More Like Jesus: Introduction and Background (Part 1)
January 5, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
More Like Jesus: Introduction and Background (Part 1)
One of my all-time favorite songs is “I Want to Be More Like Jesus.” Whenever I hear or sing it, I’m reminded of a key aspect of living my faith. It serves as a short prayer that encompasses an important part of our faith journey as Christians—the development of Christlikeness in our lives.
Take these things that hinder me
Take my pride and vanity
Help me understand You
Teach me how to love You
Take my self and hypocrisy
Let me live in simplicity
Help me burn my bridges
Put Your Word within me
Take my heartache and emptiness
Deliver me from all worldliness
Take the chains that bind me
Put Your arms around me
I wanna be more, I wanna be more like Jesus
I wanna be more, I need to be more like You
(Lyrics by Mylon Lefevre, adapted by Sam Halbert)
Aren’t those beautiful words? I think we all want to be more like Jesus—to have more of His goodness and godliness in our lives, and less of the weights and sins that hinder us. While Christians are forgiven for our sins because we have accepted Jesus’ sacrifice, this doesn’t cause us to automatically stop sinning, experiencing the effects of sin in our lives, and affecting others through our sins. Our salvation, the reconciliation with God we receive through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, is not only meant to affect our life in the hereafter; it’s also meant to transform the life we live today, every day.
It is within this daily transformation, this becoming more Christlike, that we begin to experience to an extent the life God originally meant for humanity to live before sin entered the world. Through this transformation, we develop the relationship with our Creator we were meant to have, and we experience more joy, peace, happiness, and fulfillment because we live with a deeper understanding of God and a fuller relationship with Him.
Our overall focus as Christians is on living life as the people of God, the new creations that Scripture says we are. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.1 In this series we will look at the ways and means of living and growing in Christlikeness by reviewing the example of Jesus’ life and what He and His early followers taught about living as new creatures in Christ.
This series, More Like Jesus, will consist of several articles that each touch on an element of Christlikeness and Christian character.
In order to better understand the concept of being more like Jesus, it helps to look at some aspects of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles. Connecting reference points throughout Scripture can help bring deeper understanding of the importance of imitating Christ.
The Old Testament2
One of the main storylines conveyed throughout the Old Testament is the understanding that God’s relationship with humanity is one of covenant.3
Scripture tells us that the Creator of all things entered into a covenant with humanity whom He created. Scripture expresses it this way:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.4
Later, God renewed His universal covenant with humanity when He said to Noah:
“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”5
God then entered a specific covenant with Abraham, telling him that through him He would bring forth a great nation, and that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”6
“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”7
Centuries later, God delivered Abraham’s descendants from slavery and oppression in Egypt, and because of this they became His covenant people.8 As partakers of their covenant with God, there were things that the Hebrew people had to do to keep their side of the covenant agreement. The general narrative of the rest of the Old Testament is that God was continually faithful to the covenant in spite of Israel’s consistent failure to keep it.
Because Israel was in covenant with a holy God, they were meant to be holy as well. They were called to be a “holy assembly.”9 Holiness involved obedience to God—obedience given out of love and gratitude.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.10 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes.’” 11
Righteousness for the Jewish people involved obedience, and that obedience meant separating themselves from what was deemed defiled, not worshiping other gods, and being consecrated for God’s own use. Besides centering their lives on living according to God’s mandates, it also meant living as a community of faith.
Author Stanley Grenz wrote:
Being God’s holy people did not end with the God-ward direction of life, however. Being in covenant with God demanded that Israel be a holy community, a people who knew that covenant status must translate into proper conduct toward others. Holy living extended to all dimensions of human interaction, including aspects as diverse as family life and commerce. And holiness demanded concern for the less fortunate; it placed limits on vengeance;12 it even required proper care for animals.13…Holiness did not focus primarily on blind obedience to an externally imposed set of laws as ends in themselves. Instead it involved taking seriously the responsibility implicated in receiving the gift of divine grace.14
Being God’s covenant partner meant living in a way that was patterned after God and His dealings with Israel. Through His words to them, God revealed His character to Israel. They learned that He was faithful, holy, just, and merciful. He described Himself as “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”15 The prophet Micah said: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?16
Because God revealed His character to the covenant people, they were meant to imitate Him. They were to be holy, just, merciful, loving, and forgiving.
The Hebrew people looked forward to the time when God would act on their behalf as was spoken of in Scripture. God met this expectation by sending Jesus, and through His life, death, and resurrection, brought about a new covenant.
[Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”17
This new covenant was foretold in the book of Jeremiah:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people…. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”18
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees held that to be righteous and holy required strict adherence to the Law given by God, and that the people of God were those who rigidly followed the Law. They focused on adhering to the letter of the Law, without giving proper attention to the principles of love, mercy, forgiveness, etc. which stood behind the Law. They believed God was pleased because they obeyed the rules of Jewish piety and followed the Law to the letter. Jesus disagreed with them. He proclaimed that the people of God were not those who appeared to be righteous due to their strict law-keeping, but rather those who were penitent, who knew they were sinners, regretted their transgressions, and humbly asked God for mercy and forgiveness. God accepts such people, and rejects the proud who claim they have no need of forgiveness. He made the point that we can’t merit God’s favor by what we do; we can’t make ourselves righteous in God’s sight. Instead, our righteousness comes from God, freely bestowed through unconditional grace.
