This week we have been pondering the use of examples in preaching. I have offered warning, rather than prohibition. There are dangers in offering examples to copy, whether that be post-biblical characters, biblical characters, or even Christ himself. Yet there is also the positive side that must be pondered.
Paul told the Corinthians, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” He told the Philippians to “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” He affirmed the Thessalonians for becoming imitators of Paul and his team. The writer to the Hebrews urges them to imitate the faith of their leaders. John tells the church to imitate good, for whoever does good is from God, but those who do evil have not seen God.
Is this post a retraction of the previous three? Not at all. There is a legitimate perspective on example in the Christian life. In fact, it is at the very core of our calling.
Jesus, the Rabbi extraordinaire, called the most unlikely of folk to follow him. These weren’t the elite boys with stacks of scrolls and wire-rimmed glasses that had sat at the front in the synagogue school and impressed the rabbi enough to be able to ask to follow him. When that day came, these boys slipped away and back to the shores to work with their Dads in the family business. Not the worst option in life, but not the elite option. They left behind the brightest and best to be followers of the rabbi.
To be a follower, or disciple, of a rabbi is like an apprenticeship on steroids. It means living with, learning from, copying, becoming like, being shaped by. It means being so connected relationally that you aren’t becoming an impersonator who takes on a fake persona, but a disciple whose values, whose beliefs, whose conduct is shaped by the one you follow.
Jesus called the most unlikely folk, and he asked them to follow him! He still does that: what a privilege is ours! To be so relationally tied to Him that our lives are shaped from the inside out. You can’t be a disciple from a distance. You can’t be disciple from merely observing externals. It takes that close relational bond to make the process work.
So Jesus commissioned his disciples to make disciples: to bring others into that close bond that would lead to life transformation. Paul was calling the Corinthians and others to the same. Follow me as I follow Christ.
That is where example is legitimate. It isn’t copying behaviour as if that will shape the inside of a life. It is being in relationship in such a way that hearts beat as one, values become owned, and life spills outward even into the area of conduct. Inside-out transformation is at the heart of the Christian message. Hence the importance of the Spirit who unites our spirit to His. Hence we are to draw others not to some sort of cognitive conversion and impersonation practice, but into full discipleship with Christ Himself.