Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV
If we didn’t know much about Paul, this simple statement could come across as little more than prideful arrogance. It sounds a lot like someone with an over-inflated sense of spiritual self-worth. But this is the same Paul who said, “‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them all” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). He knew he was far from perfect and had a flawed past. “I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NLT). At one point, he even referred to himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8 ESV). So Paul was far from a braggart. He wasn’t one to boast of his spiritual superiority or set himself up as some kind of icon of virtue. He was honest about his short-comings and always transparent about his life being a work in process.
I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT
So how could Paul have the audacity to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”? How could he set himself up as an example to follow? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to simply say, “Imitate Christ”? Shouldn’t He be our focus, and not Paul? But it is essential that we not take this verse out of its context. For three chapters Paul has been dealing with an issue within the body of Christ in Corinth involving the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Most of what he has addressed has had to do with the legitimate rights of believers and their freedom in Christ. But his point of emphasis has been that their rights were never to trump their obligation to live compassionately and sacrificially among their fellow believers, as well as the lost. First and foremost, their goal should be the glory of God and the spiritual good of those around them. In order for the gospel to be lived out and spread about, it will require that they die to themselves. Their rights will have to take a back seat to the will of God and the spiritual well-being of others. And Paul has used himself as an example of that very lifestyle. “Don’t give offense to Jews or Gentiles or the church of God. I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:32-33 NLT). Then he follows up this statement with his call, “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).
Unlike the original 12 disciples, we don’t have the benefit of having seen Christ with our own two eyes. We have not been privileged to watch Him work, hear Him teach or witness His selfless lifestyle firsthand. On the very night He would be betrayed, He washed the feet of the disciples, then said to them: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15 ESV). This was not about washing feet, but about servant leadership. Jesus was their teacher and Lord, and yet He was willing to set aside His rights and privileges to serve them. He willingly stooped down and washed their filthy feet, rather than rightfully demanding that they wash His. Jesus went on to tell them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). He was telling His disciples that they, His servants and messengers, were not to view themselves as somehow better than Him, unwilling to serve like He served and sacrifice as He sacrificed. They were to follow His example and serve those to whom He would send them.
It was the apostle John who wrote, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5-6 ESV). So in a sense, we are to emulate or imitate Christ. We are to walk as He walked. But at the same time, if that is the way we live our lives, we should be able to call others to follow our example. In doing so, we are not claiming to have arrived at Christ-like perfection, but that we are faithfully attempting to live our lives in keeping with the example of Christ. Paul knew that his rights were never to stand in the way of the gospel, because He knew that Jesus had never let His will get in the way of His Father’s divine plan for His life and for mankind’s redemption. On the night of His betrayal and arrest, as Jesus prayed in the garden, He pleaded with His Father, “if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42 NLT). In His humanity, Jesus dreaded the pain and suffering He was about to face. His human nature was no more a fan of pain than your would be. But His divinity knew that He must accomplish the will of His Father, even though it meant that He must give His life. And Paul reminds us that, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).
Paul was willing to follow the example of Christ. He was willing to die if necessary for the sake of the gospel. And even if God did not require his life, Paul was willing to give up his rights and privileges to see that others came to know Christ. He was willing to sacrifice anything and everything to see that believers in Christ grew in their knowledge of Him and in their likeness to Him. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So when we imitate Christ, we honor Him. And when we invite others to imitate our lives, we are taking a huge risk. We are telling them that they can do as we do and say as we say, because we are simply following the example of Christ Himself. And it all begins with sacrificial service and selfless love, putting the needs of others ahead of our own.