Jesus imitates the Father’s essence and his essential work—bringing life out of death.

And Jesus elaborates on this. One day, according to verse 28, the tombs will be emptied, and God will finish his work of resurrection. Not only will our bodies get a total makeover, but all of creation will. And the presence of eternal life now means that death’s dark shadows are being put to flight today—in anticipation of the future. When sinners are saved, when demonic oppression wanes, when marriages are restored, when bodies are healed—this is all God bringing life out of death. That’s what he does. He can’t not do it. In the same way that he made creation out of nothing, he brings the life of New Creation out of nothing. He makes eternal life blossom out of the barrenness of our souls. 

So, how should we respond to the gospel of Jesus’ imitating the Father on our behalf? What should it look like to rightly appropriate Jesus’ work in our own lives now? 

  • TRUST God in the gospel of Jesus, and you will pass from death to life. This is an invitation to accept Jesus as the Judge judged in your place. We were created to willingly, happily, and eternally reflect God, but we have all chosen our own way. However, God has provided the way, truth, and life back to himself. And if we believe/trust (5:24), we are ushered from death to life and into relationship with God.
  • MARVEL at who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Be amazed; be impressed; and be shocked that God has come to take on flesh in Jesus. Drop your jaw at grace. Widen your eyes at truth. Be baffled by the cross, that undeserving sinners like us would be loved by a perfect and holy God. Be astonished that the resurrection of the final day has already dawned with Jesus’ own resurrection. Be stilled to wonder by the upside-down gospel in which God has become man, and in doing so, he is bringing life out of death.
  • IMITATE Jesus above others, and imitate Jesus by imitating others who are doing the same. Like a proud Father, God wants his sons and daughters to be about the family business. Because his only unique Son, Jesus has made a way, now we can be brought into the family to imitate the Father by imitating Jesus., and we can imitate Jesus by imitating others who are pursuing the same. The Father wants to live vicariously through his children. So, we should be asking, “God, what are you up to?” Or, “Where are you working?” Or, “How are you making New Creation blossom around me every day? I want to join you there!” And if we don’t know how we look at Jesus in Scripture and follow his lead. Jesus says in John 20, “Just as the Father has sent me, even so, I am sending you.” Meaning, because he has done it definitively in Jesus, the Father wants to continue bringing life out of death in and through our lives today. And it’s all in response to what Jesus has done for us.

Or, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Therefore, as beloved children, be imitators of God, and walk in love just as Christ loved us and gave us himself up for us, a sacrifice for sin” (Ephesians 5:1-2).