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When I was in primary school, I spent a lot of time in hospital. I had a problem with my hip that saw me in and out of hospital several times. My first hospital stay was for a week of traction (yes, they were literally pulling my leg—for a whole week). In the children’s ward with me was a school friend; he’d been dragged by a horse and had burns all over his body (he has since recovered!). There was also another child in the ward with us. His name was Dean. Dean was about two years old, and his dad was a truck driver. I remember this fact quite distinctly. The reason I remember it is because Dean clearly loved trucks. How do I know he loved trucks? He told us. Often. All day, and all night, Dean would say “Truck!” He would require us frequently to acknowledge the significance of trucks. One night, while my friend was sleeping, Dean decided it was important to make his love of trucks known. So Dean toddled over to my friend’s bed, grabbed the portable food table, rammed it repeatedly into his bandaged belly (just to get his attention, of course), and said, “Truck! Truck!” Happily, the nurses heard and came pretty quickly to sort it all out. Dean didn’t stay too long in the ward with us after that.
Dean’s love of trucks was entirely natural, wasn’t it? This is how the world works: children imitate their parents. Children learn to act the way their parents act, and to love what their parents love. Now that I’m a dad myself, I can see how true it is. It’s impossible for us as parents to get away with hypocrisy. If we really want our kids to grow up to be certain kinds of people, there’s no short cuts: we need to work hard at becoming those people ourselves. Our kids don’t necessarily learn to do what we say, but they do learn to do what we do and to love what we love. Sometimes I see my kids stressing out and worrying too much, and I know exactly where it comes from: me. On the other hand, sometimes I see them imitating us in good ways: for example, when I see them genuinely loving and respecting each other, following in the way we try to model love and respect in our marriage. Of course, my parenting is nowhere near perfect, and I get it wrong far too often. There are no perfect parents on this earth, and none of us have perfect parents either. Maybe yours were (or are) downright awful. Maybe you’ve realised that you’ve inherited from your parents certain behaviours that you wish you could get rid of. That can be hard. For good or bad, children imitate their parents.
That’s why being a Christian is such a powerful thing. If you’re a believer in Christ, then God is your loving heavenly Father. Even if your earthly parents were terrible, or absent, that fact doesn’t have to determine the course of your life. You have someone perfectly good to imitate: God himself. That’s what Paul is writing about here in these verses: he says to “become imitators of God”.
So then, become imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God, a fragrant aroma.Ephesians 5:1–2
“Become imitators of God”. This is an amazing privilege, and it undergirds everything about our Christian lives.
Dearly loved children
The reason we can become imitators of God is that we are God’s “dearly loved children”. God isn’t just some distant supreme being who demands our cowering allegiance. God loves us, deeply and sacrificially, as our Father. That’s why he wants us to live for him. In his letter so far, Paul has said many things about the riches of God’s love for us. In love, God decided that we should become his children in the first place, adopting us and making us his own (Ephesians 1:4–5). In love, God lavished his mercy on us, not judging us for our sins, but sending his Son Jesus Christ to die for them, raising us from death to life with him (Ephesians 2:4–5). This makes us God’s dearly loved children.
Genuine love makes children secure. That’s true even in our own imperfect earthly families, isn’t it? When children know they’re loved, it gives them power to live, and suffer, and fail themselves, and sin and ask for forgiveness, and give of themselves for the sake of others and not need to constantly grasp, because they are loved, and they have love to give. Of course, earthly parents fail in all sorts of ways. But God’s love for us is deep and perfect. And that gives us security, and the power to imitate him.
Loving like Christ
So what does it mean to imitate God? It means to “walk in love, just as Christ also loved us”. The word “love” is very important here. But when we see the word “love”, we need to be clear about what it means. “Love” is one of those words that means different things to different people. For some, love just means feeling strong feelings for another person. For others, love just means unconditionally approving and affirming everything that another person does and feels. But that’s not what the Bible means by the word “love”. While it’s important to be kind and compassionate in the way we love others (see Ephesians 4:31–32), there’s more to the concept of love than just feelings or attitudes. Paul says here to “walk in love”. The word “walk” has to do with our actions and our daily lives. Walking in love is something that we do for people, not just something that we feel for people. In fact, it’s about imitating God’s actions in loving us. Specifically, it’s about imitating Christ’s loving actions for us: we should walk in love “just as Christ also loved us”. So how did Christ love us?
