The Imitation Game

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“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 11:1 (Paul’s words to the Corinthian church)

When I think of men who have found themselves far astray from God but repented with strong conviction when they are exposed, some characters in scripture come to mind. Peter and David are examples of this. It is astounding how many times David chose to do something questionable or wrong. Yet each time he realizes what he has done, he turns to repent.

We should not follow David in the slaying of thousands of enemies, or in sleeping with his friend’s wife. But God calls David a man after His own heart. David’s instructive pattern in the psalms leads us to know and be with God. There are aspects of David’s life to emulate but some no man or woman should imitate.

Likewise, Peter has moments along his path we absolutely should not imitate. Do you recall the night Jesus was awaiting his crucifixion? Peter denied Jesus not once but three times. 

Peter follows this up by standing before a crowd on the day of Pentecost to deliver a sermon to the masses, sharing the gospel in each person’s language. This is the launch of the church. Thousands were added to the number of followers of Jesus that day. This is something to imitate.

Fast forward and we see Peter preaching the gospel to Gentiles following a vision from the Lord. He obeys in spite of not fully agreeing with God. He chooses to surrender his own understanding and will to walk in obedience. This is something to imitate.

Fast forward again and we see Peter has gone back on his inclusion of the Gentiles. He tells them they are welcome only if they adopt certain Jewish customs. Whether it be to please the Jewish believers or an inability to fully surrender his initial prejudice against the Gentiles, Peter returns to following portions of the law in his practice and teaching. This should not be imitated.

So, can anyone say as Paul does to the Corinthian church, imitate me? Paul includes an important word: as. We can imitate our leaders but only in the ways they are imitating Christ. Only Christ can be fully imitated. Peter was not disqualified from the kingdom or from future leadership but these examples of wrongdoing are evidence that no one can take the place of Jesus.

David was disqualified from building the temple with his own hands because of all the blood he spilled. There are repercussions for disobedience. We see from this that we cannot imitate the whole of a person’s life since all people battle sinful desires. God’s plan for David’s lineage to give birth to the Messiah, however, was not nullified. God chose for Jesus to be born into David’s line because of David’s heart to follow after Him. 

There was but one who walked the earth in the flesh and did not sin, one who’s perfection is to be imitated in full. That person is Jesus. Those who follow Jesus strive to live up to that perfection but will always fail to imitate him in full. In following Jesus we learn how to imitate him through following those who have gone before us in imitating Him. It is imperative as well to constantly realign ourselves to the teaching and model of Jesus himself. Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit who guides us and corrects our path.

Paul in his own words rebukes the church of Corinth for their arguments over following Paul or Apollos in 1 Corinthians 3. He knows they are but men who serve God and not deities to be worshiped.

“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” – 1 Corinthians 3:21-23

It is easy to fall into the habit of elevating a person to the place of Jesus. It is easier to imitate the fallen image of a human leader than God in flesh, especially when those we follow excuse our shortcomings. Listening to and following people who allow us to stay comfortable is not the narrow path but is the way of the world. The church since the beginning has had to fight the temptation of following man rather than imitating Christ.

As we see in the correction of the church in Corinth, becoming followers of people is not a new struggle. We have many to pick and choose from, including literary mentors. I love the writing and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and there are many ways in which I imitate him as he imitates Jesus. But he is not Jesus. There are aspects to his life that will fail to match the character and actions of God incarnate. This is not a disqualification of his place in the kingdom but rightly confirms he is not God.

At times we are tempted to ignore or explain away unrighteous behaviour in people we are imitating or learning from. In doing so we can find ourselves believing we are supposed to be a finished product, fully righteous, not in the process of being sanctified. Or, we can choose the other direction and overlook sin citing no one can be perfect, then go on to embrace everything about them.  Instead of being a little Christ we become a mini (insert name here).

Charismatic leaders often have this effect on people. An influencer, or someone with charisma, find the people around them imitating mannerisms, clothing, language and actions. These people are gifted leaders and can have a great impact, often starting mega churches or movements. While leadership is a gift that can serve the kingdom, it can also derail kingdom work when we follow a man in ungodly ways .

