How many could tell their brothers and sisters in Christ, “Be like me, because I am like Christ”?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR?
Today is the age of the video, of seeing as well as hearing. Young people today don’t want to be told; they want a role-model so they can see how it works in real life. The idea of following an example was expressed by Paul who told the Corinthian believers, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 NKJV).
Now, think about that! How many could tell their brothers and sisters in Christ, “Be like me, because I am like Christ”? What a staggering claim for Paul to make! Sure, he was an apostle, but he also admitted later in life that he was the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
How can Paul make both of these statements? But more importantly, how can a person who knows himself to be sinful be an imitator of Christ? How can we, as sinners, be a means of showing Christ’s perfection? Is it by not engaging in smoking, drinking, swearing, sexual immorality, or other sinful activities? Not at all! Paul knew this from his former life as a Pharisee. It was when he was “blameless” before the Law that he was an enemy of Christ, rather than a follower of Christ (Phil. 3:6). Paul, more than anyone before or since, knew that simply obeying rules of behavior was useless.
He wrote, “If you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – ‘Do not touch! Do not taste! Do not handle’ which all concern things which perish?” (Col. 2:20-21). To the Galatians he wrote that the day of law ended when the Messiah came. Now is the age of the Messiah, and we are to live by the Spirit (Gal. 5:1-16). Also, to the Roman Christians he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
To Paul, a Christian role-model is not someone who just shows you how to act, but why to act. And why should a Christian act? Again, it depends not on having the rules and regulations, but on having the Spirit and the mind of Christ. At this point, all the rules, regulations, commandments, ordinances and statutes may be a guide to the mind of Christ, but can never be a substitute for it. As Paul also wrote, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23). Only with the mind of Christ can we know what is the godly response in a given situation, what will edify and build up.
The Mind Of Christ
What is this mind of Christ? How can we know it? Can we get it by asking, “What would Jesus do?” Not at all! The heart is deceitful and wicked. Unless we find ourselves in the same situation as an incident recorded in the Gospels, without the mind of Christ we would only be guessing. And even if we guess right, we might not be able to do what Jesus did. Anyone who has been to a funeral, or seen a man in a wheelchair, or been in a sailboat in a storm, would know this! The question is not “What would Jesus do?” but rather, “Why?”
Paul gave us some guidelines, such as, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself … Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who … made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant” (Phil. 2:3-7). Another one was, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the Church of God” (1 Cor. 10:31-32). A third is, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
In short, Paul says that to act in love is to imitate Christ. But what is this “love” that Paul talks about? The Greeks had a high opinion of love. In fact, they had four different words for four different types of love, so they
could express themselves more precisely when they discussed it.
What Is Love?
There is storge, or affection – the ‘warm fuzzy’ love, such as in a family. Since we are made sons of the living God, this would seem a suitable word. But no! This word does not even appear in the New Testament.
There is eros, a love of great passion. It is often used of sexual love (we get our word “erotic” from it), but it also includes any love that transcends the senses, that fulfills our deepest desires, that takes us out of ourselves. Some Greek philosophers used this word to describe the union with the Supreme. Surely this word describes what it means to be one with Christ. But no! It does not appear in the New Testament either.
Then there is philia, usually translated “friendship” – that denotes respect, support, admiration, friendship, mateship. It is a love that involves the mind as well as the heart. As a verb, it means something between “to esteem,” “to befriend” and “to cherish.” It includes a duty to act in the interests of the friend. For instance, when Pilate was reluctant to condemn Jesus, the crowd shouted “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend (philos). Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (Jn. 19:12). This is by far the most common word for love in Greek. But Paul rarely uses it.
By far the most common word for love in the New Testament is agape, a word not very common outside the Bible. The basic meaning is “to prefer” or “to give priority to.” It doesn’t have the intimacy of storge, the power of eros, or the warmth and comradeship of philia. But it does have a sense of absolute determination. It denotes a deliberate choice. This is the word used for God’s love for us; a love based on God’s choice, a choice that He will not revoke, even at the price of the cross.
This agape – the deliberate choice by God to make our salvation a higher priority than sparing His own Son – is the basis of our salvation. This is a love shown to those who have no family ties as in storge, who merit no respect or admiration as in philia, who offer no personal fulfillment as in eros. It is a love that springs from God’s own character and choice, and nothing else.
Now you can see why Paul calls this love “the law of Christ” – it is how God acted on our behalf. To act in love in this way – to give priority to the good of others, to give preference to their needs rather than satisfying our own – is to imitate Christ. As Paul repeats, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved us, and gave Himself up for us” (Eph. 5:1). By following Christ’s reasons for every act, we will then know more clearly how to act.
The “Law” Of Christ
It is instructive to see where Jesus taught this. When asked “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Mt. 22:36), He gives a trick answer. Unfortunately, we are so accustomed to it that we do not see it the same way Jesus’ listeners would have. In fact, there are two tricks.
The first trick is that the first part is not a commandment at all. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One! You shall love the Lord your God” (Dt. 6:5-6) is a statement by Moses which became the morning prayer of every pious Jew in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ answer is saying that the greatest commandment of all is not even a real commandment as such; it is a prayer of commitment to love God above all, to give God priority over everything. The word used by Jesus here is agape.
And the second part, “You shall love (agape) your neighbor as yourself”, is the second half of a minor ordinance from Leviticus 19:17-18, which begins with “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Not just in our actions, but even in our hearts, we are to give priority to our neighbor’s needs. Significantly, the verse ends with the reminder, “I am the Lord.”
So Jesus’ answer turns upside-down the whole thought-pattern of righteousness being “what we do.” Real righteousness is not what we do, but why we do it. Real righteousness is not defined by doing what God commands, but in loving as God loves.
Like those in Thessalonica, all of us should seek to be imitators of Paul, who himself imitated Christ (1 Th. 1:6). And this will mean that we will love God above all, and try to show His character in how we relate to others. It means we will seek the benefit of others, and place their needs above our own comforts. It means that, in a choice between helping someone or doing some religious duty, we will put the person above the timetable. It means that if someone is helping a person instead of doing their duty, we will do their duty ourselves instead of interrupting. It means we will serve each other, rather than insist on our rights.
At first sight, agape love seems to be a cold kind of love. It looks like the love of an accountant, working out the best investment for a client. It depends not on emotion, but on commitment. But practice it for a few years, and you will find some interesting things happening. Consistently treat people with agape love, and they will often become your friends. Philia love will follow, and on more solid ground than most so-called friendships, which are really only friendships of convenience. Treat your wife with agape love, and eros love will be richer and more enduring. Treat your children with agape love, and storge love will fill your home.
Get your priorities right. As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:33). Put agape love first in your life, build all your relationships on this foundation, and everything else will be provided. Give first priority to anything else, and no good thing you do will endure (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
So, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” means love as Christ loves – not just those close to us, as in storge; not just those we respect, as in philia; not just those who give us some fulfillment in return, as in eros. Love as Christ loves, because Christ loves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Springett and his family live in Sydney, Australia where they have been involved in Christian service for many years. This article is based on a message given to encourage youth camp workers.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.