Paul’s Instructions to Ephesian Christians: Imitate God in Love

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1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV)

Understanding the Word

The heart of Paul’s exhortation is found in 5:1–2. Nowhere else in Scripture did Paul so directly call believers to be like God, although it is implied in many places. After all, humans are made in God’s image; we are like him and are to put on the new self, created like God (see 4:24). Paul elsewhere called believers to imitate him; in 1 Corinthians 4:16 he called believers to “be imitators of me”; then again in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul also directed the first believers to follow the examples of their leaders (see Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). However, here, in Ephesians, Paul called on believers to be like God. How is this even possible? In what way did Paul mean this? This vision of imitating God is important enough to look at through the lens of Scripture. Where else are believers called to be like God?

In the Old Testament, the people of God were commanded many times, “Be holy, for I am holy” (see Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7), meaning to be set apart for God and unpolluted by what could make one unclean. The Israelites took this call very seriously at times, and radically pulled away from the sinful nations around them; yet, their history as recorded in Scripture is not very compelling; they failed to live into this holiness; we would have fared the same (in fact, all people would have). In the New Testament, Peter quoted this same command to be holy in 1 Peter 1:16 in the thesis statement for his letter; the call to holiness is that important to come directly into the New Testament. However, in Peter’s writing we see that being made holy and set apart is for the purpose of fervently loving one another (see 1 Peter 1:22).

Turning to the Gospels, we see that Jesus called his followers to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 ESV); in this context, Jesus particularly had in mind loving all people, even one’s enemies. The word “perfect” often gives people some considerable pause—that’s impossible! However, this same word “perfect” means “completeness” and “maturity” when referring to people. In Ephesians 4:13 Paul described Jesus as the “mature man” (nasb; literally, “the perfect man”) that the church is to grow up into. Paul also described believers as “mature” (1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20 nasb; Col. 1:28), which is their goal (see also Hebrews 5:14 and James 3:2). In the Gospel of Luke, a very similar saying is found: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36). Again, this is in the context of loving one’s enemies (see Luke 6:35).

In Ephesians 5:1, we can also see that the command to imitate God pertains especially to love and mercy, since 5:1 builds on 4:32, which speaks of kindness, compassion, and forgiving ourselves as God has forgiven us in Christ Jesus. Also, in 5:2 Paul continued his admonition to live/walk as Jesus, who loved us, had walked. So, Paul here has opened up our God folders and has asked us to photocopy the contents on God’s forgiving love and put it into our own life’s folders. This is a large task! We are called to step out, take risks, and even be wronged, and then to forgive in response. We are made for love, and we can do it in Christ. Jesus is the one who showed us how to love in this way, especially our enemies. God does not ask us to do what he himself has not already done. God has given us the resources to love. How? By first loving us. Notice that Paul called believers “beloved children.” This brief phrase provides both the basis and the reason for Paul’s command to imitate God and love as Christ loved: we are loved first.

Questions

  1. Is it possible to imitate God? How does Scripture give testimony to this expectation?
  2. Is perfection possible for people?
  3. In what ways are we to imitate God? What is the example and basis for this command?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. The OneBook: Letter to the Ephesians by Fredrick Long study takes readers through one of the most important and most commented on parts of the Bible, paragraph by paragraph. Order the book and video studies from our store here.

This 12-week study Dr. Fred Long takes learners through Paul’s grand vision of the Church as Christ’s body, a people called to be holy and blameless in love. As the political head of the church Body, Christ exemplifies virtue and the church aspires to grow to be like him in sacrificial love and service. Paul, as an ambassador of Christ in chains, depicts the church assembly as a holy temple filled with God, Christ, and the Spirit, and then stands firm wearing divine armor ready to withstand all evil forces and to spread the peace of the gospel of Christ to the whole world.

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Dr. Fredrick J. Long is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. His research and writings cover the areas of Biblical and Greco-Roman literature, Greek grammatical and discourse analysis and translation, and biblical commentary. He is currently writing a commentary on 2 Corinthians in the new Brill Exegetical Commentary series.

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