As Christians, we are called to live as imitators of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) patterned after he who, for our sake, took on the form of man, living that perfect life in accord with the Law, and served as the sacrifice for our sins. Most of us have some understanding of what that means, viewing it as the admonition to give of ourselves as Christ did first. Yet, beyond the cursory, we don’t tend to explore what it truly means to pattern ourselves after him.
The question then becomes, what does it mean to be an imitator of Christ? To answer this, we need to understand something about our Savior and his self-emptying, as Paul refers to in his epistle to the church in Philippi. (Phil. 2:7) In the same passage, two verses prior, the apostle invites the believer to their own self-emptying, which, in turn, helps them to become of the same heart and mind as their Savior. This is significant because imitating Christ is not simply a matter of what we do, nor is it simply a matter of how we act. It is, instead, indicative of a spiritual condition that begins with the emptying of oneself.
The difficulty is that we don’t necessarily know what that looks like or what that means. It’s an abstract and, perhaps, obscure concept to us.
Perhaps a part of the challenge here is that it can be difficult to understand how it relates to us. The term κενόω, as it is found in the second chapter of Philippians, is the basis of the theological term kenosis. Kenosis relates to a specific aspect of Christ’s incarnation whereby he temporarily denied portions of his divine rights as the second person of the Trinity. Yet, in assuming the fullness of human nature, he ever abandons the fullness of his divine nature. Instead, he takes on the form of a servant.
Taking on the form of a servant alone though, is not what self-emptying is, nor does the disciple of Christ pattern themselves after him simply by doing it. Instead, it is what lies behind the form of the servant that is significant, that is important to this process.
The Denial of Self
Cloaked in humility as Christ emptied himself, he divested himself of certain divine rights temporarily. In this sense, it was self-renunciation whereby in the incarnation he put aside certain privileges which rightly belonged to him. Seated upon a throne in heaven, he would make himself lowly when he was born of the virgin becoming a servant for us and for our salvation. As the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa would explain, “He “emptied himself,” as the apostle says, by contracting the ineffable glory of his Godhead within our small compass. In this way “what he was” remained great and perfect and incomprehensible, but “what he assumed” was commensurate with the measure of our own nature.”
For the disciple of Christ to empty themselves they must set their sights on the example that he gave them. They must deny themselves. They must be willing to set aside all glory and privilege which may be afforded to them and take on a lowly nature, one of servitude. In a very real sense what this means is that the Christian needs to set aside their nature, one which tends to be filled with pride and the desire for their own exaltation, recognizing that it isn’t about us, but, rather, how we serve God and how we serve others.
In this way, the Christian, the imitator of Christ, becomes less about themselves and more about their Savior. John the Baptist expressed it this way amidst his final testimony, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:30) This is a difficult task for us, because nothing about us wants to be less, or to decrease. Just as I sat down to write this I saw a post on social media declaring that someone will not apologize for their strength, nor will they let their spirit be tamed, they “will not be less.” That is the prevailing attitude. Yet, as we turn to Christ, that is exactly what it is that we must do.
We don’t glorify ourselves, nor do we seek our own increase. We do not seek to grow, except to grow in faith, our lives given in the full measure of service to our Lord. It is, after all, Jesus, coming from above, who is above all men. The work of the disciple is to ever testify to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, recognizing that all that we do, all that we are, is for the glory of God. We are to do that which is our heaven-designated work, and that is to be enough for us because it magnifies Christ by and through the work of the Spirit in us.
Our desire here then isn’t for adulation, nor is it for acceptance. It recognizes that the reward for our humble submission comes only after the grave. This means that, even though it is difficult, and wrought with challenges, we must be willing to accept what our flesh often desires the most, the respect and love of this World as we give ourselves to that which Christ Himself gave Himself for. As we are called to faith we must then attach ourselves to Christ, willingly disowning ourselves, disavowing ourselves as His Spirit takes over.
This, invariable, will lead to the cross which they will have to bear as they are confronted with temptation, the flesh, and the suffering which will come for Christ’s sake. By denying one’s self, and, in turn, denying the world around them, the imitator of Christ realizes that they will open themselves up to attack and pain, to sorrow and hardship. Yet, in this, they then relinquish control, turning it over to He who carries them.
The Relinquishing of Control
There are few concepts, few ideas that run contrary to the world quite like that of relinquishing control. After all, we are taught from the earliest of ages something not that dissimilar to the famous quote from Invictus by the British poet William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Musicians sing about our need to be in control, and countless self-help books are written about it. Engrained deep inside of us is the belief that we need to be in control, and when we believe, or recognize that we are not, it’s followed by either a desperate attempt to regain even the semblance of it or depression and anxiety.