Sacrificing like Christ
Christ loved us in this way: he “gave himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God, a fragrant aroma.” Paul is talking about Christ’s costly, sacrificial death on the cross for us. We see here that Christ didn’t just feel for us, and he didn’t just affirm us. He gave himself for us. And that self-giving is a model for us to live by.
Paul has already spoken about Christ’s death for us several times in his letter so far. Christ’s death was a sacrifice in which he gave himself up and shed his blood, in our place, so that we could be forgiven of our sins (see Ephesians 1:7). So it was a sacrifice that brought salvation. It was also a sacrifice that brought peace: peace with God, and peace with one another (see Ephesians 2:14–16). In that sense, Christ’s sacrifice is unique. It’s something he did for us, once for all, to bring salvation and peace. His blood was shed for us. We can’t shed our blood for others in that way, dying for their sins and bringing peace to the world.
But here, Paul describes Christ’s sacrifice in a way that helps us to see how it applies to us. Christ’s death was an “offering and sacrifice to God, a fragrant aroma”. These words point to the various sacrifices in the Old Testament: regular sacrifices of food and drink that the Israelites made to God, which pleased him day by day. We also read in the Old Testament how these physical offerings and sacrifices were pointing to a more fundamental sacrifice: a life lived in obedience to God’s word (see Psalm 40:6–8). So by describing Christ’s death this way, Paul is helping us to see how Christ’s sacrificial love acts as the model for our own regular, day-to-day lives. Christ’s sacrifice gives us a pattern for life. Being a child of God is being a child of love. Love involves sacrifice. And sacrifice means giving ourselves to God, and giving ourselves for the sake of others.
What sacrifice looks like
We all know what it means to give of ourselves for the sake of a greater goal, or for others. Sacrifice involves our own desires and comfort and wealth and reputation and enjoyment. Sacrifice might mean making costly decisions to give up what is ours for the good of God and the good of others. Sacrifice might mean making decisions about our time, our wealth, our leisure, our energy, our careers, and our reputation: decisions that have the good of God and others as our primary goal. Sacrifice affects everything about our lives.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we must simply forget about ourselves and pretend that we don’t have needs of our own. Paul is not saying that we need to give away so much of ourselves that we just burn out and have nothing left to give. That’s because sacrifice isn’t just a one-off heroic act; it’s about the long haul in our daily lives. That’s why it needs to be ‘sustainable’—and why we need to exercise good habits of self care. In other words, we need to be wise as we sacrifice (we’ll come to that more when we look at Ephesians 5:15). Yet still, we need to realise that sacrifice—and not self-fulfilment—is to be the basic attitude lying behind our decisions in all of this.
It’s also important to remember sacrifice doesn’t always mean doing what other people want. What is best for people is to come to know and love Jesus, and to be changed and grow to live for him. So sometimes sacrificial love means saying hard truths and doing unpopular things. It might involve holding on to God’s word at great cost to our own reputation. Christians around the Western world (to say nothing of those in other parts of the world) in various denominations are currently sacrificing their own church property for the sake of that gospel truth. They are doing it for the sake of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of others knowing and hearing that truth.
God’s children, then, are to live a life of love and sacrifice. By ourselves, this is impossible. That’s why we need to keep returning to God’s love in Christ. We need to pray that God’s Spirit will keep working in us. We need to keep remembering that we are dearly loved children, raised from death to life and secure with him, now and forever. This is what gives us the power to sacrifice. Christ’s sacrificial love for us gives us the power to give ourselves to others, to put in the long, hard effort, to serve, to be humble, to work, and to care. It gives us the power to love difficult people: people we don’t naturally love. And it gives us the power to let go of things we want to grasp on to, for the sake of others: because we know that we are dearly loved children. And in all this, we need to remember that being an imitator of God is not something that instantly happens to us. It’s something we are to “become”. God works in us, changing us bit by bit, to be like him and like his Son Jesus Christ. What an amazing privilege that is.
If you are a believer in Christ, you are God’s dearly loved child. How does this truth give you strength to love others?
What is one area where you might sacrifice yourself and things that belong to you for the sake of others?
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.