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“The Imitation of Christ”

John 17:13-19, Matthew 22:35-40, Matthew 25:34-40, Matthew 4:1-11, Matthew 28:18-20
Bob DeGray
August 17, 2008

Key Sentence

Christian living is living like Christ and in obedience to Him.


I. Sanctify Them (John 17:13-19)
II. The Great Commandments (Matthew 22:35-40)
III. The Least of These (Matthew 25:34-40)
IV. The Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11)
V. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)


Thomas a Kempis was a Dutch Christian who lived in the late Medieval period, from 1380 to 1471 a.d. He was born in Kempen, Germany and died less than 75 miles away in Zwolle, in the Netherlands after a lifetime of service to a Catholic revival order called ‘The Brothers of the Common Life’. He spent most of those years as a copyist, just as the printing press began to revolutionize the production of books. He copied the Bible multiple times; one of those copies is still in existence.

But he is best known for his devotional writing, especially The Imitation of Christ, widely considered one of the greatest manuals of Christian devotion. Protestants and Catholics alike treasure it. John Wesley and John Newton listed it among the works that influenced them at their conversion. It’s probably the third most widely printed Christian work, after the Bible itself and Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Imitation begins this way: “He who follows Me, walks not in darkness," says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ. The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints. Whoever wishes to understand the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.”

“What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?”

Christian living, patterned on the life of Christ, is critically important, arguably even more important than Christian thinking. Therefore the new Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America devotes a paragraph to Christian Living. I doubt they were directly influeces by Thomas a Kempis, but they may have been trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice in Evangelical Christianity: that our lives tend to look just like the lives of those who do not believe at all.

So they included this paragraph: We believe that God's justifying grace must not be separated from His sanctifying power and purpose. God commands us to love Him supremely and others sacrificially, and to live out our faith with care for one another, compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed. With God’s Word, the Spirit’s power and fervent prayer in Christ’s name, we are to combat the spiritual forces of evil. In obedience to Christ’s commission, we are to make disciples among all people, bearing witness to the gospel in word and deed.

How will we study such a statement? I didn’t find one text of Scripture that included all these elements. But as considered the Scriptures the paragraph is based on, it was clear that much of it comes from the life and teachings of Jesus himself. And that’s no bad thing: to base our living on his life. So Christian living is living like Christ and in obedience to him. I’ve broken the doctrinal statement into five thoughts, and chosen five neon thoughts from the life of Christ to amplify what it says.

I. Sanctify Them - John 17:13-19

“We believe that God's justifying grace must not be separated from His sanctifying power and purpose.” In other words God saves us not just to save us but to transform us. The two theological words there are justification, by which he makes us righteous in his sight and sanctification by which he makes us holy in our lives. Justification is a declaration of God on our behalf; sanctification is a process he works in us.

This is what Jesus prayed for in the upper room on the last night of his earthly ministry. He had promised his disciples the Holy Spirit. He had told them he was going to prepare a place for them. And then in John 17, he prayed to his Father for them.

John 17:13-19 "I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.”

Jesus knows where he’s going: back to the Father through his death and resurrection. He knows what he wants for his disciples: the same joy he has in his loving Father. He knows how they get it: though his words. So he doesn’t ask God to remove us from this world, even though it hates us, but to protect us. This fallen world isn’t our home, any more than it was his, but it is our place of ministry, just as it was his.

So what does he pray? For sanctification: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” The purpose of the Christian life is Christlikeness - we are to become holy as he is holy, to walk as he walked, in a full unfiltered joyful relationship to the Father.

And this can only be based on the work of Christ. Jesus says “for them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” It’s a bit of word play: when he says it of himself he means “I set myself apart, offering myself as the holy sacrifice for sins, that my redeeemed may be set apart as holy servants. We are made righteous by his holy sacrifice and called to live ‘set apart’ lives in imitation of him.

This is Jesus’ design for us, and from his life and teaching we can identify the same key principles outlined in the Statement of Faith.

II. The Great Commandments - Matthew 22:35-40

“God commands us to love Him supremely and others sacrificially.” Matthew 22:34-40 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

This is one of the most famous exchanges in the Gospels. The Pharisees were trying to trip Jesus up, convinced whatever answer Jesus gave would undoubtedly antagonize someone. But Jesus summarizes the law so simply that a child can know it: love God; love others. He summarizes it so profoundly that we can never plumb the depths: loving God with all our heart, soul and mind; loving others as ourselves.