Jesus was unique in only doing what he saw the Father doing. Our attempts to do the same will always be imperfect. When rebellion is imitated, it is like a car in rush hour slamming on the breaks. The kingdom work is stalled like the traffic jam following that front car. It is not God who stopped. We just followed a person who stopped following God.

God not only leads perfectly but creates systems and order to maintain health. Elders should always be applying course correction to maintain the spiritual health of a body. They should acknowledge and warn people when they are following a person instead of God.This does not excuse each one of us from testing all things. Someone told me once to receive everything with faith and test it all. Doubt and skepticism should not be a part of our pursuit of Jesus, but testing is what keeps us on the straight and narrow path. Without the two we will find ourselves stuck in traffic, then taking an exit that leads us far off the narrow path.

Learning from those who have gone before us and witnessing the lives of faithful men and women helps us grow at a rapid pace. It allows us to build off the experiences of others and not just our own. We should imitate healthy followers as they imitate Christ, but only as they imitate Christ.

Well done!

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There are a few places in scripture with lists of requirements for service in the kingdom of God. In each instance the balance of gift vs. character skews heavily to the side of character. The more elevated the position, the more important the character becomes. This exposes what is of import to the Lord. (Acts 6, 1 Timothy, Titus 1)

Whether it be the selection of an apostle to replace Judas or an elder in a local congregation, scripture prioritises holiness over the skill or gift of the individual. It is not that gifts do not matter. God gives gifts to individuals and to the church but many of these same gifts are held also by people in opposition to the kingdom of God. Gifts alone do not make one qualified to serve in the church.

What we celebrate is what we promote. I hear talk in many circles about creating a “culture of honour”. The fruit I see from this is the affirmation of gifts. While that isn’t inherently evil, it results in elevating individuals according to skill rather than holiness. Rather than celebrating a new area of repentance or someone’s nature becoming more like Christ, we tend to celebrate a sermon or singing skills, giving no thought to that person’s spiritual health.

I love the way God inspects what he has created and declares “it is good”. His nature is to inspect (or judge) in order to affirm, not just correct. Public affirmation should be given only for things God is affirming. If we create rules of our own and affirm people for following them, it can lead to a return to a form of the law or create a cult. This is what people like Luther and Bonhoeffer were correcting after a period of the church leaders forming their own rules.

For a person to be obedient in their pursuit of Christ, everything they do should be in service to God. All gifts have been given by God just as every breath in our lungs. As such, each breath and gift is in service to him. Our spiritual health requires understanding how we have uniquely been created to serve the Lord. Our gifts, however, are only a by-product of our discipleship, not the supreme focus.

The overemphasis on gifts sidelines the primary focus, the spiritual health of the individual, and often alienates certain gifts. The gifts a culture is comfortable with will be celebrated while the others cause shame in people. If the development of gifts becomes a by-product of discipleship, everyone serves and excels in their gift as they are called in season.

It is more difficult to focus on spiritual maturity than the presence of gifts. A test of someone’s vocals is easier than a testing of the fruit of the Spirit in a person’s life. This is a more intimate and invasive process but is hopefully done out of love.

Issues can arise from public affirmation of the function of a gift. It can place a false import on the gift. Secondly, it may cause followers of Jesus to replace the affirmation of God with the affirmation of man.

Remember the reaction of the 72 (0r 70 depending on translation) upon returning to Jesus? (Luke 10:17-24) They celebrate because the demons were subject to them. Jesus responds with “celebrate that your names are written in the book of life.” It is not wrong to celebrate deliverance. What is harmful is the pride that arises from the celebration of a gift instead of gratitude in the grace of God.

Expressing gratitude for the work of God is the way we should affirm. To acknowledge the continued work of the cross in a person affirms who they are in Christ and their surrender to it. Praising the accomplishments of an individual lends itself to pride. Acknowledgement of a gift should be used in the attempt to encourage a person into greater obedience, not greater ego.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1

Public affirmation of righteous acts tends to enable direct disobedience to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:1. We often crave affirmation. We struggle to find satisfaction solely in pleasing the Lord. Thus, we seek opportunities to please people instead. Our desire to please people is often used to keep society in line. As a society we create a system of approved actions and affirm the people who accept them and cancel (or mute) those that disagree. A desire for affirmation can lead us to mirror those around us.

