Within the New Testament (Heb.6:12; 1 Peter 3:13), particularly in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 4:16;11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14), the idea of following a pattern, expressed by the noun mimētēs, gives definition to Christian experience. The cognate verb occurs four times (2 Thess. 3:7,9; Heb. 13:7; 3 John 11) and the compound summimētēs is found in Philippians 3:17. While the specific terminology of discipleship does not occur outside the Gospels, the idea keeps surfacing through other language and the mimētēs word group serves this purpose, especially in Paul’s letters. In this brief review we will focus on its use in Paul’s writings.
It becomes quickly apparent that the concept of ‘imitation’ has wide application in Greek literature. Cosmological, ethical, artistic, anthropological, and cultic usages abound. Plato in several of his philosophical treatises argues that the created order imitates the world of ideas. “Time…imitates eternity” (chronou…aiōna mimoumenou).1 This idea that our current reality models a higher order permeates subsequent Greek thought. When an artisan creates a sculpture or a poet describes something in literary form, this is a form of imitation, representing the reality, but never perfectly or completely. A person who fashions an idol is an imitator (ho tou eidōlou poiētēs, ho mimētēs).2 The way parents shape their children is considered imitation, as is the relationship between a teacher and a student. In such cases an ethical sense begins to get attached to term, a moral pattern finds expression. Strabo argues that “if it is right that men are closest to the gods when they do good, it is even more true that they are this when they are happy.”3
The Greek Old Testament never used the noun, but the verb mimeomai occurs four times (Wisdom of Solomon 4:2; 15:9; IV Maccabees 9:23; 13:9). Wisdom 4:2 talks about the way “people imitate (mimountai)” virtue when it is present. In a prolonged apologetic against idolatry the author of Wisdom describes pottery makers who fashion “futile gods” from clay, “imitating (mimeitai) workers in copper” (15:9). When the eldest son of the Maccebees is being tortured because he remains loyal to the Jewish law, he urges his brothers “Imitate (mimēsasthe) me, bothers…do not leave your post in my struggle….Fight the sacred and noble battle for religion” (9:23-24). The writer of Fourth Maccabees in his summary urges his readers “for the sake of the law” to “imitate (mimēsōmetha) the three youths in Assyria who despised the ordeal of the furnace” (13:9). These martyrs for the Jewish law have set a pattern of behaviour that must be followed by other pious Jews. Generally, however, in the Old Testament the idea of ‘imitating’ God does not occur per se. Isaiah, for example, rejects the idea that anything or anyone can be compared with God. Yet, there are many injunctions to follow the ways of Yahweh. So this may be a matter of semantics.
The Testament Literature, in Greek translation, does incorporate the idea of imitating God. In the Testament of Abraham imitating the Lord defines the good person who lives according to God’s law. An ethical sense dominates here. In the Letter to Aristeas a lengthy discussion occurs about the best way for a king to conduct himself. Four times various divine characteristics are mentioned and the king is urged to emulate them. In 188 a Jewish religious leader responds to the Egyptian king’s question “how he might preserve his kingdom unimpaired to the end?” by saying, “You would maintain it best by imitating (mimoumenos) the constant gentleness (epieikes) of God.”4 The king should relate to his subjects the same way God deals with his people.
Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish commentator on the Pentateuch and contemporary of Jesus, used this terminology extensively in his various writings. He echoes Plato by affirming that “this entire world perceived by our senses…is a copy (mimēma) of the Divine image.”5 He tells us that Moses, who saw God, “what is hidden from the sight of moral nature, and, in himself and his displayed for all to see…a model for those who are willing to copy (mimeisthai) it.”6 Joshua apparently “modelled (mimētēs) himself on his master’s [Moses’] characteristics.”7 Philo talks about the importance of practicing virtue, not just learning about it. He regards Jacob (Genesis 28:7) as an example of one became “an imitator (mimētēn) of a life, not the hearer of words.”8
Josephus uses this terminology similarly. For example, he defends his close attention to the works of Moses because they allow us “to study the nature of God, and then having contemplated his works with the eye of reason, to imitate (mimeisthai) so far as possible that best of all models and endeavour to follow it.”9
When Paul used this terminology in his letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians and Ephesians, he urged them to follow his personal pattern (1 Thess. 1:6; 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1), our pattern (2 Thess. 3:7,9), God’s pattern (Eph.5:1), the Lord’s pattern (1 Thess. 1:6; 1 Cor. 11:1), the pattern of the assemblies of God in Judea (1 Thess. 2:14). Plainly, the sense is for believers to see in Paul, God, the Lord, other believers, and the Judean churches a model to follow, an authoritative pattern of life that would enable them to live in obedience to God. Paul does not regard himself as the exclusive paradigm of Christian living, for if the plural pronouns in 2 Thess. 3:7,9 are to be interpreted literally, Paul would include Silas and Timothy in this classification.
How conscious people were following a pattern may be questioned. In the case of the Thessalonian believers, they might have been quite unaware of the similarities between their experience of persecution and that of the Judean churches (1 Thess. 2:14) until Paul drew their attention to it. So this would not be case of conscious imitation, but of parallel and similar experience – both endured the same difficulties for similar reasons. However, in the case of 1 Thess. 1:6 the “imitation” these believers expressed in relationship to Paul, his companions and the Lord, seems to be quite deliberate, based upon their conversion and subsequent perseverance. So successfully did they embrace the message of Paul and follow his instruction that they in turn became an example (tupos) “for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” Verse 8 might suggest that some of this imitation found expression in missionary activity comparable to Paul’s.
In other cases Paul links this terminology with imperatives (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Eph.5:1) or the language of necessity (2 Thess. 3:7) or purpose (2 Thess. 3:9). In these instances imitation becomes a formal requirement, an obedience. When Paul is the referent, perhaps his apostolic role enables him to make this demand. In 1 Cor. 11:1 we discover the additional element that Paul’s commitment to live in imitation of the Messiah is the basis for his appeal to the Corinthian Christians to imitate him. Just as he lives so that God might gain glory and acts so that all people might be saved, he urges the Corinthians to live in the same way.
The command in Eph. 5:1 to be “imitators of God” is unique in the New Testament. We have seen how Paul urges people to be imitators of the Messiah (1 Cor. 11:1) and the Lord (1 Thess. 1:6). What in the Ephesian’s context brings Paul to make this appeal? The description of these believers as “beloved children” (Eph. 5:1) indicates that Paul compares this imitation to that expressed between parent and child. In 4:32 he has urged these believers to be “forgive one another just as God in Christ forgave you.” Then 5:2 exhorts them to “walk in love just as Christ loved you….” This language of comparison supports the injunction to imitation. Paul explicitly defines the nature of this imitation. It is possible because of the salvation God has made available in Jesus Christ. But there is another dynamic in this expression to be captured. God enables us to model our lives after Him because He wants to experience His joy, His love, His light, and His goodness. There can be no better life than one that is patterned after God Himself. It is in imitating Him that we are at our evangelistic best. The imitatio Dei is not a passive thing, but incredibly active, powerful, and life-changing.
- whom are you modeling your life after? We talk about mentors and coaches today. Are they providing the model you need to be a faithful imitator of God Himself?
- for whom is your life a model today? Could you invite someone to follow your pattern of Christian discipleship knowing that in doing so they would discern God?
- the ethical aspect of our Christian faith often gets submerged in our selfish ambition and desires. What better way to discern the appropriateness of a decision or behaviour than to ask whether this indeed reflects the character and will of God Himself – does it fit the divine paradigm?
- 1Plato, Timaeus 38a.
- 2Plato, Respublica 601b.
- 3Quoted from Strabo 10,9 by Michaelis, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Kittel, volume IV, p. 662-663.
- 4The same kind of sentiment occurs in sections 210, 280, 281.
- 5Philo, On the Creation, 25.
- 6Philo, Life of Moses I, 158.
- 7Philo, On the Virtues, 66.
- 8The Preliminary Studies, 70.
- 9Josephus, Antiquities I.19.