Jesus took them first to Deuteronomy 6:5, the great command that tests our attitudes and behaviors.”You shall love the Lord your God.” The final two words make it personal. Only through personal faith in Jesus Christ does God become one’s own God. Moreover, he becomes Lord - not merely known, but known with a personal allegiance, and thus loved with an ‘agape’ love, a love of purpose and sacrifice, “love that generously chooses for the interests of another.”

This love is to flow not just from our minds, but from every part of us: “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.”.“With” is the Greek preposition ek which denotes origin, the point from which action or motions proceed. Love for God proceeds from an inner life filled and controlled by a faith relationship with God. Every part of us is fully involved in loving God.

But the vertical reality of love for God is expressed in horizontal relationships of love for others. That’s why Jesus says “the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'” It’s a quote from Leviticus 19:18. The two commands are reciprocal. Love for others expresses our love for God and love for God empowers our love for others. Love for neighbors is cut from the same cloth as love for God and can’t be distinguished from it: we love God with heart, soul and mind by loving others.

III. The Least of These - Matthew 25:34-40

The Statement of Faith goes on to say we “live out our faith with care for one another, compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed. Notice: that’s ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ fleshed out. But it also reflects a number of other Scriptures.

The one that haunts me is Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:34-40 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

I say this parable haunts me. I think that many of the neon Scriptures in our lives should so fill our thinking that they become almost a pre-occupation: have I neglected others in such a way that I have hurt Jesus? Have I cared for others in such a way that Jesus has been blessed? Do I see Jesus in the lives and the needs of others.

So Jesus begins this parable by saying that when the Son of Man comes he will divide the nations into two groups, the way a shepherd might separate sheep from goats. Then he will say to the sheep at his right hand “come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” In other words it is this group who have been chosen by God for blessing.

And how is this group characterized? They are the ones who practice caring ministry. They’re the ones who notice someone hungry and give them some food. They’re the ones who notice someone thirsty and provide water. They’re the ones who notice someone lonely and offer hospitality. They’re the ones who notice rags and give clothing. They are the ones who are sensitive to those hurting and sick. Are you and I caught us in this very practical mind set of caring for people? We should be.

We had an example of this last month in one of our missionary newsletters that was both powerful and moving. As you are listening ask yourself ‘would I have done that?’ By the way these missionary are in a creative access country, so I have slightly massaged the data to avoid recognition. But for the most part these are their words:

The wife in this missionary couple writes: “17 July 2008. Dear Friends, Greetings from our nationwide sauna. Summer is well and truly here and was kicked off in syle for us with a great summer outreach team of 10 young Americans. They spent an action-packed fortnight with us and made a really positive impact on those they met.

“Natalie is the single mother of 18 month old Donna. Her husband left when Donna was 3 months old. She works below minimum wage and lives with two brothers in a dirty, run-down studio apartment. With the team to help, we gave her apartment a surprise make over. Her land-lady let us in, equipped with cleaning equipment, paint, new soft-furnishings and three able bodies. She normally goes home during her 3 hour lunch break but in order to keep her away from the activities I turned up at work with baby Donna to give her a surprise lunchtime treat. At 33 years old she made her first visit to a restaurant.

“The menu was overwhelming and she ended up choosing sausage because she said she's not used to real meat! As we ate she kept putting down her cutlery looking around, giving a little tap on the plate and asking, "Is this real? Am I really here?"

“She ate 6 sausages, probably more than she's ever eaten at once in her life and could hardly breathe. As she finished her lunch she said, "You know no-one would ever want to be seen bringing me into a restaurant - look I'm even wearing my uniform and everyone can see I'm a cleaner, but you don't care what anyone thinks!" She said that it has always been her ambition to try to save enough money at the end of the month to buy a sandwich and eat it in the street, but she's never had enough.

“We still had a lot of time after we had eaten so I told her, "now we'll go to my house and you can take a shower (because she has no shower at home) and I'll cut your hair." She couldn't believe it, saying "The girls at work will say I'm a liar when I tell them what an unusual lunch break I've had!"

After her shower she told me that her uncle had just invited her to one of his son’s weddings. She said “he's ashamed of our side of the family because we're poor and he's an important person, an imam in the mosque and he has a nice house. He doesn't want me or my brothers or sisters to go to the wedding so he calls us at the last minute, knowing it's impossible for us to make it. He'll tell everyone he invited us and we refused to attend. Is this right for a religious man?” It was a great cue to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. She listened with interest, was impressed.

