“Our Imitation of Christ” (Philippians 2:5 sermon)

Birch Bayh was a Senator from Indiana back in the 1960’s. He and his wife  Marvella ended up serving in Washington for some years, but they were admittedly “babes at sea” when they first arrived from Indiana. They were nervous about all the protocol, especially at important Washington political dinners. Marvella said that Lady Bird Johnson told her: “Just keep an eye on your hostess, and follow her lead.” And so she got along very well, just imitating the leader at all these functions.  

But one day her husband Birch came home from a luncheon with the President and some other top dignitaries, and said he was totally confused. He said “You told me to watch the leader, right?” She said, ’That’s right.”  He said, well, “I was seated between the Chief of Protocol and the President of the United States.” When we came to the first course, one of them picked up his fork, and the other one picked up his spoon!”  Who was he supposed to imitate?  (Katharine Graham’s Washington, pp. 92-93) (Of course, the President was LBJ, so he ‘d have probably been better off “protocol-wise” following the other guy!!) 

But it matters who you imitate — which is what our verse for today is about.  My original plan for today was to preach on Philippians 2:5-11 today, on the glory and humiliation of Christ. But as I began to study Monday, I couldn’t get past verse 5:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”

And it was like God said, STOP right there! You don’t need to just “breeze” by this — you need to really stop and look at this verse. Because this is the whole point here: God wants us to imitate the attitude we see in Jesus. 

We saw last week that Paul just spent four verses describing some characteristics we are to have, and not to have, in order to keep Christian unity in the church. He said, “don’t merely look out for your own personal interests,” but DO “look out for the interests of others,” etc. But this next verse just sums it all up: just what is it that are we to do?  “Have this attitude in yourselves with was also in Christ Jesus.”  Very simply put, DO WHAT JESUS DID. This gets to the whole heart of what we are to be about in the Christian life: we are to be imitating Jesus.

Then the next verses (:6-11) tell us with amazing power and insight just what Jesus’ attitude WAS — and we’ll look at that next week — but THIS verse gives us the basic principle first, and we can’t just skip by it. We need to focus on this, at least for today; and be reminded that the attitude we are to imitate, is that of Jesus Christ. So let’s look at this brief verse for just a few minutes together.

I.  What The Imitation Is NOT: 

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”

We need a word of warning as we get underway looking at this verse: DO NOT take this command in the wrong way — because many people have.  

The warning is this: If you are not yet a Christian, DO NOT try to take this verse as your philosophy, and say “I will just imitate Jesus, and that’s how I will get to heaven.”  If you try to do that, it will only lead you to frustration and despair, and ultimately it will lead you to hell, because the thing is, YOU CAN’T DO IT!

“I’m just going to imitate Jesus and go to heaven”?  REALLY?  Like that’s just some easy thing to do!  But there are people who say it: “How are you going to get to heaven?” “Well, I’m just going to be like Jesus and do what He did.” Really? You’re “just” going to do what Jesus did? 

— You’re just going to be so deep spiritually that you ask the world’s religious leaders questions at age 12 that they can’t understand?

— You’re just going to come face to face with a man so possessed by demons that shackles and chains can’t hold him, and you’ll disarm him with a word?

— You’re going to be confronted by people who are trying to trip you up on every word you speak, but you are going to defeat them by saying the perfect thing every time?

— You’re just going to look at 5000 families out in the middle of nowhere who have no food — and you’ve only got 5 loaves and 2 fish, but you’re going to tell them that you’re going to feed them all — and then do it?

— You’re going to stand before a court full of liars, who slander you to your face, and say nothing back to them?  You’re going to stand there while they strip you naked, and beat you, and spit on you, and mock you, and do nothing?

— Not even to mention what He did on the cross … you’re “just going to do what Jesus did?”  I don’t think so! There’s NO WAY you can come anywhere near doing what Jesus. No one has EVER come close to doing what Jesus did.

