On the wall close by the main entrance to the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, hangs a portrait with the following inscription: “James Butler Bonham, no picture of him exists. This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle. It is placed here by his family so that people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom.”
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds the Christian that part of their mission on earth is to bear resemblance to their Father in heaven (Eph. 5:1–2). Just as small children happily mimic their parents, so the Christian is to model themselves after God as His beloved children. As those adopted to sonship by the kindness and love of God, it is natural for us to want to be like Him (Rom. 8:14–17; Eph. 1:4–5). His love for us endears us to Him. His love transforms us so that we love to be with Him. And, in being with Him, we start to take on His likeness. We reflect that which we have received. In Paul’s writings, imitation is at the center and core of discipleship. In Philippians 3:17, he urges his readers to imitate him just as he imitates Christ (cp. 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7–9).
Now, there are aspects of God’s nature that are impossible for us to emulate. This is what theologians call God’s non-communicable attributes. His self-existence, eternality, majesty, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. But there are aspects of God’s nature that are communicable: His goodness, kindness, holiness, justice, love, wisdom, and compassion. In Ephesians, Paul encourages the followers of God to imitate His communicable attributes of forgiveness and love (Eph. 4:32; 5:1–2). What they have so wonderfully received from God in Christ through the gospel they are to bring to others.
Moreover, since imitating God in Ephesians 5:1–2 is tied to God’s love—God's love demonstrated in the cross of Christ—it is no stretch to argue that imitating God means looking like Christ (1 Peter 2:21). The person and nature of God has been made visible in Christ (John 1:1, 18). Jesus is said by the New Testament writers to be the “image of God,” which means what is true about God within the limitations of the incarnation is true of Jesus (Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:1–3). Jesus is the invisible God made visible. Jesus is the transcendent God brought near. Jesus is the glory of God beheld. In Jesus, people saw what God was like. God’s love was demonstrated in Christ (Rom. 5:8).
Now, here’s the point. The Christ who was once among us is now in us through the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–18). The outworking of the gospel in us is that we imitate God, and that takes place as we live out the indwelling Christ who empowers us to be godly. God intends that people see Him today as they see Christ in us (Rom. 8:29). If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, then the world should see nothing else. It is our job, through God’s grace, to make Jesus visible, intelligible, and desirable. May our lives lived in Christ tell the truth about God. People have wrong ideas about God and fuzzy ideas about the gospel.
May those ideas be corrected and confronted by them facing Christ in us.