There are relatively few books written or sermons preached on the topic of the imitation of Jesus. Why is this? Isn’t this what the spiritual or Christian life is all about? It would almost seem that the imitation of Christ is a topic we ignore, or even avoid, perhaps because we are uncomfortable with it. And I must confess that for years I did little if any thinking on the topic.
Over the years as I have studied and taught the Gospels and the life of Christ, as well as courses in theology, I believe I’ve become aware of a possible theological reason behind this avoidance. Many – perhaps most – Christians have a very unclear understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the closely related doctrine of the Trinity. Now I recognize that none of us have a complete understanding of these doctrines, but I’m talking about basic knowledge, “working knowledge.”
I hope I don’t sound offensive or judgmental when I say this, but I believe that one of the main reasons we don’t seek to imitate Jesus is that we’re not quite clear on how really human He is. We perceive Him as a sort of theophany, a divine appearance of God in human form as God sometimes appeared in the Old Testament. And some of us aren’t quite clear on Jesus’ uniqueness as the Son, the Third Person of the Trinity, but instead perceive Him as all Three Persons rolled into One. Who could imitate that?
I say this because this seems to be the reaction I’ve received in some degree or another form many of my students – at least from some of the more vocal ones-- when I tell them the following.
Jesus lived His life on the earth as a man, totally committed to God the Father, and led by the Holy Spirit. The great difference between His humanness and ours is that He did not have a fallen human nature. If I may say this, He was sinless in the same way that Adam was sinless before the fall.
Please understand me. He did not cease to be God at His incarnation, but He “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7), apparently (as theologians say) of the independent use of His divine attributes. Or as one student (who got it) said, “He didn’t take advantage of the perks of divinity.”
Yes, there were times when His divinity “shone through,” such as at His transfiguration, described in Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36. This is undoubtedly what John was referring to in his Gospel when he said, “…we beheld His glory…” (John 1:14b) and what Peter meant when he said, “…we were eyewitnesses of His majesty…” (2 Peter 1:16).
But most of His time on earth, He lived His life as we do, or are expected to do. We don’t find Him acting independently of the Spirit of God, but find that the Spirit is the One at work in and through Him. He did not rely on His own divinity, but on the Holy Spirit.
If I were teaching this publicly, I would at this point have a few students getting ready to pick up stones and cast them at me, or to report me to the church or school authorities, or at least to question my orthodoxy. But I find at least 15 references in the Gospels and Acts, to the work of the Spirit in Jesus’ life.
In all four Gospels we read that, at Jesus’ baptism, “He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on Him,” or something similar (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32, 33). John uses the words “remaining on Him.” Nowhere do we read of the Spirit’s presence in Jesus’ life prior to His baptism. Nor do we read of any miracles or teaching ministry prior to this, other than the events of His precocious childhood at the age of 12 in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). In fact, John tells us that His turning water into wine at a wedding was His “beginning of signs” (John 2:11) – His first miracle.
It is immediately after His baptism and the descent of the Spirit that, “the Spirit led Him into the desert to be tempted” (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1). Luke tells us that Jesus was at this time “full of the Spirit” and Mark tells us not simply that Jesus was “led” but that “the Spirit drove Him out.” The Greek word Mark uses is Ekballo – literally “throw out.” It has the connotation of force.
Luke tells us that after this “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (4:14). And he goes on to tell us that Jesus on the Sabbath went into the synagogue at Nazareth and as the one selected to read the Scripture, chose a passage in the scroll of Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me…” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). A bit later He tells the congregation, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears!” (Luke 4:21).
Matthew also says that Jesus’ ministry was a fulfillment of prophecy, “…that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘Here is My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased. I will put My Spirit on Him…’” (Isaiah 42:1, 2; Matthew 12:18).
Peter in his sermon in the home of Cornelius, speaks of “…Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and power…” (Acts10:38).
Elsewhere we read that Jesus Himself claimed, “I cast out demons by the Spirit of God…” (Matthew 12:28). We also read that Jesus “…rejoiced in the Holy Spirit…” (Luke 10:20).
I believe we can conclude from the above passages that Jesus, as completely human (though still completely God) did not possess, was not indwelt by the Spirit of God until His baptism. It was at that time that the Spirit came on Him. This was His “anointing” for service. It was only after this that He performed miracles and He did these as He was empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit.
It seems clear then that when Jesus performed miracles, He performed them, not in His own power as God, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. So could we not conclude then that His entire ministry, that which was miraculous and that which was not, was conducted in that same power?
If these conclusions are correct, then there are some tremendous implications for our spiritual life.
First of all we understand that the imitation of Christ is not some alternative method of living the Christian life, somehow in discord with the Christian life as spelled out in the Epistles. Paul said, “Walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). John said, “…walk as He walked” (1 John 2:6). These are not two different “walks” or methodologies; to walk as He walked is to walk in the Spirit.
The imitation of Christ involves not just the “what” but also the “how.” We are not only to pattern our ethics and our character after His; we are to develop those ethical and character traits by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not just to seek to do deeds similar to His; we are to do those deeds in the power of the Spirit.
If then we are believers in Christ, we have both the example and the power to live the life He desires in us.
See also:WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
LIVING LIKE JESUS
THE IMITATION OF CHRIST