It’s like saying “I’m just going to go out and play golf and hit 18 holes-in-one in a row.” You can’t do it!  No one has ever done it. No one has ever come close to doing it.   

And you can’t come close to imitating Jesus to get to heaven either. Listen, the LAST thing you should say about how you’re going to get to heaven, is “I’m ‘just’ gonna do what Jesus did.” You can’t do it!  

See, that’s why Jesus CAME in the first place: because we COULDN’T live the perfect life He lived.  God gave us those 10 Commandments in the Old Testament and said, “keep these things and you will live.” The problem with that was, NONE of us could! 

— We all DID make others gods before Him

— We all DID make idols out of things

— We all DID take His name in vain

— We all DID break the Sabbath

— We all DID disobey our parents

— We all DID hate people, and lust, and lie, and steal, and cheat, and covet things that are other people’s.

We all DID break the Commandments. THAT’S WHY JESUS HAD TO COME — BECAUSE WE COULDN’T DO IT!  

So don’t ever say, “I’ll just imitate Jesus to go to heaven.” Because you can’t. That’s why Jesus came: to do what we COULDN’T do; He lived the perfect life that we couldn’t live; He bore all our sins in His body on the cross and paid for all of our failures, because we COULDN’T do it.  

So today, if you’re thinking: “I am one of those failures.” I am one of those people who has messed up. I am one of those people who has sinned — if you’re saying that, then I say “Hallelujah” — because that means you are exactly the kind of person Jesus came for!  You are exactly the person Jesus died for. You are the one Jesus can forgive. Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to “the poor in spirit” — the person who knows they have sinned and fallen short and don’t deserve it. That’s who He can forgive and take to heaven. The person He CAN’T forgive is the one who thinks they are somehow “good enough” and that they have “earned” it.

But my point is, DON’T say, “I’m just going to imitate Jesus and go to heaven.” You can’t. You’ll fall short. That’s why He came — to forgive you because you fall short.  

So let’s get that out of the way here right off. You can’t “earn” your way to heaven by imitating Jesus. You get to heaven by admitting you AREN’T good enough to imitate Jesus like you should — and by asking Him to do for you what you can’t do for yourself, and save you.  

Right now, right this second, you may need to pray to God and say, “Lord, I am not good enough to deserve heaven; forgive me and save me right now — because of what JESUS did for me on the cross — and help me to follow Him from this day forward; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

If you will really pray something like that, and mean it, He will forgive you, and you can know that you are going to heaven. If you’re doing that, come and tell me at the end of the service. But never forget: you are NOT saved by how well you imitate what Jesus did; you are saved by what JESUS did for you on the cross. DO NOT take this verse the wrong way like that. If you try it, it will keep you from ever getting into heaven.  

Now, secondly, let’s look at what this verse was intended for, which is:

II.  The CHRISTIAN Imitation of Christ

Once you have asked Jesus to save you solely based on His mercy, and not your great imitation of Him, THEN you can get to what this verse is really all about: which is imitating Jesus as a forgiven sinner (as a Christian). THAT is what this verse is talking about, and that is an entirely different thing.  You can never imitate Jesus so well that you can get to heaven by it, because you will fall short of it. But when you admit you’ve fallen short of it and ask Him to save you by His mercy, THEN you can start the imitation of Jesus God intends for you, as a Christian who’s been saved by His grace.  THAT is what this verse is commanding us to do.

See, this verse was written to Christians. We just saw that last week where Paul said “If there is any encouragement in Christ …” and so on. He’s writing to people who KNOW the encouragement that is to be found in Christ — he’s writing to people like P.T. Barnum’s grandmother who can face death with a smile because they know Jesus as their Savior.  It is to THESE people, to Christian people, to whom he says “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” As a Christian, saved by the blood of Jesus on the cross, your whole goal in life now is to “have this attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus.” 

