Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV
These two verses contain two of the most stunning and intimidating admonitions to be found in the entire Scriptures. Paul begins this chapter with the word, “Therefore.” It would be like saying, “With all that in mind…” He was referring back to his earlier call to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). He was also taking into account all that he had just said about putting off the old self and putting on the new self, which is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 ESV). He has called his readers to a life of transformation, made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Their attitudes and actions should be radically different. Their interactions with one another should be marked by gentleness, kindness, patience, selflessness, and love. He concluded chapter four by saying, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 ESV).
Now he gives them two simple steps to seeing that their behavior matches what they say they believe: First, imitate God. Second, love like Christ. If we stop long enough to consider what Paul is really saying, our response should be one of incredulity. Are you kidding me, Paul? Have you lost your mind? You want me to imitate God? You expect me to love like Christ loved me? Do you have any idea what you are saying? You are asking the impossible. And in a certain sense, Paul is asking the impossible. There is no man or woman alive who can accomplish these two things on their own. But those to whom Paul was writing were not ordinary men and women. They were children of God, called and gifted by Him, filled with His Holy Spirit and recipients of a new nature. They were free to what they had never been able to do before: live godly lives that please and honor God. And as children of God, it would only be natural for them to imitate their heavenly Father. It would be normal and expected for them to see what He does and do likewise. God is gracious and merciful. So should they be. God is loving and patient. They should be as well. God hates sin. So should they. God is holy. And they were expected to be as well. The apostle Peter wrote, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (1 Peter 1:15 NLT). But he wasn’t the first to say this. He had heard similar words from Jesus Himself. “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NLT). And Jesus was basically quoting from Leviticus 19:2, where God said to the people of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” God was not asking for perfection. Neither was Jesus or Peter. What they were encouraging was a life of set-apartness or distinctiveness, a life that emulated the character and heart of God, not of this world.
When God calls us, He sets us apart as His own. We become His possession. We are adopted into His family and become His children. As such, we are to live according to His terms and to obey His will for our lives. Paul told the believers in Corinth, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV). We glorify God when we live out our lives in obedience to His will and in imitation of His own character. When we extend mercy and grace to those who don’t deserve it, we are imitating God. When we show kindness to those in need, we are imitating God. When we love the unlovely and unlovable, we are imitating God. When we despise sin so much that we refuse to participate in it, we are imitating God.
Not long before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples about the coming day of judgment, when God would call all those who had come to faith during the great tribulation. They would come to stand before the Lord and He would say to them:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” – Matthew 25:34-40 NLT
These men and women who will come to faith in Christ during the most horrific period in human history, will do the unthinkable and improbable. They will risk their lives to show the love and mercy of God to those who are suffering alongside them during the tribulation. And their actions will be in imitation of God and an expression of love to His Son.
Which leads us to the second part of Paul’s admonition. Love like Christ. Actually, Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ” (Ephesians 5:2 NLT). Our lives are to be characterized by the love of Christ. His love was selfless and sacrificial. His love led Him to give His life. Jesus said that there was no greater expression of love than for someone to lay down their life for another (John 15:13). The apostle John takes this thought one step further by writing, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 NLT). The amazing thing about this is that God does not require us to actually die. He simply asks us to die to self, to give up our rights. He calls us to “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NLT). He expects us to “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10 ESV). He desires for us to exhibit “tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT).
Imitate God. Love like Christ. They sound impossible, but they’re not. Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). Paul knew it was possible, which is why he told the Philippian church, “Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philipiians 2:15 NLT). As impossible and improbably as it may sound, we can live like God and love like Christ.