Pastor John, an important question we get occasionally through email is about Christian role models. If Christ is our example (of course, he’s much more than our moral example, but he’s not less), then do we need any other role models at all?
Imitate Fellow Imitators
Most of these thoughts come from reflecting yesterday on Philippians 3:17, which says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” What struck me and started all these reflections was the phrase “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” In other words, it is not just me you are supposed to look at, not just Christ you are supposed to look at, but look at the people who are looking at me while I look to Christ.
That just struck me as so removed from Christ. Why would Paul say that? I know that when he says, “Be imitators of me” he means, “to the degree that I am an imitator of Christ,” because he says that in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” And yet it just struck me, My goodness, there are all these degrees of separation. In fact, if you counted all the way back into the Trinity, at this point, there are five of them.
There is the Father, who imitates nobody. He is the origin of everything. And then there is the Son, who imitates the Father. John 5:19 says, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” And then there is Paul, who imitates Jesus, who imitates the Father. Then, here in Philippians 3:17, there are “those who walk according to the example you have in us.” And then there is the fifth generation, the readers — me as I am reading it. He is saying, “Now you look to those who are looking to me as I look to Christ who looks to the Father.”
Value of Biographies
And I thought, This is amazing. This really relates to your book on Newton. Why is Tony Reinke, for goodness’ sake, writing a whole book on the Christian life as lived and taught by John Newton? Why don’t you write a book on Jesus, for goodness’ sake, who really knows what it is all about? Paul’s answer would be, “Because I told you to. I told you. Look at those who are looking at me as I look to Christ.” And Newton was just a great looker at the gospel and at Paul.
Why I do these biographies year after year at the pastor’s conference? Why don’t you read your Bible for goodness’ sake instead of reading about the saints who are looking at Paul who is looking at Jesus? And the answer is: because Philippians 3:17 told me to. “Keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
That raised a deeper question for me: Why don’t we all just look to Jesus? I mean, isn’t that the right thing to say? If you want to know how to live the Christian life, if you want to know what the gospel is, if you want to be transformed into the image of Christ, then look at Christ.
So what is all this talk from Paul about not only looking at him, but looking at those who look at him? Surely the answer is something like: God didn’t just create Christ in you. If God just created Christ in you, then look at Jesus only. But if God created Christ in many people, and put you all in a church, and called you members of one another, and told you to love one another and exhort one another and encourage one another, then this body — this organic thing called the church — is not in competition with the revelation of the glory of Christ. It is a means of the revelation of the glory of Christ.
What I got from that verse in reflecting on it was that God intends to reveal the glories of Christ and to bring people into conformity with the glory of Christ by — yes — looking directly at him and his word, but also by looking at him as he is reflected in the people that are reflecting his word. And God just wants to do it that way. He ordains that Christ gets more glory by us seeing Christ reflected in others than simply seeing Christ only.
Look to One Another
The practical effect it had on me at the end of these meditations was this: I really want to look to people who are ahead of me. You know, everybody in the Christian life has somebody behind them who is looking at them and somebody ahead of them who they should look to. There is somebody ahead of them in faith, holiness, the fruits of the Spirit, and all the ways we want to grow up into Christ. There is somebody out there ahead of me both living and dead, and I should look to them. And the most sobering thing at age 67, having been walking with Jesus for 60 years, is that I know there are people looking at me, and that is a frightening thing.
It is a sobering thing, yet it is an absolutely biblical thing that we look to one another. Find somebody who is ahead of you in some spiritual aspect of copying and imitating and trusting and reflecting Jesus, and look at them. And when it is all said and done, we say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).