Dualism is created within a person when their public and private lives disagree, for example, righteousness in religious settings, and depravity in private. That is why a pursuit of holiness from within should be encouraged rather than just a set of actions to emulate.

Again, I say, public affirmation of actions or gifts is not inherently evil. But proceed with caution. It lends itself to creating a culture that elevates self rather than God and can lead us astray down the path of pride. Gifts are given by God, but we are not to celebrate the gift but appreciate the gift and honour the gift giver.

We all need the affirmation of our Creator. To hear the words “well done my good and faithful servant” is what we seek. An insecurity in this affirmation drives us to seek it from other sources. For believers, this other source is often just slightly off the mark as we look to our Christian leaders as the conduits for the Lord’s affirmation. 

We are running the race for that eventual prize. We look for confirmation we are on the right path and the affirmation of the Lord awaits us at the finish line. This promise is meant to be enough. While affirmation from each other can at times be good, it is not when it generates insecurity in the Lord’s affirmation.  

There is a big difference between joining the affirmation of the Lord and replacing it. But that difference can be blurry at times. Sometimes our created systems of “honour” may cause men and women to perform for affirmation rather than act out of obedience and compassion. The Lord is after the heart of a person not the picture of righteousness.

In many cases I have discovered public affirmation does not encourage the transformation of the heart but creates an increased hunger for people’s affirmation. Affirmation then becomes like a drug causing those who crave it to abandon the path of righteousness or get buried under a list of duties.

There is a reason why Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Public displays of righteousness expose the insecurity in the affirmation of the Lord and ultimately point to who you serve. You are a slave of the one whose approval you need.

Do not withhold affirmation when you know the Lord is affirming someone. Be like Jesus affirming the disciples for their confession of who he is. Affirm people they are loved by Jesus as John so often does. Affirm the signs of freedom arising from a life of repentance. Ask God to reveal what he is affirming in those around you and join him in affirming it too. His affirmation is what we need just like all creation did when he inspected what he made and called it good.

The God You Want vs The God Who Is

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There are many times in our lives we are confronted with who God is in a way that challenges our current belief. It is beyond our capacity to fully comprehend his eternal nature, thus we make conclusions based on limited understanding. This is nothing new, but has been the ongoing struggle of humans since the beginning. We see as a model the New Testament letters written shortly after the launch of a church, correcting faulty teaching and practices.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.1 Timothy 4:3-5

The God who is will not always be the God we want. We have a tendency as humans to pursue the things that feed our passion. In some cases this is a good thing, but in others our hearts are not pure. This makes following what we want to be true, nothing but a lie. Our hearts are often deceitful and are subject to ongoing corruption by the world.

Often when we see God do or say something we like, we take that action or phrase and make an interpretation based on our own desires and perceptions. The truth is God never breaks character. Each word and action are always true to his nature and thus must be interpreted not through our desires but through the whole of scripture. An experience of God today, in the gospels or in the Old Testament is the same God with the same nature. Jesus is the one who spoke creation into being and was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

God is real. He is alive. He is not created from our suppositions. Our defining him as we wish does not make him so. He exists outside of our definition of who he is. He is the Alpha (beginning) and Omega(end). There is no end to his existence and no impact from his creations can change who he is. 

The Triune God spoken of in John 1 as before anything else is the same that exists in Genesis in creation. It is the same God who also cast Adam and Eve out of the garden and brought a flood to cover the earth that wiped out most of creation. He is the same God who made a covenant with Abraham and chose his offspring as the first witnesses to his plan of redemption. He is the same God who took on the form of man for our sake, and by his mercy took the punishment for those who turn to him in repentance. He is the same God who is preparing an eternal place for the elect and will return to bring an end to this age and judge the living and the dead. He has not changed from the beginning and will not in the end. His plan was known to him since before creation and we cannot disregard elements of who he is or what he has done. He is the same God from beginning to end and is true to his word.

