The Imitation of Paul

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

- Philippians 3:17

At least in the modern West, much education takes place in the classroom as students sit behind their desks, hear lectures, and take notes. There are advantages to this method, of course, but teachers in the ancient world did not generally instruct their pupils in this manner. The delivery of content through stories and even teaching resembling modern lectures took place, but there was also a great emphasis on the need for students to imitate the behavior of their instructors. This was especially common in ancient Judaism, the prime example of such teaching being Jesus Himself when He called for His followers to take up their crosses in imitation of Him (Luke 9:23).

So it is not unusual that Paul, also an ancient Jew, called the Philippians to imitate his example when he wrote today’s passage (Phil. 3:17). But the Apostle did not want them to be imitators of him because he was somehow worthy of copying apart from Christ. As Paul writes elsewhere, he was a model to follow only insofar as his life reflected Jesus (1 Cor. 11:1). The issue for the Apostle was always the presentation of “Christ and him crucified” (2:2), but not just in an abstract manner. He wanted his readers to shape their lives after the model of the Savior, who put the needs of others first and was willing to set His own rightful claims aside in serving others. Direct teaching about how Jesus humbled Himself in the incarnation helps people conform their lives to Jesus’ example (Phil. 2:1–11), but so does imitating those who imitate Christ. The Philippian believers were not present with Christ when He walked the earth, and they could not therefore imitate what they saw Him do. Yet they could imitate the Apostle whom they did know, and they were to do so in every way that Paul imitated Jesus.

We must do the same today, imitating Jesus Himself and also the Apostles insofar as we see in Scripture how they conformed themselves to Christ’s image. And just as the Philippians could imitate Paul whom they saw in the flesh, we can imitate mature, godly men and women in our lives who are clearly shaped by the cross. Let us therefore walk with the wise and copy their ways as they follow Christ, our wisdom, that we might also become wise (Prov. 13:20; 1 Cor. 1:30).

Coram Deo

We can learn a lot from the words of those who love Jesus and who teach us His truth. But we can also learn much from their example as they put the teaching of Christ into practice and walk in His ways. All of us know godly men and women in our churches who have followed Jesus for a long time and who mirror His character in so many ways. Let us learn from what they do and say that we might likewise become more like Jesus.

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 19:16
2 Thessalonians 3:6–9
Hebrews 13:7
3 John 11

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.