Now someone may say, “But you just said we couldn’t ever do that!” RIGHT!  You can never do it as a means of earning your way to heaven. But once you have been GIVEN heaven by the blood of Jesus on the cross, now imitating Jesus is to be your GOAL — And it is a much more achievable goal, because when you become a Christian, the Holy Spirit of Jesus comes into your life, and gives you the power to become like Him and to “have the attitude which was in Christ Jesus.”  

So now AS A CHRISTIAN, this is what your life is to be about: having the attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus.  Your goal in life as a Christian is to imitate Jesus.

This is what our whole Beatitude study was about, that we started the year with: God’s whole goal for our lives is for us to become like Jesus: Romans 8:29 says we are “To become conformed to the image of His Son”.  God wants us to imitate Christ. 

It is born in us to want to imitate others whom we admire.  I just finished reading Volume II of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and in it, he tells about some of Johnson’s followers, who were SO devoted to him. In fact, there was one, who was so devoted to LBJ that he tried to imitate him in every way. In the book, there is a picture of this man standing by Johnson, and it is almost comical, because he is standing in the same way, with the same slant to his posture, his arms folded the same way; his legs leaning the same way. He was trying to be just like his hero, his mentor, Lyndon Johnson.  

And really, that’s One of the biggest problems that many of us as Christians have is that we are trying to imitate someone other than Jesus. God’s stated goal for us as Christians is to imitate Jesus — but many of us are not doing that. We’re modeling ourselves after the wrong people. And it’s not only former presidents; we are modeling our lives after all kinds of other BAD role models.

— We’re trying to imitate the successful salesman who wrote that best-selling book. 

— We’re trying to imitate the brash sports star we saw at the game

— We’re trying to imitate the attractive actress we saw on tv

— We’re trying to imitate the arrogant intellectual

— We’re trying to imitate the smooth politician

— We’re trying to imitate the carefree adventurer

Or whoever.  We’re trying to imitate all these different people. And I’m not talking about lost people doing that, I’m talking about God’s people. Many of us — even as children of God, are trying to imitate the wrong people. 

We’re trying to imitate the attitude of Donald Trump; or Matthew McConahey, or J.J. Watt, or Taylor Swift, or Rush Limbaugh or Reba McEntire — or whoever. Now, some of these may be better than others — but the Bible says it is not their attitudes you are to imitate. They are not God’s goal for you, and imitating them will not ultimately help you.

It would be like someone who wanted to learn to play golf, studying a video of your pastor out on the golf course. I promise you, you DO NOT want to do that!  Par is about 72, but I’m really happy when I break 100! (I was so thrilled the last time I played with Jack Franklin because it was the first time in forever that I didn’t hit a ball in the water the whole day!) Don’t study ME!  

If you want to learn to play golf, study someone who does it well. Study Phil Mickelson, who just became the oldest player to win a major PGA championship event, at the age of almost 51. He’s been called THE greatest short-game player (his pitch shots & chips) in history. If you want to study someone for golf, study him (but if you DO study him, remember he’s left handed, so you have to reverse it! That could mess you up!) 

But what the Bible is telling us here is: if you want to really succeed in what matters in life, you’ve got to STOP imitating all the wrong people. Think about it: “Who have I been trying to imitate?” — who may not be the best role model for you?  The Bible says you need to correct that. “Have this attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus.” Study JESUS. Imitate Him. HE is the One we are shooting to be like, not anyone else. As a Christian, imitate Jesus.

III.   The ATTITUDE (of Jesus) we are to imitate.

Our imitation of Jesus is not just in a general way: we aren’t to imitate the way He looked, or the clothes He wore (which is one reason I believe God didn’t let pictures or paintings of Jesus get passed down to us — because we’d probably focus on these “exterior” qualities, when what God wants us to copy about Jesus is not His APPEARANCE, but His ATTITUDE!  He says, “Have this ATTITUDE in yourself, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

The word “attitude” here is a Greek Bible word (“phroneo”) that describes the area around the heart. They tell us this is a difficult word to translate into English, because it involves both thinking and feeling. This word refers to the way you “think,” (which is the way it is often translated) but also the way you “feel,” both of which affect what you are led to DO. In other words, THINK this way; and FEEL this way; in order to lead your LIFE the right way — it is an “attitude” that affects your whole life — that is basically what this word means.