While the Pharisees of His day felt that outward acts of obedience to the Law were the key to righteousness, Jesus focused inwardly, on the condition of the heart. He was concerned about character, motivation, and the heart. He knew that the “interior” problem needed to be remedied, that inward piety and proper motivation—not simply outward conformity to the Law—was the mark of true obedience and love for God. The key to remedying the “interior” problem, to becoming righteous, was salvation through Jesus’ sacrificial death. Righteousness is God’s gracious gift, given to us through the sacrifice of His Son. But this gracious gift isn’t the end of the story; it’s only the beginning. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, believers become the people of God, partakers of the new covenant. In gratitude for what God has done for us through Jesus, there is the expectation that we will reflect God into our world, that we will live in a manner that brings Him glory. It is here where living Jesus’ teachings comes into play.
Like the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, we know the revealed character of God. However, added to that, we have the life of Jesus—God Incarnate—as a further example of God’s love, mercy, and goodness. Jesus revealed further truth about God through His teachings and example. He preached the kingdom of God, He taught us to understand God as our Father, and He lived His life as a pure reflection of His Father.
Within the Gospels, we find that Jesus pointed to His own example as the pattern for godly living. For example, He challenged His disciples to love each other according to the pattern of His love for them. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.19 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.20 He exemplified submission to His Father’s will, which eventually took Him to the cross. My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.21
Jesus dramatized the life He desired for His disciples through symbolic acts, as seen on the occasion when He washed their feet. Jesus took water and a towel, and washed the feet of each disciple, a task that a servant would normally do when guests entered a dwelling.22 When He was done, He announced the symbolic nature of His act:
Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.23
When His disciples were disputing which one was to be regarded as the greatest, Jesus said to them:
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.24
Jesus wasn’t merely conveying a message about doing the specific things He had done; it was deeper than that. He wasn’t advocating mere imitation of His actions, but rather stating that His disciples are to have the kind of devotion which connects them to Him at the deepest level of their person. Being devoted to Jesus leads to increasing conformity to Him. After washing the feet of His disciples, He didn’t admonish them to simply love as they had seen Him love. Instead, He said: Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.25 They were to love as He had loved them. Each of them had personally experienced His love directly, and with that love, they were to love others.
The motivation to be more like Jesus doesn’t come from admiration for a historical character whom we want to emulate. It is the outflow of gratitude and love to the one whose love we have personally experienced.
Stanley Grenz explains:
We do not look to him only as the main character in a story from a bygone era on whose life we can reflect and thereby draw instruction. Rather he has loved us and has sacrificed his life for us. To this personal experience of Jesus’ great love, we find ourselves compelled to respond with gratitude and love. Hence, rather than merely patterning our lives after his, we enter into relationship with him. In this relationship we desire to live as Christ would have us live, that is, to have Christ formed in us.26
Jesus’ death on the cross radically changed our lives, saved our souls, and made it possible for us to be in relationship with God, with whom we will spend eternity. Gratitude and love for Jesus laying down His life so that we could become members of God’s family is the underlying motive for wanting to be like Jesus.
In part two of this “Introduction and Background,” we will cover this concept as expressed in the Epistles.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 2 Corinthians 5:17.
2 The remainder of this article is a summary of chapter three of Stanley J. Grenz’s book, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1997).
3 A covenant is generally understood to be a solemn agreement that is binding on all parties. God entered into covenants with humanity, individuals, and the Hebrew people. The covenants He made at creation, and later with Noah, were universal covenants made with all humanity. The covenant He entered with Abraham was personal, yet it required Abraham to do specific things; and if he did them, he, his descendants specifically, and humanity in general would be blessed. The covenant God made with the Israelites was what’s known as a suzerainty covenant, which was common in the ancient Near East at the time of the Exodus. A suzerainty covenant or treaty was put in place when a greater king entered an agreement with a lesser king (or vassal). Such a document named the parties and listed the suzerain’s fiats—commands specifying how the vassal king and his people must behave, including exclusive allegiance to the suzerain, and laws the suzerain wanted the vassal to obey. This is followed by the blessings which will come for obedience and punishment for disobedience. All of these aspects are present in the covenant God made with the Israelites. He gave His name, “I am the Lord your God”; told what He had done—“who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then He gave the commandments, some of which had sanctions imbedded in them. The first commandment demanded exclusive covenant loyalty, and the others showed what forms that loyalty was to take.
4 Genesis 1:27–30.
5 Genesis 9:9–11.
6 Genesis 12:1–3.
7 Genesis 17:4–5.
8 I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people (Leviticus 26:12).
9 On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you (Exodus 12:16).
10 Deuteronomy 6:5.
11 Deuteronomy 6:20–22.
12 Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight (Deuteronomy 25:3).
13 Deuteronomy 22:1–4.
14 Grenz, The Moral Quest, 99.
15 Exodus 34:6–7.
16 Micah 6:8.
17 Luke 22:19–20.
18 Jeremiah 31:31–33, 34.
19 John 13:34.
20 John 15:12.
21 Matthew 26:39.
22 John 13:1–11.
23 John 13:12–15.
24 Luke 22:25–27.
25 John 13:34.
26 Grenz, The Moral Quest, 116.