I recently took a teen from my discipleship group on a tour of my alma mater. We listened to a professor speak on the purpose of attending college. He said, “Your professors will influence and shape you, so you need to ask yourself, Are my professors people I want to be like?”
It’s true; we often become like the people we’re around. Even if we don’t know them personally, we’ll often model ourselves after people we admire. Whether we copy fashion choices after a Hollywood starlet or adopt a famous preacher’s teaching style or take on the beliefs and attitudes of our parents, we mimic and imitate others.
The question is, who are we mimicking? And are those the people we ought to mimic?
The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Philippian church, encouraging them in their faith. They were the first church he planted in Europe, and they played an active role in his ministry, even supporting him financially when other churches would not.
Compared to other churches, the church at Philippi was healthy. Even so, Paul did not want them to give up their progress. He wanted them to push forward and continue to grow and mature in their faith. And he exhorts them to do this by imitation.
One of the themes throughout the letter is Paul’s call for the church to imitate the godly: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17). He held up Timothy, as well as Epaphroditus (who was delivering the letter), as models worthy of imitation:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too maybe cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worthy, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. (Phil. 2:19–22)
Of Epaphroditus he says, “So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men” (Phil. 2:29). Epaphroditus is worthy of honor, as are men like him.
Paul assumes we will mimic and imitate others. Just like we might imitate a godly Bible study leader, a church elder, or a beloved pastor, Paul expected his readers to look up to godly believers such as himself, Timothy, and Epaphroditus, following their pattern of life. They stood in stark contrast to the “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:18).
What Kind of Person Do You Imitate?
So what qualities should we look for in people to mimic?
- Imitate those who do good works and who teach with integrity, dignity, and sound speech (Titus 2:7–8).
- Imitate those who lead pure lives (1 Tim. 4:12).
- Imitate and follow what we are taught in Scripture (1 Cor. 4:16–17).
- Imitate those who receive the gospel with joy, even in the midst of suffering (1 Thess. 1:6).
- Imitate those who work hard (2 Thess. 3:6–9).
- Imitate those who suffer for the sake of the gospel (1 Thess. 2:14).
- Imitate those who advance the gospel (Phil. 2:22).
- Imitate those who care for the welfare of others (Phil. 2:20).
Those we imitate are not perfect; they are still being transformed. Even Paul hadn’t reached perfection: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12–15).
People worthy of imitation are humble. They acknowledge they have more to learn.
Imitate Him through Them
In truth, we should imitate others only insofar as they imitate Christ. Hence Paul’s words, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
The people we look up to are sinners, just as we are. Ultimately, then, we must look up to Christ through them. This is why Paul exhorted the Philippians to have the same humility as Christ (Phil. 2:5–11), and why Paul desired to know Christ and be like him (Phil. 3:10), since everything else pales in comparison to gaining him (Phil. 3:8).
So let us imitate the retired couple who faithfully serve the children in Sunday school; the church leader who loves God’s Word and dedicates himself to studying it; the church member who, despite great loss, continues to sing with joy in corporate worship; indeed, all those who diligently labor for the body of Christ.
We naturally imitate others. Let us seek to mimic those who mimic Jesus.