She went back to work with a fuller stomach than she'd had in a long time and a new haircut. She told me, "This is the best thing anyone has ever done for me. I could never imagine what an amazing day it would be when I went to work this morning."

The best was yet to come. As she opened her front door that evening she was speechless to find a bunch of foreigners in a transformed apartment. She cried to see the framed photo of her and her daughter and another of her daughters' footprints.

The excitement brought the whole street to her door and as people peered in to see where the TV cameras were hiding she told them all. "Look at this what these foreigners have done for me. Tell me, would any Muslim do that? Tell me a Muslim that would do this for me?" I reminded her of the story I’d told her earlier. Sometimes it’s not those you think are religious who truly know God and do His will.

That happened about 3 weeks ago. Since then I’ve been invited to 2 weddings in that neighborhood, people who now know me and want me to be seen at their weddings. Please pray that as we get known for good deeds we would also become known for wise and true words and for the stories of Jesus that change lives much more than a tin of paint.” Christian living is living like Christ and for Christ; it’s the imitation of Christ so that people can see his life lived out in our obedience.

IV. The Temptation - Matthew 4:1-11

The doctrinal statement goes on to say “With God’s Word, the Spirit’s power and fervent prayer in Christ’s name, we are to combat the spiritual forces of evil.” This sentence recognizes that living the Christian life involves us in spiritual warfare.

You might expect we’d look at Ephesians 6, the ‘whole armor of God’ passage, and I’m sure the drafters had that in mind. But I want to use the temptation of Jesus, which displays these same elements of spiritual warfare in an extremely practical form.

Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" 7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give you," he said, "if you will fall down and worship me." 10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" 11Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

This is spiritual warfare as modeled by Jesus. Notice that the Holy Spirit is involved. The doctrinal statement says that we wage spiritual warfare by the Spirit's power, and that's exactly what Jesus does. The doctrinal statement also says that we wage spiritual warfare through God's word; that's what Jesus does as well.

Three times he quotes Scripture to refute the Tempter's enticements: "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." He affirms for himself and us that it’s the Word of God that provides life. The spiritual warfare section of Ephesians says the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit. Here Jesus hands the Spirit his sword so that the temptations of Satan can be defeated.

The doctrinal statement also mentions prayer as a key compound of the Christian life. We don't actually see Jesus praying during this wilderness temptation, but it is implied throughout the episode, especially at the end where God's angels come and attend to Jesus and strengthen him further. So Jesus models the exact way we are to handle temptation and spiritual conflict: we are to depend on God's word, we are to depend on the Spirit's power and we are to depend on God in prayer.

V. The Great Commission - Matthew 28:18-20

Finally, the doctrinal statement says “ In obedience to Christ’s commission, we are to make disciples among all people, always bearing witness to the gospel in word and deed.” The neon text referred to is Jesus’ last instruction to his disciples.

Matthew 28:18-20 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Jesus came to make disciples. He called a motley band of peasants and fishermen to be the spearhead of his new community. Now he tells them to imitate him: while you are going, make disciples, baptizing them; teaching them. Notice that Jesus bases this command on his own authority, which the Father gave him as the Risen Son, conqueror of sin and death. There is no power and no grace to live the Christian life apart from the death and resurrection of Christ.

Notice too that the great commission includes "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you". We're saying this morning that Christian living is living like Christ and in obedience to him. So that whatever he has commanded us, whether it is love one another, or go make disciples, these are the things we are to do.

The passages we’ve studied this week show what it means to be like Christ, but they also give us the opportunity to listen to what he commanded: love God; love others; care for the poor, the hungry, and needy; learn and obey the Word, depend on me in prayer, depend on the power of the Holy Spirit.

By his grace and through faith these are the things that lead to sanctification, to holiness, to Christ likeness. These are the things the missionary couple and the short term team did for Natalie: they witnessed in word and in deed, and even if she never makes a commitment to Christ, they have modeled Christian living, showing Christ’s care to others.

Finally, we receive the promise of Christ's presence: "I am with you always even to the end of the age." This is again a reminder that we do not do these things in our own strength or by our own power. If I was to stand here today and merely list the actions that go into Christian living, I would do you no good at all. It is essential that we recognize that we do these things in dependence on Christ who is present with us, the Holy Spirit who is our helper, and God the Father who loves us.

Jesus himself modeled this dependence on the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christian living is living like Jesus and in obedience to his commands.