The God we worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God made clear through his taking on flesh and through his death and resurrection. He is further clarified through the sending of the Holy Spirit who leads us into true understanding of all God is.

In Acts 3 Peter explains to the crowd in Solomon’s Portico the power experienced isn’t in themselves or a new God. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the God of their ancestors) who they put to death in ignorance before being raised back to life. This is not a new God or a new nature but the same God who existed before creation, now revealed clearly in the flesh.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:14-17

To know God better, we are never to adjust teachings endured since the beginning. There are certain things that are to be unshakable in our beliefs. We are not to tear up the foundations laid in the apostles’ teaching but rather allow the Holy Spirit to expose what is false through scripture in community. We are not to hold experience over scripture or isolate teachings that support our passion. Instead, we are to tear down any false view of God we have so that the truth can be built upon a solid foundation.

God’s hatred of sin is an area of contention for many. We have seen since the garden the reaction God has towards sin. God loathes it and punishes accordingly. We saw it with Adam and Eve, in Noah’s age with the flood and we see it in the requirement of the cross. In James 4 we see friendship with the world makes us enemies of God. 

In Acts 21, Paul travels to Jerusalem and is greeted by the new Jewish believers along with a riot of people looking to kill him because of his welcoming of the Gentiles and doing away with many customs. Instead of examining their views, the Jewish believers were so unwilling to abandon some false teaching they turned to anger and violence. This is not abnormal in the history of the church.

Wars have been fought between Christians over false beliefs. My own Anabaptist history has much persecution for beliefs. The early Anabaptists faced drowning for views of scripture (like full-immersion baptism) seen as heresy by Catholics and Lutherans alike. As the Anabaptists read the bible in their own language they discovered false practices and teaching and looked to correct them for which some were met with death.

Interestingly, for the Anabaptists it was an era of returning to early traditions and understanding the way of Jesus, but the false beliefs of the age (inside and out of the church) were so embedded in believers this movement was met with hostility and pride. We should be very careful when approaching the teaching and wisdom of the present age, always holding it up to our plumbline (the word of God).

No one wants to be caught on the side of false teaching like those who wanted to kill Paul or the other faithful throughout history. The solution seems to be to allow the truth of scripture to convict and correct our understanding. We should not shift like the winds with every teaching but stand firm on the word of God. When the word of God is not comfortable or what God does is not compatible with our understanding, we must confess we are wrong about who God is and what he commands us to do.

I would not want to be like the Jews who didn’t recognize their own God and cried out for his death. To avoid this we must embrace truth even though it requires suffering or difficulty. The radical teaching of Jesus will forever be radical. His words are accompanied by a promise of suffering. The world at large will never accept him, and a choice to be friends with this world is a choice to be an enemy of God (James 4:4). On which side will you fall?

“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6

Humility is required to embrace correction. Pride will lead us down the path of heresy and keep us there. Pride doesn’t just hinder us in the presence of others, but also alone in the presence of God. Pride impedes us admitting error and wrongdoing which keeps us from the grace of God. As we approach all teaching we must have a desire to have exposed what is wrong both in our current view and in what is newly introduced.

So humble yourself before God. Ask him to expose where you have worshipped a false God. Spend time in the word with others asking God to build up a right view of who he is and what he has called you to. When Jesus makes a command, follow it. When you need the correction of a letter in the New Testament, take it. And when the God of Abraham (Old Testament) makes no sense to you, seek to know him as the one true God.

Grace is inaccessible if we remain proud. There is no grace for willful ignorance to the truth or disobedience to his commands. God’s grace leads us through correction to holiness. If that is not the direction we are headed, we will not know his grace. Through humility, however, his grace will forever bring us from glory to glory until we reach our eternal home with Christ.

Hide not from the truth of who God is. We must not create for ourselves false gods reflecting what we desire. That is not God.  There is only one God who is, was and always will be. He is the I AM and no created thing can alter the Uncreated One.