And it is significant that Paul uses this word TEN times just in the Book of  Philippians!  So he’s really emphasizing this. He’s saying the way you think & feel; the kind of attitude you have, that leads to your actions, is vital.

And what is important about it, is to model your thoughts, feelings, and actions, after the pattern you see in CHRIST. Not anybody else, but Christ: “Have this attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus.” 

We saw a hint of that attitude from :1-4, that it says we are to be selfless, NOT just thinking about our own personal interests, but thinking of others. Putting other people ahead of ourselves.  And then he says, JESUS is the Great Example of that: “Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

You can probably think of episodes throughout the life of Jesus in the Gospels, where He puts other people ahead of Himself:

— One of the first ones that comes to my mind is from Matthew 14, when Jesus has just been told that His cousin, and forerunner in ministry, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. Verse 13 says when He heard this, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself.” He wanted and needed some time to get away and mourn His loss. But it goes on to say that people followed Him on foot; they didn’t allow Him to get away. And :14 says, “When He saw a large crowd, He felt compassion for them …” and began to minister to them. See, HE didn’t “feel” like doing that just then; He Himself was mourning; He needed some time away. But He put others’ needs ahead of Himself.

That’s just the attitude Jesus had, all through His ministry:

— He was very tired and hungry at the well at Samaria, waiting for His disciples to bring Him some food, but he talked to the Samaritan woman anyway; He put her needs ahead of His own.

— He was bleeding to death on the cross, but He told John to look out for His mother.  

Over and over we see this in the Scriptures, that “the attitude” Jesus had which we are to imitate, is selflessness; putting others ahead of Himself.

E.W. Starling was a Secret Service agent under several Presidents, and he wrote a VERY interesting book about his time with them. One of the most touching incidents he was involved with had to do with President Woodrow Wilson, who had been on a train trip to the West Coast, but had a disabling stroke when they got to California. It was very severe, and ended up crippling Wilson for the rest of his Presidency. One the way back towards Washington, Agent Starling had scheduled a vacation to visit his mother in St. Louis. So he went back to tell the President goodbye, and when he did, he could see that the stroke had affected him greatly. Starling told President Wilson that he would be praying for him — and the President said,“Thank you, Starling,” and then he said: “I want you to take something to your mother for me.” He gave him a beautiful shawl, and two large boxes of candy to give to her. Starling said he was so touched, that he was unable to speak a word. “That here, in the midst of their own grief, the President and Mrs. Wilson should remember me and my (mother) filled me with a sense of gratitude.” He said he just shook Mrs. Wilson’s hand and departed.” (E.W. Starling and Thomas Sugrue, Starling of the White House, p. 153)

From time to time we see examples of that kind of graciousness in human beings: people who very selflessly put others ahead of themselves. And as we saw last week, God commands you & me to put others ahead of ourselves, in order to keep unity in the church.  But we need to understand that NO ONE ever did this like Jesus. No humiliation or sacrifice that any of us have ever made, or ever will make, begins to compare with what Jesus did for us.  

And that is just what Paul gets into in verses 6 and following: the glory of what Jesus had in heaven, and the horrific depths of what He walked through for us when He came to earth. Philippians 2:6-11 has some of the most powerful, and most glorious verses in all of the word of God. What those verses tell us that Jesus did for us, putting our needs ahead of His own comfort, is the attitude that God wants us to imitate in the church. And Lord willing, we’ll look at that in some more depth next week.

But for now, let’s bow our heads together … 

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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