In a strange sense of irony, control has become an idol for us as we give the desire for control a strange power over us, guiding our thoughts, actions, and plans.
Yet, to empty ourselves so that we may, in fact, imitate Christ, we must be willing to give up control, just as the Son did as he relinquished control to the Father, yielding his independent divine authority. He, after all, in the incarnation, could do nothing on his own initiative. He sought not his own will, but, rather, the will of He who sent him. (Jn. 5:30) Here, we see the perfect unity of the will of God with the Son incarnate as Christ seeks not His own will but the will of God.” (Jn. 6:38)
This, perhaps, seems confusing. After all, aren’t the will of the Father and the Son perfectly unified, existing in perfect harmony, to begin with? Why would Jesus need to submit to it?
Yes, such is the nature of the Trinity. Yet, as Christ emptied himself, he momentarily, gave up what can only be described as his intimate and unique relationship with the Father. What’s more is that, in his incarnation, the Savior was tempted in every way that we are tempted (Heb. 4:15), including in the fleshes desire for control. (Lk. 4:13) Yet, in all of these things, he submitted himself to the will of the Father
Control is not for us to have, regardless of how much we may cling to and grasp for it. Instead, it is for us to wholly and willingly turn it all over to God, giving up any and all authority that we have, or, at the very least, that we believe we have, in our lives to Him. It is only here then that we find that our will may align with the will of the Father. This, in turn, leads us to the fruit that is bore when we let go of that fleshly nature. This is, namely, faithful obedience which is first demonstrated through Christ and by Christ.
Christ gave himself in the truest obedience, even to the point of death on the cross.
This conjures for us a particular image and perhaps a certain understanding of what obedience actually looks like. We must be willing to take up a cross and go to the grave. This is a part, or a portion of it, absolutely, but it is also only a small portion of it.
As I think about obedience I think of the late Dr. Ralph P. Martin’s commentary on Philippians for the Tyndale Series. He observes that death as obedience is a reflection not only of Christ’s divinity but also of his authority. After all, for the regular individual death is simply our reality, it is an inevitable, forgone conclusion. Yet, for Christ, it is not. In this sense, only the Son of God, true God, and true man can choose for himself death as obedience. And why would he choose such? Because of love, first for the Father and also for fallen humanity.
In this sense Christ’s obedience was a transcending, encompassing obedience that went beyond a cursory or simplistic knowledge of who he was. Instead, it went to the very heart of it, offering up what only he was capable of offering. In that moment, his obedience demanded something of him, namely that he made himself smaller than he was, lower than he was. Of course, this can’t be a surprise. He, after all, emptied himself of his status in heaven in the incarnation, and, in taking on the form of the flesh, became a servant.
Thus, what we learn from Christ’s obedience is, essentially, twofold. The first is that obedience, true obedience, requires sacrifice on our part, and this sacrifice is that which is unique to us. In this sense, as we commit ourselves to that act of submission, we offer up that which only we are capable of giving as we reflect on our nature. The second is that obedience is not a duty, at least as we have always known and understood it. Rather, obedience is an act of love to God and our fellow man as we give ourselves in service and sacrifice.
We must then if we are to imitate Christ, be willing to offer up that which is truly unique in us in obedience to our Heavenly Father even as it demands that we become something less than we are. At that moment what we see is that our obedience is not just a matter of convenience or ease but, rather, one that may demand hardship, suffering, pain, and sorrow, but that is, in the end, worth it, because of whom we give that full measure of our devotion to.
Of course, the reality is that we will never be able to imitate Christ perfectly, nor will we ever be able to empty ourselves as fully or as completely as he did. Yet, for the Disciple, the challenge still presents itself, as it reminds them that they can never stop trying. In this, it offers to them that which they should strive for as they, in complete surrender, live that spirit-filled life, seeking forever to draw themselves nearer to their Lord. It is, after all, only by self-emptying that the disciple of Christ is capable of being filled more fully by their Savior.
Submit then to God, and to His Word, even when it is difficult, even when it presents a challenge, leaning more fully on Christ each step of the way, as you recognize that your purpose is to glorify your Heavenly Father as you set aside your will for His will. Give up whatever control you may think you have for your life, it is only an allusion anyways. It is either God who has control, or the world. Determine now which it is. Focus your heart and your mind as you give it all up, holding on to nothing, holding back nothing, for Him. Give yourself in full obedience, humbly submitting yourself as a servant, knowing the beauty of servitude that Christ first demonstrated. Deny yourself, and, in doing so, cling to your Lord. God, through His Spirit, has transformed you, now stop clinging to that which is behind you.
When you begin this process you move past the simplistic understanding of what it means to be an imitator of Christ and you embrace something more, something deeper in your faith….
Lord, grant this unto us all…