In 1992 Gatorade released the “Be Like Mike” commercial in which viewers were called to be like Michael Jordan. He had become such a household name that his renown was felt nationally. Most people already wanted to be like Mike, the commercial just gave voice to this sentiment. Since then this commercial and its message have been scrutinized many times by pastors and Bible teachers as they call their listeners not to be like Mike but to be like Jesus Christ, and rightly so. But how do we reconcile this noble commitment to not mimic other people with passages like Philippians 3:17 where Paul says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us”? Are we to be followers of Christ or other people? Biblically speaking the answer is both.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
What Paul is getting at in Philippians 3:17 (and again in 4:9) seems counterintuitive to our modern Christian mindset but this does not need to be the case. Paul does not view his words as a challenge to following Christ because Paul is only calling his readers to follow him to the extent that he follows Christ. This is most clearly observed in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In Paul’s theology he considers it a grace to be in the presence of other brothers and sisters in Christ who are more mature and seasoned in the faith. This concept of imitating other believers as they imitate Christ is also found in 1 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9; 2 Timothy 4:12; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3.
Disciple makers are being discipled
I’ve heard Mark Dever say, “If you say you are following Jesus but are not helping others to know and follow Jesus then I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘I follow Jesus.” Dever’s point is hard to accept but is certainly biblical (Matthew 28:19-20). It should be part of our normal Christian experience to help others follow Jesus. But making disciples is not the only ‘normal’ part of our Christian experience.
What Paul’s words remind us is that being discipled is also part of our normal Christian experience. God intends both being discipled and making disciples to be coexisting realities for the life of believers. We never graduate to the role of ‘disciple-maker’ in such a way that we can leave behind our need to be discipled. Maybe ask yourself the question, ‘who is currently helping me better follow Jesus?’
This commitment to be disciples doesn’t mean that there must be a person whom you have formally asked to disciple you or that there is a person who sees himself/herself as being your spiritual father/mother/counselor/advisor/mentor. Often these relationships are informal and organic in nature. The person you see fulfilling this role for you may even be surprised that you see him/her in this way. For others, this relationship may be may formal and structured and that is more than okay.
The core of what Paul is calling believers to is to identify individuals who are more mature in their following of Christ than you are and to imitate them. The person you have in mind may not be more mature in Christ than you in every way but he/she must necessarily be more mature at least in many ways and therefore a good source of imitation. Having someone(s) you look to as a point of reference for imitating Christ helps us see the commands of Scripture come to life in concrete and culturally ways.
Praise God that He saw fit to grow us into Christ-likeness along with others!
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Matthew 4:19 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.